• Tech

The Battle Over America’s Living Rooms

3 minute read
Matt Peckham

Gaming consoles weren’t supposed to last another generation. That’s the fortune-cookie logic, anyway. Android and iOS, smartphones and tablets–they’re the future, right? Why spend hundreds of dollars on big black boxes that feature expensive games and hunker down in your entertainment center when that entertainment center now fits in your pocket or purse and costs a buck or less a game?

Forget conventional wisdom: Grand Theft Auto V, which arrived in September for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, racked up more than $1 billion in three days, shattering the all-time fastest-selling record–not just for games but for entertainment of any sort in the history of forever. There is no Grand Theft Auto V for users of tablets or smartphones, and it’s that other audience that Sony and Microsoft hope to woo as they drop to a sprinter’s position with an all-but-equal share of the global gaming market. Now the two tech heavyweights are squaring off in a battle to see who will dominate the world’s living rooms for the next decade.

In one corner is Sony’s $400 PlayStation 4, a monomaniacally games-focused ebony parallelogram that exudes refinement. There’s no one standout feature to scrutinize, no genre-bending gizmo or watercooler-worthy service to trumpet. Instead, Sony has crafted an alloyed machine that takes everything the company has learned about platform design–including movies, streaming media and more–and aims it squarely at core gamers.

In the other corner is Microsoft’s $500 Xbox One, a chunky, desktop-like multimedia axis that vies for gamers but also beckons to the average couch potato. By allowing you to plug your cable box into the Xbox One, Microsoft wants its console to assimilate your media-verse, alchemizing your TV, streaming services and gaming into a voice-controlled master hub. And the Xbox One just might pull it off. Dependability is the watchword in voice control, and the new Kinect camera is far more reliable than the one used by the Xbox 360.

Why buy into more of the same, however souped-up it may be, in 2013? Even if big-idea gaming isn’t what you want, there’s something to be said for refinement–taking imperfect products that never really worked as well as we wished and ironing out the wrinkles. That’s what $400 to $500 for one of these consoles buys at this turn in the road. These systems seem as if they’ve been around the block, turbocharged and readied for Sunday drivers and Formula One freaks alike.

The question is, Which audience is more important, especially when early adopters drive sales and word of mouth on social media is a crucial component of success? With the two consoles offering similar media services, a $100 difference seems tectonic. But the biggest difference between them comes down to ambition. Microsoft’s console seems more intrepid than Sony’s, more plugged into our potentially content-riddled, voice-driven future. If Microsoft is guessing right, it has made a bet that could pay dividends.

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com