So Many Game Consoles: Which to Buy?

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Read PC World's comparative review of the PS3 and the Wii. We also have a detailed test drive of the PlayStation 3.

In a perfect world, determining which new game console to purchase would be out of your hands. Instead the matter would be handled Thunderdome style: Two beefy consoles enter the arena, they battle, and one console is left standing. But since such combat would inevitably lead to the enslavement of mankind by a superrace of cyborg overlords, it's probably best to figure it out for yourself. Here is some information on the major contenders to help you decide.

Sony PlayStation 3

With a North American installed base exceeding 40 million units (and over 111 million worldwide) for the PlayStation 2, this console enjoys a level of brand awareness somewhat lower than Coke's, but much better than Dr. Pepper's. That means everyone on the planet wants one. Couple that level of demand with a ridiculously low number of units available at launch--only 400,000, rising to 1 million by year's end--and buying a PS3 becomes a task generously characterized as Sisyphean. There aren't even enough PS3s in the pipeline, apparently, to cover the puny preorder allotment initially promised to the Gamestop online store/community.

If you have enough accrued vacation time, you could spend it camping outside of Best Buy, but be warned: Others started lining up as early as November 9--more than a week before the PS3 goes on sale on November 17. The PS3 isn't cheap, as the base model with the 20GB hard drive is $499 while the high-end 60GB model is a daunting $599. And that's before you buy any games.

Of course, if money is no object you could buy someone else's PS3 preorder from eBay for a price that redefines obscene. (How about from about $1000 to $1900? But hey, most of them will ship it to you for free.) Or you can secure a PS3 preorder by buying a new high-def TV at CompUSA, at least in California this week.

PS3 Bottom Line

The PS3 is definitely your priciest option. But is it really for you? If you need to have the absolute cutting edge in graphics, the answer is yes: The PS3 looks great, supporting resolutions as high as 1080p, plus it doubles as a Blu-ray Disc player. If you (or your kids) are hard-core gamers and fans of PlayStation brands like the Metal Gear Solid series, you'll want it even more. If you're dying to play online, you might want to hold off--the PS3 will have online features, but how those actually perform is a big question mark until the services are up and running.

Nintendo Wii

Have kids? Get a Wii.

On a budget? Get a Wii.

Not a super-hard-core gamer? Get a Wii.

Super-hard-core gamer? Get a Wii.

Loathe the prospect of telling your friends you're playing with your Wii? Get a Wii and some better friends.

The unfortunately named Wii has a lot of things going for it, starting with a very forgiving $250 price tag. The odds of actually snagging a Wii on launch day are also encouraging: Nintendo should have a cool 1 million units in retail on November 19. There will surely be lines to purchase one, but chances are good that the folks waiting in those lines will see their patience rewarded. Compared with the trail of tears that will be the PS3 queues, that's pretty appealing.

Wii Graphics

You're not going to want the Wii if you're judging games by the current default metric, graphics quality. Wii graphics look like (very) modestly upgraded Nintendo GameCube visuals, and they aren't likely to dazzle.

The big reason to consider a Wii is accessibility (it almost feels more like a toy than a video game console) and game innovation, much of it driven by the innovative controller. The very unthreatening controller informally known as the Wiimote looks like a TV remote control but has significantly more functionality, chiefly in its motion-sensor abilities.

Playing a Wii game will be a much more active, visceral affair, with players swinging the controller to play tennis in Wii Sports, slashing it to sword-fight in the new Legend of Zelda game, or gently guiding it to excise tumors in Trauma Center. The Wii simply offers experiences that no other console can promise.

Microsoft Xbox 360

Your third and least trumpeted option is the increasingly appealing Xbox 360 from Microsoft. Almost a year old, the Xbox 360 has one huge advantage over both the PS3 and the Wii: You can buy it right now, without waiting in line for three days.

It's also competitively priced, with the core model selling for $299 (an extra $100 will get you the Pro version with its 20GB hard drive and wireless controller). With the $600 you'd spend on a high-end PS3, you could buy a high-end 360 and have enough money left over for at least three games and a year's worth of Xbox Live Gold membership ($50).

The 360 keeps looking better compared with the Sony PS3, thanks to a recent update to the Microsoft console's software that now lets it support resolutions up to 1080p--just like the PS3. Further, Microsoft has also recently released an HD DVD add-on for $199, pitting the console squarely against Sony not only in the console wars but in the high-definition DVD wars as well.

With a full year's worth of releases backing it, the Xbox 360 has a much larger and stronger library of games, and playing games is the point, right? The 360's latest releases run the gamut from the very mom-friendly Viva Piñata (an Animal Crossing-style life simulator with piñatas) to the very mom-frightening Gears of War.

While the retail games appeal to the hard-core, Xbox Live Arcade appeals to the, um, soft-core. This online marketplace features classic arcade titles like Dig Dug, Gauntlet, and Pac-Man, and casual gems such as Zuma Deluxe that should attract the nongamers in your home and make rationalizing your purchase even easier.

While Nintendo and Sony are just getting started online, Microsoft's yearlong head start has made its online component a real selling point. And there's even more on the horizon: video downloads.

'Wii60': Another Option?

Of course, there is also a fourth option. A shiny new 60GB PlayStation 3 costs $599, but if the money doesn't bother you, perhaps owning both an Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii--a pairing that's come to be known in Internet chatter as "Wii60" or "Wii360"--may be an attractive alternative. It's certainly a bit cheaper.

Here's the math: If you were to buy a $250 Wii in addition to the $299 core 360 (which lacks the $399 Pro pack's 20GB hard disk and wireless controller), you'd spend only $549. That's fifty bucks cheaper than the high-end PS3, and you get two consoles.

However, to view high-def movie (HD DVD) playback on the Xbox 360, you'd still need its $200 add-on and, even then, you'd be using component video versus the PlayStation 3's HDMI connection.

Go to GamePro, our sister publication, for reviews of PlayStation 3 and Wii games.

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