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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“Hello, we’re Microsoft” – “No you’re not”

As an IT geek and (semi) professional it both amuses and annoys me when I get the inevitable cold caller on the phone.

“Hello Mr Bloggs, I’m calling from Microsoft about your PC”

Invariably there’s a foreign accent on the other end of the line, often Indian but sometimes American or even the occasional European accent. In every case they receive the same response from myself.

“No you’re not” *click*

There are variations on this theme. I’ve had callers claim to be from Microsoft, from my ISP, even once from an anti-virus company. It happens once every 6 to 12 months and to date they still haven’t got the message that I know as soon as they start speaking that it’s a scam. What is worrying is that they have your phone number and your name. It doesn’t matter how they got it, they have it and the fact they ask for you by name lends the scam an air of legitimacy. How do they have your name and number? How many times have you entered an online competition? “Win an iPad!” it says, just enter your contact details and if we draw your name out the hat you’re a winner. And people do win, they have to. But in the small print there’s that little bit that says they can then recover the costs of the competition by selling your data. And mostly it will be fairly harmless, enter a competition on a whiskey site and expect junk mail and emails about Jack Daniel’s whiskey. I have a rather nice 2013 calendar from Jack Daniel’s marketing company right here. But the data is still for sale and eventually someone you don’t want knowing your contact details buys your data and you receive the call from “Microsoft”. Either way think about every competition you enter and every marketing survey you’ve ever filled out over the phone. If you’re not certain how that data will be used, don’t give it to them.

So why am I so sure it’s not Microsoft on the phone? Or my ISP or even an anti-virus company? Simple, they will NEVER contact you direct at home. If you are signed up to any support package they will always email you. And never with a link asking for you to “click here and login”. Any phone call that states “there is a problem with your PC” should raise alarm bells. How do they know it’s my PC? Have they traced the IP address back? Well you just have to ask the MPAA or BPI how hard that is to do. The only way any 3rd party can link you to your IP address is by first obtaining a court order and then presenting that to your ISP. As it’s not actually illegal to have a computer full of viruses that will never happen (unless you happen to be the one writing the viruses).

So how are they trying to scam you? Quite simply the whole point of the scam is to persuade you to go to a website where the scammers can take control of your PC. In order to fix your PC they will have to download a file that apparently removes all the nasty software that’s been ringing alarm bells back at Microsoft/your ISP/the anti-virus company. And there is software that can do this, google malwarebytes and ad-aware, downloadable from download.com (it’ll redirect to cnet). AVG even do a rather nice free version of their software, just be prepared for the annual “are you sure you don’t want to upgrade to the pro version?” The software that the scammer has downloaded however will not do this. Once downloaded instead the scammers will make their sting. A large sum of money for “fixing” your PC. If you don’t pay up, say goodbye to all the data on your hard drive. If you do pay up expect your bank account to be empty tomorrow and your PC to suddenly slow down as the scammer’s keyloggers start recording all your logins and passwords that you use.

So remember, if anyone claims to be from any IT company and you’re not expecting a call from them, put the phone down. Your ISP, Microsoft, even your anti-virus software provider simply do not care what is on your PC enough to call you at home. No one is that special that they can expect a phone call every time you click on that link that says “click here for cute kittens”. Except maybe Bill Gates, and I seriously doubt he spends his free time googling kitten photos.