Tonight at midnight, Sony's PlayStation 3 officially goes on sale. Only 400,000 units are expected to be available at launch in North America, so it's going to be tough to find one.
But the final console battle of this decade begins now, with Nintendo's new Wii joining the fight when it hits stores Sunday.
The big question, of course, is which unit is better?
Let's eliminate Wii from this discussion for now.
It's a unit that is aimed at the younger gamer or the novice gamer and it does a lot of things really, really well. I think if you have the means, the Wii is an excellent addition, at $250, to your video game playing habits. The motion-controlled joystick is one of the best developments ever in the industry. If 360 or PS3 had it, this story would be over.
But if you have to have one system, for most people the choice will come down to 360 vs. PS3.
I have had the 360 for a year and enjoy it thoroughly. Xbox Live is the best onling gaming community ever. You can download music videos and game updates and soon, full-rez HDTV movies.
HEAD TO HEAD
I've had the PS3 for a week and enjoy it thoroughly, too. Picking between them is hard. But a few points:
-- The PS3's graphics are better in the game "challenges" I've put the machines through.
In some games, it's very noticeable. In NBA 2K7, the 360 version, while sharp, looks cartoonish. On PS3, it looks more like TV than any basketball game I've ever seen.
Tiger Woods looks similar on both units, though the PS3 is marginally sharper and more realistic. It's a subtle change I appreciated.
Overall, I've seen the consoles be about even on a few games and PS3 better (or really better) in others.
What I have not seen so far -- and it's awful early in the testing because I don't have a bevy of games yet -- is a 360 version of a game be graphically superior to the PS3 version.
-- The PS3 costs more.
At $499 with a 20-gig hard drive or $599 with a 60-gig, the PS3 dwarfs the top end Xbox 360, which goes for $399 with a hard drive. A 360 without the drive is $299.
That said, the PS3 comes with a Blu-Ray DVD player that will deliver stunning picture and sound via an HDMI cable to your HDTV. Microsoft has released a $199 addition to 360 to provide an HD-DVD player, which we haven't tested, but that would take your Xbox 360 to the same $600 price point as PS3. But if you don't have an HDTV, you could take that same $200 and apply it towards a Wii, which doesn't do HDTV either.
-- Ultimately, PS3 may have more games.
Given Sony's long history of dominance in this market, my feeling is, long term, PS3 will have more games. Microsoft has a couple crucial games you can't get on PS3, like Halo, but you can also play your entire library of PS2 games on the new PlayStation, though there are reports of a handful of PS2 games not working with PS3.
THE WINNER IS
It's a close race, like the last presidential election, but I've got to go with the PlayStation 3. I've been a big Xbox fan since the first one came out. It was the best of the last-gen consoles. Xbox 360 is a great system, but if price is out of the equation, the PS3 is better and does more things.
The PS3's motion-sensor controller will add an element to game-playing the 360 doesn't have, though the PS3 remote no longer includes rumble features. The Blu Ray would allow someone to buy a $600 videogame unit and also get a DVD player that goes anywhere from $1,000 to $1,400.
Most HDTVs have one or two HDMI connections, which allow you to get video and sound from one plug. It's also all digital and displays the best picture. Some cable boxes and most satellite TV boxes have an HDMI plug.
Given HDTVs usually only have one or two HDMI connections -- except with top-end models -- it's a bonus to get two things in one connection. In this example, you'd get your HD-DVD and your gaming from the PS3 in one HDMI connection, and stick your other HDMI connection into your cable or satellite box.
One note, though, I wouldn' t play a videogame on a plasma or rear-projection HDTV because those may suffer burn-in, or the football field you play Madden on may permanently appear on your TV screen. That might interfere with your Eva Longoria dates on Sunday nights while you watch "Desparate Housewives."
As I said, you can also add the HD-DVD option onto the 360.
I've not tested it yet and can't say how well it does. But, right now, the PS3 is outputting the best graphics and DVD videos I've ever seen and it has a decent and developing on-line community.
If you don't have an HDTV and don't plan to get one, though, I'd lean towards 360 because of price. On standard TVs, you won't notice the subtle graphical differences between the machines.
That's why the race is so close.
But given that the future is HDTV, I've got to lean towards the PS3. I'll be interested to see, however, how the market reacts to a $600 videogame console. Xbox 360, with its wealth of games and current HD-DVD support, could benefit from lack of PS3 consoles at launch. Some stores will give frustrated customers who were on Ps3 waiting lists and won't get the unit this weekend a free 360 game if they buy a 360 console instead.
The war is on. It's going to be fun.