Next Generation – Which Way Now?

The lines have been drawn in the sand. We know what the next five years or so of video games in the living room is going to look like from Christmas onward, and now we just have to choose sides.

If you’d asked me a week ago, before the Xbox announcement, I’d have said Xbox – no question. However, looking at the way things are going and the importance being thrown at integrated media, it seems like an all-encompassing box-under-the-telly is what we’ll end up with.

I find myself in a bit of a quandary now though, as to which way I want to go. As I see it, I have three main options now, and I’ll have to decide what to do as the year goes on and more details are revealed about the new systems. This is how it stands right now for me:

1. Xbox One

I was really looking forward to the reveal last Tuesday as I had no idea what to expect. I thought they might go the way of adding more TV and film options, as they throw a lot of weight behind their  video streaming options at the moment, but the level of integration they showed was a surprise. I like the idea of everything going through one box; TV, blu-rays, games etc. But I’m not sure how well it’s going to do it. What I’ve read so far suggests that it’ll merely act as a pass-through for existing set-top boxes, but I can’t see how that works with the shown tv guide and voice-powered channel hopping. HDMI-CEC maybe? If they could properly integrate TV (e.g. PVR capabilities), they’d be onto a winner, but I can’t see it happening at the moment because of things like copyright and TV providers wanting to hang on to control (Sky for example).

They’ve not really shown much in the way of games yet, but they stuff they have shown suggests current high spec PC level.

I love the idea of continuing my Live account, my friends list, the excellent controllers and the way everything’s tied together.

2. Playstation 4

Sony haven’t really shown much of the PS4 yet, except for the controller, some games and a tease video showing some vents and close-ups of the machine. It’ll be a games machine first and foremost, and while they may still try to shovel some media through their store, it’s going to be less inclusive than Microsoft’s offering.

I wasn’t overly enamoured with the PS3. It’s a good enough machine, but I’ve had disproportionately more time playing blu-rays, streaming films and using Netflix than I have playing games on it. Once in a while I’ll fire it up to play something, but I’ll always go for the Xbox version of a game first.

The whole experience is a bit more disjointed that the 360 and they seem to have been playing catch-up the whole time (friends lists, cross-game chat and invitations, achievements/trophies etc.)

3. HTPC

This is the most tempting and most interesting option at the moment. A Home Theatre PC (HTPC) would fill the same void as an Xbox One, but by going down the PC games route instead.

It would mean building a PC with a nice-looking case, something suitable for sitting under the TV on top of the AV receiver. It would have to be as close to silent as possible, but conversely be powerful too. I’d need a graphics card happy to chuck out 1080p resolution at full detail – which isn’t actually that big a deal these days – and ideally something with 4K in mind, even though my current TV doesn’t support it.

The main bugbear with going down this road is the user interface. Consoles are designed to work with a gamepad from start to finish. While gamepads work nicely with PC games, navigating a PC interface with one doesn’t. One solution is Steam’s Big Picture mode, and while the idea of a Steam Box is a nice one, it would be nice not to be tied to that. A nice speedy linux distro would be great, but then I’d be tying myself to a limited amount of games. Stripped down, non-Metro windows 8 would be ok.

The major cons I’d be facing would be losing out on the community of Xbox Live and the feeling of an integrated experience. Everything ties together and works with Xbox. But the games are a lot cheaper on PC, and in theory I could have them looking a lot nicer and have a decent media center at the same time.

I’ll wait for E3 in a week or two and see what else comes out about the new consoles, and hopefully be able to make a more informed choice then. The times, they are a-changing.

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