Getting More Entertainment From Your Game Console
An introduction to streaming media from your computer and the Internet to your game console
Today's game consoles do much more than those of just ten years ago. Consoles like the Xbox 360™ and PlayStation® 3 give you high-definition multi-layered graphics and detailed surround sound. They also second as movie and music players for physical media (i.e. DVDs, CDs, and flash drives), and, along with the Nintendo Wii™, can play select online content. They've truly become entertainment hubs.
In this article, we're going to take an in-depth look at the networking capabilities of the three to help you choose if you're shopping for a console, or to help you figure out what you can expect if you already own one.
How do consoles "network"?
All three of the consoles we'll talk about can connect to your home network via an Ethernet port or built-in Wi-Fi® (see the details for each at the bottom of this page). This means that they're able to play various types of media using that connection, depending on the capabilities of the console.
There are two main types of networking that we're going to discuss, and both of them involve "streaming" media. Streaming means continually sending data from one place to another. In this case, the data is being streamed over a wired or wireless Internet connection from an outside source to your game console. The great thing about streaming media is that unlike physical media, you won't have to find physical space for it, like CDs on a CD rack. You can stream it and enjoy it, and then forget it. But it'll still be available on the other source when you're ready to stream it again.
The first way you can enjoy the multimedia capabilities of your game console involves your computer. Your computer is a rich source for media. Most people store their family photos, home movies, and digital music collection on their computer. But isn't the tiny screen on your computer kind of limiting? Many devices, including two of three game consoles we'll discuss, have the ability to play media streamed from your computer. You can enjoy your music on your home theater system, or view movies and photos that you have stored on your computer on your large high-def TV.
The second type of networking involves the Internet. You may already be aware of services like Netflix®, YouTube™, and Last.fm, which stream movies, videos, and music (respectively) to your computer. With a game console, you can enjoy these services or similar ones, depending on the console. It's like having an endless supply of music and movies, and it won't take up any additional space in your house.
We'll get into the details of what each console can do in the next section. But first, lets talk about setting up your network connection. Both wired and wireless home networks will work. But if you have a wireless router set up, you'll need to choose your network name and enter in your password (if you have one) on your console to connect.
You should also make sure that your game console and the operating system on your computer are both up to date with any recent software updates. If you're not sure, see the manufacturer's site to find out when the last software update was released, or run a quick check for updates on your computer.
If you don't have a network set up, then you can find more detailed instructions in our article on setting up a network.
The Xbox 360
Microsoft's Xbox 360 offers a number of features that make it a great console for more than just gaming. Apart from the high-def gaming complete with full surround sound, the 360 can connect to your home network via a wired Ethernet connection or built-in Wi-Fi®, so you can stream your own media or online content. Here's some of what you can expect:
If you have a Windows® PC with Windows Media Player 11, then you're already equipped with the software you need to send compatible music, photo, and video files to your Xbox 360.
Streaming media from your computer to the Xbox 360
Microsoft's 360 is naturally compatible with Windows Media Player. This makes it super easy to stream music, videos, and photos from a compatible PC running Windows to the 360 (see Microsoft's site for details). You just need to make sure your computer is on and connected to your network. You'll also want to be sure that your Windows Media Player library is populated with media, and that you've selected the option to share media.
Then on the Xbox 360 select "My Xbox" and choose "Windows Media Center" all the way at the end of the list. It'll give you detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to set up the console and your computer to easily stream media using Windows Media Player.
Of course there's other streaming software available, including software for Mac users, like Connect360, TVersity, and TwonkyMedia. A simple online search will show you what's available. Some software will be free, others will have a one-time fee. If you choose any of this software, then you can access media on your 360 under your "Music Library," "Picture Library," or "Video Library" in "My Xbox." Just select your computer's name from the list and the shared media name. Find the music, movies, or pictures that you want to play or view, and then select "Play."
Getting online content
With an Internet connection, the Xbox 360 can access a service called Xbox LIVE® that lets Silver members (available via a free subscription) download game demos, arcade games, game trailers, video clips, and much more. Xbox LIVE Gold members (requires a paid subscription) can also get access to slimmed down online sites, like:
- Zune Marketplace — This service on the 360's "Video Marketplace" lets both Gold and Silver members buy or rent movies and TV shows, or view trailers. Gold members can also use the "party mode" to watch a selected video with friends.
- Netflix Instant Streaming — This feature gives Netflix members the ability to instantly stream movies to their 360. It's free with your paid Netflix membership, and operates similarly to Netflix Instant Streaming on a computer. However, on the 360, you'll have a smaller selection of movies to browse, in addition to what's in your Instant Queue. To see the full selection of movies available for streaming, you'll need to go to the Netflix site online and add movies to your Instant Queue from there. There's also a "party mode" for 360 users to watch Netflix movies with their friends.
- Facebook — Similar to the full website version, Facebook users have the option to update their status, check comments and "like" their friend's statuses, and view their own and friend's pictures.
- Twitter — Similar to the full website version, Twitter members can read, reply, and post Tweets on Twitter through Xbox LIVE.
- Last.fm — Members can sign up for a free Last.fm account, or get access to an existing account, and stream their favorite music or discover new artists.
- Hulu — Coming in early 2011, members can pay Hulu a small monthly fee to get Hulu Plus. It'll let you watch a number of current and past TV seasons in either standard- or high-definition on your TV.
The PlayStation 3
Sony's PlayStation 3, apart from being a great Blu-ray Disc™ player and gaming console, also makes a great media hub. You can connect to your home network via a wired Ethernet connection or use the built-in Wi-Fi to stream content from your computer or online services. Here's what you can expect:
Sony's PlayStation 3 isn't just a great Blu-ray player and gaming console — it can also stream movies, music, and photos from your computer.
Streaming media from your computer to the PS3
Thanks to a recent update, Windows Media Player 11 will work with the PS3 for users running Windows XP, Vista, or 7 (see Sony's site for details). Of course there are a number of software titles available for Mac users as well, like MediaLink, Connect360, TVersity, and TwonkyMedia. A simple online search will show you what's available. Some software will be free, others require a one-time fee.
To access your media from the PS3's Xross Media Bar, scroll over to the category that you want to play media from — either movies, music, or photos. Select the icon that says "Search for media servers." After a few seconds, the name of your computer or the software you're using should pop up. Select it, and then scroll through your music, movie, and photo titles, and choose which file you want to play or view.
Getting online content
The PS3 has a service called the PlayStation Network, where, once connected, you can gain access to other online features, like:
- PlayStation Store — You can get access to the PlayStation Store under either the Video or Game icons. On the Video tab, it'll give you the option to rent or buy movies in standard- or high-definition. On the Game tab, you can purchase game demos, add-ons, themes, or games you can transfer and play on your PSP.
- Internet Browser — Just like a computer, the PS3 gives you a full Internet browser, so you can access just about any site on the web. Check for sports or news updates, or see what's going on with your friends on Facebook.
- Netflix Instant Streaming — This service on the PS3 requires the use of a free disc from Netflix. Once you pop in the disc, you can choose the Netflix logo from the Video icon on the Xross Media Bar and instantly view movies to the PS3. It's free with your paid Netflix membership, and operates similarly to Netflix Instant Streaming on a computer. However, on the PS3, you'll have a smaller selection of movies to view, in addition to what's in your Instant Queue. To see the full selection of movies available for streaming, you'll need to go to the Netflix site online and add movies to your Instant Queue from there.
- Hulu — Coming in Fall 2010, PlayStation Plus subscribers (which requires an annual fee) can pay Hulu a small monthly fee to get Hulu Plus. It'll let you watch a number of current and past TV seasons in either standard- or high-definition on your TV.
Other networking abilities
The PS3 also has a service called "Remote Play" under the Network icon. It lets you access the PS3 from Sony's handheld gaming device called the PSP over a wireless home network. The PSP then acts as a remote, giving you access to media files on the PS3, turning it on from stand-by mode, and letting you access media files stored on your home computer.
Nintendo's Wii is, for the most part, more strictly a gaming device than the other two consoles that we've discussed. There are, however, a few additional features that you can access via built-in Wi-Fi. (If you have a wired network, then you can buy a USB Ethernet adapter sold separately from Nintendo.) Here's what you can expect:
Nintendo's Wii is mostly used for gaming, but you can still watch Netlix movies on it.
Streaming media from your computer to the Wii
Although not native to the Wii, there are some software programs available, like Orb, that let you stream media to your Wii from your compatible Mac or PC. You can do a simple web search to find a good program. Once you install the software of your choice on your computer, you can access it from the Wii Internet Channel (available via a free download from the Wii Shop Channel). You can find more detailed instructions on the software's website. Just be sure to go with a reputable company, and read to see what kind of media you can stream — just photos, music, or movies, or all three?
Getting online content
- Wii Shop Channel — The Nintendo offers a Wii Shop Channel that lets you shop for downloadable WiiWare games available only on the Shop channel. You can also buy Virtual Console games, which include older titles from past Nintendo consoles including the NES, SNES, and N64, and non-Nintendo consoles including the Sega Genesis, Neo Geo, and Commodore 64. You can also purchase additional channels for the Wii.
- Internet Channel — Available for free on the Shop Channel, the Internet Channel acts like your computer's web browser, giving you access to most sites on the web, as well as media streaming services. Check out YouTube and stream videos to your TV, or see what's going on with your friends on Facebook.
- Netflix Instant Streaming — This service on the Wii requires the use of a free disc from Netflix. Once you pop in the disc, you can choose the Netflix Channel and instantly stream movies to the Wii. It's free with your paid Netflix membership, and operates similarly to Netflix Instant Streaming on a computer. However, on the Wii you'll have a smaller selection of movies to browse, in addition to what's in your Instant Queue. To see the full selection of movie available for streaming, you'll need to go to the Netflix site online and add movies to your Instant Queue from there.
Other networking abilities
Wii users who also have a Nintendo DS can use the DS microphone and touchscreen like a controller for some Wii games. You can also use the Nintendo Channel to download game demos and other add-ons to the DS.