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MICROSOFT HAS JUST SCREWED OVER SOME OF ITS CUSTOMERS!

I’ve had a rough draft of a review for the Xbox One’s digital tuner sitting in my drafts folder for over a year now.  I just never got around to finishing the article, and at a certain point it seemed logical to just wait and review both the tuner and the DVR when the promised DVR features are enabled in 2016 (presumably after E3 next week.)  Well today it was announced that Microsoft is abandoning their plans for the XBOX  ONE to have a DVR.  And I am pretty frickin’ angry at them over it.

For fans of Windows Media Center, things have been a bit grim for a while.  WMC has been ignored, become buggy, and finally the word came down from Redmond that Windows Media Center would be no more.  Regular readers also know that I was TERRIBLY DISSAPOINTED by the multimedia features of the Xbox One when it came out in 2013.  Of course, that assumes that this site has anything resembling a ‘regular reader’.

For a while, it looked like Microsoft had a few plans that will restore to the Xbox One some of the features of the Xbox360 when used with Media Center.  Streaming my music library (after it has been uploaded to OneDrive) and supposedly supporting FLAC after Windows 10’s release looked like promising improvements – but never lived up to their potential in my own testing .  Dolby Digital has been added to Blu-Ray playback and now there is the ability to watch live television – so gee-whiz the XB1 finally does the job of $65 blu-ray player and a $15 HDTV antenna.  Not bad for my initial $499 investment on day one.  Then in 2015 Microsoft promised us that the Xbox One will get DVR functionality within the next year.  Even a die hard WMC fan such as myself would have had to admit that having DVR right on the console would have been a big plus over the old server-client design that was used with WMC and the Xbox360.

As soon as the promised DVR was announced I went out and purchased the TV Tuner.  It is a usb tuner from Hauppauge that retails for roughly $60.  (Yes, it was stupid of me to buy something in anticipation of a future functionality.  I know – but I was excited.)

Gee - it's been a while since we had live TV...is Lassie still on the air?

Gee – it’s been a while since we had live TV…is Lassie still on the air?

Nonetheless, I picked one up and decided to give it a test run.  My enthusiasm for the tuner stemmed from the promise that if the XB1 added DVR, then it would become the only streaming device that can do live TV, Amazon Prime, HBO, HULU and Netflix.  (For a meager $300 more than it’s closest rivals – the Apple TV and the Roku.)  Fortunately, I didn’t spend the extra $99 for another external hard drive which Microsoft specified would be necessary to enable the DVR features.

The tuner sets up easily and does deliver a good live picture.  I’ve used it twice, to watch the Superbowl.  Other than that – without a DVR –  it is a paperweight.

I have been a Microsoft fanboy for years, but this may be the last straw for me.  The Xbox One is a descent gaming machine, but is only as good for home theater use as a $40 Roku streaming stick.  Quite frankly, I’m not even super impressed with the games anymore and have been spending more time on Steam than Xbox Live.  I think that a Steam Link may be in my future and Microsoft will have to work pretty damn hard to get my loyalty back.

Microsoft – the hardware is there, the tuner is there, the OTA programming guides are there – why won’t you finish the job??  This was a promised feature and some of us spent money on the tuner.  Personally, I feel they ought to initiate a refund program to allow people to get some kind of credit for their old tuners (or their new paperweights – either way you want to look at it).

So in the final analysis – the Xbox One digital tuner is a DON’T BUY item.  Without the DVR features, it is no better than a cheap HDTV antenna.

 

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This is going to be an article that is only of interest to a very obscure subset of music listeners…and you should only read on if you meet the following criteria:

  1. Your music collection is in some form of Lossless Codec – FLAC, WMA-Lossless, ALAC.
  2. You want to stream lossless audio from your OneDrive account to your phone – and you don’t care about data consumption – OR you want lossless at home and want to stream the same collection of music to a mobile device using the same set of playlists.
  3. You might own some 24-bit music – such as albums bought at HDTracks.
  4. You actually think there is a difference between a high-quality mp3 and lossless or HD Audio. (Dear Commenters – I don’t want to wade into this debate, even if it is for the placebo effect – just let us audio snobs be happy playing with our toys.)
  5. If pushed, you are willing to batch convert your FLAC files to WMA-Lossless or whatever format necessary to achieve your audio happiness dreams.

With the launch of Windows 10 and Groove Music I had some hope that there might finally be a music streaming option that allowed me to do the following:

  1. Stream my own lossless music collection from the cloud to any player I want (i.e. through OneDrive).
  2. Use my XBOX One to do home music playback in 24-bit audio.
  3. Have the same playlists on my home PC, iPhone (or any mobile device), and the XBOX One.

Since Windows Media Center has been depreciated (and has become buggy as heck), I have switched our home music setup to use iTunes and the Apple TV 3.  I discuss that here in an earlier article where I test if OneDrive would work with Apple Lossless Audio.

Before converting my entire FLAC collection to WMA-Lossless I decided to do some testing first.  I uploaded the following Albums to OneDrive (via Windows 10).  None of the albums have any kind of DRM or Copy Protection in their files that would interfere with playback.

 

Table

Let’s be clear here: I have never ever made any claims to possess good taste in music.

All of these albums play fine in the Groove Desktop application.  I do want to note here that the upload times for OneDrive do seem to have improved (albeit anecdotally) since my last test.  And it is important to mention that – as one reader commented in a previous article – Windows 10 natively supports FLAC.  YEA!  Microsoft has also claimed that Groove would stream WMA Lossless and that it would play back the file just like it is in your cloud drive. (Click Here for the page that I clipped the following caption from. Note: on my PC the link would not work with Chrome, but would on the new Windows 10 Edge browser.)

Bitrateclaim

The image above is from Microsoft’s website.

To ensure that the files had plenty of time to be recognized and found on whatever systems they needed – I waited until the albums showed up in both the Groove web app and the iPhone app.  That is where the first disappointment happened.  Sorry Shakira, neither the web app nor the iPhone app can even SEE a FLAC file album.  Again, MSFT never explicitly claimed that the Groove Web App nor the iPhone app would support FLAC.  However, I was hoping that the inclusion of FLAC in Windows 10 would signal the desire to allow that file format to permeate the rest of the Windows ecosystem.  The fact that the web application does not include FLAC support is a sign that ecosystem wide FLAC support may have been wishful thinking on my part.

I then used the web app to play songs from the three WMA-Lossless albums.

Bad news there, the 24-bit albums would not play –at all – either of them – and the web app generates the following error:

GrooveError

D-OH!

The 16-bit lossless (Def Leppard’s Hysteria) played just fine in the Groove Web app.  I cannot vouch for the quality (especially given my desktop’s speakers) – but it played.

Next I tried the iPhone app.  My original plan for this article was to test to see if the music was truly being streamed in lossless audio.  I was planning to use this method (CLICK LINK HERE) to determine if the file was being down-sampled.  However my experiment ended up testing something much more basic.  Does the Groove mobile app play lossless music AT ALL?

Again, like the web application the Groove iPhone app would not open a 24bit 88mhz song (WMA Lossless) and did not recognize FLAC files.

It did open and begin to play standard 16bit 44mhz files in WMA Lossless.  My first test was with the song “Hysteria” from the Def Leppard album.  The song is 40.8MB on the disc.  It played half of the song and then mysteriously restarted.  It would not play the entire song – even a second listen.  Since I had already reset my cellular data counter, I checked it and the phone had downloaded over cellular a total of 9.6MB.

To make sure that it wasn’t a corrupted file, I tried another song: “Don’t Shoot Shotgun”  – 31.8MB on Disc.  Again it hiccupped and repeated before the song was over.  Twice.

I’d say the Groove app only poured only one-third of a cup of sugar on me…get it?  C’mon!  I love puns!!

I then turned on Wifi to see if it would work better with a faster data connection.  The problem of not playing an entire song persisted.

At this point discovering if Groove is providing lossless streaming was moot.  It wouldn’t stream an entire song to my mobile device.

That being said there is a potential confounding variable here.  Maybe it’s my iPhone.  If anyone else has experimented with Lossless WMA on the iPhone or Android apps – PLEASE leave a helpful comment below.

To be thorough, I tried one more thing.  I went to my basement movie room, where my XBOX One lives and tried the Groove Music app.  It did not see the FLAC Shakira album – but I am hoping that will change with the November Update, when the XBONE gets Windows 10.  It did however, play all of the WMA Lossless files in their entirety and it sounded good!  I do not have the technical wherewithal to test whether I was getting the full 24-bit HD Audio experience, nor did I do any side by side comparisons with other sources (such as an HTPC or Apple TV in the same room)– but it sounded good.

At this point, I feel that the Groove music system is improving, but still has some hurdles to overcome.  Honestly, I don’t care much whether a music locker service streams to my mobile device in lossless audio.  Cars and my gym headphones are not ideal listening environments and so the quality improvement would be unnoticeable (it may be anyway) – not to mention that 24bit albums are a HUGE amount of data to stream to a phone.  At home however, it would be nice to know that I am getting the best audio experience that my equipment can deliver, and in good faith I do believe that the Xbox One is now capable of streaming 24bit HD audio to a home sound system.  Ideally, I would like to have one set of playlists on a single service that would sync between my home lossless audio and my mobile experience.

Apple’s iCloud/iTunes Match does this fairly well with some limits.  Through iTunes match it delivers to my mobile device lossy audio versions from my music collection.  However, at home (where the audio quality arguably matters more), it can stream lossless from the PC to the Apple TV3.  That lossless audio, however, is limited to and down sampled to 16bit playback.

A few more random thoughts and responses:

Why not use TIDAL?

Simple – no Apple TV or XBOX app and I don’t want to Airplay to my Apple TV – it seems to introduce too many connections and variables for me to believe I’m getting top quality sound.  Plus, what about the 24-bit audio in my collection?  An Apple TV or XBOX app would probably have me look to Tidal as the simplest solution.

Dude, you put a lot of thought into this – and you probably can’t hear the difference over using Spotify or any other music service.

Yup, but like I said – even if it is the placebo effect, it makes me happy to think that I am getting the best music experience I can.  When I do side by side testing with my friends using an MP3 and a 24bit – 88khz versions of the same song on my best stereo equipment most of them can guess correctly which is which.  That being said, here is a well-researched article that savagely and completely dismantles arguments for HD Audio (LINK).  My argument for lossless and HD Audio is not really that it sounds better, but that it – maybe through marketing or placebo effect – it makes me happier to have cool toys and cool audio files.

What Next?

I’m going to wait for two developments that I hope will move one of the two ecosystems (Apple or Groove) closer to my dream goal of one-streaming-setup-to-rule them all.

Development One – in November the new Xbox One update will occur and may add FLAC support since it is based in Windows 10.  (Its getting a DVR – which I am eager to test!).  Maybe in that time the Groove mobile app will get fixes to allow more reliable playback for lossless audio (WMA or FLAC).  Windows 10 would also allow for Tidal to easily build an app for the Xbox One.

Development Two – Apple TV 4 will be announced in September.  Maybe it will support 24bit audio?  Reportedly they are working on a TV solution for cord cutters and the development language is supposedly going to allow for more open app development (so Tidal could develop an app for the ATV too.)

As I learn more on this topic I will update this post.

With the death of my beloved Windows Media center I have been considering alternatives such as Plex and XBMC.  XBMC is by far the most versatile and full featured media center software made today.  For a while I had been seriously considering swapping over to XBMC (hell, and if they could get Civilization V to run on Linux…I’d ditch Microsoft all together and go open source).

However Windows Media Center has one distinct advantage over XBMC, and it is this – it can record TV shows that contain Copy Control DRM.  TV/Cable broadcasts are tagged as Copy Freely or Copy Once.  It is largely up to the cable provider how their content is tagged, and if they wanted to sow havoc with an XBMC/cablecard setup then they could simply tag all of their content as Copy Once.

Microsoft has paid the fees to CableLabs which allow it to use the CopyOnce content.  Premium channels like HBO are exclusively CopyOnce content.

This is really unfortunate (again, a first world problem) as XBMC has 24-bit FLAC support, remote apps for tablets and phones, and runs on anything more powerful than a toaster.

*SIGH*

Who knows?  Maybe these guys will be successful with their petition drive to get Microsoft to release a WMC app for the XBOX ONE.

http://xboxvideo.uservoice.com/forums/225596-xbox-video-suggestion-box

protest

I’m sure this is what the reaction to my blog entry will look like. “And the masses rose up in revolt demanding GIVE US A MEDIA CENTER APP!”

Just a thought here…I get a good amount of traffic on this site looking for things to do with Windows Media Center and the Xbox One.

A WMC app would be pretty easy to develop for the XBONE since it is simply a remote desktop connection (and the XBONE runs Windows 8) – heck my Android Phone now has an official Microsoft Remote Desktop app.

If you are one of the many WMC users who would like to see an app developed for the XBONE then please take a second and send Microsoft an email:

https://support.microsoft.com/contactus/emailcontact.aspx?scid=sw;en;1539

It can’t hurt to try, right?

Or you can just participate in a ridiculously unscientific poll:

Here are a few tips on how to get Windows Media Center to work with the XBOX ONE.  It is well documented that you can use the HDMI pass-through to display a 360 or even a PS4.  It is the same trick that allows a cable box to pass through it’s picture.

First, set your XBOX 360 to boot to Media Center when it starts.

Inside the settings app on the XBONE go to “TV & One Guide”.

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Then choose “Devices”

.x1scr

Then you will be able to choose devices from a list or to type in the manufacturer followed by model number.  In this case I used Microsoft Xbox 360.  I also checked to see if there was an entry for Ceton‘s Echo, there is not.  There is an option to type in Media Center and use remote commands for a media center remote.

x3

The Kinect 2 will then be able to use it’s IR blaster to turn on and off the XBOX 360 and hence Media Center.  However, in my experience it does not control the 360/WMC menus.  I had zero luck with changing channels without the remote for the 360 as well.  According to Microsoft even under the most ideal conditions (a cable box) the XBONE can only change channels, volume, and turn the device on and off.  It cannot manage recordings or access on-demand content.

I was pleasantly surprised when I said “XBOX Volume Down” and my Onkyo receiver dropped the volume three notches.

Much of the control issues could be overcome with some creative programming of a universal remoteLogitech Harmony remotes can be programmed to control the Xbox 360 and the XBONE.  I did not take this final step – hence the word “Hypothetical” in this article’s title.

If you own both devices, have room in your rack, and a good universal remote this might work for you.

Here are some images of Media Center running through the XBONE’s HDMI pass-through.

x5

Windows Media Center looks right at “Home” here.

I set this up temporarily due to the fact that I do not have room in my rack for both the 360 and the XBONE.  Silly me…I assumed the next XBOX would do more than it’s predecessor did.

x4

Want to drive Forza 5 while listening to Metallica?….this is what it would take.

Of course this seems a bit absurd to run essentially two computers just to watch TV – especially from a power consumption point of view.

XBONEI was one of the few gamers who was actually excited to hear that Microsoft would be focusing on entertainment with their new console – the XBOX One.  Like many XBOX360 owners I both game and watch TV on my 360…but let’s face it there is a lot more time in a working guy’s week for TV than gaming.

I knew my beloved Media Center was dead, and was preparing to deal with the separation.  What I didn’t know is that Microsoft was thinking of killing the usefulness of our local home networks as well. 

I loved my 360 and my feelings for Windows Media Center are well documented. (In a fit of faith in Microsoft I traded in one of my 360s last weekend to make room on the shelf for the new arrival.)

*head slap*

The XBOX One has NO utility for searching across your home network to find music, photos, or videos stored on a home Windows 8 PC.  You have to walk over to to the PC, select the file and choose “PlayTo“….then walk back across the house to see the content.

Dear Microsoft:  This kind of defeats the entire purpose of having a client device, now doesn’t it?

This is not only the death of Windows Media Center, it is the death of the home server/client philosophy that Microsoft has promoted since XP!

One guy (Kudos to him for figuring out how to do this…) has found a workaround that requires you to pass your home PC content through your phone.  EXCUSE ME MICROSOFT?!?  The XBONE has an 8-core processor, 8 gigs of ram and I’m supposed to pass video through my Android phone first? WTF?

For home theater enthusiasts the XBOX One has no more value than a stinkin’ ROKU player…wait – that’s not true.  The ROKU will play files off of a local PC.  OOPS!

It is clear to me that the XBONE is now merely a device for locking you into Microsoft’s entertainment ecosystem.  An overpowered AppleTV (oh wait…Apple TV can stream music and video from a PC running iTunes – D-OH!) designed to lock us into streaming from XBOX Music and Video.

Why not just use Xbox Music?  Xbox Music streams lossy WMAs and the band Metallica (amongst others) is nowhere to be found.  Over the years many of us have created bit-perfect collections of lossless WMAs…and Metallica is essential to any music collection – especially when gaming.  If you have a solid home theater sound system, then lossy music just won’t cut it.  Not to mention I’ve already bought the music I like – why would I pay $10/month to listen to the albums I already own in a format that sounds worse than what I have?

Other home theater sins of the XBONE:

  1. Can’t play Dolby 5.1 or 7.1 through the optical out.
  2. Cant download Movies from Xbox Video – it can only stream them.  (The frame rate is better when you download…plus it makes me feel closer to my copy of Star Trek: Into Darkness.)
  3. It can’t take a video feed from a PC Tuner Card.
  4. To use DVR functionality on your cable box you have to leave the XBOX Dashboard and just use the Cable Box Remote…Kinect only works on live TV.
  5. No Xfinity App.
  6. No Analog audio out (I knew this one in advance, but it still pisses me off).
  7. No 24-bit audio streaming.

Albeit, these are First World problems.  There are people starving, with their homes and lives destroyed by Typhoons….so do I feel a little silly complaining about my game console in my comfortable and safe home.

I am perplexed major review sites which have been fawning over the new XBOX and are simply omitting that it renders the content you own at home all but unreachable.   I think they must have the same exact problem that the news media has with our politicians – the problem of access.  The price of access seems to be the elimination of critical thought.

Did you write an article that points out the flaws in our (INSERT HERE: car, gadget, public policy)?  If so, then you will no longer have access to (INSERT HERE: test drives, E3 invite, interviews with the candidate).

I feel that a certain trust has been broken by Microsoft with it’s most recent product.  If you are a home theater enthusiast, and have not yet ordered your XBONE – Don’t.  This $500 paperweight needs some major updating to make it do what a $69 media streamer can do out of the box.

UPDATE 11/23/2013:  I need to be super clear up front here.  The predictions I made in this article are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!!  My Xbox One arrived last night and it cannot even stream video or music from a PC without going to the PC and using PlayTo! 

I love my Windows Media Center setup.

WMC

A few years ago my cable company was charging me $15-20/month per HD-DVR for what I felt was an expensive and pretty lackluster service.  The capacity of each DVR was pretty small and they were incapable (at the time) of  sharing content between my DVRs which forced me to have to delete documentaries that I was saving in smug self-satisfaction and to have to decide which TV I would watch a show on before I set it to record .

To deal with these issues I built a home theater PC with a Ceton Tuner that has 4 Terra-bytes of storage space and which paid for itself in 28 months, once I ditched the cable company’s DVRs.  (Not bad!)  The HTPC outputs content, both live and recorded to my XBOX 360s through using it as a Windows Media Extender.  It also pushes movies and music to the Xbox extenders which makes for a great whole home entertainment solution.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has been killing off my beloved Windows Media Center (WMC) and there are numerous discussion boards and articles which discuss and bemoan its demise.

XBONE

Causing even more consternation for those of us in the WMC crowd is the release of the new Xbox One and its emphasis upon home entertainment and TV…yet no mention of its working as a WMC extender.  The existence of HDMI pass-through also seemed to indicate an intention on the part of Microsoft that the new Xbox would only provide an overlay to cable companies’ set top boxes – thus shackling us to their fees and tiny storage capacity.

As fans of new technology what are we supposed to do?  Get a cable box? Not get the latest toy and be an outcast amongst our geeky friends?  Have two devices to do two different jobs? Seriously?  After all we’re not savages!

Then while reading through the “What It Does” page on the Xbox One website, I noticed a footnote leading to the following requirement for TV Functionality:

“1. Supported television tuner or cable/satellite set top box with HDMI output and HDMI cable required (all sold separately).”

What is the most important word in that little footnote?  I’d say it’s the humble little word “or”.

It’s so important that it burst out to me like a ray of sunlight through the clouds.

London to Brighton Veteran Car Run

If I am parsing the meaning of  that sentence properly, it seems to indicate that there will be an option to use a tuner that is not a set top box.  This opens up all kinds of possibilities.

My biggest wish for the previous big Xbox 360 Dashboard update (Metro) was that they would ditch the native music and video players and ‘bake’ the functionality of Windows Media Center straight into the metro-style dashboard.   Hypothetically using something like the Windows Media Player Network Sharing Service to serve up content stored on a PC hard drive (such as music and movies), and then add network tuner support for sending live TV across a home network.  Support for TV tuners MIGHT mean that they are taking a step in that direction.  Additionally, the fact that the new Xbox will have Windows 8 built-in seems to indicate that this kind of integration is at the very least possible.

This is the hope that I am clinging to – but of course, this is all just rampant speculation and wishful thinking on my part.

UPDATE:  As I was reading though some forum posts at “The Green Button” I came across a comment that pointed to the FAQ on the Official Xbox news thread, which read:

Q:    Do I need to have a specific cable or satellite TV provider to watch live TV on Xbox?
A:    Our goal is to enable live TV through Xbox One in every way that it is delivered throughout the world, whether that’s television service providers, over the air or over the Internet, or HDMI-in via a set top box (as is the case with many providers in the US). The delivery of TV is complex and we are working through the many technologies and policies around the world to make live TV available where Xbox One is available.

This seems to me to be further evidence of my aforementioned possibility of having WMC “baked right in” to the new dashboard.

I will continue to update this post as I learn more.