Video games were once reserved for kids, but in recent years the likes of Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox have become very big business with all ages. Collectively known as the "eighth generation of consoles", the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 (PS4) and Wii U are the latest models from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, and they're all fighting for a place in your lounge room.
We've reviewed each console individually, but now all three companies are nearing the end of their new-tech teething period, we look into whether or not it's worth your time and money to jump on board with this eighth generation.
It's great to be eight!
The eighth generation of consoles offers performance and graphical improvements across the board, which allows greater detail, smoother images and an increase in the amount of onscreen action. They've also embraced the social side of gaming, making it easy to record and share in-game footage online. At the same time, media still plays a significant role in the PS4 and Xbox One, both of which have the potential to make good home media hubs.
In an ideal world we'd all have enough money to buy all three, with plenty of time to sink into new release games. But fantasy rarely becomes a reality, so we've prepared this quick reference guide to help you pick the ideal console for your needs.
Our previous roundup in late 2013 recommended waiting a few months before picking up an eighth-generation console. The small number of media apps and games, even on the Wii U, couldn't justify the cost of being an early adopter unless you were a hardcore gamer. A few months on and the games lists haven't enjoyed a huge expansion, but the number of titles exclusive to the eighth generation is starting to grow.
Price: $598 (with Kinect), $497 (without Kinect)
Online subscription: $10.95 per month, $79.95 per year.
Entertainment apps previously locked behind paywall are now free.
Potential to exist as a home media hub including HDMI pass-through.
Snap tool allows for seamless multi-tasking.
Voice navigation isn't always responsive.
Inbuilt TV guide (OneGuide) can't sync with Australian free-to-air Electronic Program Guide (EPG).
New interface can be confusing to navigate.
Read our full review here.
Microsoft is intent on making the Xbox One the one-stop home entertainment shop for your lounge room (hence the name perhaps?). It introduces a bunch of features and apps that enhance its media capabilities, while making it easier to switch between games and other entertainment in an instant.
Unlike the Xbox 360, the Xbox One finally supports Blu-ray as well as DVD. Media streaming apps have carried over from the previous generation, but Microsoft has also introduced HDMI pass-through. This lets you run HDMI devices through the console, so you don't need to switch between inputs if you want to watch TV for example. It's a great feature in theory, but the Australian free-to-air EPG is not available on the Xbox One, meaning you can't browse the local guide through the console.
Initially, each console was shipped with the Kinect 2.0 motion-sensing camera, and while this bundle is still available, there's also a Kinect-free package now available as well, which costs about $100 less. The camera gives you the option to play motion-sensing games, Skype from your couch, and navigate hands free or with voice commands. Increased RAM and the new 'snap' feature lets you run two apps at once on a divided screen, so you can browse the internet while watching sport, for example.
Before the Kinect was removed from the standard package, the Xbox One dedicated 10% of the graphics processing unit (GPU) to motion sensing games. This was left unused for non-motion titles, but now that the Kinect is not included by default, developers have extra GPU resources to play with. Generally speaking this could mean better quality games with improved graphics and decreased load times, if they don't use the motion-sensing tech.
If you're prepared to invest in the Microsoft ecosystem, you can use the same account to log into music and movie streaming services on multiple Microsoft devices. This includes smartphones, tablets and computers.
Microsoft's console has grand ambitions to replace your home media hub, and so far the system and available apps are looking promising to make this goal a reality. Even though some of the best apps aren't available here, such as video-streaming service Netflix, the Xbox One balances its multiple functions nicely, and feels a generation ahead.
Online subscription: $9.95 for one month, $19.95 for three months, $69.95 per year.
Well-designed interface ideal for quick, streamlined access to games and game-related social activities.
Upcoming virtual reality headset (Project Morpheus) and PlayStation TV.
Remote connectivity with PlayStation Vita handheld.
Media capabilities appear to be secondary.
Does not support DLNA, 3D Blu-ray or MP3 playback.
Overall still quite similar to the PS3, albeit with improved hardware.
Read our full review here.
As a games console, the PS4 is a big step up on its predecessor, but its media capabilities fall short. At its heart, the PS4 is a console built for gamers and while multimedia hasn't been forgotten, it appears to have taken a back seat to games – at least for now. The extra power under the hood, however, means that the PS4 can theoretically produce better quality graphics.
The horizontal interface is pretty similar to the PS3, allowing for speedy, streamlined navigation between menus, which have been condensed into easy-to-understand categories. Everything is built around getting you into a game as quickly and easily as possible, while other functions such as joining/creating game groups (known as parties) with friends or sharing recorded footage can be done with little hassle. For the first time however, online play requires a paid subscription.
The new DualShock 4 controller has built upon its previous version, to deliver a much more comfortable design with a touchpad built into the top. Owners of Sony's PS Vita handheld games unit will be pleased to know that they can wirelessly stream games from the console to their Vita. It could also serve as a second touchscreen in the future, similar to the Wii U's GamePad.
As mentioned before, the media capabilities of the PS4 are limited, which is strange given that the PS3 led the pack in this area. Support for MP3 and DLNA has been stripped out, which limits media streaming options, although Sony has said these will be introduced in a future update (no time frame confirmed). Right now you're limited to Blu-ray and DVD playback, with a handful of media streaming apps available as well.
Sony announced mid-June that PlayStation TV would be coming to Australia. Available as a separate unit for $149.95, PlayStation TV will let you stream media content to your TV, play PS4 games on a separate TV via remote access, and play Vita games on a big screen. Unlike the PlayTV accessory for the PS3 (which doesn't work on the PS4), PlayStation TV is not a TV tuner.
Although it can run as a functional media device, the PS4's primary focus is on games and social interaction while gaming. The operating system and home screen design is similar to the PS3 - albeit with a few tweaks that improve navigation – so the PS4 feels like a beefed up PS3, rather than an entirely new console. While the PS4 appeals to gamers, Sony will need to bring back multimedia functions that were popular in the PS3, to garner mainstream appeal.
Price: $348 - $428. Available in standard white (8GB internal storage) and premium black (32GB internal storage)
Online subscription: Free
Unique tablet-like controller called the GamePad.
Access to popular Nintendo exclusives such as Mario and Zelda.
Backwards compatible, i.e. can play original Wii games.
Minimal support from third-party developers.
Can't play DVD/Blu-ray or CD.
Internal technology far behind the Xbox One and PS4.
Read our full review here.
After the spectacular sales success of the original Wii, the Wii U had some mighty shoes to fill. But so far, those shoes are half-empty, and the Wii U seems destined to remain in the shadows of its older brother. For starters, the tablet-like controller has failed to engage the consumer market in the same way as the original Wii's once innovative motion-sensing controls.
As well, a lack of media functions and declining third-party support from major developers such as EA seriously limits the console's capabilities. Other companies such as Ubisoft are investing some efforts into the Wii U, but won't seriously commit until sales start to pick up. Both factors largely limit the Wii U for fans of Nintendo-exclusive titles, but many Nintendo classics such as the Mario series are using variations on the same old formula. They're fun, but hardly innovative. Most use basic touchscreen controls that add little to the experience.
There are some exceptions, such as Rayman Legends (2013), which uses the touchscreen for rich multi-player interaction. This suggests that games designed specifically for the Wii U can make best use of its unique controller. But titles that are released across multiple platforms tend to tack on touchscreen controls simply because the technology is there, rather than using them in exciting new ways.
Essentially the Wii U feels much closer to a traditional console, which wouldn't be so bad except it's only just starting to do what the Xbox 360 and PS3 were doing seven years ago (e.g. introducing HDMI for the first time). Still, games like Rayman show that there is potential in the unique controller.
Mid-2014 has seen something of a turnaround for the Wii U, however, with the launch of Mario Kart 8. Sales have supposedly increased fourfold, and recently announced games such as Zelda HD (set for release in 2015) have rekindled interest in Nintendo's console. Only time will tell if this lifts the Wii U's flagging popularity.
The Wii U is well-designed, but the touchscreen GamePad isn't very exciting in an era of smartphones and tablets. It lags behind the competition in power, features, multimedia ability and social networking integration. On the upside though, its backwards compatibility and access to contemporary and classic exclusives could entice long-term Nintendo fans.
Keeping it old(ish) school
So you want to play the latest games but you aren't ready to invest in an eighth-gen console? Right now we're in a transitional period between generations, and many games are still being released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well, albeit in slightly stripped-down form. Graphics and performance aren't as good, and some features may be removed due to hardware limitations.
This year Sony, Microsoft and third-party developers unveiled a handful of games that will only be available on the PS4 and Xbox One, including Assassins Creed: Unity, the latest chapter in the popular Assassins Creed series. While cross-generation games were also announced, these eighth gen exclusives likely mark the beginning of the end for the PS3 and Xbox 360. With plenty of PS4 and Xbox One-only titles arriving in 2015, it seems likely that developers will shift their focus away from the older consoles.