By Darren Waters
The Xbox 360 is the most powerful games console currently available, but Microsoft is hoping the device will attract more than just hardcore gamers thanks to a raft of multimedia features.
Connecting to a PC is painless and quick
Games consoles have for some time been able to play music CDs and film DVDs but now Microsoft's 360 machine can also access music and photographs stored on a computer running Windows XP.
It may sound unimpressive but at a stroke Microsoft has started the process of taking the versatility and storage capability of a PC and bringing it into the living room.
The growth of MP3 players and digital cameras in recent years combined with the access to broadband has seen many people stuff their PC hard drives with music tracks and photographs.
Many want to play that music on a living room hi-fi but running a long cable from your PC is not the best option.
In the last few years a number of so-called media extender boxes have gone on the market that can connect wirelessly to a PC and do the job of connecting the hi-fi with computer.
But now the 360 combines those functions with a games console, CD player and DVD player.
Play CDs and DVDs
Copy CDs to hard drive
Stream music and photos from a Windows XP PC
Stream video and live TV from a Windows Media Center PC
Download game demos, trailers from Xbox Live
Download film trailers from Xbox Live
Play music and photos from a connected MP3 player and digital camera
* Some capabilities require broadband and a hard drive attached to the 360
To get the 360 and PC speaking you need to download a small piece of Microsoft software called Windows Connect, available free of charge, on to your computer.
From there it is an easy job to install, and if your PC is on the same local network as your 360 - they are both connected to the same router - you can select the folders where you store your music or photos and then start browsing via the 360 within minutes.
The browsing function on the 360 is limited and if you have a sizable collection of music on your PC's hard drive, it can be a slow process to locate your chosen album, artist or track.
Similarly, unless you have your photos organised in well-annotated folders on your PC's hard drive, finding that particular holiday photo can be difficult.
Hopefully a more sophisticated browsing system will be introduced to the 360 to take advantage of these features.
Game trailers, film trailers and demos can be bought and downloaded
Mac or Linux users cannot use Windows Connect, which seems short-sighted.
The 360's music and photo streaming capabilities are not likely to entice a single person into buying a Windows XP machine.
But Mac and Linux users could well have been intrigued enough to buy a 360 if they too could play their music and see their photos through the console.
The handful of people worldwide with the Media Center version of Windows XP can also play video that is stored on their PC and even access live TV via the 360.
Again, it appears short-sighted of Microsoft to restrict these attractive functions to so few owners of Media Center software.
In many respects the 360 feels like a glimpse at the digitally connected future.
You can stream music and photos, but only if you own a Windows XP machine.
You can play video from your PC hard drive, but only if you have Windows XP Media Center edition.
The 360s optional hard drive is too small at 20 gigabytes to be a genuine repository of digital music tracks or video, while the intriguing online market place offered via Xbox Live has only limited offerings in the way of game and movie trailers.
While users of the Xbox Live gaming service can send instant messages and even voice messages to each other it seems strange that Microsoft has not opened this out to include all users of its hugely-popular MSN chat software.
Imagine a games console that truly bridged the gap between living room and the millions of people who use the chat software on their PCs every day.
But these are early days for the console. With the right improvements to the software and more digital content available online for download direct to the 360, the machine could become the long-awaited digital entertainment hub many people have hoped for.