Some Background: What is a 'media hub'?
A media hub is a device that integrates into your home entertainment center and allows you to "tune" content served via your home computer network. There are many types of media hubs manufactured by different companies including the most popular hubs: The D-Link DSM-320 and the Phillips Streamium. Most hubs connect to your display and audio receiver using an array of conventional inputs: They generally support standard options such as Composite and Component Video and traditional RCA connectors or SPIDF connections for audio. That means that most media hubs also support the common home entertainment technologies: surround sound, high definition display, etc.
Media hubs are not typically endowed with hard drives (yet), and they mainly operate as "terminals" for accessing a media collection stored on other computers visible on your home network. The computer (or computers) sharing media (that is, video, audio and image files) with the media hub must run a media server application. This is a little program that watches for the media hub on the network and communicates with it to send files. There are a lot of different kinds of media server applications, and most hubs come with a preferred server application included in the box on CD-ROM.
Many of these first-party media server apps are lack key features users desire, so many users install open source or independently developed media server programs such as TwonkyVision
. These programs allow for users to organize and access files in different ways, support performance enhancements, and offer a range of extra functionality. TVersity, for example, transcodes media into formats compatible with each media hub on-the-fly, allowing users to play many more formats of audio and video media. TVersity also allows users to tune streaming video from the Internet, a feature which is in very limited support in most mainstream media hubs and servers.
A media hub is not a full-fledged PC. Full-fledged PCs can run a variety of different "media center" applications, which enable features such as tuning and controlling live television (pause, rewind as well as channel tuning) and connecting to audio and display systems to output in a variety of formats compatible with home entertainment systems. These PCs are coordinated hardware and software systems that have built-in cable tuners and audio/video outputs. Many manufacturers are selling PCs with Windows Media Center Edition 2005 on them, which is a full-featured media center built on top of the regular Windows operating system. More adventurous users may add a couple parts to a regular computer, install Linux, and run a very robust media center application such as MythTV
, which offers a full-featured media center experience.
There are several problems with full-blown media center PCs. First, they are PCs. Although they are powerfully cool machines, they are big and bulky. Very nice media center PC cases are coming out to fit the machines into your entertainment center better, but even these super-slick cases suffer from the second major problem with media center PCs: They cost as much as a "real" computer. While families often have more than one television, we are only just entering the age of multi-computer families. A family might buy a second computer and keep the first around, but very few folks are rebuilding old systems into Linux-based media centers. And even if the new computer runs Windows Media Center Edition, odds are it's not being located in the living room or by the kitchen TV.
For the average home, while a media center PC might be part of the mix, the media hub device is a more likely candidate for sitting on top of the entertainment center. And if you want to tune your audio or video from your computer when you're in a different room, then a media hub is a definitely preferred method for extending the range of your media collection. And in this situation, the Xbox 360 Core System finds itself a big fish in a small pond.The Xbox 360 Core System as media hub
For dedicated gamers, there is only one Xbox 360 system. It comes with a hard drive and a wireless controller and it costs $399. Anyone who wants to play their old Xbox games or download indy games, retro games, demos and game trailers from Xbox Live, needs the hard drive. And everyone knows the future is wireless. Gamers are pretty much unanimous in their support for the wireless controller.
So many have wondered where exactly the "Core System" of the Xbox 360 fits: It features no hard drive and a wired controller. It costs $100 less, but the hard drive alone costs that much to buy separately. For gamers, the obvious value is to spend the extra money initially and save money in the long run. But it's just as likely that the Core System is not aimed at gamers as much as home entertainment enthusiasts.
At $299, the Xbox 360 Core System fits right into the price ranges seen in the media hub market. The D-Link DSM-320 series is cheaper, coming in at between $150-200 for a wifi enabled media hub. The DSM-320 is a decent unit, but not nearly as solid as most users would like, and the media server software is pretty terrible. Most D-Link owners use TVersity or Twonkyvision. Other media hubs include Philips' Streamium, Linksys' WMCE54AG, and Showcenter 200. These all sell for between $250-350.
The Core System does everything that the standard Xbox 360 package can do, except it has no hard drive. In fact, at $400 the standard 360 is not much more expensive than most media hubs and half the price of a decent media center PC (with a much nicer case). But the Core System will handle media hub duties just fine, and will connect to any PC running Windows Media Connect as a media server. The Xbox 360 will also extend the functions of a Windows Media Center PC, and all of these features are detailed in our article about the Xbox 360 media features
.Comparing the Xbox 360 Core System to other media hubs
Many of the aforementioned media hubs have been approved by Microsoft and are fully compatible with MS Windows Media Digital Rights Management. That means they can connect to services like Napster and Rhapsody as well as use some different streaming and pay-per-view systems found online. Each hub varies a bit in which specific services it supports. Many of the hubs will work with Windows Media Connect
, which is better than some of the other companies' media server applications.
However, there are better media server packages out there. A package like TVersity is much more useful than Windows Media Connect because it offers the ability to tune online streams as well as live transcoding to make more formats playable on all media hubs. There are media servers available for all platforms, too, so if your household is mainly Linux or Mac oriented, that factor could be an instant stopper.
Another downfall of the 360 is its wired network card. A wireless add-on is available, but adds to the cost. Most other media hubs support both wired and wireless network connections out of the box. It's really not practical to string ethernet cable all over your house, and with advances in wifi speeds it's not at all necessary: Wifi is fast enough.
The Xbox 360 is also limited in its capabilities when connecting to a PC using Windows Media Connect. Other media hubs that work with Windows Media Connect allow you to view video streamed from your computer's hard drive on the television. The Xbox 360 does not let you stream video from a computer on your home network unless the computer is using Windows Media Center Edition 2005.
So if you do not have a computer running Windows Media Center Edition 2005 on your home network, then you will get better service from another media hub (such as the D-Link or Philips models). But if you're fortunate enough to live in a household with a Windows Media Center Edition 2005 PC, then the Xbox 360 becomes a very attractive option.
The Xbox 360 will connect to the Media Center Edition PC and serves as an extender for the Windows Media Center operating system. Users can play video over the network from the PC and they can view Windows Media compatible streams from the Internet. Users can even install applications to the Windows Media Center interface, which then makes them able to run from the Xbox 360 Dashboard. It can't belong before a variety of emulators and indy games are supported, creating a sort of underground arcade community.
When coupled with a Media Center Edition PC, there is nothing that beats the Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender (that's what MS likes to call media hubs that connect to Windows Media Center Edition). The 360 does, after all, offer the significant "extra features" of playing videogames and DVDs, as well as facilitating voice (and soon, video) chat with anyone else using the Xbox 360. None of the other media hubs offer even the ability to play DVDs, let alone the next-generation gaming experience. This is enough to make it preferable to pretty much every other media hub except the D-Link DSM-320, which features significantly more convenient media browsing, much more robust video capabilities (especially using TVersity), and is half the price. The competition
While Xbox 360 is really the only choice for anyone looking to extend the media features of their Windows Media Center Edition PC, and is a good option for most other cases, it is by no means the only choice. In fact, the most threatening competition for the title of "best media hub" is actually Microsoft's former golden boy: The Xbox.
The Xbox was hacked and modded early on in its life, and while the latest versions of the console are much more difficult to modify, most consoles already owned by Xbox gamers require a simple software modification to transform into the ultimate media center. Pre-modded systems can be had for as little as $300. Until the launch of the 360, users were hesitant to experiment with their Xboxes, and the fact that modifying your Xbox negates your ability to connect to Xbox Live also prevented many dedicated Xbox owners from modifications. But now that so many die-hard Xbox owners have a mostly useless black box taking up space in their closet, the Xbox Media Center is an option for more people than ever before.Xbox Media Center
, or XBMC, is an open source project dedicated to creating the greatest media center software out there. The community surrounding XBMC is very active, and the software is incredible. It features current weather conditions, integration with different emulation software, and in exhaustive list of supported formats. XBMC can run from the Xbox (many people upgrade their hard drives for extra media storage), or it can function as a media hub by connecting to the XBMC media server running on a local PC.
At a cost of virtually zero dollars, most current Xbox owners can transform their old system into the ultimate media hub. The package is remarkably tidy, and this kind of use could keep first generation Xbox hardware circulating for many years to come. And with projects such as Free360 underway, we can expect to see similar projects on the 360 in coming years. The centralized media experience
We hope that eventually media hubs will continue to integrate with our DVRs and cable tuners. We have no doubt that the home media server is a better option than shelves full of physical media. The kids can't scratch the DVDs after playing them 1000 times and we can watch our recorded television or streaming video from any location with a media hub. Centralizing music and video collections on a hard drive also makes it easier to share those files among members of the family, which is the most efficient way to deal with a media collection stored on hard disc drives. The future is now, even if it does suffer form the occasional network congestion.
Microsoft understands this paradigm shift: The centralized server model of home entertainment is here to stay, and Microsoft has already created the quite good Windows Media Center Edition operating system as a way of embracing the future. The remaining piece Microsoft has needed is a good first-party tuner. WebTV didn't cut it, but Xbox has a whole lot going for it. The Xbox 360 is more to Microsoft than a simple gaming console: It is a gateway into a personalized media experience. Microsoft hopes to be at the center of that experience for as many people as possible.