There is more than one ongoing format war. While the battle over high-definition disc formats is the most visible one to home theater enthusiasts, others among us are fighting the Console War. With new offerings on the market from Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony, many people are asking themselves which one is best for home theater use and their particular style of play.
Of course, the answer is "it depends." This article is not for Console Warriors, or Brand Fanboys, or whatever the preferred term is these days. However, if you're among the undecided, consider the benefits and downsides of each console, especially as they pertain to installation in a projection system.
Microsoft's Xbox 360:
Everything you want, nothing you don't
Microsoft's Xbox 360 was the first of the new game consoles to market, reaching shelves a full year before Nintendo or Sony's offerings. As such, it is considered the most "mature" of the new systems, as Microsoft has had over a year to update the system and work out the kinks (and there were a few). It also means a full year to gain market share, and there are currently 10.4 million or more Xbox 360 consoles in private hands.
At launch, the 360 was offered in two packages, a "core" system for $299 and a "premium" package for $399. The Premium system includes some perks that home theater buffs would appreciate, such as a wireless controller, component cables, and a 20GB hard drive. These parts alone retail for considerably more than $100, making the Premium system a better value.
In late April of 2007, Microsoft released one more version of the Xbox 360, called the Xbox 360 Elite. The Elite comes standard with a massive 120GB hard drive, an HDMI 1.2a video output, and a matte black case and controller. This new package retails for $479, and is a worthwhile proposition for those serious about home theater.
While the Xbox 360 is a rock-solid game system, peripherals can be added to increase functionality. Out of the box, all games play back at 720p or better, up to 1080p. With a small additional investment, the console becomes a media center and home theater device in and of itself. A wireless internet dongle retails for less than $100. An add-on HD DVD drive allows for the playback of high definition movies, and costs less than $200. In essence, you can spend as much or as little as you want to expand the 360's feature set.
The Xbox 360 can also play back media from attached devices or networked Media Center PCs. By attaching a digital camera or music player to one of the console's USB ports, the 360 can store and display photos as well as play music.
The premium Xbox 360 and add-on HD DVD drive together cost just as much as a Playstation 3, negating the system's cost advantage. It also lacks DVI or HDMI output on the core and premium packages, outputting all content through component video. For those who purchased an Xbox 360 that is not the Elite model, there is no way to add HDMI functionality short of buying a whole new Xbox. The console is considerably noisier than a DVD or even an HD DVD player, with a loud exhaust fan that may be distracting. The wireless controllers take AA batteries, while rechargeable battery packs cost extra.
Installing the Xbox 360 in a home theater is a snap. With the Premium system, simply hook the component or HDMI video cables into your projector, processor, or AV receiver. Connect either the RCA audio cables or a TOSlink optical cable, and place the console in an accessible location -- you'll need to be able to get at the disc tray. The wireless controllers enable you to sit up to 50 feet from the console.
The 360 is capable of just about anything you could desire from a home theater component, including HD games and movies. The most attractive feature is the modularity of the system, which allows you to pay for what you want, and nothing more. With a robust library of titles, the Xbox360 is a great choice for beginners and hardcore gamers alike.
Sony's Playstation 3:
More than just a game system
Sony's Playstation 3 appeared on shelves in November of 2006 with much fanfare, a limited supply, and long lines at retail locations. As predicted, the console remained scarce through the holiday season, and only started becoming easier to find near the end of January 2007. As of today, roughly 700,000 consoles have been sold in the US.
Like the Xbox 360, the Playstation 3 (or PS3, for brevity's sake) launched with two varieties available, both of which included a Blu-Ray drive and an HDMI output port, as well as a wireless controller and charging cable. The standard package at $499 included a 20GB hard drive, while the premium $599 package included a 60GB hard drive, built-in wireless internet, and a memory card reader for digital cameras. And, like the Xbox 360, the premium package includes enough extra equipment to easily justify the added $100 expense. According to Sony, over 90% of PS3 purchasers were spending their money for the 60GB version, so as of early April 2007 Sony is no longer offering the 20GB model in North America.
All games are delivered in crisp High Definition 720p or better, up to 1920x1080p, at 60 or 24 frames per second. The system can be connected via composite, component, or HDMI. All controllers are wireless and rechargeable, but they lack the vibration function found in the older Playstation 2's controllers.
But the PS3 is more than just a game system. The heart of the PS3 is its Blu-Ray drive, which makes it one of the most affordable Blu-Ray players on the market and an attractive proposition to many proponents of the format. And in comparison to the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive, it is an elegant and compact solution, as there are no extra wires.
The PS3 has some functionality as a digital media hub, as well. The premium model's camera memory card reader on the front of the console enables digital photo display. A web browser allows for the download of digital pictures, movies, and other media. If your computer can do it, chances are good that your PS3 can do it, too.
After touting the high definition gaming and cinema capabilities of the PS3 for months, the console was released without component or HDMI cables in the box. To enjoy the HD capabilities of your PS3, you will need to supply your own HDMI cable, or purchase a PS3 component cable for roughly $20. Those of you with Playstation 2 systems and component cables will be happy to know that PS2 cables will work with the PS3.
At $599, the PS3 is quite possibly the most expensive game system ever to come to market. As a home theater component, it is an attractive option for its integrated Blu-Ray player. But gamers who are not interested in HD movies will only see a higher price tag and features they won't use. And unlike the Xbox 360 with its add-on drive, you can't opt-out of Blu-Ray on PS3.
The controllers are indeed wireless and rechargeable. However, there are several concerns. For one, the recharging cable is only five feet long, making it difficult or impossible to play games while charging the controller. Two, all batteries eventually die. When the battery in the PS3 controller dies, you'll need to buy a whole new controller, as there's no way to replace the internal battery. Finally, the controller only charges when the system is powered on. While this seems like a small complaint, both of the other consoles in this article have powered USB ports that remain active after the system has powered down, as do most computers. So if you want to charge your PS3 controller while the system is off, plug it into your Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii.
Since all the controllers are wireless, the console doesn't need to be placed in close proximity to the seating, and can instead be placed with your other A/V equipment. This makes installation in a theater a snap, with one caveat - the curved top of the Playstation 3's case means that it must sit on the top of your equipment stack, or vertically off to the side. It also weighs nearly 12 pounds, so be sure your shelf can support the extra weight.
The Playstation 3 is more than a game system, it's a high def component suitable for any home theater. The dedicated gamer may find it excessive, in which case the Xbox 360 might be a better choice. But for Blu-Ray on the cheap, it can't be beat.
More fun than you can shake a stick at
Nintendo's Wii, formerly the Revolution, was released within a week of the Playstation 3 in November 2006. With much less technical prowess than the other two systems, and less than half the cost of the PS3, the Wii sold out instantly, and is still hard to find in most places today. And while accurate sales numbers are hard to come by, it is believed that Nintendo has already sold more than three million Wii since late November.
At only $249 with a game (Wii Sports) included, the Wii features wireless internet, a wireless controller, one "nunchuk" controller attachment, and composite cables. The Wii is the least expensive of the three next-gen consoles, as well as the most unique.
The Wii's claim to fame is its motion-sensing technology. The console includes a sensor bar that must sit just above or just below your screen. When the controller is aimed at the screen, it acts like a pointer, which you can move to control games and the console's interface. While it takes some getting used to, it is intuitive and there is not much of a learning curve.
The Wii does not have any high definition capabilities at all. In fact, it outputs standard 4:3 or 16:9 480i, and it can output 480p with the addition of a component cable. Since it's not as powerful as either the Xbox 360 or PS3, there are likely more than a few people out there wondering what all the fuss is about.
After testing one for the past week, the answer is simple: It's fun. No, it's not nearly as graphically "pretty" as the two more expensive game systems, but it is enjoyable to many people, some of whom normally dislike video games. As a friend put it, "There are two kinds of people -- those who like the Wii, and those who haven't played it yet."
The Wii also has some additional features. On top of the unit, hidden under flip-up panels, are ports for Nintendo Gamecube controllers and memory cards (shown here), and the slot-loading drive will read the smaller Gamecube discs, so you retain full backwards compatibility. There is an SD memory card slot for cameras, and the Wii has a simple photo editing program on it, as well.
The Wii is advertised as an unpretentious, fun game system that everyone can enjoy, and it delivers. Hardcore gamers may gripe about the lack of processing power and graphical prowess, and theater buffs will likely bemoan the lack of HD, but the Wii is rock-solid as a "game system for everyone."
The Wii system consists of three main parts: The console itself, the Wii remote controller (or "wiimote"), and the sensor bar. While the Wii console can be placed more or less wherever you find it convenient to do so, the sensor bar must be placed immediately above or immediately below your screen, and it attaches to the Wii with a cable roughly 12 feet in length.
In installations where your equipment rack is close to the screen, this can be an easily workable solution. However, in other situations where the screen and A/V components are nowhere near each other, how does one get a Wii to function properly?
The answer lies in how the sensor bar works. Despite the name, the Wii's sensor bar does not "sense" anything -- it is a simple array of infrared LEDs. The Wii controller actually determines its position relative to these LEDs, and wirelessly transmits this data back to the Wii console. A further inspection of the wire running to the sensor bar reveals that it only carries power, not data. The Wii's saving grace for home theater comes from the fact that the sensor bar does not need to be connected to the Wii at all, if you provide an alternate power source.
There is at least one company that is currently manufacturing wireless sensor bars at approximately $30. They use a simple array of infrared LEDs and a battery to power them. If you're handy, you could easily make one with $10 worth of parts, a soldering iron, and less than an hour of your time. Just place this infrared source near the screen and enjoy. It would also be wise to pick up a set of component cables for $25, as this will enable 480p display and look much cleaner and sharper on HDTVs of all sorts.
Nintendo's Wii is somewhat of an odd duck. It is not HD-capable, nor is it incredibly powerful, nor is it expensive. It is simple, affordable, and fun. Hardcore gamers will likely enjoy it, but thirst for more. But the casual gamer (and his or her friends and family) will certainly get a lot of enjoyment out of the Wii.