Consoles are no longer just gadgets for gamers. They've muscled their way into more and more living rooms over the years, slotting seamlessly into your home entertainment setup.

Along with games, many offer DVD and Blu-ray playback, as well as digital music, movies and TV show streaming – either from your home network or directly from the internet. The three major manufacturers ­– Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft – each take a different approach to consoles, so how do you decide which one’s right for you? This guide outlines what each has to offer to help you make the right buying decision.

Wii vs PlayStation vs Xbox

Although there are a few alternative console brands to hit the online market recently – like the Android-based OUYA – the main models you can expect to find in bricks-and-mortar stores are from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Here's how the big three compare:

Nintendo

  • Wii: Nintendo's flagship console is largely responsible for bringing gaming into the mainstream, with its – at the time – revolutionary motion-sensing controls, which made it easy for anybody to join in the fun. The Wii is known for family-friendly games, including lifestyle/fitness titles, for being easy to use, and for the extensive library of classic Nintendo titles available for download. It has very limited media functions outside gaming though, meaning unfortunately it can't play DVDs.
  • Wii U: This recent follow-up to the Wii continues in much the same vein; simple and accessible gaming with few multimedia capabilities. It adds a tablet-like controller with built-in touchscreen, but other motion controls are add-ons. The Wii U has struggled to gain a foothold in the market so far, partially due to a lack of must-have exclusive games, however mid-2014 has seen something of a turnaround with the release of Mario Kart 8 spurring sales. Other newly announced games such as Zelda HD (set for release in 2015) are rekindling interest in the console as well, and may be indicative of a rebirth for the Wii U.

Sony

  • PlayStation 3 (PS3): The PS3 is as much a media device as it is a game console. It can play CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray and even 3D movies, and can also stream content as a media server from other DLNA devices, as well as receiving digital video and audio. There are also hundreds of movies and TV shows available to rent or buy on demand, via Sony's digital distribution service the PlayStation Network. This has a huge library of games for kids and kids-at-heart, as well as classic PlayStation titles available for download. There are even a few independent games with a more creative bent. The PS3 is available in two storage sizes – 12GB and 500GB.
  • PlayStation 4 (PS4): Similar to the PS3, but with a lot more power under the bonnet, the PS4 strips back a lot of the media functions of its predecessor to focus on the games. Social networking and content sharing functions have been added, so you can easily record and distribute footage of your gameplay for the online PlayStation community, as though your avatar's wearing their own virtual GoPro. Recent firmware updates have added extra media functions including 3D Blu-ray playback, but the PS4 still doesn't support CD, mp3 and plug-and-play ease of DLNA connectivity. Motion-sensing controls are also available as an optional extra, and the PS4 can connect to the handheld PSVita game console for remote gaming. Where it really sets itself apart however, is the SharePlay service which lets to play games with friends over the internet for 60 minutes, even if you don’t own a copy. Sony is also trialling a cloud-based rental service called PlayStation Now, which should include a large number of titles from Sony's pre-PS4 catalogue on top of their current releases.

Microsoft

  • Xbox 360: This generation of Xbox was largely thought of as the console of choice for "serious gamers". This wasn't just because of the major game releases, but also because of the wide range of independent games available in the Xbox Live Arcade. And it was well regarded because of the ease of setting up online play with friends. Microsoft initially supported the now defunct HD DVD disc standard (in opposition to Blu-ray) but eventually abandoned it due to lack of support for the format. This left the Xbox 360 with only DVD playback. However, the 360 has a substantial number of entertainment apps and downloadable content. Available in two bundles – 4GB with motion sensing Kinect camera included, or 250GB without the Kinect (available as an optional extra).
  • Xbox One: Microsoft wants the Xbox One to be the centrepiece of your home entertainment setup. It's designed to streamline the transition from gaming to other forms of media, so you can seamlessly switch from first-person shooter mode to watching The Walking Dead without having to leave the console controls. Media streaming services are gradually rolling out to support the Xbox One, and several are already available, including catch-up services from Channel Ten and SBS. The Xbox One also includes Blu-ray, 3D and DLNA support, but one unique feature of note is the HDMI-in port, which lets you run another HDMI device like a PVR through the Xbox One. Gaming functions are essentially the same as with the Xbox 360, but with improved graphics and performance, plus the added ability to record and share in-game footage, the same as PS4.

Something old or something new?

Right now we're in the transition between the seventh generation of consoles (PS3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii) and the eighth (PS4, Xbox One, Wii U). So, although brand new tech is hitting the shelves, there are serious savings to be had if you buy a seventh gen console that's admittedly past its heyday, but arguably no less enjoyable for it. You'll have to shop around though – different retailers offer different bundles, with a variety of games and other extras like controllers, headsets or motion-sensing gear included.

Consider these pros and cons when making your decision:

Seventh generation

Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Pros
  • Low cost compared to eighth-generation models.
  • Massive library of games in existence, many of which are cheap because of their age.
  • Plenty of apps and digital content available to buy online.
  • Different versions available with varying hard drive sizes (PS3 and Xbox 360) and accessories.
Cons
  • Old (though not yet outdated) hardware technology.
  • Graphics quality, speed and general performance not on par with new consoles.
  • Online support for some older games may be suspended.
  • Slowly being phased out by manufacturers and retailers.

Eighth generation

Nintendo Wii-U, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Pros
  • Cutting-edge technology.
  • Improved graphics and speed over the seventh generation.
  • Integrated social networking and sharing functions.
Cons
  • Relatively small library of games so far.
  • Limited media content and online services at this time.
  • Expensive by comparison.

Spending time online could cost you

Since the seventh generation, modern consoles have embraced online gaming and digital distribution with open arms. In some cases, an online access fee is required. Consider these additional costs before making up your mind:

  • Wii – Free
  • Wii U – Free
  • PS3 (PlayStation Network) – Free
  • PS4 (PlayStation Network) – Online play costs $19.95 for three months or $69.95 per year. Apps are not locked behind this paywall, but additional fees may be incurred.
  • Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Gold) – $29.95 for three months or $79.95 per year. Required for online play. Some applications require a Gold subscription to access.
  • Xbox One (Xbox Live Gold) – Online play costs $10.95 or $79.95 per year. Apps are not locked behind this paywall, but additional fees may be incurred.

Other things to look for

Connections

If you're using an older TV you may need a console that supports AV/Component cables as well as HDMI.

Motion sensing

Does the console include motion-sensing gear? Does it come as standard equipment with the console (as in the case of the Xbox One Kinect 2.0) or is it available as an extra? Motion controls on the Xbox One and PS4 also add voice commands, which can open up additional navigation options.

Exclusive games

Some games are exclusive to a particular model console, which could influence your decision if you want to play specific titles (e.g. the popular Halo series, available only on Xbox).

Controllers

Although you'll likely get used to the controller in time, it's important to pick a console with a controller that feels comfortable enough straight off the bat.

Interface

Navigation and software interfaces are very different from console to console. Try to spend some time in-store with demo units (or mooch time off your friends who have consoles) to see which one you find easier and more enjoyable to use.

Apps

Check each company's website for available and upcoming apps that meet your needs or interests.

Costs

Consoles

$99–$599

Additional controllers

  • PS3: $75
  • PS4: $98
  • Wii U pro controller (no touchscreen): $65
  • Xbox 360: $58
  • Xbox One: $74

Additional controllers for the Wii are being phased out by retailers due to the console's age.

Games

  • New release games usually sell for $69–$99 on disc or via digital distribution.
  • Independent downloadable titles usually cost up to $30.
  • Classic games are generally about $7–$15.