As much as we look at the next wave of streaming television and point to devices such as Apple TV and Roku, the real battle will take place on consoles. Streaming box sales pale in comparison to the millions who will purchase an Xbox One and/or PS4 this coming fall. The current number one device that people use to stream Netflix is actually the PS3, so scoping out the console landscape can reveal details on what streaming TV will look like in 2014. It may be too early to pick a winner...or is it? Let’s take a look.
Cable boxes and DVRs are so "last year" — the real future is in streaming entertainment boxes. They interact with your mobile devices, pump out TV Everywhere, have dozens of apps to bring you on-demand programming and become an interactive entertainment hub. They’re smart, fast, powerful and extendable. They can see you, and you can talk to them. They have something for the whole family, and creative content producers see them as a gateway to millions. Sony and Microsoft are not exactly betting their respective companies on these boxes, but it's not that far off; they are vitally important. They’ve invested millions in bringing the next wave of entertainmentto the masses . But each is taking fairly different paths.
Microsoft’s Xbox One is being positioned as an all-purpose entertainment device. For television it is the first console to have an HDMI in. You can run your cable television directly into the unit and pop it on with an audio command that you speak via the connected Kinect sensor. Kinect was an option on Xbox 360 but it's standard with all Xbox Ones, meaning this device responds to voice and motion commands. Wave your arms and swipe through menus of programming, or just say commands like “Xbox Live TV” or “Xbox Watch Netflix,” and the console does as you command. All the standard apps are included, such as Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon, Crackle and dozens more, in addition to having an Xbox digital TV and Movie library to rent from.
Oh yes, it also plays games, rich 1080p 60 fps next-generation software. Whereas Microsoft has traditionally targeted gamers in previous consoles, they are clearly targeting the entire family this time, and positioning Xbox One as an all-encompassing entertainment device that also plays state-of-the-art games.
Microsoft’s Smart Glass technology means that you can also control the device with your Microsoft Surface or Surface RT tablet, Apple iPad or Google android tablet such as Nexus and Samsung. You can also use your smartphone to view second-screen info and control what happens in the Xbox One screen using the touch-screen device you are holding. Looking toward the future, Xbox One will output 3-D and 4K resolution, meaning that when 4K TVs become more the norm (Sony now has 4K TV’s already set up for sale in Best Buy this month), the device will be ready. The processor and graphics are also poised for the future.
Electronic Arts CTO Rajat Teneja wrote a post on LinkedIn this week that stated that both the Xbox One and PS4 architectures are “a generation ahead of the highest-end PC on the market” and that “benchmarks on just the video and audio performance are 8-10 times superior to the current generation of consoles.” Top-of-the-line processors are key with entertainment devices. Other units such as the Nintendo Wii U don’t have this kind of raw power and may not be as future-ready. It’s worth noting that the Wii U has struggled with sales (it’s more "new gen" than "next gen"), but it’s still a cautionary tale for MS and Sony’s as they ramp up.
Sony has taken a different route, and positioned the Playstation 4 as a gamer's device. A very smart and savvy move, since hard-core enthusiasts will want to get this unit into the home at any cost. Once it's there, it can be used for much of what you could use an Xbox One for. The Playstation 3 had a key advantage last generation, in that it included a Blu-ray player built in, while the Xbox 360 had a plain DVD drive, with an add-on external HD-DVD drive. The format wars left HD-DVD in the dust and Blu-ray surged ahead, leaving many who were shopping for a Blu-ray player to spend a bit more and get the PS3, along with a large collection of video apps such as Amazon and Netflix. Sony has a vast TV and video rental store built in, and spec wise the unit also supports 3-D and 4K output for the future. Sony is aggressive in pursuing 4K TV resolution and wants to get out in front of the pack, much like it did with Blu-ray, because with Xbox One and PS4 now both having Blu-ray drives, the disc advantage is now more even.
Specs-wise, PS4 is a more powerful machine. When apps first came to smart TVs, they were traditionally very sluggish, slow to navigate and slow to load because there was not a dedicated beefy CPU driving them. Smart TVs have improved a bit, but not too much. The PS4 will have a slick and rapid interface and it will be quick to move around, thanks to its high-end CPU and GPU specs. Xbox One is built for more always-on performance, and the specs were ramped down slightly for more energy-efficient usage. But both are in the same ballpark. Although both units have a lot of the same video apps, streaming services and rental store options, Sony in the last generation has had a much more clean user interface. Apps are logically organized, and it only takes a click or two to move to, say, Netflix or start playing a DVD.
Xbox has redone its interface with the 360 numerous times, but now it's a sea of boxes and categories that can be confusing to non-gamers who just want to watch a show. The interface also has lots of ads and you constantly have to sift through other things to get to where you want to go. They’ve solved this partially by letting you “pin” apps to the home screen, but there is no denying that Microsoft on the Xbox has created a cluttered interface. Here is hoping that Microsoft makes it easier to navigate, and Sony continues to focus on minimal clean choices. Neither interface is final, and won’t be for several months, so anything can happen.
Who will win the console wars, and which entertainment device will rein supreme through the Fall, holiday season and into 2014? It may come down to price and momentum. With the Xbox One currently listed as $499 and the PS4 at $399, one big factor could be cost. On one level, a less expensive console could just sell better. Microsoft insists on shipping a Kinect unit with every Xbox One whether you want it or not. This could turn off buyers who don’t want it or feel uneasy about a camera and motion device always there in front of them. The PS4 sales will be driven hard by gamers, and the unit could dovetail nicely into a halo effect rising into Sony 4K TV sales. Sony is already prototyping 4K video downloads and streaming options. And make no mistake that the PS4 will be part of that future. A high-powered game machine and great streaming device with ties to other Sony future-forward products — and at a lower price — could give Sony the edge it really missed during the last console battle wars.
Xbox trying to be everything to everyone could be a plus but could just as easily be a misfire. It has its own halo effect (and actually its own Halo) but it wants it to sweep to its line of Surface tablets and Windows phones, which, to be blunt, are struggling hard for even a low market share percentage. Microsoft also has to try to convince everyone that it's not just a gaming box, after marketing it for a decade as such. In the bigger picture, that home entertainment area is getting a little tight for space, so this generation, users may opt for one or the other instead of just getting both like last generation. Or worse, many will just stick with a PS3 or Xbox 360. Both companies have committed to support for years to come, as it may suit the needs, and already have the streaming apps, for a selection of consumers. The live TV input might be a plus, where initiatives such as TV Everywhere and Dyle mobile branding have tried to ignite the torch to rediscover live TV on this generation of devices, Xbox One could be the momentum to help.
One thing is for sure, things are getting very exciting and will especially be this holiday season and beyond. Broadcast, cable and satellite are being deconstructed. The future is aimed toward streaming, and the hardware options are varied and ready to go. While today you may be deciding between one or two cable or satellite providers, a year from now you could be deciding between going for it with a streaming TV, all in one console. And make no mistake, Microsoft and Sony are gearing up for a battle that will help define the future of television and change entertainment as we know it. Very exciting times lay ahead in the next several quarters.