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Media Center and Xbox 360 joined at the hip

With HD clarity and more-realistic graphics, new Xbox will top old version in playing movies and music stored on Media Center.

The new Xbox is, of course, primarily aimed at hard-core gamers, not people who want to sit back and watch movies. But Microsoft is betting that even die-hard gamers like to take a break once in awhile.

That is why Microsoft is touting, among other features, the built-in ability of the Xbox 360 to play movies, TV shows and music that are stored on a Media Center PC in another room.

The connection between the game console and Microsoft's entertainment OS is not a new one. Last year, Microsoft started selling a kit that allowed the original Xbox to act as an extender that can bring the content of a Media Center to a second room.

This time around, though, the company is adding support for high-definition content. Also, more of the graphics rendering is being done locally on the Xbox, taking advantage of the game center's graphics horsepower. As a result, watching Media Center content on the Xbox 360 should be as good as watching it on the PC itself, according to Joe Belfiore, general manager of Microsoft's Media Center effort. That wasn't the case with the first generation of Media Center extenders, Belfiore said.

"You don't quite get the whole thing," Belfiore said. "It's a little bit flat."

The collaboration between the Xbox and Media Center units stems in part from Belfiore's friendship with Jeff Henshaw, a product-unit manager in the Xbox unit. The two worked together on Internet Explorer some years back and were looking for ways to again collaborate. The original Xbox extender was sort of a dry run, Belfiore said.

Later this year, Microsoft plans a minor update to Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 to support the Xbox 360 extender capability. Microsoft is planning a couple of other additions for the update, but they won't be on the scale of the annual Media Center updates customers have gotten used to.

"There will be some additional features," Belfiore said. "We're not talking about (them) yet--how big they are or how many."

The next full version of the Media Center OS won't come out until the launch of Longhorn, the Windows update due late next year. Microsoft has not said much about what Media Center features will be a part of Longhorn, but Belfiore said that his team will be able to take advantage of core improvements, including the new Avalon graphics engine.