Xbox 360: connectivity is king

Microsoft has been trying to get Windows PCs into the living room for years. Yet despite a Media Center facelift in 2003, the PC hasn't been able to shun its complex IT heritage.

Does your DVD player need to have anti-virus protection? No. Does your TV take two minutes to start every time you switch it on? Not unless you bought it in the 1970s.

Admittedly, the PC is constantly improving its friendliness. You could argue that it's the most flexible device you can buy for a digital home. But this flexibility is also its biggest drawback.

The fact that you can swap out a 60GB hard drive for a 200GB one and install new software means that there's so much more that can go wrong.

The launch of the Xbox 360 last year hammered home the fact that the living room is no place for a PC. The PC's raw power, massive storage capacity and flexibility cast it as an ideal digital media server.

What the living room needs is a network-connected set-top box that does almost everything a PC can, without being a PC.

It's why the Xbox 360 sums up everything that the digital home is about.

Trojan horse?

On its own, Microsoft's Xbox 360 console offers a high-def gaming experience for anybody who can plug it into an HD-capable TV or PC monitor.

Modern games consoles have always had ambitions beyond gaming and, thanks to a built-in DVD drive, the new Xbox can moonlight as a CD/DVD player.

The 360's connectivity options also push the machine as an ideal digital home device. A trio of USB 2.0 ports enable you to plug in digital cameras, MP3 players and portable hard disks, while the optional 20GB hard drive enables you to rip and digitise your music without ever involving a PC in the process.

But it's the 360's ability to join a home network and access the Internet via broadband that really sells the console as a digital home device.

Install Windows Media Connect on any networked Windows XP PC and an Xbox 360 can stream music and photos from it. WMC works beautifully.

The setup is straightforward - simply download and run the software, then give the Xbox permission to access your PC's files; no messy IP fiddling required. The quality, even over a Wi-Fi connection, is excellent.

Better still, a 360 can also be networked to a Media Center PC. Here, the console acts as a Media Center Extender, adding video streaming and recorded TV playback to the Xbox's growing digital home talents.

In fact, once the Xbox is connected to a Media Center PC, you gain access to most of the MCE machine's options, including the ability to view the EPG and to schedule recordings.

As an Extender, the 360 recreates the cool-blue Media Center interface, giving you full access to the My Pictures, My Videos, My TV, My Music and Online Spotlight options.

The downside of this Media Center embrace is that video streaming requires more bandwidth than a typical 802.11g Wi-Fi setup can muster, typically 7-8Mb for standard definition video.

Until next-generation 802.11n equipment starts appearing, wired Ethernet and/or high-speed Powerline-based links are the only ways to guarantee decent video playback.

Going Live

In the long run, Xbox Live may well turn out to be the most revolutionary aspect of the Xbox 360. Microsoft's online service does much more than match a Need For Speed player from Basingstoke with a willing opponent from Manhattan. It's a playground for community building, seamless VoIP and (near) on-demand entertainment.

With the ability to designate other players as 'Friends', the Xbox 360 encourages private multiplayer gaming and enables users to compare their gaming scores and achievements.

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