I was secretly hoping that Microsoft would announce a Roku-style digital media set-top box at this past week’s devices event. And I’m still holding out hope that it will one day provide Groove and Movies & TV apps for Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, and other established solutions. But until it does, your options for enjoying your Microsoft-purchased content in the living room are quite limited.
Looking at and around my own HDTV, I see several devices—the TV itself, a Blu-Ray player, a FIOS set-top box, a Roku 3 (soon to be replaced by a Roku 4), an Apple TV (soon to be replaced by a new Apple TV), an Amazon Fire TV, a Google Nexus Player and even a Chromecast—most of which can connect to multiple services like Netflix, but none of which—literally, none—can play content from Groove or Movies & TV. I consider this to be problematic.
As bad, none of the solutions I will list here are in fact great replacements for these cheaper, more reliable and smaller alternatives. Miracast isn’t as useful or reliable as Chromecast, for example—in fact it’s not even close—and while an Xbox provides broad compatibility with non-Microsoft services and might be considered a drop-in replacement for a set-top box, these things are big, bulky, loud and relatively expensive. I consider this, too, to be problematic.
So understand that the choices here are not necessarily great. Though I suppose those who have really bought into the whole Microsoft ecosystem thing will find a few to rally around.
Use an Xbox
The most obvious and full-featured solution to this problem is to just get an Xbox. These consoles are powerful, and also offer storage expansion and home network capabilities so you can access other digital media content you might have on other devices in your home. More to the point, they both come with decent Groove and Movies & TV clients.
The issues are heat/fan noise, size (you could fit over 20 Roku devices in the space occupied by an Xbox One), and expense. But you can somewhat overcome the latter issue by going with an Xbox 360. The cheapest Xbox 360 I could find—the Xbox 360 4GB System Console with Peggle 2 Bundle at Amazon.com—costs $150, the same price as Apple’s next Apple TV. But for a real living room experience, you’ll also want the Xbox 360 Media Remote, which adds another $14 to the price. $165 isn’t too bad, considering what you get, I guess.
The Xbox One is a much more powerful and modern console, but it will cost you. A basic Xbox One console costs about $350, though this year Microsoft is selling various bundles—like the Xbox One Gears of War: Ultimate Edition Bundle, theXbox One Assassin’s Creed Unity Bundle, and others—for about the same price. These are better values because of the bundled games, assuming you’ll ever play them.
But you will probably want two other Xbox One accessories, both of which will dramatically improve the digital media experience in the living room: A Kinect for voice control, which can be had for $140 as a standalone add-on, or together with the console and three games for $500. And an Xbox One Media Remote, which costs $20.
Long story short, the cheapest reasonable Xbox One experience is about $370 (console + remote), while the more elegant Kinect-equipped layout will set you back over $500. These are expensive solutions.
Use a (Windows 10) PC
Of course, most everyone reading this site already has a Groove- and Movies & TV-compatible device that they can use in their living room: A Windows 10-based PC. And if it’s a laptop or other portable PC—or is perhaps even a living room-based home theater PC—then you have a few choices for connecting that PC to the HDTV and your home theater system.
The simplest and most reliable is an HDMI cable. Yes, it’s unsightly, but if you just want to blast content from your PC to the HDTV, HDMI will always work and work well, assuming there’s a compatible port on both devices (the PC and the HDTV). You will also need to deal with Windows’s sometimes strange Project capabilities. (Just type WINKEY + P to access your choices. I recommend “Second screen only” for movies and other videos.)
If you just can’t wrap your heard around the notion of a cable snaking its way through your living room, you should look into Miracast, the Windows-compatible wireless display technology. Put simply, Miracast is a “dumb wireless cable,” a way to do HDMI (e.g. video and sound) to a compatible external screen. But since most HDTVs are not Miracast enabled, you will need a Miracast dongle on the HDTV. And on that note,I strongly recommend the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter, which is about $45 at Amazon right now. This dongle is the most reliable Miracast device I’ve ever tested, and I travel with one because, well, you never know.
For Groove only, I suppose you could also consider a Sonos system, which I wrote about recently in Groove Music + Sonos and Hands-On: Groove + Sonos. This is an expensive proposition—the cheapest Sonos speaker, the Sonos PLAY:1 I purchased is $200—and you will want two of them. But the sound quality is good, as is the central control, through the Sonos Controller software.
Use your Windows phone
Most recent and/or high-end Lumia Windows phone handsets are also compatible with Miracast, meaning that you wirelessly duplicate your phone’s display on an HDTV (again, using a $45 Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter or similar dongle). Miracast is a lot less elegant on Windows phones, since you can only duplicate the display; it really doesn’t make sense to offer a “Second screen only” option on a touch-based device. But it works. And if you’re already using a compatible device—look for “Project My Screen” in Settings—all you’ll need is that Miracast dongle to get up and running.
(Android also supports Miracast, so you could probably duplicate your Android phone’s display to an HDTV and then access Groove Music—but not Movies & TV—that way too. I have not tested this recently.)
If you don’t see Project My Screen on your Windows phone, there is also a USB option: Using the Project My Screen app for Windows Phone, you can connect your phone to a PC (via USB) and then to whatever display. It’s mostly unnecessary, since those with a PC should just use the PC. But it’s there if you need it.
So these are the solutions I immediately come up with. Am I missing anything?