If you're looking to snag a new game console this holiday season – whether for yourself, a child, or a child at heart – you have more choices than ever. How do you decide among some of the biggest and best consoles money can buy? Join Gizmag, as we break down the features and specs of the flagship gaming consoles of the 2013 shopping season.
Meet the consoles
It wasn't easy narrowing down our group. We could have easily included the still-relevant Xbox 360 and PS3, especially as they're now seeing some deep discounts. We also could have thrown in some smaller – but no less interesting – experiments, like the Nvidia Shield, Ouya, or the GameStick. But to keep things simple, we decided to focus on the newest machines from the premiere gaming hardware companies:
- Microsoft Xbox One (home)
- Sony PlayStation 4 (home)
- Nintendo Wii U (home)
- Sony PlayStation Vita (portable)
- Nintendo 3DS XL (portable)
Note that we're focusing on the original PS Vita, not the updated PCH-2000 model that is now available in Japan. That newer model is lighter and thinner, with longer battery life. But until it gets a wider release, we're going to consider the 1st-gen Vita to be the standard.
There are also two other versions of the 3DS XL, including the standard 3DS and the budget 2DS. But since we're rolling with this "best consoles from the biggest companies" theme, we figured the best version of the 3DS was, well, the best choice.
Just to be clear, only two of these consoles actually released this year. The Xbox One and PS4 forge into the next-generation of gaming, with graphics and processing power that's never before been seen in consoles.
The Wii U is technically a next-gen system, but its horsepower is much closer to the Xbox 360 and PS3 than to the new systems from Microsoft and Sony. Nintendo tends to focus more on fun, family-friendly features than on raw power, and the Wii U is a perfect example of that.
We listed the release date for the original 3DS. The pictured 3DS XL, which is just a larger version, was released in July of 2012.
The Xbox One is going to dominate any entertainment center it lives in. This sucker is enormous, making the PS4 look piddly by comparison. The Wii U is the smallest of the next-gen home consoles.
The Vita and 3DS XL are both about the size you'd expect from a portable console. Small enough to easily fit in a backpack or a child's hands, but big enough to give you a decent-sized screen.
Unless you have an entertainment center made of toothpicks, you probably won't need to worry about the weight of any of the home consoles. With that said, the Xbox One is by far the heaviest.
Weight is much more important in portable consoles, where the Vita is 23 percent lighter than the 3DS XL. If you want a lighter 3DS, then the standard version (not pictured) is ten percent lighter than the Vita.
Display (or display output)
Both the Xbox One and PS4 could eventually support video in 4K (Ultra HD) resolution, but neither will play it just yet. Microsoft and Sony haven't been clear on whether either console could later support 4K gaming, but we wouldn't hold our breath on that one. For now, assume you'll max out at 1080p for gaming and movies.
As for the portable consoles that have built-in displays, the Vita's screen is only slightly bigger. But it has much sharper resolution. The 3DS technically has a 800 x 240 screen, but since those horizontal pixels are divided between your two eyes for glasses-free 3D, what you see is comparable to a 400 x 240 screen.
Of course that's just dealing with the 3DS' primary (top) screen, which doesn't support touch. The system also has a touchscreen on the bottom, typically used for in-game maps and similar goodies. It measures 4.18-in with a resolution of 320 x 240.
Each of the three home systems comes with one controller. The Xbox One's and PS4's are slightly-modified versions of the controllers from the Xbox 360 and PS3, respectively. The new versions are more ergonomic, with the Xbox's offering improved rumble feedback and the PS4's DualShock 4 sporting a touchpad.
As is often the case with Nintendo, the company is marching to the beat of its own drummer. The Wii U's killer feature (well, besides Mario) is its GamePad controller. It features a 6.2-in touchscreen with 854 x 480 resolution and stylus support (one is included). The GamePad can be used for "asymmetric gameplay," where the player with the GamePad sees info, enemies, or a perspective that the other players can't.
The Wii U is also backwards compatible with Wii controllers (Wiimotes). Nintendo also sells a US$50 Wii U Pro controller that's similar to the Xbox 360's and PS3's classic controllers.
The Wii U GamePad also lets you play many games away from your TV. You can turn on your Wii U, pop in a Mario game, and play it on the GamePad in the next room while your roommate watches A Christmas Story on the TV. In our experience, the GamePad's remote play works extremely well, with no noticeable lag.
The Vita and PS4 also tag-team for remote play over Wi-Fi, but it's laggier than the remote play on the Wii U and can vary from game-to-game. While remote play is a killer feature of the Wii U, we'd consider it more of a bonus that might work pretty well on the PS4 and Vita.
The original Wii may have carried the motion control flag, but Microsoft snagged that flag and replanted it on its own turf. The Xbox One's Kinect 2 sensor is by far the most advanced motion control sensor in this bunch. Like the original Kinect, it's designed for controller-free gesture control, but is more precise than Sony's rival PS4 Camera.
The Xbox One features an HDMI pass-through, so you can plug in your cable or satellite box and use the console to control your TV content. This is a big part of what Microsoft is trying to do with the Xbox One: serve as your primary living room entertainment center.
Closely related to the cable box support is the Xbox One's Snap multitasking. You can use voice and gestures to change channels, switch between games, live TV, and apps, or run them side-by-side.
The PS4 technically features voice control as well, but it's more limited than the Xbox's voice commands. Since the PS4 is focused almost exclusively on gaming, there's less of a need for voice input. It requires the PS4 Camera (sold separately) and only supports a few things like starting games, taking screenshots, logging in, and powering down. It is possible, though, that Sony will expand the PS4's voice control down the road.
To be clear, the Wii U's GamePad, the Vita, and the 3DS all have microphones, which are integrated into some games. But the device's operating systems don't feature voice control navigation.
Take this with a few grains of salt, because your services will vary depending on where you live. But at least in the US, these are the most prominent video streaming apps available on each console.
If you're hoping to double-up your console as a Blu-ray player, then forget the Wii U. Both the Xbox One and PS4 play both Blu-rays and DVDs.
If you have a 3D-capable HDTV, neither of the new consoles support 3D video playback at launch. The 3DS' built-in (top) screen supports stereoscopic (glasses-free) 3D gaming.
Remember when Microsoft announced that the Xbox One would require an internet connection to play all of your games? Well, the company did a 180° turn and gave the fans what they asked for. All of these consoles can be played whether you're online or off.
Digital game downloads are much more prevalent than they were a few years ago, but none of these systems have dared to go all-in on that front (Sony actually tried that a few years ago with the PSP Go, and it didn't go so well).
Have you gathered a huge library of Xbox 360 or PS3 games from the last few years? Well, then you might want to hang onto that old system, because those games won't do squat for you on the Xbox One and PS4.
Both of Nintendo's systems are fully backwards-compatible with the Wii and DS, respectively. The Vita plays digital versions of many PSP games, but it won't run any of the PSP's physical discs.
Microsoft had also gotten gamers riled up by originally saying publishers could block used versions of their games from being played on the Xbox One. Just like the always online thing, though, Redmond did a 180° about face and allowed used games on the new console.
Each of the new consoles gives you 500 GB of internal storage. That sounds like a lot, but when you consider that both the Xbox One and PS4 require you to install portions of every game you play to the hard drive, hardcore gamers could see these fill up before too long. If you're worried about future-proofing, the PS4 already lets you upgrade your hard drive, and Microsoft says you'll eventually be able to plug an external hard drive into the Xbox One.
If you're going to download any games on the Vita, then you'll need to pony up for one of Sony's proprietary Vita cards. If you need extra storage on the 3DS, you can pop in a standard (and much cheaper) SD card.
The above shows the GPUs in each machine, but we aren't focusing too much on the more technical aspects of consoles in this comparison. With that said, the Xbox One and PS4 are far ahead of the Wii U in terms of raw horespower and graphics.
Among those two newcomers, the PS4 looks like it's a bit more powerful than the Xbox One. For evidence, look no further than launch titles like Call of Duty: Ghosts running in 720p on the Xbox One, but running in 1080p on the PS4.
The home consoles obviously plug into wall outlets, but battery life is something to keep in mind with the portables. There the 3DS XL has the advantage, lasting roughly 3.5 to 6.5 hours, compared to the 3 to 5 hours with the Vita. If you can get your hands on that upgraded Vita model (PCH-2000), though, its uptimes should be much improved.
A piece of gaming hardware is nothing without software. Many publishers develop games for several systems, but these are some of the most prominent exclusive games that are available (or will be available before long) for each system.
Sony had excellent exclusives on the PS3, but the PS4 is off to a rockier start there. No God of War, no LittleBigPlanet, no cinematic Quantic Dream/David Cage games. The most we have now is a teaser for an Uncharted game that's coming at some point.
The Xbox One, meanwhile, has a ton of buzz going for its upcoming exclusive Titanfall. Respawn's shooter, scheduled to drop in March of 2014, combines on-foot Parkour-like moves with the piloting of gigantic mechs. It's the stuff geek dreams are made of. "Exclusive" may not be the best description of Titanfall, however, as it will also be sold for the Xbox 360 and Windows PCs.
... and then there's Mario. Nintendo may be leaning more than ever on its decades-old franchise, but you won't hear us complaining. The Italian plumber's latest adventure on the Wii U, Super Mario 3D World, is one of his best yet – and that's really saying something. When you add franchises like Zelda, Donkey Kong, and Pikmin, Nintendo's family-friendly exclusives are the biggest reasons to consider its home and portable consoles.
At $500, the Xbox One is one hell of an expensive console. But just remember that it includes the Kinect 2, while the PS4's (sort-of) equivalent, the PS4 Camera, costs an extra $60. The Wii U, meanwhile, sneaks in as the budget choice in the new generation of home consoles.
The Vita and 3DS XL are tied up at $200, but the other versions of the 3DS can save you a few bucks. The standard (non-XL) edition costs $170, while the non-3D 2DS rings up at $130.
Each system has its own distinct identity. The Xbox One and PS4 still cater the most to hardcore gamers. But the Xbox is veering more in the direction of all-purpose home entertainment, while the PS4 sticks unflinchingly to its gaming roots.
Nintendo, again, is the most family-friendly choice. If you have young children, or simply want a system that all ages can enjoy in equal measure, then the Wii U might be the best choice. Ditto for the 3DS, though the community aspect is obviously dampened when in portable form.
The 3DS is the only one of these systems that has a solid library right now. The Xbox One and PS4 are too new to have a huge selection of games, and the Wii U and Vita haven't sold well enough to attract many developers. They could all improve in time, though.
Though we didn't include them with this bunch, this is also a great time to pick up an Xbox 360 or PS3, if you don't have one already. They have much bigger and better gaming libraries than all of these systems, and their graphics and performance still hold up pretty well years after they originally released. And with their successors now available, you can find some good deals on them, if you keep your eyes open.
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