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Tips on How to 'Extend' Your XP PC with an Xbox 360

If you're PC is running XP Media Center Edition 2005, you're not using it to its full potential if it's tucked away in a back room. But you can remedy this situation, by using the Xbox 360 game console as a Media Center Extender.

by Joseph Moran

If you bought a consumer PC loaded with Windows XP in the last 12-18 months, chances are it came not with the operating system's Home Edition, but rather with the upgraded XP Media Center Edition 2005. Media Center Edition is similar to the Home version, except that it has some enhancements to make it more appropriate for living room use, such as support for television and radio tuners, DVR (digital video recorder) features and a so-called "10-foot" interface that can be operated at a distance via a remote control.

What's That Term?
Not sure what a particular term means? Check out the searchable PracticallyNetworked Glossary.

Considering how ubiquitous Media Center PCs have been in stores recently (at least, prior to Vista's launch earlier this year) it's a good bet that many of them aren't sitting in people's living rooms, but rather are chugging away more or less as ordinary PCs in home offices, dens and bedrooms. Case in point: the Media Center PC in my own home office is used for work by day, but several evenings a week (alas, not as many as I should) I also use it to watch recorded TV or listen to music while I toil on exercise equipment.

Of course, a Media Center PC really isn't being used to its full potential when it's tucked away in a back room. In my own case, there have been many occasions when I would have liked to watch or listen to something stored on the PC without leaving the friendly environs the living room (with it's comfy couch, big screen TV and so on).

The good news is that you can remedy this situation if your living room happens to contain an Xbox 360. By using the game console as a Media Center Extender, you can remotely access content stored on your Media Center PC. The Media Center Extender concept works by taking advantage of two Windows features — one is Fast User Switching, which allows multiple profiles to be logged onto the same system, and the other is Remote Desktop, which enables remote access to a system.

Preparing the Console
Naturally, a crucial step to using your Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender is putting the console on your network (assuming you haven't already done so to take advantage of Xbox Live). Your networking options include Ethernet, the Xbox 360 Wireless Networking Adapter, Powerline networking, or an Ethernet-to-WLAN bridge. If you plan to do a lot of high quality audio or video streaming, you may want to go for a wired connection — like straight Ethernet or high-speed Powerline — if practical, though in most cases an 802.11g should work fine too as long as you've got a consistently strong signal.

Begin by powering up your 360, then go to the Media tab, select the Media Center option, and follow the prompts. You'll soon be presented with a 8-digit key — jot it down and then head to your Media Center PC.

Preparing Your PC
The next step is to make sure your Media Center PC is running Update Rollup 2, which you can check on by launching the Media Center application and selecting Settings|General|About Media Center|Software Version. If your system is configured to automatically download from Windows Update, you should already have Rollup 2. If not, get it at www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter/upgrade/rollup2.mspx. You'll also have to download Microsoft's Media Center Extender software here. (In a nutshell, this software creates a special user profile on your Media Center PC for your Xbox 360, and then configures Remote Desktop to allow that profile to remotely log on to the computer.)

By the way, if your Media Center PC has a firewall running, you'll need to set it up to allow the proper communication between the system and the Xbox 360. This page contains links with detailed instructions on how to appropriately configure the Windows Firewall along with those from McAfee, Symantec and ZoneLabs.

After you've verified the update, configured the firewall, and downloaded the software, launch the Media Extender software you downloaded (the filename should be XboxMCE05Lite-enu). Proceed through the setup wizard to accept the license agreement and install the software, and soon you'll be prompted to enter the key you received from the console.

After a few more steps, the wizard may detect the presence of your firewall and advise you to configure it manually. Do this if you haven't already and then click Next. Assuming everything works at it should (in my experience it can take several attempts for the link to be successfully established) you should shortly hear the telltale sound of the Media Center opening coming from the console in the other room. (The final step of the wizard is the Network Performance Test, which will ensure your network speed is sufficient to support use of the Extender, particularly for streaming.)

Now Sit Back and Extend
Back at your 360, you'll now find the same Media Center interface you have on your computer. From it, you'll now be able to access photos, videos, music and so on (plus live or recorded TV if your PC has the appropriate hardware). Remember that Media Center on the 360 is subject to the same limitations as on your computer, so it may not support every audio and video codec you use (and forget about using it to access non-Microsoft DRM content).

Even with those restrictions, you'll probably still appreciate being able to access your XP Media Center PC's content without being in the same room. If you've already upgraded to Windows Vista you can still use the 360 as a Media Extender, though the setup procedure is different — consult xbox.com for details. This page will also show how to use your 360 to access content on an ordinary non-Media Center Windows XP system, but for that you'll need to use Microsoft's Zune software.

Incidentally, to control your Windows Media Center interface through the Xbox 360, you can use a standard wired or wireless controller, but better option is to pick up the $30 Universal Media Remote, which works with the console's built-in IR receiver.

If you don't own a 360 and don't plan to buy one, fret not. Although for the moment the Xbox 360 is the only Media Center Extender in town, Microsoft has said that third-party devices should be forthcoming this year (and with any luck they should be considerably less expensive than the high-powered 360).

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.


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