Friday, February 6, 2009

XBOX 360, Windows Media Center and Streaming Movies

Last weekend I decided to try setting up my Xbox 360 to play media stored on a separate server. While doing so I discovered a few tidbits that weren't obvious or clearly spelled out. I've got a "spare" laptop running Windows Vista Ultimate in my office. While I could move it down to the family room next to the T.V. it won't pass the WAF. No problem, I've got the house wired for networking so I'll just leave the PC where it is and run it from there through the Xbox using the Media Center Extender I've read about.

The first step I took was to go into the Media Center UI and add a "watched folder" (Tasks / Settings / Library Setup / Add Folder to Watch) for the shared folder I had already setup on the server. At this point, I can browse the library, select a movie and play it right there on the PC - so far so good.

To configure the Xbox to see the Media Center PC you have to "validate" the network settings on the Xbox. In my case, it couldn't "see" the Media Center PC. The troubleshooting section mentioned the game console and MPC have to be on "the same network". I suspect they mean the same network segment - it must be sending out a UDP broadcast. In my case the home wired network is 192.168.1.x but in the family room I also have a wireless access point with 4 Ethernet ports on the back which I've connected the Xbox to. The wireless router happens to be doling out 192.168.3.x addresses and sure enough, that's the IP the console has been assigned. Moving the Xbox off the wireless router and over to a wall plug on the "main" network segment (192.168.1.x) magically cured the problem.

Now I can go into the MCE menu on the Xbox and I'm seeing the blue UI for MCE - seems to be remotely controlling the MCE UI - cool! However, going into the video library, I can't see any movies. I next try "adding" the shared folder again but it can't even see the other server. Hmm...After hunting around I find a Microsoft KB article (932306) and learn that MCE has created a local user account named MCX1 when I added the extender. Ah ha! This local machine account on the MPC doesn't have permission to see/browse the shared folder on the server. Rather than mucking around with domain accounts I set up a local account on the server and grant permissions. Back on the MPC I create a batch script to map a shared drive letter using the account credentials I just set up on the server. I then changed the MCX1 account to assign this as the logon script and reboot to be safe. Now when the Xbox talks to the MCE service, the MCX1 account that's used can get to the server share.

At this point it looks like things are working. I can go into the Media Center menu on the Xbox and see the video library with the list of movies. Try to play one and...oops, unable to play. Digging around on the Internet I find out that the Xbox can't decode the Divx format - it only likes good ol' WMV encoded movies. Sigh. I chose Divx thinking it was a higher quality, better compression format that was more likely to be supported by a wide variety of devices. I then run across a couple of posts in forums indicating that this is a known problem but that you can stream from Windows Media Player just as well and that it transcodes and supports more formats. Instead of going into the fancy Windows Media Center menu on the Xbox and remotely controlling the MCE on the Media Center PC, you can choose the plain-looking green "Video Library" menu option and access the shared media library via the Windows Media Player route. Voila, movies now stream to the T.V. through the Xbox. No more getting up and swapping DVDs or worrying about scratches!

So why did the Media Center PC play the movies on the PC but Xbox wouldn't? Because I had installed the Divx player and codecs on the PC, it "knew" how to decode the format and play. Seems the Xbox can "control" the MCE remotely but the movie is sent down to the Xbox where it attempts to decode and play on the console. However, the Windows Media Player sharing automatically transcodes the movies on the fly while sending them to the Xbox.

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