With its Windows and Windows Server product lines, Microsoft pushes the notion of "Better Together," where using the latest versions of both products together results in a superior experience. But deep integration between Microsoft's various products isn't relegated to just its traditional PC solutions. In this Quick Take, I'd like to look at how Microsoft's Zune devices and Xbox 360 video game console can work together, sometimes in unexpected ways. And I'm specifically talking about the hardware devices here: Sure, you can easily share a PC-based Zune media library with your Xbox 360 over a home network. But many might not be aware of the ways in which the hardware devices work together as well.
Plug it in, access your content
The first is probably the most obvious: When you connect a Zune device to an Xbox 360, you can access it like any other USB-based storage device via the New Xbox Experience (NXE). The NXE's playback experiences are notably Spartan and lacking any of the niceties found in competing solutions, like the Apple TV, but they're serviceable.
A Zune device provides access to your entire media collection without network lag and without requiring you to take up space on the Xbox 360 hard drive.
There are three entry points for accessing Zune device-based content from the Xbox 360, and they can all be found in the My Xbox menu: Video Library, Music, Library, and Photo Library. In each, the Zune device ("Paul's Zune 120" or whatever) appears in the list of available libraries. When you select this device, you can browse through the available content and then play it back. The NXE understands music playlists you've synced to the device, and segregates podcasts so that you can access them directly.
Control it with your favorite remote
The Xbox 360's media browsing and playback functionality can be controlled with a surprising range of remote controls. These include:
Xbox 360 controllers. While you may not have a compatible remote control, you will have at least one Xbox 360 controller, and it can be used to navigate through your Zune device-based media collections, select the content you want, and then control playback. Helpfully, on-screen elements describe how the various controller buttons can be used in non-obvious ways (The red "B" button can be used to "go back" while navigating, for example, while the yellow "Y" button is used to switch the plain vanilla Now Playing screen into a full screen visualization during music playback.
It's not ideal for controlling media playback, but all Xbox 360 users have at least one controller.
Xbox 360 remotes. Microsoft and a number of third parties make Xbox 360-specific remotes, which provide a number of enhancements over a controller, including transport-related buttons like Play/Pause, Fast Forward, Rewind, and so on. These remotes can also be used to navigate through the NXE interface, so you can put that controller away if you're using the Xbox 360 for media playback only.
Microsoft and other companies sell Xbox 360-specific remotes, which range from this low-end model to complex and expensive multi-function remotes.
Media Center remotes. If you happen to have a Windows Media Center-compatible remote, it will work with the Xbox 360 (and thus with connected Zune devices) as well. You have to enable this functionality via the Settings menu first, but once you do, your Media Center remote will work just like an Xbox 360 remote.
If you enable it in Xbox 360 Settings, you can use a Media Center remote as well.
Zune Wireless Remote. If you have a Zune Wireless Remote (available on its own for about $10 or via the $50 Zune Home A/V Pack), you can also use this small, Apple-like remote to control Zune device playback via the Xbox 360. However, this remote doesn't exactly like the other remotes, though functionality differs based on the type of content being played. In Music Library, for example, only the Back button functions normally, while you must use the directional and Enter buttons to interact with the onscreen controls to control playback. (That is, you cannot tap the remote's Play/Pause button to pause playback.) The Zune Wireless Remote works directly with the Xbox 360, and does not require a Zune device to be connected.
Most people have probably never seen this little bad boy, but it works with the Xbox 360 too.
The combination of a Zune device, Xbox 360, and remote control provides a rough analog to Apple's TV, with a few caveats. Unlike the Apple solution, the Xbox 360 isn't silent, which could be problem, especially with older consoles. And while Microsoft is working to bring a complete Zune experience to the Xbox 360, only the Video Library portion of Zune Marketplace has been integrated so far. While we wait for the transition to be complete, you can still bring your entire Zune-based media collection with you ... to the den, via an Xbox 360 and Zune device.