By Ben Kuchera | Published: December 18, 2007 - 11:35PM CT
The newest firmware update for Sony's PlayStation 3 was released today, and while many gamers may groan at the inclusion of voice filters for online communication, the big news is the support for the Blu-ray 1.1 spec as well as the ability to play back DivX files. For a system that Sony wants to be at the heart of your entertainment center, adding support for one of the most popular video file formats is a large step in the right direction. But we're left with one more question for both Sony and Microsoft: what took you guys so long to support DivX?
Even though Sony's plans to support of DivX files were announced some time ago, Microsoft beat the PlayStation 3 to the punch with its fall update that included support for both DivX and Xvid files. The only issue remaining is how you get those files to the 360. Microsoft only supports streaming from your computer to your system for some codecs, while other video files can be played back from a flash drive. If you want support for all the codecs possible, you'll need to use Windows Media Player 11—a bummer if you've only got a Mac or a Linux box.
In some ways, Microsoft's move was a bit of a surprise; back in 2005 Microsoft's Major Nelson expressed skepticism over Microsoft ever supporting DivX. "Commercial folks are not using DivX in a commercial fashion. People are using it to 'back up' their DVDs, and I'm using backup in quotes... some of the other folks are probably using it to share files and break a lot of copyright laws," he said in a podcast. Apparently Microsoft's views on what their users are doing with DivX has changed in the past two years.
Sony has been much more upfront about wanting an open system, and the company's media-heavy approach makes DivX support a savvy move. One advantage for Sony over Microsoft is that the PS3 will actually be DivX Certified. "The recent Xbox update does not support full DivX playback; Microsoft has added support for MPEG-4, which is not the same thing as full DivX Certification," Bruce Lidl, PR manager for DivX Inc., told Ars Technica. "In practical terms, it is true that some DivX files will playback on the Xbox, because DivX is in part based on the MPEG-4 standard. But many early versions of DivX video will not play back on the console, and the device has not been tested to guarantee an acceptable level of quality and full support for DivX video at the proper resolution."
While DivX support is certainly welcome, the lack of Xvid support while streaming means that PS3 owners won't be able to stream Xvid-encoded files to their PS3. These files won't work through standard SMB network sharing either, or via Windows Media Connect. You'll need to have Windows Media Player 11 installed to be able to stream DivX files, which might not be the ideal setup for home theater enthusiasts. XviD files seem to only work when put on the PS3's hard drive, external storage, or played from a burnt disc.
Both Sony and Microsoft want a piece of your living room, and creating the most attractive home theater component is one way to make sure one their products are at the center of your entertainment world. While users have been asking for the support of these common formats since the launch of both systems, the perception of Xvid and DivX as the format of choice of pirates and other undesirables, and—real or imagined—the need to appease Big Content to get movies and music onto the system, have kept Microsoft and Sony from giving in, until now.
Now that it's more important to Microsoft and Sony to expand their role in your living room, they've shown just how easily DivX support can be added. Lidl pointed out to Ars that Sony has been working with DivX on DVD Players and in-car devices "for some time." The problem is that each system has list of caveats and "gotchas" involved with streaming the content, making the process troublesome and confusing to consumers who aren't already tech-savvy. We know that most people aren't aware of the media functions of their consoles, and the less-than-user-friendly methods of getting DivX content onto the consoles most likely won't do much to turn those numbers around.
Two years too late and imperfect in execution, Microsoft and Sony are finally supporting something that should have been a launch spec. Better late than never! We can only hope this is a sign that more tech companies will pay real attention to the audio and video codecs we actually want to use.