Streaming Video on the Console
The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are very capable machines. Learn how to take advantage of them to play videos, music, and more from your computer.
The PlayStation 3 comes with a Blu-ray player, a Web browser, a music player, a photo viewer, and plenty of other features that remind us that it's no mere PlayStation 2. The Xbox 360, sans Blu-ray and Web browsing, has fewer multimedia options, but players seem to get by with Netflix streaming and Xbox Live online features. However, for all their robustness, the consoles are rather unrefined when it comes to video support. The Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 have their quirks when it comes to playing various video codecs and container files. Both consoles can play videos, but not all video files are compatible out of the box. Videos that play easily on the PC or Mac go unsupported on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It's also not as easy to find, download, and install a codec on the console as it is on the PC. New codecs might come bundled with new firmware updates or as downloadable content, but they don't come often enough to count as reliable support.
Developers recognized this video compatibility problem and created programs such as TVersity, XBMC, PS3 Media Server, and many more free and not-so-free programs to help console owners play videos on their systems. All of these programs are able to transcode video on the fly so, at least in theory, you won't have any problems with video compatibility. PS3 Media Server is the best pure video player of the bunch, whereas the others offer some unique features worth exploring. TVersity, a Windows-based program, lets users stream video content to just about any device, anywhere, and has a lot of preloaded video streams from the Internet that make it easy for novices to get started. XBMC acts more as a dedicated media viewer, with its own onscreen graphical user interface, and can stream video content as well. All of these programs require a computer and a home network to run. You might want to consider upgrading your processor if you want to transcode high-definition videos.
TVersity lets you take your videos and streams with you anywhere you can access the Internet, but we were content to find out how well it works in the confines of a home network for our console testing. The program will easily feed consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, other PCs, network-enabled video devices such as Roku boxes, DirecTV receivers, the Sony PSP, and even the iPhone. It even recognizes which devices are hooked up and scales the video content up or down according to the device being used. In addition to serving files from your hard drive, TVersity can port in streams from YouTube, NPR, and many other Web sites. A single, moderately powerful PC can feed multiple devices across the home simultaneously. Computer horsepower comes into play when you have to transcode large, high-quality files quickly.
Provided that you have a console and a Windows-based PC, TVersity makes streaming video dead simple. It was easy to install and configure on our test PC. We pointed the program at our video, music, and pictures folders, and then we selected a few online video streams that the TVersity interface had preloaded. The streams featured new content from various Web sites, including HD feeds and old TV shows such as MacGyver and the original Star Trek. Our PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 both found their new networked friend without any extra effort. On the PlayStation 3, the TVersity server icon appeared in all of the media-related crossbar selections, including videos, music, and photos. We didn't encounter any problems when we had our PS3 connected to our network with a wired cable, but switching to Wi-Fi brought about a 7351 DLNA error that we safely ignored to no ill effect. We saw similar kinds of errors from time to time, but rebooting the console or simply pressing "next" seemed to remedy the issue. The Xbox 360 identified our TVersity server just as quickly as the PS3 and had zero hiccups connecting to it.
Nearly all of the video files that we threw at the PS3 worked with TVersity, and the Xbox 360 worked just as well after downloading a codec pack through Xbox Live. The program automatically transcoded files that normally wouldn't function on either of the consoles, turning them into viewable videos. The vast majority of content worked, although we encountered issues with high-bit-rate MKV files. You will have to tweak the TVersity settings to solve some rare video-incompatibility problems, so expect to spend some time on Google and in the TVersity settings menu to get everything running just right. Both consoles had issues with fast-forwarding and rewinding on a few files, but we had great success with the PS3's scene-search feature on most videos. High-definition feeds and videos looked great, although they didn't work well via 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. It's really more of a wireless bandwidth issue than any fault of the program. The videos played perfectly after we switched to a wired network.
Do you use your console to watch videos? What do you watch and how do you watch them?
XBMC, formerly known as Xbox Media Center, acts as both a front- and back-end media center program. That means it can serve content to devices such as your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 console, and it can also play content directly on your TV if you have your Windows/OSX/Linux/AppleTV machine installed with XBMC connected to your TV. The program has a slick graphical user interface that's easy to use while sitting on the couch. XBMC isn't robust enough to feed such devices as the iPhone, but it has its niche if you need the GUI and media-server capability for a home theater PC. XBMC is open source and has become so popular that it has a couple of spin-off programs such as Plex, Boxee, and MediaPortal.
Like TVersity, XBMC transcodes and streams both Internet and local video content. TVersity provides you with many Internet streams to choose from right out of the installation, but you'll have to go out and hunt for content with XBMC. You'll need to track down plugins and scripts to import Internet based content. Adding YouTube content required some work. We first had to perform a few Web searches to find the proper scripts, and then we had to manually place the files into the proper directory for XBMC to recognize the feed. Overall, the whole process isn't particularly friendly from start to end, but the added functionality is worth the effort.
You'll have to jump over a few hurdles to install XBMC, but it's not difficult. You'll need to keep your video-card drivers up to date and keep an eye on your firewall exceptions for a smooth installation. (The instruction manual will tell you that too, but we discovered that for ourselves when we tried to man through the initial installation without reading the instructions first.) Both consoles detected XBMC with no trouble after we got the program installed, and we were able to access files in exactly the same manner as we did with TVersity. File playback worked fine with just about all of the MPEG, AVI, WMV, and MOV files we tried. As with our TVersity experience, high-resolution MKVs didn't work out of the box. Again, you're going to have to Google up solutions and fiddle with settings to make the difficult files play properly. All of the other basic functions, as well as music and image playback, worked perfectly.
PS3 Media Server
If you have videos, PS3 Media Server can probably play them. All of them. You won't find a couch-friendly user interface, streaming support for all sorts of nonconsole devices, or any other ancillary features that have nothing to do with playing videos on your PlayStation 3. The only bit of extravagance the developers managed to add was support for multiple operating systems. PS3 Media Server runs on Windows, OSX, and Linux. The program also takes advantage of multicore CPUs for transcoding, although the feature is usable only by Windows users at the moment.
Setup and installation couldn't be any easier. Outside of clicking on the install file, we didn't have to do much. Adding media was as simple as pointing the program at a folder on our hard drive. The lightweight interface uses very little in terms of system resources (although you might want to keep an eye on RAM usage once the program starts transcoding). Adding shared folders proved as easy as hitting the plus button.
As the name suggests, the software works only with the PlayStation 3. (We did get media files to show up on the Xbox 360, but they didn't play properly.) We encountered no issues at all in getting the program to work with our PS3. Every video we threw at the program worked properly, including the gigantic MKVs that bogged down TVersity and XBMC. Like the other programs, there are probably some formats that the program can't handle, but PS3 Media Server offered the best video compatibility from the default installation.
We enjoyed using every one of the programs that we discussed in this feature. However, we found that none of them are bulletproof. Expect to encounter any number of random network issues and the occasional crash. Making so many different devices play nice with each other and have them support a bazillion file formats is very difficult, and, frankly, we're still impressed with the fact that all of these programs are free (feel free to donate though). Each program has its strengths, and when it comes down to it, you're not really limited to running only one of the programs. We actually ended up running all three of them at the same time for maximum functionality.
Do you use your console to watch videos? What do you watch and how do you watch them?