Katherine Boehret

The ABCs of Wii, Xbox and PlayStation 3

With holiday shopping comes anxiety about getting the right gifts. Does Dad already own a copy of “Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits”? Was Mom expecting a new pepper mill, or was that Aunt Carol? It’s even worse for people shopping for the video gamers in their lives: Understanding the technical specifications of each console can seem as difficult as getting to the highest level in a game of Halo.

This week, I’ve done the dirty work for you: I’ve amassed a collection of vital details about the three most popular systems—Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox 360, Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii—so that you can get a handle on what each offers and what it will cost you.

Nintendo Wii

Nintendo recently dropped the Wii’s price, for the first time, to $200 from $250. The Wii Console comes with a controller, an additional controller called a Nunchuk, and the Wii Sports game, which includes baseball, tennis, golf, bowling and boxing. It holds 512 megabytes of flash memory, but you can increase this by inserting SecureDigital memory cards. It also accepts high-capacity SD cards, or SDHCs, of up to 32 gigabytes.

The couch-potato world of videogamers was shaken up when the Wii, with its motion-sensitive remote control, was introduced about three years ago. Users can play Wii Golf, for instance, by swinging the remote like a golf club. In September, Nintendo added to its lineup a $20 remote-control accessory called Wii MotionPlus that was designed to add more precision to game motions. I tested this snap-on piece and found that it did make the Wii’s motions feel more realistic. But it works only with Wii MotionPlus games—and there are only six of them; 10 more are planned for 2010.

Wii encourages users to move around in more ways than just waving a remote: Its Wii Balance Board, which comes with the Wii Fit Plus game in a $100 bundle, works like a digital exercise step. It records the body’s weight shifts and movements for activities from yoga to wake-boarding.

The Wii accesses the Internet and lets users compete online against others. About 655 packaged games are available for between $30 and $50. Also, you can use pre-purchased Nintendo Points to buy and download about 150 WiiWare games and over 325 titles from the older Virtual Console library. Each game costs between 300 and 1,500 points, or between about $3 and $15.

WiiConnect24 can send messages from one Wii to another over the Internet, as long the two users exchange “Wii numbers.” Users can also surf the Web with Wii’s Opera browser. But beyond this, no other Web features—like downloadable movies, social-networking applications or streaming music—will work on this system.

Parental controls can be set on the Wii to restrict kids from using the Web browser, playing games that have a certain rating or communicating online.

Microsoft Xbox 360

Microsoft recently stepped up its game by adding features to its $200 Xbox 360 that make it well-rounded rather than strictly geared toward serious gamers. People who buy the Xbox LIVE Gold membership, for $50 a year, get applications for Facebook, Twitter, the Last.fm music-streaming service, online multiplayer game play, video chat, Netflix (Netflix subscription required), photo sharing via the Xbox, and movie or photo “parties” that allow users to watch a movie simultaneously with seven other friends.

Xbox LIVE Silver membership is free and includes basic features like voice and text chat, as well as access to the Zune video library’s 20,000 TV shows and movies to buy or rent. The Xbox also allows media-streaming over a home network. To wirelessly connect to the Internet on your Xbox, you’ll need to buy a $100 Wi-Fi adapter. By contrast, the Wii and PlayStation 3 have built-in Wi-Fi.

Anyone who owns a Microsoft Zune media player can buy a TV show or movie and download it to an Xbox or PC as well as the Zune. Zunes can be plugged into the Xbox to play music, as can Apple (AAPL) iPods.

The base Xbox comes with a wireless controller and 512 megabytes of memory. For $100 more, the Elite Holiday Bundle includes a 120-gigabyte hard drive, headset, wireless controller, and two games: “LEGO Batman: The Videogame” and “Pure.” More than 1,200 games are available for the Xbox, mostly costing between $29 and $60. About 350 of the games can be downloaded from the Xbox LIVE Arcade (costing 400 to 1,600 points, or $5 to $20) or the Games on Demand library.

Microsoft confirmed plans to introduce Project Natal, a system that lets people operate games with gestures and body movements rather than remote controls. Natal will work with all Xbox 360 consoles. Microsoft won’t confirm a date.

Family settings let parents control whether their kids play games online and with whom they play, as well as the ratings of the games. A Family Timer regulates how long kids play.

Sony PlayStation 3

Sony’s PlayStation, like the Xbox 360, is designed with serious gamers in mind. Its base version costs $300 and includes a 120-gigabyte hard drive and a DualShock 3 wireless controller; $50 more buys a version with a 250-gigabyte hard drive. Both systems can be upgraded with any standard 2.5-inch hard drive. The PlayStation is also a Blu-ray disc player.

Like the Xbox, the PlayStation 3, or PS3, now offers extra features, but these features are all included in the PlayStation Network, which is free (not $50 yearly like Xbox LIVE Gold). These PlayStation Network extras include Netflix (NFLX) instant streaming, a Web browser, photo slide shows, the ability to stream media over a home network to the PS3, a Facebook application that shares game information with friends and the PlayStation Network video-delivery service, where users can purchase 2,400 high- and standard-definition movies and 15,000 TV episodes.

The PS3 and the PlayStation Portable, Sony’s portable gaming device, are married in many ways. A new feature called Blu-ray Portable Copy lets users make a free standard-definition copy of some Blu-ray movies for transfer to a PlayStation Portable. Remote Play lets people stream media files from the PS3 to the PlayStation Portable in Wi-Fi hot spots or remotely turn the PS3 on or off using the PlayStation Portable. Movies and TV shows from the PlayStation Network can be transferred to either system, so you can start a movie on a big-screen TV and finish it on the PlayStation Portable; the same can be done for games.

About 400 games are available on Blu-ray for the PS3; these cost between $30 and $60. More than 150 titles, costing between $3 and $40, can be downloaded directly to the PS3. Sony confirmed that it will release a motion-sensing controller, but it hasn’t set a date.

Parental restrictions for the PS3 include the ability to restrict games, DVDs and Blu-ray discs with certain ratings. Parents can also limit monthly spending or Web browsing.

Games: A Cheat Sheet

Here are some of the key differences among three popular videogame systems.

Price $200 200 or $300* $300, $350
Includes Wireless controller, Nunchuk, Wii Sports Wireless controller/ Wireless controller, headset, 2 games DualShock 3 wireless controller
Additional remotes $40 wireless; Nunchuk is $20 $50 wireless, $40 wired, $20 headset $55 DualShock 3 wireless controller, $50 Bluetooth headset, $40 PlayStation Eye, $25 Blu-ray disc remote control, $50 wireless keypad
Memory 512 MB, can be increased with SD cards 512 MB, $300 Xbox comes with 120 GB 120 GB or 250 GB
Built-in Wi-Fi? Yes No. $100 Wireless adapter sold separately Yes
Games 1,100 1,200 550
Cost of Games 30-$50; $3-$15 for downloads Most are $29-$60; $5-$20 for downloads $30-$60; $3-$40 for downloads
Other features Web browser, ability to message other Wii consoles Netflix, Last.fm, movie parties, MSN Messenger, Facebook, Twitter, photo sharing, online multiplayer gaming Netflix, Facebook integration, photo slide shows, PlayStation Network videos, online multiplayer gaming
Extras $100 Wii Balance Board and Wii FitPlus, $20 Wii MotionPlus Xbox LIVE Silver is free, Xbox LIVE Gold is $50/year Blu-ray disc playing, multiple tie-ins with Playstation Portable
Family Settings Restrict online browsing, communication, game ratings Restrict online play, with whom users can play, game ratings, time spent playing Restrict online play, games or movies with certain ratings, monthly expenses, Web browsing
Relationship w/portable device Wireless, free demo downloads from Wii Channel onto DS or DSi Play videos bought anywhere on Zune, PC or Xbox 360 Blu-ray Portable Copy gives free copy of some movies for transferring to PlayStation Portable
Media streamed to console over home network? No Yes Yes
* for Elite Holiday Bundle

Email: mossbergsolution@wsj.com

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

Xbox LIVE Gold costs $50 a year. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated in the second reference to the price that it costs $50 monthly. Also, the Xbox 360 can be connected to the Internet via an ethernet cable for free, as well as via Wi-Fi. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that connecting your Xbox to the Internet would require the purchase of a Wi-Fi adapter.

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