Media Center Showdown: Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3

Xbox 360 vs. PS3 Media Centers

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.


Setup

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.

PS3 and Xbox 360 welcome screens
PS3 and Xbox 360 welcome screens


Optical Drive

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.


File Compatibility

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.


Price

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.


Interface

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.

PS3 and Xbox 360 Interfaces
PS3 and Xbox 360 Interfaces

Living Room Acceptance Factor

Chances are, if you own a 50-inch plasma, you don’t want to mar your home theater setup with a set-top box that looks like it just dropped down from a spaceship, so style isn’t really a frivolous factor to examine.

We think the PS3 wins here hands down. The swoopy jet-black design and silver accents look distinct, but still fit in alongside most modern A/V equipment. The Xbox’s liberal use of green and white, on the other hand, definitely makes it look more like a kid’s toy that should be hidden away in a serious home theater setup. The black version does look a little nicer, but it still emits that annoying neon green glow, and just doesn’t have the modern design ethos of the PS3.

The PS3's form factor outshines the Xbox 360's
The PS3's form factor outshines the Xbox 360's


As a secondary no-no, the Xbox 360 runs loud. Both boxes whir with fans when you boot them up, but the 360 sounded noticeably louder to use, treading past “background noise” and into intrusive territory, especially for quieter movies.

You could hide it, of course, but it also runs hot. We placed ours in a generous-sized cubby beneath our home theater testing setup, and it turned into a furnace in no time with the door closed.


Free Web Content

Let’s face it: Not everyone has a neatly organized archive of CD and DVD rips nestled away on somewhere on their home network. In fact, a lot of people don’t, which makes access to free Web-based content like Hulu, YouTube and others absolutely essential for the casual user. Here, the players wildly differ.

In one sense, the PlayStation 3 seems like a natural leader because it has a built-in browser that works right out of the box. That means you can fire up YouTube (with a customized interface, no less) as soon as you fire it up. But not everything that should work works. For instance, Hulu has intentionally crippled its videos on the PS3, and we couldn’t get South Park Studios to work, either.

The Xbox 360 has no built-in browser, and therefore can’t even get YouTube out of the box. But on the upswing, it will natively stream Netflix – a capability we quickly fell in love with once we fired it up. Sure, the movies available for streaming usually aren’t A-list material, but the convenience and super-slick interface won us over quite quickly. Some TV shows even stream in HD. Just keep in mind you’ll need to be a Netflix subscriber to access it, and unlike many other features that are available with a free Xbox Live membership, Netflix access will require a Gold account, which runs $50 a year.


Paid Content

Freebies are one thing, but Sony and Microsoft both want you to buy content from them. The Xbox has the Video Marketplace, while the PS3 has the PlayStation Store, both of which offer video on a rent-or-buy basis. It’s tough to compare such diverse offerings head to head, but we did our best by comparing their movie sections by the numbers.

In a nutshell, the PlayStation store has more content, and prices are nearly identical. Any given alphabetical movie listing had about twice as many movies on Sony’s PlayStation store: 101 “F” movies on the PS3, compared to 43 on Xbox, for instance. And though Microsoft does its best to confuse the hell out of consumers with its bizarre points system (80 Microsoft points convert to one dollar), the prices are the same. As an example of a fairly typical movie, Sony wanted $5.99 to rent Gran Torino in HD and $3.99 to rent the standard-def movie, while Microsoft wanted 480 and 320 points, respectively, for the same title. Do the math, and you’re forking out $4 or $6 on either system.


Outputs

No surprises here: Both systems offer HDMI outputs for hooking up high-def TVs and optical audio outputs for 5.1-channel Dolby Digital surround sound. Accessory A/V cables allow either system to connect via analog RCA or S-video jacks for old standard-def TVs, and component high-def video jacks for older HDTVs without HDMI.

PS3 and Xbox 360 Outputs
PS3 and Xbox 360 Outputs


Conclusion

At the end of the day, both the Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 make superb home media centers that quite seamlessly manage to pipe digital content into the living room. And either makes a fine choice over the slew of similarly priced but less feature-filled set-top streamers. But if we had to choose one, we would roll with the PlayStation 3. Despite the higher price (which we think evens itself out after the cost of accessories), it delivers a cleaner, more quickly navigable interface, a better-stocked online video marketplace, and even extras that Xbox has no equal to, like PSP Remote Play. The cleaner outside design and quieter fans sealed the deal for us. True, we loved Netflix on the Xbox 360, but workarounds like PlayOn can bring it to the PS3, too, and also help overcome barriers like Hulu blocking.

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