HolidayBuyer's Guide

Console Wars 2013: Sony PS4 and its competitors

It's not just Microsoft and Nintendo looking to take down the PlayStation this year.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony PlayStation 4
The current hot topic in console gaming, the just-announced PlayStation 4, is still largely an enigma. We don't know how much the PS4 will cost, when it's being released (beyond "holiday 2013"), or even what it looks like.

For now, it's still the next-gen hardware to beat, and what little we do know sounds impressive, with an entirely new system architecture based on an X86 AMD CPU/GPU that should make the PS4 easier to develop for and more flexible (and, frankly, more PC-like).

But 2013 will take the traditional three-way console race and add several new players, all of which may gain a serious advantage by not being tied into the classic living-room console hardware business model.

Photo by CNET

Nintendo Wii U
The opening shot in this generation's console wars came from Nintendo. Like the Wii before it, the Wii U plays with the conventions of console gaming, although the consensus thus far is that its bold experiments with touch-screen controllers and second-screen gaming are not as mainstream-friendly as the simple elegance of the original Wii and the Wii Sports.

Since its release in November 2012, the Wii U has been plagued by lower-than-expected sales and a lack of must-own games. But, at $299 (Basic Set) or $350 (Deluxe Set) it's likely to be the least expensive of the three new major game consoles, which should guarantee it a certain level of long-term market share.

Photo by Microsoft

Microsoft 'Next' Xbox
Compared with the next Xbox console from Microsoft, we actually know a ton about the PS4. Conventional wisdom says that Sony and Microsoft will take turns this year, trading bits of carefully vetted information about specs and features to maintain consumer interest throughout 2013 (and no, it probably won't be called the Xbox 720).

The clear leader in the current generation when it comes to online gaming and building a console-centric social network, the Xbox still has a lot of areas it could grow into. Will it add a Blu-ray drive? Cloud-streaming games? Expanded live television options? We suspect that at least a few of these questions will be answered within the next few months.

Nvidia shows off its own portable gaming device, called Shield.
Photo by James Martin/CNET

The Android consoles: Nvidia Shield, Ouya, Wikipad
When powered by the Nvidia Tegra platform, Android hardware has a lot of gaming potential. Of course, the big stumbling block has always been a lack of high-end, console-quality games, as big franchises rarely make appearances on the mostly mobile OS. You'll occasionally get something along the lines of a Call of Duty zombie-mode offshoot, but not Android ports of the same games being played on PC, Xbox, or PS3. Instead, you're largely stuck with well-meaning copycats, from Modern Combat to Dead Trigger.

But a potential game-changer this year is the growing collection of game-centric Android devices. Ouya is a Kickstarter star, expected in June, that aims to put an Android-OS hub in a small $99 set-top box that will run its own custom games (but not standard games purchased in the Google Play store).

Nvidia has its own Android gaming device in the works, called Project Shield, a large handheld console with its own 5-inch flip-up touch display, AV outs for connecting to a TV, and the promised capability to stream everything from media content to PC games running on a local computer. Project Shield has no price or release date yet.

We first got our hands on the Wikipad in 2012, in the form of a 10-inch Android tablet bundled with a game controller dock that included two handles with analog control sticks, buttons, and triggers. Wikipad missed its October 2012 launch date and little was heard of it until recently, when the company relaunched it as a 7-inch tablet, with a similar (but smaller) game pad dock for half the original $499 price. It's now expected sometime in spring of this year.

Photo by CNET

Apple and iOS
In the six or seven years since the last round of living-room game consoles, a lot has changed in how we buy and play games. So much so that it's legitimate to ask whether the same expensive, fixed-configuration hardware box, with its risky razor-and-blade model, still works.

Much gaming today happens in smaller, less expensive, more portable chunks. Even standalone handheld game machines such as the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS have been supplanted by phones and tablets. Leading the charge is Apple, a company long thought to be hostile to PC-style gaming, but one that has built a huge new platform with the iPhone, iPad, and App Store.

From puzzle games to first-person shooters to retro-style family board games, there's a seemingly endless variety, and most games' prices run from free (or free-to-play) to a few dollars, with anything over $10 being very rare indeed. Big players such as EA and Activision are building up their iOS libraries and recognize that the future may not be in selling $60 retail boxes.

The big question mark is what Apple plans for the future. Will an Apple television set or update to the current Apple TV set-top box make the company a major player in living-room gaming?

Photo by Valve

Valve Steam Box
PC gaming is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, with new PC hardware comparing very favorably with console components more than half a decade old. Digital distribution via Steam and other online storefronts means DRM hassles are largely a thing of the past, and nearly any PC can run at least basic games.

Valve's Steam app recently added a Big Screen mode, made for living-room couch viewing, which some take as a clear sign that the company plans to build or partner with a hardware vendor to build a true PC-based living-room console, purportedly called the Steam Box.

The pitfalls, however, are the same ones that have bedeviled PC-as-console devotees for years. How do you get decent PC parts, including discrete graphics, in a box that won't cost much more than a $300 to $400 console? And, if you have just a hardware blueprint for other PC makers to build themselves, how do you make sure everyone will be able to install and run games properly? That's one advantage of the closed console system: you only have to get your game to run properly on one, exact set of hardware specs.

Which of these contenders do you think will emerge as the victor in the 2013 Console Wars? Let us know in the comments section below.

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