Game console reviews

We put the top three console entertainment systems to the test: the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii.
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04.The console race

Wii started it all

Games console controllers used to be awkwardly-held two-handed units with a dizzying combination of buttons and joysticks that required considerable dexterity to manipulate. The Wii console put the writing on the wall with it’s Wii Remote, that let users play just by pointing and pressing a button. If you could hold the controller then you could play. In doing so, it proved that the console games marketplace was many times bigger than previously thought. The Wii opened up a treasure trove of games opportunities for young and old. 

Most noticeably, it was the older generation and women that took up Wii remotes in droves –  so-called non-gamers who baulked at the complexity of game controllers and the overwhelmingly serious nature of the games on offer. In short, the Wii taught people across several generations that consoles games could be fun for everyone. Wii Sports was bundled with the Wii console, bringing a range of everyday-style games to lounge rooms around the world, with one of the most popular being tenpin bowling. It didn’t take long before tenpin bowling tournaments started up in nursing homes, with physical therapists finding it gave normally sedentary senior citizens incentive to get up and play. Soon, inter-city championships were being played by people who’d never used a games console in their very long lives.

Sony and Microsoft tried to stem the tide of users rushing to Nintendo by bringing out upgraded versions of the PS3 and Xbox 360, along with new controllers, but the Wii casual gaming juggernaut just kept rolling, racking up sales figures the others could only dream about.

Despite it being technically underpowered compared to the Xbox and PS3, Nintendo didn’t change the Wii console, apart from some dressy new coloured versions rather than the Wii’s trademark white. Inside, it remained the same. The Wii didn’t compete head-on with the type of graphics-intensive games that were the bread and butter of the other two makers, it carved out its own sizable market niche in family and lifestyle games. Nintendo did eventually up the ante slightly with the introduction of the Wii Motion Plus controller add-on, which provides greater accuracy. It can be retro-fitted to any Wii remote but will only work with the new generation of Wii games designed to take advantage of it. The new Wii Remote Plus controller has this built-in.

Entertainment alternatives

Games aside, there’s also plenty of other competitors looking to take over the lounge room, with a huge range of PC-based media centres, digital video recorders (DVRs) including TiVo, the Foxtel IQ and the new Telstra T-box. The latest to join the fray is the dark horse in this race, the newly revamped Apple TV which could cause a big upset over the next year.

The contenders

The TiVO adds broadband internet to its easy-to-program DVR for free-to-air digital TV channels (Freeview). The famously easy-to-use EPG lets you record, pause and rewind live TV and gives great recording flexibility. It can record a single show or a whole season and even learn your viewing habits. It also gives access to internet-based entertainment including on demand movies, television and music. 

Foxtel IQ 
Foxtel's digital set-top box and DVR with twin HD tuners features an EPG and advanced programming options including remote access via the internet or an iPhone. It offers a growing number of TV shows and movies on-demand, for instant access. Foxtel’s more advanced iQ2 model has four tuners, allowing recording of two programs while simultaneously watching a third live show. The fourth tuner is used for on demand content. You need to be a Foxtel subscriber.

Telstra T-box 
This is a HD DVR which with access to streaming online channels and lets you hire movies and TV shows. T-Box is aimed at Bigpond customers, for whom the Bigpond Movies downloads are “off the meter”, meaning they don’t count towards their download quota.

Though not a device itself, Freeview is accessible via digital set-top box or Digital TV. It’s actually a collection free-to-air digital TV providers banded together under a united marketing effort to combat subscription TV services such as Foxtel. Certain makes and models of DVR are being marked with stickers as “certified” for Freeview to indicate that they are fully compliant with the service. 

Freeview has a much-expanded offering these days with the free-to-air digital TV multi-channels, such as ABC2, ABC3, SBS2, ONE HD, GO!, 7TWO and more recently 7Mate and GEM. Several of the major stations, such as the ABC, SBS, and the Seven, Nine and Ten networks let viewers catch up on selected shows they missed by offering them on their websites after they’ve been broadcast.

Apple TV 
Apple TV is a small digital media appliance designed to play content from the online iTunes Store,  YouTube, Flickr, MobileMe or a Mac OS X or Windows computer which is running iTunes. The first Apple TV device was basically just a streaming media player with a built-in hard drive. It’s the new version, launched in September, that could just upset everyone else’s apple cart.

A quarter the size and around a third of the price ($129) of the previous version, the new model has no hard drive but streams rented content from iTunes online. It also streams photos, music and video from computers running iTunes, and iOS devices such as the iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone. It’s this iOS connection that has the most potential. Apple TV now runs a version of iOS, raising the possibility of a future TV App Store, similar to that of the other iOS devices. 

This anticipated, but not yet announced, store could do for TV what the App Store did for the iPhone and iPad, prompting a rush of developers with made-for-TV apps. It could also unleash a world of existing apps including news and video services, plus thousands of games, to any connected TV, almost instantly catapaulting Apple into even more direct competition with the big three games consoles. 

Fetch TV
This newcomer is an internet TV (IPTV) service via a set-top box for watching and recording free-to-air TV plus subscription TV channels, on-demand movies. It requires a subscription, but free content is delivered over the internet. New release movies will be pay-per-view, but it also provides access to games and social networking (Facebook, Twitter).

Google TV
Google TV will combine a set-top box with Google’s Chrome web browser for viewing free-to-air TV, with DVR functionality, and a wide variety of web content. Due for launch in 2011, the box itself will cost around $300. Google has reportedly signed deals with media and internet companies to bring content to the box, including Time Warner’s HBO, NBC Universal’s CNBC, and Amazon for movie-on-demand services. 

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