Launch of two masterful gaming systems

A store display for PlayStation 4, officially out Friday. Microsoft's Xbox One follows next week.
A store display for PlayStation 4, officially out Friday. Microsoft's Xbox One follows next week. (JEFF GELLES / Staff)
Posted: November 15, 2013

Imagine the big brains at Sony's and Microsoft's gaming headquarters. Right now, they're about as ready to rock as any hard-core gamer suiting up an avatar for Assassin's Creed or fielding a football team for Madden NFL 25.

But they aren't playing a game - searching out foes in a postapocalyptic landscape or preparing to scrimmage against friends. At 12:01 a.m. Friday, Sony's launch of PlayStation 4 will mark the first salvo in this year's real-world Console Wars, a battle for billions of dollars in sales and a prime position in your living room or den. Next week, Microsoft follows with the Xbox One.

Since these are the first new gaming systems from either company in seven years, the Microsoft-Sony contest is likely to play out on many a wish list this holiday season and grab the most headlines. Despite steady advances in tablets, Internet TV, and laptops, nothing else really counts as a blockbuster.

But these systems may just qualify - they're entertainment centers and cutting-edge computers as much as they are gaming systems. Each, for instance, boasts an eight-core processor, eight gigs of RAM, and a 500-gigabyte hard drive. Both include a Blu-ray drive to display movies and games in high-definition video - in fact, both work only with an HD TV.

To allocate a limited quantity of PlayStation 4s, and maybe to stir a little extra buzz, Best Buy plans to open more than a third of its stores - including more than a dozen in the Philadelphia area - shortly before midnight Thursday, and to do the same a week later for the new Xbox, said spokesman Jeremy Baier.

Most of the retailer's $400 PlayStation units have been preordered, but each store will have some for sale on a first-come, first-serve basis. In some warmer areas, gamers have been lined up since Tuesday, a company spokeswoman said.

What distinguishes the two systems? Some early reviews seem to give the nod to the $500 Xbox One, which is designed to let you navigate through apps, TV shows, and movies via gestures and voice as easily as its impressive Kinect system - introduced for the old Xbox 360 - enabled you to use your body to play games.

Baier's view? "PlayStation 4 is really the ultimate gaming console - a truly immersive system," he said. The Xbox is "an entertainment hub. They can download music, check out the latest apps, and even Skype with family."

Baier said video consoles and games - new ones will typically sell for $60, and only "next gen" titles will work on the new systems - are likely to be the holiday season's biggest technology play. One analyst predicts Sony and Microsoft will sell 10 million consoles worldwide by March. If they split the market, that means $4.5 billion in retail revenue.

What else will lure this fall's customers? Here are three categories to watch:

Tablets. Apple's iPad Air, slimmed by more than a third to a one-pound weight, was one of the draws for Paul Morrow of Blue Bell as he shopped at a Plymouth Meeting Best Buy this week. A semiretired sales consultant, Morrow said he was mulling an upgrade from an e-reader to the svelte tablet "that I could read on, take pictures, and do e-mail."

Other options include Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX, with its highly touted "Mayday" support button, and Microsoft's Surface 2 tablets, which offer Windows users seamless shifts from work to play.

Internet TV. With "smart TVs" everywhere, one option that may find its way onto lots of wish lists is the $35 Google Chromecast, a small device that plugs directly into a TV's HDMI port. It lacks a remote - you can use a phone, tablet, or computer to control it. But it offers Netflix, Hulu Plus, Google Play movies, and Web content via - what else? - Google's Chrome browser.

Laptops. Though they've struggled to make headway against tablets, don't count these out. Apple has improved its MacBook lineup and cut the prices. And Windows-based Ultrabooks are lighter and more versatile, boasting touch screens and impressively long battery life.

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles

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