A marriage made in Heaven or Hell?

If ever there was a marriage made in Hell it has to be Microsoft and Apple, right? And yet it may surprise many just how compatible the products of these 2 companies actually are.

When I’m not getting annoyed at the petty politics of the UK and the rest of the world I am at heart a geek. I hacked my first computer game when I was 10 or 11, a text adventure written for the Sinclair ZX81. I created my first website back in 1995 and ran my first online business back in 1996. One thing that has not changed in the years since is my love of gaming and music. My home setup is one that works well both for a simple bedroom setup, or as in my case for my living room. And it’s a lot cheaper to make than people might think.

My main media player is my XBox 360. However, being an old and creaky model there’s no way it can hold just over 40 year’s worth of music collecting. And after so many years of computing what do I do with the old PC that’s now no good for gaming? Why not stream my music from the PC to the XBox? Luckily over the years I’ve made it a habit to rip all my music to MP3, even before Apple brought out it’s first iPod, so I’m spared the pain of attempting to rip 2000 CDs to my computer.

iTunes is a great application for keeping my music organised, but unfortunately is not recognised by the XBox as a valid source of streaming music or video. So in a moment of Microsoft/Apple Hell I need to find an alternative. Thankfully Microsoft has a free solution in the form of Zune. A quick download, install and change of settings and it’s soon imported my iTunes music library ready to stream. Before switching to the XBox there’s still one last thing to do. Hidden in the Zune settings there’s an option to allow other devices to access your music library. Handily there’s a tick box for all available XBoxes and in next to no time 40 years of music is streaming across the network to mine and my daughter’s XBox upstairs.

You may ask why go to all that trouble when I could just play the music straight from the computer? The answer is sound quality. My setup at home is actually quite simple. A cheap 42″ 3D TV (it’s a rebranded Celsus, courtesy of a phone deal). Picture quality is remarkably good for such a cheap TV with a surprisingly generous array of connections on the back. The old PC has a VGA out (10 year old graphics card that keeps soldiering on despite the cooling fan having fallen off the card years ago) which plugs straight into the TV. Sound is then ported to the TV from the headphone/speaker jack on the soundcard. While the sound is reasonable it lacks the punch of a dedicated speaker system. This is where the XBox (and my love of gaming) comes in. The Xbox is also plugged into the TV using the HD cable that comes supplied with it (the one with half a dozen coloured cables that plug into the TV’s component AV slots). As my old surround sound system decided to die when we had a power cut a few years ago sound production duties have been replaced by a Logitech 5.1 surround sound system. As the XBox also doubles as a DVD player this also enables us to watch movies with the surround sound (but not currently regular TV as the Digital Receiver plugs straight into the TV by HDMI, more on this later). The result is that streamed music now gets converted by the XBox and output to all speakers giving a much louder and punchier response. And Gears Of War 3 takes on a whole new level of gaming when viewed in 3D with surround sound.

So far of course there’s been no Apple in this mix, everything to this point has been achieved by Microsoft and 3rd party hardware. So this is where Apple and Microsoft make their match in Heaven. It’s all very well having the PC connected to the same screen as the XBox and TV Receiver, but what if you really need to make changes to something on the PC while the kids have decided now is the only time they can watch Hannah Montana. This is where we introduce PocketCloud, an iPhone and iPad app that allows you to login to your PC remotely while on the same network. Using this you have full access to all the programs and files on your PC. If you only wish to access files on your PC, such as photos and PDF documents there’s always FileBrowser instead.

And the Apple/Microsoft Heaven doesn’t just stop at your PC. There are also apps for the iPhone and iPad that will allow you to connect to your XBox remotely. Want to control your music remotely while it’s playing on the XBox? Microsoft have provided the ultimate free app for allowing this with SmartGlass. The only drawback is that it will require an XBox Live account and your XBox must already be turned on and logged in, but that’s it. Instant control via phone or iPad from anywhere in the house over wifi. Friends over and want to listen to whatever music is on their iPod, iPhone or iPad? There’s even an app for that. Download AirMusic and you’ll soon be streaming direct from your Apple device of choice to the XBox.

The above is of course quite a simple setup, done more for the low cost than for elegance. A couple of simple upgrades would improve your gaming and media pleasure at relatively low costs. The simplest upgrade is to switch out the speakers. Hard to come by nowadays, but there are surround sound systems with multiple inputs. The original surround sound speakers that I had till the power cut had stereo, coax and optical inputs, allowing me to connect 3 systems at once and switch between them. Much the same can also be done now with a HDMI receiver that combines multiple HDMI inputs with HDMI out and optical out, allowing the receiver to switch between inputs and output to a standard home theatre system. Again, this is a relatively inexpensive way to upgrade. If you’re lucky and have a slightly more expensive TV you may even find that the TV itself has an optical out for plugging direct into a home theatre, but be aware that not all output the full Dolby 5.1 (my old Samsung TV only output stereo through the optical out). If budget allows a lot of higher end Blu-Ray home theatre kits also come complete with multiple HDMI inputs allowing for much the same effect.

Should you be able to upgrade your listening pleasure using the ideas above (and having swapped out the old VGA card for a nice shiny new HDMI graphics card) you can then go for the other option of listening to your music using your PC again (leaving your XBox relegated back to gaming duties). Again, there’s an app available for this, simply download Apple’s Remote for iPhone or iPad and gain direct control of your PC’s iTunes library, even being able to choose songs to be played using iTunes Auto DJ feature.

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