Gaming is measured in console generations, the technological leaps from, say, the Atari 2600 to the original Nintendo NES or the first Playstation to the Xbox. With the recent releases of the Xbox One and Playstation 4, which joined Nintendo's Wii U released last holiday season, we've now finally entered the eighth of these generations since home gaming began in 1972 with the Magnavox Odyssey (and no, we don't remember that one, either).
The last-gen, which kicked off with the Xbox 360 release way back in November 2005, was actually the longest, because the rise of broadband Internet allowed for firmware upgrades. In English, that means that Sony and Microsoft were able to update their consoles just like Apple updates your iPhone to add new functionality.
That means that what these new consoles can do now is not the full measure of what they will be able to do by the time the next generation rolls around.
It's weird to talk about future potential when weighing the options of a present-tense purchase, but that's the biggest factor in a modern game console. Launch games are only a vague indicator of what is to come-- the increase in graphical, narrative and design quality between the PS3's original lineup and its recent high water mark, "The Last of Us," is almost unfathomable.
In other words, the new next-gen games may not look all that much better than the best of the current-gen ones -- certainly the improvement pales next to the last-gen leap between standard and high-definition. But the new systems are about ten times more powerful (with PS4 having a slight edge) and will benefit from cloud computing, so once the developers suss the hardware out, it will just keep getting better.
One of the two biggest factors for gamers in choosing between the PS4 and XB1 should be their exclusives. The big third-party games -- like Ubisoft's "Assassin's Creed IV" and Activision's "Call of Duty: Ghosts" or Bungie's upcoming "Destiny" -- will be available on both consoles. So it's more about whether or not you want to eventually be able to play the next "Halo," "Fable" or new IPs like "Titanfall" and "Project Spark" on XB1 or the next "Infamous," "Final Fantasy" and auteurist efforts like Suda51's mysterious "Lily Bergamo" and Fumito Ueda's "Shadow of the Colossus" follow-up "The Last Guardian."
As for current exclusives, the PS4 comes with fun, family-friendly platformer beat-em-up "Knack" and first-person shooter "Killzone: Shadowfall," which offers little in the way of innovative gameplay but is the prettiest next-gen game I played on either new console. Xbox One has a more diverse line-up, with the open-world zombie fame "Dead Rising 3," the classical action-adventure game "Ryse, Son of Rome," hyper-realistic racing simulator "Forza 5," rebooted fighter "Killer Instinct," kid-targeted strategy simulator "Zoo Tycoon" and parent-targeted "Xbox Fitness."
For families with younger gamers, the Wii U might be your best bet because it's been out for a year and has amassed a solid collection of critically acclaimed family-friendly exclusives like "Super Mario 3D World," "Pikmin 3" and "Lego City: Undercover" while also being backward compatible with last-gen Wii games, which neither of the two new systems are. For older gamers who grew up on the Nintendo aesthetic, it has plenty of adult-skewing third-party titles but it's their own unique and beloved games that make it worthwhile as a second system.
Another big deciding factor between the two systems, if you're into multiplayer, is what your friends are buying, as there's obviously no cross-console online gaming even on titles available for both systems.
Oh, and price is, of course a big factor. The PS4 is $399 while Xbox One is $499 -- though it does come with a Kinect 2.0 motion-sensing camera which does a lot of cool tricks (and is especially useful for young gamers as it allows for controller-free gaming). Playstation has its own, less-advanced motion-sensing camera, but it's sold separately for $60.
Of course, game machines aren't just for games anymore. Both consoles, though Xbox is pushing this multimedia angle harder, want to be your entertainment centre. Sony and Microsoft have pretty much saturated the gamer market, and the Wii proved there are a lot of non-gamers out there who could be convinced to buy a console. So all three companies are cramming in as many non-gaming features as possible might be the key to winning new converts.
The Wii U included TVii, which streams all of your cable and subscription and on-demand video through the console. And the reverse is true, too, in that you can watch TV on the screen while playing on the tablet-like gamepad controller at the same time. (Mind, you can also do this on the PS Vita, which will stream your PS4 games.)
Xbox One and PS4 take this concept even further as far as being your one-stop shop. The Wii U, for instance, doesn't play DVDs or Blu-Ray, unlike XB1 and PS4. Those two also offer various apps like Netflix, Skype and niche apps for sports or anime fans, as well as stores with video-on-demand or subscription-based music and video streaming.
You can also run your cable through the Xbox, so you can switch between gaming and watching without switching inputs. And the Kinect can control all your stuff, so you can turn on your TV and change the channel with just your voice. Xbox One will also stream music and video from your PC (the PS4 won't at launch, though it's been hinted they might add that back, as it was a feature of the PS3).
All now have internet browsers, and Xbox and PS4 have made social a huge part of their set-up -- the Wii has its own in-house social network -- though it still seems to me that a smartphone is better suited for that stuff, other than the ability to record and share your gameplay videos, which is a niche feature for folks who care about killstreaks.
I hope that helped you decide which console you might prefer. While neither are necessarily must-haves this second (though upgrading is inevitable), if you want to get one in time for the holidays, you might not want to wait too long. Both consoles moved a million units on launch day and will likely keep selling like virtual hotcakes throughout the holiday season.