Friday, September 7, 2007

#5 PC Gaming and the Console War

by Jeff Smith

It is now less than a month from Christmas, and many of you with teenagers to buy for have undoubtedly heard about one or more of the new gaming consoles that has emerged in time for the holiday shopping scene. First out was Microsoft with their XBOX 360, and then came the other two relatively back to back, Nintendo Wii, and Sony's Playstation 3.
All three of these consoles are competing for your holiday dollar. Today we will discuss the differences between them, pros and cons for each, and also compare with gaming on a higher end PC.
XBOX 360
price: from $300 for bare bones to a little over $400 for premium package
Being first to market can often be bad for a system. Looking back at Sega vs. Nintendo console wars of the past, often Sega would release their system first, in hopes of getting the jump on their competitor and gaining a base of game-buying consumers that would ensure their success. Often this would backfire on them as it would give their competitor just a little more time to ensure that their console would have more features. Often consumers will wait to see what the other console(s) entail so being first doesn't make as big a difference as you might think. This was the fate of the Sega Dreamcast.
This phenomenon doesn't seem to be hurting the XBOX360. What did hurt the 360 was the fact that some of the newly bought consoles had problems crashing, freezing up, or scratching game disks. These woes are normal for a game console launch, and the only advice I have is to wait for them to work out the bugs. There were six or more models of the original playstation as they refined its components throughout the life of the system. These new consoles will be no different.
The XBOX 360 offers stunning graphics capabilities utilizing graphics technology from ATI. The premium package (>$400) sports a 20GB harddrive, wireless controllers, an ethernet cable, a headset for talking in-game to other players, HiDef component cables,and a chrome finish... so going for the bigger retail package pays off well.
The 360 is backward compatible with games for the first XBOX so if you have some, you won't need both systems connected to your TV. If you connect it to broadband, it also lets you purchase and download some arcade games and older console games from their XBOX Live service which has a monthly fee. It can also utilize media files shared on your home network. XBOX 360 also incorporates HD-DVD technology that can pack up to 30GB on one disk.

Playstation 3 (or PS3)
price: 20GB system $499, 60GB system $599
Sony has built the most technically impressive system in this console war. Utilizing graphics technology from Nvidia, the PS3 has more graphics power than either of the other two systems which in the end will equate to better looking games after the game designers become familiar with programming for its hardware.
The PS3 has not been exempt from system launch problems. Amid reports of systems not booting, limited backward compatibility, overheating, disk scratching and freezes, is the greater problem for buyers trying to use the system with their Hi-Definition TVs. Sony has so far been unable to fix the HD issues, and seem to be backpaddling on their earlier promises to fix the problem with a software patch and so far they are blaming it on the TVs. My only thoughts on this are that the 360's HiDef hardware is working just fine.
The 60GB PS3 is capable of hooking up to your WiFi network in order to connect for online gaming, and after seeing the success of XBOX Live, Sony has created the Playstation Network which connects users and facilitates social networking and purchases. File transfers between your PC and the PS3 are not officially supported except via USB storage devices, but a network file-transfer utility has been created by a third party and is available free online at though at first glance it doesn't look very user friendly. PS3 also incorporates the new Sony-backed Blu-Ray disk format which boasts storage capacities of up to 200GB per one disk.
Nintendo Wii
price: $249
Nintendo started out as the underdog in this console war. A much smaller system, having less graphics power, less processing power and no Hi-Def support, the Wii looked to be doomed from the start. But as details emerged, the Wii has surprised and amazed its critics by utilizing groundbreaking gameplay mechanics and amazing backward compatibility. Not having as much processing power also means that the Wii is not very prone to overheating. It also means not costing as much. A few freezes and crashes have been reported, but most problems around the Wii seem to center on their controller. Conversely, most of the excitement surrounding the Wii also centers on their controller.
Nintendo Wii's new controller has revolutionized gaming. It is motion sensitive, meaning that to swing a bat, or sword, golf club or aim a weapon, you actually move the controller in the air and it translates that movement into the game. The controller is shaped like a remote control and has a corded attachment that allows each of your hands to move independently and control different aspects of the game. The biggest complaint about Nintendo Wii is, oddly enough, muscle soreness. Playing games on the Wii are much more physically interactive and Nintendo actually has recommended taking up an exercise regimen prior to gaming on the Wii. This novel approach to gaming has been making gamers out of people who normally don't play video games, as well as getting couch potato gamers up and in-shape. Whole families are enjoying the Wii together and getting workout while they are at it! The problems reported with the controller mostly occur with the strap that secures your grip breaking, causing you to throw the controller, damaging it upon impact.
Nintendo has outdone themselves on the backward compatibility side of things. Boasting the ability to download and play games from the original Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Gamecube (requires Gamecube controller), as well as titles from former rival consoles such as Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx-16... and rumors of titles from Commodore 64, all available to purchase and download via their Virtual Console online service, the Wii gives you the opportunity to stroll down memory lane and enjoy titles you played as a kid.
PC Gaming
price: varies from system to system
If you were to spend as much money on upgrading your PC as the cost of these consoles, you would find that you can play a pretty amazing selection of games. Upgrading your graphics card, motherboard, processor, and RAM, as well as buying a good USB compatible controller can turn your average desktop system into a video game powerhouse. As far as backward compatibility goes, with the use of emulators, you can play games from NES, SNES, N64, Sega Master System, Genesis, Saturn, Dreamcast, Playstation 1, TurboGrafx-16, and many more, as well as arcade games dating back to the beginning of video game history. Note that you are legally required to own the games for those systems before downloading much in the way you are legally required to own a CD before you download mp3's of its songs.
Using a USB controller and running your video to your TV via a TV-out capable graphics card turns your PC into the ultimate game console. The only thing to worry about before purchasing PC games is making sure you have the minimum hardware requirements for running it. In fact, many console based video games come out for PC as well, and there are many PC-only games that are immersive and engaging that will never be released on a console.
Another thing that PC gaming has going for it is that you can upgrade your hardware components individually. In 5 years or so when these consoles are considered obsolete, you'll be faced with another huge purchase decision, or you could just upgrade your PC components here and there as you can afford it, and sell off your old parts on eBay to recoup some of the costs. And lastly, your computer will be a mean machine that has all of the useful functionality that we've come to depend on. If you are buying for someone else, make sure that your intended hardware upgrades are compatible with what they already have.
The Conclusion
The format war going on inside of the console war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD is somewhat secondary and reminiscent of VHS vs Betamax. Don't make your decision based on that.
There is no right answer or clear winner here. You must decide to spend your holiday dollars based on what is important to you, or who you are buying for. For the tech-head its clearly PC upgrading. For the extreme gamer, the PS3 is likely a must-have, though shortages have made it near impossible to find one to buy and you may want to wait for them to work out some of the bugs anyway. For the gamer and audio-visual multi-media madman, the XBOX 360 combines excellent gaming capabilities with media functionality that is unsurpassed. For everyone else, gamers and non-gamers, young and old, there is the Nintendo Wii.
by Jeff Smith

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