Next-Gen Gaming Consoles Are Solid Streamers, Blu-Ray Players — But They Could Be Even Better

Update (11/22/20): We’ve added more details about the PlayStation 5’s Disney+ app after users discovered limitations on playback resolution.

Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series S and X consoles have officially ushered in the next generation of gaming. But while these high-powered devices are clearly focused on video games, the last few console generations have demonstrated that these boxes can be capable streaming entertainment devices as well. So in this article, we’re going to take a look at the current state of streaming apps on the new Xbox and PlayStation consoles.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from our recent deep dive video, which you can view here.

Hardware Specs That Matter When Streaming

If you’ve been following either console’s marketing throughout the year, you’ve probably heard all about key highlights as far as tech specs. But jargon like teraflops and real-time ray-tracing are far more important for playing games than they are for streaming entertainment apps. So let’s examine some of the features that could actually impact streaming performance.

To start, the PlayStation 5 and both new Xbox consoles have transitioned from the traditional spinning hard drives of earlier console generations and shifted to much faster SSDs, or solid-state drives. On the new Xbox Series X, Microsoft is claiming data transfer rates over 40 times faster than the previous console generation’s hard drive speeds. And Sony makes even bolder claims with its custom SSD, boasting about 100 times faster raw data transfer speed than what the PlayStation 4 could achieve with its hard drive.

Still-Image_Console-Family_3_Front-Facing_Consoles-Controllers
Source: Microsoft

Of course, those speed increases are more important for gaming — for things like startup times and level loading — but they might also help with loading streaming apps more quickly than their predecessors. We’ll look into that below. One potential downside, however, is that these new consoles are a bit stingy when it comes to available onboard storage. Sony’s machine offers around 667GB of free space on its SSD. The Series X has around 800GB available and the Series S has roughly 364GB free. That’ll matter more for game installs, which can be huge compared to the typical streaming app, but the overall storage is worth keeping an eye on. Both platforms have external storage solutions available, but just keep in mind internal storage can get tight!

Beyond storage speed, these new consoles also sport other streaming-friendly specs, including support for 4K resolutions and high-dynamic range video. Both platforms also boast about supporting 8K resolutions. However, that 8K feature is still TBD on the PlayStation side. Even though there’s a big “8K” logo on the side of the box, the PS5 currently tops out at 4K even when connected to an 8K-capable display. However, Sony says support is coming in the future.

Another feature that could impact your streaming experience is HDR support and again, it looks like the PS5 comes up a bit lacking on this front, with support for HDR10, but not Dolby Vision out of the box. Meanwhile, the Xbox Series S and Series X support both Dolby Vision and the Dolby Atmos audio standard out of the box.

And again, it’s possible Sony could add in Dolby Vision and or Atmos support via software update. For reference, I own a Sony 4K Blu-ray player that didn’t have Dolby Vision support at first, but was later updated via new firmware. So here’s hoping Sony can pull off something similar for its new gaming console.

The Built-In 4K Blu-Ray Drives Are Good, Not Great

Both console lines offer options with and without disc drives. The Xbox Series S drops the 4K Blu-ray drive and also boast less-capable gaming hardware for a retail price of $300. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition is basically exactly like the standard PS5 — except without the disc drive and coming with a price tag around $100 cheaper.

Source: Sony

As for the drive-equipped models, if you’re hoping they offer the state-of-the-art in 4K Blu-ray support, you might be a little surprised, at least for now.

For starters, even though the Xbox Series X supports Dolby Vision HDR for streaming apps and eventually for games, that support currently doesn’t extend to physical media, aka 4K-Blu-ray. And as mentioned, the PS5 lacks Dolby Vision in general, so both consoles currently top out at HDR10 support for your 4K Blu-rays.

Wakanda forever.

Again, that could change in the future via software updates. And it’s worth looking at the larger picture and remembering that launching a video game console, even in normal circumstances, is a complex affair and requires setting priorities for what gets done at launch and what will have to wait until a later date. So it’s perhaps not all that surprising that the streaming and physical media capabilities on these new consoles aren’t quite as feature-rich as they could be at launch. But again, this new generation is just getting started.

Surveying the Streaming App Landscape

As for streaming app selection, both console platforms offer several of the biggest apps out there, but the Xbox side is currently winning when it comes to quantity. We counted at least 50 streaming apps ready to go on the Series S and Series X at launch. It’s possible many of these were pulled straight from the previous generation’s streaming app library, and you can select from big names like Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, and YouTube, as well as newer options like Disney+, HBO Max, and Peacock. You’ll also have access to options like CBS All Access, ESPN, Plex, and others.

Xbox Series S | X Streaming Apps At Launch

On the Sony side — well, it’s probably worth remembering when we talked about companies focusing on gaming at launch and hopefully improving streaming features later. At launch, the PlayStation 5’s list of supported streaming apps topped out at 20. And yes, that’s significantly fewer than what’s available on Xbox, but you do have access to many of the usual suspects, like Netflix, Prime Video, YouTube, and Hulu. And like the Xbox platform, you also get a new Apple TV app. That number also doesn’t match the streaming app support you can currently find on the older PlayStation 4 and it’s entirely possible many of those apps will eventually find their way to the new console over time. Again: TBD.

PlayStation 5 Streaming Apps at Launch

Horsepower to Spare: Testing Streaming App Performance

We also got a chance to test streaming app performance to see if those newfangled SSDs and the overall horsepower found in these new consoles can translate into strong streaming service performance. Before we dive into the numbers, however, we wanted to note that we were unable to secure hands-on time with the Xbox Series S and X in time for our video and this companion article. Still, we’re confident many of our findings on the PlayStation 5 will translate well to both Xbox consoles.

With that in mind, let’s talk about our standard app suite test. We load up a series of apps on each device and time how long it takes to load each one. We run that collection of apps at least three times to get a solid average and then we compare our findings.

And for this round, we adjusted our app collection based on what’s currently available. So we went with Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, ESPN, Pluto TV, Crunchyroll, and then the new Apple TV app. Then we loaded up Netflix one more time at the end to see if the hardware can get the app up and running any faster the second time through.

We started by testing a launch-era PlayStation 4 for comparison. This particular console has been modified with a higher-capacity hard drive, but the performance shouldn’t be too far off from than original drive. And with that in mind here’s how the PS4 fared compared to modern streaming devices: Not great!

Overall, the PS4 scored a rather sluggish 172.50 seconds to run through our test. On the PlayStation 5, we managed a much, much improved score of 90.24, which compares well to some of the higher-end dedicated streaming devices on the market at the moment. We ran the 2020 Roku Ultra through this same set of apps and Roku’s top-end streamer came away with a time of 85.17 seconds. Honestly, the PS5 likely could have surpassed the Ultra were it not for a strangely slow-loading Disney+ app.

Speaking of Disney+ on the PS5, users have discovered that playback currently seems to top out at 1080p resolution. We’ve since confirmed the issue on our own PlayStation 5. Movies we know are available in 4K via the app on other platforms currently only offer up to HD resolution on PS5.

The PlayStation 5’s Disney+ app appears to top out at HD, 1080p resolution (lower-left corner). On other versions of the app, this film offers 4K resolution.

In the end, streaming app performance is rather impressive on the PS5 and Xbox users should expect broadly similar speed. And hopefully feature discrepancies in certain apps will be resolved soon.

Can These Consoles Cut It As Do-It-All Streaming Boxes?

Overall, it should be clear none of these consoles, not even the lower-specced Xbox Series S, should come even close to breaking a sweat when running these streaming apps. They each have performance to spare when it comes to this type of use case and compared to the previous generation, these new consoles tend to operate much quieter, which hopefully leads to less distracting noise when you’re trying to watch a movie.

On the app support front, it’s clear the Xbox platform has the greater number of compatible streaming apps right at launch. But it’s likely Sony should narrow the gap in due time. Like we’ve said a few times already: Odds are Microsoft and Sony had to prioritize a few things to launch their respective platforms on time this year, and gaming understandably took precedence.

Now, it’s not a given that features like Dolby Vision will come to the PlayStation or the Xbox Series X’s Blu-ray drive, but even without that support, I think it’s safe to say both console platforms should serve you well for both gaming and streaming for a while to come.

But again, this generation is just getting started and both companies are still working out a variety of kinks on their new hardware. Microsoft has a running list of known issues on a support page, which includes bugs like pixelated frames on the Peacock app and a note that teams are still working on the issue. Meanwhile, I experienced a crash during app testing on the PlayStation 5, and Sony’s also working through its own bugs and issues with its new console as well. In other words, definitely keep a close eye on system firmware updates to help remedy issues.