The game consoles have landed. Millions of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One owners are getting their first taste of what to expect from this new generation of high-powered video games.
Perhaps you weren't one of those eager fans who waited in line at midnight to get first crack at the new consoles. Perhaps there's a gamer in your family who would love to unwrap a shiny new machine on Christmas morning. So you're wondering: Which console to buy?
Our verdict, after playing with both devices for a couple of weeks: Either way, you can't lose.
Both are first-rate game players that bring cutting-edge computer graphics to your living room. Both come with plenty of games to choose from. Both hold the promise of delivering state-of-the-art entertainment for years.
But there are differences. The obvious distinction is price: Sony's PlayStation 4 retails for $400, $100 less than Microsoft's Xbox One.
The primary reason for that price difference is the Kinect camera and microphone that comes with every Xbox One. Microsoft wants it to be the center of everything you do in your media room, not just games where you wave your arms around a lot. The device, an update of the Kinect that was sold separately for the Xbox 360, now understands a wide range of verbal commands, so you can change cable channels, launch Skype calls and find movies and music without ever touching a controller.
It's a nifty chunk of technology, but it's not for everyone. In this age of surveillance, people might be uncomfortable with having a camera pointed at them all the time - though Microsoft assures us that it won't be snooping.
The PlayStation 4 is less ambitious. First and foremost, it's a game player, and you operate it the old-fashioned way: by pressing buttons on a controller you hold in your hands.
That said, the PS4 doesn't skimp on non-gaming activities. You can also use it to watch movies from such services as Netflix and Hulu Plus or to listen to tunes from Sony's Music Unlimited.
Although both can do much more, the PS4 and the Xbox One are ultimately video-game consoles, with the emphasis on games. The current Xbox One lineup is slightly more impressive, thanks to the presence of the stellar racing game "Forza Motorsport 5." But many games are available for both systems, including the latest entries in the popular "Call of Duty," "Madden NFL" and "Assassin's Creed" franchises.
In a way, choosing a console now is like placing a bet on the future, especially as neither device can play software created for older systems - namely, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Sony has already announced new "Uncharted" and "InFamous" games for the PS4. Microsoft is expected to continue the "Halo" epic on the Xbox One. Microsoft also has a potential blockbuster exclusive with "Titanfall," a robot battle game from the creators of the landmark "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare."
But most games from outside publishers, including Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, will be available on both systems. Whatever "Grand Theft Auto V" publisher Rockstar Games comes up with next, you can be sure it will want to make it available to as wide an audience as possible. So you'll be fine with either the PS4 or the Xbox One.
What about the Wii U, you ask? Nintendo's console beat both PS4 and Xbox One to the market, but it has stumbled through its first year. It's not a bad machine, but it doesn't deliver the visual razzle-dazzle of the PS4 or Xbox One. Its graphics are closer to what the PS3 and Xbox 360 delivered several years ago.
The Wii U's biggest drawback is its relatively scrawny software lineup, with most of 2013's best games available only on Sony or Microsoft consoles.
In the past, Nintendo has made up the difference with its roster of homegrown icons - the likes of Mario, Zelda and Metroid. But in 2013, the company delivered just two marquee-worthy Wii U games, "Super Mario 3D World" and "Pikmin 3."
At $300, the Wii U is the cheapest of the three major consoles. But don't be tempted. Sure, there's a chance that Nintendo will turn around its momentum and get back to publishing good games on a regular schedule. Until then, an awful lot of Wii Us are going to be gathering dust.
If you or someone on your holiday shopping list just wants to play state-of-the-art games, the PS4 is a fine choice. If you buy into Microsoft's vision of controlling your entire entertainment system with just the sound of your voice, the Xbox One is worth the extra $100. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
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