If you're here reading Gizmodo, there's a good chance you have a hard drive full of video somewhere. And you also probably have a PS3, Xbox 360 or Wii. If those two things aren't working together for you in beautiful symbiosis, allowing you to watch all of your downloaded or ripped video on your TV instead of hunched over a laptop screen, well, this is the guide for you.
Now there are two general strategies you can take: physically copying your files to a USB drive, memory card or CD/DVD, which is pretty straightforward, or streaming your video over the network, which is where things get more fun and interesting. So let's dive in.
First things first, codecs. Now that you're all learn-ed on the ways of video encoding thanks to Matt's Giz Explains from this week, the issue of codecs will make a lot more sense. Thankfully, it's not something you have to worry too much about here, because all three consoles can handle a large number of the codecs you will find commonly: AVI, MPEG (1, 2 and 4), H.264, DivX/XviD, and WMV—and if a particular format you want to play isn't supported, it's often possible to convert it to work on the fly. The PS3 also supports AVCHD, a format used by many HD camcorders. Not all formats are supported with every streaming method though, especially in the 360's case, which we'll get to in a second. Now, for getting all those files on the TV.
Note: if you need to re-encode a video in a different format because it won't play, nothing beats VLC's transcoding wizard. Here's a guide.
Xbox 360: Streaming (PC)
In typical Microsoft fashion, there are tons of different ways to pull of streaming your video to the Xbox 360—and the only one that's truly comprehensive, in our opinion, comes from a third party. TVersity is a free UPnP media server that can manage your video and music files anywhere on your PC and stream them out to your 360 over the network. It will also kindly transcode just about any video you can throw at it into a codec your console can definitely read. You might have to install some additional codec packs here and there for Windows but for the most part, you can forget about worrying about codecs with TVersity. This also allows TVersity to handle files not officially supported by the 360, like MKV containers.
1. Grab TVersity here and install it.
2. Click the giant plus sign in the top left corner to "Add Your Media Source" - namely, the folder on your PC with all of your videos.
3. Under advanced options, set your transcoding preferences: "When Needed" will make sure most all of your files play.
4. In the main TVersity menu, select "Start Sharing"
5. On the Xbox 360, TVersity will now appear as a source in the Media blade or under My Xbox -> Video Library in NXE.
The other three options via Microsoft's own various software solutions all have their own drawbacks, which we'll cover here briefly. Our advice? Use them only if you already use the Zune software, Windows Media Player or Windows Media Center to manage all of your video.
Windows Media Player 11: WMP 11 can stream out to the Xbox 360 pretty easily. Here is an in-depth guide. Drawbacks? Somewhat clunky format support. In our tests we could not stream Quicktime video at all, and had inconsistent experiences with MP4 files. MPEG-4 and H.264 support are technically supported via third-party WMP codec add-ons, but even with those, we still had trouble—MP4 files tended to play fine on the WMP 11 end, but not show up as browsable on the 360. Somewhat unbelievably, the Xbox 360 team actually recommends you manually rename your unsupported MPEG-4 and H.264 files, adding the ".avi" container extension to fool WMP into playing them. This worked occasionally, but not for every file and was generally inconsistent.
Zune Software 3.0: Zune offers a much nicer interface than WMP (Settings -> Sharing -> Add is the extent of the setup), and thankfully supports MPEG4 and H.264 much more consistently. Drawbacks? No DivX or Xvid support, which means a huge chunk of your Torrented video probably won't work.
Windows Media Center Extender: If you already have a Media Center setup honking on your network, there's a good chance you won't need this guide, but the Xbox 360 can of course stream your MCE content to your TV seamlessly (a complete guide is here). The interface is really fantastic. Drawbacks? The gimpiest codec support of the bunch: only MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and WMV are supported. So unless you're converting everything you have into those formats, you'll still need something like TVersity to play most files you'll find up for download.
So, in the end, TVersity wins hands down as the easiest and most elegant streaming setup for the 360. But do keep in mind—if you're playing a format that your Xbox can't handle (MKV being the most common of these you'll find), TVersity will have to transcode, which means you will lose a bit of quality.
Xbox 360: Streaming (Mac): UPnP support—the networking standard used by both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 in various flavors to play network-streamed video, music and photos—is not natively supported by OS X yet. And unfortunately, there isn't a stellar all-in-one free package like Windows' TVersity.
Nullriver, however, makes an incredibly slick piece of software called Connect360, which easily streams all of your iLife libraries or any folder full of video on your Mac to the 360. Unfortunately, it'll cost you $20. There is a free trial version that supposedly shuts off after 30 minutes of sharing, but sometimes it seems to forget and lets you play longer. But even so, $20 isn't bad for the convenience factor here. No transcoding, but it will handle every codec the console itself can play back.
1. Download and install the Connect360 preference pane.
2. In System Preferences, start up Connect360 sharing. Here you can also add folders for more sharing.
3. Access the Connect360 source on your Xbox in the usual way. Done.
Xbox 360: Physical Media
1. If streaming isn't for you, and you don't mind hauling a storage device back and forth between your computer and Xbox, then this is super easy: Insert Flash disk/USB/CD/DVD and browse it with the Media blade or the Video Library section of NXE (under "My Xbox"). Enjoy.
Playstation 3: Streaming (PC)
TVersity: Again, Tversity is your friend. It works just as well for the PS3 as it does for Xbox 360 (see above for setup).
1. With Tversity set up and sharing turned on, just browse to COMPUTERNAME: TVersity in the XMB and you'll see a listing of all your shared files.
Windows Media Player 11: Just like for Xbox 360, you can use WMP11's built-in DLNA/UPnP serving capabilities to stream to the PS3, too—but with the same codec funkiness as noted above.
1. In the Media Sharing preference box with your PS3 powered on and connected to the network, select "Unknown Device"—that's your PS3.
2. Your library should now show up in XMB.
Playstation 3: Streaming (MAC)
Mac: Nullriver didn't just hook up 360 owners—Media Link is the version especially for PS3. It costs 20 bucks, but will give you totally seamless and painless streaming of all of your iLife libraries (photos and music too) as well as files in any folder you can access with your Mac, whether it's on a network or local.
1. Operation is just like Connect360—with sharing enabled in the Media Link preference pane, just browse through all your files under the "Media Link" source in XMB.
Playstation 3: Physical Media
1. Easy as pie. If you're using a USB flash or hard disc or an SD or CF card, just dump all of your videos into a folder named VIDEO on the root of the drive and they'll show up automatically in the XMB.
2. You can also browse the entire drive or disc by pressing triangle and choosing "Display All" to find videos that aren't in the VIDEO folder.
Wii: Physical Media
For playing video on your Wii, physical media is the way to go, which is easy to pull off with some homebrew hacking. There are lots of services that will transcode your video and ouput it in a Flash player that you can view through the Wii's Opera browser (like Orb), but you'll take a hit quality-wise and it's not as easy as just playing the source files directly with Mplayer.
1. Install the Homebrew Channel and Mplayer on your Wii. We've got you covered here with our complete Wii homebrew guide—but hopefully you haven't installed the latest System Menu update. In that case, you'll have to wait for a workaround, but it probably won't be long.
2. Install Mplayer via the Homebrew Browser (also covered in our guide).
3. Now, you can use Mplayer to play files off or even an attached USB drive (as long as its formatted in FAT16 or FAT32, which most are). The interface is not nearly as nice, but it gets the job done.
4. Mplayer for the Wii covers a ton of codecs, but sadly, the Wii's processor chokes on HD content. If you've got HD files, you'll need to transcode them into a lower resolution with VLC.
And that's about it. Now, no more huddling around your laptop screen or fiddling with TV and audio-out cables. Welcome to the good life.
Additional reporting and testing by Seung Lee. See more Giz how-to guides here. And as always, if you have anything to add to our findings, please let us know in the comments.