How to Buy a Game Console | PCMag
You want to play video games. You should probably get a video game system. It's as simple a solution as buying an HDTV to watch television shows (and you can read our HDTV buying guide here). There are several game systems currently available, spread across two generations and three major brands, and that's where it can get tricky. You've already made the decision to get a console. Now the question is which one to get. That's what we're here for.
Why a Console and Not a PC?A console isn't necessarily a better choice than a PC. After some very helpful feedback in the past, I realize that point wasn't particularly clear before. Whether you should get a console or a PC depends on your tastes, patience, budget, and technical knowledge. For flexibility, power, and total number of games available, a PC is the winner by far. It just requires a significant level of skill to get the most out of it, and that's not for everyone. So let's assume you're starting from scratch, and aren't already a techhead who builds his own systems.
For starters, consoles are less expensive than gaming PCs. Both the Xbox One ($200.00 at eBay)and PlayStation 4 are just $400. You can build a PC for that much, but it won't have as much gaming-optimized power. Dedicated gaming PCs easily cost more than twice as much for the components alone, and can run into the thousands if you buy them pre-built.
Consoles also offer a consistent hardware platform for developers to work with, that will remain relevant for years. A PC game made today is made for the hardware available today, and a PC game made four years from now will be made for the hardware available four years from now (at least for major titles; obviously indie games are a different story). A console game, on the other hand, will be made for the same hardware both now and in the future. In fact, it's likely that a game that comes out four years from now will look better on your system, even if it's the same hardware, because that far in the system's life cycle developers have figured out how to wring the best performance out of what's available. A single hardware platform that stays generally the same over years forces developers to hone how to use that platform, while a fundamentally variable platform with constantly changing capabilities requires developers to make games flexible enough to work across a broad range of different hardware combinations.
Current Generation Consoles (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U) "Next-generation" gaming is now this generation of gaming, with all the major players offering their newest consoles. We won't see new game systems for several years, and that means the biggest question when buying one is no longer whether to wait for new consoles, but whether the latest ones are worth the extra cost now.
It's been a year since the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launched, and since then each system has developed an appreciable library of both retail and downloadable games. They aren't as big as the Xbox 360 or PS3 libraries, but there are enough titles to get playing. Just be aware that neither system is backwards compatible; if you have games from the previous consoles, you can't play them on the current ones.
Both new systems are good for future-proofing your games library over the next several years. As developers figure out how to get more power from the Xbox One and PS4, games for them will only become more visually and technically impressive. Launch libraries are always shaky, but there are enough promising cross-platform and exclusive games coming in the next year or two to make either system look compelling.
Last generation, the PlayStation 3 was the king of game systems with media features, because it could play Blu-ray discs while the Xbox 360 couldn't. Now the tables have turned, as both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One can play Blu-ray movies, and the Xbox One boasts a whole suite of media features the PS4 lacks. You can control your cable or satellite box through the Xbox One, either through your gamepad or with voice commands. And the system's HDMI pass-through and on-screen channel guide combine live television, online services, and gaming into one connected experience, so you don't have to switch between device inputs to enjoy your favorite movies, shows, and games. The PS4 has plenty of online services and can play Blu-ray discs, but it has no television integration or HDMI passthrough, so you can't watch television while you're doing something else on the system.
Current Gen and Last Gen
Both Sony and Microsoft offer premium online services through their PS Plus and Xbox Live Gold memberships, but while Microsoft requires Xbox Live Gold to access nearly every online function on the Xbox One, you only need to get PS Plus if you want to play multiplayer games. You can access Netflix, Hulu Plus, the Web browser, and other non-gaming online features without a membership on the PS4.
That brings us to the Nintendo Wii U , an unusual video game system that's had two years to build up a solid game library. It uses a gamepad with a large touch screen that can display the game you're playing or offer a second screen with additional information you wouldn't normally see on the HDTV. The second-screen feature is fun for multiplayer games by introducing new player dynamics, but its big selling point is the ability to play many games directly from the Wii U gamepad's screen. This seemingly minor function makes the Wii U invaluable if you find yourself wrestling with roommates and loved ones over control of the television.
While the Wii U is part of the current gaming generation, its hardware is closer to the last-generation Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 than the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. It's capable of outputting 1080p video, a first for a Nintendo home console, but besides that it's not built with the same emphasis on processing power as the other two systems. Wii U games can still look excellent, but a few years from now the more powerful hardware on the Xbox One and PS4 will begin to show off graphical feats the Wii U won't be able to touch.
All of the Wii U's online features are completely free, but they're also anemic compared to Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. Nintendo doesn't offer any premium membership for its online service, but it also doesn't offer any coherent matchmaking or multiplayer features outside of what is available in individual games. The Wii U also can't play Blu-ray discs like the PS3, PS4, and Xbox One, but it can access online services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. It also has a handy feature that turns the gamepad into a universal remote for your HDTV and cable box.
The Wii U suffers from a problem that has plagued Nintendo game systems in the past: an inconsistent library that relies primarily on first-party titles. If you want to play the latest Mario or Zelda game, the Wii U is your only choice for the home, and there certainly are plenty of compelling titles you can only find on the Wii U. On the other hand, if you want the best experience in the latest Call of Duty or Madden game, the Wii U will probably be a poor fit due to inconsistent cross-platform ports. On the bright side, the Wii U is the only backwards-compatible game system of the current generation. You can play original Nintendo Wii games on the Wii U with ease.
Last Generation Consoles (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii) The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ($185.09 at Amazon) are facing the end of their lives. Games will continue to trickle out for them for some time, but eventually those green and blue disc cases will disappear from store shelves and be completely replaced by… well, the slightly different green and blue disc cases of Xbox One and PS4 games. For the near future, though, both "last-gen" systems are still worth purchasing, especially considering their price tags of about half of their fancier younger brothers and the fact that said younger brothers can't play with any of the elder brothers' toys.
Both game systems can access online services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video. However, only the PS3 can play Blu-ray discs; the Xbox 360's optical drive is DVD-only. Like their current-generation equivalents, you need an Xbox Live Gold membership to use nearly any online feature on the Xbox 360, while you can access online services through the PS3 without a PS Plus membership. Unlike the PS4, you can even play online games on the PS3 without PS Plus.
Eventually, Xbox 360 and PS3 titles will simply dry up as publishers focus mostly on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. This is a process that happens to every game console generation, and eventually last-gen hardware will be relegated to the pre-owned shelves. Even this won't make these systems useless, though; a functional game system and possible Blu-ray player with a massive back library of titles you can find used for very little is a nice piece of equipment to have, even if you are obsessed with being on the forefront of technology. It's a notable advantage, considering the lack of backwards compatibility for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
The Nintendo Wii ($457.99 at Amazon) , on the other hand, is dead. Nintendo is not working on any new Wii games, and there are no Wii titles to look forward to on the horizon. On the bright side, you can pick up a used Wii for $70. In fact, it's a better idea to buy a used Wii than a new Wii Mini at this point; the $100 Wii Mini lacks the Wii's own backwards-compatible feature, which lets you play GameCube games on the full-sized Wii. The GameCube's library is over a decade old, but there are still several classic games you can enjoy to this day, like Rogue Leader, Eternal Darkness, Super Mario Sunshine, and the original Resident Evil 4 release. If you just want to play Wii games, the Wii U is all you need. For GameCube titles, though, you need either a Wii or Nintendo's decade-old purple box.
Look at the Games Don't forget the most important question: What games do you want to play? Do you want to play older titles or be ready for newer ones? Do any exclusives on any platform like Halo, Gran Turismo, or Mario really appeal to you?
You're getting a game system to play games. If you just wanted to watch television shows and movies, you'd get a Blu-ray player or a Roku or an Apple TV. These systems cost several times more than those tiny media hubs because they can play video games, so you need to consider which games you want to play before you settle on a platform. Major franchises like Call of Duty and Madden are consistently available across multiple platforms, but each system has a list of exclusive games that, depending on your tastes, could sell one console over the other. Go to a video game or electronics store and look through the different game system sections. If one set of shelves seems to have more titles you're interested in, that might simply be the right system for you.
PlayStation TVThe PlayStation TV (or Vita TV in Japan) is nothing more than a PlayStation Vita ($999.00 at Amazon)with no screen, that you plug into your HDTV. It's a handy device for accessing the same classics library that's available on the Vita (which we describe below in the Mobile Gaming section), along with a handful of excellent compatible Vita games, but it's also very limited. It can't work with the Vita's full library, and its interface was designed around the use of a touch screen, not a gamepad. Of course, for $100, it's a pretty compelling alternative to your usual media hub, considering you can play original PlayStation and PlayStation Portable games on it. If you love classic Final Fantasy or want to play through all of the Persona games, it's an economical and functional option.
What About Steam Machines?You mean the Phantom 2?
I kid, I kid. Valve made an excellent PC game store/library/ecosystem with Steam, but its dream of Steam Machines running its own OS and bringing PC gaming to the masses just isn't happening. The industry was excited about the prospect two years ago, but since then it's gone nowhere. Manufacturers are still working on small form factor gaming PCs, but they won't be running SteamOS.
Nintendo 3DS You can play some games on your smartphone or tablet, but if you want a really in-depth gaming experience, you need a handheld with physical controls. Among mobile gaming devices, one stands out above all the rest: the Nintendo 3DS ($699.97 at Amazon) . It's the Game Boy's great grandson, and it offers a huge library of compelling games in a clamshell case you can fit in your pocket.
The 3DS can play both 3DS and Nintendo DS games, and can access a variety of older titles and indie games on the Nintendo 3DS eStore and Virtual Console. Both the 3DS and the DS have scores of excellent first- and third-party games worthy of your attention, across a variety of genres.
If you have large hands or want a larger screen, the 3DS XL is the best choice. If you want the least expensive experience and don't mind giving up the glasses-free 3D feature, the 2DS is a steal. And, of course, the regular 3DS is still a strong device.
PlayStation Vita The PlayStation Vita is more technically impressive than the 3DS because of sheer power. It's also much more affordable and sleeker than it was at launch with the $200 PCH-2000 version released last year. But while the 3DS is the flagship of Nintendo's fleet, the Vita is still the leaky tugboat of Sony's. There are some excellent games available for it, especially if you consider the library of PSOne Classics and PlayStation Portable titles available for download from the PS Store, but it still doesn't have many promising games coming down the line. Unless we see a surprise push of new Vita titles in the next few months, this handheld's best days seem to be behind it.
If you have a PlayStation 4, though, the Vita can be a very handy accessory. Remote Play lets you play PS4 games from your Vita, and you can use the Vita as a second screen or screen-equipped control when playing. None of these features add to the portable appeal of a handheld device, but as a PS4 accessory it's worth consideration.
Phones and Tablets You don't have to get a dedicated game console if you want to play games on the go. If you have a smartphone or tablet, there are already thousands of games available in the Apple App Store and the Android Play app store. Many of these games are deep and lengthy, but the majority are casual, like Angry Birds and Bejeweled. Depending on how much you want to game, you might not find the satisfying and varied experience that you get with dedicated game consoles and gaming handhelds. The mobile game field has exploded in the past couple of years, but for overall quality of experience (and the ability to play with physical controls on a screen much larger than your mobile device), a game console or PC is a much richer experience.
Nvidia Shield Most Android devices aren't as suitable for gaming beyond casual tapping, but Nvidia offers a solution with its Shield line of products. The Nvidia Shield Portable offers a unique alternative. It's an Android device with a Tegra 4 processor and physical gamepad controls, making it one of the few smartphone/tablet-like products that can offer a satisfying, dedicated gaming experience out of the box. You're still limited to the Android software library, though, and while it might have more games available than the 3DS or the Vita, those games aren't necessarily better or as consistent in quality.
The Nvidia Shield Tablet is a more conventional tablet, but it packs a Tegra K1 processor into a $300 package, giving it plenty of power for its size. It also supports the Shield Wireless Controller, a Wi-Fi-based physical gamepad that offers very low-latency physical game controls. Combine it with the tablet's HDMI output, and you have an Android device that can do a lot of gaming.
Nvidia Shield tablets offer access to Nvidia Grid, a streaming game service that offers direct access to a small library of PC games streamed online, like Netflix. You can even play your own PC games straight from your own PC with Nvidia GameStream, if you have the right type of Nvidia graphics card. In both cases, you need a very fast connection, because these features work by streaming audio and video from Nvidia's servers or your PC to the Shield device, and controller inputs from the device back to Nvidia's servers or your PC. A network hiccup can mean everything in this case.
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