Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Battle of the Boxes: PlayStation 3 vs. Wii

Even people utterly uninterested in videogames know by now that two new game machines have arrived this month to lure holiday shopping dollars out of consumers’ wallets. One is the long-anticipated PlayStation 3 from the videogame leader, Sony Corp. The other is the more obscure Wii, from the videogame pioneer, Nintendo Co. Both are going up against the year-old Xbox 360 from Microsoft Corp.

Like the Xbox, the PS3 and the Wii bear little resemblance to the toylike game consoles of the 1980s and 1990s. They are powerful computers that have been optimized for graphics and sound. And, like the Xbox, the two new contenders can handle multimedia and can connect to the Internet.

We’ve been testing the two newcomers, with help from four volunteers, three men and a woman, all in their 20s, most of whom have extensive game-playing experience. We tried a selection of games for each.

PS3 and Wii
Sony’s PlayStation 3 (left) and Nintendo’s Wii (right).

These two new game machines couldn’t be more different. The PlayStation 3 is a bulky, shiny black box that costs $600, or $500 for a somewhat stripped-down model. That’s up to $200 more than the Xbox 360, and about what you’d spend on a basic Windows computer. The PS3 includes a hard disk, a networking port, Wi-Fi wireless networking, and playback of DVDs and CDs. It produces high-definition video. In fact, the PS3 can also play a next-generation, high-definition movie disk, called Blu-ray.

The Wii is a small, thin white box that costs just $250 and has much wimpier specs than the Sony. It does have Wi-Fi, but it lacks a hard disk, a networking port, and the ability to play DVDs or CDs, let alone Blu-ray disks. It cannot produce high-definition video. It has fewer ports and connectors.

Yet, in our tests, we found the more modest Wii to be the more exciting, fun and satisfying of the two new game machines. We and our four volunteer testers were impressed by the rich, realistic graphics and intricate game play in some of the half-dozen PS3 games we tried. By contrast, we all agreed that the graphics on the Wii ranged from dated to cheesy.

But the Wii won our hearts for one reason: It uses a wireless controller that can detect your arm and hand motions and transfer them to the screen, so that you can physically control the action. This opens up huge possibilities. In sports games, you can actually swing a baseball bat or tennis racket or golf club. In adventure games, you can slash a sword through the air or throw a punch. You make pretty much the same motions, using your full arm and hand, that you’d make with the real objects.

With the Wii, you don’t sit on the couch and just press buttons. You typically stand. You get a workout. In fact the Wii controller, a slim rectangular gadget that looks like a TV remote control, has a wrist strap to prevent it from being hurled across the room while you are, say, serving in tennis. The controller also has a small built-in speaker and it transmits vibrations to make the play more realistic. There are already reports of people complaining of sore elbows and wrists from hours of Wii play. Our testers were initially amazed that they felt a little winded and sore after hours in front of the Wii.

To show off these capabilities, every Wii comes with a free disk called Wii Sports that includes simple, basic sports games — tennis, baseball, golf, bowling, and boxing. These aren’t fully realized games; they are more like demonstrations. The graphics are crude and the games lack multiple levels of difficulty. But they are terrific fun. One of our testers, a college athlete who is bored by standard videogames, said they gave her the first opportunity ever to feel successful at a videogame.

We assume some clever game developer can produce more sophisticated versions of these sports games, and of other types of games that make full use of the Wii controller. There are also likely to be specialized controllers that can take advantage of the Wii’s motion sensitivity.

The PS3’s controller, which resembles the one on the previous-generation PlayStation 2, also has some motion sensitivity. But it seems much more limited, and the controller doesn’t vibrate.

The two products are clearly aimed at different audiences. While the PS3 has a lot of multimedia features, it is really for hard-core gamers with deep pockets (or with parents with deep pockets) — the folks who spend days mastering all the levels and secrets of a complex game.

The Wii is for casual game players, including younger kids and older adults who find the complexity and finger skills required for the PlayStation and Xbox to be intimidating. Even adventure games and racing games on the Wii seem easier to get into than similar titles on the PS3.

Left: Two people seen standing while they use the Nintendo Wii’s motion-sensor remotes to play games. Right: Screen views of a Wii tennis match show on-screen players mimicking motions of the wireless controllers.

In addition to Wii Sports, we tested and enjoyed two other Wii titles — “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess,” an adventure game; and “Excite Truck,” a driving game. In the former, the controller can be swung like a sword. In the latter, you can move it to steer. We also ran a simple slideshow on the Wii by inserting a memory card from a digital camera.

The Wii can also play a selection of older Nintendo games, such as Super Mario and Donkey Kong. You have to buy and download these from the online Wii shop. But we were disappointed that they require the purchase of an extra, old-style controller, which we couldn’t find in either of our local Best Buy or Circuit City stores.

The Wii also has a fun system for creating avatars you can use to represent yourself in various games. They are called “Miis” and you can assign them a wide range of facial features.

The PS3 has some impressive features. All six of us were blown away by the graphics on PS3 titles like “Genji: Days of the Blade,” an action-adventure game set in old Japan; and “Ridge Racer 7,” a car-racing game. We enjoyed the skateboarding game “Tony Hawk’s Project 8,” including the use of the PlayStation controller’s limited-motion sensitivity — though the graphics in that game were much cruder than in the other two.

We also were impressed by the photo slideshow feature on the PS3, which turned photos on a camera memory card we inserted into sharp, vibrant images of snapshot prints fluttering on the screen.

We also watched a high-definition movie on a Blu-ray disk and thought it looked and sounded good.

But none of us felt that the game graphics, or the Blu-ray movie playback, were superior enough to the Xbox 360’s graphics and DVD playback, to justify the PS3’s heftier price. None of our four volunteer testers said they’d buy the PS3 at $600. (The $500 model of the PS3 seemed a bad bargain because it lacks Wi-Fi, which is needed in most homes to connect to the Internet for online game playing.)

In fact, the PS3’s graphics, while better in some cases than what we’d seen on the Xbox, weren’t knock-your-socks-off better. And, to really get the most out of a PS3, especially its Blu-ray disk feature, you need a high-definition TV.

In addition, there were some annoying lapses on the PS3. Setup was long and complicated. Load times for games and for levels within games were slow. Typing is tedious, using an onscreen representation of a cellphone keypad (though you can attach a computer keyboard if you have one.) Just registering for the Internet features seemed to take an eternity.

Plus, the PS3’s wireless controller was a pain. In our tests, it often ran out of juice and had to be plugged in to be recharged. Once plugged in, we were always accidentally disconnecting it, because the cable was too short.

Speaking of cables, they may cost you a bundle on a PS3. It comes with a new-style high-definition connector, called an HDMI jack, that provides the best video on a high-definition TV. But it lacks an HDMI cable, an accessory that can easily cost $100.

For mainstream users, who lack the skill or patience or interest for complex videogames, the Wii is the way to go. For hard-core gamers, the PS3 will be the one you want, but only if you are willing to part with a lot of money.

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