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Xbox 360 Not Just a Game Machine

With enough hardware horsepower to deliver movie-like graphics and high-quality sound, Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 is setting a new standard for video games. But the console isn't just about shoot-'em-ups and virtual sports.

Like its predecessor, the 360 can serve as an "extender" to a PC running Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 operating system.

Nearly every type of media that plays on the PC can be piped — wired or wirelessly — over a home network and through the Xbox to a TV.

This time, the feature is built into the console (both the $300 and $400 versions) and doesn't require the purchase of additional software. It also can handle the demands of high-definition television without a hiccup.

All this is in addition to the Xbox's primary purpose — gaming. Taken as a whole, it's Microsoft's strongest case yet for its future in the living room. It shows that the PC, even if hidden elsewhere in the house, can serve up media and more for the entertainment center.

To try it, I borrowed an Xbox 360 and a Hewlett-Packard Co. PC decked out with the Media Center software.

The PC itself could have easily been a Gateway, Dell or any other brand — the operating system is offered by almost all PC makers, with prices starting at less than $1,000.

Though setup isn't as easy as it could be and the Media Center software still has some rough patches, it performed remarkably well.

I kept the PC in my home office, where one TV tuner card was plugged into our analog cable, so no cable box was needed. I also added an HDTV tuner card, which can receive over-the-air digital broadcast from my local stations.

Over in the living room, I set up the Xbox to our standard definition TV and plugged it into our wired home network. (You also can use a wireless setup, but results, especially with video, can be mixed.)

There was a quick download on the Xbox and another on the PC, and then I had to copy a string of numbers from the Xbox to the PC.

After all that, it didn't work. But a quick network reboot fixed whatever the problem was.

Within the Xbox's display, the Media Center component is accessed by clicking a "Media Center" link. The same interface that's on the PC appears — the only thing that's missing is "Play DVD," which isn't a big loss since the Xbox includes its own DVD player.

Live, analog cable television looked murky on my high-resolution PC display, but that has more to do with the quality of the cable signal itself, not the Media Center. When it's piped through the Xbox to the standard-definition TV, it looked much better.

Though everything is stored on the PC's hard drive and nothing is kept on the Xbox, I was able to pause live TV, set up recordings through a free electronic TV guide, speed through commercials on recorded shows and do everything else a digital video recorder could do.

High-definition video, which appears and sounds stunning on the PC, also could be piped to the standard TV, though with an obvious quality downgrade that wouldn't have happened if I had an HD set. Fast-action sports, like the Olympics, appeared digitized. But slower-moving dramas looked and sounded remarkably good.

Because my Media Center had more than one TV tuner, I could watch one channel on the PC and someone else could watch another on the Xbox-connected TV. One of those could even be a high-definition channel.

If you've got more than one Xbox 360, you could connect up to five to the same network. The number of live television feeds, however, is limited by the number of TV tuner cards installed on the Media Center PC.

But the Media Center isn't entirely about TV. It also can incorporates radio, pictures, home movies — all of which can be accessed and sometimes even manipulated over the Xbox.

Arguably one of the most interesting features is the "Online Spotlight" section, which offers video and audio from a variety of sources over the Internet.

You can listen to XM Radio and National Public Radio, watch clips from Comedy Central and VH1 and buy music from Napster, among many other options.

Most work well when viewed via the Xbox. But a few — notably Comedy Central, MTV and VH1, which all seemed to based on the same underlying software engine — appeared to have some content out of alignment when viewed on a TV set. Others require registration through a Web browser, which isn't available on the Xbox.

Another headache is the Xbox's remote control.

Though the gaming controller can be used, it has none of the usual TV buttons. For a limited time, Microsoft was including a more appropriate clicker, which retails for $30.

The Xbox also can be controlled with the Media Center's remote — or a gadget such as Logitech's $130 Harmony remote for the Xbox 360 and the rest of your entertainment center.

Ultimately, the problems are minor compared with the fact that, right now, you're unlikely to find an Xbox 360. Since the console's release in November, Microsoft has been unable to meet demand, though a few are available on eBay.

And even if you find one, you'll likely have to shoo away any gamers in the house.