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Technology

Console showdown

Comparing Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 networks

March 2, 2007

Yesteryear's video game consoles gave players a taste of competitive online play, but it's the current generation of systems — Sony's PlayStation3, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii — that are making an internet connection the norm rather than the exception for living-room game machines.

The reason?

Playing video games with people around the world from the comfort of your couch is just a small part of the multi-faceted online experience offered by the current crop of game machines. Internet browsing, movie and game downloads, news feeds and gaming communities are just some of the many services now within the sphere of the living room console.

Still, no single system delivers a comprehensive selection of online features. The content and services are still maturing, and each system has its strengths and weaknesses.

If online functionality is a key component of your console selection criteria, you'd do well to investigate what each system has to offer before buying.

Nintendo Wii

A screenshot of the Wii's online news reader. A screenshot of the Wii's online news reader.

The $279 Wii is Nintendo's first legitimate stab at delivering online services through a console, and the company has jumped in headfirst, providing built-in Wi-Fi connectivity in every system sold (Ethernet network users need to buy a USB adapter separately).

The Wii's online gamer community centres around the "Mii" — Mii being the name given the customizable, animated avatars that are created by system users and often used as characters in games. Miis can travel the internet from Wii to Wii, allowing players to use their own avatars when playing at a friend's house. The characters are also seen within gamer-to-gamer text messages, as well as in player contact lists.

Miis are cute, but a more functional aspect of the Wii's online service is Virtual Console, an internet-based game store stocked with classic games. In less than three months, Nintendo has released nearly four dozen downloadable titles originally found on platforms including the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Nintendo64, Sega Genesis, and NEC TurboGrafx16.

Unlike the PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 game download services, there's no option to download a demo before purchasing the full version of a Virtual Console title — but with games costing just $6 to $10 each, most players probably won't complain too much if they wind up occasionally disappointed by a download.

A bigger worry is running out of on-board storage. The Wii has just 512 megabytes of memory, which could force avid downloaders to rely on pricey memory cards.

Nintendo is also rolling out a variety of non-game-related tangential web services, including a modified version of the popular PC-based open-source web browser Opera, as well as dedicated and customizable internet "channels" that deliver a stream of local news and weather content.

And there are more online features to come in the form of WiiConnect24. Nintendo has yet to fully exploit this "always on" service, but it will apparently be used to alert Wii owners to software and firmware updates for their consoles. Nintendo has also hinted that it could be employed as a means to deliver bonus content for some games; for example, a player may turn on her Wii one morning to find a new weapon or a bonus level waiting for a favourite game.

Sony PlayStation3

A screenshot of the PS3 main menu. A screenshot of the PS3 main menu.

Sony's PlayStation3 hardware comes in two versions, a deluxe $659 model and a slightly less-tricked-out $549 unit.

Consumers who spring for the more expensive machine will have two advantages when it comes to their online experience. The first has to do with connectivity: the pricier system has both wireless and Ethernet built in, while the cheaper model lacks integrated Wi-Fi. The second advantage of the $659 model is its 60-gigabyte drive, which gives users three times the storage capacity of the cheaper machine — an important feature for enthusiastic downloaders.

The amount of PlayStation3 content available for download is meagre at the moment, but Sony says it will grow significantly over the coming year. Content categories include casual PlayStation3 games, demos, updates and expansions for boxed titles, game and movie trailers, and even games that can be wirelessly transmitted to a PlayStation Portable hand-held game unit.

Speaking of the PlayStation Portable, Sony plans to release an upgrade for the PlayStation3's firmware sometime this year that will allow users of the handheld platform to access the content stored on their PlayStation3 — music, movies, and downloaded games — from anywhere in the world via a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Like the Wii, the PlayStation3 offers internet-based services tied to online play and content downloads. These include the ability to view instruction manuals online, and a dedicated web browser based on the surfing program Sony originally developed for the PlayStation Portable.

And, of course, Sony has also worked up a player community that, while not particularly groundbreaking, delivers the basics in elegant fashion. Users can create a friends list, send text messages and pictures to other players, and block players they don't like.

Microsoft Xbox 360

A screenshot of the Xbox Live Marketplace online store. A screenshot of the Xbox Live Marketplace online store.

The Microsoft Xbox 360's online service, dubbed Xbox Live, is arguably the console's top selling feature. The company announced at the beginning of the year that Xbox Live had accumulated more than five million subscribers before the company had sold 10 million Xbox 360 systems.

Xbox Live made its debut with the original Xbox, linking machines over the internet so that people could play together, but the service has evolved along with the hardware. Microsoft says that more than 100 million downloads have taken place over the past year as Xbox 360 owners gobble up classic, casual, and independent games, lengthy demos of boxed titles, music, short films, movie trailers, and even feature films. (Note, though, that movie downloads are currently only available in the U.S. — no word on when they might be available to Canadians.)

Xbox Live is now moving beyond downloads. Microsoft recently announced that the Xbox 360 would become a platform for internet protocol TV (IPTV) by the end of the year, and last fall, Microsoft unveiled a new Xbox Live module for sharing user-created games and game development tools. Dubbed XNA Express, Microsoft has said it hopes this game creation and distribution service will become the "YouTube of video games."

But the most attractive part of Xbox Live for many players is simply its gaming community. Players can keep in touch with friends through voice, video, and text messaging, see how far other gamers have progressed in various titles, earn cumulative achievement points with each game they play, and improve their online experience by filtering out players who have received poor feedback from other Xbox Live users. And it's all wrapped in a simple, accessible user interface that invites exploration and tinkering.

Still, it's not all roses.

For starters, Microsoft is the only console manufacturer to charge for key online features — about $70 annually. Plus, gamers intent on connecting wirelessly will need to cough up more than $100 for the Xbox 360's Wi-Fi adapter.

Also, the machine's on-board memory provides only 11GB of free space — that's assuming you bought the $499 model as opposed to the $399 unit, which is sans hard disc. With some retail game demos nearly a gigabyte in size, the drive can get clogged up pretty quickly.

And while IPTV and feature film downloads are a great idea, there's no word yet on when (or if) either of these services will be made available to Canadians.

Microsoft is the pacesetter at the moment for online functionality in this generation of consoles. Just keep in mind that, unlike the services available from the competition, it comes with a price.

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