If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd imagine that Sony just launched one of the most successful corporate counterintelligence operations of all time, providing Microsoft with a lot of false information on the next generation Playstation, the PS4, that Microsoft in turn used to advise their approach to the Xbox One:
"Psst... it's got always-on, mandatory internet connectivity so people can't steal games."
"Psst... we're going to charge people money to play used games."
"Psst... it's going to be really expensive, like $600."
In a way it's the only rational explanation for what happened at the E3 electronics expo last week when Sony finally presented their next generation video game console. It was a sucker punch that clearly caught Microsoft off guard and angered a lot of core Xbox fans. How, people wondered, could Microsoft get it so wrong?
The launch matchup was so over-the-top in Sony's favour it prompted Digg to title a post, "Playstation 4 is Better Than Xbox One In Every Way" with a link to an article on The Verge (www.theverge.com) that breaks down the reasons why. Another article on TechCrunch (www.techcrunch.com) proclaimed, "You're Not Wrong, Microsoft, You're Just An Asshole," accusing Microsoft of betraying hardcore gamers. The writer was particularly upset about the always on requirement and the need for Xbox One to connect to head office every 24 hours to work — something that's not practical for anyone who wants to bring their console along on an RV road trip, to the cottage or even to grandma's house where broadband isn't available.
Not that Microsoft is without its defenders, but a head-to-head comparison gives PS4 the advantage when it comes to technical specs (more graphics power, more available memory), smaller size, an indie game hub that allows game designers to self publish, no regional restrictions (boxes and games can be played around the world), no online "always on" requirement, no fees to play used games and price — it costs a full $100 less than the Xbox One ($399 vs. $499).
The one drawback I've noticed in particular for the Xbox One is the relatively small hard drive — 500GB is not a lot of space when you're required to download the contents of a game disk before playing as the largest games on Blu-ray now top 50GB. I imagine that some Xbox users are going to run out of space fast within a few years and will be forced to delete games. The PS4's hard drive is the same size, but there's no download requirement and Sony has already promised to make it easy for customers to swap in larger hard drives.
Microsoft does have a few advantages. The Xbox One comes with a now mandatory but improved Kinect device that will respond to voice commands and movements in real time. Sony does offer a PS4 Eye camera that does a few of the same things as Kinect for about $70 extra, but it's nowhere close. But it's also not mandatory and it's not always on, and there are no real concerns about privacy as has been voiced with the Xbox One.
The Xbox One is definitely a better platform for multimedia as well, at least in North America where you can use it as a cable box — something that adds value to families that will have to choose between one system and the other. There are also more exclusive launch titles than Sony, including hits like Halo, and a lot of gamers prefer the Xbox controller over the Sony Dualshock 4.
And not everything about Sony was a slam-dunk either. For one thing, they seem to be following Xbox's lead when it comes to implementing an annual fee to use multiplayer. Xbox Gold accounts cost $40 to $60 a year while a Playstation Plus account is $40 to $50 per year.
Microsoft is boosting that side of their business by increasing the number of supporting servers to 300,000, something Sony won't come close to offering. The result should be faster matchmaking, lag-free games, and support for larger team games over Xbox Live.
However, Sony's "Plus" accounts also provide subscribers with dozens of free game downloads worth potentially hundreds of dollars, plus movies and other content. For value, I'd have to give Sony the edge yet again.
Both Sony and Microsoft are taking preorders for delivery some time in the fourth quarter of 2014.
Meanwhile, Nintendo — sitting on an underperforming WiiU platform — is using the console war to push itself as a credible third option entirely focused on gamers while announcing dozens of games at E3. The graphics are nothing special and the system will date itself fast, but the system retails for $349 now and could be under $300 by the holidays.
Which system should you buy? My advice is to wait and see what Valve's Steambox has to offer, to read the launch reviews of the Xbox One and PS4, add up all the costs for accessories to get a sense of the true costs and to test drive all of the systems at an electronics store. In the end, a $100 difference isn't a big deal for a system you'll own for four or five years and derive thousands of hours of pleasure from both as a console and multimedia device. Choose the system that's right for you.