Microsoft after hours: the sequel

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A little over 18 months ago, I attended an event at Microsoft titled “Vista After Hours”. The idea was that, instead of showing us all the features of the Windows ecosystem that were relevant to daily life as an IT Professional, Microsoft would demonstrate some of the things that can be done in Windows apart from work – demonstrating that the world of Windows is not all about dull, corporate applications.

Earlier this week, I was back for more – as Viral Tarpara, Paul Foster and Jamie Burgess demonstrated some of Microsoft’s products aimed at consumers and hobbyists.

As is likely to become the norm around here for such events (so many blog posts, so little time), I won’t write it up in full but here are some of the highlights:

  • Gears of War 2 – the latest big game for the Xbox 360 and phenominally successful (but I’m not a games guy).
  • Viral took a look at Windows Live Services – Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft (MSN/Live) are all doing similar things (although each will claim that it has the best new features!) – taking a look at a few of Microsoft’s Windows Live Services:
    • A new look for is on it’s way to the UK. Personally, I like it – and you can hover the mouse over certain positions on that day’s picture to see links to potentially interesting facts.
    • Windows Live Mail: with a new Outlook-like interface and the ability to connect to multiple mail services (and chose which send via); add own stationary (arghh!); and it will soon include photo e-mail capabilities (e.g. select 4 photos, all resized and embedded in e-mail – rather than as an attachment – then add a frame, or make it black and white, make contrast corrections, etc.).
    • Windows Live Photo Gallery provides a gallery view for resizing, viewing/adding metadata, tagging and editing photos (preserving the original) but publishing etc. is where the Live Services come in and pictures may be published to Flickr, Windows Live Spaces, etc. The end result is highly functional software on the desktop PC, plus services in the cloud.
    • Windows Live Writer is Microsoft’s blogging software and it: integrates with various platforms (WordPress, Blogger, etc. – even SharePoint); applies the site’s stylesheet to the posts as you write; allows insertion of pictures, videos (YouTube or Soapbox), etc.
    • Windows Live Maps: whilst many people use Google Maps – Microsoft claim that Live is superior for business requirements (I prefer the Google mapping view) and it now features: a 3D view using an Internet Explorer/Firefox browser plugin (and no more page refreshes – zoom in and out – very impressive, although it’s a lot smoother on Microsoft’s Internet connection than on mine); a bird’s eye view which uses a Photosynth-like effect to select high resolution images; a free API to use and expose in own applications; collections of public or private searches (e.g. a walk around 3D Manhattan) using public data to link to map (e.g. Times Square).
  • Paul demonstrated Photosynth, which works out how pictures relate to one another in a four dimensional space to build up a complete picture. Because synths only show the data that this appropriate at this moment in time it’s possible to jump around and explore the environment at a reasonable speed. Using the example of Stonehenge, even though the photos were all taken at eye level, the synther can work out where the stones stand so that it is possible to view from above (or even below!). More images helps it to work out more points of view and speech synthesis technologies such as mousegrid can be used to navigate and scroll around.
  • Even I (the non-gamer) was impressed by the new Xbox 360 experience that Jamie demonstrated (due for a worldwide release today for a phased deployment to all Internet-connected Xbox 360s):

    • The user interface has been redesigned and blades have been replaced with a dashboard.
    • Music can be streamed from another PC to the Xbox and played over the top of games or anything else; effectively the Xbox becomes the presentation layer in the living room.
    • Avatars are a huge new feature – with more and more options coming online all the time.
    • Games may be stored on the hard drive.
    • Xbox messaging capabilities integrates with non-Xbox users of Windows Live Messenger (e.g. on PCs).
    • The interface is much more graphical/visual than previously and therefore become much more immersive.
  • Paul showed how Community Games allow anyone (or at least anyone who can write code) to create and publish their own games to Xbox Live (10 million people) including charging Microsoft points and sharing the revenue with Microsoft (the approval process does require accurate rating of the game’s suitability). XNA Game Studio is used with the Express Edition development tools and the resulting games will run on Windows, XBox, or Zune. For more information, check out the XNA UK user group, which aims to provide “a helping hand for bedroom coders throughout the land”.
  • Moving on to home automation systems, Jamie spoke about how he had run co-axial and CAT5 cabling around his parents’ house to stream content from two Sky Plus boxes to almost any room, using IR receivers in the ceiling to control everything from a single remote control. Further information on this type of setup (with Windows Media Center) can be found at The Digital Lifestyle and The Green Button. Much more tangible was Paul’s demonstration of his home automation with everything from recording and playing media content in Windows Media Center to using the mControl digital home software to remotely access CCTV feeds, set the temperature in a room and even water the plants in the garden. B&QBased on a system of scheduling and triggers, Paul demonstrated a HomeEasy system (available from B&Q) with an RF controller and xPL software to control lights (a blog post has been promised…). More Home Automation products are available from Let’s Automate.
  • Viral took a look a some more of the Windows Live services and admitted that the current version of the Windows Live Homepage is not as engaging as other Web 2.0 technologies (the good thing about Viral is that he may be a ‘softie but he also admits to using alternative solutions “because that’s how real people work”) before commenting that a new version will have tighter integration with various other services (e.g. Flickr, Twitter, etc.).
  • Viral also showed off some of the new features in the latest Windows Live Messenger beta – things like assigning your own entrance sound to play on your friends’ messenger client (uh huh… that will be annoying); what’s new (see what friends are up to – a bit like a Facebook status); activities – games, calendar swap, etc.; and photosharing where you can send a series of thumbnails by messenger and recipient can browse for more detail.
  • Ethernet over powerline is a technologies I considered until I replaced my wireless access point with something decent and Jamie briefly mentioned the success he’s had with a NetGear 200Mbps solution in his modern apartment (where the building construction makes Wi-Fi difficult.
  • Jamie then went on to talk about modifying his Mazda MX5 with a 7 inch touchsreen, connected to a mini-ITX PC in the boot, running a Centrafuse front end for GPS (USB attached), Radio, Phone via Bluetooth, Playlist, Music and videos (using a USB dongle Wi-Fi synchronisation between the car and his home whilst in the garage), OBDII diagnostic data, camera, weather, etc. Apparently, you can even have Live Mesh working on this solution too. It sounds like a neat in car entertainment solution but it also sounds like the classic case of a rich kid putting more electronics inside his car than the car is worth… but if this sounds like something of interest then check out
  • So, moving on to Live Mesh, Viral demonstrated it as a combination of social networking and synchronisation so that files in Mesh-enabled folders on each connected device are synchronised so that data is accessible wherever (based on synchronisation policies to control which contacts can see which data). Using the “Synchronising Life” video I embedded in my recent post on Windows Live FolderShare, he spoke of the potential for Mesh-enabled picture frame and gave a real-world example of how he (in the UK) and his girlfriend (in the USA) share pictures and other information via Live Mesh as the different timezones and work schedules mean that they may not be online at the same time.
  • Paul spoke of how he has Windows XP Pro trimmed down to 384MB and running on a USB key with a mini-ITX PC. It’s possible to do this using the evaluation tools for Windows XP Embedded/CE to strip down although the operating system image does expire. Pico-ITX PCs are even smaller yet still offer USB support, VGA output and SATA II drives. Find out more at
  • A Microsoft Surface table is a $10,000 device based on a technology called Frustrated Total Internal Reflection (FTIR). Paul demonstrated build a DIY multitouch device using nothing more than a cardboard box, a webcam, a sheet of perspex and a sheet of paper, together with software from the Natural User Interface group). Basically, he fed the webcam through a hole in the bottom of the box (camera facing up) and used the perspex as surface (with paper on top to block out ambient light). The NUI software will handle the view, inverting the image, removing the background, etc. but some additional coding will be required in order to build multi-touch applications. I have to say that it was pretty amazing!
  • Next up – robotics. Those who were at the Windows Server 2008 launch in Birmingham earlier this year may remember Paul’s A1-DW robot (A1 = top stuff, DW = a bit of a dimwit – he needs to be told what to do) but Paul showed a video of the robot working its way around his house. A1-DW is controlled with software developed using the Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio (MRDS) which is free for non-commercial use and provides a combination of a visual programming language and physics-enabled based simulation. In Paul’s demonstration he used a simple programme to join the SetDrivePower control on a GenericDifferentialDrive to the TriggersChanged event from XInputController (a Wireless Xbox controller) and drove it around the room – the idea being that services scattered across a home network (one big grid computer) can be used to control less powerful robot.
  • The next demonstration was of Windows Home Server, showing how this product has a very simple user interface, designed to make it easy for consumers to set up a server in their home and manage users, shared folders, storage and websites (e.g. for sharing a photo album with friends and family). Plugins are available (e.g. mControl for home server) whilst the network status is indicated with a simple red, amber, green system which advises of any action to be taken (e.g. update anti-virus definitions, perform a backup). There is also a simple interface for setting up backups, password policies, remote access (reverse DNS is established via the Windows Live ID authentication process – upon sign in, the IP address of the server is recorded in the DNS zone), port forwarding (via uPnP), etc. Windows Home Server is available to system builders as an OEM product, or a fully-configured system costs around £500 (e.g. the HP EX400 MediaSmart server at £499). For more information on Windows Home Server and the digital home, see We Got Served.
  • Looking at some of the developments in Microsoft hardware, Viral demonstrated: Microsoft’s new mice with a blue LED light which can track smoothly regardless of the surface; new LifeCam devices with HD picture quality and messenger integration; and an arcmouse where the end folds in for travel without the usual restrictions of a mobile mouse (i.e. its small size).
  • Finally, Paul showed off Windows 7 Ultimate Edition running on a netbook. The model he used was an Acer Aspire One with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU, 1GB RAM, 120GB Hard drive (not SSD) and I was very impresed at the performance and the graphics (e.g. very smooth Flip-3D effects). For those who were confused by the apparant doublespeak in my recent post about installing Windows 7 on an old PC, it’s worth considering that this machine cost him £228 including shipping (for a Linux version) and has a Windows Experience index of 2.3 (2.9 for the CPU, 3.3 for RAM, 2.3 for graphics, 3.0 for gaming graphics and 5.0 for disk). Having seen this, I’m almost certainly going to be buying a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 for Windows 7.

For someone who mostly concentrates on Microsoft’s business-focused products, it was interesting to spend an evening on the consumer side of the fence. In summary: an evening of geeky goodness.

Reinstalling Windows Home Server

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

After replacing a failed hard disk yesterday, I needed to rebuild my Windows Home Server (WHS).  The process was surprisingly straightforward – having suffered a total disk failure, I had no data to worry about (in any case, the server only contained client PC backups), so all I needed to do was re-install the software (although I’m not sure what the effect of product activation would have been as I hadn’t activated WHS when the disk crashed) and re-establish my configuration changes (firewall changes, language settings, date and time, etc.).  One item I had expected some trouble with was the remote access address but because this is linked to my Windows Live identity, it was re-established automatically and so the only concern was reconnecting my client computers.  I had to recreate the user accounts manually but to reconnect an existing client computer, it was as simple as running %programfiles%\Windows Home Server\discovery.exe (thanks to GordonTGopher and Ken Warren for helping me out on that one at the WHS forums).  This added the computers back into the WHS console and that night, the backups ran as normal.

One more item that may be useful (it certainly saves using the Windows Home Server client connector CD), is to note that the client software is available at \\servername\software\Home Server Connector Software\setup.exe (via Optika’s workaround to beta feedback request 262981).

Windows Home Server will be available in both hardware and software form

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

In a recent post, I commented on Microsoft’s early indications that Windows Home Server (WHS) will be an OEM-only product – a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.  The topic has been raised as a beta feedback request 272635 as well as on the WHS forums and, following Bill Gates’ announcement at WinHEC, it would seem that WHS will be available both as a hardware appliance and in (OEM) software form.  That means that registered system builders will be able to install the software on a customised PC… I’m not sure if that extends to people like myself who intend running WHS on a repurposed PC (a configuration which is now running well with the latest CTP build).  There will also be various ISV-supplied add-ins for protection against viruses and malware, media sharing capabilities, home security, and home automation.

That’s some consolation (I’m sure I will be able to get a system builder copy somehow) but it will also be interesting to hear the price point at which Microsoft intends to pitch WHS.

Windows Home Server – first impressions, mass storage drivers and clients that won’t connect

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Windows Home Server logoIn my post about Microsoft’s Vista after hours event, I mentioned Windows Home Server (WHS). Over the weekend, I installed the April CTP of Windows Home Server (build 1371) on a PC at home and I’m pretty impressed.

WHS is based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server and consequently has a pretty solid codebase. In the April CTP, the product’s lineage is very visible, with a the title Windows Server 2003 for Small Business Server Setup during text-mode setup, a Windows Server 2003 splash screen and the desktop displaying the version information as:

Windows Server 2003 for Small Business Server Evaluation copy. Build 3790 (Service Pack 2)

I installed the product on an aging Compaq DeskPro D500SFF (Pentium 4 1.5GHz CPU) upgraded to 768MB of RAM (I’m sure 512MB would have been fine but I’d already upgraded it) with a Sony DWG120A DVD±RW dual layer recorder, white-box Serial ATA (SATA) controller (Silicon Image SiI3112A SATALink BIOS v4.2.83) and a Seagate ST3500641AS (500GB SATA) disk.

Rather than reviewing WHS (as other people are better at that than I am – Paul Thurrott has a review of the WHS April CTP and APC has a review of WHS beta 2), I’ll just highlight a couple of issues that it took me a while to resolve:

  • The WinPE 2.0-based installer didn’t recognise my SATA controller (but it did give me a straightforward interface for loading the correct drivers) – I know that SATA support in Windows is still patchy, but I would expect a new product to have been updated with current mass storage drivers for a common chipset (ironically, Windows Update pushed some updated drivers after installation)! I downloaded the latest SiI3x12 32-bit Windows base driver (v1.3.67.0, dated 30 March 2007) and, when prompted by the installer, I supplied them on a USB key; however this failed setup once it entered text-mode (it couldn’t see the USB key) so I tried again using a CD. Again, text-mode setup failed as it will only accept updated drivers (after pressing F6) from drive A: so I ran the whole process again, this time using a floppy disk (which felt like a return to the 1990s). Even though the GUI-mode and text-mode setups both require their own drivers to be loaded, it seems that they have to be from the same media.
  • I had a few issues with my media (file copy errors), despite downloading the ISO twice (on two different machines) and writing the DVD (using two different drives) at the slowest possible speed; however I decided to skip the files that couldn’t be read (mostly non-English language files but also one hotfix for Microsoft knowledge base article 929644, which is not available publicly). This may have been the cause of a later error – Windows Home Server setup error. Updating Windows Update Redirector failed: cannot complete this function. (error code 0x800703eb) but after setup consequently failed, I restarted the computer, after which it resumed installation, updated the Windows Update Redirector and ran the rest of the setup routine with no further issues.
  • When installing the client connector (on a Windows XP SP2 PC), I was unable to connect to my home server. As product intended for home users, WHS expects all devices to be on the same subnet; however my home network is split across multiple subnets (I also elected not to use the default server name). The WHS help text refers to this as an advanced network configuration and WHS requires that a manual connection is made. Unfortunately, connecting directly via IP (or name) also failed, informing me that A network error has occurred. Please verify that your network connection is active and that Windows Home Server is powered on. Then, I found a very useful troubleshooter for WHS client joins which let me ascertain that all was well with my server so I started looking at firewalls. After enabling firewall logging on the WHS network connection, I could see connections being dropped from one of my own subnets. I then edited the firewall exceptions list, changing the scope from my network (subnet) only to a custom list of subnets for the following services (any externally-accessible services were left at their defaults – i.e. HTTP on TCP 80, HTTPS on TCP 443 and Windows Home Server Remote Access on TCP 4125) and successfully joined the client to my WHS:
    • File and printer sharing (TCP 139 and 445, UDP 137-138).
    • HTTP (TCP 88).
    • HTTPS (TCP 444).
    • Remote Desktop (TCP 3389).
    • Windows Home Server Computer Backup (program exception).
    • Windows Home Server Diagnostics (TCP 5247).
    • Windows Home Server Transport Service (TCP 1138).
    • Windows Media Connect (TCP 10243, UDP 10280-10284).
    • UPnP Framework (TCP 2869 and UDP 1900).

Despite these problems, I want to stress that WHS is shaping up to be a great product. It is beta software and that means that problems are to be expected (I have filed a few bug reports already, as well as a couple of feature requests – namely that I would like to be able to join WHS servers to a domain and apply group policy and that I would like to be able to access WHS on my own domain name, rather than via a Microsoft-supplied address).

There’s more information about WHS at the Windows Home Server blog.

Get a Mac? Maybe, but Windows Vista offers a more complete package than you might think

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’ll freely admit that I have been critical of Windows Vista at times and I’ll stand by my comments published in Computer Weekly last November – Windows XP will remain in mainstream use for quite some time. Having said that, I can’t see Mac OS X or Linux taking the corporate desktop by storm and the move to Vista is inevitable, just not really a priority for many organisations right now.

Taking off my corporate hat one evening last week, I made the trip to Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading for an event entitled “Vista after hours”. Hosted by James Senior and Matt McSpirit it was a demo-heavy and PowerPoint-light tour of some of the features in Windows Vista that we can make use of when we’re not working. Not being a gamer and having bought a Mac last year, I’ve never really paid attention to Microsoft’s digital home experience but I was, quite frankly, blown away by what I saw.

The first portion of the evening looked at some of the out-of-the-box functionality in Windows Vista, covering topics like search, drilling down by searching within results, using metadata to tag objects, live previews and saving search queries for later recall as well as network diagnosis and repair. Nothing mind-blowing there but well-executed all the same. Other topics covered included the use of:

  • Windows Photo Gallery (which includes support for the major, unprocessed, raw mode formats as well as more common, compressed, JPEG images) to perform simple photo edits and even to restore to the original image (cf. a photographic negative).
  • Windows Movie Maker to produce movies up to 1080p.
  • Windows DVD Maker to produce DVD menus with support for both NTSC and PAL as well as 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.
  • Windows Media Player to organise media in many ways (stack/sort by genre, year, songs, album, artist, rating, recently added, etc.) and share that media.

Apple Macintosh users will think “yeah, I have iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iTunes to do all that” and they would be correct but Apple says (or at least implies in its advertising) that it’s hard to do these things on a PC – with Vista it’s just not… which moves me on to backup – not provided (at least in GUI form) by the current Mac OS X release (only with a .Mac subscription) and much improved in Windows Vista. “Ah yes, but Leopard will include Time Machine!”, say the Mac users – Windows has had included the volume shadow copy service (VSS/VSC) since Windows XP and Windows Backup includes support for multiple file versions right now as well as both standard disk-based backups and snapshots to virtual hard disk (.VHD) images, which can then be used as a restore point or mounted in Virtual PC/Virtual Server as a non-bootable disk. Now that does sound good to me and I’m sure there must be a way to make the .VHD bootable for physical to virtual (P2V) and virtual to physical (V2P) migrations… maybe that’s something to have a play with another day.

Regardless of all the new Vista functionality, for me, the most interesting part of the first session was Windows Home Server. I’m a registered beta user for this product but must confess I haven’t got around to installing it yet. Well, I will – in fact I’m downloading the April CTP as I write this. Based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server, it provides a centralised console for management of and access to information stored at home. Microsoft claim that it has low hardware requirements – just a large hard disk – I guess low hardware requirements is a subjective term (and I figure that my idea of low hardware requirements and Microsoft’s may differ somewhat), nevertheless it offers the opportunity to secure data (home computer backup and restore, including scheduling), provide centralised storage (a single storage pool, broken out as shared storage, PC backups, operating system and free space), monitor network health (i.e. identify unsafe machines on the network), provide remote access (via an HTTPS connection to a defined web address) and stream media, all controlled through a central console. Because the product is aimed at consumers, ease of use will be key to its success and it includes some nice touches like scheduled backups and automatic router configuration for remote access. Each client computer requires a connection pack in order to allow Home Server to manage it (including associating account information for secuirity purposes) and, in response to one of my questions, Microsoft confirmed that there will be support for non-Windows clents (e.g. Mac OS X 10.5 and even Linux). Unfortunately, product pricing has not yet been released and early indications are that this will be an OEM-only product; that will be a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.

Another area covered in the first session was parental controls – not really something that I worry about right now but maybe I will over the next few years as my children start to use computers. Windows Vista includes the ability for parents to monotor their child’s activities including websites, applications, e-mail, instant messages and media. Web filters can be used to prevent access to certain content with an HTTP 450 response, including a link for a parent to approve and unblock access to the content as well as time limits on access (providing a warning before forcing a logout). Similarly, certain games can be blocked for younger users of the family PC. The volume and diversity of the questions at the event would indicate that Vista’s parental controls are fairly simplistic and will not be suitable for all (for example, time limits are on computer access as a whole and not for a particular application, so it’s not possible to allow a child access to the computer to complete their homework but to limit games to a certain period in the evening and at weekends).

If session one had whetted my appetite for Vista, session two (Vista: Extended) blew my mind and by the time I went home, I was buzzing…

I first heard of Windows SideShow as a way to access certain content with a secondary display, e.g. to provide information about urgent e-mails and upcoming appointments on the lid of a laptop computer but it actually offers far more than this – in fact, the potential for SideShow devices is huge. Connectivity can be provided by USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – Windows doesn’t care – and the home automation possibilities are endless. I can really see the day when my fridge includes capabilities for ordering groceries via a SideShow display in the door. There is at least one website devoted to SideShow devices but James Senior demonstrated a laptop bag with a built-in SideShow controller including a cache for media playback. Typically used to expose information from a Windows Sidebar gadget, SideShow devices will wake up a sleeping computer to synchrosise content then put it back to sleep and can be secured with a PIN or even erased when logged off. Access is controlled within the Windows Control Panel and there is an emulator available to simulate SideShow devices.

As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center

Next up was Windows Media Center. Unlike with the Windows XP Media Center and Tablet PC editions, Microsoft no longer provides a separate SKU for this functionality, although it is not enabled in all Vista product editions. Media Center is a full-screen application that offers a complete home media hub – sort of like Apple Front Row but with support for TV tuners to include personal video recorder (PVR) functionality. As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center – multiple TV tuners can be installed (e.g. to pause live TV, or to record two items at once, as well as the elctronic programme guide (EPG), controls, etc. being displayed as an overlay on the currently playing content. As with Windows Media Player, visualisations are provided and in theory it ought to be possible to remote control a Media Center PC via Windows Home Server and set up a recording remotely. Individual programs, or whole series, can be recorded and many TV tuners include DVB-T (digital terrestrial) support (i.e. Freeview), with other devices such as satellite and cable TV decoders needing a kludge with a remote infra-red controller (a limitation of Sky/Virgin Media network access rather than with Windows). Other functionality includes RSS support as well as integration with Windows Live Messenger and some basic parental controls (not as extensive as elsewhere in Windows Vista but nevertheless allowing a PIN to be set on certain recordings).

The event was also my first opportunity to look at a Zune. It may be a rather half-hearted attempt at producing a media player (no podcast support and, crucially, no support for Microsoft’s own PlaysForSure initiative) but in terms of form-factor it actually looks pretty good – and it includes functionality that’s missing from current iPods like a radio. If only Apple could produce an iPod with a similarly-sized widescreen display (not the iPhone) then I’d be more than happy. It also seems logical to me that as soon as iTunes is DRM-free then the iTunes/iPod monopoly will be broken as we should be able to use music purchased from the largest online music store (iTunes) on the world’s favourite portable media player (iPod) together with Windows Media Center… anyway, I digress…

I mentioned earlier that I’m not a gamer. Even so, the Xbox 360‘s ability to integrate with Windows PCs is an impressive component of the Microsoft’s digital home experience arsenal. With its dashboard interface based around a system of “blades”, the Xbox 360 is more than just a games machine:

As well as the Xbox 360 Core and Xbox 360 Pro (chrome) systems Microsoft has launched the Xbox 360 Elite in the United States – a black version with a 120GB hard disk and HDMI connectivity, although it’s not yet available here in the UK (and there are also some limited edition Yellow Xbox 360s to commemorate the Simpsons movie).

Finally, Microsoft demostrated Games for Windows Livebringing the XBox 360 Live experience to Windows Vista-based PC gaming. With an Xbox 360 wireless gaming receiver for Windows, Vista PC gamers can even use an Xbox 360 wireless controller (and not just for gaming – James Senior demonstrated using it to navigate Windows Live maps, including the 3D and bird’s eye views). Not all games that are available for both PCs and the Xbox will offer the cross-platform live experience; however the first one that will is called Shadowrun (and is due for release on 1 June 2007) bringing two of the largest gaming platforms together and providing a seamless user experience (marred only by the marketing decision to have two types of account – silver for PC-PC interaction and gold for PC-XBox).

Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch… and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side

So, after all this, would I choose a Mac or a Windows PC? (or a Linux PC?) Well, like so many comparisons, it’s just not that simple. I love my Mac, but Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch, splashed out on the (admittedly rather nice) Apple hardware and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side. In addition, Apple’s decision to delay the next release of OS X whilst they try to enter the mobile phone market makes me question how committed to the Macintosh platform they really are. Linux is good for techies and, if you can support yourself, it has the potential to be free of charge. If you do need support though, some Linux distros can be more expensive than Windows. So what about Windows, still dominant and almost universally despised by anyone who realises that there is a choice? Actually, Windows Vista is rather good. It may still have far too much legacy code for my liking (which is bound to affect security and stability) but it’s nowhere near as bad as the competition would have us thinking… in fact it hasn’t been bad since everything moved over to the NT codebase and, complicated though the product versions may be, Windows Vista includes alternatives to the iLife suite shipped with a new Macs as well as a superior media hub. Add the Xbox integration and Windows SideShow into the mix and the Microsoft digital home experience is excellent. Consumers really shouldn’t write off Windows Vista just yet.