There was a time when a games console would only allow you to play games on your TV; having two people playing with a split screen and multiple control pads was about as adventurous as it got. But these days, everything has changed.
With the last generation, the games console was suddenly also a DVD player. And today, the Sony PS3, the Xbox 360 and even the Nintendo Wii come bristling with all sorts of media-based features that no one even dreamt of ten years ago.
Xbox 360 update
After yesterday's Dashboard firmware update, the Xbox 360 can now claim to be the most accomplished media hub the world has ever seen. Not only can it deliver fantastic games with sparkling HD graphics, but it also lets you rent movies ( from 11 December in the UK), download demos, chat to your Live Messenger friends, stream music and video from a PC - the list goes on and on.
But while all these extra features are nice to have, some people might say that they'd rather just have the games console without the shiny extras, for a cheaper price.
And that's why it's so important for Sony and Microsoft to make their consoles as versatile as possible. Versatility is absolutely the key. This is the reason why the addition of DivX support and a new video download store are so important for the Xbox 360.
What's the point in a console being able to stream videos from your PC if it doesn't support the majority of file formats? The PS3 is a cracking media hub, but the only format it can play at the moment is MP4 - a format no one really uses. This makes the media hub part of the PS3 redundant for many gamers.
DivX the key
The Xbox 360 was in almost the same boat until yesterday. But now that's all changed. DivX is the most used video format in the world. And now that the Xbox 360 supports it, the console has suddenly become incredibly useful for a lot of people.
Likewise, instead of popping out to the video store to rent a movie, you'll soon be able to just download them to your Xbox. Assuming, of course, that your internet connection can handle it and your console has a hard drive.
So what does Sony have to do to catch up? For a start, the addition of DivX support is a must. It should have been done when the console first launched, but the good news is that a forthcoming firmware update is expected to make the PS3 DivX-compatible.
When that happens, suddenly the PS3 will also become an incredibly useful tool. Already in the PS3's favour is its near-silent operation. It's remarkably quiet even when you're playing HD games, whereas the Xbox 360's giant cooling fans can hum louder than an angry swarm of bees.
But the real trump card up Sony's sleeve could well be the PlayTV. The digital TV tuner peripheral that will turn the PS3 into a Freeview receiver and hard disc recorder. It's launching with twin HD digital tuners at the beginning of 2008.
This could swing the media hub crown back over to the PS3. And then it'll be up to Microsoft to come up with something new. With both companies trying to outdo each other with bigger and better features, the real winner is you.
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