Archive for June, 2014

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Microsoft currently has two multimedia platforms, one is full featured and one if floundering.

  • Windows Media Center
  • Xbox 360 Media Center Extender
  • Xbox One

What is Windows Media Center:

Windows Media Center is a Microsoft add-on for Windows 8.x that brings advanced DVR and multimedia capabilities to your windows PC.  This is not the same as what your “geek” brother, friend, co-worker swore about in 1999 as being the greatest thing ever!  No this is real, it is well designed, simple to use, easy to navigate and like all great things from Microsoft, has a 3rd party API so that hardware and software vendors can build on top of it and make it better.

There are a few “requirements” your Windows PC needs to possess in order for it to record HDTV from your cable company on your Windows PC. 

  1. It must have a dual core CPU at 2.5GHz or faster
  2. It must have at least 4 Gigabytes of memory
  3. A hard disk big enough to store 1080/720 HDTV

So, assuming you purchased your computer with Windows Vista already installed on it, all you would need is to purchase add one device to your existing home network.

  1. Internal (PCIe) or External (Ethernet) CableLabs certified Tuner
  2. (rent) A CableCard supplied by your Cable Company

A quality no-fuss HDTV cable tuner that supports recording 6 simultaneous shows can be purchased from Ceton Corp for about $240 or you can opt for a 3 tuner model from SiliconDust for under $150.  Once you have one of these cable tuners, just run the Media Center setup, select your cable provider and turn on your Xbox 360.

Add to that a CableCard from your Cable Company and you are ready to record!

Monthly Cable Bill

If you have 3 televisions at home, you likely have 3 cable boxes and or DVRs, you also have your monthly premium tv subscription.  Si many cable companies charge you the following monthly fees:

  • Cable Box rental (x3)
  • DVR upgrade fee (x3)
  • TV Basic and Premium Channels

With Windows Media Center on your Windows Computer recording between 3 or 6 channels with ONE cable card, you pay one fee for all your televisions.

  • Cable Card rental fee (1 card supports up to 6 simultaneous premium hdtv recordings)
  • TV Basic and Premium Channels

So if your premium television package costs $50 a month, and your Media Center CableCard costs you $6 a months you pay $56 a month, vs over $140 a months for your 3 DVRs plus subscriptions.

Heck, I can control my Media Center and it’s recordings from my Phone with the Ceton My Media Center App for anywhere in the world!

But what if you don’t want to watch television on your PC!?

That’s where the Media Center Extender comes in.  Media Center Extender comes on every Xbox 360 (no, it’s not available on the Xbox One) and allows your networked home PC running Windows Media Center to extend it’s screen/user interface to your television — how many televisions?  Well, as many as you can afford, because an Xbox 360 is required for each television.

This Media Center Extender (MCX) functionality comes one every Xbox 360 and isn’t quite what it at first appears to be.  You see, MCX is actually running on your home PC and not on the Xbox 360, the 360 is used to extend your Windows Media Center to external screens — in this case an HDTV.    Just use the $20 Multi Media Remote control from Microsoft, don’t worry, you don’t have to use your “joystick,” to navigate your recorded shows, television guide/listings, DVD movies, music, photo slideshows and videos stored on your computer — on any Xbox 360 on your network.

Since all the content is recorded and technically played securely behind Microsoft and CableLabs developed DRM on the PC it was recorded on, you can record as many shows as you like in once central location in your home and play those shows back anywhere in your home.

The Xbox 360 can even act as a DLNA receiver to play other content form your PC, tablets or smartphones too.

That brings us to the Xbox One:

The Xbox One does have the MCX interface built into it. In fact, you can only use the Microsoft “Play To” or “Share To” feature to push video or music from your computer to your television.  That means, if you want to share a video on your PC in your den with your family in the living room, you have to rush back and forth to start the playback of the video.

To be fare, the Xbox does have an HDMI pass-through port to pass through television recorded on your cable operator supplied DVR through your Xbox One — you know, so your Xbox One can be on your televisions “Input 1” – ROTFL! However, that interface leaves much to be desired.  To watch television through your Xbox One you must not only navigate the Xbox One menus and guides, but you must also navigate the menus and guides from Xfinity, Time Warner, Cox etc.  There is no bypassing it and it gets messy really fast. (the team lead must have suffered a brain hemorrhage when he thought of using this tired and broken in/out video past hrough – HDMI doesn’t make it any better than 8 analog cables for video and audio, it still pass through!)

If you thought having a remote control for your DVD player, TV and cable box was messy, it aint nothing compared to this!  Oh, but I can “talk to my TV” instead, yea. right. do so and you’ll see your cable box put channel numbers on your screen seconds before the channel changes.

ITunes and Apple Store

So why did Microsoft not include Media Center Extender in the Xbox One?  Because the age of getting your content from whomever you choose is going away.  Ever since Apple tied the purchasing of music to their iTunes for the iPod, our choice to shop for content has been going away.

Microsoft see’s this trend and has watched as consumers quickly gave up the ability to buy products from an open market.  Why should Microsoft create a TV platform where they make no monthly revenue when they can charge you to rent or buy movies from Xbox services?

There is still time to turn things around.  There is nothing on the Xbox One preventing it from becoming a Media Center Extender.  It has DRM built in.  It has a more than fast enough processor, it supports HDTV 1080p output, supports explainable hard disk storage via USB 3.0, it has gigabyte Ethernet and Wifi — there is nothing stopping Microsoft from adding the existing MCX architecture to the Xbox One, and there isn’t anything preventing Microsoft from at least adding live TV streaming from a networked TV tuner directly to the Xbox One and thereby bypassing the cable supplied DVR and HDMI pass through, (just like the Xbox 360 to 360 Slim, or the PS3 to PS3 Slim, these non-used ports can be removed as needed).

How would Microsoft benefit from re-launching Windows Media Center?

Look no company is going to introduce something, anything if they are not going to benefit from it. Either directly or indirectly.

The simple math shows that Microsoft can not only make lots of money by selling the software, but they can once again, easily and quickly, have domain over the biggest screens in ones homes and apartments — the TV.  Microsoft makes money on Windows upgrades, not on new PC sales.  If people are doing more and more of their computing on their phones, tablets and laptops, they no longer feel the need to upgrade the operating system of their aging computer….  Give them a reason to upgrade, give them value they have already committed to — such as the high cost of cable.

With gazillions of users still on Windows 7 its obvious they are not in a rush to upgrade and Windows 8.2 or Windows 9/Threshold, isn’t going to encourage them to upgrade either — why upgrade the PC when it works well enough for web surfing or banging out a document in Word? 

Apple is rumored to be coming out with an Apple TV, Google has their Chromecast and Android TV. One of the three is vaporware and nothing more than a dream or an idea, and the others from Google play on the ignorance of consumers that they have been able to stream/push videos to their smart televisions and bluray players since Windows Vista and it’s only got better with Windows 7, Windows 8 and now 8.1!   

If Microsoft was able to give users a reason to re-purpose their aging computers and upgrade them with $300 worth of hardware and $xx for a Windows Media Center 8.1 “Upgrade” then Microsoft would again make money on current and future upgrades.  In addition to the simple math of upgrading the operating system, Microsoft could make money that is now going to cable pay-per-view, and streaming movie rentals and purchases — they just need to add it to the existing Extender interface and everyone wins.

Why do I think this is possible?

Because everything I have stated above already exists.  The licenses with the cable companies are already in place, the cable television guides are already procured by Microsoft around the world, “everyone” has a PC already, everyone already commits a large portion of their monthly cable tv bill to rental fees and dvr fees.  Customers want “new features” brought to them by fancy new DVRs such as the Xfinity X1 and X2 — these “new devices” barely scratch the surface of what I can do with Windows Media Center Today.

Go Retro!

First there was Windows XP Media Center 2005, it was complex and could only be sold on new specially designed personal computers. They were big, ugly and nobody wanted to put a tower PC under or next to their television — no one.

Now even the thinnest and lightest tablet computers running Windows 8.1 can record and stream live cable HDTV to a tablet — I can get my Dell Venue 8 Pro to stream recorded HDTV flawlessly, and live HDTV nearly as flawlessly on my home network.  You don’t need a huge powerful box or a geek to install a TV tuner card and set up the system.  My 80 year old mother has set her Windows 7/8 Media Center with Ceton tuner herself!!! 

The first Windows Tablet PC was big and clunky and wasn’t well received. Then Apple enlarges their iPhone and turn it into an iPad and the world falls quickly in love. 

Don’t allow this to happen again and allow Google and Apple to come out with their television based products.  They are no doubt working very hard behind the scenes to get favorable licensing deals with the television and cable networks.  Who know when they will launch, but they will launch and they already have the momentum needed.

If Microsoft were to play the Media Center hand now they would win the game

  1. Launch the Windows 8.1 Media Center w/Bing operating system as a free or cheap upgrade
  2. Add Media Center Extender support to the Xbox One
  3. Simultaneously add support for live HDTV via networked cable tuners for the Xbox One (no HDMI cable box needed)
  4. Work with OEM partners, VARs and Geek Squad, etc to create bundled packages of hardware and software

This is all very possible and within Microsoft’s grasp.  It is a shame that Microsoft owns every piece of the puzzle to enter the living room, they have it TODAY and yet, they are handing over any lead currently held to Apple, Google and likely Sony.

microsoft_surface_phone_8_by_yronimus-d54trfa

The current rumor going around is that Microsoft is going to rename their Surface tablets as Lumia’s.

I don’t know if this is indeed going to happen and if so, when and for what reasons, but this is what I could see happening going forward.

First, it is very difficult to trademark a name or brand in one country, let alone trademark one on a worldwide basis.  Look no further way than last year when Microsoft was forced to rename their cloud storage service, SkyDrive to OneDrive because Sky TV fought in court that the name SkyDrive belonged to them, and or it would confuse their customer base.

We can also go back to Microsoft naming their new tablet PC products as “Surface.”  Surface is a trademark held by Microsoft and used for their tabletop computers with 4 foot touch screens.  But that all changed when Microsoft surprised the world with their Surface and Surface Pro tablet PCs.

It was easier for Microsoft to use an existing trademark they already owned and enforced worldwide than create a new name for their first personal computers.   While the Surface computer was well known by news executives and weather-persons at top market news stations and a handful of geeks, the name or word Surface wasn’t used by the every day person on the street.

So, this brings me to 2014 and Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia.  With Nokia, came the Lumia brand/trademark.  Other than people, it is the one thing we understand that Microsoft got with the purchase of the mobile division. 

As stated above, it is much easier to take an existing brand name you already have trademarked around the globe and reuse it, rather than start again from scratch — that takes time, and Microsoft is nearly out of time.

So loosely, Lumia is already used by Nokia to represent their Windows Phones and ARM based tablet running Windows RT — both platforms use the ARM architecture to power the Lumia devices.

Microsoft’s Surface however, is used for both Windows 8.x tablet PCs running on the Intel x86-64 architecture, such as the initial Surface Pro, Surface Pro 2 and the new Surface Pro 3.  However, Microsoft’s ARM based Surface and Surface 2 run the Windows on ARM variation of Windows 8.x and can run the new Windows 8 apps, but not the Windows “desktop” programs so many expect a Windows PC to run.

To cut out some of the confusion, Microsoft would be smart to leverage the Lumia brand they just acquired from Nokia and apply that brand to all ARM based Windows phones, tablets and personal computers (should the future bring such a PC).

So, could the future of Windows Phone and ARM based Windows be branded as Lumia, while the Surface brand is reserved for x86?  That certainly makes more sense then continuing a loosing battle to market both or Microsoft’s tablet as Pro and “non-Pro.”

ed: look at Samsung, they have “Galaxy” for Android and “ATIV”, a word I still don’t know how to pronounce, still haven’t heard anyone speak in a television commercial and I can’t remember; and they use it as their “brand” all of their Windows Phones, tablets and laptops — no wonder thieir PC sales are down and Lenovo’s PC sales are up (hint: ThinkPad and Yoga)

Xbox_One_Guide

Well, the competition between Microsoft’s next generation Xbox One, vs the Sony PlayStation 4 is already underway and it looks like, at least for now, that Sony is taking the lead — and is only looking in their rearview mirror.

That said, the real next generation console war might just be between Microsoft’s current Xbox One and the next version of the Nintendo Wii.

It is common knowledge that Nintendo is already working on a successor to the Wii-U, and it is only logical that Nintendo takes the best intellectual properties used in the Xbox One and PS4 and designs their next Wii console on the backs of Microsoft and Sony.

I don’t know anything about what the next generation Wii console will feature or what new and exciting “gimmick” they may introduce — but I’m betting that Nintendo will need NO gimmick because it will be designed for breathtaking high definition game play.

The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are great game consoles, but it is clear to everyone that neither of the two has lived up to the users expectations.  The game play is better, but it’s not drastically better than when users went from the PS2 to PS3 or the Xbox to the Xbox 360 — no, the gameplay is subtly better at best.

Sure both platforms have added socializing capabilities, share video gameplay with your friends and online, you can even receive a Skype call during game play or watch the World Cup in the corner of your screen while playing Halo.

These things are all good, but both companies made some compromises on the hardware this time around.  Gone are the PowerPC and Cell cores on the previous generation consoles and gone is the independent graphics chips supplied by AMD/ATI and NVidia.  Now both the Microsoft and Sony consoles use an x86-64 bit APU which includes “8 Jaguar cores” and graphics unit.

Sony’s implementation is slightly more complex than what is found in the Xbox One, but they are architecturally “twins” – fraternal twins, but still twins in my opinion.

Both the One and PS4 are held back not just on graphics as everyone in the industry keep pointing to, but ultimately they are both held back equally or more so by the AMD designed Jaguar x86-64 cores.  Don’t get me wrong, I love AMD’s APUs and I use them in ever PC build I do, but they are not the best for gameplay and today’s games are more than just pushing fancy images to the screen.  They need great compute units to support the graphics and push gameplay further than currently possible.

So while I secretly wish that Microsoft is quickly prepping the “Xbox One.5” that includes AMDs next, Excavator architecture Carrizo APU with updated cores and graphics, I’m not holding out much hope for that product just yet. 

Sony is in the number one spot and while they could come out with a PlayStation 5 based on the next gen Excavator Carrizo APUs from AMD, it isn’t likely either since they are “winning” this generation of console wars.

But what is more likely, is that Nintendo comes out with a new 3rd generation Wii console that leapfrogs both the Xbox One and PS4.  This “Wii-3” could take one of two approaches the way I see it.

  • 8 core Puma based core
    Discrete AMD Graphics Next GPU

or they could build

  • 6 core Intel x86-64
    Discrete AMD Graphics Next GPU

If released today, either of these two “Wii-3” platforms could easily best both the Xbox One and PS4, in both graphics and compute units.  At the same time, both of these designs share the same core architecture with none of their weaknesses.  Game developers could easily and quickly port their games over to the new Wii-3 platform because it performs much quicker in every respect.

New games could be written to take advantage of the faster hardware and showcase true next generation gaming — the gaming that doesn’t need a side-by-side demonstration to show how improved the graphics and gameplay is.

Fast forward a year and Nintendo could release the all AMD Puma system, currently with discrete graphics with a new and improved APU which would save them manufacturing costs, but would also bring the cost of the system back down to the same pricing as Sony’s and Microsoft’s.

This isn’t far fetched.  The home console gaming market doesn’t need another gimmick, it needs quality games, quality next generation games that both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are having trouble delivering.

Gamers don’t need gimmicks like snap-screens, HDMI pass-through, numb chucks, or glowing remotes, they want a gaming experience equal to or better than what they see in movie theaters.  That is NEXT GEN.