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TUAW Guide: Xbox 360 and Mac

In many of the recent reviews of the Apple TV, the Xbox 360 was often mentioned as a competing Media Extender product. Having recently bought a 360, I thought it would be good to discover the ways in which my two pretty white boxes can work together. In this TUAW Guide to Xbox 360 and the Mac, I'm going to discuss some of both the hardware and software compatibilities between the machines. If you've ever been curious about the Xbox 360 read on, and if you're an old hand my Gamertag is matonmacs, send a friend request my way; maybe we can get a TUAW clan going!

Share your internet with your Xbox

Xbox Live, the extensive online offering from Microsoft, may very well be the Xbox's best feature, and where the Xbox is head and shoulders above the other consoles (though both Nintendo and Sony are finally starting to pay more attention to the online space). You need to connect your Xbox to the internet. Of course the easiest way to do this is to plug it straight into your home router, but as I discussed recently it's possible to make your Mac do double duty as a router. In fact, because I wanted to keep my Mac connected directly to my cable modem for some other reasons, I decided to network my Xbox directly to the Mac via a USB Ethernet adapter and use OS X's built-in Internet Sharing. With a little bit of set-up as detailed in this previous tutorial it works great.

If you do this, however, you'll need to open a couple of ports in your firewall for Xbox Live to work properly. Just head to the Firewall Tab of the Sharing Preference Pane. Click on "New..." and add TCP Port 3074 and UDP Ports 88 and 3074 as follows, and you should be set.


Use your Xbox USB Accessories with your Mac

Most of your game playing is probably going to be on the Xbox, but occasionally you might like to play a little Wingdings or some classic via MacMAME on your Mac, so why not use the excellently designed Xbox controllers? If you have the wired version of the controller they have standard USB ports which you can plug right into your Mac or a hub, but just plugging them in isn't quite enough. You'll need a driver for the controller hardware, and fortunately Colin Munro has you covered with his donationware Pref360. Unfortunately, you may also need ControllerMate ($15) to customize the buttons as proxies for particular keyboard keys if your game does not offer customization built it.


If you have wireless controllers you'll need the Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver ($20). This little dongle plugs into a USB port and allows you to use your wireless controllers the same way the wired ones work. Fortunately, Colin has recently updated his driver to work with the Receiver.


With the recent update to 10.4.9, Apple added support for USB Video Class webcams to iChat. As it turns out, the Xbox Live Vision Camera is just such a USB Video Class camera. It should be straight plug and play with 10.4.9, and gives you a 640x480 image with native compatibility with iChat. Furthermore, the Xbox Live Vision is widely available for only about $40, making it a very cost-effective way to get video chatting, particularly since Apple has seemingly dropped the iSight.

Finally, you can also use your iPod directly with the 360. One very cool feature of the 360 is the ability to play your own music from the Xbox dashboard, while you're playing a game. This music can be songs you've ripped to the Xbox's hard drive, songs streamed from a networked computer (more on this later), or songs on an external USB hard drive, including an iPod. If you plug an iPod directly into the Xbox's USB port it will recognize it, and allow you to browse your iPod's library and even see your playlists!

Out of the box, the Xbox 360 can only recognize MP3s and WMVs, but a quick trip to the downloads section of the Xbox Live Marketplace will yield a free download that enables AAC support. Download and install this Optional iPod Support, and your unprotected AACs will play just fine. Of course this won't work on iTunes-purchased protected files, so this is all the more reason to welcome the EMI announcement.


Keep track of your Friends on your Mac

There are a number of Mac applications that interact with xbox.com to allow you to keep track of your Live Friends. Mac Live lets you view your Friends and send them text messages. Best of all, it can give you Growl notifications when your Friends come online, so you can get online and beat them. Both Xbox Live Friends and Friendz purport to offer similar functionality to Mac Live. Xbox Live Friends is perhaps the most Mac-like of these programs, looking sort of like the Buddy List in iChat. Unfortunately, all of these applications are relatively unstable, and seem to lose connection with xbox.com relatively often on my machine. I don't know if it's specific to my machine, or something more general. I'm really hoping that these programs continue to mature, as Xbox Live Friends in particular looks very interesting, though it does still need a lot of work.

On the other hand, there are a couple of applications that work quite well just for displaying GamerCards. LiveKardz (right), which is being deprecated and folded into Friendz, just displays each GamerCard in a small window, and you can open as many as you like. xCard360 does basically the same thing, displaying two GamerCards at once in a brushed metal interface. Unfortunately, they don't really do much more than that.


Stream Media from your Mac

As I mentioned at the start, one of the most potentially exciting use of the Xbox 360 is to stream media from your Mac. However, of course, as a Microsoft product the Xbox 360 is really only designed to work with Windows PCs. Furthermore, the codec support is very limited: MP3, AAC (as above), and WMA for audio and Windows Media for video. Fortunately, these limitations can be partially overcome now, and as I'll explain shortly, the future looks bright.

I.) The first problem requires getting the Xbox to recognize the Mac as a source computer for files. Fortunately, Connect360 ($20) from nullriver does just this. It installs as a Preference Pane, and allows you to share your iTunes Library and your iPhoto Library with the 360. It will also allow you to share video files, but these must be WMV+WMA files, so as a Mac user that's not likely to be that helpful. One key point: Connect360 will not work if your Xbox is connected directly to your Mac as I've described above. As the FAQ states, it will only work with "a hub-type device or a switch that supports broadcasting."

Given the limitations, if I just want to listen to my music while playing a game I'd just as soon connect my iPod directly to the Xbox 360 as get the Mac connection going.

II.) As I said above, streaming video from a Mac to the Xbox 360 is almost pointless given the need to use WMV+WMA video. However, good news is on the way. Microsoft has announced that the Spring update to the Dashboard is bringing new codec support. In particular, the update will bring us H.264 (i.e. Apple's favored codec for the Apple TV, iPod, iPhone, etc.). This means that future versions of Connect360 should offer much better video support from the Mac. Of course you'll still have to get your content into H.264, but (barring hacks) that's exactly what you have to do with the Apple TV. I can recommend VisualHub for this, and as more and more content is optimized for the Apple TV and iPod, it should become even easier to find videos that will play without conversion on the Xbox 360. The Spring 2007 Update to the Xbox 360 Dashboard is expected to drop in the week of May 7th (and is already in the hands of testers).


Conclusion

It was not my purpose to review the Xbox 360 so I have discussed neither gaming nor downloadable HD movie and TV shows. That said, and I don't want to get in any fights about this, at this time the Xbox 360 clearly has the strongest library of next generation games (a year head start on the PS3 will do that, and it's not entirely clear, as much as I want one, that the Wii even properly counts as next-gen). As this guide has shown, the Xbox 360 and the Mac make a very complimentary pair. For the Mac user who envies the PC gaming scene, the Xbox 360 can be a very appealing option over a dedicated gaming PC or even Boot Camp. For me, my iMac is just fine for my general computing, but it's not really powerful enough to run serious PC games. So for about the cost of a good video card the Xbox 360 lets me play gorgeous HD games on the same 20" LCD I have connected to my Mac (the Xbox goes to the VGA input and the Mac to the DVI). I highly recommend the the Xbox 360 for Mac users; it even looks pretty good sitting next to my Mac. If you agree, hit me up with a friend request, Gamertag: matonmacs.

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