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Scott's Column
XBox 360 as a Media Extender

February 1, 2009
By Scott Lewis

This month is all about the XBox. Don't fret, there is not a lot of gaming. Most if this months topics revolve around using the XBox 360 as a Media Extender. Next month I will get more into the Media Extender part with lots of file formats and software you might want to use.

Current Topics:

Gaming

Most gaming revolves about the XBox 360 this month. In fact, I have not played any games on my PC since my sons received the XBox for Christmas. My favorite game so far is Forza 2. And what a bargain. I picked it up as GameStop in a two pack with Marvel Alliance for $9.99. My youngest son loves Marvel Alliance and I love Forza. A true bargain.

Forza is not as realistic as a true racing sim, but it is far more realistic in the driving dynamics than any of the Need For Speed games I have played on the PC. Braking is critical in Forza, which was not so critical in NFS. You can definitely "feel" the difference between the cars in Forza. Particularly noticeable is the handling of the types of cars. AWD, FWD and RWD all have very different characteristics. Also, some cars handle a lot better than others. The first car I bought in career mode was a Pontiac Solstice. I did this for my son who is a major Transformers fan, so getting Jazz seemed appropriate. What a mistake. That car handled terribly. It would slip and slide all over the track. And this was even after doing an upgrade to the suspension. When I won an AWD car the game took on a whole new meaning. Now I could actually win races regularly. Equipped with an AWD Lancia I was winning individual races, and sets of races and winning cars all over the place. If you are just starting out with Forza in career mode I suggest getting a front wheel drive or all wheel drive as your first car. That makes it much easier to get out of trouble when you spin out or over drive the track (due to not enough braking).

My second time in Career mode (I had to start over due to XBox Live, see below) I chose the AWD Eagle Talon. This car worked quite well. I have read that starting with the Cobalt SS, a front wheel drive car, is the best choice. I don't know if it would make that much difference between the two.

I managed to unlock ever track in Arcade mode using one of two cars. I would use a Toyota Supra Turbo in class B or a Corvette Z06 in Class A. The final track to unlock is Nurburgring. I am going to try and pick a car and see if I can beat Nissan's claim of the fastest lap time in a production car. I believe Nissan's best time at 7:38 for a lap of The Ring in the GT-R, beating Porsche with its 911 Turbo with a time of 7:40. I will try to find a production car in Forza and see if I can get into the 7 minute range for a lap of the 12.9 mile coarse. I don't know if Forza's course is accurate, but I would hope it is.

I will have to wait to challenge The Ring. My playing games on the XBox was interrupted with playing WITH the XBox. See below.

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1.5 TB Seagate FreeAgent Drive

As stated last month I moved all my recorded TV shows from Media Center to "The beast." I regret that I deleted a bunch of episodes of The Hulk I recorded off Sci-Fi channel. I didn't have the room to keep them at the time. I really like having this much storage for recording old shows I like to watch. I have NEVER bought a season of a TV show on DVD. I get tempted once in a while, but quickly forget about it. I have rented a few discs to watch a particularly good episode, or "make" my son watch it.

Having all this storage means I am looking at what TV shows I can record. I have almost every episode of Burn Notice (USA Network). I should be able to complete my collection when they air re-runs prior to the new season starting. I hope to have the entire series. I also have a fair amount of Star Trek (TOS) and Star Trek TNG. My youngest son really likes watching these with me on my Zune on the way to school in the morning. We play the sound through the car's stereo.

I can't remember exactly which steps worked best, but I know I used RegEdit to edit the places Media Center should look for TV shows. Sometimes the Media Center interface doesn't work the way I expect it to. I know I had issues when trying to offload shows to my server, and I had to edit the registry to make that work so it seemed easy enough to do the same for the external hard drive. I wouldn't worry about this is you are using an external hard drive. Use the Media Center interface.

I tested ripping movies with DVDFab Platinum (5.1) for the XBox 360. I don't remember how much I changed from the defaults, but it can't be much. I have it set to record WMV format at 1,500 kbps. I set the resolution to 704x###. I find it odd that there is no 720x### option when I use the XBox settings. I think it would degrade the quality to increase the resolution in software, so the 704x### resolution works. I have played the movies through the XBox 360 and it looks excellent. I am very pleased. I am re-ripping my entire movie collection. I am also making two copies of each movie. I rip a second copy of the movie to MP4 format to play on my Zune and my sons' iPods.

I have settled on using the cropping feature new to DVDFab with version 5 when ripping movies for a portable device. Although my Zune has a reasonable 3.2" screen, it is confining when the black bars take up almost half the screen. If a movie is at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on disc I custom crop 120 pixels from each side and 30 pixels from the top and bottom. This still leaves small black bars on top and bottom, but it is more enjoyable to watch. For movies with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 I use the pan & scan and set it for 93% which seems to provide an easy way to get to a full screen cropping with minimal fuss.

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XBox 360

We have an XBox 360. I love it. I don't like the controller for first person shooters, but I am adapting. I am really into arcade style racing games. For the XBox that means Project Gotham Racing 4 (PGR4) or Forza 2. I really like Forza better. Gotham Racing incorporates a bunch of drifting and style points. I don't care for this. I like to race to the finish. Forza is more realistic than the Need For Speed games I have played on the PC. Braking is far more necessary in Forza. In NFS you could scrub speed fairly easily and not have to worry about driving off course much. Forza definitely requires you to get use to the brakes. However, I have noticed that the overall driving skill is not has high as is needed for a true driving sim. And this is just fine by me.

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XBox Live

I was thoroughly disappointed in XBox live. I bought a 12+1 month subscription to XBox Live at Target. I did not understand how all this worked, and regret that. I tried to take my profile online. When I entered my e-mail address I was shown an old Microsoft Live account that I have not had any luck with. I changed to my second e-mail and that also linked to the Microsoft Live account I use with my Zune and the Zune Marketplace. I made the mistake of saying yes to use that profile. What happened was it created a NEW profile on the XBox 360 and tied that new profile to my Zune account. I didn't have ANY of the profile information from my "offline" profile. This included all the cars I built up playing Forza. In fact, when I went to play Forza online with this profile I was informed that I did not have any cars to race in any events.

I found a little bit of information about merging an offline profile with an online profile. I started doing that, which included turning the offline profile into a XBox Live profile. I had to get a third e-mail address that Microsoft Live knew nothing about to get my offline profile online. I hit the wrong button when I was told my profile name was taken (I started with Scott, my first name). In hitting the wrong button I permanently ended up with the first suggested name (UrgedScott). Not something I wanted. And you can't change a profile name (called a Gamertag on XBox Live) without paying 800 Microsoft Points. That $10. What a rip off!

At this point I had two XBox live profiles. The first is linked to my Zune Marketplace account. Not a bad thing in itself, but it doesn't have any of my gaming achievements. And a second that is linked to an e-mail address I made up. The first profile is the one that has my 12+1 subscription. When I tried to merge the offline with the original online it required that all my Microsoft points for the Zune Marketplace be transferred. I did NOT want to lose my Zune points to buy music, so I said no. Also, since this profile is only on a 1 month trial for a Gold subscription I did not know what would happen to the original where I entered in the code to get the 12+1 months.

So I am stuck with the first profile I created online. No gaming achievements and locked to my Zune account. My next step will be to start over playing Forza to build up my achievements. That will take quite a few hours of hard core playing. My wife thought I was obsessed with the game before when I was trying to unlock all the tracks. She is going to think I am nuts when I have to do it again.

The next problem is my kids. Apparently each profile has to be paid for separately. When I signed up my youngest son for XBox Live it only gave him a 1 month trial Gold subscription. It did not pick up on the 12 month Gold subscription on my profile. I DO NOT want to pay $150 a year for the three of us to each have our own XBox Live accounts. And this is a total rip off since we only have one console and can only use one profile at a time.

On another note, unless you need to monitor your kids usage of XBox Live I recommend you LIE when asked for the birthday of your child. I put in the correct date and I had to enter in my credit card information, personal e-mail address, mailing address and my own Microsoft Live account information to get my son connected. And it will drop to a Silver subscription in a month anyway. They better not try billing me for extending that 1 month trial to Gold.

Since my sons are not going to be thrilled with my profile name/gamertag (ScottieForever) I am probably going to have to bite the bullet and PAY to change the profile name to something more generic that all three of us can use. This still sucks because we each play Halo 3, and each have our own saved progress. I know I don't want my sons using my Forza profile to start buying cars that I don't want. Yet I need to build up the online profile with Forza. This is a huge mess.

Let me tell you... be careful before you get an XBox Live account/profile/gamertag. It is a lot of trouble. Know what you are getting into before you enter that code from the card you buy at the store.

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XBox Live Experience

When we went online to connect with XBox Live we were required to do a software update. This installed the XBox Live Experience. It totally changes the interface to the XBox. Another thing to be prepared for if you are connecting to XBox Live for the first time. If you are used to the XBox interface you are going to be in for a shock. The interface is typical Microsoft. It looks very slick, but you can't find anything you want. I hunted around for a long time trying to find out how to actually sign up for an XBox live account and plug in the access code on the card I bought a Target. It was very far from intuitive where and when you could enter the code to get your paid subscription going.

The new dashboard, as Microsoft calls it, is very slick looking, but it contains a lot of fluff. Places where you can certainly waste time and money on XBox Live. In reality there is little that is needed to just play games and your media. I bet i use less than 20% of the entire dashboard interface.

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XBox & Media Center

Once I hooked up the XBox to my network through an Ethernet cable it was pretty easy to set it up as a Media Extender. I was a little worried the first time. Media Center on the XBox crashed three times in a row. It finally came up on the 4th try and it has not crashed since. I like the Media Center on XBox overall. I can watch all the TV shows I have recorded with my Media Center PC with a TV tuner card. This is really cool as I record a lot of old Star Trek episodes and I cannot hold far more content on my PC (with the 1.5 TB drive) than with the Time Warner DVR from the cable company.

I am disappointed with movies. I have a folder that I store ripped movies. However Media Center only sees these as "videos" not actual movies. The Zune software does the same thing, however with the Zune software I can edit the video and label it a movie and enter in the description of the movie.

I would really like it if Media Center could be told these are movies then treat them as movies and download poster art and descriptions. As least let me enter this information on the PC and let the XBox pick up that information.

All the movies display as a bunch of boxes all touching each other. In the box is a single frame from the "video." You have to manually highlight a box to see the filename of the video, which is the name of the movie. It would be better to just list the filenames.

Generally speaking considering the XBox Live account I should be able to get better handling of media than I am getting.

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Conclusion

That was a lot of XBox stuff. And there is more next month. I will cover file formats, movie ripping and third party software to serve media to the XBox. If you want to use your XBox 360 as a Media Extender then come back next month.

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