In less than one week, the next generation of gaming consoles will both have entered the ring, ready to begin sparring for consumer attention. But choosing between them isn’t as hard as it should be.

To many, this generation is the most closely matched battle in console history, and purely on the basis of specifications that’s likely the case. Both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are tremendously powerful machines when compared to their predecessors, with their full potential years away from being unleashed.

But as I decide which to buy, I’m finding myself having an easier time of it than I had expected (and hoped).

PlayStation 4

Familiarity is a big attraction, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Sony has produced a console that some snarky folk have cleverly dubbed the “PS3-S” in mockery of Apple’s famous “S” updates to the iPhone.

The accusation is that, while it does everything faster and with prettier graphics, the PS4 doesn’t fundamentally upgrade the console experience in a way that deserves the *next-gen*moniker.

Perhaps that isn’t fair.

After all, the social components are very robust and the ability to share gameplay experiences is a crucial part of modern gaming (even though some of us may not be into it). Nevertheless, as I look at the PS4 I’m left wondering about the potential for growth that it can draw from over the course of its lifespan.

If this generation lasts as long as the previous, we could be talking about 5 or more years of innovation that need to be fuelled by this technology.

No one knows Sony’s plans, but if we look at the platforms strictly as they appear on launch day, it’s difficult to see the PS4 matching the Xbox One for sheer potential.

Then again, let’s not forget that Microsoft is notorious for squanderingpotential.

Confusing Complaints

With the PlayStation having sold more than a million units in its first weekend on the market, Sony isn’t too concerned about hitting the ground running.

Following the news reveals some interesting commentary though, mostly in the form of sensationalist headlines about how disastrous the technical issues are.

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Let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of a few things: first of all, no hardware is perfect - remember the Red Ring of Death? - and second, this is all amplified by the increased reach of social media, and therefore the ability of those affected to make a disproportionate amount of noise.

Remember that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 launched a year before Twitter even existed. Amazon reviews are a huge platform now, but how many reviews have you written on products that gave you no issues?

The reviews that appear on product pages are useful, but no one pretends to think that they represent a balanced sample of buyers.

Next generation consoles are launching to next generation feedback platforms.

This isn’t to say that the defects aren’t regrettable, and that Sony won’t have a lot of angry customers on its hands if it can’t supply enough units to replace the broken ones, but it’s important to keep things in perspective as we examine these launches.

Even a vocal minority is still a minority.

1080p

Much more has been said about the Xbox One’s apparent inability to render its launch titles at native 1080p resolutions.

With some notable exceptions, the consensus among early reviews and previews seems to be that the Xbox One titles are generally running at a lower resolution, but with a more stable frame rate.

Cue fanboy wars about which aspect of visual fidelity is more important.

As far as I’m concerned:

  1. Any device being released in the tail end of 2013 should have the ability to support native 1080p content. Period. If my phone can do it, I have to expect my gaming console to manage.
  2. Anyone whose priority for gaming is graphical fidelity should not be buying a console: build a gaming PC. There’s no contest here; even a mediocre gaming PC will stomp gaming consoles into the ground for sheer graphical potential - and you can upgrade them over the years.

In other words, the criticism is partly merited and partly misguided.

I absolutely believe that we should demand high standards for graphical fidelity in a next generation console, but I also believe that these demands have to remain within the realm of reason.

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Purpose

We have to keep in mind what the role of consoles actually is in the gaming landscape. As much as we’d like for it to be the case, they simply aren’t the utopic best-at-everything machines we might wish for.

Unlike past cycles, they aren’t even guaranteed to give us the best games anymore as most developers target multiple platforms - almost always including the PC, thanks to Steam - when they create a new title.

So if they’re not always going to give us the best possible visual fidelity and the best possible games, then what exactly are they for?

This is the most difficult question that will come to haunt this generation of consoles.

It’s a question that Sony has largely ignored, preferring to play it safe and focus on the present. Microsoft is actually seeking answers to that question, and that’s largely what makes me see the Xbox One as a more compelling vision of what this generation could become.

To me, consoles represent the path of least resistance to great gaming experiences. They offer convenience, accessibility, and social prowess at a fair price.

As the barrier to entry for PC gaming becomes lower and lower though, consoles must do more to differentiate themselves.

Same Journey, Different Path

Henry Ford is famously reported to have said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” Instead, he gave them the Model T Ford.

Sony and Microsoft both asked customers what they wanted. Sony delivered an exact manifestation of the requests, which is perfect for short-term impact but begins to look like a myopic approach when compared to Microsoft’s unexpectedly bold offering.

Even though they ended up stepping back from some of their initial plans, which were deemed too forward-thinking to be practical, the Xbox One’s design and vision remains firmly rooted in the future.

As a result, the Xbox One is now the more expensive of the two consoles, with the bundled Kinect sensor being a must. This is a very confident stance from Microsoft; they believe that their console quite literally offers more value, so they needn’t sell it at a loss as Sony is doing.

In other words, you get what you pay for. But what exactly do you get for your extra $100?

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Xbox One

Acknowledging that the flexibility of PCs is difficult to compete against in a gaming context, Microsoft crafted a best-of-both-worlds system: it’s a next-gen gaming console, but the gaming guts share space (not resources) with a separate operating system that allows it to run apps at the same time.

This means that you can enjoy better gaming than before while also taking advantage of truly new functionality. Not only does it seem like building an app for Windows 8 will potentially make it easy to port to the Xbox One, but thanks to the app snapping features you can actually run these apps at the same time as your game.

True multitasking has made it to gaming consoles.

The TV integration is a superbly executed choke hold on the outdated schemes that we put up with from our cable providers. As one of Microsoft’s own so adroitly put it, compare the progress of cellphones over the past decade to the progress of cable service.

It’s a recipe for depression.

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Kinect’s always-on speech recognition and night vision can be pegged as creepy, but the technology allows for innovation in a way that the PS4 currently can’t hold a candle to.

I was clear about my enthusiasm for hands-free interaction on my Moto X, and the notion of having an even more robust system available to power my TV-based media habits is exciting to me.
More tellingly, it’s also exciting to my girlfriend, who shares my appreciation of technology but not my deep fascination with it.

And if you’re one of those people who are eager to criticize the Kinect for being a device that “no one uses”, then you might be surprised to learn that it was the fastest selling consumer electronics device in the year it was released - beating the iPhone 4 as well as the iPad.

One Thing at a Time?

To some, everything that isn’t gaming is a gimmick on these consoles. They’ll prefer the PS4 for its unambiguous and almost strident focus on gaming and nothing but gaming. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but to me it seems a bit old-fashioned.

By and large, we simply don’t purchase single-function devices anymore. If your home is filled with one box per media function and you don’t expect to change those habits in the next five years, then the PS4 is compelling.

But for those of us who love being able to reduce clutter and condense the functionality of five devices into one, the PS4’s value proposition seems blatantly archaic - and it’s brand new!

This is ultimately my issue with the PS4 right now: it feels outdated right out of the gate. I am confident that it will mature into a powerful platform for game developers and gamers alike, but if Sony’s vision doesn’t broaden then I worry that it won’t be enough to sustain them over the lifespan of the console.

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One for the Road

Both consoles are poised to fulfill the next-gen promise in different ways. Both machines have their fair share of launch concerns, as is always the case, and both will have a fascinating path to maturity, paved with spectacular games.

As someone who works in the games industry, I will eventually own both consoles - and I appreciate the simple fact of how lucky that makes me. My choice here simply reflects which one comes first, which one wins my vote for excitement at launch.

Frankly, I wanted it to be a more difficult choice. I imagined that I would be stuck, making charts, comparing reviews…but somehow it just doesn’t seem necessary anymore.

As with all things, the discussion is never so black and white that picking one thing means eschewing the other completely, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Sony has put a beautiful and fast horse in this race.

But as long as we’re heading toward the future, I think I’d rather drive.