Back in 2006, the Nintendo Wii looked like a revolutionary system. The small white box was the epitome of futuristic design. The Wii Remote and nunchuck approached Apple-level design perfection, and attempted to do what no other game system had offered: introduce 3D motion control.
Wii Sports came packaged in, along with one Wii Remote and nunchuck. The system lacked any HD support, and required separate component cables to even get to 480p output, but Wii Sports became a defining moment in mainstream casual gaming, and the main reason people bought the system.
Today, the Wii hasn't changed its looks one bit except for adding a black color option. The remote remains the same, too, except for the addition of a more accurate Wii Motion Plus gyroscopic sensor that used to be a plug-in but has since been baked into the Wii Remote Plus. The Wii still can't play DVD movies, but it now supports Netflix streaming thanks to a recent software update. Otherwise, the Miis, the grid of downloadable Wii Channels, even the system sounds are all the same. Peripherals like the Wii Balance Board have come and gone, but the core of the Wii experience is identical. The new, cheaper Wii bundle includes a copy of Mario Kart Wii and a steering-wheel augmentation for the remote.
The Wii still lacks features that come standard on other consoles, most notably HD support and DVD movie playback. Nintendo's to-be-announced 2012 successor to the Wii should hopefully address these shortcomings, and more.
The iconic Wii Remote received a stealth update in 2010, adding Wii Motion Plus into its design. Wii Motion Plus' additional gyroscopic accuracy helped the aging Wii Remote compete against the Kinect and PlayStation Move's newer technology, but few games even support the function. Since it's packed in with all Wiis now and is the only controller on sale in stores, however, it doesn't really matter.
While the Wii hasn't changed much over the years, Nintendo did push one peripheral more than any other. The Wii Balance Board with its packed-in game, Wii Fit, was an attempt to make the Wii a true fitness-oriented gaming console. Wii Fit and its franchise met with tremendous success, but the board works with few other games. The Balance Board is a fun peripheral for those who want to actively game, but it's more of a fad than a true evolution. Its most useful feature? It also doubles as a scale.
The original Xbox 360 had a removable faceplate, famously red-ring-prone hardware, and an off-white color scheme that made it resemble a futuristic tower PC. The $399 version came with a 20GB hard drive and no internal Wi-Fi; a $99 USB Wi-Fi dongle had to be purchased separately. It also didn't have HDMI, and came packaged with composite cables.
However, the Xbox 360's debut a year before the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii made it the first next-gen console, and the first gaming console that supported HD graphics.
Current price: $199-$399, depending on the configuration
Five years later, the sleeker, quieter Xbox 360 Slim is smaller, has built-in Wi-Fi and HDMI, and comes with a comparatively beefy 250GB hard drive--more than 10 times the capacity of the original model.
Besides hardware and cosmetics, the Xbox 360 has undergone multiple OS and interface changes under the hood, too, adding Nintendo-like avatars, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, and compatibility with Microsoft's Zune store.
Most importantly, the motorized Kinect camera peripheral adds motion controls and voice commands to a unique library of games. Bundled in, the $399 Kinect Xbox 360 package costs exactly what the first console did.
Yes, the Xbox 360 still looks like a tower PC (now, a little more like Alienware), but its hardware is definitely improved. Its software and interface, compared with the 2005 version, are nearly unrecognizable. Just like in 2005, the Xbox 360 still doesn't come packaged with a game, a Blu-ray drive, or a second controller, but it's certainly a much better value than its original incarnation.
Price: $150, or packed in with an Xbox 360 bundle
The hands-free Kinect is, pound for pound, one of the most ambitious console hardware additions ever seen. The motorized camera senses 3D movement and enables hands-free motion and voice commands in specially packaged Kinect games. The only limitations to the Kinect are its software support, its relatively high price, and its extra-finicky amount of open space needed to play.
Equipped with a specially developed "cell processor" and an at-the-time utterly unique Blu-ray drive, the PlayStation 3 was an incredibly expensive console with unproven capabilities that pushed the limits of the high-end console market. Built-in Wi-Fi and a 60GB removable hard drive were a few of the $599 version's selling points over the Xbox 360, along with its Blu-ray-playing functionality, making it at the time one of the most affordable Blu-ray players around.
The original, extra-large PS3 chassis had its own SD, Memory Stick, and CompactFlash card slots for plug-and-play picture slideshows. It also had hardware backward compatibility with PlayStation 2 games. The PS3 controller, while looking like its PS2 DualShock counterpart, originally had no rumble; instead, it had "Sixaxis" accelerometer-based controls that worked with some games, but was a weak attempt to compete with the simultaneously released Nintendo Wii.
Current price: $299-$399, depending on the configuration
The trimming-down of the PlayStation 3 both in size and price finally brought the more-expensive console on an even keel with the Xbox 360, while technically offering a superior hardware package for the money.
The PS3 Slim has a cleaner look, but also a cheaper one: gone are the chromed glossy touches, replaced by physical buttons and matte-black plastic. The PS3 still has Blu-ray--now, a much more widely used feature--and a larger 160GB hard drive on the $299 version (or 320GB for $349), but it's lost that CompactFlash card slot and hardware backward compatibility along the way. The PS3 still comes with only one controller--now DualShock, of course--but the optional PlayStation Move peripheral adds a motion controller that feels like a crossbreed of the Kinect and Wii Remote.
The PS3's "media blade" software interface has remained largely the same, although features such as the PSN store and media-streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and MLB have been added. Needless to say, the PS3's online experience has paled in comparison to the Xbox 360's, although the PS3's online service doesn't charge for essential features.
The PS3 and Xbox 360 have undergone a sort of parallel evolution over the years, offering very similar features and price tags. However, while the Xbox 360 has reinvented itself a few times, the PS3 has kept within the bounds of Sony Electronics' design and focused on its excellent media hardware.
Current price: $50 for the wand (camera required), or $99 with the camera and a game
The PlayStation Move was Sony's attempt to capture some of the casual gaming and motion-gaming space that the Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360 Kinect have also chased after. Unlike the Kinect, the Move is a handheld wand that feels more like a Nintendo Wii Remote. Its accuracy is impressive, but the device is a secondary purchase that doesn't feel necessary to own. And, when you break it down, it's not all that different than a fusion of the PlayStation Eye camera that already existed and a more-evolved version of the Sixaxis, a technology that's still technically in every PS3 controller.