When I started this collection of Windows 8 tips some months ago, I began by focusing on answering the most common questions I received about Microsoft’s new OS. But today’s tip, oddly, was one I had planned to write from the very beginning, one that I actually held off on because I didn’t think it would impact that many people. That was a mistake.

Yesterday in Windows 8 Tip: Music App 101, I discussed some of the common issues and misunderstandings about the Xbox Music app, triggering an unexpected torrent of follow-up questions via email and on Twitter. (Some also asked about the Xbox Video app, which I’ll get to soon.) Many of these questions involve problems getting music files to appear in the app, whether they’re located on a locally attached disk or over the network. These questions, however, aren’t relegated to the Music app—some apply equally well to the Xbox Video or Photos app, for example—and are more directly caused by limitations with the built-in libraries—Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos—in Windows 8. And while I probably can’t solve every single one of these issues here, let’s at least make a start. Perhaps we can have a Part 2 later.

As a refresher, Windows 8 libraries work just like those in Windows 7. By default, each pre-made library in Windows 8 includes, or aggregates, two physical disk locations: A “My” folder in your user folder (like My Documents) and a Public folder (like Public Documents). Many people of course never think about these things, and just use the system normally. But those of us with more complex needs often modify these libraries. For example, in 2012: A Cloud Odyssey - From Live Mesh to SkyDrive, I discussed how I reconfigure some libraries—Documents, especially, but also Pictures—to include locations in SkyDrive so that my content is automatically replicated to the cloud and my other PCs. And on my main desktop PC, I remove the two default Videos library locations (My Videos and Public Videos) and use a location (D:\Videos) on my large data drive instead.

Anyway, there are various ways you can use libraries in Windows 8, but the point here is that certain apps—including Xbox Music and Xbox Video—require you use libraries, because they look to these libraries for content. Xbox Music will only “look” in your Music library for music, and Xbox Video is attached to your Videos library. (To test this, simply copy some content into a relevant folder and see that it appears in the appropriate app.)

For some, of course, copying the content to the PC is not an option. Perhaps there’s too much of it: You’ve got a huge collection of music and/or videos on a home server, some other PC, or other network-attached storage, for example. Or maybe you’re using an SSD-based tablet or Ultrabook and simply don’t have the space to store a decent subset of your media collection on the device. So perhaps you wish to use a USB-based device or a micro-SD card (or whatever) for media on the go.

This is where the problems start.

Adding Removable Storage to a Library

Consider a typical Windows 8 tablet, like the Samsung Series 7 Slate. This machine has a relatively paltry 64 GB SSD barely large enough to hold Windows 8, Office 2013, and my music collection. But what if I want to bring some movies along to watch on a plane or whatever? The device does have a micro-SD slot, so I purchased a 32 GB micro-SD card, loaded it up with movies and took it on the road. Playing movies off the card is simple enough: Just open File Explorer, find the movie you want, and play it. But if you try to add that location to the Videos library, you’re out of luck. Windows 8 will not let you add non-hard drive-based removable storage to a library.

nonremovable

(Though you can add a USB hard drive to a library, you’ll see this same error with other USB-based storage devices, like memory sticks.)

The workaround for this one is simple. Create a shortcut on your desktop that points to the removable device. Give it an obvious name (like “SD” in my case) and then move it to the root of C: (as in C:\SD) or somewhere else convenient. Then, add that location (the shortcut) to the library. Voila! It works. On the Samsung tablet, this is in fact the only location I use for the Videos library.

sd

Adding Network Locations to a Library

A more common scenario, perhaps, is having a media collection on network-based storage, be it another PC, a home server or other server, a NAS device, or whatever.

This is the tricky bit. You can add virtually any remote location to a library in Windows 8. (Exception: In some cases, Windows will report that the remote location can’t be indexed. In that case, you can use a third party utility like the Win7 Library Tool to overcome this issue.) But you won’t see the content from that location in the Xbox Music or Xbox Video apps (or in the Photos app for that matter) unless certain conditions are met.

If the remote storage is attached to a Windows 8-based PC or a Windows Server 2012-based server, it will just work. For example, I have a server called MICRO running Windows Server 2012 Essentials Beta. MICRO includes a share called Videos, and when I add that folder (\\MICRO\Videos) to the Videos library on my home PC, any content contained there shows up in the Video app.

Likewise, MICRO contains some music in the Music share. By adding that location to the Music library, its contents show up in the Music app automatically. And, yes, MICRO includes a Pictures share too: By adding that location to the Pictures library, its contents show up in the Photos app. The three folders you see here are from MICRO, not the local PC:

photos

So that’s great if you’re already on the latest Windows version, or for some reason have a Windows Server 2012-based server at home. For the other 99 percent of the population, things are bit more complicated.

In my case, I use a Windows Home Server 2011-based home server for storing most of my content on the home network (and for cloud-based backup and so on). WHS 2011 is based on Windows 7/Server 2008 R2, not Windows 8/Server 2012. And while you can add locations from this server to any of the Windows 8 libraries, their contents do not show up in the relevant apps.

The fix, fortunately, is simple: Use a homegroup.

And while this may not work for those of you on a non-Windows-based NAS, it will work for anyone using Windows 7 or Windows Home Server 2011 (or any other homegroup-compatible Windows version) on their home network. To test this, I blew away my Videos library and pointed it to the Videos library on a Windows 7-based PC on my home network (using the homegroup interface, not Network explorer). And sure enough, it works: That sample HD video that’s included in Windows 7 pops right up, and plays, in the Videos app.

win7video

Ditto for Windows Home Server. If you connect the home server to your homegroup and then add WHS-based shares to the relevant libraries, that content appears in the various Metro media apps, Photos, Xbox Music, and Xbox Video. I’ve tried this with each, and it works great.

Now, I’m guessing this won’t address all of the issues people have been having with accessing network-based content from the Metro media apps. So if you are having other problems, or have a related tip, please let me know. And we’ll see where this takes us.