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Realizing the Promise of Using Xbox One as a Media Hub

The original unveiling of the Xbox One touted its prowess as a media consumption device. Its HDMI input would allow it to be used to watch TV and other apps would bring the user other media. The new Kinect would allow everything to be controlled futuristically by voice.

With the release of the Smartglass beta, some of that promise may finally be realized, but it was not always so.

When the Xbox One came out, the Xbox wasn’t so great at processing certain 5.1 signals from the HDMI in, voice proved to be awkward as a primary input mechanism and the Xbox interface combined with a controller or remote was not a great experience either. Further, those people with DVRs could only watch live TV. They could not access or set shows to record.

The new smartglass beta overcomes the most serious of those problems. Here are the ways:

  • It provides a slick, easily navigable second screen interface to access content on all the Xbox One media apps.
  • It duplicates the functionality of a DVR remote so that you can access all the other features of your DVR besides live TV.
  • It provides an serviceable way to move around the Xbox onscreen interface.
  • It provides additional information on various possible media selections, e.g. a program synopsis.
  • Controls for volume, play and pause (and other transport controls) are available from anywhere—no matter what content source you are watching, be it Netflix or live TV.
  • Finally one guide and Bing searches are really useful enabling relatively easy access to content across services.
  • It turns out a second screen better than voice control.

Further, the sound pass-through issues with the HDMI in appear to have been resolved and the Kinect acts as a really effective IR blaster to control your DVR, TV and Receiver.

Although it is not perfect and there is much room for improvement, this my be the best integration of a remote control with robust second screen content selection out there. The Harmony app has no second screen content selection and all other second screen apps are unique to individual media sources and lack any universal remote capability.

Despite its promise, the current implementation is not without its problems:

  • When switching to watch TV, the Xbox One does nothing to get to live TV on your DVR— the only place channel selections can operate. Smartglass should send command to make sure the DVR is displaying live TV whenever starting the TV app and whenever changing channels after using the remote control functions. (For TiVo sending the following three commands would do just that: Menu, Guide, Guide (which will get you to Live TV no matter where you are).
  • It takes too long for TV listings to load on smartglass.
  • Support of OneGuide in Xbox apps is inconsistent. For example there is no Netflix in OneGuide and Vudu doesn’t show selections from your library.
  • In experienced some freezes and dropouts when watching a TiVo Roamio  on one of my Xbox Ones, but not when using a TiVo Mini with another. It is hard to know whether these issues are significant, but how would I get them fixed if they persist?
  • There is no good way to play content on a local network server. Some content can be played from OneDrive, but that is less than ideal. A nice Plex or DLNA client would be welcome.
  • The Blu-Ray played in the Xbox One still has no 3D capability. The means I have to keep a standalone Blu-Ray player.

I hope that the Xbox One team addresses these issues and continues to work on these features. There is a great deal of promise in the Xbox One for home media aficionados.

New Purchase: A USB Second Monitor

I recently purchased the AOC E1649FWU, a 16″ USB powered portable second monitor for less than $90. I bought it with the idea of taking it on vacation so that when I have work to do with the laptop I bring along, I will have the use of a second monitor.

I have every intention of using it that way, but right now it has found a home as a second monitor for our family room PC. It works surprisingly well as a second monitor that can be brought out for occasions when doing substantive work on that PC and put away (so as not to clutter the desk at other times).

The monitor fits into an old 17″ laptop bag along with our new ultrabook and is powered by USB, so no need for a heavy power supply.

Used Games on PS4 and Xbox: Policies Not So Different

After the Sony PlayStation 4 E3 press conference announcing that PS4 games could be resold while the Xbox One places restrictions on transfers of games, the Sony policy is being hailed as more “pro-consumer” than that of Microsoft.

I suspect there is less difference than meets the eye and what difference there is exists because of technical differences in how the two consoles handle the DRM (digital rights management) for game software. Contrary to exaggerated claims, it is not as if the PS4 games have no DRM—after all it will obviously not be possible to make copies of your new PS4 games for your friends.

The difference is that Sony is handling DRM at the level of the disk itself, whereas Microsoft is handling DRM by associating a given game with a users online Xbox Live account (the same as their Microsoft Account).

On either console when a game is transferred to a new user, there must be a mechanism of preventing the transferor from continuing to use that game. In the case of the Xbox One, a game seemingly can’t be played for more than 24 hours after the console has “checked in” online to confirm the the player is still the authorized owner of the game. In the case of the PS4, the disc itself must be in the drive to play the game.

In theory these systems need not accord significantly different rights to their users as long as there is a means of transferring a game from one Xbox Live account to another Xbox Live account. In practice, the MS policy may be more restrictive in the following ways:

The bottom line is that we don’t yet know whether these restrictions will make a big difference between the Xbox One and the PS4.

In addition, there are some significant advantages to the Xbox One system:

  • No need to swap discs to play different games—something I personally dislike and which limits my enjoyment of older titles.
  • In a house with multiple Xbox Ones multiple family members can play the same game simultaneously, e.g. we could play a private game of Halo on our four consoles using just one purchased game.
  • Game distribution need no longer involve expensive retailers.
  • You can have have access to your entire game library from any console.
  • You can enable third party add-on storage (e.g. 3TB hard drive) without worrying about DRM.

Of course Microsoft could have set up a a dual system where certain rights were accorded to digital purchases and copies played from physical discs lacked those rights, but I suspect that would have angered retailers.

What should be obvious now is that (i) there is no pareto-optimal way to move to digital distribution, and (ii) neither system is inherently more “pro-consumer.”

The Xbox One and (Lack of) Backwards Compatibility

I wish the Xbox One had at least some form of backwards compatibility with the Xbox 360.

The lack of back compat won’t prevent me from buying one on Day 1, but It does mean that

  • I will probably buy just one rather than the four I would need to replace all my Xbox 360s.
  • I will not be buying any new games between now and the time the Xbox One comes out.

The first point could change if it turns out that the Xbox One is actually a Windows Media Center client or can be used as an extender, but I am not holding my breath.

The second point is slightly counterintuitive in that I won’t buy games that I would likely “finish playing” before the Xbox One comes out. Why? Because I like having games in a collection that I could play at any time. This is especially true of Xbox Live Arcade titles that I don’t need to put a disc in to play. Do I play the 75+ Xbox Live Arcade Titles I own regularly? Not many, but I like knowing that I could. The Xbox One takes away that capability and that is enough to make me stop buying games.

Interestingly this view of games makes me the hero of the games publishing industry. Rarely will I resell a game I have finished because then it would be gone from my collection. I could start reselling games, but that is more work that just not buying any more for a while.

Besides this will give me time to actually revisit various aspects (including multiplayer) of many of the Xbox 360 titles in my collection. And revisit some excellent XBLA titles I have acquired over the years.

The HTC One Makes Android Realize Its Promise

I am the relatively new  wner of an HTC One phone and I like it a lot.

I cannot  evaluate it in comparison to other contemporary Android phones, but I can say I like it t much better that the HTC One X+ I have had for the past eight months or so.

The HTC One X+ suffered from a number of problems:

  • Slow task switching (despite a dedicated button)
  • Unresponsiveness that would require a reset every day or two on average.
  • An Sense email client that could spend over a minute updating if I just wanted to check my emails.
  • A battery that would last a business day if I was lucky.
  • A phone that would get hot to the touch in back when used extensively.
  • Bluetooth audio controls that were at best a crapshoot as to whether they would pause or start up the audio file I was listening to.

But the HTC One X+ had a bunch of good qualities too, especially in comparison to my old Windows Phone 7 device and iPhone:

  • Almost any application was available for it.
  • Its 64GB of memory was more than enough.
  • I never had any complaint about wireless speed with its LTE.
  • The screen was a nice size.
  • I liked the rubbery feel of the case.

I feel like the HTC One is a significant improvement over the One X+. I don’t have enough experience to know if it is the result of clean installs, new apps or the phone itself, nut I can say my experience is an improvement over the One X+ in a bunch of significant ways:

  • The Enhanced Email Client is quite quick and responsive. My only complaints are (i) no access to shared calendars in Exchange and (ii) the Sense email interface is a little nicer. Fortunately I can use it in combination with the Sense Calendar and Contacts apps that don’t suffer from the same problems as the Sense email client.
  • This phone is really responsive. Task switching works much more quickly than with the One X+ and apps start much more quickly. This makes a big difference in how nice the phone is to use.
  • The BeyondPod podcast app works well and has not caused any of the issues that I has with the One X+ (something I suspected and caused me to try using DoggCatcher for a while as an inferior substitute).

In combination these make me enjoy using this phone enough to inspire me to make this (relatively rare) post on the subject!

Google Should Not Skimp on Interoperability

Watching a good part of the Google IO keynote yesterday, I was struck by how nice it would be to be part of the Google ecosystem. It could bring a new level of convenience to my life and various Google apps could suggest new things I might really be interested in doing.

I would happily sacrifice some significant level of privacy for these things. (In fact, yesterday I set up my Exchange Online account so that it automatically forwards a copy of all my emails to my most unused Gmail account so that Google apps can know more about me and thereby be more helpful.) Partly this is because I think the loss of privacy is a foregone conclusion.

But, also I was captivated by the potential of Google to do useful things with my personal information and their ability to mine my information and that of countless others for data that would ultimately be useful to me. That is Google’s killer app—its ability to know more than anyone else in the cloud and thereby be more useful to me—and to advertisers or anyone else who wants access to that kind of knowledge.

The key to this is Google’s access to information—via emails, location data, photographs, videos, searches and the like. So the more people that use Google services the more knowledge they gain and the greater their competitive advantage over other companies that might hope to do the same.

Their non-cloud products of Android, Glass or the Nexus hardware should exist to make more people use Google services and feed its appetite for data.The should NOT sacrifice this to attempt to win some competition with non-cloud competitors. Why should Google care if Android kills off Windows Phone, or if Gmail is accessed from Outlook.com? If those things happen they have already won.

This is why Google is correct to stress the importance of interoperability—they get access to more people’s data, and wrong for them to sacrifice that to promote non-cloud products, e.g. not letting Windows Phone users access Youtube with a native app. Some teams there must not understand what is really important.

Some Random Thoughts on Windows 8

Our kids think it is really cool, especially the new Lenovo convertible tablets we got—the Yoga and Thinkpad Twist.

My wife does not like it at all– usually because she finds herself running a new Metro app when she would have preferred to run a traditional desktop app. This happens with the most annoyance PDF readers, mail and Internet Explorer. I have removed these from the start screen and changed the default applications, but this is a shame: Windows 8 should let you use different default apps depending on whether they are being invoked from a Metro app or a desktop app.

Is there any rhyme or reason to what portions of the OS have been metrofied and what portions have not? Switching between these apps isn’t problematic but it is aesthetically annoying.

Windows Key-D is my new favorite command. In now use the Windows key more than I ever did in two decades of using older iterations of Windows. Here is a handy list of keyboard shortcuts.

Metro needs a way to elegantly address apps that will never be touch-centric, e.g. Word, Photoshop etc. Maybe that means creating a metro-style aesthetic for desktop apps,

The End of Small Business Server in Our Home

This move had been a long time coming..

All of our PCs were now running Windows 8 and were not joined to or SBS domain. It was time to decommission our SBS 2008 server and remove it from our home network.

This was the easiest part of the process. I purchased a Dell tower PC at Costco, upgraded it to Windows 8 and di the following:

  • Named it with the same name as our old SBS server (Leora after the character in Arrowsmith)
  • Moved the external drives containing shared files and backups from our SBS machine to the new Windows 8 box.
  • Shared the files from the user “Server” using Homegroup (and seprarately as well, but this may not have been necessary)
  • Installed Media Center 18 on the new box
  • Installed Homeseer on the new box and copied over the directories from the SBS installation of Homeseer using a flash drive
  • Set up file history to back up files to external backup drive
  • Disconnected the SBS box
  • Connected the new server to our network
  • Set our router to turn on DHCP (formerly handled by SBS) and assign a specific IP to the new server

 

Setting Up Our Windows 8 PCs

As I installed Windows 8 on our PCs or added new Windows 8 PCs to our network, I did not connect them to our SBS domain—except the first one which I used to sync settings to the Microsoft accounts for the users, before removing from the domain.

The process was longer was longer than what I had previously used when connecting to our domain—which made me appreciate the existence of the domain a little more than I had before.

Here were (most of( the steps in the first Windows 8 conversion:

  • Connect to Office 365 rather than local Exchange
  • Transfer all the users documents to SkyDrive (this would replace My Documents redirection to the server)
  • Sync Live Mesh Settings
  • Install Windows 8
  • Associate domain users settings with their Microsoft ID (used by Windows 8 to sync settings)
  • Remove the PC from the domain
  • Create a Home Grioup

The rest of the steps were used on each new Windows 8 PC and each newly converted Windows 8 PC (after disconnecting it from the domain):

  • Add the (now) free Media Center upograde
  • Create users for each member of the family
    • Add child users to Family Safety
    • Set the parameters for their computer use using Family Safety from Control Panel
  • Assign admin privileges to my own user ID
  • Add the PC to Homegroup, selecting not to share anything (only an ID on our server will actually be sharing files)
  • Install Aoos:
    • Office 2010
    • J River Media Center 18
    • Feed Demon
  • Add printers
  • Sign on as each user and:
    • Install Windows Essentials
    • Set the PC as a Trusted PC using Snyc Settings
    • Access Skydrive from the desktiop to start syncing user files
    • Add Skydrive to the user;s documents library
    • Do other library setup for that user
    • Sign in to Outlook
    • Run Media Center 18 and set the default library to that on the server

It almost makes you wish you could do this with a domain. But of course, while some of this might be done using a domaiin, much could not (at least not by me.

So, while this was a tedious process involving 6 PCs and 5 users each, it is one hope not to have to repeat again soon.

I also hope that Windows 8’s sync functionality improves to make this easier as it evolves.

Moving from SBS Exchange to Office 365

In order to keep the benefits of an Exchange Server and lose the complexity of Small Business Server I need to move to a cloud Exchange provider. At $4/month/user, and Microsoft standing behind it, Office 365 seemed to fit the bill.

My first attempts at migration met with failure. I could not get Office 365 to connect to my Exchange Server. Hours on the phone with Office 365 support yielded no solution. My strong suspicion was that some misconfiguration in SBS Exchange was the source of the problem. This was the complexity of SBS striking out at my from its position with one foot in the grave. Fortunately I had access to free MS technical support from Microsoft to assist in the migration.

Finally someone suggested simply exporting my 5 users’ accounts to a PST file, signing on to Office 365 and then importing that PST file. It was a kludge, but with only five users it was the path of least resistance.

This approach worked and I could finally cease using SBS Exchange. A few more Snafus lay in wait, however:

  • I discovered the hard way (not getting emai for a weekend) that I needed to change my users over to use our domain manually within Office 365. This does not happen automatically when configuring Office 365 to work with a user’s domain.
  • I needed to disable auto discover on my old SBS box so that clients could connect to Office 365 instead of the dead Exchange server.
  • I also needed to change a setting on the group I had created as a common email address for my wife and me so that emails from outside the organization could go to that address.

This would prove to be the hardest part of the move away from Small Business Server.