There's only one Media Center Extender on the market that can fully duplicate the beautiful animations and transitions found in the Windows Vista version of Media Center. That Extender, curiously, is actually a video game system, the Xbox 360, though Microsoft has been busy promoting its non-video game functionality for the past few years as well. Key among this functionality are a host of digital media-related features that include such things as Windows Media Connect-based sharing of PC-based media content, compatibility with iPods and other portable devices, DVD movie playback, Xbox LIVE Marketplace TV show and movie downloads, and, soon, a Netflix-based TV show and movie streaming service. But the jewel in the Xbox 360's digital media crown, so to speak, has always been its Media Center Extender functionality.
When the Xbox 360 first shipped in late 2005, Windows Vista had yet to ship, of course, so the 360 came with an Extender version that was compatible with the XP-based versions of Media Center. However, should you connect an Xbox 360 to a Vista-based PC, the console would be silently updated to the Vista bits, giving you compatibility the latest Media Center version. As I noted in my original Xbox 360 review, the Xbox 360 version of Media Center Extender was the first HD Extender, offering the same beautiful user interface and animations as a true Media Center PC. This wasn't true of first-generation (XP-based) hardware Extenders (see my review), which also lacked other amenities like DVD drives and compatibility with external storage (USB-based or from media cards).
The Xbox 360, of course, is as powerful as a high-end PC, comes with decent optical drive and hard drive storage, can be expanded via USB, features, and is natively controllable via wireless interfaces like hand controllers and remote controls. Where the Xbox 360 falls short, however, could prove to be the device's Achilles Heel in the living room: Unlike dedicated Extenders, the Xbox 360 is as loud as a jet engine, and largely unsuitable for use with a home theatre set up. It's also proven to be highly unreliable, and anyone foolhardy enough to try to stick an Xbox 360 inside a stereo cabinet or other low-airflow environment will quickly discover the misery of the "Red Ring of Death."
So how does the Xbox 360 fair as an Extender? Do its strengths overcome its weaknesses? Let's take a look.
Note: The Xbox 360 Core system does not include a hard drive, substituting instead a 256 MB Memory Unit. No matter, as the 360's Media Center Extender functionality does not require any kind of storage. You can use any of this software's features without any attached storage.
Using the Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender
On the current blade-based Xbox 360 system software (this will be replaced later this year with the so-called New Xbox Experience software), you access the system's Media Center Extender functionality via the Media blade, alongside the Windows Media Connected-oriented Music, Pictures, and Videos options and the Video Store option, which drops you into the Xbox LIVE Marketplace.
From a functional perspective, the Xbox 360-based Extender is the full meal deal. It's still the only Extender that provides all of the visual effects and animations that are present in the Vista version of Media Center. Some are subtle--like the slowly moving aurora that can be seen in the background on many Media Center screens--while others, like photo slideshow transitions, are not.
Network connectivity. Good. The Xbox 360 ships with 100 Mbps Ethernet networking support, but an 802.11b/g wireless adapter is about $100 extra. There's no support for the more capable and modern 802.11n wireless networking type at all.
AV connectivity. Excellent. New Xbox 360s include compatibility with all of the video and audio connectivity you'd ever want, including HDMI, composite and component video, VGA/DVI, and analog and digital audio output.
Visual fidelity. Excellent. The Xbox 360 offers stunning 1080p/720p HD-quality graphics, which translate to a perfect visual experience in the Extender environment. Everything is there, from the aforementioned animations and transitions to the widescreen, full fidelity photo and videos experiences.
Expandability. Excellent. The Xbox 360 includes three USB ports for attaching portable media devices, including USB hard drives, media card readers, and portable media players like the Apple iPod and Microsoft Zune. Note, however, that none of these storage devices are available from within the Media Center Extender experience. Instead, you will need to access them via the inferior blade-based UI instead.
Extras. The Xbox 360 is an impressive video game console with several hundred HD game titles available. It can also play DVD movies.
Price: The Xbox 360 comes in three models that cost from $279 to $449, depending on which one you get. The low-end Xbox 360 Core eschews a hard drive for a 256 MB Memory Unit, and that will work fine as an Extender. (It will also be just a hair quieter than the other models because of its lack of a hard drive.) The mid-level Xbox 360 console (sometimes mislabeled as the "Pro" version) costs $349 and comes with a 60 GB hard drive. On the high-end, the Xbox 360 Elite sports a black case and has a 120 GB hard drive. Any Xbox 360 can be upgraded to a 120 GB hard drive if you don't mind over-paying $180 for it.
Overall, the Xbox 360 offers the most full-featured Extender experience of any Media Center Extender.
Problems with the Xbox 360
As noted previously, the Xbox 360's Extender prowess is undermined by two important issues. First, the console is notoriously loud, much louder than competing video game consoles like the Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3, and certainly much louder than the silent dedicated Extenders I'll be reviewing in the next two parts of this series. Second, Microsoft's industry record $1 billion+ warranty recall on the Xbox 360 should give potential buyers pause. Though the software giant claims that it has solved the problem, the company has never come clean on exactly what that problem was, and Xbox 360 consoles continue to be a source of frustration to their owners. I'd also point out that the Xbox 360, unlike dedicated Extenders, is a power hog. This thing sucks electricity like there's no tomorrow.
The noise issue, to me, is the most problematic. If you're playing an action-oriented first person shooter, a little noise isn't a big issue, as you're probably going to crank the volume anyway. But if you're trying to listen to music--especially software passages and instrumentals--the Xbox 360's noise is going to get in the way. If you're watching a movie or TV show, same issue: You can actually hear the thing wheezing away during the show. It's just too darned loud. A presumed hardware revision--which won't arrive until at least 2009 now--could solve this issue, with lower impact chips that run cooler. But that's of no use to the millions of existing Xbox 360 users, or to anyone looking to make a purchase this year.
Reliability is the other big concern. The three original Xbox 360s that came through my home have all failed, requiring replacement. These include models made in 2005, 2006, and 2007, by the way. I'm told that more recent consoles are more reliable, and Microsoft of course will replace or repair any errant Xbox 360s. But that's of little concern to Xbox 360 users who decide to base their home entertainment system around this book: If it's away being fixed, you're dead in the water.
Ultimately, the noise and reliability issues condemn the Xbox 360 to also-ran status in my book, which is too bad because from a functional standpoint, Microsoft's console is the best device on the market. It's a fine video game console--my favorite, in fact--and that's a plus. But if you're looking for a digital media entertainment experience for the living room, you're going to have to keep looking.