xbox comments edit

Xbox Live Vision camera and Xbox 360 HD DVD
playerFriday night I picked up one of the Xbox 360 HD DVD players, an Xbox Live Vision camera, and a copy of GRAW 2. I am uber-stoked for all of these things.

The setup was pretty simple, though I think for folks less familiar with technology it may have been frustrating. See, I have the wireless network adapter for the Xbox 360 and that takes up the one USB port on the back of the unit. I’m sort of reluctant to jam a bunch of stuff into the front ports on the thing because, well, it’s ugly, and I really want those for other things (like my DDR dance mat). The wireless adapter, the camera, and the HD DVD player are all USB devices. Luckily, the HD DVD player has two USB ports on the back you can use to extend the Xbox with. So here’s how it looks now:

The HD DVD player plugs into the Xbox 360. The wireless network adapter and the camera plug into the HD DVD player. Everything is plugged in behind-the-scenes, so I don’t have any cords hanging out in front of the device.

So why was that confusing? A couple of reasons, actually.

First, the instructions for the camera tell you to plug it in “directly to the Xbox 360.” There’s even a picture of it plugging into one of the front USB ports on the Xbox. No, thank you. Even that wouldn’t have been as confusing except for…

Second, there’s some installation overhead to getting these things up and running and it doesn’t all just magically come up. Before you can hook up the HD DVD player, you have to put this DVD into the Xbox 360 that presumedly has some drivers it needs to install. Once it’s got that installed, you can plug in the HD DVD player. That said, it won’t actually recognize that the player is there until you turn the Xbox off and back on again. Is it plugged into the wrong port? Do I need to plug it into the front like in the instructions? No, but that isn’t immediately clear.

Once you’ve “rebooted,” the HD DVD player comes up, the network adapter comes up, and all is well… except it, for some reason, still hasn’t recognized the Xbox Live Vision camera. For that, you need to reboot again. On the second reboot, everything should be up and running. When it gets there, it’s really sweet, but getting there is the issue. (Note I did try hooking the camera up to the Xbox directly but it didn’t matter - it still took two reboots to get it going. Yes, that does mean I rebooted four - or more - times as I experimented with the setup, but the magic number does seem to be two.)

Now, I’ve only had the thing a couple of days, but here’s something I ran into: I decided to move the camera to a better location and zip-tie up some of the cables for the HD DVD player so they were a little cleaner and more managed. To do that, I had to unplug the HD DVD player and the camera, do the clean-up, move the camera, and plug it all back in. After I was done, I fired up the Xbox and it took another two-reboot cycle to get the HD DVD and camera recognized again. I’m wondering if there’s some sort of memory the console has that recognizes which ports things were plugged into and gets confused if you move things or disconnect the power.

Like I said, though, once you get it all running, it’s cool. Some of the stuff I didn’t know (because it’s either not terribly well advertised or I just haven’t seen it):

You can take a picture using the camera and use that as your “personal” picture - the one that only friends see. That said, I don’t seem to be able to find it anywhere online, even if I go to my profile on the Xbox web site, so it must just be a Live feature. Regardless, it’s pretty cool. Even my dad (who also picked up a camera) has one, and went to a lot of work to make it.

When you have the camera plugged in, the Xbox 360 dashboard has a sort of “watery reflection” playing in a light overlay of whatever the camera is seeing. You don’t really notice it at first, then you’re scrolling through a menu going, “Hey, what is that… holy crap, I’m on the screen!” Once you notice it, it’s pretty cool. It ripples based on how much movement the camera detects, too.

The HD DVD player makes it so the eject button on the Xbox 360 dashboard is split in half - the top half controls the Xbox console drive (allowing you to select, for example, “Play Game” or “Open Tray”) and the bottom half controls the HD DVD player (“Play HD DVD Movie”). This is actually a great way to tell if the Xbox has “recognized” the HD DVD player or not (so you know whether you need to reboot).

All in all, I’m really digging it. It came with King Kong in HD, which isn’t my favorite movie by any means but is a decent demonstration of how much clearer movies are in HD and really makes you never want to buy another standard DVD. It also has some of the little HD features you can expect like “picture-in-picture” storyboards and behind-the-scenes interviews, which is cool because that way you don’t have to leave the movie to see what they’re talking about.

Anyway, it’s awesome, and now I have a renewed interest not only in continuing my Media Center integration effort, but also updating some select pictures to HD. I’m totally ordering Serenity.

media comments edit

I’ve gotten some emails about my recent rounds with Windows Media Center with various suggestions and concerns and it made me realize that I may not have been clear about what I’m trying to accomplish with the media center. As such, here’s what I’m trying to achieve:

  • On-demand style access to my large selection of DVDs. I would like to be able to browse through the set, select one to watch, and watch it. Better still would be the ability to search for a particular genre, actor, or title if I’m thinking about one of those things to help me in finding something to watch. I have come to discover that several folks don’t actually re-watch DVDs, or aren’t interested in that sort of thing. I do re-watch my movies and enjoy them, hence my investment, but as the collection has grown, the convenience of finding the movie I’m looking for and getting things all set up has become lacking - it’s a pain, so we find ourselves not making as much use of them as I’d like.
  • Ease of use. Whatever the solution is, I’d like it to be an easy thing to use. The whole problem right now is that finding the DVD to watch is cumbersome; this shouldn’t be just as cumbersome or we won’t use it.
  • Ease of setup/maintenance. I don’t want to have to spend my life trying to set the thing up and tweak and tweak and tweak to get it to go. This sort of rules out many of the Linux-based solutions I’ve seen. (Granted, this is somewhat colored by my experience level with various OS setup/troubleshooting - I’m a Windows guy, and I can probably manage with the simplified UI of MacOS, but I’m not eager to get into what I feel is an overly-complex console interface. And, yes, this is a personal thing - some folks might feel the Windows solution would be more cumbersome. This isn’t a point for debate.)
  • Use this system as a backup for my DVDs. My dad has had discs go bad and I’m sure I’ve got some, too. I’d like to be able to re-create the movies as needed should the disc go bad.
  • No lost features/quality. I paid for the whole DVD. I don’t want to watch movies in a lower quality (re-encoded/compressed) than they appear on the DVD. I also paid for the extra features - deleted scenes, etc. I want access to those. Note that I can give a little on this if there is at least a path to get from the lower-quality/lower-access solution to the complete solution.
  • Extensibility. If I need more storage, if I want to add access to the collection from a different room… I want the system to be extensible. This is a fairly all-inclusive general statement.
  • Cost. I don’t want it to cost a lot. If it looks like it’s going to be, I’d like to be able to add to the system in increments rather than having a large up-front investment.

I am specifically not concerned with recording TV, streaming audio, or really any other features of the Media Center. If they’re there, so much the better. If not, it’s not a deal-breaker.

That’s what I’m aiming for. Next stop - actual hardware!

I’m not a high-fashion guy. I don’t get the whole avant-garde fashion thing, I don’t follow trends, and I’m not paying $300 for a shirt. That said, I know what I like, and what I like generally tends towards what I guess could be considered “simple classics.” I generally stick to the Ralph Lauren area in the store because I can’t deal with the unkempt “thug” look they try to sell me in the juniors and I’m not going to wear the golf pants they try to sell me in the “adult” section. I have an even more particular taste with what I find attractive in women’s clothing - IMHO, a simple black dress will beat out some crazy, extravagant number any day. With that in mind…

Jenn and I went shopping at Macy’s on Saturday. I was thinking about getting a new shirt or two and she just wanted to see what’s new for the season. When we walked in, though, I really felt like I was caught in some sort of time warp. It was the 70’s meets the 80’s with a touch of 60’s thrown in for good measure. All of the colors were muted browns, greens, and oranges like you see in pictures from the 70’s. The dresses all looked either like something you’d need to wear gogo boots with or like something that might go great with some stirrup pants underneath. Patterns were big, blocky, and geometric - they gave me a headache just looking at them.

I started feeling like I was listening to an orchestra perpetually tuning up. Everything was dischord and no notes stood out whatsoever. Every color on every garment was flat - not quite red, but not quite orange and not really yellow, either. It seemed like the aim was for a sort of haute couture jazz to emerge from the noise, but I wasn’t hearing it.

In the end, I didn’t find anything I liked (the stock seemed to be sort of between-seasons; I don’t need a bulky sweater, but I’m not looking for an unimpressive standard button-up shirt, either) and Jenn came out with a pair of pants and a dress that look great on her and did their best to separate themselves from the visual onslaught on the racks. Here’s hoping they snap out of it soon.

media, xbox comments edit

I got my Windows XP Media Center 2005 virtual machine to stream a movie stored in VIDEO_TS format to my Xbox 360 last night. The picture was sort of choppy due to the virtual machine overhead and limitations, but I saw it work, proving the concept.

Here’s what I had to do:

  1. Install Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.
  2. Activate Windows XP. You have to do this to get all the updates you need.
  3. Hit Microsoft Update to get all the available patches.
  4. Install .NET 1.1 and SP1.
  5. Install MCE 2005 Update 2. (You might be able to get this from Windows Update; I got it from a separate download.)
  6. Install My Movies.
  7. Install Transcode360.
  8. Hit Microsoft Update again to make sure all the patches are in place. (I did this twice because the first time I missed getting Windows Media Player 11 - I might have been able to skip it had I done everything the first time. I also had tried to avoid activating my MSDN copy of media center because I knew I’d only need it for a few days… but you have to be activated to get everything up to date.)
  9. Start up Windows Media Player and configure it.
  10. Install FFDShow to get the MPEG2 codec. Set it to be the default decoder for MPEG2. (I’m given to understand that if you install some DVD player software you don’t need to do this. I was looking to do a proof of concept for free, so I went this route; I think if I do it for real I’ll get TheaterTek.)
  11. Install DVD Decrypter for the movie ripping.
  12. Rip a DVD to a known location. (I ended up ripping on a different machine and transferring the files to the virtual machine - there was some weirdness getting the ripping to work inside the VM.)
  13. Run the My Movies collection editor and add the ripped movie to the collection.
  14. Start Windows Media Center.
  15. Turn on the Xbox 360. Navigate to the “Media” tab and select the “Media Center” option. After you read a couple of screens, you’ll be given an eight-digit number that you need to write down.
  16. Windows Media Center automatically detects the Xbox 360 and asks you to connect to it.
  17. Follow the Windows Media Center extender setup on the Windows Media Center. It will ask you to install some software to allow streaming to extenders.
  18. When the extender setup is done, it’ll finally ask you for that eight digit number. Enter that, and you’ll be connected.
  19. On the Xbox 360, you’ll be in a Media Center screen once the connection is complete. Navigate to the My Movies section, select the movie, and select the “Watch Stream” option. Transcode360 will do its job and transcode the VIDEO_TS directly to your Xbox 360.

The downside to this is that you don’t get the option of setting up sound or other options. If you have foreign language movies, you won’t get the ability to decide whether you watch it overdubbed or in the original language (or whether you see subtitles). You also don’t get to choose which feature you watch, so if you have, say, an episodic TV DVD, you’ll only really be able to watch the first episode on the disc. But for the 80% case, you should be set.

Now I have some decisions to make. It turns out my wife isn’t quite as hot on the media center idea as I am, but since she only saw the proof of concept and it was jumpy and sort of sucked, I don’t think she’s fully realized the coolness (sort of how the coolness of DVR is still setting in - we still end up watching “appointment TV” even though we know things are getting recorded). That means I need to be super frugal about how I go about this.

I can start getting storage together and using the standard Windows XP UPnP file sharing deal to get movies to my Xbox, storing two copies - the VIDEO_TS and a compressed Xbox version. Not optimal, but it would get us in the habit of using the Xbox for movies and would be a cheap way to see if we like it.

If we do like it, the question will be whether we have a single media center and several extenders or whether we have a network attached storage/file server setup with several full media centers. I think that, too, will have to be in stages. I’ll be getting a copy of Windows Vista Ultimate from MIX and I could upgrade our existing PC to use that and be a more “central” media center to stream to extenders. It doesn’t have a TV-out on it, so it wouldn’t do for a full media center. If we get to a point where we want the full menus or the streaming just isn’t enough, we can get a cheap media center PC for the living room and have it get movies over the network.

Anyway, I’m glad to see it works. Time to determine next steps.

comics comments edit

I went to my local comic shop to pick up some back issues I was missing and noticed the selection wasn’t quite what it used to be. I’m not normally picking up a lot of back issues, so I talked to the clerk about it and it turns out that back issues (unless they’re rare/expensive) really don’t get a lot of business. The best value-per-square-foot-of-floor-space they can get is on new merchandise, so they reduced their stock of back issues to make room.

Not wanting the inconsistency of price, selection, and quality that is generally offered at eBay, I chose instead to take my search to some of the online suppliers. To that end, I bring you the Comic Back Issue Showdown: Midtown Comics vs. Mile High Comics!

Criteria Midtown Comics Mile High Comics Verdict
Web Site - Search, checkout, and overall usability. Looks like many other online storefronts and the checkout process was fairly simple. Was harder to find back issues by title than it was to find a specific numbered issue. Search results can be difficult/overwhelming to navigate. Very cluttered. I had a difficult time figuring out what had been added to my shopping cart and determining how to check out. Really could stand some UI help. Decent search, and results get grouped by title/volume before breaking down into issue, which was helpful in browsing. Unfortunately, my frustration with the cluttered UI overshadowed my enjoyment of the search feature. Midtown
Price - Comparison of pricing on several random issues in stock in both places. Seems to have a decent, low everyday price on items. Not sure how often things go on sale. Higher everyday prices, but a distinct reliance on sale pricing to bring things down to a more competitive range. I’ve been told there’s a mailing list you can join that sends out frequent sale codes. I’m not sure I like having to join a mailing list or wait for a sale for low prices. Midtown
Selection - Comparison of what’s in stock for randomly selected popular titles. Recent back issues are usually in stock and in good quality. Older back issues aren’t as available. Much of this seems to depend on the popularity of the comic as well. Both recent and older back issues are in stock. Doesn’t seem to be based on comic popularity or how old the issue is. Mile High
In-Process Order Information - How much information you’re given as your order gets processed. When you place your order you get an email notification it’s been received. When it ships, you get a notification of the shipment. You can check order status on the web site. You get an email when you place the order, when it’s received by the store, when they start fulfilling it, when it’s packaged, and when it’s shipped. You can get additional order status by emailing them. Mile High
Shipping - Methods of getting your package to you. UPS UPS Tie
Packaging - How the comics arrive at your door. Package arrives in a large, flat cardboard envelope. Inside the envelope your comics are in a Midtown paper bag and each one is bagged and boarded. There is an additional board inside the bag for added reinforcement. The invoice is nicely printed and easy to read. Comics were not damaged. Package arrives in a thin cardboard box that exactly fits the size of the order. All comics are bagged but not boarded. The invoice is itemized, but printed on a line printer and not the most appealing. Comics were not damaged. Midtown
Overall I really like the web site, the packaging and the prices. I wish they had a little bigger selection, but what they do have is good and complements the Mile High selection. The packaging on my order was great. The search could use a little help, but generally this was a pleasant experience. Aside from the search, I can’t stand the web site. I can’t tell you how much this irritated me. I talked to a friend of mine who has also used the site and he knew exactly what I was talking about with all the little “gotchas” and quirks in the ordering process. Awesome selection, but the pricing… not thrilled with having to wait for a sale. Also wasn’t as impressed with the packaging - I’d have felt better about it if each comic was both bagged and boarded. Midtown