Whether you’re desperate to get Hulu and YouTube on the big screen, or just need a box to access your terabyte and a half of ripped DVDs without tethering a laptop to your TV, home media centers just make sense. But for the price of a high-end set-top box like Netgear’s rather disappointing EVA 9150, most savvy buyers can’t help but notice that you can get a far more functional Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 – both of which make fine media centers in themselves. Fans of both systems routinely debate which is the better box for fragging aliens and racing Ferraris, but what about if you’re primarily looking to watch video, play music, and view pictures? We’ve taken the latest versions of both systems and compared them head to head to determine which really belongs in your home theater.
We’ve run guides on both how to set up a PlayStation3 as a media server and how to setup an Xbox 360 as a media server before, so we’ve done our share of configuring each box. At the end of the day, they’re both pretty easy. As long as you have a uPNP server somewhere on your network (which basically means a computer running Windows Media Player or comparable software), content from that machine will effortlessly appear on either box once you get it on the network.
We will serve up some extra points to the Xbox 360, though, because of the way it aggressively pushes updates and new services (like Netflix). As soon as you log into Xbox Live, you’ll be prompted to download new firmware updates if there are any available. By contrast, the PlayStation 3 will let you live with old firmware until figure out on your own that something newer is available. Oddly enough, it also requires users to enable features like DivX and WMA compatibility, rather than having them turned on by default.
The inclusion of Blu-ray on the PlayStation 3 may have spelled disaster for it as a gaming console, but as a piece of home theater equipment, that little BD drive still stands as a monumental leg up over the Xbox 360. For anyone considering a standalone Blu-ray player – which still run at least $150 – the multitasking PlayStation 3 still looks like an absolute bargain.
Frugal movie lovers may shun the notion of building a Blu-ray collection for good reason, but Netflix users should keep in mind that Blu-ray discs are available through the service for an additional $3 a month – a small price to pay for 1080p quality, if you already own the player.
A media center stands to do no good if it won’t play the files you have, but both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have taken huge strides since their introduction in adding additional formats. For instance, neither box supported the hugely popular DivX standard at launch, but both companies introduced it in later firmware upgrades due to customer demand. Since they’ve both played plenty of catch up in the race to support the most widely used file formats, at this point, both systems are nearly identical in their ability to play most common file types. However, neither system supports more esoteric file formats like MKV or VOB video files, or FLAC for lossless audio, largely making this category a draw.
Media servers like TVersity have also silenced much of debate of file format compatibility. They can transcode any file format into one that the boxes support on the fly, effectively erasing all the gaps in compatibility equally for both devices.
Microsoft’s Xbox has always made the PlayStation3 look foolish in the price department – some would even credit it with the success of the machine next to its beleaguered competitor. An Xbox 360 Arcade model sells for $200, while the Pro model with 60GB hard drive sells for $300 and the Elite 120GB model goes for $400. By contrast, the PlayStation 3 now only sells in one variant: an 80GB model that goes for the same price as Microsoft’s priciest Xbox 360: $400.
But it’s not quite that cut and dry. Most homes don’t come wired up with 100-megabit Ethernet jacks, so a majority of Xbox owners will need to shell out another $100 for Microsoft’s Wi-Fi adapter. And the Arcade model without a hard drive will be out of the question for anyone who wants to load some content onto the box itself to prevent movie sputters from slow network performance. That makes the 60GB option the most viable choice for most home media server shoppers, and with the adapter, it will ding your credit card exactly as hard as Sony’s PlayStation 3.
Let’s be honest: Interface can be pretty subjective. Some people prefer the Xbox 360’s more flowery New Xbox Experience (NXE) interface, while some prefer the PlayStation 3’s subdued and logical XrossMediaBar (XMB) interface. For what it’s worth, we found the PS3 more intuitive right off the bat, and also took to navigating it more easily than the Xbox interface, which seems organized slightly less intuitively. For instance, starting to play music on the PS3 is as easy as scrolling to the music note icon. On the Xbox, you’ll need to scroll to My Xbox, then several tiles back to find music. Microsoft also likes to hammer home promotional material on menus like Xbox Events (“Come watch the Fragdolls!”), while Sony seems far less prone to littering the interface with unwanted material. Even so, the Xbox certainly excels at some things more than others. For instance, we found it far easier to build a “Now Playing” playlist on the Xbox than on the PS3. And to most eyes, it’s prettier too.