Beyond gaming, a major advantage to owning either a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 is the ability to access a plethora of streaming video applications like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu and Amazon Instant Video. If you live in a cord-cutting household, your gaming system can double as your primary method of watching streaming video in the home theater. It can save you on the cost of adding an additional media streaming set-top box like the Roku 3 as well. There will definitely be some interesting markdowns in the price of both consoles over the next twelve months as the PlayStation 4 and new Xbox hit the market.

If you are on the fence between the two consoles, you have to weigh the pros and cons of each device when it comes to streaming video. For instance, which console will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to application user interface, stability and startup speed?

Which console will provide the least expensive solution for your needs? Which console gives you the superior experience when it comes to streaming video picture quality and surround sound audio performance? Which console offers the greatest volume of streaming video apps? Which console is easiest to manage with a media remote control?

We have broken down all that and more below. Take a look at our media streamer showdown between Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

Application Speed: PlayStation 3

When I’m referencing speed, I’m referring to the amount of time it takes me to go from plopping down on the couch to watching a movie or television show. Ultimately, I really want an experience that’s similar to watching television. I want anyone in my family to be able to flip on the TV and watch watching something within seconds.

One of the reasons that I adore the Roku 3 is that I can sit down, hit the home button on the Roku 3 remote, launch the Netflix app and start watching something in about 15 seconds.

Obviously, the Roku 3 has a clear advantage over consoles due to its always-on functionality. You probably don’t want to leave your consoles on all the time in order to preserve the life of the hardware and keep the power bill down.

To level the playing field for this speed test, I pinned all my video apps under My Pins on the Xbox 360 dashboard. That sub-section of the menu is fairly similar to the video apps section of the PS3 user interface. To start, I measured the time it takes to go from powering up the console to navigating to that section on each console. The Xbox 360 clocked in at 32 seconds and the PlayStation 3 took approximately 27 seconds. In regards to timing launching each individual app, here are the results for a few of the most popular applications:

  • Netflix: PS3 – 30 seconds / Xbox 360 – 41 seconds
  • Hulu Plus: PS3 – 40 seconds / Xbox 360 – 30 seconds
  • Amazon Video: PS3 – 28 seconds / Xbox 360 – 29 seconds
  • Vudu: PS3 – 17 seconds / Xbox 360 – 25 seconds

With the exception of Hulu Plus, the PlayStation 3 is the quickest when going from startup to fully loading an application. It’s also exceptionally quicker at switching between applications. By simply bringing up the overlay menu on the PS3, you can switch from Netflix to Hulu Plus quickly and seamlessly. On the Xbox 360, you have you exit all the way back to the Xbox Home dashboard before loading a new streaming video application, definitely a cumbersome process.

Application User Interface: PlayStation 3

With the exception of the Netflix application (more on that below), the vast majority of streaming video applications developed for the Xbox 360 use the Metro-style interface that’s identical to the Xbox Home dashboard. One of the main drawbacks to this design is the low volume of content that’s visible on the screen at any given time. If I’m looking for something new to watch, applications on the PS3 fill up the entire HDTV screen with content choices. Within the Metro design, content discovery generally takes longer and requires a couple more clicks to get there.

Alternatively, Sony allows developers to create streaming video applications that mirror the design of the Web counterparts. Anyone that’s used to watching Netflix or Hulu Plus on their laptop will have no trouble using the interface on the PlayStation 3. It’s helpful for guests at your home, assuming they also use Netflix or Hulu Plus. In general, the PS3 applications are better for content discovery as well as locating specific content quicker.

Circling back to the Netflix application, the design on the Xbox 360 is absolutely horrible when compared to the PS3. While it doesn’t use the Metro design, the “Staircase of Content” look hinders content discovery and simply doesn’t perform well on the Xbox 360. There’s a noticeable lag when shifting through content and the application loads content details slowly. It’s no wonder that Netflix recently announced the PlayStation 3 is dominating the Xbox 360 in the living room, despite the Netflix application debuting on the Xbox 360 an entire year before hitting the PS3.

Application Stability: Xbox 360

Over the past year, I’ve noticed that I experience fewer crashes when using applications on the Xbox 360 (with the exception of Netflix). My guess is that requiring developers to mold their application within the Metro-style design allows Microsoft to control the compatibility of those applications with the Xbox 360 hardware. Alternatively, a couple of the applications on the PlayStation 3 give me some trouble from time to time. I’ve had to hard reset my PS3 a few times over the past year due to Hulu Plus and Netflix freezing completely. It’s a small nuisance, but still enough to give the edge to the Microsoft in this category.

Application Selection: Toss-Up

Beyond the applications already mentioned, the consoles have the major applications pretty much covered. You can find EPIX, YouTube, CinemaNow and Crackle on both consoles. If you are an avid pro football fan and have DirecTV, the PlayStation 3 is your best bet due to the NFL Sunday Ticket app. If you are really into ESPN or HBO and have a premium TV subscription, the Xbox 360 is the smarter choice. The Xbox 360 is also the platform you should invest in if you love UFC matches.

From the perspective of a cord cutter, I can’t take advantage of anything Microsoft or Sony is doing with applications that involve a subscription to a premium cable or satellite service. If sheer volume of Web-based applications is your goal, you will be better off with the Roku 3 versus the consoles.

Video Performance: PlayStation 3

If this was last year, I would have called this category a toss-up. However, I recently got access to Netflix’s Super HD streams through my PlayStation 3 (as well as my Roku 3). On a 1080p television, you can clearly tell the upgraded difference in picture quality when compared to the 720p stream on the Xbox 360.

The crisper, more detailed video stream is especially evident on new content like SyFy’s season one of Continum or Netflix’s House of Cards, specifically fewer compression artifacts on dark scenes. Interestingly, I’ve found that video quality shifts far less when watching Super HD streams. It’s likely that the optimization process required on the ISP’s end to support Super HD improves the streaming process.

In regards to the other applications, I don’t see a significant difference in video quality between the consoles. The video streams from Vudu are typically superior to the other applications, but relatively similar between the two consoles. In fact, I’ll often opt for the Vudu rental over a Blu-ray disc rental. You can check out a solid comparison of Skyfall on Blu-ray versus Vudu on the AVSForum here.

Audio Performance: Toss-up

I have yet to upgrade to a 7.1 system, thus all my conclusions here are based on Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 streams passed through HDMI. I haven’t heard a significant difference between the two consoles in regards to 5.1 audio streams. All applications seem to pass the 5.1 stream correctly through my system. If I had to pick an application that seems to have a greater number of surround mixes, I’d go with Vudu. Netflix seems to be catching up, but Vudu’s main focus seems to be on audio and video quality over volume of content.

Remote Control Accessibility: PlayStation 3

One of the advantages to a set-top box like the Roku 3 or Apple TV is the remote is accessible to pretty much anyone. On the other hand, video game controllers seem daunting to some members of my family as well as guests in my home. While I feel comfortable zipping through menus with a PS3 or Xbox 360 controllers, I often have to teach someone how to use the controller in order to launch something as simple as Netflix.

When family comes over to my home or I have guests spending the night, I usually put out both the black Xbox 360 Media Remote and the Sony PS3 Media Remote on the coffee table.

I’ve noticed that the majority of my guests seem to gravitate to the PS3 remote control and can launch a video streaming app much faster than attempting the same process using the Xbox 360 Media Remote. Sony clearly has an advantage with brand familiarity since the PS3 remote control design is fairly identical to the remote controls included with Sony’s television and audio lines.

Cost: PlayStation 3

While there’s no difference in cost in subscription prices of each streaming video application, there is an upfront cost to watching content on the Xbox 360 versus the PlayStation 3.

Xbox 360 owners must have a Xbox Live Gold subscription in order to access video apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus. Alternatively, there’s no additional subscription cost on the PlayStation 3 that’s required to access video apps.

The upfront cost will be about the same. $200 for the 4GB and a twelve-month Xbox Live subscription card usually found on sale for $50 versus a 160GB PlayStation 3 that can be found on sale regularly for $250. However, you will continue to pay an additional $50 every year in order to continue accessing video applications. Obviously, there are a huge number of benefits to Xbox Live if you are into gaming. But if you are strictly into media streaming, the PS3 is the better deal.

Why not Wii U?

I’ve intentionally left Nintendo’s Wii and Wii U out of this guide due to low market share, but you can find support for Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and Amazon Instant Video on the console. Using the Wii U GamePad as a screen to watch video when the TV is in use is definitely a smart idea.However, the same can be accomplished with a smartphone or tablet.

As a media streamer, you will find significantly more content options on the Xbox 360 or PS3. That may change over time, but Nintendo traditionally has been slow at launching support for third party applications. 

What Would You Buy?

Overall, both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are have compelling pros and cons when it comes to streaming video. If I was purchasing one of these consoles for a family member that wanted to get into streaming video, I’d pick up the PlayStation 3 with a media remote control. As a media streaming device, it’s superior when it comes to speed, user accessibility, video quality and overall cost.