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Video-game console buying guide

What you need to know about the top three platforms

Published: June 2013

In the world of video-game consoles, the big news is all about home entertainment. The Nintendo Wii U offers TVii, a service that makes browsing and finding video content simpler. The Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 have plenty of entertainment offerings, including streaming movies, TV shows, and music. But their successors look to take this a step further, with more streaming options and social components. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are expected to arrive later in 2013. We'll update this story and add details as they arrive.

Microsoft Xbox 360

The latest addition to Microsoft’s current console is an app called Xbox SmartGlass. Referred to as a “second screen” app, it lets you use your tablet or smart phone to control movies and games. You can do things such as display maps from certain games on your tablet, and use its virtual keyboard to type in Web addresses while surfing the Web on your TV. (Before, you had to use the Xbox controller to clumsily move from letter to letter when typing.) The most compelling SmartGlass feature is the Xbox Video Guide, which picks up enhanced info such as actor bios while you’re watching a movie.

Because the devices it works on lack buttons and joysticks, SmartGlass doesn’t replace your Xbox game controller, but rather works in conjunction with it. An add-on feature for the Xbox lets you use your body as the controller. With the Microsoft Kinect interface for the Xbox 360, instead of the controller, you use body gestures or voice commands.

The Xbox 360 with Kinect is available in a 4GB version for $300 and a 250GB version for $400. (Xbox 360 systems without the Kinect device are still available: $200 for 4GB and $300 for 250GB.) With Xbox Live, you can view high-def movies and TV shows and listen to music. With an Xbox Live Gold account ($60 a year; $100 for a family pack of four), you can play other gamers online, watch movies from Netflix and Hulu Plus (if you’re a member), use Facebook and Twitter, and watch sports on ESPN.

Xbox Live Gold also gives you access to VideoKinect, a video chat feature. A word of warning about this feature: When you initially set up the Kinect, you’re asked whether you want to use the Kinect to chat. If you say “yes,” the Kinect’s microphone remains on during multiplayer games, picking up audio from the entire room and broadcasting it to anyone who’s playing video games with you. To avoid this, make sure you adjust the Kinect’s microphone settings, and mute it if you have to.

With controller-free gaming you use specific body motions to perform different actions. For example, in a river-rafting game, you steer down a river full of obstacles by sidestepping, and you can fly over ramps to grab tokens by jumping. With fitness video games, your workout form is tracked. But sometimes, hands-free gaming is strange: In a racecar game, for example, steering without a wheel in your hands can be disorienting. The Kinect also requires lots of room to play—at least 6 feet if you’re playing alone and 8 feet with a second player. Prepare to move some furniture.

For some navigation options, you can also use voice commands. Say “Xbox” out loud and a list of voice commands pops up that’s based on the screen you’re on. But if there is too much background noise in the room, or the TV’s volume is too high, the Kinect might have difficulty recognizing voices.

You can use either voice or motion control to play videos or music from ESPN, Last.fm, Xbox Music, and Xbox Video, and search for content. And with a recent update, you can search for on-demand offerings from services such as Netflix, CinemaNow, and Vudu, and programming from some cable service providers. Just say “Xbox, Bing” (Bing is Microsoft’s search engine) and the name of the movie you want. The Xbox will search the different platforms, and your apps, for anything with that name. You can go through the entire list or search only for movies, TV shows, or apps.

If you already own an older Xbox 360, you can buy a standalone version of the Kinect for $150. You’ll need to plug it into the Xbox and an electrical outlet. Games start at $50.

Microsoft has announced a new console, Xbox One, which will be available in November of this year for $499 (see our report "Microsoft Xbox One: An 'All in One' Entertainment System for TV, Video, and of Course, Games" for details). The new console aims to be the center of your home entertainment center by being the connection point for all of your devices.

Get more tips, advice, and reviews in our free guide to video games, consoles, and tech toys.

Nintendo Wii U

Unlike Microsoft, which relies on an app for its second-screen action, the Nintendo Wii U has its own controller. Called the GamePad, the tablet has a 6.2-inch touch screen, a stylus, dual joysticks, and all the buttons you’d expect on a game controller. NintendoLand, the game included with the Wii U, lets you do things such as fling ninja stars at bad guys by swiping them from the tablet onto the TV screen. With some other games, you can switch from playing the game on your TV to playing directly on the GamePad.

The controller enhances game play in other ways, too. For example, you can use it to display maps and menu options in certain games, which removes the clutter from your TV screen and leaves more room for the game.

Another notable thing about this latest Wii: It finally supports high definition. The result is graphics that are much better than what you saw on the Wii. In fact, the games look as good as those on the Xbox or Sony’s PlayStation 3.

Nintendo’s TVii streaming-video service lets you use the GamePad to search content from your cable and streaming service providers, as well as social networks, and, of course, Nintendo’s Miiverse. You can personalize it by adding your favorite TV shows, channels, movies, and sports teams. The Wii U costs more than the older Wii, at $300 for the basic version and $350 for the deluxe edition. The latter has a few more accessories and more storage space.

For now, Nintendo is still offering the older Wii, which was the original get-up-off-the-couch game console. The Wii Fit, which lets you exercise using the Wii, added an extra dimension of physicality to gaming, and the Xbox and PlayStation later followed suit with their versions. Other games, such as Super Mario Galaxy, remain a staple on this platform.

Nintendo’s Wii Motion-Plus, an enhancement to the original Wii Remote’s motion detection capability, is a vast improvement over the previous version, letting the Wii more accurately track complex motions. It’s built into current versions of the remote called the Wii Remote Plus, but you can buy it as an attachment to the original remote for $40. The enhancement is compatible with all Wii games, but only games specifically designed for Wii Motion-Plus can take advantage of the enhanced sensitivity.

If you have a broadband connection, you can surf the Internet, stream Netflix movies (if you’re a member), and play games online for free. Nintendo also offers a vast library of classic game titles available for download. But the Wii still lacks a hard drive for media storage. Nintendo also has a portable gaming device called the 3DS ($170). This device offers a glasses-free 3D gaming experience. It is also available in a larger version called the 3DS XL ($200).

What can we expect from the new consoles? See our story, "Xbox One versus PlayStation 4: How the new consoles stack up so far."

Sony PlayStation 3

The most recent upgrade to the Sony PlayStation 3 is a slimmer console, available with either a 250GB or 500GB hard drive. Hard drive options for the PS3 include 160GB ($250) or 320GB ($300). You can also find bundles with the PlayStation Move Motion Controller and the PlayStation Eye camera. If you already own a PS3 you can add the Move for about $50 and the Eye for about $30. The PlayStation 3D Display ($180) has a feature called Simulview that lets two players see different views of the game using their 3D glasses ($70). Few games are available that take advantage of this feature, but there are plenty of 3D games available.

The PlayStation Move Motion Controller has a sphere at the end that pairs with the PlayStation’s Eye camera to pinpoint your position during game play. The bar-shaped Move has an LED-lit ball at one end. Several buttons along the top are used for performing actions, and a trigger button lets you use the controller like a gun. The Move works in conjunction with the PlayStation Eye video camera, which you attach to the top of your TV. The Eye then tracks the Move’s location.

The functionality of the Move controller depends on the game you’re playing, serving as tools ranging from magic wand to pingpong paddle. Another accessory, the PlayStation Move Navigation Controller (about $30), lets you use both hands to perform actions such as “walking.” Alternatively, you can use your existing PS3 DualShock controller with the other hand or buy an extra Move.

The Move can tell where you are relative to the TV: Move closer and the image zooms in. It can also detect how you’re holding the controller; twist your wrist and the Move rotates the tool in your character’s hand. But there’s a slight delay between the motion of the controller and that on the screen.

The PS3 does have some drawbacks. For one, the gaming console has only two USB ports. The PlayStation Eye takes up one connection, so you’ve got only one left for charging other PS3 controllers. Also, the number of Move-compatible games is limited, compared with Nintendo’s well-established library of hundreds of game titles for the Wii.

All versions of the PS3 include a built-in Blu-ray player. Unlike with the Xbox 360, you can play PS3 games free online. With a subscription to PlayStation Plus ($18 for three months, $50 for a year) you can try games before you buy them. The PS3 has a full Web browser and enables Netflix streaming to your TV. A handheld gaming system from Sony, the PlayStation Vita, lets you pick up where you left off on a game you started on your PS3. It comes in a Wi-Fi and a 3G version.

Sony has announced the successor to the PlayStation 3, aptly named the PlayStation 4 (see our story "Sony PlayStation 4 Promises Powerful Visuals, Social Components, and Cloud Gaming" for details). The company aims to create a social network where gamers can easily interact and share gaming and entertainment experiences. The PS4 will be available by the 2013 holiday season for $399.


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