It's On: The Battle for the Digital Living Room

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Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham
A quiet revolution has begun in our living rooms. Microsoft and Sony plan to overthrow your A/V receiver, DVD player, and set-top box, and replace them with one of their game consoles. This past spring, both companies unveiled movie download and streaming services that give them new-found credibility in the living room.

Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 both provide great game play with stunning graphics and the opportunity to mosh online with other gaming dweebs. But do these devices offer enough to nongamers to serve as the command center of our digital homes? I'm not convinced.

Cost, Content

You can do almost anything related to digital entertainment with a PS3, but you can't do all of it well. Attach a PS3 to your network, and it will play music, run video, and show photos--the media stored on your PC. You can surf the Web, watch YouTube, and send Twitter updates from your couch. You can pop in a Blu-ray Disc or DVD movie. And now you can download more than 300 movies and TV shows to it via Sony's PlayStation Store.

But while Sony does its usual great job with the hardware, it does its usual lousy job on content and pricing. Want to watch 10,000 BC in glorious 1080p HD? The flick will cost you $6 to rent for 14 days. Once you start watching, it deletes itself in 24 hours. Even obscure titles like Soul Plane (starring Tom Arnold and Snoop Dogg) cost $4.50 to rent in HD, $3 in standard def, and $10 to buy (as if). When I tried to play the film shortly after it started downloading, it didn't work on my 3-megabits-per-second Road Runner cable broadband connection. Web surfing is clumsy and slow in the PS3's proprietary browser, and I couldn't log on to Twitter at all.

Yet the PS3 still runs rings around the Xbox 360. Though the 360 also works as a media extender (pulling in audio and video from a Media Center PC on the network), it couldn't find videos stored on my PC. It has no HD disc player (Microsoft discontinued its external HD DVD option), no Web browser, no YouTube, no Twitter. Microsoft's movie and TV download library, however, is larger than Sony's. And this fall, Xbox 360 owners will be able to stream films from Netflix's Watch Instantly service. But instead of paying as you go, you have to purchase "Microsoft points"--$6.25 for 500. Renting one 720p HD version of National Treasure 2, For example, costs you 480 of those points.

Worse, using the Xbox 360 means navigating endless hierarchical menus and fighting off promotional offers. No, I don't want to spend $4 to $8 a month for a Gold Xbox Live membership, thank you very much.

The Unfashionable PC

At one time, you may recall, the computer was supposed to dominate the digital living room. "It's safe to say that's now out of fashion," says Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group. PCs are too noisy, too hard to use, and not price-competitive with set-tops that offer many of the same features.

Personally, my networked TiVo does most of what I need (though it could really use a Web browser). My preference, however, may just be a generational thing. My 12-year-old son would kill for an Xbox 360 in the living room. He'll have to stage his own coup before that happens.

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