It's a great time to be a gamer. Whether you're one yourself or just buying for one, the release of two new next-generation video game consoles from Sony and Nintendo, and the continued success of the Xbox 360 make for a geeky wonderland of high-tech holiday options.
Though you may not know the difference between a Wii and a PSP, this look at all of the major gaming systems -- from home consoles to handhelds -- should be enough to educate the uneducated and illimuniate the initiated.
PlayStation 3 (PS3)
Sony's follow-up to the PlayStation 2 has received mixed reviews from the gaming community so far. Where there was a great deal of excitement leading up to the release of the machine, the lack of adequate stock and some complaints that the PS3 is too complex for average users will likely have little effect on sales but will give pause at a time when they're so hard to find and auctioneers on eBay ask for thousands.
With the machines priced at $500 and $600, depending on the model, many consumers will want to wait for early adopters to find the glitches before laying down big bucks and going through the frustration of trying to find one.
Sony's powerful PlayStation 3 is built for stunning, high-definition gaming, but it also features a built-in Blu-ray disc player that could be the machine's Achilles' heel or its greatest selling point. If you're in the market for a Blu-ray disc player, this is as cheap as it coms. But if you're worried that victory in the next generation DVD format wars may go to the HD DVD camp, or just want to sit it out until a victor is declared, this likely isn't the machine for you.
The PS3 comes in two models, one featuring a 60-gigabyte hard drive, a built-in Wi-Fi adapter and memory card readers. The other has only a 20-gigabyte hard drive and no wireless adapter or memory card readers. Both units can make use of the PS3's "six-axis" controller, which features motion-sensing technology that responds to players' movements.
Bottom Line: If you can find a PlayStation 3, buy one -- even if it's just to auction it off for $2,000 on eBay. But chances are, you're not going to find one, and that may be a good thing. This system is really built for hardcore gamers and technophiles and the $500 + cost of entry should deter anyone who isn't -- at least at this early stage.
To learn more about the PlayStation 3 click here.
PlayStation 2 (PS2)
So you want a PlayStation 3 but can't find one? If you don't already own a PlayStation 2, now may be the time to jump on the same bandwagon as tens of millions of others in North America.
The most recent incarnation of the machine is known as the PS2 Slim due to its ultra compact design that makes it thinner than a paperback book and not much larger.
Despite Sony's recent launch of the PS3, the company has made public its commitment to keep the more-than-1,400-title game library growing in the next five years. In fact, some of the console's best-rated games have only been released in the last 12 months.
Featuring a built-in Ethernet port so gamers can compete with and against other players online and the ability to play CDs and DVDs, the PS2 is available in black and -- for a limited time -- silver, and retails for just $129.99.
Bottom Line: The PlayStation 2 may not have the allure of next-generation video game consoles like the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360, but it's significantly cheaper and has a huge library of games to choose from. This is a great choice for casual gamers and those looking to save a few dollars on a new system.
To learn more about the PlayStation 2 click here.
Though Microsoft's second attempt to crack the video game console market came a year earlier than those from Sony and Nintendo, the Xbox 360 is still selling strong and its arsenal of games has only gotten bigger and arguably better in that time.
Beautiful graphics and top-rated games, plus a year head start, have given Microsoft a chance to create a big gap between what it can offer and what the competition can offer in games.
A library of top-rated titles, like the blood-soaked, near-future shooter "Gears of War" and the adorable and well reviewed kid's game "Viva Piñata," allow Microsoft to offer real options for the whole family.
One of the biggest selling points on the Xbox 360 is the subscription-based Xbox Live, an online service similar to those offered with the PS3 and Wii. Players can connect to the service to play, but they're also given access to a library of downloadable arcade-style games, demos for the latest 360 titles, game documentaries, music videos and recently, movies and television shows, some even available in high definition.
The Xbox 360 also plays a number of Xbox games and the list is growing all the time. It features a built-in Ethernet port to connect to Xbox Live and wireless controllers. The 360 comes in two flavors.The "Core System" goes for $299.99 and comes with a wired controller. The "Pro System" features a 20-gigabyte hard drive and the wireless controller, and costs $399.99.
Frugal shoppers beware: There are rumors that there will be as much as a $100 price drop on both Xbox 360 systems, so if you pick one up, see if the retailer will honor the price drop after the holidays.
Bottom Line: Microsoft's year head start has led to an impressive lineup of games and downloadable content on Xbox Live. This machine is a great all-around value and a comparable alternative to the hard-to-find PlayStation 3. Don't get suckered into buying the Core System though. The hard drive is key, and that plus the included wireless controller is worth the extra money.
To learn more about the Xbox 360 click here.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has no plans to continue supporting the Xbox into the future. While there are a number of great games made for the original Xbox and players can connect to Xbox Live via a broadband connection, there are no further plans to release games or peripherals for the machine.
You may see the Xbox available used or refurbished at local video game stores, but buyer beware: Those Xbox game sections are disappearing in traditional brick and mortar stores and even online at major video game retailers like Gamespot and EB Games.
If you're in the market for a new gaming machine, stick with the next generation consoles, a PS2 or handheld system or juice up your PC.
Bottom Line: Forget it. The Xbox is dead. All of Microsoft's efforts are in the Xbox 360. Though there are some great games for the original, you're better off saving your money for a 360 and hoping those older games can be played on the new system.
"Playing is believing." That's Nintendo's mantra in its new effort to take back the market it started.
Nintendo's unique console, Wii, pronounced "we," is not targeted at the so-called hardcore gamer market but at people who've never played a game or were turned off to games as they became too complex.
Nintendo is betting that the barrier to entry is the intimidating controllers that are common to video game consoles and games that are virtually impossible to pick up and play, unless you've been playing games your whole life.
In what could be seen as a direct frontal assault on nongamers, Nintendo has developed an intuitive new, motion sensitive wireless controller that's in the shape of a TV remote control and responds to players' movements.
Play a match of tennis with the included Wii Sports game, and simply swing the controller as though it were the racket's handle. For many, it'll likely be the first time they get their parents or even grandparents to pick up and play a video game.
It's amazing how the Wii brings a room to life; once people see the controllers in action, it's hard to remain seated and uninterested.
Of course, with a next-generation video game console you're not just getting a new machine. Like its competitors, the Wii features an Internet connection and download store where you can find Nintendo's archive of classic games like Super Mario Bros. or hook up with other players.
Though the graphics on the Wii are not nearly as impressive as those of the 360 and PS3, it's significantly cheaper and easier to find than the PlayStation 3 and again, offers a totally different experience than the 360.
The Wii retails for $250 and comes with Wii Sports, a collection sports games that show off the console's unique controllers and featuring golf, tennis, baseball, boxing and bowling.
Bottom Line: Simply put, the Wii is fun -- really fun. It's not what you traditionally think of when you think of video games. It's a parents' dream in that it gets kids off the couch and may even induce sweating. But it's also a gamer's dream due to its fun gameplay and the possibilities for the future. A great first or second choice for any age.
To learn more about the Wii click here.
Nintendo tried to fight fire with rocks when the company answered Sony's PS2 and Microsoft's Xbox with Game Cube. The rather unimpressive and underperforming machine had a few big hits but was not the answer Nintendo was looking for.
As with Microsoft and the Xbox, Nintendo is all but abandoning the Game Cube. Though some of the machine's games can be played on the Wii, they require a special controller and there are no plans to continue releasing games for the device.
Save your money for a Wii if you're a Nintendo loyalist or buying for one, but considering the wealth of options for shoppers who are in the market for a new gaming machine -- next generation or not -- this shouldn't even be on your list.
Bottom Line: Like Microsoft's Xbox, the Game Cube has been abandoned in lieu of the company's newer system, Wii. Considering how cheap Wii is at $250, better to save your money for that or consider a Nintendo DS Lite.
PlayStation Portable (PSP)
It's not much of an exaggeration to call Sony's attempt at a handheld video game console a handheld PlayStation 2. The device delivers a beautiful picture on its 4.3-inch widescreen LCD display, whether playing games or watching movies or TV shows.
One of the many things that make the PSP unique is the use of plastic-encased optical discs called UMDs, Universal Media Discs, which look like tiny CDs trapped in a clear and white case.
While movie and TV studios jumped on the chance to make their shows and films available on UMDs, lackluster sales have caused them to all but pull out, making them hard to find.
Games for the PSP however, are not hard to find. Some great and unique titles for the PSP already line store shelves today, so new owners will have their pick of games to choose from.
The device uses Memory Stick Pro Duo cards, which have come down considerably in price since the PSPs release. A two-gigabyte card from SanDisk, for example, sells for less than $100.
A great and sleek package coupled with a great library of games, more on the way, the ability to play video, music, show off photos, connect to the Web and even download classic PlayStation 1 games, makes the $249 PlayStation Portable a great handheld that's sure to please.
Bottom Line: Though the PlayStation Portable is a little large for a pocket and UMDs can be a pain to carry around, there's no better looking handheld in terms of graphics and screen quality. A healthy offering of great games and the ability to play back video, music and photos make the PSP a great buy.
To learn more about the PlayStation Portable click here.
Nintendo DS Lite
Ah, Nintendo. A rough few years in the back seat of the home video game console market and you might think they were goners. But not only has their line of handheld game consoles kept them in the running, but the Nintendo DS has accounted for more growth in the video game industry than any other individual device in the business.
Why? Good design, fun games, portability and the continued promise of more of the same.
The Nintendo DS Lite is the latest handheld from the people who broke the market open with the Game Boy. Once again fixing things that aren't broken, Nintendo added a touch screen to the device's clam shell design and has incorporated it into countless games.
What at first feels a little more like a PDA than a video game system quickly transforms as players use the included Stylus pen to play their games.
Available in white, onyx and pink, the DS Lite retails for $129.99.
Bottom Line: The Nintendo DS is a very kid friendly handheld gaming system. It's good for adults, but the goofiness of some of the games may turn some off. Nintendo is very committed to their handheld business and you can be sure there are many exciting new features and attachments on the way for this very pocket-friendly distant cousin to the Game Boy.
To learn more about the Nintendo DS Lite click here.
When you're out wrestling it out for a PSP or tugging on one end of a Nintendo Wii don't forget about the video game system you may already own: your computer.
There are tons of great games made for the PC and many games only made for the PC. Many of the best-rated and best-selling console games originated on computers.
One of the nice things is that if your computer was purchased in the last couple of years, it's probably current enough to play many of today's great PC games. Unlike console games that run at a specified graphics setting so it looks the same on every system, players can turn different settings on or off, or make them higher or lower so they run as well as possible on the computer.
On the bottom or back of the retail packaging of PC games there's something that tells you the minimum specifications your computer must have to run the game.
It may require a couple of hundred dollars to upgrade certain parts to play the best games with the prettiest settings, but you may get more use out of your computer than you would a new PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, so it's certainly something to consider.
Bottom Line: Getting into PC gaming can be expensive if you don't already own the equipment, but if you do it's a no-brainer. Your computer is capable of playing some of the best games out there and with a new graphics card every couple of years, you can stay on the cutting edge.