Xbox Media Center Impressions

Xbox Media Center

I’ve been using Xbox Media Center for a long time now, since I got my first Xbox chipped back in March 2004, and never really used it much. That Xbox became an emulator more than anything. I don’t know why, but I just decided yesterday to try out the latest version of XBMC to see how far things have moved on.

First, some background for those who don’t know: XBMC is a homebrew application that runs on modded Xboxes either as a basic application or a complete replacement for the standard Microsoft Dashboard. From within it you can run your Xbox games as normal, but also do almost everything that you’d expect from a full HTPC system.

It can play any format you can throw at it from the hard drive, disc, or streamed over a network – DVD, DivX, XviD, Quicktime, MPEG, WMV, MP3, AAC, etc, so that you can watch or listen to them on your TV. Even online streams and iTunes network shares can be played through it. The only features it lacks are the ability to burn DVDs and record television, and you can bet that if the Xbox hardware supported it those would be implemented in a heartbeat.

In did a complete reinstall of XBMC with the latest version, which was worlds ahead of the one I used to have. To test it out I sent a couple of gigs of assorted media over (mostly Quicktime and XviD videos, with a smattering of JPGs, WMVs, and MP3 and Ogg Vorbis music) and played around for a few hours. Everything, including HD videos with much higher resolutions than my TV, played flawlessly. Prerendered or not, seeing Killzone 2 running on a TV looked great.

One of the coolest features, and one that I didn’t even know existed until I stumbled onto it by accident, is the ability to stream from web pages. Included are scripts to let you view movie trailers direct from the Quicktime site, with the navigation implemented into the XBMC theme very nearly perfectly. You can also view any of GameSpot‘s video content in a GS-themed browser. It wasn’t quite as seamless as the Apple one, but seeing on-demand video reviews of new games is just too cool.

You honestly couldn’t tell that this was free software by looking at it. It’s more polished, feature filled, and works so well that I could easily justify spending the price of any other piece of Xbox software on it. You can’t help but feel that Microsoft missed the ball a little (or a lot) by barely including even the most basic of XBMC’s features in the standard Xbox, and the potential shown must have influenced the media functionality of the 360.

This is one amazing piece of open source software that I’m definitely going to be following the future progress of and, if I can’t afford a full HTPC by that time, I might use the 360 to play all my games and simply turn that Xbox into a media center. It’s really a great achievement.

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