The console wars have faded into the background, but two of the protagonists, the Xbox and the PlayStation, are still fighting it out to be more than just a games console, but also an integral part of your home-theatre set-up.
Unless one of the major console-exclusive titles is launched — we're looking at you, Gran Turismo 5 and Halo — or a game geek starts a flame war about which console produces better textures, no one really pays attention to the ongoing war.
That's because many of us have picked a side or taken an each-way bet, and are happy with what we've got. But for those who have yet to add a current-generation games console to their home-entertainment set-up, Microsoft and Sony figure that a plethora of entertainment options are likely to be as tempting as a few exclusive game titles — and possibly even more so.
What constitutes free? That's usually a pretty simple question to answer, but, in the case of the Xbox 360, things are a little more complicated. The Xbox has a number of free video-on-demand services, but the vast majority require you to have a Gold Xbox Live subscription.
If you're a gamer, then this is a bit of a non-issue — if you want online multiplayer gaming on an Xbox, a Gold Live subscription is a must; there simply isn't any other way. If, on the other hand, gaming takes up less of your free time, especially online gaming, then you might not be willing to cough up the requisite cash; a one-year Gold Live subscription costs upwards of AU$48.
|PlayStation 3||Xbox 360|
|SBS On Demand||Yes||Yes*|
* Requires an Xbox Live Gold subscription.
** There is a ninemsn app, but it can't access any of the network's catch-up TV streams.
If the only streaming content you want to access is free catch-up TV services, it'd be a clear points victory to the PS3 in this regard — primarily because they're truly free. On the flipside, if you have reasons for purchasing an Xbox Live subscription, then the Xbox's catch-up services make up for their lack of quantity with a touch of class.
You see, the PS3's catch-up services are essentially the web versions, tweaked ever so slightly for the PlayStation. The Xbox versions, on the other hand, are ground-up applications that fit perfectly with the system's Metro-style interface, and are easy to access with the Xbox's controller.
Muddying the waters still further, PlayStation owners have access to VidZone, a streaming music-video service that allows you to program your own version of Rage or Video Hits. In the Xbox's court, there's the Dailymotion app, which allows you to access the world's second most popular video-sharing website.
File and disc support
As far as video discs go, the PS3 has the clear advantage here: it has a Blu-ray player, whereas the Xbox only supports up to DVD. All told, the PS3 actually works quite well as a Blu-ray player. However, if we were to use the PS3 as our primary Blu-ray-playing device, we'd recommend shelling out for the PlayStation's optional remote control, as using the standard PlayStation game controller to stop, pause and skip through discs is less than ideal.
Both the Xbox and the PS3 can playback DivX videos, but file support can be best described as flaky. If you've got a vast collection of DivX, MPEG and MKV videos that you want to funnel from a PC to the TV via either a PS3 or an Xbox, you'll need to have a third-party media server running on your PC, such as Twonky or TVersity, to transcode your videos into a supported format on the fly.
Sony's PlayStation 3 offers three differing paid video options. There's Mubi, which offers streaming versions of art-house, experimental and classic films; Quickflix, which streams slightly older movies and HBO content; and Sony's own Video Unlimited service, which allows users to buy or rent a wide range of movies and TV series in either SD or HD.
Denizens of planet Xbox can access the Zune Marketplace, from which users can purchase or rent movies. Unfortunately, TV series aren't available in Australia. The selection's not bad, although HD movies seem to be restricted to renters only.
To make up for this, Xbox owners can subscribe to a cut-down streaming Foxtel service. Like the regular Foxtel cable and satellite service, there's a basic package (AU$19.50 per month) that everyone must have, to which you can append various add-on packages. The basic package includes National Geographic, Fox8, TV1, Nickelodeon, Discovery and BigPond AFL, Sport and NRL. For many, the most compelling add-on package is the Sport package that includes ESPN1, ESPN2 and Fox Sports Play for an additional AU$10 every month.
The Foxtel on Xbox pricing significantly undercuts the full service, but there's no iQ-style service available, so Xbox subscribers can't record programs to their console. Data consumed by the Foxtel service will count against the data cap imposed by your ISP — unless, of course, your ISP is BigPond.
If I were to choose a console based purely on its streaming video content, I'd be torn. The PS3's free catch-up TV services appeal to the penny pincher in me, but the availability of live sport (particularly football) is enough to push me to pick the Xbox ahead of the PS3.
If we throw games into the mix, however, things might turn around again. But that's an argument for another time and another place.