Windows Home Server and Xbox 360 Keep Kicking Me in the Head

I spent all weekend looking to conquer the home media utopia.  I have gone through a seemingly eternal progression of media packages.  (Not that it was all pain.  I found some really cool software in the process.)

First, I have to slightly amend my stated objectives for this project.  They now are:

The “Must Have” List:

  1. It must store the media (music and movies mainly, photos are really an after thought for me) on a centralized, always on system. (Currently a Windows Home Server in my garage) 
    • This system must be stand-alone. For example, I don’t want to have to have a Media Center PC always on in addition to the home server.
  2. I must be able to use the content from:  My Windows 7 Ultimate PC, my Vista Slate, My Wife’s Vista PC, My Daughter’s Windows 7 Home Premium PC or the Xbox 360 in the living room.
  3. The movie content will be displayed GRAPHICALLY, like with cover art, so that my illiterate children (5 year old and soon the 1 year old) will be able to select movies without shouting across the house “WHAT DOES THIS SAY MAMA?”

The “Would Be Nice” List:

  1. The ripping process should be relatively painless.
  2. Movie descriptions, ratings and cast info.
  3. If the disk space could be minimized, that would be great.

The reason I had to update this list is because of My Movies 3.  This package ALMOST fits my requirements exactly.  I REALLY wanted this solution to work.  It has a Windows Home Server installer that works beautifully and client software that can be installed to do the actual DVD ripping and store the VOB files on the WHS shares. 

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All of the content lives on the server and all you have to do install the client software on your Media Center PCs and a new section shows up inside of Media Center and allows you to see the cover art and movie info as well as play the content directly from the WHS share.  Great Right?  That gets me all of my must haves as well as my would be nice list. 

I have two problems with the way this plays out on the Xbox which I didn’t think about when I was writing the requirements.  (This is called “Scope Creep”, by the way – or maybe just crappy requirements gathering.)  First, it requires that the Xbox be able to connect to a Media Center PC, which means it has to be on and accessible on the network.  The second problem is that once you get into the My Movies section of Media Center on the Xbox, it won’t play any media from the home server.  SO CLOSE!  I can’t imagine why the XBox can’t stream VOB files from a Network path (UNC either – I tried) on the Windows Home Server!!

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One of the other packages, tversity, seems like it would work (other than some flaky behavior on Windows Home Server) but it doesn’t seem to do cover art at all.  Another solution that would work for me with no additional software is just streaming MP4’s directly from the WHS to the Xbox.  The problem here is the ugly gray icons which only show the file name.  It doesn’t seem to respect the ID3 tags or embedded icons that show up on the file system.

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I’m sorry this got a little too techy (and ranting), but it has been a frustrating weekend.  I was lamenting to a friend of mine, and he said “Just teach your kids to read dude!”  Touche, Steve.  Touche.

Free Tools Friday 4

This week I am focused like a laser beam on media tools.  I have publicly committed to get my home media system straightened out and I WILL persevere.  You can benefit from my arduous trek by checking out these great tools.

My Movies 3 – My search for Home Media Utopia has had me ranging far and wide through the morass of media players, collection managers, codecs and so on that exist out there.  It’s an alphabet soup of audio and video formats and very easy to get lost. My Movies is a great package that’s been around the block a bit and really cuts down on the confusion.  They recently released version 3 which is even simpler that it was before.  It will help you catalog your movies and music, will get cover art for CD’s and DVD’s and will even help you rip content to your hard drive.  All that plus it will help you get around some limitations of the XBOX 360 media center makes a pretty mean package.  It’s so good, I actually thought that I had struck gold on the first pass because this package fills so many of the requirements that I set out in that post.  (You can go read it if you want to…)

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My Movies 3 Collection Management Screen

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My Movies 3 Inside Windows Media Center
 

Virtual CloneDrive by SlySoft – I’ve been using this app for a long time.  Basically, it creates a “fake” CD/DVD device on your system that lets you read ISO files from your hard drive as if you had actually burned them.  It’s small, it’s fast, it’s free.  What more do you want?

 

Boxee – This SWEET app is best described as social media meets all of the glorious video content that the interwebs have to offer.  It’s a little different in purpose than My Movies, but there are some overlaps.  Boxee leads you through an account creation process, during which it will ask about your other social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook etc.  It then checks to see which of those people have Boxee accounts and then it lets you see what they’ve watched, rated and recommended both in their own library of content, but also from the vast quantity of video available out there.  It’s a slick, easy interface and runs on Mac, Linux, and Windows.  If I didn’t have an XBOX 360, I’d throw Boxee on a Linux home theater PC and go to town!

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Boxee’s Online Video UI

Hark, Windows 7 Cometh

Ah, Microsoft.  We’ve had some good times.  We’ve had some bad times.  It’s really hard for the average person to understand how you can go from a solid, stable operating system like Windows XP to a bloated, irritating thing like Vista.  You and I both know that it’s not the first time, but let’s not talk about Windows ME.  Let’s focus on the future.  The launch is tomorrow, so let’s talk about Windows 7.

I’ve been using Windows 7 for quite a few months now on my HP tablet and overall I have been very impressed. I ran Vista on the tablet previously and there were definitely times when it seemed sluggish.  (It’s not like a slow machine, it has 8 GB of RAM and an SSD hard drive.) As soon as I installed 7, I saw an IMMEDIATE increase in performance.  I also liked the new taskbar and the little gimmicky window tricks, I love that you can configure the Nag Quotient of UAC, and I think the tablet-specific features are absolutely outstanding.

Initial Setup – At the risk of gushing, I think the install of Windows 7 is hands-down the cleanest and simplest process of any version of Windows.  Ever.  It’s pretty fast, it asks minimal questions along the way, and it’s quite intelligent at figuring out drivers and such.

Drivers – Drivers were the great stumbling block of Vista’s launch.  I remember months after the launch of Vista tearing my hair out by the roots in frustration because I couldn’t find HP scanner drivers for our CEO’s PC.  We’re talking HP here, not some small time vendor that operates out of their garage.  Contrasted with that experience, I had the fingerprint software for my tablet install automatically through Windows update and just start working without me even noticing.  That’s like the holy grail of driver support.

Interface/User Experience – I think the interface is much the same as Vista, although the small improvements are quite useful.  The taskbar allows you to pin icons there and if the app supports it, will give you common task lists specific to that program.  For example here is my context menu for Google Chrome:

image You can see that the most visited sites are listed along with other things I might want to do with that application.  It took me a little bit to get in the habit of using this, but I find that it really speeds things up for me.  I use multiple monitors on my desktop, so the key combination of Windows Key + right or left arrow, which moves the active window to the next monitor is one of my favorites.

Best Little Known Feature – This one is for the user support side of my personality.  Windows 7 has built in a little application called Problem Steps Recorder.  If you go to Start > Run and type psr, then hit enter you will see a simple window that looks like:

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This is geared towards an end-user that might be having problems with something.  The user clicks on “Start Record” and then does whatever they are having issues with.  They then click “Stop Record” and then they will be asked where to save a ZIP file which contains Screen Shots, program and system information recounting what they did along with any comments that the user might have entered.  All wrapped up in a neat package and ready for your user to email to you for help.  It’s the next best thing to remote control!

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Conclusion – This is a worthy successor to Windows XP.  I’m recommending to our clients who are thinking about making a change that they give this serious consideration.  Trust me, switching will feel like trading in your 10 year old Ford Explorer for that brand-new 370Z convertible you’ve been eyeballing. Well done, Windows 7 team!

Free Tools Friday 2

Last week I focused on free tools for business.  This week I decided to get in touch with my inner geek.  These are a few of the tools that I install immediately after I format any of my machines. 

  1. SharedView from Microsoft – I don’t know about you all out there, but I end up doing a LOT of remote phone support for family, friends, and even friends of friends.  I don’t mind helping out when I can, but I absolutely HATE trying to solve a problem while the person on the other end attempts to describe what is happening on their end.  One answer that has worked out pretty well is this tool from Microsoft.  It obviously shares DNA with Live Meeting, but is a whole lot simpler.  Just install it on your end and their end, then send them an invite from the app.  They click on it and voila!  No more “Can you see the Start Button at the bottom left.  No?  Seriously?  Ok, describe what you see to me…”  

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  2. Notepad++ from SourceForge – This app is like the swiss army knife of text editors.  Not only will it do syntax highlighting for just about every kind of code known to man, it does macros, has a set of text manipulation functions, and a full array of plugins.  Seriously, if you do any css, html, javascript file work, you should check this out.

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  3. Fences from Stardock – My desktop used to be cluttered to the point of unusability.  Then along came a little app that lets me box in my icons and such into little named areas of my desktop.  This thing is awesome.  It lets you back up your groupings, adjusts automatically when you change resolutions and lets you hide or show your icons by double clicking the desktop. 

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