“Play to” and Windows 8.1

Back in the distant days of 2009, Microsoft introduced a feature called “Play to” into its new operating system, Windows 7. Play to, so Microsoft claimed:

makes it easy to stream music, video, and photos from your computer to other PCs, TVs, or stereos on your home network. You can stream music from your PC to your home entertainment system or stream slide shows and videos to another computer or to your TV. Just right-click the tracks you want to enjoy, or add them to your Windows Media Player 12 playlist, and click Play To. Now you’re hearing—or watching—what you want, where you want it.

In those early days, it was something of a rocky road to negotiate; there were many bumps along the way. Nevertheless, I was happy with the end result. It worked for what I wanted.

Then along came Windows 8. Once again, in the pre-release versions of Windows 8, there were issues, but these were fixed in the final version of Windows 8. However, while the operating system and the venerable Windows Media Player (unchanged from Windows 7) were working, the (brand-spanking-new-supposedly-fancy-but-really-very limited) Xbox Music App from Microsoft still had a number of shortcomings.

Windows 8 also introduced a new wrinkle into Play to. I discovered that my ancient (5 years old) Denon AVR-3808 was being reported as a “not Windows Certified” device. Whilst I could continue to use it with Windows Media Player, I could not use it at all with any of the new Modern UI Apps, such as Xbox Music. Fortunately, digital mediaphile Barb Bowman came to the rescue and discovered a Registry fix, which allowed non-Windows Certified devices to be used in Modern UI Apps. Subsequent to that, Microsoft’s Gabe Frost supplied a simpler Registry fix to accomplish the same thing.

I used Gabe’s fix, and all seemed fine.

Now we have Windows 8.1 and a much-improved Xbox Music App, and once again I seem to be taking a step back. While Windows Media Player continues to work as usual, Xbox Music is behaving very strangely when I attempt to use the Play to function. Here’s a screenshot of an attempt to use the Denon as a Play to device in Xbox Music (the Denon shows up with the name Network Audio in Windows):

PlayTo 03

Here, I’ve attempted to stream the first track to the Denon. That has failed, and Windows is telling me that it couldn’t connect to the Network Audio (the Denon), but in fact the second track is actually playing through the Denon. In addition, there’s a small information icon by the first track, click on it and you get:

PlayTo 04

which is a very odd message, since these tracks are not DRM-protected.

I tried another Modern UI App, Media Monkey, and this seemed to behave much better. Occasionally it would refuse to Play to the Denon when first starting up, but once it got going, it seemed to be much more solid.

So, what’s going on here?

I raised the issue in a thread on one of Microsoft’s Answers forums. Gabe Frost himself responded:

We have not seen this, and do not have this specific Denon model to test with, so would like to get further information from you.

I provided the information he asked for, and very quickly the answer came back, and it’s very interesting.

From the traces, we can see you’re trying to stream a WMA file from the Music app. Since Denon does not support WMA, the file has to be transcoded real-time into LPCM. When a file is transcoded in real-time, no system can know the resulting number of bytes, so in order to support seek, it has to be time-based (we do know the duration). However, Denon also does not support time-based seeking. In Windows 8.1, we introduced a feature that emulates time-based seeking for devices that do not support it. This is really nice in that users can seek their music or videos when they previously could not.

In your case, since the Music app was already playing the song locally for a bit, we are doing “Seek Emulation” to seek the stream to the same position the Music app was last playing at. This involves sending some additional SetAVTransportURI requests to the Denon DMR. We see the Denon DMR reporting an error, “TransportStatus = ERROR_OCCURRED”.  Probably this is the result of the additional SetAVTransportURI requests that we send.

That would explain why the bug does not happen when using WMP as the media controller (DMC) in Desktop. With the Desktop controller, we don’t try to seek immediately after starting to play.

Looking at our code, we see that careful tuning was required to work with Denon because they often tend (incorrectly) to report an error when they are no longer in an error state. Denon tends to forget to set TransportStatus back to “OK” when it has received a new URL to play. While we tested with a wide range of devices (including some newer Denon devices) It appears that your Denon device is incompatible with this seek emulation because of the device bugs.

We are investigating potential workarounds and will get back to you via this thread. A fix will take longer, unfortunately.

One slight correction to what Gabe has written; the Denon (and all Denon AVR models, as far as I’m aware) does not support the WMA Lossless format, but they all support standard WMA format. My Denon even came with a Microsoft “PlaysForSure” sticker on it – so it was certified by Microsoft as being able to play standard WMA format!

The issue I’m stuck with is that I have deliberately chosen to store my music collection in WMA Lossless format because it delivers higher-quality playback than standard WMA format. Lossless formats (e.g. WMA Lossless, FLAC) are better than formats that use lossy compression, such as WMA and MP3. The Denon supports FLAC, WMA and MP3, so in an ideal world, I would have chosen FLAC as my archival storage format.

Unfortunately, Microsoft don’t support FLAC. While I can get a third-party FLAC add-on for Windows Media Player, there appears no way to use a third-party add-on for the Xbox Music App. And while I can use Media Monkey to play back FLAC files, in addition to WMA, WMA Lossless and MP3, the Xbox Music App is linked into a music store for purchasing downloads.

I am going to have to think about the way forward for a while…

Addendum: The Xbox Music App has other problems of its own. See Xbox Music App – Metadata Madness

Addendum 2: As of April 8, 2014, Microsoft has released an Update to Windows 8.1 that makes it unnecessary to perform any registry edits to enable a DLNA Digital Media Renderer (DMR) to work with Modern Apps on the Start Screen. Devices will no longer appear as “uncertified” when Play is selected within an individual app (but if not certified will appear as such in the PC and Devices menu).

Addendum 3: Native support for the FLAC format will apparently be coming in Windows 10. Good news, as far as I’m concerned.

Addendum 4: Things will change yet again for Windows 10. First, the “Play to” function has been renamed to “Cast to”. Second, and more importantly, this function will have fundamental changes.  It appears as though Microsoft has removed DLNA DMR devices from system-level control (e.g. the Devices item in the Win 8.1 Charms bar), and demoted that function to needing to be controlled on an app-by-app basis.

That’s all very well if app developers actually take account of it. I note that neither of Microsoft’s Music apps (Music or Music Preview) do this, and I also note that the Microsoft spokesperson uses the qualifier “eventually” in the context of support by the Microsoft app. That could mean it will be available on July 29 or it could mean in five years time. That does not give me a warm feeling.

So, in summary, the “Play to” user experience is likely to take a step backwards in Windows 10 as compared to Windows 8/8.1. That’s a tad disappointing.

Addendum 5: Well, Windows 10 has been released (on the 29th July 2015), and as expected Microsoft’s Music app (now called “Groove”) still does not have the “Cast to” function implemented. Sigh.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
This entry was posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics, Hobbies, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to “Play to” and Windows 8.1

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  5. It’s a shame they can’t seem to get this right and then keep it working consistently.

    I use both Windows (PC, Lumia 1020, Surface RT) and Mac (Macbook Pro) products and although it has it’s flaws, the Apple TV really does work well, even from Windows using Air Parrot. The only devices it doesn’t work with are RT computers and my phone.

    The latest update lets you use the TV as a second monitor as well (from OS X), rather than just allowing you to mirror content which is a nice addition too.

    I’d love to be able to use Xbox Music Pass and Xbox Video content and play it to a range of devices, there’s just no easy way to do this. With Xbox Music Pass you can’t actually push the downloaded songs to other devices, you can only trigger an Xbox 360 to start streaming the content from the web.

    I’d really want a way to have true freedom with my content, even if I had to have a device attached to various displays around my home, if it all worked seamlessly then i’d be willing to pay for a number of receivers.

    I had hopes for Miracast but it already seems to be struggling to gain traction. Microsoft aren’t even releasing the necessary drivers for the original Surface RT to make use of it.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Daniel, it all seems a bit of a mess from Microsoft at the moment. That applies down at the infrastructure level (e.g. the Play to feature), as well as at the application level (e.g. Xbox Music App).

      I can have some sympathy with Microsoft for the infrastructure issues, since they are trying to work with the DLNA specs. The problem is that they don’t control these, and every manufacturer interprets them differently in their implementations. By contrast, Apple writes the rulebook for its products and services, and doesn’t have to herd cats.

      Nonetheless, my sympathy runs out when it comes to Microsoft’s applications. The Xbox Music App does not handle metadata properly and the Photos App continues to be a disaster.

  6. John says:

    Hi
    Interesting article about Play To. I have an Onkyo 2 ch network stereo receiver hooked up with a ethernet cable to my router. My PC is using Windows 7 home premium and I regularly use
    Media Monkey as my go to music program. You mentioned that you can use Media Monkey
    as a Play To remote service to your Denon receiver. I have tried to figure out how to do this
    with the newest version of Media Monkey but can’t seem to find where in Media Monkey to do it.
    I have used Windows Media Player 12 to use Play To with success to the Onkyo receiver.
    However it only accepts mp3 files for this Play To function. It will not play flac, wav, or apple
    files. (Sometime back I installed a direct show codec that allows me to play flac files with
    WMP on the PC). I checked the Onkyo manual and strangely enough it says flac files cannot be played to the receiver from the Play To remote, but it will play flac files if I select NET input on the Onkyo and DLNA and then Media Monkey. What is lacking here in my opinion is an easy way to choose albums and make music playlist mixes. However selecting Media Monkey and play all Classical music is easily done. This plays files of mp3, flac, wav, apple etc…
    How do you access the Play To feature on Media Monkey?
    I don’t think even this will work with my flac files, but I still like Media Monkey better than WMP.
    I can copy flac albums to a USB flash stick and plug it into the front panel socket on the
    Onkyo instead. This will play flac, wav, mp3 and apple music files alone or in combined music
    mixes. Downside here is that if the receiver is turned off and you left off at playing folder 10-Bach
    album, it does not remember which folder it left off at and starts playing back at folder 1-Pink Floyd.
    My PC has an optical audio out and the Onkyo is close to the PC so I may do this also, connecting
    an optical audio cable to one of the inputs on the Onkyo. Then I can use Media Monkey to play my playlists of assorted music file formats to the Onkyo. I have tried this with another older home theatre receiver and it works fine. I will have to buy an optical audio splitter to do this for both
    receivers though.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      John, the version of Media Monkey that I mention here is the Modern UI version for Windows 8/8.1. Since you’re using Windows 7, you only have the traditional Desktop version of Media Monkey available to you.

      In Windows 8/8.1, the Play to feature is exposed via the Modern UI Charms bar, so that it becomes available to all Modern UI apps that support it.

      However, the Modern UI version of Media Monkey is still, after two years, only a buggy beta. Ventis Media still haven’t produced an update, despite one being promised nearly 18 months ago. I’ve given up on this version of Media Monkey. I still use the desktop version of Media Monkey, but solely to manage music metadata and to rip CDs – I don’t use it as a player.

  7. John says:

    I looked over Media Monkey again and found the
    Play To function. It is not an obvious thing to find.
    For other readers who may be interested in doing this
    too, here is an explanation:
    Using your mouse hover the pointer over
    the area of Media Monkey that is at the bottom area where
    the player buttons are and the music track progress is
    displayed.
    Right click and a pop up window will appear.
    Select Choose Player and then select the name of your
    receiver, in my case an Onkyo Net receiver.
    Be sure that your network receiver is already on, a
    ethernet cable is attached from it to your modem/router
    and NET input and DLNA is selected on it and that your
    modem/router are on.
    Also be sure to have already gone to Tools– Options–
    Media Sharing (UPnP/DLNA) and enabled Media Monkey
    Library and Media Monkey Server.
    Also click on Media Monkey Server, once enabled, to
    highlight it and then click on the Options button below.
    This opens a new window. Click to enable the receiver
    connection here. Click OK and now everything should be
    ready.
    Initially be sure that volume levels on the receiver and
    in Media Monkey are not set too high and adjust once
    a song is playing.
    Put some songs into your playlist and start to play.
    Media Monkey will popup a window asking if this MAC
    address device should be granted access to the Media
    Monkey Library. Click Yes.
    The nice thing about Media Monkey’s Play To function
    compared to the WMP version, is that it will play mp3,
    wav and flac files, while WMP only plays mp3 files.
    Actually I was suprised that my receiver would play
    flac files in the Play To remote mode, since the owner’s
    manual said it couldn’t.
    I did not upgrade the firmware on the receiver and don’t
    intend to.
    For some unknown reason MM will play Apple .m4a files
    in the Internal Player– but not when the Play To Network
    receiver is instead chosen. I’m not sure what the reason
    for this is. But I was mostly interested in playing my
    flac files from my PC to my receiver and this works fine.
    Also strange is that .m4a files will play fine if
    accessed from the Onkyo directly to the PC or from
    a USB flash stick plugged into the Onkyo.
    Remember that if you want to hear songs using Media
    Monkey and your computer speakers again you must
    switch back to Internal Player first.
    I like Play To my Net Receiver mode because I can
    assemble various music mixes in my Playlist window pane.
    If I use the Net receiver to play from the Media Monkey
    library it works fine, but I can only select one
    album/artist at a time, or play all music.
    It takes a bit of time to drill down through the PC
    folders to the album I want to hear too.
    I also have a laptop with Windows 8.1 and tried it
    with Media Monkey ver.4.1.5.1.7.9. It does play to my Net
    receiver also. When I updated MM on the laptop to the
    newest ver. 4.1.6 it continued to work well.
    This is the desktop version of Media Monkey, not the
    UI Charms bar version that you mentioned.
    I think I’ll stick with the desktop ver. of MM, since
    it is working well for both my laptop and desktop PC
    with the receiver.
    Off topic I noticed you are a reader of SF.
    Ursula LeGuin’s book The Lathe of Heaven is a worthwhile
    read if you haven’t already read it.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      John, thanks for the description of the steps needed to get MM to work. It sounds as though MM uses its own implementation of Play to, rather than using the Windows implementation, as WMP does.

      Yup, Le Guin is a favourite author of mine. I have over 30 of her books in the library, including The Lathe of Heaven…

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