Flicking through the specs for the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 recently, I was struck by how much the concept of a game console has changed in the past 15 years. Back in the late 1990s I lodged in an attic, with plenty of opportunity for gaming on a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which I later upgraded to an original PlayStation to take advantage of the CD playing multimedia magic.
Looking at Microsoft and Sony’s next generation offerings, it seems that bringing video, TV, music and your photo collection (and probably social networking) into the mix of games and achievement unlocking is now part and parcel of owning a game console. It’s a major selling point, one that should deliver the ultimate entertainment experience to living rooms and dens across the developed world.
But hold on – why wait for an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4 when you can already stream video and music from computers across your home network and from the Internet into the existing Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo consoles?
But Before That, This: The Original Xbox
Before we get excited about the current crop of console-come-media centres and the next generation devices such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, let’s think about the original Xbox for a few moment.
This was a device that enabled Microsoft to gain a foothold in the console market while also providing a platform to homebrew developers in order to bring media centres into bedrooms and living rooms. The Xbox Media Centre project, as it was known, would eventually become the XBMC software that is currently available for Linux, Mac OS X, Windows and many other operating systems and devices.
Although limited to standard definition video, the original Xbox has played a strong part in how media and games have come to occupy the same devices, as game consoles have slowly morphed into networked entertainment hubs capable of displaying photos, TV, video, playing music and of course running games.
The original Xbox was the starting point, and if you can grab hold of one, you’ll find yourself with a competent media centre for pennies.
Xbox 360 Media Centres
Upon release, it was possible to play media stored on a networked computer through an Xbox 360 – if you were lucky. Unfortunately, the software provided to do this in Windows XP and Vista (namely Windows Media Player 10) wasn’t perfect, resulting in a lot of frustration. Over the years, various solutions have come along to strengthen the link between a Windows PC and an Xbox 360 (TVersity, for instance) but perhaps the best option is PS3 Media Server (which Tim listed in his article, 6 UPnP/DLNA Servers For Streaming Media To Your Devices). Despite its name, this software is perfect for streaming music, video and photos from your PC to your Xbox 360.
As Matt discussed in Using Your Xbox 360 as a Media Center – Is It Worthwhile?, there are many other options for streaming video from the Internet available to Xbox 360 owners. In addition to Netflix (see below) there is:
- BBC iPlayer (UK only)
- Hulu Plus
- The Today Show
- Zune Marketplace
Last.fm and Pandora are also available for Xbox 360 users (the latter only through the browser with a custom interface), while TVersity can also be employed to stream audio.
All in all, Xbox 360 users have a wealth of options for adapting their game console into a media centre!
The PlayStation 3 Media Centre
If you’re planning to stream from your PC to your PlayStation 3 then you will need the PS3 Media Server app, available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
Along with providing a seamless and easy way to stream media to your PS3 (although TVersity can also fulfill this task) PS3 Media Server also has a selection of plugins available that can bring in media from other services, including XBMC plugins. The main reason to use it, however, is to transcode file types that the PS3 cannot natively playback (since you can connect your PS3 and Windows PC across a network without PS3 Media Server).
You shouldn’t overlook some of the features that have been introduced to the PlayStation 3 since its launch; like the addition of apps such as LoveFilm, YouTube, Hulu, SyFy, BBC iPlayer and many others that are also available on the Xbox 360.
As with the Xbox 360, Pandora can be enjoyed on the PS3 using the “10-foot” user interface via the browser.
Despite being very small and missing the native ability to playback DVDs, the Nintendo Wii can nevertheless be used as an effective media centre, as long as (like the original Xbox) you don’t expect any HD video.
If you want to stream video from your PC then you will need to use the OrbCaster software for Windows and Mac which will enable you to view streamed video in the Wii’s Opera browser. Be aware that Orb is shutting down soon, so grab OrbCaster while you still can!
Another way to stream and enjoy DVDs is to install the Homebrew Channel on your Nintendo Wii and install the WiiMC app. Justin’s excellent guide on How To Turn Your Wii Into A Media Center With WiiMC should fill in the blanks here.
Nintendo Wii U
Tools have been released for the Nintendo Wii U to (which we recently reviewed) enable streaming from a PC, and as you will see below, Netflix is also available.
However at the time of writing theapplication was unavailable for assessment, so while there is apparently a means of streaming video from a desktop computer (albeit one that has been converted to MP4) this isn’t yet an entirely reliable service.
Also disappointing is the lack of native DVD and Blu-ray video playback on this device, although hopefully a workaround can be found in the near future.
Don’t Forget Netflix!
Whether you’re successful in setting up your console as a media centre using media streamed from your PC or NAS or if you run into difficulty, one way in which you can still enjoy TV and movies is with Netflix.
As you will learn from reading How to Access Netflix on Almost Every Platform Known to Man, there are Netflix apps/widgets for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii, available from each console’s respective store. Multiple platforms mean you can pay Windows Mac or Linux games all you like.
Meanwhile, Wii U owners can access Netflix via the icon on the Wii U Menu. On first run, the full app will need to be downloaded, but once this is done you can sign in or sign up to the service and start enjoying the library of videos and TV shows on offer.
The Future: Xbox One, PlayStation 4
The important thing to note about the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii is that none of these consoles was designed to be a media centre. Each was released with only a second thought given to the possibilities of media playback.
For instance, the Xbox 360 first came along with native compatibility for data streamed from a Windows PC, assuming it worked, and of course a DVD drive. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 3 was similarly able to stream media and had a Blu-ray drive. Only the Nintendo Wii shipped without any consideration for media playback, with users relying on Shopping Channel and Homebrew Channel apps to enjoy multimedia options.
The future, however, is different. Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 are designed with the tools to act as unified game consoles and media centres. Essentially, they’re home entertainment hubs and while details are yet to be finalised and confirmed with regard to what each device will do, this approach marks a sea-change in how Sony and Microsoft view the importance of their devices, recognising a change in how consumers are treating gaming.