My first game console was a Sega Genesis that I bought in 1993. At that time, my only video game experience had been my friend's old 8-bit original Nintendo, so I was blown away by the graphics that my Genesis was capable of producing. At the time, I remember thinking that games couldn't possibly get much better than this.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Over the years, progressively more advanced game consoles have been released. The major players have changed - first it was Sega and Nintendo, then Sony introduced the Playstation, then Sega dropped out of the console market and Microsoft entered the running. The only constant in the console gaming world is that every successive system release represents major technological advancements.

However, up until the current generation of consoles, the only video output options available have been composite and s-video. With the release of the GameCube, Playstation 2, and Xbox, videophile gamers now have nearly as many output options available with their consoles as they do with their DVD players. And while this in itself is impressive, the next generation of consoles, set to hit the market in the next year, look to be truly stunning.

Sony Playstation 2

The Playstation 2 (or PS2) was released on October 26, 2000, making it the first of the current generation of consoles to come to market; it is also the highest selling, with over 90 million units sold.

The downside to this is that the PS2 is using slightly older technology than the other consoles available. The console only outputs in 480 interlaced, and then only in the 4:3 aspect ratio. Composite output is standard, though Sony does offer both s-video and component output adapters through retail stores and the Playstation website (found here).

So what does this mean for you? The Playstation 2 was clearly built for the TV you've had in the living room for years, and will look best on that set. Since there is no option for widescreen 16:9 sets, images will be pillarboxed in the center of the screen on these displays. A projector with good deinterlacing will improve image quality at large screen sizes, and either good scaling performance in the projector or an external scaler will improve quality at resolutions greater than 640x480. If you already own this equipment, then your PS2 should look good on your home theater display; if not, we recommend leaving it hooked in to the TV. [EDIT: We have found this information to be incorrect, the corrected statement should read: "Several games - roughly 60, by our count - do in fact offer software support for 480p and 16:9 - and one game exists that supports 1080i. These games will look very good on your High Definition display." 7/19/05 bl]

Nintendo GameCube

The GameCube was released in November of 2001, and holds the smallest market share of this generation of consoles.

At the time of the GameCube's release, it offered a Digital A/V out, which would accept a component video cable and automatically switch the unit to progressive-scan output. However, all systems manufactured after May of 2004 have had this port removed, in an effort to cut costs and further lower the price of the system (the GameCube is the least expensive of the current consoles at $99). The official statement from Nintendo on this decision read as follows:

On newer models of the Nintendo GameCube, we opted to remove the digital A/V out port from the system because we found that less than one percent of all Nintendo GameCube players used this feature.
(source here)

However, for that one percent of estimated GameCube players who wish to regain this port, Nintendo offers the following option:

If you have a Nintendo GameCube without this port, and you wish to play your games in progressive scan, you may be able to obtain a system that was made prior to the removal of the Digital A/V Output port. Please call our Consumer Service department at 1-800-255-3700 to discuss available options.
(source here)

In short, this places the GameCube in almost the same position as the Playstation 2 - except GameCube owners have lost the option to use component video cables with their system, unless they own one produced prior to May 2004. The only option available with the GameCube is composite video output at 480 interlaced, which does not exactly suit high definition displays.

Microsoft Xbox

Also in November of 2001, Microsoft released the Xbox, which was their first foray into the console gaming market. It is also considered the favorite among those who use high-definition displays.

The Xbox has, by far, the most options available for high definition display. The system comes standard with composite video out, which is configurable for either 16:9 or 4:3 output (note that most, but not all, games support 16:9 format output; some will appear pillarboxed). There are both s-video and component adapters available, sold under "Advanced A/V pack" and "Hi-Definition A/V pack" respectively.

This may not seem much different than the other two consoles available, but once the High-Definition cable is plugged in, more options become available. After inserting this cable and restarting the Xbox, the menu that previously held options for 16:9 and 4:3 expands. You can now enable 480p, 720p, and 1080i support, as well as audio support for Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and DTS through an included TOSlink optical audio port.

When compared to the other two modern consoles available, the Xbox looks very impressive. Not only do most games support 480p, but many games support 720p and a select few are available in 1080i. Component video is fully supported, as is widescreen 16:9. This paints a pretty picture indeed for owners of digital projectors or flatscreen TVs of any kind.

The Future

Current consoles were designed for standard-definition TVs, and with the exception of the Xbox, require very good video processing to look good at large screen sizes.

The next generation is another story entirely. Between Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, gamers with the budget for high quality display devices (or, conversely, videophiles with the budget for a game system) will be entertained for years to come.

Specifications are still being finalized regarding these new systems, but there is enough information available to make some educated guesses. In order of projected release date, here are the consoles that constitute the next generation:

Microsoft Xbox360

Due out in November of this year, the Xbox360 is, at this time, said to support all games in 16:9 widescreen at 720p minimum, with widespread support for 1080i.

The Xbox360 will play DVDs at 480p without any additional hardware, and also has the processing power required to play back Windows Media HD DVDs at 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. To play DVDs through the original Xbox, you have to go spend an additional $20 to $30 on another peripheral that will enable the Xbox's DVD capabilities (a bit silly, since the Xbox is more or less a DVD drive with a computer attached to it). Furthermore, the original Xbox only plays DVDs at 480i (also a little silly, since it is clearly capable of much more).

At a recent press conference in Japan, Bill Gates was asked about the Xbox360 and HD-DVD, since Microsoft had recently announced a partnership with Toshiba to manufacture HD-DVD drives.

As for the Xbox 360, Bill Gates said that Microsoft is currently evaluating whether HD DVD might be suitable for future versions of the hardware, but initially the plan is to stick with the standard DVD format. "The initial shipments of Xbox 360 will be based on today's DVD format,'' Gates said during the conference. "We are looking at whether future versions of Xbox will incorporate an additional capability of an HD DVD player or something else."

This means that some gamers may want to hold off their purchase of the Xbox360 until Microsoft announces whether future shipments will include an HD-DVD drive. At this stage, however, the possibility of an HD-DVD drive is only a rumor.

With games set to output in HD by default, it takes a high-definition display to take advantage of the system. There will be backwards-compatibility for 4:3 480i on the Xbox360, for those who own standard TV sets and can't afford to make the transition to HD yet.

While at the time of this writing we cannot find any dependable sources regarding the output ports on the Xbox360, we can assume there will be options for component video and most likely DVI or HDMI as well.

Sony Playstation 3

In a bit of a role reversal, the Playstation 3 looks poised to top the Xbox360 in terms of technical specifications, whereas the Xbox clearly beats the Playstation 2. The Playstation 3 (hereafter referred to as the PS3) has been confirmed to offer 1080p support, as well as compatibility with lower resolutions.

The most impressive part of the PS3 is the Blu-Ray drive, which is capable of holding many times more data than standard DVDs and is in the running for the next-generation DVD standard (along with HD-DVD). The PS3 will be capable of playing back Blu-Ray movies once these become available, as well as Blu-Ray audio discs. This is good news for videophiles as well, as the PS3 looks to be the first commercially available - and affordable - Blu-Ray player to reach the North American market, with an estimated release of spring 2006 (Blu-Ray has already been released in Japan).

Not only does the PS3 support 16:9 output, but the console sports dual HDMI outputs which can be used separately, or simultaneously to generate separate portions of the image, giving you the potential for 32:9 panoramic video (that's two 16:9 images side-by-side). This, however, requires two separate HD-capable displays and is a very costly option. For more standard display options, the PS3 also offers composite, s-video, and component outputs.

The PS3 is unique in that it offers capabilities that most modern HD displays are not yet capable of processing, leaving plenty of room for upgrades in the future. With dual HDMI-out widescreen video and 1080p resolution, the Playstation 3 truly requires a high-definition display to shine.

Nintendo Revolution

Slated for release "sometime in 2006," the Revolution is notable for its mystery. It is not known at this time what processor it will use, what ports it will possess, or even if Revolution is the console's final name. What is known, however, is that the Revolution will not feature high definition output in any form.

Says Nintendo of America's VP of corporate affairs, Perrin Kaplan:

"Nintendo's Revolution is being built with a variety of gamers' needs in mind, such as quick start-up time, high power, and ease of use for development and play. It's also compact and sleek, and has beautiful graphics in which to enjoy innovative games. Nintendo doesn't plan for the system to be HD compatible as with that comes a higher price for both the consumer and also the developer creating the game. Will it make the game better to play? With the technology being built into the Revolution, we believe the games will look brilliant and play brilliantly. This can all be done without HD."
(source here)

While Nintendo may indeed have something tricky up their sleeves regarding imaging technology, gamers can rest assured that the "something" is not HD video. And while their eventual revelation may be of great interest to the gaming public, it will probably have less appeal to videophiles looking to not only play games, but play them in high definition.

Conclusion

Gaming technology is poised to make the jump to high definition, and to a small degree has already done so in the form of the Xbox. However, with the next generation of consoles, a high definition display is required to make the most of the gaming experience. With 720p set to become the new minimum resolution for game consoles, it is no wonder that many videophiles are rediscovering the appeal of console games - or seeing it for the first time.