A lot has changed since the Xbox 360 debuted in Australia in March 2006. After what has seemed like dozens of upgrades, improvements, omissions, price drops and bundles, the dust has settled (for now) and we're left with three competitively priced consoles.
Such an evenly matched trio of hardware makes for the perfect time to reignite the ultimate question for prospective video game console buyers: which home console should you buy?
Which game console should you buy? It depends... (Credit: CNET)
This question doesn't necessarily have a definitive answer. Quite frankly, the answer could be any of the three. In other words, there is no default "best console". It's about finding the one that's right for you — and what will be the deciding factor in your case will ultimately depend on what you plan to use the console for. That said, in lieu of detailing every last bit of functionality that each console offers, let's discuss the type of person we think would benefit most from each console.
Xbox 360 (Elite AU$449, Arcade AU$299)
The Xbox 360 still remains the better-selling of the two powerhouse consoles of this generation. This is partly due to the system going on sale an entire year before the PlayStation 3 and because the console did have a much stronger line-up of exclusives early on in its life cycle. Also, at launch, Xbox 360 was considerably more affordable than the expensive PlayStation 3.
With over 20 million members worldwide, Xbox Live is the most complete online console experience available today. The caveat is that the "Gold" Membership tier — required for online gaming and access to the best perks — requires an annual fee of AU$80-100. (By comparison, the Sony and Nintendo online networks are free.) Like Sony's PlayStation Network (PSN), Xbox Live offers downloadable games (both casual "Arcade" titles and full games), game add-ons (downloadable content or "DLC"), and the capability to buy and rent TV shows and movies, many of which are in high-definition video. (Note that you'll need a hard drive to fully enjoy most of these features; the Elite includes a 120GB model, but it's a separate purchase for the Arcade).
In terms of additional functionality, the Xbox 360 is currently the only console to offer Facebook and Twitter applications, although you can upload photos to Facebook through a PS3 and the Sony console has added twitter update options through some of its games. You can stream digital media from a networked Windows PC, and the 360 can double as a full-on Windows Media Extender for those running Windows Media Center on their PCs; third-party products such as PlayOn and TwonkyVision can also expand the 360's default streaming capabilities. Xbox 360 will also recognise most music players and hard drives, so you can manually plug these types of devices into an open USB port and play music, photos and videos right on the console. However, unlike the Blu-ray capable PS3, the Xbox 360 can only play standard DVD movies.
Beyond all of its impressive media capabilities, the Xbox 360 is also an excellent game machine. Most triple-A titles are available on the 360, save for a few PlayStation 3-only games, and the games generally look as good as or better than their PS3 counterparts. The console also has its fair share of exclusives, including the Gears of War, Halo, Forza and Fable series.
There are plenty of Xbox 360 accessories that can extend the overall cost of owning the system. Additional controllers and rechargeable batteries represent the core add-ons, but you can also spend money on wireless headsets, charging docks and messaging keypads. We should note that, unlike the Wii and PS3, there is no wireless networking available out of the box on the 360. You'll need to purchase a wireless network adapter for that functionality.
Worth noting is that the Xbox 360 has a notorious (and deserved) reputation for bad reliability, thanks to the "red ring of death" problem that afflicted far too many early models. However, the current iterations of the 360 now sold on store shelves use updated components that have largely made this problem a thing of the past.
While the AU$299 Xbox 360 Arcade may appeal to value-minded buyers, we strongly recommend prospective 360 owners spend the extra money for the Elite; the hard drive is really a necessity to enjoy the 360 to its fullest extent.
The Xbox 360 is best for: those who want an easy-to-use interface; gamers who take online gameplay seriously; gamers who already have friends on Xbox Live; hardcore and casual gamers; anyone who wants a good all-in-one gaming and entertainment system.
The Xbox 360 is not the best choice for: those who want the PS3's added value of built-in Blu-ray and Wi-Fi.
Gears of War 2 is possibly the best-looking game on the Xbox 360. (Credit: GameSpot)
PlayStation 3 Slim (AU$499)
There's no doubt about it, the PlayStation 3 did not get off to a great start when it was released in Australia in March of 2007. Fast forward almost three years and the console has definitely righted the ship. Now available in either a AU$499 120GB model or a AU$599 250GB option, the PlayStation 3 Slim offers a solid library of games (including the Uncharted and Resistance series), access to the PlayStation Store, and one of the best Blu-ray players on the market. (It also plays DVD movies and CDs, of course.)
While it may be totally free, the PlayStation Network doesn't necessarily provide you with the best online gaming experience around, but if you don't consider such a thing important, its offering is more than sufficient.
Like Xbox Live, the PlayStation Store is host to tons of movies, TV shows, demos and downloadable games. PlayStation 3 also offers Home, a "Second Life" sort of experience where you can set up shop in a virtual world. While Sony had been hyping the feature for years, PlayStation Home is now generally regarded as a dud.
Just like the Xbox 360, there are plenty of ways to get digital media streamed over the console via a home network or a third-party product like PlayOn. You can also hook up a device via USB and play media that way as well.
Another plus for the PS3 is its new add-on in Australia, PlayTV, a dual-HD tuner Personal Video Recorder (PVR). With dual tuners you can record one show while watching another or while playing a game or a Blu-ray. No such PVR functionality is as yet available on other consoles.
While the Xbox 360 and Wii have various accessories available, you probably will need to purchase only a few with the PS3. Aside from additional controllers, there is not much you'll need. (The biggest annoyance: you'll need an infrared-to-Bluetooth adapter if you choose to use the PS3 with a universal remote.) The console uses Bluetooth technology so you can use almost any headset for chatting purposes. Also, the PS3 allows for user-replaceable hard drives, so you have the option of upgrading yourself.
Sony has marketed the PS3 as an exceptional deal due to its built-in Blu-ray player. While getting a "free" Blu-ray player is one of the console's major selling points, its benefits to the gaming experience remain mixed. It offers game developers much more space to work with than a DVD, but that hasn't translated into a quantum leap in graphics quality — the PS3's graphics are essentially on par with that of the 360. Also, the Blu-ray drive's fixed speed is problematic: it requires many PS3 games to do a preliminary hard drive installation when playing a game for the first time.
The PS3 is best for: hardcore and casual gamers who aren't concerned with the ultimate online experience, early adopters, do-it-yourselfers and videophiles who need the latest and greatest in Blu-ray.
The PS3 is not the best choice for: those who don't care about HD graphics or video.
Uncharted has quickly become the PS3's staple franchise. (Credit: GameSpot)
Nintendo Wii (AU$399)
While the Wii isn't regarded as a "hardcore" gamer's console, the system has served up some pretty compelling titles over the past few years, like Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Metroid Prime 3 Corruption, Super Smash Bros. Brawl and the just-released New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but big name titles like these are few and far in between.
All things considered, the Wii has become best known for its addictive party games, the occasional fitness game and shooting titles that emulate light gun arcade games. The number of first-party Nintendo titles is small and many third-party games are written off as gimmicky cannon fodder.
The Wii's online multiplayer experience isn't anything to write home about, but we definitely recommend playing Mario Kart Wii online. Unfortunately, the Wii's 16-digit friend code system did not catch on with most gamers. The established Virtual Console offers an impressive number of classic games from various older gaming systems and WiiWare provides a platform for inexpensive titles from independent developers.
Aside from games, the Wii doesn't offer much in terms of additional functionality. It can't play DVDs or CDs, and its only streaming media compatibility comes from PlayOn's third-party PC software.
Accessories for the Nintendo Wii can add up. The console supports up to four Wii remotes and Nunchuks (the system comes with one of each), and now, with the debut of Wii MotionPlus, you'll want to get a few units so that you can play titles that take advantage of the new motion technology. All this, plus extra chargers and batteries can become quite pricey, creating a lot of hidden costs.
The Nintendo Wii is best for: parents with children who are just beginning to enter the world of gaming, family gaming, and an environment with a lot of people (shared accommodation with numerous flatmates).
The Wii is not the best choice for: those who are looking for a game console that doubles as an all-purpose entertainment hub, want state-of-the-art HD graphics, enjoy a robust online community and/or those who prefer a wide selection of adult-targeted titles.
Key Wii exclusives: all Zelda, Mario and Metroid games.
Super Mario Galaxy is one of the best games available for the Wii. (Credit: GameSpot)
Still can't decide? Try watching our video prizefight Xbox 360 Elite vs. PS3 Slim.