PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 now fuller rivals to Apple TV

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Microsoft and Sony maneuvers at the Electronic Entertainment Expo now turn their respective Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles into stronger media hubs , and more direct challengers to Apple TV.

The additional competition first surfaced on Monday, when Microsoft said it would sign on with Netflix.

Gamers with both an Xbox Live Gold subscription and a Netflix account will have the option this fall of streaming an unlimited number of movies and TV shows from the movie provider's Watch Instantly online service, bypassing the need to download the entire video to disk while still having control over pausing and skipping through content. The feature will also give Netflix customers a unique social component that lets as many as eight Xbox Live members watch a movie at the same time.

On top of the video service, the company has also revamped the Xbox 360 interface with a design that will seem familiar to users of iTunes' Cover Flow interface and has struck a deal with NBC-Universal to host its movies and TV shows — a move that emphasizes the rift between Apple and the studio, which was forcefully split from iTunes after neither company could come to terms on variable pricing.

Meanwhile, Sony itself has also kicked off the release of its first video service for its own game system: The PlayStation Store is on Tuesday carrying movies and TV shows from Sony, Apple's close partner Disney, as well as Fox, MGM, Paramount, and several other studios.

The service from the outset is largely comparable to services from Apple and others and offers TV show purchases for $1.99 per episode as well as movies for between $9.99 and $19.99 depending on the title; movies are also available to rent for between $2.99 and $3.99. Sony offers a choice between standard and high-definition versions and is one of the few to offer HD for TV shows.

Both Microsoft and Sony's efforts put even greater strain on Apple TV, which has struggled to gain a foothold in the marketplace and has been consciously talked down for its role as the "fourth leg" in Apple's product lineup. Simultaneously, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have both sold millions of units while frequently offering media playback (with the exception of the PlayStation's Blu-ray) only as a secondary feature.