It’s Christmas-list season and it’s possible that if you have children or tech-loving adult in your household, one of them will have cheekily requested a new games console. You may even be thinking of buying one for yourself so that you can steadfastly avoid festive television.
But which should you go for?
In this generation of machines there are three contenders: the two-year-old Nintendo Wii U and the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, both launched last November. All have their positives and negatives, and all appeal to different types of gamer, so it’s really not just about working out which one has the biggest processor and fanciest visuals.
Here, then, are some of the things you should be thinking about before you make your decision.
At a basic level, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are very similar machines. Both have eight-core AMD central processing units (CPUs) working in conjunction with AMD Radeon graphics processors (GPUs), and both offer 8GB of system memory.
However, while the Xbox One CPU is marginally faster, the PS4 has a speedier GPU and a more advanced form of onboard memoroy – or RAM – (GDDR5 as opposed to DDR3). At the moment it seems that the Xbox One may allocate slightly more RAM to games and less to its operating system (though the PS4 allocation is flexible) and its memory performance is boosted by additional ESRAM, which Microsoft says gives a more efficient memory allocation.
Phew, okay, what does all this mean in practise? Well, right now, developers seem to be getting slightly better visual performance from the PlayStation 4. A lot of games available for both systems – including Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV and Dragon Age: Inquisition – run at full HD 1080p on PS4 but on 900p or less on Xbox One (IGN has a handy native resolutions chart). However, the recently re-released Grand Theft Auto V seems to show visual parity between Xbox One and PlayStation 4, although some gamers on the NeoGaf forum are reporting better draw distances and more dense foliage on the PS4 version.
It’s likely however, that as developers become more accustomed to the slightly different way that Xbox One handles memory, we’ll see the visual performance improving.
“Resolution-wise, the gap has closed on a great many titles,” confirms Rich Leadbetter, a performance analysis specialist at Digital Foundry. “While disparities remain – Call of Duty Advanced Warfare for example – many of this year’s biggies like GTA 5, Destiny and Assassin’s Creed Unity are all very close indeed. They run at the same resolution on each machine with only minor differences separating them. Games that really push the CPU (as opposed to the graphics) are thin on the ground at the moment, there’s evidence here that Xbox One can actually pull ahead in some scenarios, as its eight cores run faster than their PS4 equivalents.
“My take on it is that key developers are targeting the common ground, but that extra graphics power on PS4 is always going to be helpful to developers and tends to outweigh Xbox One’s particular strengths.”
Basically though, if your choice is between PS4 and Xbox One, maybe don’t make it on technical performance.
As for Wii U, its three-core PowerPC-based CPU and 550 Mhz AMD Radeon GPU are much less powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One set-ups – but then Nintendo never competes on raw system performance. Instead, the key feature of this machine is its unique GamePad controller, which features its own touch display.
“In terms of hardware design and processing power, Wii U cannot be compared with PS4 or Xbox One,” says Leadbetter. “Nintendo invested in the innovative touchscreen GamePad controller instead of the core tech, but it’s really difficult for multiplatform game developers to scale back PS4/Xbox One titles to less capable silicon, and also to invest time and resources into gameplay modes that it cannot deploy on the other systems.”
All three consoles offer online multiplayer gaming as standard, allowing you to hook up to your broadband (either via Wi-Fi or wired connection) and compete against other players. Both PS4 and Xbox One charge a subscription for online play however, the former through its PlayStation Plus service, the latter through Xbox Live Gold – both are around £40 a year, and offer regular free games which are yours for as long as you subscribe.
Historically, Xbox Live has always been the more stable of the two options, thanks to Microsoft’s vast experience with online infrastructures. PlayStation Network was subject to a huge hacking scandal in 2011, though its system has been improved since then.
However, continuing technical issues with its online-focused racing title DriveClub have alarmed many players and pundits. “There’s no two ways about it – DriveClub is a disaster from an online perspective,” says Leadbetter. “The fact that it is Sony’s key exclusive title for the holiday period is a real problem for them. There’s the perception that Xbox Live is more reliable and it certainly seems to have fewer “maintenance periods”, but it’s important to point out that an equally important game – Halo: The Master Chief Collection – has also experienced issues, though not to anything like the same extent.”
The Wii U online gaming service is free, but the console offers fewer multiplayer titles; only a fraction of Nintendo’s own in-house releases offer the ability to play against others across the internet. If regular online multiplayer sessions are your thing, this probably isn’t the console for you – but it is great for local multiplayer, especially with the GamePad, which offers interesting “asymmetrical” multiplayer experiences, such as Nintendo Life and Game & Wario.
All three also offer web browsers.
Video and TV options
Both Xbox One and PS4 allow you to play Blu-ray and DVD discs, while the Wii U does not natively support either. All three machines also offer access to a wide range of video-on-demand apps and services.
Right now, both Xbox One and PS4 offer access to Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Twitch, Crackle, and Demand5. Xbox One adds the likes of YouTube, Blinkbox, Now TV and 4oD, while PS4 has iPlayer and BBC Sports and News – most current exclusives are likely to be available on both machines eventually. Both Microsoft and Sony offer their own video and music apps. Wii U has Netflix, Amazon and iPlayer as well as its own modest channels.
On top of this, Xbox One allows you to plug in your cable or satellite box so you can watch through your console. It also has a digital TV tuner for £25 which offers access to free digital channels, a decent electronic programme guide (EPG) and the ability to “snap” a TV window next to your gaming window, so you can watch Downton Abbey while blasting mutants in Sunset Overdrive.
Sony, meanwhile, offers PlayStation TV for £85 – it’s not a TV tuner, it’s a streaming device which lets you play your PS4 games on any television in the house, as well as gain access to hundreds of retro PSone, Vita and PSP games. The company is also currently testing its PlayStation Now service, which will allow both PS4 and PS3 owners to stream games and movies to their consoles. 2015 will then see the launch of PlayStation Vue, a subscription-based digital TV service offering around 70 channels without the need for a cable or satellite service, and cloud-based storage for recording programmes. No pricing has been revealed.
Next part: social connectivity, pricing and, of course, the actual games!
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Monday 1st December 2014 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010