Xbox One and PS4 aren't the last word in next-gen gaming hardware
Maybe you missed the limited-allotment presales. Maybe you're not looking to invest $400 to $500 or more in a plastic set-top box that only adds a few new features. Maybe you want a gaming experience that takes advantage of truly top-end technology, from quad-core Intel Core i7 processors to dual Nvidia GeForce 780M graphics cards. In any event, the upcoming Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles are not on your holiday shopping list, so you're here looking to explore the alternatives.
High-end gaming PCs
Want the new Battlefield 4 or Call of Duty: Ghosts to look and play better than on any next-gen console? Then fire one of those games up on a premium gaming PC, such as the recently reviewed Alienware 18. Sure, it's over $4,000, but try playing BF4 on "ultra" settings with 64-player multiplayer at resolutions that can soar past even 1080p when connected to a high-res external monitor.
Portable gaming PCs
An 18-inch display and $4,000 price may be a bit much as a console alternative. Fortunately we've also reviewed several examples of a new breed of gaming PC: powerful-but-portable models with 13- and 14-inch screens that run from about $1,000 to more than $2,000. A great example is the Origin Eon 13-S, with a 13-inch 1080p display and high-end CPU/GPU combo. Systems like this work for on-the-go gaming, or easily output via HDMI to a bigger screen. Add a PC-compatible Xbox controller and you've got a great console alternative.
PC game distribution company Steam has been threatening to bring its market-leading online storefront to TV screens for years. First it launched a "Big Picture Mode," a 10-foot experience for PCs connected to televisions, and now it's promising the long-awaited Steambox, a portable boxlike PC that connects to a TV and uses a unique game-pad-like controller to bridge the gap between console and PC gaming. Now, the Steambox (the exact details of which are still under wraps), is actually a prototype that Steam hopes other hardware companies will use to build similar devices, but several hundred beta testers should have access to hardware soon, and the buzz around Steambox is only going to get bigger.
What's the most flexible, affordable, popular gaming platform you own? It's probably your iOS or Android device. Tablets, phablets, and phones all have access to an amazing lineup of games, many of them free or low-cost, versus the average $60 price for console games. Even better, many games originally developed for PCs or consoles, from Telltale's The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead to 2K's XCOM: Enemy Unknown are now available in tablet-friendly versions. Put it this way: the new iPad Air costs the same as an Xbox One, but has to potential to be much more universally useful while also playing games.
You don't necessarily need a big $500 box the size of an old VCR to play games on your TV. Instead, we've seen several attempts at the idea of a microconsole, a smaller, lower-cost device that doesn't try and include the kitchen sink. Ouya is an Android-based console that sells for as little as $50. Nvidia Shield plays Android games, and can also stream PC games, plus it includes it's own portable display. No one has quite nailed this form yet, but the potential is there, especially as we move toward a download-only future for gaming.
Frankly, with next-gen games looking only marginally better than current-gen ones, your old Xbox 360 or PS3 still has some life left in it. Want to play forward-thinking games such as Grand Theft Auto V or Beyond: Two Souls (both easily among the best of the year)? They're only available for older hardware, and don't look likely to make the leap anytime soon. Added bonus, the Xbox 360 and PS3 are dirt cheap right now, with bundles hitting $199, and very likely lower going into the holiday season.