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When the Xbox 360 was introduced to the market, it was seen as game console. But the 360 also has numerous features - some which were included when it shipped, and some of which were added in later updates - which are designed to make the 360 a home media center. These features allow you to access all sorts of media stored on your computer and stream it to your Xbox 360, which is in turn connected to your TV or HDTV. This makes it possible to have an experience similar to owning a HTPC without having to build one, or layout too much extra cash.
However, these features are not as well explained as they could be. Most information about the 360 focuses on its primary role as a game console, and pays little attention to the advantages of setting it up as a media center. This guide will help you figure out how to set up your 360 as a media center, and outline the advantages to doing so.
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In The Network
Obviously, you'll need to have some way of allowing your Xbox 360 to connect to one or more computers in your home. But deciding the best way to get the Xbox 360 onto the network is less obvious, and doubly so if you haven't been taking full advantage of Xbox Live, and don't already have your Xbox 360 hooked to a broadband connection.
The first thing you'll need is a home network. Even if your Xbox 360 is already hooked up to a broadband wired connection, you may not have a network. To make one, you'll first need to decide how to create your network . This will depend on your needs. If your Xbox 360 is close to your PC, or you already have the rooms in your home wired togather via Ethernet cables, then a wired connection is typically best. It is fast and stable. If your PC and your Xbox 360 are in different rooms, then a wireless network may be best. Alternatively, if you dislike wireless but need your 360 and PC to be in different areas of your home, a power line network is a solid choice.
Once your network is set up, you've made your first step towards getting your PC and Xbox 360 synced together.
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Windows Media Center offers an integrated home theater experience for the PC. Many people use it with HTPCs, but it can also be used well with an Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 has the ability to communicate with a PC that has Windows Media Center installed, thus allowing you to access the Window Media Center on your TV. Once you've done this, the Xbox 360 can play all the files your PC with Windows Media Center normally could. Xbox 360, Windows Media Center
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Prep Your PC
To get your PC and your Xbox 360 to communicate, you'll need to install Windows Media Center on your computer. If you have Vista Home Premium or Ultimate, you already have it. But if you're using XP, you may need to download it. You can download the program straight from Microsoft. Once you have done that, you'll need to sync your Windows Media Center software to your 360.
You can do this by going to Media section your Xbox 360, and then selecting Windows Media Center. You'll then be presented with instructions on the screen to which you Xbox 360 is attached. Most of this process is automated, but you will need to perform actions on both your console and your PC as the on-screen instructions dictate. There will be a point where you'll be given a code on the screen to which your 360 is attached, and you'll need to enter this code into your PC. Once that is completed, your PC and your Xbox 360 should be synced, and you're ready to play your content. You can do this buy using the Windows Media Center feature on your Xbox 360 console. Windows Media Center will communicate with the software on your PC. Remember when doing this that you can only play content that the Windows Media Center installation on your PC knows of. If you have files which you have not loaded into your Windows Media Center library, you won't be able to play them.
Alternatively, you can simply sync Windows Media Player 11 and your Xbox 360. Once you have Windows Media Player 11 installed, go to the library tab, then go to Media Sharing. Click on Share My Media, which will bring up any devices you can share with. Your Xbox 360 should show up, so select it, and click Allow. Once you've done this, you can go Music, Pictures, or Video areas of your Xbox 360, which will bring up a menu allowing you to select your PC. Once you've done so, you can start picking out what you'd like to play. This process is largely the same for both XP and Vista computers.
Of the two, I would recommend using the full Windows Media Center connection. The interface it is much better overall, and provides a smoother experience.
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Using The Media Features
If you only have the Xbox 360 controller available, then navigating around the media features of your Xbox 360 is much the same as when navigating around game menus. You will be using the control sticks or the D-pad in order to move about the menus, and you will need to press the colored face buttons to perform various functions. This is generally not a quick way of manuevering through the menus, but it is fairly intuitive, and requires no additional purchase of hardware. It will, however, drain your controller's battery just about as quickly as playing a game.
If the control seems too unintuitive, then you can spring for the Xbox 360 Universal Remote. The universal remote works like any other remote control, and like most remotes, it does not go through batteries with as much speed as the 360 wireless controller. It includes buttons that allow you to easily skip through scenes in movies, access menus, and scroll through content. It also includes the Windows Media Center button. When your 360 is connected to a computer that has Windows Media Center installed, pressing this button will automatically bring up Windows Media Center on the TV your console is connected to. This gives you access to the fairly handy Media Center interface from which you can browse and play your content.
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The Xbox 360 works not only with Windows Media Center, but also with other media sources. Thumb drives, MP3 players, and network devices can all be used as media sources for the Xbox 360. These media sources sync with the 360 in a variety of ways, however, so you need to know what works, how it works, and what hardware - such as the iPhone and iPod Touch - doesn't work at all. Xbox 360, Windows Media Center
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Alternative Media Sources
Besides connecting directly to your computer, there are other ways to access your content through your Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 will accept connections from numerous USB devies, including digital cameras, music players, and even thumb drives.
To connect a music player or thumb drive, simply plug the device into the Xbox 360, select Media from the 360 guide, and then select Music Library. The music player, if supported, should show up as a Portable Device. You can then access from the music player interface on your 360. The Media section of the 360 guide includes basic controls, such as volume, play, and pause, which allow you to control the music remotely. Note that the Xbox 360 does not support playing music files from an iPhone or iPod Touch, but most other iPods are compatible.
Accessing video content works in much the same way, although you'll need to access it through the appropriate Library, i.e. you can't play your videos from the Music Library menus. The Xbox 360's video compatibility is fairly broad, allowing playback of numerous types of video files, without restrictions on bit-rates or resolution. A full list of supported video types can be found at the Microsoft's support website. The Xbox 360 does not support playing movie files from any Applie iPod device.
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Don't Stop: Explore Xbox Live
I've covered all of the 360's media sharing abilities, but don't forget to use Xbox Live to your advantage. Using Xbox Live, you can rent movies, download television shows and arcade games, and gain access to Netflix content with a Netflix subscription. These features are not directly related to having a PC, but they fill the few gaps that exist in the Window Media Center scheme. Between synching with your PC, and your ability to pull content off of Xbox Live, there is very little that your 360 can't do that a dedicated HTPC can. Just remember that streaming content from your computer is generally free, while Xbox Live content typically costs money which is billed directly to the credit card you used for your Xbox Live subscription.