Video-Game Console
Buying Guide

Photo of a person's hands as they hold a video-game controler.

In today's connected world, gaming consoles do far more than just let you play video games. In fact, they're expanding the definition of what a modern entertainment device can and should be. This buying guide aims to help you decide which console is best suited for your needs. 

What You Should Know

What is a video game console? At minimum, a video-game console is a device that connects to your TV and allows you to play games using a controller—but the concept has evolved greatly in the past decade. Consoles now include other entertainment options, such as streaming video. They can record your gameplay and share it with friends, follow voice commands, surf the Web, help you get fit, and more.

Who are you buying the console for? Each of the consoles offers exclusive titles and a unique experience, and has strengths that will be best suited to a particular type of player. Along with a player's age, you'll want to identify how the player will use the console. Will he mainly be using the console for gaming or for watching movies? Does she enjoy traditional gaming with a controller or prefer motion-controlled games? Is he a fitness buff?

Additional expenses. Consoles alone don't do much out of the box; you'll need to spend more money to get the most use from them. First, of course, you'll need to buy games, which cost $50 to $60 when they're new. You'll also need to pay a subscription fee to play online or to enjoy some of the console's additional features. And if you want multiple people to be able to play together, you'll need to buy additional controllers.

Types

Microsoft Xbox One
The Xbox One, $500, is Microsoft's newest console.The console comes with a Kinect sensor, an HDMI cable, an Xbox One Wireless Controller, a headset for chat, and a download code for the game Titanfall. For $400, you can get the console without the Kinect sensor; this bundle includes a wireless controller, chat headset, HDMI cable, and power supply.

The Xbox One is best for those who want all their entertainment options in one place. The console is capable of fantastic visuals and has a solid controller that's essential for demanding games, such as first-person shooters and fast-paced action titles.

The Kinect sensor is used for motion-controlled games and for voice and gesture control of the console's other features. The Xbox One also has a Game DVR, which lets you record clips of your game play. You can live-stream your game play too.

In addition to its gaming features, Xbox One comes with entertainment options including a built-in Blu-ray player, plenty of streaming options including Netflix and Hulu Plus, and the Xbox One Guide, which lets you watch and control your cable box without switching inputs. It is also a good choice for someone looking for a fitness solution in the living room.

The Xbox One Wireless Controller, $60 (one comes with the console) is an improvement over the Xbox 360 controller. The thumbsticks now have a textured grip along the rim and feel very smooth and responsive. The Start and Back buttons have been replaced by a Menu and a View button.

The Kinect Sensor (bundled with the console or around $100 ) can be used to control just about everything on the Xbox One's menu. It's more sensitive than the original Kinect—it can detect more subtle motions and up to six players at once. You can use voice commands instead of menu navigation for many tasks.

If you're buying the Xbox One for its entertainment functions, consider the Xbox One Media Remote, $25. For one thing, you may not be too keen on using voice commands while watching movies or flipping through TV channels. And though you can use the Xbox One Wireless Controller, it's much more than you need for simple navigation.

In comparison, Sony has no remote for the PlayStation 4, so you'd have to purchase one from a third party. And so far, those remotes require a USB dongle, which takes up a valuable USB port. The Wii U has no media remote, but you can use the GamePad as a remote for non-gaming applications.

Microsoft has made changes to its Xbox Live Gold subscription service ($10 a month, $25 for 3 months, or $60 a year) that make it more competitive with Sony's PlayStation Plus service. While you'll have to pay to play online with other gamers, you no longer need the Gold membership to enjoy entertainment options such as streaming video services such as Netflix. Like the PlayStation Plus service, you get discounts on some games, and access to other games for free.

Microsoft Xbox 360
The Xbox 360 is Microsoft's last-generation console. It currently comes in several hard-drive sizes; prices start at $200. The console will be supported for a few more years, with new games and updates. If you want to spend less money than you would for a newer console and still be able to play plenty of great titles, the Xbox 360 might be right for you. It lacks a lot of the features of the Xbox One, such as a Blu-ray player and cable-box control, and the cheaper version of the console doesn't include a Kinect.

Nintendo Wii U
The Wii U, $300, is the current-generation Nintendo consoles. The quality of its is comparable to that of the PS3 and Xbox 360. With the console comes a GamePad controller (see below). Several bundles are available that include a free game.

Nintendo offers the most family-friendly games of any of the consoles. At $300 dollars, it's also the cheapest console of the current generation. And it's not just for children; all fans of Nintendo game series need a Wii U to play the newest entries. Nintendo also offers a "virtual console" on the Wii U that offers downloadable versions of classic game titles. The Nintendo TVii service displays a channel guide, and you can control your cable box and TV through the GamePad. The Wii U also offers popular streaming services, including Netflix. It does not include a Blu-ray or DVD player, though, which both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have.

The GamePad, a tablet-like controller that comes with the console, has a 6.2-inch touch screen and comes with a stylus, dual joysticks, two shoulder buttons and triggers, and four face buttons for gaming. It also has a Power and Home button and a separate volume control. The GamePad can also be used as a second screen for displaying game maps and menus, for example, or as a main screen for games that support it, which means you can stream a game from the Wii U and play it on the GamePad screen. This is similar to the Remote Play feature that Sony offers with the PS4 and handheld PS Vita, but no additional accessories are needed. You can also use the GamePad as your main screen for watching streaming videos. The Nintendo TVii service offers a channel guide and cable box and TV control through the GamePad that's similar to that of the Xbox One.

The Wii Remote Plus, $40, is used in combination with the sensor bar on the Wii U console to track a player's movement. Motion control was the original Wii's claim to fame and is useful for games such as sports titles. For example, instead of pressing a button, you can swing the remote like a baseball bat, and that translates into onscreen movement.

The Nunchuck controller, $20, connects to the Wii Remote Plus via a cable. It simply adds a joystick and a few additional buttons for more control.

The Wii U Pro Controller, $50 is similar to the Xbox and PlayStation remotes in design. It has the control options of the GamePad, but no touch screen. It is smaller and can be more comfortable to use in games that don't require the GamePad.

The Nintendo Network subscription service is free. It lets you play games online with other players, communicate with friends, and access the Nintendo eShop to purchase games and add-ons. There is a premium version of the service available with the Deluxe console bundle. This version allows the user to earn points on digital purchases which can be used for discounts in the future.

Nintendo Wii
The original Nintendo Wii brought motion-controlled gaming to the console world. The Wii currently sells for $130, so if you're looking for a cheap entry point into gaming, it's a good choice. There is a large library of games available for the console, but Nintendo no longer makes new games for it. The Wii can also connect to the Internet for online gaming, purchasing digital content, and accessing streaming video services.

Wii mini
The Wii mini, $100, is essentially a smaller, bare-bones version of the Wii. It can play all the games that are compatible with the Wii and use the same accessories, but it can't connect to the Internet.

Sony PlayStation 4
The PlayStation 4, released in late 2013, is Sony's newest gaming console. For $400, you get the console, an HDMI cable, a DualShock 4 controller and charging cable, and an earbud-microphone for chat. You also get a 30-day trial of Sony's PlayStation Plus online gaming service and Music Unlimited, a streaming music service, plus $10 to spend in the PlayStation Store.

The PS4 is a good choice for the gamer who enjoys playing fast-paced, graphics-intensive games with a controller. The PS4 is the most powerful console of the current generation (which includes the Xbox One and Nintendo Wii U) because of its graphics processor and fast memory. While this console does offer motion control via add-on accessories, it is not a strong focus for the platform, as it is with the Microsoft Xbox One.

Sony has focused on the social aspects of gaming with the PS4. For example, it lets you share clips and stream video of your game-play sessions. Parents should bear in mind that it's not a simple matter to set the parental controls to restrict access to these streaming sessions, which aren't always child-friendly.

The PlayStation 4 is a little lacking in the entertainment department. While it has a built-in Blu-ray player and access to popular streaming services such as Netflix, the PS4 lacks some of the features of other consoles—for example, the cable-box control included in both the Xbox One and Wii U.

The PS4's DualShock 4 controller (additional ones are $60 each), with new thumb sticks and triggers, feels more comfortable to use than the previous-generation DualShock 3. It features an LED bar that lights up on the back in different colors. When the controller is charging, for example, the light is orange. The DualShock 4 also has motion sensitivity, dual motors for rumble feedback, a built-in speaker, a headset jack, and a touch pad. The Start and Select buttons found on the DualShock 3 have been replaced by an Options button on the DualShock 4. The Share button, also new, lets you share clips of your game play, screen shots, or a live video feed with friends.

The PlayStation 4 Camera, $60, is used for tracking the position and movement of the DualShock 4 controller, which translates into onscreen or in-game movements. It can also be used for facial recognition that lets you log onto the console, which is especially useful if a console has multiple user accounts.

The PlayStation Vita, $200, is a standalone mobile gaming device, but we list it as a PlayStation 4 accessory because of its Remote Play feature: You can stream compatible games over your Wi-Fi network from the PS4 to the PS Vita, and play them on the smaller portable screen. The Vita has its own games available on cards and via download that can be played on the go.

Sony also offers an online subscription service for the PS4, PlayStation Plus ($10 a month, $18 for 3 months, or $50 a year). A subscription to PlayStation Plus isn't mandatory, but you'll need an account to play online with other gamers.

Sony's game-streaming service, PlayStation Now, is currently in open beta on the PS4. The service allows gamers to rent older games. It will be available on other Sony devices in the future and will expand the list of games available to PlayStation owners.

Sony PlayStation 3
The PS3, Sony's previous-generation console, was first available in 2006. It is currently sold in multiple hard-drive sizes, starting at $200. Sony will support the PS3 with new game releases and updates for a few more years.

This console is a good purchase for those who don't need the latest hardware and capabilities. There are a lot of great games already available for the PS3, as well as popular streaming-media services and a built-in Blu-ray player for entertainment. You can also use the built in hard drive to play your personal media files, or stream them from other devices on your network using DLNA, a feature that's not available on the PS4.

With the PlayStation 3, what you'll miss out on is visuals: Games on the PS3 just don't look as good as they do on the PS4, with its superior graphics chip and processing. The PS3 also doesn't have the social features that the PS4 has, such as sharing game-play clips.

Features

Here are the most important features you'll find on video-game consoles. A few really set these devices apart from one another.

Motion Control
Motion control in gaming was first introduced by Nintendo on the Wii console. Now all of the major consoles offer it. Motion control allows your movements to be translated into on screen actions in compatible games—so you can simulate swinging a bat or a sword in sport or action games, for example. It also brings more realism and physical movement to fitness and dancing games.

• PlayStation 4
The DualShock 4 controller that comes with the PS4 has some limited motion-control capabilities on its own. You can tilt the controller, which translates into onscreen movements but requires the optional PlayStation Camera for more accurate tracking. For true motion control however, you also need the PlayStation Move controller. This works basically the same way as the Wii Remote plus, and you can hold a Move Controller in each hand for games such as boxing.

• Wii U
Motion control on the Wii U consists of the sensor bar provided with the console and the Wii Remote Plus, an optional accessory. The Wii Remote Plus is a stick-like controller with few buttons on it. You can use it to point at and click options on the screen, as you would with a mouse. When you're playing games, the motion of the controller is tracked by the sensor bar. So for example, you simulate the motion of swinging a baseball bat or golf club, and the motion translates to the screen.

• Xbox One
The Xbox One's Kinect is a camera that can detect body movements without the need for you to use a controller. It is particularly handy in fitness applications: You can keep your hands free and still have your motions captured on screen.

Cable and TV Control
This feature puts your gaming console in charge of of your other entertainment. Using a guide on your gaming console, you can browse through your cable content and change channels instead of using your cable box.

• PlayStation 4
This feature is not offered by the PS4.

• Wii U
The Wii U offers Nintendo TVii, a service that allows you to use the console's GamePad screen to navigate your cable box. The GamePad can be programmed to turn the TV on and off, adjust the volume, and switch inputs so you won't need to use multiple remotes. The GamePad can display a channel guide, search for content on streaming video providers, and be used as a second screen. For example, while you're watching a basketball game on TV, you can get a breakdown of the stats on your GamePad.

• Xbox One
You can connect an HDMI cable from your cable box to the Xbox One. This way you won't have to switch inputs to view cable content. You can also use the One Guide on the Xbox, which is its version of your cable provider's channel guide. This can be navigated with the Xbox One Controller, voice commands or the optional media remote.

Mobile Apps
Smart phones and other mobile devices have become ubiquitous since the prior generation of video-game consoles first appeared, and two of the new ones offer apps to use with them. Nintendo does not offer an app, but the PlayStation App and Xbox Smart Glass apps are available on most popular mobile devices.

These apps allow you to use your phone or tablet as a "second screen" for your console: You can use it as a remote to control the console's main menu, for example, or interact with a game by displaying maps or inventory. Nintendo has this functionality built into its GamePad, as well.

Smart Glass also provides second-screen capabilities as you watch movies or TV shows from Xbox Video. For example, you can get information about the actors in a scene on your phone without having to pause the action on your Xbox.

Remote Play
Remote play is the capability of a console to stream content to a mobile device. This allows the console to do the processing so you can play bigger games on smaller screens. Nintendo has this capability built into its GamePad controller; it works only with compatible games. Sony also offers this feature with the PlayStation 4, though it can stream games only to the handheld PlayStation Vita, which doesn't come with the console. Xbox does not offer this feature.

Multitasking
The Xbox One is really the only console that lets you multitask easily: Its Snap feature gives you a bar on the side of the screen that runs an application while you play a game or watch TV on the main screen. For example, you could play Madden on the main screen and watch a football game or keep up with your fantasy football team in the sidebar.

You can also move between multiple applications quickly using voice commands. So if you're playing Call of Duty, for instance, you could simply say "Xbox, watch TV." The game would be suspended, and you would be switched to live TV. You could jump back to the game at any time and pick up right where you left off.

The PS4 lets you suspend a game and open another application. You can return to the game by double-tapping the PS button on your controller.

Backward Compatibility
This term means that games from previous-generation consoles work on a newer console. Of the new generation, neither the Xbox One nor the PlayStation 4 are backward compatible; only the Nintendo Wii U currently offers this capability. You can put a Wii game directly into the Wii U console and play it with the Wii Remote Plus. Nintendo also offers a Virtual Console, which lets you download and play digital versions of its classic games.

Brands

Microsoft
Microsoft was the last of the “Big 3” gaming companies to introduce a console. The original Xbox launched in 2001 and became a viable contender with the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Wii. Microsoft is responsible for the mega-hit game franchise Halo and currently supports two consoles with updates and new games: the new Xbox One and last-generation Xbox 360.

Nintendo
Nintendo has the most experience of the video-game console manufacturers, starting with the original Nintendo Entertainment System console in 1985. Some of the most iconic series in gaming belong to Nintendo, including Mario, Pokèmon, Zelda, and Donkey Kong. Nintendo currently offers three consoles: the Wii U, Wii, and Wii mini. In addition to consoles, Nintendo offers the DS family of handheld gaming devices.

Sony
Sony dove into the video-game business in 1995, when the original PlayStation launched in the U.S. Sony currently offers two consoles, the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.

Shopping Tips

Unlike many electronics devices, video-game consoles have a fixed price. This means that you won't typically find them cheaper in one store than in another. What may change, however, are the items that come in the package with a console, especially around the holidays. You may find a console bundled with several games and accessories at discounted prices.

Price Drops
If you don't need the latest console right away, look for price drops over its lifespan. The price of the Xbox One has already come down since it first launched, to better compete with the PlayStation 4. Microsoft has also recently bundled the game Titanfall with the Xbox One without raising its price, which adds more value (if that's a game you like, at any rate).

Games
As for games, you can get discounts and even free games by signing up for each company's subscription service, such as PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold. And while companies such as GameStop thrive on selling used games and consoles, other companies including Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart offer trade-in programs. You can save some cash by buying games or consoles pre-owned, and if you're upgrading from an older console, consider trading it in when you buy the new one. If you do trade in your console, don't forget to include the games, controllers, and accessories you have lying around, which can increase the value of your trade.

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