Microsoft already allows customers to stream media through devices it calls Media Center Extenders, and it has in the past sold a kit to make Xbox work with Media Center PCs. But the new software will make Xbox a peer in such arrangements and will for the first time include the ability to stream high-definition content. Xbox 360 consoles with special Media Center Extender technology will ship later this year.
The move could help promote sales of both Xbox and Media Center PCs, as Microsoft continues to link its products into a larger home entertainment plan, which still relies on the PC.
"The strategy here is quite simple. We want to create an environment based on Windows that will give consumers...the ability to take their content to any device that was connected back to a Windows PC. (Adding) the Xbox 360 is just the next evolution of that vision," said Brad Brooks, senior director of product management in Microsoft's Windows client division.
"In past extender experiences, we haven't been able to bring over the full navigation, 3D graphics and (user interface) experience on a Media Center. With an Xbox 360 you get all of that," he said.
The software update, called Update Rollup 2 for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, will support external DVD changers, so that users can manage up to 200 movies through Media Center interface, Brooks said. Media Center-supported DVD changers will be available beginning this year.
In addition, a new feature, called Away Mode, adds a consumer electronics-like on-off function to Media Center PCs. Away Mode enables the system to silently perform unattended tasks ? such as recording TV shows and streaming content to Media Center Extenders ? in a low-power mode that makes the PC appear off. Away Mode will be available on select new Media Center PCs in upcoming months from partners Acer, Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Gateway, HP, Phillips, Samsung and Shuttle.
Microsoft will also add new DVD-burning capabilities and will add support for additional high-definition TV tuners.
Updates to the Sonic Solutions DVD burning engine will improve the performance and capabilities of DVD burning in Media Center Edition. Consumers will be able to convert high-definition TV shows to standard definition and burn to a DVD all in one step, as well as burn to a DVD from other PCs on their home network.
Update Rollup 2 adds support for one more HDTV tuner, meaning it will support up to four tuners: two analog and two ATSC high definition. U.S. customers will be able to use two NTSC (analog) capture boards and two ATSC (digital) capture boards. This will enable personal video recording of two shows at the same time, broadcast as either ATSC digital TV (480p) or high-definition TV (720p/1080i).
Microsoft also plans to announce new deals with content providers to develop programming available to Media Center users. New to the list are: additional MTV and VH1 content, along with MTV Overdrive and a broadband video channel; the AOL Pictures digital photo service and AOL Radio featuring XM; the Akimbo Service, which offers more than 5,000 programs from the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery, as well as Major League Baseball playoff games; and two gaming services: Game xStream and Discover Games. The software update will be available as a free download for Media Center users on Friday from the company's Windows Update site. New PCs with the updated software installed should arrive at retailers by this weekend.