Abomination or AWESOME?

I love my Zune.  It’s small, and great at what it does: play music.  With my Zune Pass music subscription, I can slurp up just about any song from the Zune Marketplace for a flat rate of $15 a month.  I am also growing to quite appreciate my shiny new iPad.  My friends and family often see me as a die-hard Microsoft buff, but I know better than that.  My brother once jokingly accused me of Microsoft fanboy-ism for showing him an article about some Microsoft Research project.  I was viewing the webpage in my browser of choice, Google Chrome.

Zune and iPad heart

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The couch has a USB port

couch USB port

Today I did some reorganizing and had a chain of really long USB cables to use, so I plugged one end into the back of the Xbox 360 and then wrapped the cable along the baseboards, ending nestled into couch.  Woop!  Now I have a USB port for the Xbox 360 right there.  My inner dork rejoices!

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How to set up an Xbox 360 as Media Center Extender

Windows Media Center is great, but its usefulness can be limited if it can’t be viewed on a large screen, like a TV.  Luckily, it is not only possible, but really easy to extend the Windows Media Center experience to a TV.  That’s where Media Center Extenders come in.  Aren’t those guys at Microsoft creative?

There are standalone extenders, and there are extenders built into TVs, but I’m going to use the Media Center Extender functionality that is built into built into my Xbox 360.

There are a few ways to initiate the setup, but the easiest way it to start Media Center on the computer which you want to extend, and then turn on the Xbox.  Again, this is more of a demo than a tutorial, since the setup process borders on stupid simple.

The next step is to go to the "Media" blade in the Xbox dashboard and select "Media Center".
 media blade

Then you see this message.  And like it says, select "Windows Media Center" by pressing A on the controller or OK on a Media Center Remote.
initial message

Next, write down this pass key and select continue.
setup key

When you see this screen go over to your Media Center computer.
more info message

Since you already opened Media Center, on the Media Center computer, you will see a message like this.  Select yes.
setup option

Select Next.
windows media center extender setup

Enter the setup key.
enter the setup key

Select Next.
setup key entered

Select Next.
change computer settings

Select Yes, unless you only want to allow the extender to be used for TV and online media, in which case select no.
extender media settings

Select Next.
apply settings

If you have User Account Control enabled, which you should, select OK on the UAC window that pops up.  Then wait for a moment as the settings are applied.  At this point you can go sit in front of the TV.
setting up
setting up

After a loading screen, of which I didn’t get a picture, Media Center will appear on the TV just as it does on the computer, introduction animation and all.
media center on a tv

I’m not going to go into the features now, as 95% of the features available on the computer’s Media Center are available through the extender.  The transitions are the same and everything.

Next is tuning the network.  Tuning the network gives you an idea of how fast the connection between the computer and extender is.  If you go back to your computer you will notice this.  Select Yes and click Next.  Alternatively you can access the network tuner from the Xbox by going down to "Settings" and selecting "Tune Network".
tune your network

Wait a few seconds as it tests the performance of the network.
testing network performance

It will give you a simplified explanation of what the network can handle.  Click Next.
simpliefied results

Next it will let your visualize the network performance by either a bar or graph view.  The graph view shows you more information.  Select "Graph View" and select next.
view selection
view selection

For the graph view, information flows in from the right, like the CPU monitor in the Task Manager.  Here you can get a good idea of what your network can handle.  When you’re done with that click Next.
graph view

Now you get some options.  Select Exit.
other options

Select Next.
exit

Select Finish to be brought back to the Media Center start menu.
done

You’re done!

In case you were curious, here’s what the bar view looks like:
bar view

And if you ever want to change the extender connection settings, you can find all of the associated Media Center Extenders by going to Settings under Tasks in Media Center, and then selecting Extenders.  You’ll see something like this:
extender list

Even though the tuning wizard says that the network won’t be able to handle HDTV, I have tried high-definition WMV files at 1080p, and they worked just fine.  I assume this is because the HDTV streams are completely or nearly uncompressed, while WMV files are compact by comparison.

Something else notable is that the Xbox does not have DivX support through the Media Center Extender, so if you want to play any DivX movies, you’ll have to do it though the video option in the media blade.

You can have up to 5 extenders hooked up to one computer, and they all operate independently, so multiple people can use each one at the same time.

Finally, if you want to get back to Media Center on your Xbox, you can either go to the Media blade on the dashboard and select Media Center, or you can press the Media Center button on a Media Center remote.

Have fun!

DIY Wired Network

My Xbox had a wireless connection to the home network through a wireless network bridge for a while, but somehow the connection was just lacking, especially when I used the thing as an extender for Windows Media Center.  I needed to get a direct connection between my Xbox in the basement  and the home router in the family room, but I wasn’t about to pay someone to install cables in the wall for me.  The family room is right above the TV room in the basement, so I figured it would be pretty easy to rig something up.  First I thought I could just follow the TV cables around, because I when I unscrewed a receptacle in my room, it looked like empty space in the wall.
01_inspiration

It must have been the only one in the house like that.  An unused cable in the basement was pretty tightly-packed.
02_downstairs_cable

There was also a receptacle in the family room that had three cables in it, likely for some old cable system.  There was just no working with it.  The two black cables seemed to go up, while the only cable going down was white.
03_upstairs_cable

Enter a new idea!  We have speakers in the family room that are fed from a stereo in the basement.  Their cables go through holes where the wall and floor meet (hidden by the baseboards), into the ceiling of the basement, and on top of the ceiling tiles of the basement to the stereo.

I knew what to do.
04_drill_bit

Yeah, well my mom drilled the hole, but I could have done it myself! :-P
05_hole_in_floor

So then I fed the cable through the hole . . .
06_cable_in_hole

. . . and then removed some ceiling tiles in the basement and fearlessly dug around for it blindly in the insulation in the top of the basement wall.
07_cable_in_ceiling

Remember the unused black cable I was talking about?  It was at this point that my dad and I discovered that we could find it at the top of the ceiling.  The plan was to attach a string to the end of the black cable where it comes out the wall, pull it out from the top of the ceiling, and then attach the Ethernet cable to the string at the top of the wall and pull the string out from the wall until the Ethernet cable popped through.  Great plan, except that the string came undone halfway through.  After a good 30 minutes of fussing around, trying to make the cable go through the insulation (make the sharp turns that the old cable took down to the hole) we decided on another solution.

I routed the cable along the top of the wall, which would be out of sight when the ceiling tiles were put back into place.
08_cable_along_wall

I brought it down right above the TV.
09_cable_down_wall

It wasn’t the best solution, but it worked!  I hooked the cable up to an old 4-port network hub, and brought one cable to the Xbox, and another one to my dad’s computer, so that he could use a wired connection instead of wireless.
10_cable_plugged_in

Even though my desktop computer’s connection to the network is still wireless, since I made the one segment of the data trail for Media Center wired, the performance of the Xbox as an extender for Windows Media Center has increased noticeably.

This is me excited. :-)