A lot has changed since the Xbox 360 debuted in November 2005. After what has seemed like dozens of upgrades, improvements, omissions, price drops, motion controllers, and bundles, the dust has settled (once again) and we're left with three competitively priced consoles.
Editors' note: This console buying guide was updated on November 23, 2011, for the holiday season.
Such an evenly matched trio of hardware brings up the ultimate question for prospective video game console buyers: which home console should you buy?
This question doesn't necessarily have a definitive answer. Quite frankly, the answer could be any of the three depending on what you're looking for. In other words, there is no default "best console." It's about finding the one that's right for you--and what will be the deciding factor in your case will ultimately depend on what you plan to use the console for. That said, in lieu of detailing every last bit of functionality that each console offers, let's discuss the type of person we think would benefit most from each console.
Last year Nintendo introduced a new bundle for the Wii that included Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort, and a Wii Remote with MotionPlus built in. This year, the company has chopped $50 off the price and now offers a $150 Wii with just Mario Kart Wii bundled inside. Though the Wii isn't regarded as a "hard-core" gamer's console, the system has served up some pretty compelling titles over the past few years, with more-recent titles like Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Metroid Other M giving Wii owners something to cheer about. A growing trend with the Wii seems to be that of rebooted franchises from the company's past, like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Kirby's Epic Yarn. Not much has been seen in terms of pure innovation, but Nintendo seems content with rewarding its loyal fan base. However, we must admit that Nintendo seems to have left the Wii hanging with little to play since the announcement of the console's Wii U successor at E3 2011.
This notion was reinforced with the release of what's probably the Wii's last major title, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. We absolutely love the game, and think it's a fine way for the Wii to go out. That said, at this point in the game it's tough to recommend a new purchase simply because software support is on its last breath. While the Wii does have a respectable library, just know you'll only playing games from its past and the occasional WiiWare standout.
All things considered, the Wii has become best known for its addictive party games, the occasional fitness game, kid-friendly fun, and shooting titles that emulate light-gun arcade games. The number of first-party Nintendo titles is small, and a large number of third-party games are mostly written off as gimmicky cannon fodder.
The Wii's online multiplayer experience isn't anything to write home about, but we definitely recommend playing Mario Kart Wii online. Unfortunately, the Wii's 16-digit friend code system did not catch on with most gamers. The well-established Virtual Console offers an impressive number of classic games from various older gaming systems, and WiiWare provides a platform for inexpensive titles from independent developers.
Aside from games, the Wii doesn't offer much in terms of additional functionality. Only last year did the Wii obtain Netflix streaming, and it can't play DVDs or CDs. Besides Netflix, its only streaming-media compatibility comes from PlayOn's third-party PC software. A cheaper Wii that can't play GameCube titles was recently introduced in Europe, but Nintendo says it has no plans of releasing this system in North America.
Accessories for the Nintendo Wii can add up. The console supports up to four Wii remotes and Nunchuks (the system comes with one of each). Thankfully, Wii MotionPlus is now bundled in most new controllers, so purchasing a separate attachment is no longer needed. However, there are still plenty of accessories to purchase, and all this plus extra chargers and batteries can become quite pricey, creating a lot of hidden costs.
The Nintendo Wii is best for: Parents with children who are just beginning to enter the world of gaming; family gaming; an environment with a lot of people (dorm room or apartment with numerous roommates); loyal fans of classic Nintendo franchises.
The Wii is not the best choice for: Those who are looking for a game console that doubles as an all-purpose entertainment hub, want state-of-the-art HD graphics, enjoy a robust online community, and/or those who prefer a wide selection of adult-targeted titles.
Key Wii exclusives: All Zelda, Mario, Metroid, and first-party Nintendo games.
The Xbox 360 still remains the better-selling of the two powerhouse consoles of this generation, but by a much smaller margin worldwide. This is partly because the system went on sale an entire year before the PlayStation 3 and because the console had a much stronger lineup of exclusives early on in its life cycle. Also, at launch, Xbox 360 was considerably more affordable than the expensive PlayStation 3. But a lot has changed since then.
With well over 20 million members worldwide, Xbox Live is the most complete online console experience available today. The caveat is that the "Gold" Membership tier--required for online gaming and access to the best perks--requires an annual fee of $50. (By comparison, the standard Sony and Nintendo online networks are free, though Sony does now offer a premium PSN experience called PlayStation Plus for the same yearly price.) That said, there are plenty of opportunities to save money on an XBL subscription, so make sure to keep an eye on the Xbox Dashboard for special deals.
Like Sony's PlayStation Network (PSN), Xbox Live offers downloadable games (both casual "Arcade" titles and full games), game add-ons (downloadable content, or "DLC"), and the capability to buy and rent TV shows and movies, many of which are in high-definition video. Some of the purchased videos can also be transferred to Microsoft's Zune portable media player. (Note that you'll need a hard drive to fully enjoy most of these features; the current "Slim" console includes a 250GB model, but it's a separate purchase for the 4GB model). A dashboard update also gave Xbox 360 owners the ability to use USB sticks as a means of storing media and game saves.
Back at E3 2010, Microsoft debuted a completely redesigned Xbox 360 console. Dubbed as the "Slim" or "S" console, the newer unit is 17 percent smaller than its predecessor, has built-in Wi-Fi, runs much quieter, and has a dedicated port for the Microsoft Kinect. This console is now the standard Xbox 360 system, while a $200 4GB unit has accompanied it on store shelves.
In terms of additional functionality, the Xbox 360 offers streaming Netflix, Facebook, and Twitter applications, in addition to Last.fm and ESPN content. You can stream digital media from a networked Windows PC through DLNA, and the 360 can double as a full-on Windows Media Extender for those running Windows Media Center on their PCs; third-party products such as PlayOn and TwonkyVision can also expand the 360's default streaming capabilities. Xbox 360 will also recognize most music players and hard drives, so you can manually plug these types of devices into an open USB port and play music, photos, and videos right on the console. However, unlike the Blu-ray-capable PS3, the Xbox 360 can only play standard DVD movies.
On December 6, 2011, the Xbox 360 will be getting a major dashboard update that will overhaul the system's look, which falls in line with Microsoft's new Metro UI. It will also introduce Bing content search and cloud storage for game saves and Xbox Live user profiles.
Beyond all of its impressive media capabilities, the Xbox 360 is also an excellent game machine. Most triple-A titles are available on the 360, save for a few PlayStation 3-only games, and the games generally look as good as or better than their PS3 counterparts. The console also has its fair share of exclusives, including the Gears of War, Halo, Forza, and Fable series. Also--especially for the past two summers--Microsoft has impressed us with some major exclusive Xbox Live Arcade titles like Bastion, Fruit Ninja Kinect, and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.
There are plenty of Xbox 360 accessories that can extend the overall cost of owning the system. Additional controllers and rechargeable batteries represent the core add-ons, but you can also spend money on wireless headsets, charging docks, and messaging keypads.
Note that the older Xbox 360 consoles have a notorious (and deserved) reputation for bad reliability, thanks to the "red ring of death" problem that afflicted far too many early models. However, the slim Xbox 360 has proved to be a much more reliable piece of hardware.
In an effort to compete with PlayStation Move and the Wii's motion control, Microsoft debuted the $150 Kinect accessory add-on (previously referred to as Project Natal). We like Kinect for its unique take on motion control, and the fact that it's nearly impossible to cheat or fool, unlike the Wii. Though it does have a large launch library, there are only a few titles really worth checking out. Also, Kinect requires much more space to play than any other motion system, so this should be the primary factor when deciding on a purchase. Almost a year after its initial launch, the Kinect gaming selection is still a bit scarce. We really like innovative titles like Fruit Ninja Kinect and Child of Eden, but Kinect's showing at E3 2011 left us a bit concerned for its immediate future. Still, games like the Dance Central and updates that allow Kinect to bring voice control to Xbox 360 apps keep it relevant.
The Xbox 360 is best for: People who want an easy-to-use interface; gamers who take online gameplay seriously; gamers who already have friends on Xbox Live; hard-core and casual gamers; anyone who wants a good all-in-one gaming and entertainment system; fans of full-body motion control; workout fiends.
The Xbox 360 is not the best choice for: Those who want the PS3's added value of built-in Blu-ray; do-it-yourselfers who want more media-viewing options.
Key Xbox 360 exclusives: The Halo, Fable, Forza, and Gears of War series; some Xbox Live Arcade titles like Bastion and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet; small number of DLC for multiplatform games like Fallout: New Vegas.
There's no doubt about it, the PlayStation 3 did not get off to a great start when it was released in November 2006. Fast-forward five years, and the console has definitely righted the ship. The PlayStation 3 now offers a solid library of games (including the Uncharted, Killzone, InFamous, LittleBigPlanet, and Resistance series) and access to the PlayStation Store, and is one of the best Blu-ray players on the market. (It also plays DVD movies and CDs, of course.) Now with an entry-level price of just $250, it might be the best time to consider buying a PS3. Sony has strategically positioned the console with a competitive price and promising list of future titles.
Though the base plan is totally free, the PlayStation Network doesn't necessarily provide you with the best online gaming experience around, but if you don't consider such a thing important, it is more than sufficient. At E3 2010, Sony announced PlayStation Plus, a fee service that promises to enhance the overall PSN experience. We've had some time with PlayStation Plus and have to report that its benefits simply don't justify a $50 per year subscription.
Like Xbox Live, the PlayStation Store is host to tons of movies, TV shows, demos, and downloadable games. PlayStation 3 also offers Home, a Second Life sort of experience where you can set up shop in a virtual world. Sony had been hyping the feature for years, but PlayStation Home is now generally regarded as a dud despite the company's numerous attempts to revitalize it.
Just like the Xbox 360, there are plenty of ways to get digital media streamed over the console via a home network or a third-party product like PlayOn. You can also hook up a device via USB and play media that way as well. The PS3 offers Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, NHL, MLB, NFL Sunday Ticket, and HBO content support.
Though the Xbox 360 and Wii have various accessories available, you probably will need to purchase only a few for the PS3. Aside from additional controllers, there is not much you'll need. (The biggest annoyance: you'll need an infrared-to-Bluetooth adapter if you choose to use the PS3 with a universal remote.) The console uses Bluetooth technology so you can use almost any headset for chatting purposes.
Sony has marketed the PS3 as an exceptional deal because of its built-in Blu-ray player. While getting a built-in Blu-ray player is one of the console's major selling points, its benefits to the gaming experience remain mixed. It offers game developers much more space to work with than a standard DVD, but that hasn't translated into a quantum leap in graphics quality--the PS3's graphics are essentially on par with those of the 360. Also, the Blu-ray drive's fixed speed is problematic: it requires many PS3 games to do a preliminary hard-drive installation when playing a game for the first time. To this day, some titles--including major ones like Gran Turismo 5--suffer from long load times.
Sony's answer to controller-based motion control is PlayStation Move, which it released September 19, 2010. Though Move feels a lot like the Nintendo Wii experience, it offers better precision control and adds HD graphics. Like Kinect, the Move's initial library of games is lacking, but motion junkies should find safe haven in first-party titles like Sports Champions and light-gun games like The Shoot. A year after its release, Move support has been implemented into a handful of existing PS3 titles. Its functionality is being incorporated into new games, but only a few upcoming titles have Move-only mechanics.
The PS3 also now supports 3D movies as well as a growing list of 3D games. Of course, you'll need a new 3D HDTV to enjoy this content, but it is the only console pushing the initiative.
The PS3 is best for: Hard-core and casual gamers who aren't concerned with the ultimate online experience; early adopters and fans of 3D; do-it-yourselfers; videophiles who need the latest and greatest in Blu-ray; content-conscious media consumers.
The PS3 is not the best choice for: Those who don't care about HD graphics or video.
Key PS3 exclusives: The Uncharted, InFamous, Killzone, LittleBigPlanet, Gran Turismo, and Resistance series.