Saturday, March 19, 2016

Xbox One the perfect partner for your Windows PC

Xbox One


Even if you don't play games Xbox One is the perfect partner for your Windows PC

When Microsoft announced that its venerable Media Center application wasn’t going to make the cut in Windows 10, many PC & Tech Authority readers doubtless let out a mournful sigh. The era of the front-room entertainment PC seemed to be over.

But Microsoft had its eye on the bigger picture. The Xbox One might be regarded merely as a games console, but its all-round entertainment capabilities make it a better fit for the front room than the full-fat Windows PC ever was. The $399 block of glossy black plastic is growing into a DVR, a media centre, a web browser, and a host for the same Windows Store apps you might run on PCs and tablets – and, of course, remains a fine games console. In fact, with Windows 10’s ability to stream games from the Xbox to the screen of a laptop or tablet, it arguably circumvents the need to run games on your PC at all.

In short, the Xbox One is fast becoming a must-have companion device for the PC. Far from displacing the original vision of the Windows Media Center, it builds on it – just not in the shape of a conventional PC. In this feature, we’ll explain the new features of Microsoft’s console that make it the ideal partner to your desktop PC, and explore what it all means for the PC itself.


Abetter Media Centre

Microsoft’s Media Center application was a curious anomaly. Adored by its users, and critically well received, it never managed to grow beyond cult status – even when noughties PC makers created some delectable little media PCs to pop under the television. That said, we can point to many possible reasons for Media Center’s failure to go mainstream, most notably the advent of heavily subsidised set-top boxes from the likes of Sky and Virgin Media.

So it wasn’t a huge shock when Microsoft began to phase out Media Center in Windows 8, making it a paid-for extra rather than an integral part of the operating system, as it had been in Windows 7. When the final list of features for Windows 10 was announced in January, few were surprised that Media Centre had been quietly phased out. Some pundits have even suggested that the entire concept has had its day: “Media Center’s biggest value was the combination of the channel guide, DVR functionality, and the user interface,” said Wes Miller, an analyst for Directions on Microsoft. “Today the content is coming in from everywhere, and there’s an app on everything to play it. The death of Media Center, in many ways, was because of the sun setting on the television as the family’s entertainment hub.”

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Yet Microsoft hasn’t given up on its media centre ambitions – it’s simply refocused them from the Windows PC to the Xbox One. The console will accept an HDMI input from a set-top box, and can support a USB TV tuner – so whether you prefer satellite, cable or Freeview, it will integrate cleanly with your set-top boxes, allowing you to watch shows from within the Xbox One’s TV app. You can also connect an IR transmitter to allow the Xbox One to control your set-top box; if you have a Kinect sensor, you can change television channels either using voice commands (although this is patchy, to say the least) or the Xbox controller. The Xbox even has its own electronic programme guide (EPG), allowing you to scan the schedules from the console.

Meanwhile, the Xbox SmartGlass app allows you to view the EPG on the screen of a Windows tablet, and use the device as a glorified remote control. You can even stream the TV signal itself from the Xbox to the SmartGlass app, effectively turning your tablet into a portable television.

Perhaps the best reason to connect your TV to your console is the option to snap the television picture to the side of the screen whilst you’re using an Xbox app or game. This lets you keep an eye on the football, while enjoying your own game of FIFA, with the option to easily flick into full-screen if you can see a goal coming.

The one thing that’s missing is DVR capabilities: despite the Xbox One’s hundreds of gigabytes of available storage, there’s no way to record television shows on your console. That’s set to change with a major update rolling out which officially upgrades the Xbox One to Windows 10. As well as an updated app framework (see below), this will bring a new DVR feature that turns the Xbox into a true successor to Media Center, with features that Sky+ and TiVo set-top boxes can’t match. As well as scheduling recordings from the Xbox EPG when you’re sat in front of the television, you’ll be able to set recordings remotely using the Xbox SmartGlass app on your smartphone. You’ll also be able to stream recorded shows from the Xbox to your mobile or Windows 10 devices. You can even download the recorded shows to a tablet or laptop, so you can watch on a plane or on the train to work.

However, there are a couple of catches. First, you’ll need to plug in an external hard disk: even though the latest-generation Xbox One hardware comes with a terabyte hard disk, you’re not allowed to store recordings on the internal drive, ostensibly to avoid interfering with the games stored on it. Second, while you can happily record Freeview shows, the DVR facility won’t work with satellite or cable set-top box feeds. Nevertheless, the Xbox One could well tempt viewers to make it their primary recorder.


WINDOWS 10, APPS AND CORTANA


Xbox One Centre

The Xbox One has long had its own library of native apps, as did the Xbox 360 before it. Predictably, most of them focus on video and entertainment. At the time of writing, the 100-strong library of downloads includes Netflix, TuneIn Radio, YouTube and various apps for recording and sharing games footage. That means the Xbox One is already competitive with most other streaming devices, such as the Apple TV, Roku and Amazon TV.

With the Windows 10 update expected in November, that app selection could – and we emphasise “could” – be massively expanded. This will allow the Xbox One to run Universal apps from the regular Windows Store, just as on a PC, phone or tablet. Microsoft has publicly spoken of “thousands” of apps becoming available to Xbox One owners, with those already purchased on other platforms being eligible for free download.

Obviously, an app designed for a tablet interface may not translate perfectly to a console. Most Windows Store apps are designed for a touch interface, so they may be difficult to control, even with a Kinect sensor. Console users also sit some distance from the screen, while phone and tablet users have it pressed in front of their faces: text, graphics and icons will likely need to be resized to suit a 42in TV rather than a 10in tablet.

This means app developers will need to approach their Windows apps like modern websites, with responsive designs adjusting the user interface to suit the size and capabilities of the screen – and the Xbox store will only house those apps suited to run on the console. Head of the Xbox division, Phil Spencer, told developers: “We won’t see people using Excel on the Xbox, but Microsoft is making it easier to port experiences from PC over to Xbox where they make sense.”

So what types of app are likely to appear for the Xbox One? You could easily imagine services such as Spotify, eBay, weather apps, travel agents and fitness tracker Fitbit embracing the Xbox One –Microsoft will be throwing money at some big names when the console transitions to Windows 10.

Another Windows 10 import is Cortana. Those with a Kinect sensor may already be used to issuing voice commands to their Xbox, but the update will see Cortana make its debut on the console. It will take on many of the duties already assigned to voice controls, such as challenging friends on Xbox Live. Cortana will also work across devices. So, if you set a reminder on your Windows Phone or desktop PC to call your brother at 8pm, it will interrupt the movie you’re watching on the Xbox to remind you.


STREAMING FORWARD

Gaming is the Xbox One’s raison d’être. When Microsoft unveiled Windows 10 back in January, it wasn’t the blue-sky hoopla surrounding the HoloLens that got many people excited, but the ability to stream games from the Xbox One to Windows 10 devices.

The feature was switched on in one of the final Insider builds of Windows 10 before the desktop OS launched at the end of July. Instead of being tied to the living-room television, gamers can now wirelessly beam their games to a PC in a bedroom, or even a tablet. The receiving hardware doesn’t need to be powerful, as it’s essentially just receiving a video feed – all the processing is done on the Xbox.

Plug an Xbox One controller into a USB port on the receiving PC and you can play as if you were sat in front of the television. At first, streams were restricted to 720p, but an update has boosted the maximum stream quality to 1080p at 60fps. As long as your wireless router has sufficient bandwidth (see right), and your receiving device has a high-res screen, you can play remotely in Full HD, with no compromise to graphics quality.

It’s a capability that raises questions about the future of video games. Gaming on Windows has been in decline for years: you’ll struggle to even find PC games in many high- street retailers these days. Xbox streaming potentially turns even lowly $200 tablets into 3D-gaming machines, and while there’s still a market for those who want to play Crysis at punishingly high frame rates on 4K screens, most gamers will settle for the Full HD output from an Xbox, especially if it means not having to upgrade their graphics card every couple of years.

There’s another difference between PC and console gaming: the controls. Many still prefer a keyboard and mouse to a handheld controller, and the Xbox One will offer support for these in games. Once the console moves to Windows 10, there may be no discernible difference between playing a game on the Xbox One and on a regular PC. Xbox owners can already play online against PCs, and parity of controllers could see even more titles span both console and PC.

The distinction between the Xbox and a PC is becoming very blurred. Soon, the only difference between the two will be the user interfaces. The Xbox One hasn’t just become a must-have companion for your PC: it’s become a PC in its own right.



By Barry Collins

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