When opening gifts, there's nothing quite like receiving a gaming system. After peeling back the wrapping, visions of epic battles, bouncy plumbers, and buzzer-beating shots dance through your head. If you want to create that exhilaration this year, you have a couple of familiar options, and several new ones. Let's take a look at the top game consoles for the 2012 shopping season.
We included the obvious (both home and portable gaming systems) and one not-so-obvious choice:
- Microsoft Xbox 360
- Sony PlayStation 3 (SuperSlim)
- Nintendo Wii U
- Nintendo 3DS XL
- Sony PlayStation Vita
- Apple iPad mini
The iPad mini isn't a dedicated gaming system, but mobile devices are invading their territory. We could have easily included the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD, or iPod touch. But we chose the iPad mini because 1) it will sell like crazy this holiday season, and 2) it offers the iPad's terrific gaming library in a more affordable and portable package.
There are some omissions. The original Wii, 3DS, and PSP are all still on sale. Since they're overshadowed by their successors, we left them on the sidelines.
Ready for the 2012 Game Console showdown? Read on.
It's a bit silly to compare the physical dimensions of home and portable consoles. A home console needs to fit comfortably under your TV, while mobile devices need to fit comfortably in your hands. Perhaps this section is best viewed as two separate sub-categories.
Sony shrunk down the PS3 with its latest iteration, and it's considerably smaller than the Xbox 360. The new Wii U, however, is much smaller than both older systems.
Among portable systems, the 3DS XL shuns its name with the smallest surface area. The iPad mini is easily the thinnest.
Weight isn't much of a concern for home consoles, but the Wii U takes that prize. The Vita is the lightest of the mobile devices.
This category only applies to portables, but we also included the Wii U's GamePad controller. Its screen size falls in between the 5-inch Vita and 3DS XL, and the larger iPad mini.
The Vita's display should provide the sharpest visuals, as it has the highest pixel density.
One of the reasons we lumped home and portable systems together is because mobile devices' processing power is catching up. The next-generation offerings from Sony and Microsoft will widen that gap again, but since mobile devices are updated more frequently, they'll stay hot on their heels.
It isn't easy to compare GPUs in an easy-to-digest visual. In terms of polygons per second, the Xbox 360 is still King (unless the mysterious Wii U dethrones it).
The iPad mini outdoes the dedicated portables, but remember that this metric is an imperfect and non-definitive measurement of graphical performance.
These statistics can also be a bit misleading. The PS3 has separate RAM for system and video, while the Xbox 360 combines them. And despite the Wii U's 2 GB of RAM being split in two, with 1 GB for games and 1 GB for system software, Nintendo's new console is an easy winner in this category.
The Xbox 360 and PS3 handily win this round. Their hard drives allow you to backup full games, and download new titles from Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.
Though Wii U and 3DS storage doesn't look good, it can be expanded with SD cards. The Vita also requires external storage, but it's limited to Sony's (expensive) Vita Memory Cards.
The Xbox 360 and PS3 use classic gaming controllers, while the 3DS and Vita have similar controls built-in.
The Wii U's GamePad bridges the two worlds. It controls the Wii U console, but also lets you stream Wii U games over your home network. The GamePad also allows developers to use the screen for novel gameplay. Think quick access to maps and inventory, and "asymmetrical gameplay," where one player sees something his friends don't.
The Wii U only ships with one GamePad, and other players will use a controller that's similar to the Xbox 360's.
All of the mobile systems – including the GamePad – feature touch screens, but there's a gap in quality. The GamePad and 3DS XL sport resistive screens, which have a cheaper "bendy" feel. They also only support single-touch input. The Vita's and iPad mini's touch screens are capacitive (think solid glass) and multitouch.
As the iPad mini is limited to touch controls, many customers will rule it out. Touchscreen gaming has its drawbacks, but the mini's size, weight, and design might make it better for gaming than any other smartphone or tablet.
The original Wii changed everything, as every system now offers some kind of motion control. The big daddy is Microsoft's Kinect, which offers hands-free control. Sony's PS Move is its answer to the classic Wii controls, which still work with the Wii U.
The mobile devices all feature built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes, so you can use tilt controls for racing (and other) games.
Home consoles have no need for mobile data, so they're Wi-Fi only. The 3DS XL, which could potentially use mobile data, has none.
All of the portable devices – including the Wii U GamePad – have front-facing cameras. The 3DS, Vita, and iPad mini all add rear cameras, but only the iPad mini's will take quality shots.
These are manufacturer estimates, so take them with grains of salt. Also note that the iPad mini's estimated 10 hours is for web browsing, so intensive 3D gaming will likely drop it down closer to the others' uptimes.
If you're upgrading from an older system, it's nice if you can continue playing your old games. Everything offers some form of backwards compatibility. Recent PS3s don't offer PS2 compatibility, but they still support the original PlayStation (Metal Gear Solid, anyone?).
It's worth noting, though, that systems only support select titles. The Vita's PSP support is also limited to digital downloads (re-purchases) of old games, as it doesn't support physical UMDs.
It's a stretch to say that iPhone games are "backwards compatible" for the iPad, but it runs all of them nonetheless (albeit in ugly upscaled fashion).
Hardware is fine and dandy, but you're buying these systems for the games. Which titles can only be bought on each console?
Xbox has several exclusive franchises (Fable and Gears of War), but the biggest is Halo. Microsoft is counting on extra sales this holiday season, with the release of must-buy Halo 4.
Sony may trail Microsoft in sales, but it has a slew of great exclusives. God of War and LittleBigPlanet are huge franchises, but we're highlighting Naughty Dog's Uncharted series. There are now three Nathan Drake adventures available for the PS3, and all are worth your time.
For any Nintendo console, this is a no-brainer. Despite the excellence of Zelda titles, it's all about Mario. The 3DS has two marquee Mario games, in Mario 3D Land and New Super Mario Bros. 2. The Wii U launches with New Super Mario Bros. U, and is compatible with the two phenomenal Mario Galaxy titles from the Wii.
The Vita also has an Uncharted game, but it also plays a great new version of LittleBigPlanet. Media Molecule's franchise is the best thing to happen to 2D platforming since Mario. Its "Play, Create, Share" approach lets you create your own levels, and download a nearly endless supply of new content from the community.
When you think of iPad gaming, you probably picture casual games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. But iOS has a hardcore gaming franchise of its own in Infinity Blade. Its gameplay leans heavily on the classic Punch-Out, but adds breathtaking visuals and a fantasy setting.
There's still a big difference between home and mobile consoles, but that's slowly changing. Mobile's rapid release cycles present a big problem for the console makers. According to AnandTech, the 4th-gen iPad has a GPU more powerful than the (less than a year old) Vita. Sony was shooting for a 10-year life cycle for the Vita. If that happens, it's in big trouble.
The Wii U is the first system that tries to blend the best of both worlds. Will customers find Nintendo's case to be compelling, or will they stick with their Galaxy S IIIs and iPads? The success of the Wii U may say a lot about the future of the dedicated game system. Sony and Microsoft will be watching closely.