As you probably know by now, Xbox 360 isn't just about games. Unlike the original Xbox, which was all about brute horsepower, Microsoft has designed Xbox 360 to be a more desirable acquisition for women, children, and non-gamers. From a hardware standpoint, that means the Xbox 360 is better looking than its predecessor, but making Xbox 360 more acceptable to a wider range of users goes beyond more looks. From a functional standpoint, Xbox 360 also provides a number of interesting (and integrated) features that transcend gaming. Many of these features are related to digital media.

For example, any Xbox 360 can play audio CDs and DVD movies out of the box. With a (wired or wirelessly) networked Xbox 360, you can connect to the digital photos and musicstored on your Windows XP personal computer, and to your videos and recorded TV shows if you have a Media Center PC running XP Media Center Edition 2005 with Update Rollup 2 (see my review). You can also connect a variety of digital devices, including digital cameras, portable hard drives, USB key chains, and other portable storage devices, and MP3 players (including the iPod) to Xbox 360 and access content from those devices. This is beneficial for a number of reasons, but remember that Xbox 360 is typically connected to your best TV and best stereo system, so it becomes an obvious hub for enjoying digital media content. In this section, I'll examine Xbox 360's digital media features.

Playing audio CDs and DVD movies

Insert an audio CD into Xbox 360 and the Music Player comes up (Figure), and begins playing the CD from the beginning. This player features all the expected controls, plus a Rip CD button that actually lets you select which songs you'd like to rip, or copy, to the Xbox 360 hard drive (Figure). I didn't see any way to determine which formats to use for ripping.

While playback continues, the Music Player displays a distracting visualization in a small window. You can display this visualization full screen and toggle between the available visualizations (all very similar) using the LB and RB buttons on the controller. Oddly, there is no album art display available, which I'd prefer to the animated visualizations. However, you can turn off the visualizations, which is handy.

When you insert a DVD movie into Xbox 360, the screen goes blank and the DVD boots as it would on any DVD player. You can use a wireless or wired controller to navigate through the menus if you'd like, but the Media remote (free for a limited time with the premium Xbox package) or the Universal Media Remote (UMR) is a better option. If you do use the remote control, you'll see a handy onscreen menu (Figure) that lets you duplicate the functionality of a hardware remote. It features all of the basic DVD controls, plus an Advanced button that lets you access subtitles, camera angle, audio, zoom, and looping functionality, plus a nice info pane that displays the title and chapter numbers and the run time. This info pane also appears when you move to the next or previous chapter (Figure).

Overall, the DVD functionality is about what you'd expect. However, when you reinsert a DVD you were previously watching, Xbox 360 doesn't remember the point at which you were watching, but rather just starts again at the beginning.

Media Center features

If you have a Media Center PC, you can configure the Xbox 360 as a high definition Media Center Extender (MCX) device, which provides the same beautiful user interface and animations as a true Media Center PC (Figure). The effect is stunning, but rather than explain it in detail here, please refer to my reviews of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, Media Center Extenders, and Media Center Extender for Xbox for details about this functionality. In short, Xbox 360 offers the best Media Center Extender experience anywhere, and this is a wonderful way enjoy digital media content such as live and recorded TV shows (Figure), digital photos (Figure), digital music (Figure), and digital videos (Figure). You can also access a variety of Media Center online content through Xbox 360's MCX experience.

Connecting to content on PCs

If you don't have a Media Center PC, fear not: Xbox 360 can also connect to digital photos and music (but not videos or TV shows) on any Windows XP-based personal computer. In order for this functionality to work, however, you'll need to download the latest version of Windows Media Connect (WMC) from Microsoft's Web site, although the details of this are spelled out the first time you try to use this functionality.

As with the Media Center functionality, you access music and pictures through the Media blade of the Xbox Dashboard. When you select Music, for example, you'll see choices for hard drive (music content you've ripped to Xbox 360 from audio CDs), Computer, and Current Disc (if an audio CD is inserted) (Figure). Choose Computer and you'll see a list of WMC-compatible PCs on your home network. From there, you can choose a PC and then see what music content is available for streaming.

The display for each PC lists your shared music by albums (the default), artists, saved playlists, songs, and genres (Figure). Just select some music and start playing. The Music Player discussed previously appears, but with an Edit or Save Playlist option replacing Rip CD (Figure). From there, you can navigate around the Xbox Dashboard, and your music will keep playing. So, for example, if you later start up a photo slideshow, that slideshow will be accompanied by the music you already selected. If you have a remote control of some sort, you can obviously control playback from there.

To enjoy digital photos that are stored on a PC, choose the Pictures option from the Media blade and then select the appropriate PC. As with other WMC applications, Xbox 360 displays photos in a flat list, so you can pretty much forget whatever directory structure you created (Figure). For example, I organize photos by year first (with folders like 2005, 2004, and 2003) and then by date underneath that (with folders such as "2005-11-18 Paris trip" and "2005-11-06 Mark finishes soccer"). However, WMC just explodes all of the folders out there alphabetically, which is disastrous for me. It might not be an issue for normal people.

Anyway, if you select a folder, you'll see thumbnails of each picture in that folder and have the option to play a slideshow (Figure). Slideshows are controlled via an overlayed menu that's similar to the DVD menu (Figure) and are animated by default.

Videos

Though Xbox 360 offers a Videos option on the Media blade, this feature does not connect with videos stored on your network-based PCs, unfortunately. Instead, you can view videos that are stored on the Xbox 360 hard drive (Figure). I'm a bit confused by this feature, frankly. Despite the fact that I've downloaded a number of movie and game trailers, that content doesn't show up in Videos as you'd expect. Instead, there are four HD videos, provided by Microsoft, that show off the capabilities of the system. They're all quite nice and all (Figure), but there doesn't appear to be any way to delete them from this menu, or add other content.

What's really lame is that these videos are almost completely non-controllable. You can't fast forward or rewind. And if you watch the first two minutes of the "Titanic" featurette, for example, and then come back later to watch the rest, you're unceremoniously dumped right in the beginning of the video again. Yawn.

Device connectivity

One of the most exciting aspects of Xbox 360 is that it connects with a variety of portable media devices, including digital cameras and MP3 players--yes, including iPod. These devices need to have a USB connection in order to work with Xbox 360. For example, if you connect a digital camera to Xbox 360 via one of the machine's three USB ports, and turn on the camera ... nothing happens. You have to navigate to the Media blade first, then Pictures, and then select the camera option that's suddenly appeared (Figure). When you select that, you see the contents of the camera displayed, as you'd expect, with the same ability to play a slideshow as you'd see with a WMC-connected PC (Figure). There's no option to copy these pictures to the Xbox hard drive, which is probably for the best.

When you connect an iPod, you get a similar experience. In fact, an iPod video (or other color iPod) will actually show up in both Music (Figure) and Pictures, assuming it contains both kinds of content. However, the Pictures functionality doesn't appear to work at all, and of course there's no way to watch iPod-stored videos either, which is a shame. The Music functionality works just like the WMC Music experience, and it even plays AAC files, but not the Protected AAC files you get from the Apple iTunes Music Store (Figure).

A few thoughts

There's been a lot of talk about Xbox 360's digital media features and my opinion is that this will be the stealth functionality that sells Xbox 360 to a lot of moms who wouldn't otherwise be particularly excited about yet another video game system. I'll be writing a lot more about these features in the near future.

On to Part 7...