to my cool day job, I got an early Xbox 360 and spent some time today
running it through its paces. I'll leave the reviews of the release-day
games to others (although I found Amped 3,
a top-notch snowboarding game, to be delightfully off-beat and
stylish, with loads of 8-bit and retro design touches to counterbalance
the slick graphics of the main game). I was looking at it more as a digital home enabler.
Given my interest in the Media Center PC as a Long Tail video platform, I was particularly interested in how well it worked as a Media Center "extender", serving as the link between one of the TVs scattered around our house and the Windows Media Center PC running in the study that serves as our media library and DVR.
The simple answer is very well indeed. We'd been using the original Xbox as an extender, but it was always a somewhat clunky solution. For starters, the extender software required a disk to be loaded each time, so if there happened to be a game disk in the machine already, switching them was an extra step. The Xbox also had to be turned on and off manually, an artifact of the fact that it's basically just a regular PC in a closed box.
The Xbox 360, on the other hand, has the extender software built-in, and the remote control included with the "fully-loaded" package has a dedicated green Media Center button that both turns on the Xbox 360 and takes it directly to the Media Center interface. The remote can also turn the machine off, which is handy.
Performance, unsurprisingly, is significantly quicker. It boots up faster, connects to the Media Center a bit sooner, and
the on-screen interface is more responsive and crisp. It's not all perfect: although the
Xbox 360 supports HDTV-resolution games, it doesn't yet support
streaming HDTV video [correction: it does stream high-def video, but the Media Center DVR can only record HDTV from over-the-air broadcasts (is someone out there actually watching those?) right now. See this for more. The following will no doubt extend that to recording HDTV from digital cable, which is how most people get it.]. But Microsoft's recent deal to include digital cable card support in the Media Center may bring that soon.
Interestingly, you don't need to have a PC running Windows Media Center edition to get some of this functionality. The Xbox 360 has its own music player (complete with trippy visualizations from the famed Jeff Minter) that can stream music and photos from any Windows XP PC.
I suspect that the release of the Xbox 360 is going to be one of two breakthrough events that take the Media Center concept mainstream. The 360 is a mass-market device (the original Xbox sold 22m units worldwide, and the Xbox 360 will presumably do better than that) that is built from the ground up to distribute digital content around the house. Having a Media Center extender built into a hot videogame console will go a long way to legitimizing that concept.
The second breakthrough event will be the release of Microsoft's
next version of Windows, Vista, which will come with the Media Center
technology as a default in the home version (although they better fix the interface before they release it). Already about half of new PCs
are sold with the Media Center version of Windows (although most don't
come with TV tuners, so they're probably not used as DVRs). Analysts project that 5m such Media Centers were sold this year, a figure that will double next year. Once Vista comes out, perhaps in late 2006, that could rise severalfold.
Between these two forces--the inclusion of Media Center software in most new
PCs and the spread of tens of millions of Media Center extenders in the
form of videogame consoles--it's not hard to see the Media Center
becoming the leading DVR/streaming standard in a few years. Its rise is also helped by the fact that it's both a relatively open platform
on which other companies can create software and services, and it
supports more standard media formats than the closed-box DVRs of
TiVo or DirectTV or the proprietary technology of cable company
I never thought I'd say this, but by the standards in this industry Microsoft is actually looking relatively innovative (Apple is playing catch-up with Front Row, but until it comes up with its own version of the extender concept to distribute content easily to TVs around the house, it won't have broad appeal).
What's important about the Media Center is that it takes the DVR concept and extends it to all forms of content, whether broadcast or downloaded from the Web. By having a broadband-connected PC at its core, it's by nature a full-featured connected device that can keep up with the pace of innovation in digital media online. If the
Xbox 360 and the new content marketplaces of its associated Xbox Live
service continue to take off, we really could have the beginnings of a Long Tail
platform that could challenge broadcast TV.