Microsoft Lovefest…..

Despite all the bad things I thought in the past about M$, I have slowly been coming round in recent months to thinking that they really aren’t that bad afterall. OK there are problems with them, but which Software vendor doesn’t have issues and bugs?

I am guessing that maybe all this luv has something to do with the MSDN subscription I have at work which allows me access to all these products.

Anyway, on with the point of this article….

Due to a neighbours downstairs loo bursting a pipe and the resultant flood we came home on Thursday to find that my Xbox 1 was pretty useless as the PSU was screwed after sitting in a couple of inches of water for most of the day. However, not to be down-hearted I took the opportunity to get my new PC built up to replace my Frankensteined server that packed up about a month ago

So I forked out for a new MSI motherboard, AMD 64×2 2.2Ghz CPU, 2GB of memory and a Cooler Master case. Originally this had been slated to create a Win2K3 server that would just have 3 huge HDD’s in it serving Audio and Video to various devices. However, with the demise of the Xbox I was left to find a solution to streaming to my Xbox 360. I had tried using TVersity previously but wasn’t happy with the transcoding process as it always gave problems if you paused whatever it was you were watching.

So being brave, or maybe a bit stupid, I went down the Windows Media Centre route to try to get everything to work together. I first tried connecting to the Media Centre on my Vista Ultimate laptop, but although it could connect it kept giving error messages about dropping the connection. I think this is down to the fact the computer is still a part of the domain at one of my clients and their Group policy is somehow interferring with it.

I installed a fresh copy of XP Media Centre Edition 2005 on the new computer, not exactly making the most use of a Dual Core 64 bit CPU, but it was more to prove it could be done before making the plunge into Vista on it. Low and behold once all the endless Windows Updates were done and I had installed the Rollup 2 package along with the Extender add-in from the Xbox site it connected to the 360 no problem at all. Having been an avid user of XBMC on the original Xbox my standards were pretty high, and I have to say the integration between Media Centre and the 360 was pretty good, the interface was a refreshing change from XBMC, not necessarily any better or worse, just nice to see something different.

Obviously the biggest problem was/is that currently the 360 is very particular about what formats it will play, the main ones being WMA, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and H.264. There are rumours that DivX/XviD will be added in the fall update this year, but I am not holding my breath. I downloaded Videora 360 Converter but initially it wouldn’t work. Turns out that on 2005 you have to add a registry hack to make it show up mp4 media files and pretty much anything other than wma or wmv extentions. Once this was done, it still wouldn’t work, turned out to be a PICNIC error, I had the wrong settings, in my defence though they were the default settings….

Anyway, eventually got it to work (using MPEG-2) and with the addition of the full version of Videora it is possible to get a bit torrent client to download files via RSS and then Videora can convert them automatically. This is OK for stuff you download regularly, but I have hundreds of movies already in DivX/Xvid format and I don’t want to convert everything in there to MPEG. I also have the problem that my TV is a bit old and doesn’t support the decent conversion settings in Videora so squashes the image slightly so not ideal.

The only answer is to go back to transcoding the files. This didn’t exactly fill me with joy after previous experiences. I found two different transcoding programs. VME and  Transcode360. I tried VME first, and it did work, it gave me the option to play the conversion stream as it transcoded or play the temp file that it creates of the converted video. Whilst it does work, the interface isn’t exactly intuitive. Transcode 360 on the other hand worked much better, it integrates fully into Media Centre, it is maybe slightly fiddly having to select more info (effectively right-click) on the media file and then select more and tehn select Transcode360. In practice though it is only a couple of clicks and maybe 2 seconds to get it running. The file then transcodes perfectly. You can even pause and fast-forward and rewind; although this kind of depends on how quick your PC can convert the file as to how well the fast forward function works.

I would have to say after the slight hassle of getting it all setup it actually works very well. With the promise of IPTV in the future and the ability to put a couple of HDTV tuners in the PC to record live TV, it is pretty much fully featured. The interface is simple to use and it does everything my old Xbox could (maybe I should clarify that, it does everything I used it for, I am fully aware it could do way more than I ever needed), and if DivX/Xvid codecs are added to the 360 at some point then once the transcoding is removed from the whole process it doesn’t make so much sense to keep the other console there just for streaming video.

Unfortunately or fortunately whichever way you look at it, I have too many consoles to have them all out at once. Once I get a new HDTV and a bigger cabinet it will increase my options, but there is currently only room for 1 Xbox and a PS2, especially as I am trying to keep some space for a Wii too. So if I can get the 360 to stream stuff then I am more likely to play all the games I have for it, like Halo 3 that I have had for 2 weeks but it’s still in it’s packaging as I haven’t had time to play it and the 360 was packed away as we used the other Xbox for videos every night!!!

There is also the downside that you need to have either XP Media Centre or the right version of Vista to get this working. I would say though that most people probably have XP on their PC’s at home, so if you can “aquire” a version of MCE 2005 then you aren’t really losing out much. Or if you have a computer capable of running Vista then go that route, at some point most people are going to upgrade to Vista, by then the DivX codecs might be sorted and then there is no excuse not to get it all working!!!