Amazon's Fire TV is just the latest device in an increasingly crowded market for set-top boxes. The Fire TV, like the Roku, Chromecast and Apple TV before it, has its ups and downs. If you're willing to dish out a little extra money, though, you can bypass a lot of traditional set-top box hassles by simply purchasing a 12 GB PlayStation 3 for $200 MSRP.
Sony's PS3 doesn't often enter into the conversation about set-top boxes, and it gets excluded for a few reasons: It's expensive (comparatively); it's older, and it's technically not a set-top box at all. That said, if you want polished video apps, top-notch resolution, the ability to watch DVDs and Blu-ray discs, and some of the best games of the past decade, the PS3 justifies its asking price.
A set-top box by any other name
If you've confined your search to traditional set-top boxes, you may not be familiar with exactly what a PS3 is, or what it can do. Sony launched the PS3 in 2006, though the company has redesigned and refined the platform a few times since then, most recently in 2013. Although the PS3's primary purpose is to play games, Sony conceived the device as a comprehensive multimedia machine right from the start. In November 2013, Sony released the PS3's successor, the PlayStation 4, but the company still manufactures the PS3 and sells it at a discount.
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The PS3 can play video games, Blu-ray discs and DVDs. It can also access 22 entertainment apps, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video. You can play your own media either by plugging in a USB stick or external hard drive, or by streaming the content from a media server (such as your computer or mobile device).
The system also makes a competent photo viewer and music player, and supports a wide variety of formats. With four ways to consume video (physical media, streaming apps, external storage and media servers), the PS3 can play just about anything ever produced in a digital format.
It's worth noting that while the similarly priced Xbox 360 has all of these capabilities and a similar price, streaming online channels requires a $60-per-year Xbox Live Gold subscription. If you want to play Xbox games online, that subscription is worth the money; otherwise, a PS3 is the better investment.
Streaming video channels
The PS3 has Netflix and Hulu Plus, which admittedly don't set it apart from any other streaming box on the market. However, it also possesses the Amazon Instant Video app, which the Chromecast and Apple TV do not support. In addition, thePS3 lets you watch HBO Go, which is currently unavailable on the Fire TV.
You can check a full list of the PS3's entertainment apps at Sony's official site, but the lineup is admittedly a mixed bag. Services such as Vudu, Crackle and Epix are decent and available on just about every device. You'll also find much more niche offerings, like Gaiam TV, which broadcasts new-age spiritual programming; Yupp TV, which shows Indian television; and Crunchyroll, which is an anime provider.
Sports fans should also take note that while the PS3 offers MLB.TV, NHL Game Center Live, NBA Game Time and the WWE Network, you'll have to get your NFL fix elsewhere (among game consoles, only the Xbox One has an NFL app).
Although the PS3 doesn't have the biggest lineup of streaming apps, it has the most recognizable ones, and holds them to very high standards. For example, the PS3 has one of the easiest-to-use and fastest Netflix apps available on any system. Over a few months of product testing, the PS3's Netflix app loaded videos and brought them up to full resolution much faster than did the Apple TV, Chromecast, Fire TV or Roku.
If you need access to dozens or hundreds of channels, a PS3 is probably not the best choice, although a media server can mitigate a lot of the device's limitations. Using an external media server, your computer can access any online streaming channel and broadcast the content to your PS3.
Since media server applications, like PlayOn, often cost money, you'll have to pay extra fees if you want to go beyond the PS3's default channels. If you want the best versions of the most common apps, though, the PS3 is currently the way to go.
The only downside is that since the release of the PS4, Sony has just about stopped releasing apps for the PS3. If the app you really want isn't on the list now, it most likely never will be. On the other hand, the PS4 cannot stream content from a media server and may not gain the ability to do so for a long time.
A real gaming machine
While each of the four traditional set-top boxes has some gaming capabilities, they all pale in comparison to a traditional game console. You can still play "Angry Birds" or "Bejeweled" on a PS3, but you can also play mainstream hits like "Uncharted," "God of War" and "Ratchet & Clank." As the system has been available for eight years, the PS3 has amassed a vast library of quality titles to suit every taste.
The Roku offers only a handful of casual games, and its library shows no signs of expanding anytime soon. Developers are still figuring out how to make Chromecast into a gaming platform; it may never become one. Apple TV can stream iOS games from an iPhone or iPad, but these games are mostly casual titles, and the mobile devices themselves are expensive.
Only the Fire TV sells itself as a gaming system of any substance, and this claim is spurious at the moment. While the Android-based Fire TV does boast a decent and growing selection of both core and casual games, the device is not nearly powerful enough to offer titles on par with a PS3.
Games such as "The Walking Dead" and "The Cave" look and play much better on a PS3 than on a Fire TV. Amazon's device also lacks the processing power to support modern blockbuster franchises. You will probably be able to play old entries from series like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Final Fantasy" on Fire TV, but not newer ones. Today's hit series, such as "Call of Duty" and "Assassin's Creed," need a full-fledged gaming console.
Of course, the hardware necessary to run these games comes at a price. The PS3's $200 price tag towers over the $35 for a Chromecast, $50 for a Roku stick, or $100 for an Apple TV or Fire TV. Furthermore, now that the PS4 is out, new releases for the PS3 will slow down and eventually stop altogether.
Factor in the price of a controller for the Fire TV, however, and that device's price rises to $140. Sixty dollars is not an insignificant sum. But if you really want a deep gaming component alongside your streaming apps, the PS3 is light-years ahead of the Fire TV. Toss in the price of a stand-alone Blu-ray player, and you'll be just about even.
A worthwhile purchase
Overall, the PS3 is still the best set-top box for the money. The versatile console offers a good array of channels, fast performance and a robust gaming selection. Plus, you can watch Blu-ray discs and stream content from mobile devices. The PS3 doesn't have Roku's channel selection, Chromecast's cheap price or the Fire TV's gee-whiz voice search, but it is the most complete package. If you've been eyeing the Fire TV because you think it would make a great hybrid set-top box/gaming console, you'd be much better off investing in Sony's black box. While the PS4 establishes itself as Sony's go-to gaming device, the price on PS3s will continue to fall, so keep your eyes peeled for good deals.