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Choosing a Video Game System

While Microsoft got a jump on its next-generation video game console competitors when it shipped the Xbox 360 (see my review) in late 2005, it's only now, over a year later, that we're able to soberly evaluate each of the key systems and determine which offer the best value. That's because, as of this writing, consumers can now choose between three modern video game systems: the Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3 (see my review), and Nintendo's Wii (see my photo gallery). As with the previous generation of consoles, each offers unique benefits and will appeal to certain kinds of users. But the dynamics have changed dramatically this time, with each of the system makers taking their consoles into entirely new markets. Here's how they compare.

Xbox 360: The Most Versatile Console

In the previous generation, Microsoft's Xbox console was the favorite of hard core gamers because it was the most muscular system, with broadband capabilities, an integrated hard drive, and other high-end specifications. Now, Microsoft has forfeited the high-end of the market to the PlayStation 3, though not by much. But no matter: While the Xbox 360's graphics and sounds are about on par with what's available on the PS3, Microsoft makes up the gap in other, unexpected ways.

First, Microsoft's Xbox Live online service is dramatically more full-featured than Sony's weak PlayStation Network (PSN), though Sony could one day catch up. (Microsoft's service can also be more expensive: If you want to deathmatch against other people online, you'll need to fork over $50 a year for the Gold version of Xbox Live.) It offers downloadable game demos, Xbox Live Arcade games (typically $4 to $10 each) movie trailers, rentable TV shows and movies (some in HD), and other features. Best of all, Xbox Live is a completely connected experience. If you're playing, say, Gears of War (see my review) online with your friends, and you see that another buddy has come online, you can invite him to join in. Conversely, he could see you in Gears and decide to invite you to chat, or play a different game. Unlike with PSN, each game doesn't exist in its own virtual silo.

Microsoft has also made a big push into casual gaming in order to attract the types of customers who wouldn't necessarily be interested in a high-end video game console. You'll see lots of titles like Zuma and Ms. Pac-Man available on Xbox Live Arcade, for example, and even family oriented games like Viva Pi?ata, which has proven to be a big hit with my daughter, who isn't particularly interested in video games.

The Xbox 360 also offers Media Center Extender functionality. So if you've got a Windows XP Media Center 2005 or Windows Vista-based Media Center PC in your home, you can access all that live and recorded TV, video, music, and photo content from your Xbox 360, using a UI that perfectly duplicates the real thing. We're using an Xbox 360 in our den now, actually, and for the past two months, it's been my family's interface for the TV. It works extremely well, even with online services like Movielink, which lets you rent and purchase digital versions of popular Hollywood movies. And if you don't have a Media Center PC, fear not: The Xbox 360 can also connect to any XP and Vista-based PC and stream music, photos, and videos. Got a portable device like an Apple iPod? The Xbox 360 interfaces with those too.

Finally, if you're interested in next-generation DVD formats, Microsoft does offer a $199 HD-DVD drive add-on for the 360 as well (see my photo gallery). Keeping this device separate from the console necessitates a few trade-offs. On the positive front, the Xbox console itself is less expensive, so if you're not interested in HD-DVD now, you can forego that expense or opt-in in the future. On the other hand, because Microsoft bundles a standard DVD drive with its console, Xbox 360 games will never be able to access more than 8.5 GB of data: You can't use the more voluminous HD-DVD for games, as the drive is only designed to play movies.

Are there other downsides to the 360? You bet. The console is overly loud, especially when you're playing a game or doing anything that accesses the DVD drive. This lessens its appeal as an all-in-one media device, since what you really want to hear is the content you're enjoying, not that little white jet engine under the TV. Too, the HD-DVD drive adds another level of unwelcome humming. There are also potential reliability issues. The original Xbox 360 I received in October 2005 died with the dreaded "red ring of death" in late 2006, and a unit I picked up for the den in December 2006 died earlier this month after no warning signs whatsoever. A quick look online reveals that many others have had similar issues. Color me concerned.

Also, if you have a big library of original Xbox games, know that the 360's backwards compatibility capabilities are middling at best (see the list of compatible games). Microsoft has only sporadically updated the console for compatibility over the past few years and will likely stop this work soon (the last update was over four months ago at this writing). That's no way to treat loyal customers.

PlayStation 3: For Hardcore Gamers and Spec Freaks

I've been waiting to get my hands on a PlayStation 3 since Sony sort-of released the machine in North America last November, and after a few months of shortages, I finally did in early March 2007. Now, the PS3 is generally available throughout many markets, including, finally, Europe.

If you absolutely must have the most powerful video game system on the planet, the PS3 is it. This console features better graphics and better sound than the Xbox 360, and if its first round of games are any indication, it's game library will soon surpass that of the 360 from a quality perspective as well. For the hundreds of millions of existing PlayStation and PS2 users out there, the PS3 Sixaxis controller will be welcome as its virtually identical to the PS2 Dual Shock controller (but wireless, and minus the rumble feature).

The PS3, unlike the Xbox 360, is virtually silent, and that fact alone makes it very interesting for anyone looking for that uber-media device. The only problem here is that the PS3's digital media capabilities are lacking, but evolving. Sony does offer its PSN, but as noted above, it's not as full-featured as Microsoft's offering. On the plus side, it's absolutely free and will improve over time. Currently, you can purchase or download only a handful of PS3 (and, intriguingly, PlayStation Portable, or PSP) games from the PlayStation Store, and you can plug in various USB-based storage devices and access contained media files. But there's no DVR solution like Media Center, no networking with PCs, and no legally rentable or buyable movies and TV shows. Someday, perhaps.

Unlike the Xbox 360, the PS3 ships with a next-generation DVD drive, in this case a Blu-Ray model, and it's a winner, assuming you're utilizing a 720p or better HDTV. Sadly, Sony doesn't bundle the HDMI cable you'll need to access such a TV, which is curious given the high prices of the console ($500 to $600, depending on the version). Backwards compatibility with previous generation PS and PS2 games, at least in the US, is stellar. (I've heard that European PS3s are not as good due to the lack of a compatibility chip in those models).

Until Sony lowers the price, the PS3 will see limited success. But as this generation of consoles plays out over the next few years, I fully expect the PS3 to meet or exceed the quality of games offered on the 360. The only question is whether Sony can keep up in other areas.

Wii: For the Kiddie Crowd

Now, some people are going to find offense with my assessment of the Nintendo Wii, which has been widely cheered for foregoing high-end specs and sticking to the fun factor. And sure enough, the Wii is an innovative and cute little console that eschews high-end graphics features, along with the associated price of such technology. There's just one problem: For all its over-the-top cuteness, the Wii is a one-trick pony, and it fails to deliver on the all-in-one entertainment experiences that the 360 delivers in spades and Sony promises for the future.

Here's what you get: The Wii is the smallest and quietest of the consoles. It's also the least impressive graphically and sonically, and while Nintendo says it makes up for this with its unique game play features, these get tiring after a while. Unlike other consoles, the Wii ships with a game disc, of sorts, that includes a handful of sports mini-games that work with the system's unique Wii Remote wireless controller, which looks more like a TV remote than a typical video game controller. The trick behind this controller, and its companion Nunchuk attachment, is that it features three dimensional motion detection, so when you need to swing a bat in a baseball game, whack the ball in tennis, or perform other similar moves, you literally move the controller around as you would if you were really doing it. And sure enough, the first time you play around with the Wii Remote, it's exhilarating. Credit Nintendo for coming up with something truly innovative here.

The problems creep in about 30 minutes into this exercise. While the Wii Remote will appeal to very young kids, college students, and, in a somewhat creepy way, adults hosting alcohol-laden social events, the novelty of the controller system wears off quite quickly. Even my kids, aged 5 and 9, tired of the Wii very quickly, but they go back to the Xbox 360 and PS3 again and again. (Well, my son does. My daughter is pretty much tapped out with Viva Pi?ata.)

Here's a more concrete example. Consider a game like Call of Duty 3 (see my review), which is available on all three platforms. On the Xbox 360 and PS3, Call of Duty is a graphical champion, and offers stunning single player and multiplayer options. And Activision, the game's maker, has already shipped downloadable levels to extend online play on the 360. On the Wii, COD3 is grainy and unimpressive, and because of the limitations of the device, only the single player campaign is offered; there are no multiplayer options at all. And don't get me started on its use of the Nunchuk to throw in-game grenades. It's cute the first time, but gets old quick.

More problematic: The Wii can't even play standard DVD movies, let alone next-generation DVD formats like HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, and there's no DVR functionality at all, so the device is only useful for the simplistic games it supports. You're going to have to keep your existing devices around.

In short, I'm not all that impressed with the Wii at all, and though I respect Nintendo for thinking differently and trying to make the device more about game play than raw specifications, it's also succeeded in making something that is so singularly uninteresting that it's an also-ran in my book, and certainly with my own family. Tellingly, it's the only next-generation console we're going to get rid of. It's just not that compelling over time.

What to buy?

As I write this, I feel that the Xbox 360 is the console to beat, as it is the most versatile, while offering a comparable graphics experience to what you'll see on the PS3. That said, I do have some concerns about the 360's reliability, so I'm going to recommend something I never do: Buy it locally and purchase the in-store warranty, so you can replace it immediately at any time free of charge.

If you absolutely must have the best pure gaming experience, the PS3 should ultimately win out, especially when developers begin to figure out how to unlock the console's most impressive capabilities. A year from now, I expect PS3 games to absolutely blow away anything available on the 360.

As for the Wii, I'm going to have to disagree with the consensus and call it as I see it: Unless you have very young kids with no video game experience at all, skip out on this console. The Wii is a joke, a novelty console that doesn't offer much staying power. Either the 360 or PS3 would be a better choice for almost anyone.

Talking shop

If you're serious about your video gaming, check out my Technical Comparison of the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii, which details the technical specifications and capabilities of each of these consoles.

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