Monday, January 16, 2006

Why the Xbox 360 is not my media hub

First things first: I'm no Sony fanboy. I think that the PS3 is going to be a hit, but I'm still on the fence about whether or not I will buy it if it ever comes out. It'll all depend on whether or not I can afford it after over-paying for my Xbox 360. More on that later.

I waited in line for three hours the morning that the 360 was released. As it ends up, I should have gotten up a half hour earlier as I watched the last system get snagged by the person two places ahead of me in line. I tried to get in on the second round at Best Buy, only to show up the night before just a few minutes too late. Granted I had no plans to stay the night, but it makes for a better story.

Finally, after weeks of monitoring online retailers I relented and bought one on eBay. I figured that paying $75 over retail was better than being forced to buy a $1000 bundle from Amazon or Walmart. I was ecstatic about receiving my new box. I couldn't wait to try out the three games still sitting in shrink wrap on my shelf, Xbox Live Arcade and the new and improved Media Center Extender features.

After a relatively painless setup, I started digging into Xbox Live Arcade. Some slight navigation nit-picks aside, this is a great part of the console. I've already spent more hours than I care to mention just playing around with the arcade remakes and titles such as Geometry Wars, Bejeweled 2 and Zuma. These games are just plain fun. I can't wait to see what's next. Gameplay has been covered by the big boys already, so I'll spare you my thoughts on that one. On to the Media Center features!

To set up the Media Center Extender (MCX), you need to install a package from Microsoft on your Media Center Edition (MCE) PC. Depending on how up to date your machine is, the size of this package varies. I already had MCE Rollup 2 installed, so I only needed to run a small updater. Overall, the setup process was fairly easy.

Once set up, you can launch the Media Center Extender on your Xbox. Doing so presents you with a Media Center interface that looks exactly like the MCE PC to which it is connected. It looks great. Now come the gripes.

I had delusions of being able to move my Media Center PC into the closet now that I have a fully functioning Xbox 360 Media Center Extender to replace it. That certainly isn't going to happen any time soon. While the extender interface looks slick, it doesn't do what my MCE PC does.

First off, I have an iPod. In order to avoid having to re-encode a number of my albums that were ripped in AAC format, I use MusicBridge, a solution offered up by the good people over at TheGreenButton.com. Unfortunately, this causes the extender software to crash. I can understand why this particular solution isn't supported, but I shouldn't have to hack my Media Center to play these files in the first place. If the Xbox 360 can support playing AAC files from my iPod, why is it that the MCX cannot do the same? At the very least, the files should be skipped rather than cause the software to crash.

Secondly, I have video files that use the DivX and XviD (the open source flavor of DivX) codecs. The Xbox 360 MCX simply won't play these files, even though they work without a hitch on my MCE machine. I've seen a number of reasons for this, and what follows is a point-counterpoint that I have cherry picked from a number of sources.

Major Nelson indicates in his podcast (starting at 00:13:15) that the Xbox won't support DivX because the codec is commonly used for watching copied DVD's.

That is absurd.

What about MP3's? By Major Nelson's rationale, we shouldn't be able to use MP3's because they are commonly used for listening to copied CD's. The RIAA would loooove that one. It's a typical case of blaming the medium for the offenses of its users. It's a very slippery slope. Why the double-standard?

Charlie Owen states that the Xbox 360's digital media features are determined by the consumers. Which consumers are Microsoft talking with? Chris Pirillo submits that DivX is "arguably among the most popular video formats for creating and distributing videos online," and I tend to agree. I'm sure that many of the interesting and funny video clips that you've downloaded from the web are in DivX format. It's simply one of the best ways to compress video.

I read somewhere that, considering DivX's source, Microsoft will never support it.

I apologize that I can't link to this comment as I can't remember where it came from. I'll keep digging and update this entry should I find it.

This one had me confused, as it implied some sort of bad blood between Microsoft and DivX, Inc. I did my homework, and it looks like DivX has its roots in one of Microsoft's codecs (from Chris Lanier's Blog):
DivX started out as a hack of Microsoft’s MPEG4v3 codec. MS MPEG4v3 was [n]ever meant to allow encoding into an AVI container, only ASF. This hack was used widely for “underground” encoding of commercial movies that then distributing them via P2P Networks, IRC, USENET, etc. In 2000, DivXNetworks was formed and they released DivX 4 which was supposed to have been completely re-written so that is didn’t infringe on Microsoft’s codec.
Apparently, this explains the hard feelings between the two companies. Since I can't find the source of the original comment, I will simply say: "Get over it!"

Microsoft can't support every codec as the associated licensing fees would drive up the cost of the console.

Jake Ludington makes a pretty good point at Sync2Play. He asserts that "the real story is probably more like DivX competes with Windows Media, so they won't support it and/or DivX wanted money for putting the support into every Xbox and Microsoft didn't want/need to pay for it." That helps explain why we aren't seeing support for Real Media or QuickTime. Although I see his point, I can't help but to feel shafted here. If the Xbox 360 is supposed to be all about flexibility and "having it your way" Burger King style, why am I'm locked into Microsoft codecs? HD Beat makes a solid counterpoint:
If you want to be in my living room all of the time, you need to open up to all of the possibilities. The fact is: folks are downloading high-def videos in formats you don't readily support. They're going to keep on doing this, so why fight it with closure of codecs? Embrace the openness and reconsider DivX support. Sure, your WMV-HD is a solid vehicle; that's not the point. The point is: the more you shut down my entertainment options, the more I'm going to shut down products that you write software for. It's that simple.
There are ways to do this without getting into codec hell on the Xbox 360. Since a Media Center PC is already required, why not have it do the work? Why not use DirectShow or another mechanism to transcode "alternative" forms to a WMV/MPEG-2 format? More from Chris Lanier:
Here’s the fact of the matter, Microsoft’s Media Center Extenders, including first generation standalone devices (Linksys/HP), Xbox v1 Extender, and the Xbox 360 are all DLNA Compliant! All of them support JPEG (Image Requirement), LPCM (Audio Requirement), and MPEG-2 (Video Requirement). PCs are coming that will allow for transcoding of formats like DivX to DLNA Compliant Formats.
It is possible. A resourceful gamer named brainsNbrawn just posted a workaround last Friday that enables the MCE PC to transcode DivX and XviD on the fly for streaming to your Xbox 360. It's pretty kludgy at this point, but it's also a pretty creative use of technology already built into the Media Center. That's a good sign. Hopefully others will help pick up the ball that Microsoft dropped.

What do you think? Are we locked into WMV for the foreseeable future, or is there a glimmer on the horizon?

For the time being, my MCE PC will stay right where it is and I think I'll stick with playing games on my Xbox 360.

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