Apple TV vs Xbox 360 vs PS3 in Internet TV shootout
What's the best way to get streaming TV services? We reckon it comes down to these three boxes, but which is best?
If you're tired of having TV schedulers tell you what you should watch and when you should watch it, you've probably already moved away from broadcast TV and are enjoying an all-you-can-eat telly and movie buffet, served up by various Internet services.
Of course, the only way to find out which of these three beasts is the best is to pitch them head-to-head in a battle for streaming supremacy. So that's exactly what I've done.
Let's face it, what you're ideally looking for in a streaming companion is a player that can give you access to the widest range of top-quality content, including brilliant TV shows and new movie releases. So what have these three got to offer?
The Apple TV is understandably built around the iTunes video and music store. The latest model now supports 1080p resolution videos and you can stream lots of recent blockbusters in HD via iTunes. Titles such as Tintin cost £4.49 for the HD version, while TV episodes are priced at around £2.49. The new player also supports Netflix, so you're no longer totally reliant on iTunes when it comes to movies and TV shows.
There are also a few other third-party services available, such as YouTube, Vimeo and Flickr. However, some of the apps are rather poor. Who wants to watch The Wall Street Journal news feeds or Major League Baseball in the UK? It's also hugely annoying that the biggest video on-demand service in Blighty -- BBC iPlayer -- is nowhere to be seen.
The PS3 has much better support for local UK content. It's got a good iPlayer app that sits alongside other great apps for Channel 4's 4oD service and ITV Player. When it comes to subscription services, it matches the Apple TV by including a Netflix app, but goes one better by supporting.
The Video and TV services section of the XrossMediaBar interface on the PS3 also includes entries for two free music video services -- Vidzone and Mubi -- and you can access Sony's TV and movie online shop via the Videos menu in the PlayStation Store. Here you'll find a pretty well stocked library of films that you can buy or rent in both SD and HD. New films such as Another Earth cost £4.49 to rent in HD, while an episode of House was priced at £2.49 to own.
Unfortunately, the PS3 doesn't have dedicated apps for services like YouTube and Vimeo. However, it does have the benefit of a full web browser, which neither of the other two products offer. It supports Adobe Flash (just about), so you can access YouTube via the normal YouTube site. However, the PS3's browser is about as stable as a three-legged stool and using it via the PS3 controller can be tortuous.
Of the three, the Xbox 360 has the best overall line-up of services. However, only the iPlayer can be accessed with a basic free Xbox Live account. For all the others, you need to cough up for Xbox Live Gold membership. A 12-month pass for this can be bought for around £30 online. This does get you access to Microsoft's excellent online gaming service, but it's still a yearly cost that's not associated with the other products.
Once you do have a Gold account you can download apps for a pretty broad range of premium and free content. For example, the console supports both Lovefilm and Netflix, along with BBC iPlayer, 4oD and Demand 5 (although not ITV Player). There are also apps for YouTube, Dailymotion and MSN, while music videos can be accessed using Vevo and Muzu.tv.
Other movie streaming services include Crackle and Blinkbox. Alternatively, there's Microsoft's own Zune movie store. While it's not as good as iTunes, it does have a decent line-up of movies to rent or buy. For example, Tintin in HD costs 590 Microsoft Points to rent, which equates to around £5.
If you've got a Sky subscription, you can also download and install the Sky Go app. This gives you access to streaming versions of the Sky channels you're subscribed to as well as on-demand content. Non-Sky subscribers can also use Sky Go on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Really, the line-up of services supported by the Xbox 360 is hugely impressive and puts it head and shoulders above both the Apple TV and the PS3.
Winner: Xbox 360
Unfortunately, Sony's PS3 is a slight let down on the interface front. The XrossMediaBar looks rather flat and dated next to the colourful and inviting menus on both the Apple TV and Xbox 360. The TV services are neatly grouped together in the TV/Video services menu, but if you want to rent a movie or TV show, you have to swap out of this and head to the PlayStation Store.
Similarly, if you want to access YouTube, you've got to shift over to the network tab and fire up the web browser and then head to the YouTube web address. It means there can be a lot of shuffling about to get to what you want to watch.
The Apple TV interface couldn't be much easier or faster to use. Everything is beautifully presented, and the various apps are lightning quick to load. Both the iTunes and Netflix interfaces are a pleasure to navigate. However, part of its immediacy is due to the fact that outside of a few basic apps, there isn't all that much else you can access with the Apple TV.
Microsoft has been repeatedly fine-tuning the user interface of the Xbox. As a result, the Dashboard has changed dramatically over the years. The latest one uses a Metro-style layout, similar to Windows 8, with text tabs across the top and large tiles used to represent apps and functions.
It looks very slick and is fast to navigate. More importantly, apps are grouped together neatly into categories such as TV, Videos and Social, so it's also only ever a short hop to get to what you need to access. Microsoft has done an excellent job of keeping the user interface looking relatively consistent across various apps too.
Winner: Xbox 360
The truth of the matter is that none of the three products here are particularly adept when it comes to streaming your own media from a computer across a network to your TV.
Out of the three, the Xbox 360 does the best job. It can act as a Media Centre Extender, so if you run Windows Media Centre on your PC, you can access your photos, music and videos using an interface that looks very similar to the standard one. You can also stream files from standard DNLA servers using the simple Xbox 360 video player. However, format support isn't great. It works with DivX and Xvid files, but won't play MKV videos.
The PS3 can also access DNLA servers running on a PC or NAS drive, allowing you to stream music, photos and videos to your telly. It supports DivX and Xvid videos, but it won't play MKV files, which is a bummer.
The Apple TV is also quite limited. You can share media to it using the Home Share in iTunes on your computer or via AirPlay from an or iPad, but it doesn't support common video formats like DviX, Xvid and MKV.
Winner: Xbox 360
At £99 and featuring pretty basic hardware, the Apple TV is understandably the cheapest of the bunch. Compared to the features the consoles offer, it does feel a little over-priced.
The basic 4GB version of the Xbox 360 isn't that much more expensive, as you can buy it for £130 from Amazon. Potential buyers would be much better off with the 250GB version, which is priced at £170, as you soon run out of storage space on the 4GB model.
The PlayStation 3 probably represents the best value overall. It includes a Blu-ray disc player, which the Xbox 360 lacks. Both have Wi-Fi built in. The 160GB version can be bought for £160 from Amazon, which is quite reasonable, especially as the PlayStation Network services are free, unlike Xbox Live Gold.
Winner: PlayStation 3
What's that noise?
There is one big caveat with using a console for movie or TV streaming and that's the fact that both the Xbox 360 and PS3 have fans inside to keep their innards cool. They don't run completely silently. The early versions of the PS3 and Xbox 360 are particularly noisy and distracting, but the newer, slimmer models are a good deal quieter.
This is one area where the Apple TV definitely beats the consoles. Despite having the power supply integrated into its tiny chassis, it doesn't have a fan onboard and remains totally silent.
Winner: Apple TV
Overall winner: Xbox 360
All of these products have positives and negatives when it comes to using them as a media streamer. The Apple TV has an excellent user interface and is a very polished device if you're happy to rely on iTunes and Netflix for your content.
The PS3 is perhaps the most flexible of the three as it has a Blu-ray player built in, a full web browser and gives you access to lots of free streaming services.
If your primary focus is getting access to the broadest range of free and premium content, the Xbox 360 comes out on top. It is annoying that you have to shell out for Xbox Live Gold membership to access many of the premium services, but the sheer breadth of content it delivers to your TV, combined with an excellent user interface, still make it a stand-out winner.
Update 16 April 2012: A previous version of this article claimed that ITV Player was available for the Xbox 360, which it is not, and that the 360 doesn't have Wi-Fi built in. The latest Xbox 360 Slim does have Wi-Fi. These errors have been corrected in the text above.