Xbox Music Pass and the Fail

My wife has recently been trialling some of music subscription services. As a Windows Phone household with Lumia 820’s for both me and the wife, she tried Nokia Mix Radio Plus first as she’d loved the free version. She wasn’t really impressed as it wasn’t really much better than the free one.

She moved on to Spotify next and I decided to try out the free 30-Day Trial of Xbox Music Pass. I had high hopes for Xbox Music Pass as I already love the free streaming for Windows 8/RT devices listening to the odd song on it. The cloud syncing feature is great for me too because it means on my work Windows 8 desktop I can access the majority of my music that’s at home and have it streamed to my work PC courtesy of the Xbox Music service. Being able to create playlists and Smart DJ playlists on my home PC and then have those available on the Xbox, my Windows Phone 8 device and my work Windows 8 desktop was pretty appealing.

After enabling it on my Microsoft Account, I first tried to create some Smart DJ playlists for some artists I’m enjoying at the moment thinking I could discover some new music. To name two artists I’m enjoying currently, Avicii and Gareth Emery, neither of them allowed me to create Smart DJ playlists. Not a good start considering a search of the Xbox Music Store reveals quite a few songs for both artists so it’s hardly like they aren’t indexed, classified or categorised. I figured I’d come back to this another day to test the true extent of the problem

I created a static playlist called Favourites and started adding music to it, only to discover that about a third of the songs I am enjoying currently aren’t available to stream on Xbox Music but require a purchase. What was most annoying is that it allowed me to add them to the playlist but then when playing the playlist it would skip over those tracks with an exclaimation mark warning instead of telling me from the offset before adding them to the playlist.

Why am I going to pay £8.99 per month for a service which doesn’t actually have a third of the music I am interested in? I know Spotify doesn’t have some of the value-add that Xbox Music does around Windows and Xbox features and integration but for an extra £1 per month I would actually be able to listen to whatever I wanted and not have to buy the songs.

I thought I would see what the experience was like on the phone with the playlist I’d just created. Opening the Music hub, I navigated to Playlists and after a few moments, the phone realised I now had Xbox Music Pass and showed me the playlist and I started to play it. Some of the songs were detected as already existing on the SD card of my phone from my conventional music library but the majority of them were streaming. I was started looking for the download option as I wouldn’t want to be streaming this over 3G when I left the house. I couldn’t find it.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the fact that I needed to go directly into a song to download it. Seriously? My playlist is only 20 songs currently, but what if it was 200 or more songs? Am I seriously expected to go to each song and select the download option? With Spotify, my wife can just download the playlist and all the songs within it are downloaded automatically. I’d go as far as to say that I think if she adds and removes songs from the playlist that it will probably automatically update what’s held on storage automatically too.

The other failing of the Music hub on the phone is that there is no option that I can find to show Storage/Cloud/Downloaded music specifically. In the Music app on Windows 8 there is the option to only view music in a certain storage location, especially useful on a phone if you want to only select music that is on SD card storage to prevent a big 3G usage bill each month. Searching for Music in the Xbox Music Store is pretty straightforward however really I think it takes too many screen taps to go from playlist to store, store to song selection and then back to playlist with the new song added.

The Windows 8/RT Music app has been getting a lot of attention recently with updates and I think it’s probably time that Microsoft turned their attention to the Windows Phone Music hub and gave that a matching overhaul to bring the features and UI of the two in closer alignment as it’s needed. I haven’t tried it on the Xbox yet, but I suspect that will probably suffer some of the same fates as the Windows Phone environment. I think if there are a lot of gaps and cracking in which artists you can and can’t stream or setup Smart DJ for then this also needs to be addressed.

It’s a real shame, because I want to like Xbox Music Pass and I almost want to actually give Microsoft £89 a year for a one year subscription, but with simple flaws like this, I just can’t, it’s not practical. I think Microsoft also need to look at making an Xbox Live Gold with Xbox Music Pass bundle where if you renew and buy the two together you get a slight discount.

Media Center Auto-Start on Windows 8

With my backend server update to Windows Server 2012, I was keen to get my media front-end up to Windows 8 also to take advantage of SMB 3.0 for improved performance of opening and accessing the media stored on the server. I rebuilt the front-end about two weeks ago, taking advantage of the free Media Pack upgrade prior January 31st. I had already tested the components I use to make my media center tick including Shark007 Codec Pack, MyMovies and MediaControl so I knew all was good.

After installing Windows, the software needed and configuring auto-login for the media center service account, I proceeded to copy the shortcut I used in Windows 7 to launch the Media Center application into the Startup start menu group for the account. In Windows 8, the Startup group can be found in %AppData%MicrosoftWindowsStart MenuProgrmsStart-Up. With the shortcut added, I restarted the machine to test the result.

In Windows 8, to help attract people to the new Start Screen, the Start Screen automatically opens at login of any account. What I found was that this screen would pop over the Windows Media Center application which is hardly seamless for a keyboard and mouse free front-end. Using the remote, I clicked the Desktop tile on the Start Screen and Media Center appeared as expected, but I couldn’t control it. The reason was that although the application was now visible, it didn’t have focus so any inputs were ignored. Attaching a mouse to the machine and clicking anywhere in the Media Center interface restored focus but short of writing an AutoIt macro to do that for me (which is a nasty hack) this isn’t what I wanted or needed.

Luckily, a colleague pointed me in the direction of a Group Policy setting used sometimes in Remote Desktop Services or kiosk computer scenarios where the Explorer interface is hidden and a default application launched in it’s place. The setting still existed in Windows 8, so I gave it a shot and guess what? It works perfectly. I’m in the fortunate position that I am using Windows Server 2012 Essentials in a domain scenario so I was able to apply the Group Policy from the server, however this fix will work equally well for a non-domain scenario.

The policy setting can be found under User Settings > Administrative Templates > System. The setting is named Custom User Interface.

Enable the setting and specify the name of the application you want to launch. In my case, it is %WinDir%eHomeeShell.exe /nostartupanimation /mediamode.

It’s highly recommended to use environment variables here and not local paths if you can as I have done above. This will also work for Windows XP, Vista and 7 along with working for XBMC, Plex and other media clients you may use besides Windows Media Center. The byproduct of this is that startup performance is actually improved as you are no longer waiting for the Explorer shell interface to launch, and it prevents a few processes from running on the machine, giving you a little more CPU and Memory available.

As you will see, I use a couple of switches with my Windows Media Center startup to control the behaviour of it, which I would also recommend. These two switches stop the animation of the Media Center logo upon startup which I find saves about a second in load times and the second enters Media Mode. In this mode, Media Center’s close and minimize buttons are disabled causing Media Center to always run full screen and cannot be closed unless you use the manual Exit Media Mode option in the menu.

In the next couple of days, I’ll try and get a YouTube video up demonstrating the process for configuring this setting both via Windows Server 2012 Essentials domain and locally using the Local Group Policy Editor.

Xbox Music Availability for Xbox Live Gold Users

Here’s an interesting something I found out today courtesy of a tweet from @WithinRafael.

If you are an Xbox Live Gold subscriber, then from a Windows 8 desktop, laptop, slate (or whatever your tipple) and from your Xbox, you can access free streaming from the Xbox Live Music service.

You don’t get access to the service from Windows Phone or the ability to download music for offline access for free, and you will require an Xbox Live Music Pass for those features.

Microsoft don’t exactly seem to be ‘sharing’ this information, because the details at http://www.xbox.com/en-GB/music/ don’t exactly scream and shout free stuff.

Get yourself a Nokia Lumia for the free Nokia Mix Radio on Windows Phone and free streaming on your full fat Windows device and your set for free though which I like very much, typing here from my Windows 8 laptop listening to some free David Guetta.

Windows 8 Battery Life

I wanted to get a quick post out there regarding Windows 8 battery life.

I’ve been at a meeting today where I’ve been using my Windows 8 Lenovo X220. The machine has the standard Lenovo hard disk (and not an SSD like some of my other machines) and has the standard 6 cell battery.

I left the house with this morning with about 80% battery, used the laptop for about four hours for note taking with OneNote 2013 and now I’m at home, I’ve still got 50% battery.

That’s some pretty amazing consumption if you ask me. Give me a 9 cell extended battery and an SSD to replace the rotating disk, and I think I could quite easily get a full days’ compute out of this machine.

Installing RSAT on Non-US Windows 8

I want to dedicate this post to Bartek Bielawski who has already blogged the solution to this problem. I used the en-GB build of Windows 8 to build my desktop and a few other machines and have been failing to get the RSAT for Windows 8 RTM to install. Bartek found the issue to be caused by the fact that you can only install the RSAT tools on machines whereby the en-US language pack is installed.

His post with how he found the answer is at http://becomelotr.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/rsat-on-windows-8-works-but-fails/.

To resolve the problem, I have downloaded the Windows 8 Multi Language x64 DVD, and installed the en-US language pack from it, which now begs the question, what is the difference and benefit of running the localized build if you have to install the en-US pack anyway?

 

KMS Activating Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8

In our environment, we have a Windows Server 2008 R2 virtual guest serving as our KMS host. With the recent RTM releases of Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8, we wanted to be able to activate our hosts and guests using KMS. If you try to activate one of these new Windows editions using a Windows Server 2008 R2 KMS host, then you will likely encounter the following error:

Error: 0xC004F050 The Software Licensing Service reported that the product key is invalid.

Luckily, Microsoft have released an update for the Windows Server 2008 R2 KMS host services to support the application of new KMS keys and to accept the KMS activation requests from these operating systems. You can download the update from http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2691586/EN-US and register to receive the hotfix.

Something you should note which I ran into which is not explicitly defined in the article is that this update only applies to Windows Server 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1. Trying to apply this update to the RTM release of Windows Server 2008 R2 produces an Windows Update error that this update is not applicable to this system.

After applying the SP1 update to the KMS host, I was able to install the update, and after a reboot, we were nearly ready to start activating. The final step is to update the KMS key, which is something not terribly well explained on the web either. You will have a KMS host key if you are a Microsoft Volume License customer, and you will have a Windows 8 or a Windows Server 2012 KMS key if you subscribe to Software Assurance for the products.

If you subscribe to Software Assurance for Windows 7 client operating systems, but not for Windows Server 2008 or 2008 R2, then you will receive a Windows 8 KMS key via your Volume License Servicing Center, but not a Windows Server 2012 KMS key. If you subscribe to Software Assurance for Windows Server 2008 or 2008 R2 then you will receive a Windows Server 2012 KMS key via your Volume License Servicing Center. One thing you need to be aware of regarding KMS is how the down-level clients are licensed.

On a KMS host, you can only apply one license key. If you install a Windows 8 KMS key, then you will be able to activate Windows Vista, 7 and 8 clients, but will not be able to activate any edition of any server operating system. In you install a Windows Server 2012 KMS key, then you will be able to activate any combination of Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2008, Windows Vista, 7 and 8.

In my scenario, our VLSC site showed a KMS key for Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8, so I used the Windows Server 2012 key. On the KMS host, first uninstall the old KMS key using the following command:

cscript slmgr.vbs -upk

You will receive a message that the key was successfully uninstalled, after which you can enter the new key.

cscript slmgr.vbs -ipk XYZXY-XYZXY-XYZXY-XYZXY-XYZXY

You should now receive a notification that the key was successfully installed onto the server. Lastly, you need to activate the key which requires going out to the Microsoft activation service, so if you use a proxy server for internet access, be sure that you allow this user and host combination to do that.

cscript slmgr.vbs -ato

Once all the above was complete, I entered the KMS client key for Windows 8 onto my Windows 8 Enterprise desktop and it successfully activated, as did a Windows Server 2012 Datacenter virtual machine which I deployed a couple of days ago. If you need the KMS client keys to get you back to a KMS state after you may have MAK activated your machines to get you up and running, you can get them from the TechNet page at http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/jj612867.aspx.