What is a video game console?

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What separates the console from the handheld, mobile and PC gaming formats?

A video games console is a device played through a TV and designed expressly for the purpose of playing games. While they can be moved, they are not considered mobile as they require an external power source and a screen to be used. Consoles, as opposed to PCs, cannot be customised and given more power during the course of their lifetime, and are effectively capped by the initial launch hardware configurations.

As such, the video game console landscape tends to move in generations, whereby the major manufacturers release new systems at regular intervals to counter the affect of developers exceeding the power requirements of the aging technology to run their latest games. To date, there have been eight console generations, with the latest including the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and the Wii U. Only one console from the coming ninth generation has been announced – the Nintendo Switch – and no release date or information has been revealed.

There have been five major manufacturers over these eight generations – Atari, Microsoft, Sony, Sega and Nintendo - although there have been many companies that have tried their luck in the space at various junctures. The most notable of these include Commodore, SNK, Magnavox and Panasonic. Console generations tend to start with machines being very expensive. The price point of a given console slowly descends over its lifetime as the manufacturing of the product becomes cheaper and the manufacturer seeks to engage a wider audience.

While each console rallies behind its exclusive games, usually funded wholly or in part by the manufacturer of the respective console, third-party developers – those not tied to or financed by a console maker - will tend to release their games on multiple formats. However, third-party developers will also follow the console with the most sales as that gives them the most chance of selling games. As a result we have seen in some generations particular consoles are largely ignored while others become the "lead format." The lead format refers to the console the developer is focused on and optimising for when making a game, with "ports" of the title appearing on other devices, often at a later date.

In the current eighth generation of consoles, the PS4 has sold approximately 30 million units at the time of writing, and is starting to establish itself as the lead format. The Xbox One has 17 million sales and is very much catered for by 90% of multiformat games. The Wi U, however, is left out of the thoughts of most third-party developers due to it having a low install-base, restrictive power and a perception of a younger audience..

Developer 1st gen 2nd gen 3rd gen 4th gen 5th gen 6th gen 7th gen 8th gen 9th gen
Atari - 2600 and 5200 7800 and XEGS - Jaguar - - -
Microsoft - - - - - Xbox Xbox 360 Xbox One
Nintendo Color TV - NES SNES Nintendo 64 GameCube Wii Wii U Switch
Sega - - SG-1000/Master System Genesis/Master System II Saturn Dreamcast - -
Sony - - - - PlayStation PlayStation 2 PlayStation 3 PlayStation 4

Top Tips When Looking To Buy a Video Game Console

Video games consoles can easily pay for themselves in the hours of entertainment they provide, but they’re an expensive purchase up front and making the right decision is critical. Here are a couple of important questions to consider when making your choice:

  • What game series do you like? While most big blockbuster games are available on multiple formats, each console does have exclusive game series that you cannot buy anywhere else. Don’t make the mistake of choosing a console that does not have the game you want to play. For example, if you want Mario you need Nintendo. If you want Halo, you need Xbox. If you want Gran Turismo, you need PlayStation.
  • Do you require additional equipment? For example, modern consoles output their signal via HDMI, and will not work on older TVs. If you expect to play a lot of multiplayer, or have more than one child, you will need at least one extra controller. Do you need a good headset, or a sound system? What is your internet connection like and do you need a faster speed to make the most of a console’s features?
  • Have you compared console bundles? While console makers have a generic console bundle they sell to retailers, the retailers themselves may look to form their own bundles to give them the edge over competitors. Make sure you have a look around the various shops (view side menu) to see who is offering what at your time of purchase. Chances are you will be able to pick up a couple of games and/or free online play at a cheaper price than you expected.
  • What are your friends playing? More and more games are focused on online competitive or cooperative play, and being able to connect with friends for a game of FIFA or Destiny is a great way to use your console. So be careful that you don’t buy one console, only to find out all your friends are on another. If you are playing on different consoles, you will not be able to connect and play against each other.
  • Do you already own a console? The Xbox One and Wii U both support backwards compatibility, so if you already own their predecessors – the Xbox 360 and the Wii respectively – you may want to consider sticking with that brand. This way you have existing games you can play. Also, these two consoles and the PS4 retain your user profile, so if you continue with the same brand, your friend’s lists and previous achievements will carry across.
  • What about buying a console second-hand? Obviously buying second-hand will save you money, but be wary. Modern consoles have a habit of breaking a lot more than their predecessors of yesteryear and often without warning. You could easily buy a lemon and be left with no warranty to do anything about it. If you are going to buy second-hand, make sure it's a significant cheaper price and ideally with extras (like some games or a spare controller) thrown in.

Compare PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Wii U

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