Ever since Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo officially unveiled
their next-gen consoles
a few weeks ago at E3, I've been getting a steady stream of e-mail and instant messages asking me which one I think will be the best. Truth be told, Nintendo's Revolution
, which I personally like for its compact size and portability factor alone, is too much of a blank slate, spec-wise, to even warrant consideration. For now, that narrows the debate to Microsoft's Xbox 360
vs. Sony's PlayStation 3
It's always hard to judge products when you're seeing early versions of them--all of the Xbox 360 games that we saw at E3 ran on dual Apple G5 dev kits, and the PS3 demos we saw were all using who knows what. So I'd be foolish to try to declare a winner at this juncture, even if my gut says it will be the PS3, which, given the extra development time, should be somewhat more powerful. Out of the box, Sony's PS3 offering also seems to boast better connectivity options (two HDMI ports, integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, onboard flash memory card reader), particularly for high-end HDTV owners. The Xbox 360 will use the same "breakout box" model for A/V connectivity and offer an add-on wireless networking module as well. But the fact is, we haven't even gotten pricing for either unit yet. So there's a still lot of jockeying in store for both Microsoft and Sony as we head toward next year's E3, where, in all probability, comparisons will abound when we get to compare all the new games side by side.
Sony's PS3: death knell for PC gaming?
What I am willing to predict, however, even at this early stage, is that the real loser in all of this will be PC gaming. Let's start with Quake 4, which uses the "old" Doom 3
engine but still came across as one of the more impressive PC titles I saw at the show. Id, Quake 4's developer, was also showing an Xbox 360 version of the same game behind closed doors, and those reporters I polled at the show confirmed what I thought: they really couldn't discern any difference between the two versions.
Granted, Nvidia and ATI will eventually put out more powerful graphics cards that trump what's inside the PS3 and the Xbox 360, but the price-performance ratio, at least over the next couple of years, heavily favors the next-gen consoles. A true powerhouse PC costs much more than $2,000, and while we don't have pricing yet for the Xbox 360 or the PS3, I think it's safe to assume both will cost less than $500 and probably less than $400. In fact, chances are good that the Xbox 360 will be priced at less than $300 by the time the PS3 hits stores sometime around May or June 2006, assuming they stay on schedule. One could even envision a bare-bones 360 (sans removable hard drive) going for less than $250. The bottom line is that console manufacturers often heavily subsidize their new machines, swallowing huge losses up front in hopes that they'll make it all back selling games. (Unlike PC games, the console manufacturers get a royalty for each game sold on their respective systems.) Other things being equal, the DIY-heavy PC-gaming industry can't hope to compete in that kind of market.
Will PC gaming wane when the Xbox 360 and the PS3 are released? Any suggestions for improvements?
If you buy the hype, the PS3's Cell processor--combined with an Nvidia-based RSX graphics processor--will offer stronger graphical performance than just about anything you can get in a current gaming PC. That means you're getting a whole system for less than what it would cost to buy a cutting-edge, high-end graphics card. But you don't have to take my word for it or even Sony's: the claim
that the PS3 will offer the equivalent graphics performance of two GeForce 6800 Ultra
cards working in tandem came from Jen-Hsun Huang, president and CEO of Nvidia. Current cost of those cards: about $500 each. Cost of Alienware's Aurora ALX SLI
, which incorporates a dual 6800 Ultra configuration: nearly $5,000. And how many consumers are willing to pay hundreds extra for PC graphics cards that the manufacturer's own CEO admits are inferior? I'll let you do the math.
At E3, the biggest point of contention was whether the Xbox 360, which uses a custom ATI graphics processor, is a full-fledged 2.0 version of the Xbox or actually more of a half-baked 1.5 release that's not a monumental leap forward. Not surprisingly, the folks from Sony were spinning it as a 1.5 product and seemed glad that their message could be distilled into something as succinct and simple as a single number. I have to say, however, that a top-level examination
of each console's specs doesn't exactly support the 1.5 argument; both consoles appear to be in roughly the same league. Now, the PS3 may be the Yankees and the Xbox 360 the Seattle Mariners, but they're both major-league consoles capable of competing with major-league PCs--for the time being, anyway.
High-end PC graphics: eclipsed by consoles?
When Associate Editor Rich Brown asked the folks from Nvidia about the value proposition of high-end PCs vs. next-gen consoles, he didn't quite get the answer he was looking for. In his E3 PC gaming blog
, Rich paraphrased the PR rep as saying that "if next-generation consoles represent the best that Nvidia and ATI can do at the time when those consoles launch, you'll still be able to count on PC hardware surpassing the PS3 and the Xbox 360--within a few years."
A few years
? That's all well and good for the folks at Nvidia and ATI, who win whether consumers are buying PCs or consoles, so long as they're buying a lot of them. But it's probably not so good for Intel, which didn't make it into any of the next-gen gaming machines (IBM is supplying CPUs to all three new consoles). Personally, I think that once the Xbox 360 and PS3 come out, instead of looking at high-performance PCs, more people are going to spend that $2,000 or so of discretionary income on a new HDTV, likely one of the flat-panel variety.
At least, that's my plan. What's yours?