What the Next Generation of Consoles Means for Your Home Theater

What the Next Generation of Consoles Means for Your Home Theater

Video game consoles aren’t just for gaming. They also make great set-top boxes that stream video and music into our living rooms, and the upcoming Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are no different. Each console brings a little something different to the table, so let’s take a look at how those new consoles will bring entertainment other than video games to your living room.

While many of the announcements thus far have focused on games, hardware, development, and all the stuff that video game enthusiasts love, they haven’t focused on how well each console would perform as a media center. Let’s see what the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, and—even though it’s already available—the Wii U offer in the home theater department.

The Xbox One: You’ll Need Cable to Really Enjoy the New Features

What the Next Generation of Consoles Means for Your Home Theater

When Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One back in May, most of the announcement event was spent discussing the console’s entertainment features. The word "television" was thrown around a lot, which was understandably aggravating to gamers, but to anyone who uses the Xbox 360 as a set-top box and is thinking about an upgrade, it was all useful data. Here’s some of the big talking points we got from that event (and from E3):

  • The Xbox One is designed to be a media center, not just a game console. There’s no question about this. Whether it’ll be any good at its new responsibilities remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Microsoft wants this device to be a complete home entertainment system, from interactive games to streaming movies and music to your physical media collection. Hence the catchphrase "all in one."
  • It’ll be a region-free Blu-ray player. Your music, DVD, and Blu-ray collection will work just fine in the Xbox One. While the console was originally going to be region-locked, Microsoft’s about-face on the Xbox One’s DRM removed its region-restrictions, so you’ll be able to play Blu-rays and DVDs from anywhere in the world on it without hassle.
  • The new Kinect brings voice and gesture control to your home theater. Whether you actually want this is up to you. Waving your hands to switch channels or telling your Xbox to increase the volume can come off cool and futuristic, or it could be a colossal waste of time. For an example of voice or gesture control already in action, AllThingsD points to Samsung’s Smart TV line—which are great sets, but the futuristic control options have suffered from poor adoption.
  • The Xbox One plays up SmartGlass (and second screening) in a big way. If you don’t already use your phone when you watch TV as a second screen, Microsoft is hoping you will with the Xbox One. They’re pushing Xbox SmartGlass with the new console, which lets you use your phone or tablet as a remote, looks up maps and character bios for the show you’re watching, and connects you with other fans.
  • It’ll feature HDMI pass-through for a seamless TV-watching experience. Ideally, you’ll connect your cable or satellite TV source to your Xbox One, and then connect the Xbox One to your TV (or your receiver). At the May 21st event, we saw some of the features that’ll be enabled using HDMI pass-through, like the option to pause live TV, custom channel guides, and the option to build a personal guide of pinned shows that you enjoy.
  • …But it’s only seamless if you have cable or satellite, don’t need a DVR, or don’t need on-demand programs. Cable cutters, DVR owners, and more advanced TV watchers should take note that the Xbox One’s TV features really only come to life if you’re paying for cable or satellite. Plus, you’ll still need your regular DVR or cable box for on-demand programming or recording. Long story short: The Xbox One is not a cable cutter’s device.
  • If you do have cable, you can leverage some great apps and other features. NFL on the Xbox, ESPN, HBO Go, and other premium apps will be a huge benefit if you are looking for some on-demand programming. Of course, access to all of those services requires that you prove that you’re currently a paying subscriber with a package that already includes those channels, but if you are, you’ll be able to enjoy them anytime.
  • Even if you don’t have cable, you can still enjoy plenty of streaming video and music. Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, VUDU, Pandora, Xbox Music—there are apps for all of them available already for the Xbox, and there’s no reason to think they won’t be available for the Xbox One. You’ll need accounts for those services, of course, but they’re there for you to use, and if you already use an Xbox 360 as part of your home theater, you’ll be able to continue with the Xbox One as if nothing happened. As long as you have XBox Live Gold, which we’ll get to in a moment.
  • You’ll Need Xbox Live Gold for All Streaming Features. There’s still the nitpick that in order to use any streaming service, you’ll need an Xbox Gold subscription, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow if all you’re looking for is streaming media and home theater capabilities. Granted, Microsoft has updated the program to include some free games, but from a home theater angle, it’s not a big help. To make the most of everything, you’ll wind up paying a monthly cable bill and a annual Gold subscription to get all of these great features—and that’s by design. The Xbox One is designed to either replace your Xbox 360 or fit snugly into your home theater—despite its promises of being "all in one," it’s not really going to replace anything you already own.

So the story on the Xbox One is a mixed bag. If you have basic cable—no On Demand, no bells and whistles—the TV overlay and pinning features could be really cool for you. If you do use On Demand or have a DVR, you’ll still find yourself switching inputs and using a remote control over the Xbox One’s new Kinect voice and gesture controls. If you’re a cable cutter, there’s not much here to cheer about—nothing you can’t get in an Xbox 360, anyway. Still, points to Microsoft for trying something new.

Still, there are some elements that aren’t clear yet. For example, we don’t know how the Xbox One will handle Windows Media Center devices, or whether it will function as a media extender. It’s almost certain that the Xbox One will be a DLNA-compatible device, so our favorite streaming media servers and apps like Skifta or Twonky should work with it. We haven’t heard anything about media sharing or streaming across devices on your home network yet, or whether the Xbox One will play nicely with downloaded media on a networked computer or NAS, but it would be unusual for Microsoft to take features available in the Xbox 360 and remove them from the Xbox One.

The PlayStation 4: More of What You’re Used To (In a Good Way)

What the Next Generation of Consoles Means for Your Home Theater

Sony didn’t put as much focus on television and movies when it unveiled the PlayStation 4. What they did say, however, was that you’re not going to get much more for your home theater out of the PlayStation 4 than you may already have in a PlayStation 3. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

While there’s something to be said for going out on a limb and trying something different, Sony’s approach is to give you more powerful hardware that does more of what you know and love. It’s true from a gaming perspective, but it’s also true from a home entertainment standpoint. Here are some of the new features Sony did announce:

  • The PlayStation 4 is a game console, through and through. It’s not trying to be something it’s not. "Gamer focused," is the way Sony put it in their presser. While you shouldn’t throw up your hands and assume it’ll be useless as part of your home theater, be ready: this list is going to be much shorter than Microsoft’s. Sony’s focus is on getting great video games to you, and that interactive gaming experience is their first priority. However, they did dedicate a few moments to television and movies.
  • It’ll be a region unlocked Blu-ray player. The PS4 will be region free, meaning you’ll be able to play Blu-rays and DVDs from anywhere in the world on the device without issue.
  • The PS4 will launch with Sony’s Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services built-in. This isn’t much of a surprise, but Sony Music Unlimited a subscription music service with over 20 million songs and access via iOS, Android, web, PS3, and now the PS4, will be available to subscribers on day one. Sony’s Video Unlimited will also launch with the PS4, offering over 150,000 Sony Entertainment TV shows and movies available to rent or purchase in SD or HD.
  • Sony’s "original programming plan" will bring music, movies, and TV shows to your PS4…catered to gamers. This includes movies like Gamer and Doom to the PS4 in the form of special programming packages. Yo dawg, I heard you’re a gamer so I put games in your TV and movies so you can watch stuff about games on your gaming console while you’re not gaming.
  • If you’re used to streaming on the PS3, you’ll be able to do everything you’re used to on the PS4.. Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand—all of the big names are available for the PlayStation 3 already, and they’ll be there when the PS4 launches as well. Sony also mentioned that a new partnership with Verizon will bring Redbox Instant to the PS4, the PS3, and the PS Vita. However, even though Sony will now require PlayStation Plus for online multiplayer games, you won’t need to pay for PlayStation Plus to use services like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon VOD the way you would have to pay for an XBox Live Gold account. Essentially, no paying to use the services you already pay for.
  • The PS4 will support 4K video output. Sony’s making a play for 4K television, the next super-resolution video format beyond 1080p. Sony already has 4K TV sets on the market, and sells 4K cameras to movie and TV producers, so it makes sense they’d put it in devices like the PlayStation 4.

That’s about all we heard during the presser. That’s not the end of the story though. As with the Xbox One, it’s a safe assumption that Sony will make the PS4 at least as media friendly as the PS3 already is. That means ideally it’ll be DLNA compliant, you’ll be able to stream from external sources (and with luck, the PS3 Media Server will be updated to support the PS4), and external media servers that play nicely with DLNA devices will play nicely with the PS4 as well. Granted, none of this is specifically new or awesome, and if you already have a PS3 as the heart of your home theater, it might be a tough sell to upgrade if you don’t use your console for gaming. Even so, it would be unusual for Sony—especially given their pro-user, "consumer trust" stance at E3—to take away features that you can already get in the PS3.

The Wii U: Streaming HD At Last, But Not Much Else

What the Next Generation of Consoles Means for Your Home Theater

The Wii U has been out since the holidays last year, but it still counts as a "next gen console" for the purposes of our roundup. The Wii U is very definitely a gaming device. It—like the Wii before it—isn’t really a home theater system, and Nintendo never angled it as a replacement for or a compliment for a cable subscription or set-top box. The Wii U packs full 1080p HD video, which is great, and you can stream Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video on Demand (as long as you have accounts with those services) for no extra cost. However, the Wii U can’t play DVDs, it can’t play Blu-Ray discs, and it can’t play audio CDs. Nintendo doesn’t really offer streaming video content of its own, or any streaming video channels or services that roll into the Wii U aside from the external ones that we’ve mentioned, either.

That’s the bottom line: If you get your streaming content from Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, you’ll be able to enjoy it on the Wii U, but don’t expect to replace your DVD or Blu-ray player with it by any means. The Wii U is a game console, and doesn’t even try to be a multimedia device.

Will One of These Consoles Replace Your HTPC or Set-Top Box? Probably Not

What the Next Generation of Consoles Means for Your Home Theater

At the end of the day, if you’re the type who already has an HTPC that you love, will any of the next generation of consoles replace it? Probably not. The Xbox One is probably the only console of the three that takes a stab at trying to edge in on the media center space, but it does it in such a half-in/half-out manner that it’s only going to be really useful to a specific group of people. The PS4 will bring some streaming content that, if you’re interested, may make for an additional service to sign up for. The Wii U really doesn’t even count here. None of those things are bad—it just means that even as game consoles are adding features that make them more like media centers, it’s definitely not their focus yet.

There’s still a wide open place in your home theater setup for a small PC running XBMC, Plex, Windows Media Center, or whatever front-end you choose, mostly because you can tweak and customize it, and pack in as many features as you want. Want to record live TV as it airs? Install a TV tuner card and a nice big hard drive, and you’re good to go. Want to stream your media to your phone, or to another room, or even to an Xbox or PS3 or an AppleTV? Sure, there are ways to do that. Want to play DVDs, Blu-rays, Hulu, Netflix, and other streaming services while you download TV shows to watch later? An HTPC is your best option, and none of the current generation of consoles—or the coming generation—looks to change that.

If you’re using a set-top box as your media center, you probably don’t have much to worry about either. Set-top boxes are generally much more affordable than consoles, and while consoles are focused on gaming, set-top boxes are firmly focused on delivering TV shows, movies, and music to your home theater in the easiest possible way. Simple remotes, super-fast search, streaming HD, support for networked devices, and tons of channels and video options are par for the course. Don’t toss out your Roku or WD TV because the Xbox One looks good to you—they’re completely different beasts, and will more likely live side-by-side in harmony.

However, there’s something to be said for the services those consoles do provide. I cut the cable a long time ago, and my TV viewing is almost entirely Netflix and Hulu, with some over-the-air HDTV thrown in for good measure. In my case, I don’t need the horsepower and features that an HTPC offers, and any of the current or future crop of consoles will suit my needs perfectly (although I still prefer an HTPC, personally)—if you’re like me, you may not need to incur the cost (and the spike in your electric bill) that an HTPC represents. Examine your needs, and buy your next console accordingly.

Photos by Nebulous81 and Simon Wüllhorst.

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