The Xbox One and the PS4. Why am I not excited about either one?

Still, I should be, right? At least in the way of when I first saw an NES, or the Genesis, or the Dreamcast. Or the PS2. But for some reason, I’m just not that excited over either the PS4 or the Xbox One.

Instead of Ballmer taking the stage this year and yelling SOCIAL! SOCIAL! SOCIAL! the same way he enthusiastically delivered his platitudes for developers years ago, the Xbox One went through the dog and pony show this past Tuesday emphasizing its focus on social media. After surfing the news and observations trickling out after that show, I’ve come to a realization that if I really want a new console, I might be more tempted to go with a PS4 than an Xbox One.

It’s not that I hate Xbox — I have both the very first one (which had the hamburger-sized controller before I picked up an S model) and an Xbox 360. I also have had every generation of the Playstation. I also love my PC when it comes to gaming, though I use it for more than just that. So it really doesn’t matter to me as long as the hardware can deliver the games I’m interested in.

It's like a slim desktop PC now which isn't too far from what it's like now.

It’s like a slim desktop PC with limited upgrade options which isn’t too far from what it’s like now. And that Kinect is watching you. Even through this picture.

Both the Xbox One and the PS4 are going to deliver beautiful graphics and offer resources that should make developers happier this time around — especially in Sony’s case by tossing aside proprietary CPU architecture. The demos look “cool”, I guess, but it’s also clear that both consoles are so closely related by hardware that the argument can’t convincingly be made for me on why one will be better than the other. I’m not measuring the differences by a few pixels or frames here. I’m using a ruler measuring things from the perspective of seeing Sega go from the 8-bit Master System to the 16-bit Genesis. Or from going from an N64 to the Playstation in the same generation.

In what seems like a tacit admission of that fact, both companies are focusing instead on your living room and social habits. To me, that seems to be the new battleground. That’s where they’re going to try and grab eyes and wallets. In both presentations, social was being repeatedly hammered into the crowd — you can call your friends, share your videos, gameplay, post updates to Facebook, etc..

The thing is, a lot of people kind of already do some of things with their smartphones — or their PCs. That’s when both also emphasized the kind of interconnectivity that each system will deliver within their respective ecosystems. For example, the Vita will cling to the PS4 and the console will also offer integration with smart devices such as your phone or tablet. The Xbox One will use Microsoft’s SmartGlass technology to integrate your phone, tablet, whatever with your Xbox One in controlling your living room and social arena.

Both want you to use the console as a one-stop-shop for everything media and social related as the ultimate HTPC. At least that was what my impression was. Instead of just watching TV, now you can scan through later programs, check out how your fantasy football team is doing on the fly, and link up with friends to talk about the show.

None of that appeals to me. I never had a need to go quite that far with my viewing experiences or social tools. When I watch something with friends, we’re all usually in a group, face to face, sharing the experience. I can see the benefits of it for parents always on the go, though, or for those times when you just can’t get together because of distance (friends move on, family, etc..) just like what the Xbox 360 is doing now. For people that can’t get away with broadcasting their gameplay or putting clips into whatever cloud they use, though, it could also be useful to them.

What both systems seem to be aiming for is both the kind of demographic that loves playing games but also the crowd that love to socialize on the ‘net using whatever tools they have on hand. Even if that crowd doesn’t like playing video games, something like the Xbox One has the kind of built-in mentality that could appeal to those that want something pre-packaged with all of the social bells and whistles that they like to use. It’s like killing two birds with one stone and where the war is going to be fought in the next generation.

On paper, the PS4 has the raw hardware power — it’s like it still clings to the old school mentality in being a console focused on only gaming. At the same time, the Xbox One has given me the kind of impression that Intel’s shift from megahertz to smarter architecture has done for their CPUs. It may have less theoretical power, but it also does a few things within its architecture to squeeze what it needs out of it in other ways. It’ll be really interesting to hear from developers what working for either system is like in the years ahead.

One thing I am kind of concerned about is privacy. I’m not that enthusiastic about Sony’s idea of using real names for their system accounts going forward, but I’m also a lot less enthusiastic about the Xbox One after reading about how the Kinect will be “always-on”. Though I’d probably throw a towel over it, it’s kind of unnerving knowing that it will always be active in some capacity (you can turn on the Xbox One by speaking to it, so I guess it’s never off).

I’m hoping that there will be an option to turn it off, perhaps in the dashboard as a software switch. You can’t disconnect it — the Xbox One apparently won’t work without it turning it into a strange version of a hardware dongle.

There are also a few other things that creep me out about the new system:

  • Mandatory installations on an internal 500GB hard drive – granted, Microsoft notes that you can add external storage solutions when needed, but given how big a blu-ray game can get (the Xbox One is using blu-ray in an ironic twist) by approaching the 50GB range and hypothetically spread that multiple titles across eight years (about as long as the Xbox 360 has been around), and that’s not a lot of space to work with. Though not every game will always max out the blu-ray disk they’re on, it’s strange seeing the Xbox 360 take a very PC-centric approach with this. On the other hand, a number of games allow players to install a copy on the PC they’re using but allow anyone who logs in to play it.
  • Confusing answers on used games — the mandatory installation ties the game to your account, so if you go over a friend’s house, you’ll need to sign in (and install the game all over again…whee) to show them what it’s like. Gamestop’s stock took a slight ding on Tuesday when this was revealed and Microsoft vaguely stated that there will be something in place for used games and trades, but said little else after that. So will there be a fee or won’t there? However, it’s interesting that EA also announced that they were giving up on their infamous Online Pass program days before the Xbox One was revealed.
  • Always-on Kinect — yeah, creepy.
  • Always online — again, more confusion here from Microsoft’s Phil Harrison saying that it will need to connect at least once every 24 hours to backpedaling after his own team tried clarifying what was said later. So which is it? Then there was talk that the Xbox One will be offloading low latency calculations to Microsoft Azure cloud architecture — similar in a way to which OnLive did for games by doing the processing on their end and streaming the results to you. How much of an impact will that have on games going forward, especially for players with spotty connections (or none at all if they’re military or traveling to places with poor ‘net?). Either way, it sounds like Xbox One wants to be online a lot whether you’re ready for it or not. The PS4, not so much.
  • Proprietary audio jack — that fancy headset you have right now? It won’t work on the new Xbox One because Microsoft redesigned the jack in order to provide an enhanced experience. Of all of the petty things to change on the system, this has to take the cake. It’s like a hardware manufacturer changing the shape on a USB port and tweaking the specs so that they can corner the market on specific widgets they also have an interest in. The PS4 isn’t doing that — though you’ll need new controllers since the DualShocks for the PS3 aren’t supported. Maybe there will be an adapter of some kind. Or maybe I just won’t get one.
  • HDMI only – if you only have component ports, or are still using an SDTV, consider yourself SOL.

Sony seemed to focus primarily on gamers being gamers. Not gamers who also live as TV channel surfers and sports maniacs. It also didn’t hint at an agenda of privacy violations in the aftermath (though its predictive menu system that could collate and guess at what you like based on gaming and watching preferences raised some eyebrows), or offer as many vague dodges as Microsoft’s PR did.

Even though Sony was blasted for not even showing what the finished hardware was like then and that it lacked backwards compatibility (thanks to its shift to x86 architecture versus the Cell-based hardware of the PS3 — think of it as trying to play an NES game on Genesis hardware), they still got the ball rolling in a relatively positive sense even if I also felt a bit meh about their presentation, too.

At this point, if I had to choose one over the other, I’d likely lean towards the PS4. Unless Microsoft comes up with better answers addressing privacy concerns and used games, it’s just hard for me to see it in the same light at the moment. Which is too bad. I’ve had a lot of fun with the Xbox 360 and the first Xbox. Metal Wolf Chaos almost always sees some love every now and then.

Maybe I should just upgrade my PC and be done with it. I’ll have a productive piece of hardware and a game machine all in one.

But then I might miss out on Sega’s Yakuza.

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