PlayStation 4 versus Xbox One: multimedia smackdown

These days we expect much more than games from gaming consoles. Are Sony and Microsoft's latest offerings ready to be the beating heart of your digital lounge room?

It's an exciting time for gamers as console giants PlayStation and Xbox go head-to-head with their next generation consoles. Visually spectacular games like Killzone: Shadow Fall and Forza Motorsport 5 will obviously drive early sales but, once you look under the bonnet, both new consoles are found wanting in terms of wider home entertainment features.

Seven years ago the PlayStation 3 was determined to be the one entertainment device to rule them all, while the Xbox 360 was merely a games machine which gradually embraced more features – even if it backed the wrong horse in HD DVD. This time around the tables are turned. The Xbox One is determined to sit at the heart of your digital lounge room, whereas the PlayStation 4 has deliberately stripped out many multimedia features in an effort to woo hardcore gamers.

Speaking recently at Tokyo Game Show, both Sony and Microsoft were upfront about their plans for their consoles. Sony has had a recent change of heart and promised to restore some entertainment features, claiming it didn't realise how much people wanted them, but you can't help but think Sony's real goal was to push people into the arms of its online content services.

In some ways the Xbox One's limitations are more frustrating, because it promises so much but intends to keep us waiting for many features. In other ways the PlayStation 4 is more disappointing, because it promises so very little apart from games and is only begrudgingly restoring some entertainment features which most would take for granted.

On-board and removable storage

Both consoles are Blu-ray and DVD players, although neither supports 3D Blu-ray at launch but say it's on the roadmap. As you'd expect both consoles are region-locked for DVDs and Blu-rays, even though they're mostly region-free for games.

One big surprise with the PS4 is that it doesn't play audio CDs or let you rip them to the hard drive, as you could with the PS3. Sony has already backed down on this and reassured PS4 owners that support for audio CD playback is coming in a firmware update. Even so, the initial decision reeks of an underhanded effort to force people across to Sony's subscription music service.

To make matters worse, neither console lets you store your own multimedia files on the built-in hard drive or play them from a USB stick. You can also forget about playing your own music, movie or photo files from disc.

Local streaming

If you think that streaming features are going to save the day you're also setting yourself up for disappointment. Neither the PS4 nor the Xbox One can see DLNA servers on your network and you won't find apps like Plex in the console app stores.

While Sony seems absolutely determined to drive you to its own services, the Xbox One at least offers a workaround in the form of Play To support. The console can't see DLNA servers on your computers, handheld devices and network drive, but you can send content from Windows devices using the right-click Play To feature. Tested with Windows 7, it handles MP3, MP4 and WMA audio files as well as MPEG 1/2/4, DivX and WMV video files. As a rule of thumb, it appears that anything which will play in Windows Media Player should work with Play To on the Xbox One.

Unfortunately you can't use the Xbox One as a media extender for accessing the MCE interface on a Windows media centre – which will come as a major blow to those who rely on this feature in the Xbox 360.

Online movie, music and TV

Considering how determined these new consoles are to drive you to the internet in search of multimedia content, you're entitled to expect a smorgasbord of options. Unfortunately, as usual, Australians have been treated as second class citizens.

Both consoles are quick to push you towards their own movie rental and subscription music services. On the PlayStation 4 that's all you get on day one, apart from access to the gaming-centric IGN online video channel. Quickflix arrived this week and Australian Catch Up TV services will likely follow, but it's a rather underwhelming debut when you consider what the old PlayStation 3 offers. The PlayStation 4's web browser can't even save the day, because it won't play Adobe Flash videos.

Of course in the US you'll find Netflix, HuluPlus and many other great services on the PS4 at launch, which maybe isn't that surprising considering that the PlayStation 3 is the world's most popular non-PC Netflix player. The fact that Sony couldn't strike any local content deals in time for launch tells you how unimportant Australia is in Sony's eyes.

Things look much better on the Xbox One, where you'll find TENPlay, SBS on Demand, SkyDrive, Machinima and TED along with a few other niche video services. It's not everything you might have hoped for, but it seems generous in comparison to Sony's paltry offering. Quickflix is on the roadmap for the Xbox One and I'm unofficially told that it's not unreasonable to expect to see ABC iView and Foxtel Play eventually. Even so, if you rely on these services today then you'll be reluctant to push aside your Xbox 360 for the Xbox One.

What's particularly interesting about the Xbox One is its cross-platform content searching, similar to that found on Samsung Smart TVs and the Roku 3 media player. Rather than search every service separately, you can tell the Xbox One what you want to watch and it will produce a list of available sources. It seems to be the way of the future and it will be interesting to see if Sony goes down the same path.

Television and attached devices

The Xbox One's secret weapon is an HDMI pass-through, which lets you plug another home entertainment device in the back and watch it through the Xbox One. It's certainly useful if you're running short of HDMI inputs, but Microsoft hopes it will offer so much more.

Most people will hook up their digital set-top box, Personal Video Recorder or Pay TV box. It happily works with the TiVo, Foxtel iQ2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Xbox 360. Using the Xbox One's voice commands you can say "Xbox, Watch TV" and see the output from the external box full-screen as if it was plugged directly into your television. You can also "snap" the TV app to watch it side-by-side with other applications.

Unfortunately this is all that the HDMI input is good for in Australia, at least at this point. A firmware update will allow the Xbox One to control connected devices using the infrared ports in the back of the Kinect sensor, so you'll be able to mute the television, change the channel and access other features all via Xbox commands.

In the United States the Xbox One has access to the local television guide, so it can control your PVR and even search the schedule as part of the OneGuide menu which combines traditional and online media in a cross-platform interface. Unfortunately there's no word as to when the Electronic Program Guide might be available in Australia. We could be in for a long wait considering how notoriously difficult Australia's television networks are to deal with. After all these years, Windows-based media centres still don't have access to the Australian EPG unless they pluck it from the broadcast signal or source it from third-party providers such as IceTV.

The ability to completely disable the Xbox One's voice and gesture commands while watching TV would be useful, even if it goes against the Kinect's always-on philosophy. As with other voice-activated lounge room gear, it's too easy to accidentally trigger an Xbox feature with a misplaced word or gesture. One minute your family is watching a movie, the next minute the Xbox One is firing up Skype for no apparent reason. Anything that sounds too close to Xbox can wake it – "sex bot" is my favourite – but sometimes it jumps to life for no apparent reason at all. Like a superstitious thespian refusing to say MacBeth, you'll soon find yourself referring to it as "the Scottish console" so as not to upset it. Considering how little benefit there is to hooking up your PVR at this point, most Australian homes will probably decide it's more trouble than it's worth.

PlayStation 3 owners might be happy with the PlayTV tuner which turns the console into a PVR, but it won't work with the PS4 and Sony says it currently has no plans to release one.

Remote controls

If you are going to run your PVR through an Xbox One, you'll be pleased to know that the console features an infrared port so you can drive it using a TV-style stick rather than reaching for the game controller. The Xbox One is included in Logitech's database of devices for its Harmony programmable universal remote controls, so it's easy to upgrade your remote to drive the console. Unfortunately there's no specific "Watch TV" command, so you'll need to use a voice command to launch it or cobble together a workaround using the arrow keys to automatically navigate to the Watch TV tile and select it.

Meanwhile Sony continues to refuse to include an infrared port in the PlayStation. It's a rather arrogant move for a console that, at least in the past, aspired to be the heart of your digital lounge room. Even if you've invested in the PS3's TV-style Bluetooth remote control it won't work with the PS4 and at this stage third-party adaptors from the likes of Logitech don't work either.

If you've got a smartphone or tablet at hand you'll find the PlayStation and SmartGlass apps offer some remote control features across your home wireless network. Make sure you install the Xbox One SmartGlass app, not the Xbox SmartGlass app designed for the Xbox 360.

If your television is only a few years old it might support HDMI-CEC, which lets it pass commands from the television's remote control through to devices attached to the TV via HDMI. You'll often see it work with Blu-ray players. If you enable HDMI Device Link in the PS4's settings you can control it the console using the remote control that comes with some new Sony televisions, but it's naturally hit and miss with other brands. This trick doesn't work when you connect the Xbox One to a Sony television.

The Xbox One reportedly supports HDMI-CEC for controlling the devices connected to its HDMI input, bypassing the need for the IR blaster in some circumstances, but only time will tell if support for Australian AV devices is added.

Final verdict

The PlayStation 3 was Sony's beachhead in the digital lounge room, trying to cater to all your entertainment needs while slowly tightening its grip on your wallet. Sony is foolishly surrendering many of these gains with the PlayStation 4, abandoning its wider home entertainment aspirations just as Microsoft surges forward. It's as if Sony is deliberately driving people away and you have to wonder how many potential early PlayStation 4 sales were lost over the lack of DLNA alone.

Both consoles will improve their home entertainment credentials in time, but the Xbox One shows a lot more potential as a platform thanks to features like the HDMI passthrough and tight Kinect integration. For now, if you rely your PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 for anything more than playing games and watching discs then you shouldn't be in a rush to upgrade – not unless you're happy to run the old and new consoles side-by-side. There's no knockout victor here, but the Xbox One gets the win on points – even if some of those points are for features you can't actually use yet.

The future looks bright, but until then it's a waiting game for anyone who likes to use gaming consoles for more than playing games.

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