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Review of XBMP and the Xbox as a media center

Colin McRae & DOA3

As requested, here are a few notes on how the Xbox is currently faring as a ‘media center’.

First of all however, if you ever venture into these territories, make sure that you keep the original 10GB (0r 8GB depending on your Xbox version) for emergencies. The time will come when you fuck something up so bad that you’ll need it and you will thank yourself for not formatting it and employing it in your PC as a pr0n drive. I had one such emergency earlier today, and all it took was a quick boot on the old drive to change a setting back.

Anyway, my Xbox is currently running XBMP 2.4 (Sept. 10th CVS), which basically means an expanded version of the 2.4 release. So what does that mean? Well here’s a quick overview of what it can do:

  • Play all video formats: With the exception of Quicktime (which it can play every now and then, though often without sound) and some RealPlayer versions (I’ve heard), it pretty much plays everything out there. I even have plenty of movies that it’ll play even though my PC is unable to read them. And on top of that it has a very easy implementation of manual delay (or prelay… Is that the word?) of the sound in case it gets out of sync at some point.
  • Video frame adjustments: If you have outputted video from your PC to your TV there’s a good chance that you have run into a couple of problems that I myself have juggled with before. Either the image on the TV has fat black bars around it, or maybe your TV eats large chunks of the image-borders (the safe area), or there might be some resolution problems and so on and so forth. Sure you can use TVTool to adjust the image and all that, and it’s a viable solution for some. But it also has a host of problems or what-if’s. On the Xbox you can adjust the video frame to match your TV exactly. You can even do it on the fly, so if you have a DivX of an old VHS recording with noise at the top of the frame; just adjust the frame so that it disappears — It’s one of my favorite features.
  • Image quality: You can apply soften and post-processing filters on poorly (or even decent) movies to improve the visual appearance on your TV, and it helps!
  • Misc. Video Stuff: Supports subtitles (and manual subtitle delay/prelay (_is_ that a word?!) if needed) as well as extra audio languages if available. Also you can look movies up on IMDB and read about it if you want, as well as use the movie poster from there to generate a thumbnail for the movie file.
  • Music formats: Plays everything, period. At least I have yet to find a single file that it can’t play. There are some problems if you choose to stream your audio files across Samba (Windows file sharing), so I suggest that you instead install RelaX or an equivalent Xbox file streamer on your PC as they deliver the content much much better. The same goes for queuing files (music as well as video), it just works better over RelaX. Best of all however is if you – like me – install a new HDD where you store all your media. And you can of course also stream and record shoutcast streams on it
  • Portable Media Center: While the Xbox is a large console compared to the GameCube, it’s still small compared to most PC’s. And unless you’re sporting a nice laptop it’s perfect for lugging around to other people’s houses. If you buy the RF adapter on the side you’ll probably be able to hook up the Xbox to pretty much any TV configuration you can find. Handy for bringing some 20.000 tracks of party-mix to your friend’s house next Friday :). Or if you’re having a movie night why not bring along all your movies digitally as well as the capabilities of playing any region DVD. (No, there are no VHS mods… yet).
  • Games On the HDD: Not only do you not have to care whether or not your games are stored properly or fear scratched DVD media, you also get much faster load times. A game typically takes up about 3-5GB, so there’s plenty of room if you throw in a proper replacement HDD.
  • Programs: You can use XBMP as your dashboard – that is the default program launched on Xbox boot – which is when you’ll want to use it for launching programs and games from. XBMP automatically catches media inserted into the DVD drive and can launch a related program. This is optional. Personally I have it set for auto launch on games and DVD’s. Audio CD’s I play using XBMP (which has CDDA naming support). DVD’s are rerouted to a modified MS dashboard (the default green UI that the Xbox comes with) which allows for multiple region playback.
  • Picture: And then of course there is the option of displaying all image formats (well, pretty much anyway).
  • Remote controlled: All of this is of course controllable form the remote. A remote, I might add, which has the best coverage I’ve ever seen. You can drag this thing all over the place and still have it reach the Xbox.

And that’s a very quick rundown of the main features. I suggest that you go through the features list on their website if you want every little detail. After all it also does such things as read ID3 tags (and in the latest CVS it can also sort by them, which until now has been sorely missed!). Rikke and I have a widescreen TV, which it also supports (by automatically adjusting video sizes for proper ratios).

So, what are the bad things?

Well, first of all the remote has mildly annoying feedback. That is you don’t get immediate satisfaction when pressing a key, it’s hard to explain, but you’ll notice it quickly. Also it isn’t as easy to gain an overview of your music – if you have a substantial amount of directories (or files for that matter) – as it is on a PC. But you can make and save play lists through the interface itself, which kind of makes up for some of it.

In the CVS version there’s also a web server which, aside from being usable as a such, also has a utility for controlling playback and at some point, setup of the XBMP.

Other than that I don’t think there are a whole lot of negative things to say about it. Obviously it’s constantly in development and if you decide to use CVS compiles you’ll probably end up bumping into a few bugs here and there. E.g. the layout bug which has problems with the fonts in the CVS I’m using.

In the end however I think that the Xbox, modded and with a 120GB HDD (which is the current max.) is worth every penny, especially if you often watch downloaded… ehh… trailers and stuff.

Please feel free to post any questions you have in the comments

Update: I almost forgot to mention the screensaver. It’s nothing special really, merely a blank screen. But what it does, for me anyway, is basically not drawing attention towards itself.

And then of course XBMP also gives you the ability to change the color of the Xbox LED to Orange or Red (or a fancy ‘lightshow’) :)