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Xbox 360 vs. Playstaion 3: Which Box Is The Better Media Center? Part 1 - Video

By now, anyone interested in hardcore gaming already knows the ins and outs of the Xbox360 vs Playstation debate when it comes to specs, graphics, games etc. I have both machines and I like them both. I am not a fanboy of either. At this point, most people agree that the Xbox has better games (for now), while the PS3 has a more forward-looking hardware design. For the majority of people either machine will do just fine for game playing or watching a DVD. However, both of these machines are capable of so much more. When you are going to fork out nearly $500.00, those extras are important.

What kind of extras are we talking about? Well, Microsoft and Sony have spent countless hours and millions of dollars trying to convince us that their consoles will be your home’s multimedia hub. If that’s the case, we really want to know which one works better.

Some of the “entertainment hub” discussion is easy. You know each machine can play DVD’s. If you want a Blu-Ray player, get the Sony. If you are a fan of the Big Lebowski or Shrek, grab the Xbox and the HD-Drive add-on. Other parts of the “Hub” equating are not so straight forward. Which one does better with music files? What about photo’s and video files? Which one will let you watch and record TV shows like a Tivo? There are clear differentiators between the devices when it comes to digital media. To determine what each box can do, we decided look at them both and measure how easy it was to setup, the quality of the playback, and any miscellaneous items that may set one device apart from the other.

Given so many components to test, we have broken our test into distinct parts. Today we are going to focus on digital video, since many of us really want to be able to stream our movies from one central server. Later we will compare audio playback, pictures and television.

To test the video, we had to pick a format that both boxes could play. Because of this, we settled on .mp4 video. This was mainly for the PS3 since the Xbox 360 can handle a slightly larger number of video formats (though for the record neither can do DiVX). To encode the file I used PS3 Video 9 from Red Kawa.

First Test: Playback from a USB drive.

Now that we have our video format, it is time to start playing some movies. In order to factor out networking weirdness for our first test, we decided to copy the file over to a USB drive and plug it directly into the game systems. It was assumed that this would give us the easiest way to get smooth video playback. Smooth yes, easy - well not exactly.

Xbox 360:

I plugged the USB drive into the Xbox 360 first. On the “Media” blade, I clicked Video and then External Device. It saw the movie on the drive and offered to play it. So far, so good. However when we went to play the video, it said that we needed to download an update from Xbox Live (well it IS Microsoft…). Honestly, the download only took a minute and I was able to play the video.

The video itself looked great. The source video was good (not great) and it looked like that on TV. I spent some time changing the video display size from the “auto” setting which ran the video in a smallish box by default, to Letterbox and Full Screen. In both modes the movie looked like it did on DVD (only a little pixilated of course) when running under the same setting. The playback was clean and without hesitation or stutter. Oh and the audio sounded good too.

Playstation 3:

I plugged the USB drive into the PS3 and navigated the menu to Video. The PS3 recognized that I had plugged in the USB drive and made it an available option on the menu. However, when I went to play it, it said no media found. I double-checked the USB drive and the file was there. After a little investigation I learned that the PS3 looks for video files under a folder called VIDEO (which I did not have on my USB drive) and will display an error if it cannot find the folder. No problem, a quick click of the triangle button allowed me to browse the USB drive and play the file.

Video playback was as smooth as the Xbox 360, but the picture was better. I repeated the test several times thinking that maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me, but no, the Playstation 3 was crisper. Maybe it is the HDMI cable, or some upconversion trick, but the picture was better. Not OH MY GOD kind of better, but noticeable.

Verdict:

If you are going to play most of your video files from local media such a USB drive or drive then the Playstation just narrowly edges out the Xbox 360. In addition, it is worth nothing that the Playstation handles more media formats (SD, Memory Stick, etc) than the Xbox 360 so you have more options. The extra step of creating the VIDEO folder or pressing the triangle key is annoying, but not overly so.

Of course, this only applies if you want to play .mp4 video. If you have video in WMV format (which I do), then the choice is a no-brainier, get the Xbox 360.

Streaming Video:

As nice as it was to be able to plug in a USB drive or Memory Stick and watch a movie, let us be honest, that is not what we really want to do. In an ideal world, you are going to stream your movie collection to your TV from your computer. Since both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 recognize UPnP Media Servers on the network, this should be possible. If you are an Xbox 360 owner, it is and it is easy. If you own a PS3, well… I hope your mileage is better than mine was.

First a bit about the test. I used the same video file in the streaming test that I used during the local playback test. The streaming was done from a Windows Vista Machine (Athlon FX-60 Dual Core processor, 2GB Ram, ATI 1950 Pro graphics card) that was wired to the network. I decided that wireless networking introduced to many variables to be a fair test of the machines themselves (still, wireless will work if the computer itself is plugged in via Ethernet).

I had to figure out how exactly to stream the video. Windows Media Player 11 is a great UPnP server, except that it does not play .mp4 files (out of the box at least). Windows Media Center or the Zune Media Player (which does play mp4 files) won’t stream to the PS3 without some third party hacks. That would figure since both are Microsoft products. In the end, I decided upon the fantastic ORB media server to do the test. It claims to work with both Xbox 360 and the PS3, it will play the mp4 files (though I believe it transcodes them on the file to another format) and it is free. Free is good. Side note - if you have not tried the Orb media software, go do it now. It’s fantastic.

Xbox 360:

To stream media from an UPnP media server, you need to navigate to the Media blade and click Video. Choose the “From Computer” option and you should see the Orb media server (or whatever UpnP server you are using) listed. Simply select the media server and you can then browse for your video. One annoying caveat, if you have more than one media server in your house, you cannot select which on you want to use each time you want to watch a video. You need to go into the Setup blade and click the Computer menu option. From there you need to cancel your current connection. Sure, it only takes 20 seconds, but it’s a needless pain in the rump).

After click on the video file we were testing, the screen went black for a few seconds while the stream was starting (and I assume buffering). The video then started to play and it was smooth and of good quality. I could not tell much difference between the USB version and the streaming version. Audio was in sync with video, there was very little extra pixilation and the whole experience was enjoyable. Because I was on a wired connection, I did not notice in stutter or choppiness in the playback.

Playstation 3

Well Sony fans, remember you have a Blu-Ray player built in. I kept repeating that to myself as I struggled to get streaming video to work on my PS3. I tried several ways too, but never got it to work quite right (maybe someone can shed some light on the subject).

The experience started out well. The Playstation 3 automatically listed all the UPnP servers in my house on the XMB. That was a nice change from the Xbox 360. I saw the Orb media server and clicked on it just as I did on the Xbox 360. However, instead of connecting to my server like the 360 did, I received a message telling me to open the page in the Browser instead. So much for one click access.

I opened the Sony Web Browser and typed in the URL needed to access the Orb box. After typing in my user name and password, I was connected to the UI for Orb. I navigated to the video file and started to play it. The browser popped up and asked if I wanted to run the plug-in (what plug-in it was, it did not say, but I assume it was the flash plug-in). Within a few seconds, the video started to play in the browser.

Then it stuttered.

And stammered.

And became unwatchable.

Yes, the video was just dog slow. I’m sure it has something to do with the conversion from .mp4 to Flash, but the fact remains that it was unwatchable. The sound was good, no problems there, just the picture. Like that matters.

I thought that it might have been an issue with Orb (and indeed other people have complained about the same thing) so I went looking for another UPnP server to test PS3 streaming on. I installed TVersity on my computer because it too claimed it supported the PS3. It very well might be able to, but I was unable to get it working. Once again, I had to use the browser instead of just clicking on the XMB to access the server. However, unlike the Orb server, the PS3 browser locked up when I tried to play the video.

Now, is that the PS3’s fault? No, not necessarily but that doesn’t make life better for you if you are trying to stream the video to a PS3. What was simple to do on an Xbox 360 was torturous on the Ps3. Even if I could get it all working, I am not inclined because it failed the ease test.

Verdict:

Clearly, the Xbox 360 is the winner here. From the beginning, there has been tight integration between the Xbox 360 and streaming media. The way it supports both Windows Media Center and other UPnP media servers in an easy to use way makes it a natural fit for anyone looking to stream video\audio\pictures from their desktop computer to their TV set. I am sure the PS3 will be easier to work with in the future (and I fully expect people to tell me how I went wrong, and how easy it is to do with product XYZ) but the fact remains the Xbox 360 is easier.

Final Analysis

So which unit should you pick if you want to play non-DVD video? Easy - the Xbox 360. Sure, the PS3 looked better when running locally, but the smaller choice of file formats, the stuttering of the streaming playback and the overall clumsiness of the implementation just does not make it as compelling of a choice to me.

UPDATE:
After some research I was able to get TVersity working on the PS3. Silly me didn’t think to use the optional /flashlib/ extension to connect to my computer. Playback worked, but it was still slow. I tried a variety of movies and they all played a bit slower than real time. Maybe it has something to do with needing to convert the files to Flash befor ethey will play on the PS3. Once again your mileage may vary, but it just wasn’t my thing. I’ll take the Xbox 360 and Orb, Windows Media Center, the Zune p;layer or MWP 11 over the PS3 and TVersity.

UPDATE 2:

Thanks to some help from RawRaw, I got Tversity to work from the XMB bar. That solved all the problems with the PS3. Without having to through the browser, the video was as quick as it was under the Xbox 360. Video quality was no better, but it was no worse. Being able to choose from multiple media servers without having to disconnect from one and then connect to the other is a nice thing.  Thanks to that, I’d just about call it a draw. Except…

Tversity keeps crashing on me. That isn’t the PS3’s fault at all. It’s probably a Vista\Tversity issue. I won’t hold that against Sony, other than to say it limits Tversity’s use to ME. Since Orb works better, that means I pretty much need to use my Xbox 360. Not because of the PS3, but because of the instability. I’ll do more research.

The end conclusion is that the Xbox 360 was easier to get running faster and worked with a wider variety of WINDOWS based UPnP servers. The PS3 finally worked and it played welll as long as the backend software held up it’s end of the bargain.  If you run Linux, XP or something else, then the PS3 might work just fine. If you run Vista you may want to stick with the Xbox 360 for now.

Hey if nothing else, you get to play BioShock too :)


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21 Comments in 21 threads.»

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Comment by Dean
2007-08-22 19:16:22

I dont know what problems you had with TVersity but it works perfectly fine for me. Even with high def matroska files. Theres nothing it hasnt played so far, though 1080i files stutter just a little due to my PC not being the best. However leaving it on pause for a minute sorts that out. Also dont forget PS3 uses linux, so you can play all files like AVI direct from PC or from your PC hard drive with no probs at all.

Sorry, icant agree with your findings. Ill take PS3 with linux (VLC, MPlayer) or Tversity anyday. Works perfect and no extra steps required as it shows the TVersity server on the XMB without doing anything

 
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