One of the many intriguing aspects of Windows 8 is that it is the first version of Windows to offer integrated Xbox services and technologies, not just for games, but also for the coming digital media capabilities that will replace Zune. In this article, I’ll look at Windows 8’s Xbox-based apps and features, both for games and for media, and see what’s changed since the last milestone.

Windows 8 + Xbox: Better together

Before looking at the two (or more, see below) Xbox apps that ship with Windows 8, I wanted to step back for a moment and examine what’s really happening here. In previous Windows versions, Microsoft bundled its Windows Media products with the OS and then offered separate Zune applications and online services that were technically “outside” of Windows. In Windows 8, the remaining Windows Media features are there for backwards compatibility only. But what’s built in are the new, Xbox-branded versions of the old Zune applications and online services, blended with both old (DLNA) and new (Play on Xbox) methods for accessing online and local content from a PC or device and playing it on (or “to”) compatible devices, including of course the Xbox 360, via which Microsoft of course intends to provide the best possible experience.

From a low-level standpoint, DLNA capabilities were added to Windows 7 in the form of a Play To feature through Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center that very few users ever found or used. Part of the problem was accessibility: The feature was utterly hidden, required a lot of work on the user’s part, and there were precious few DLNA-compatible devices out in the world. And even Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 offered—still does—a terrible DLNA experience: This feature was (still is) only available through the Media Center Extender app on the 360, meaning you could only use it with Windows Media Center on Windows 7 … which, of course, absolutely no one used.

Wa-wah-waaaaaah.

In the Windows 8 Release Preview, we see the beginnings of Microsoft’s plan to fix this.

First, the DLNA Play To feature is built right into the OS. So when you’re using a compatible app, like Music or Video, you can find compatible devices on your home network through a consistent interface—Devices, in Charms—and easily access that previously hidden feature that’s been around for three years even though you’ve never heard of it.

Of course, Windows 8 can’t solve the device problem. As noted previously, there are very few DLNA-compatible devices on the market, so if you want to use Play To for streaming media to an HDTV, your choices are slim. I’m hoping that Microsoft will address this need. E3 is next week, and the company has in fact hinted at some coming media-related changes for the 360, so you never know.

But we don’t need no stinkin’ DLNA: Windows 8 also has a feature called Play on Xbox, available in the Music and Videos apps, that lets you interact directly with your video game console. Play on Xbox isn’t the same thing as DLNA/Play To, not exactly. But the overall effect is similar: You access media on your Windows 8 PC or device and play that content on the Xbox 360.

Behind the scenes, DLNA/Play To is just streaming the content from the PC to the DLNA-compatible device. So if you were streaming a movie from a Windows 8 tablet to the set-top box attached to your HDTV and you put the tablet to sleep, the movie would stop playing. With Play on Xbox, something far more intelligent is happening. Here, you browse for and find content with your Windows 8 PC or device, and when you find what you’re looking for—online, perhaps, or on the PC itself—you use the Play on Xbox functionality—via an app called Xbox Companion—to hand off the playback to the console. At that point, it’s the console that’s connected to the content, not your PC. But you can still control it through the PC, using Xbox Companion as a glorified remote control. And if that PC were to go to sleep, no problem. The media would keep playing.

Regardless of the technology, features, or apps you use, Microsoft’s online services for music, TV shows, and movies—but not podcasts, at least not yet—is standing behind all this. In the past, these services were branded Zune, of course, but Microsoft is switching it all over to Xbox. And while we don’t know the exact names of these services—Music Marketplace, TV Marketplace and Music Marketplace, perhaps—that doesn’t really matter. The important bit is that some humongous, well-stocked online store full of media is there.

Finally, there’s one last thing to consider. Given that Microsoft has moved its music and TV show/movies services from the Zune brand to Xbox over the past year or so, one might logically look at Windows 8’s Music and Video apps and think of them as “Xbox” apps too. After all, the primary function of these apps, so far at least, is to access Xbox-hosted music, TV show, and movie content. And they both work with the OS’s underlying DLNA/Play To and Play on Xbox capabilities, and both integrate with the Xbox Companion app, as described below. Just a thought.

OK, let’s look at the apps.

Xbox LIVE Games

Xbox LIVE Games hasn’t actually changed all that much since the Consumer Preview version. It is still a multi-screen, horizontally scrolling Metro-style experience in which the default view is part of the way through the full panorama of the app, with an area to the left as well as more content on the right. As with the other Marketplace-based apps, that main view, Spotlight, has lost its group title for some reason, but it’s basically unchanged.

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To the left of spotlight are two groups, for your own profile and your friends, and though the presentation has changed just a bit, and the order of the two groups has been switched, it’s basically the same as it was in the Consumer Preview.

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To the right of Spotlight, you’ll see the same three groups as before, in the same order: Game Activity, Windows Game Marketplace, and Xbox Game Marketplace. All work largely as before, with just some small UI tweaks.

Game Activity provides a grid-based view of all of the Xbox LIVE games you’ve played, across Windows 8, Xbox 360, and Windows Phone. The UI has been cleaned up, though I actually preferred the box art-based tiles from the Consumer Preview over the current design. (That said, the new design makes it easier to see beacons, recently played, and other Xbox LIVE features.)

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When you select a game from the list, you see a nice overlay, and not the inplace weirdness from the Consumer Preview, a UI that is consistent with the Music and Video apps. Here, you can find out more about the game, of course, but also about your interactions with the game (such as whether you’ve set a beacon of your own) and your friends who have played that game.

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The Game Details display will often provide a lot more information, though what you see here will vary wildly by game and platform. A Play on Xbox option triggers the loading of the game on your console, though of course you will need the game disc inserted already for non-electronic games.

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This display is another multi-screen extravaganza, so be sure to scroll over for even more information.

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The Windows Game Marketplace isn’t live yet, but in the Consumer Preview it had Featured, Picks For You, Genres, and All view, and just two games—Pinball FX2 and Solitaire. Microsoft is currently promoting a number of new games, many presumably paid titles, which are coming soon for Windows 8 users. (And of course, some non-Xbox LIVE games are available now, and separately, in Windows Store as well.) I think it’s fair to assume that what we’re going to see here, soon, is a collection of Xbox LIVE games with achievements and other Xbox LIVE capabilities, similar to how these game types work on Windows Phone.

The Xbox Game Marketplace, as in the Consumer Preview, is the most curious part of this app. Here, you can browse through a huge collection of available Xbox 360 games, with all games, Games on Demand, Demos, Indie, and (Xbox LIVE) Arcade views. When you select a game, a pop-up overlay appears with more information, as in the Game Activity section, and Game Details provides you with the same full-screen, multi-screen experience described above.

Of course, these being Xbox 360 games, some aren’t available for electronic download, so you can’t purchase them here. “Mass Effect 3,” for example, is only available on disc, so you’ll have to visit a retail store (or Amazon.com or whatever) to get this game.

Other games, however, are available for electronic purchase. And when you find such a game, you’ll see a Buy Game for Xbox option.

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Clicking through the purchase wizard that appears, you can pay for such purchases with the credit card that’s associated with your Xbox LIVE account, use Microsoft Points, or use another credit card. When you confirm the purchase, you’re told to check your download queue on the console.

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To get the game, turn on your Xbox 360, navigate to Marketplace, Active Downloads on the Xbox Guide, and you’re good to go. Well, it may take a while: “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II” was a 5.62 GB download. Xbox LIVE Arcade games, by contrast, are much smaller.

(This works for all Game Extras, too. So even a game like “Mass Effect 3,” which you cannot buy electronically, lets you purchase add-ons from this Windows 8 app.)

I’m not sure that many people are going to be thrilled with this experience, and it seems like the way to buy a game electronically on the Xbox is to do it right from the console. But the point, I suppose, is that Windows 8 can provide a better browsing experience than the console. And of course, you could make the purchase anywhere and then later download the game you bought when you’re in front of the 360.

Xbox Companion

Xbox Companion is a curious little app that can be used in one of two ways. You can access the app directly, as you would any other app, connect to your Xbox 360, and browse and interact with content in Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE-based marketplaces. Or, you can access Xbox Companion implicitly through other apps: Anytime you see a “Play on Xbox” option—in Music, Video, and Xbox LIVE Games, for example—what you’re really doing is brokering a connection between that app and the console with Xbox Companion. It’s basically a fancy remote control for the console, good for anything but actually playing games.

As with Xbox LIVE Games, the Xbox Companion app has been only modestly updated since the Consumer Preview version. It still consists of the same basic UI, with a Quickplay default view, a Bing search group off to the left, and a combined Videos/Games/Music group on the right, though the latter is now unnamed.

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Bing Search works as before but with a revised layout: Using the same Harrison Ford example I employed for the Consumer Preview, I can see a feature movie result (The Fugitive) and a section for Marketplace Movies in the default view, which is for Videos. But you can also change the view to Games and Music, of course.

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The Videos/Games/Music group has a few showcased items, but also tiles for Explore Movies, Discover Games, and Find Music, giving you obvious entry points into the relevant parts of the online marketplace. And, perhaps not surprisingly, each of these tiles actually loads the related app. So Explore Movies triggers the Video app, which loads in the Movies Marketplace view. And so on.

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Eventually, of course, you’re going to come across some content you wish to actually play on the console. You do this through the Play on Xbox buttons that appear in the Music, Videos, and Xbox LIVE Games apps. When clicked, the content immediately begins playing on the Xbox 360 and you can optionally access the Xbox Controls button on the Xbox Companion’s app bar to use the app as a giant remote control.

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This is of course the app’s weakest feature—this type of remote app works much better on a phone, due to its handheld size. But the media playback buttons work well enough, and it’s certainly better than the 360’s balky hand controller. (Still, if you’re going to use the Xbox 360 for media playback, invest in a Media Remote, which is inexpensive and works well.)

Final thoughts

As good as Windows 8’s Xbox functionality is today, something tells me that next week’s E3 show will improve things yet again. Stay tuned.