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Console Wars: Which gaming system is right for your family?

Wii, PlayStation 3, or Xbox 360? That is the question that’s plagued families since the video game console wars began. And as the technology on each of these leading gaming systems has gotten more advanced, it’s gotten even tougher to decide which one of the “big three” consoles is right for you.

All offer a ton of incredible games for players of all ages, and now, thanks to advances in wireless technology and video streaming, all three consoles also double as complete home entertainment systems. We’ve laid out the benefits and potential drawbacks of each major console, factoring in the potential reasons your family might be considering such a system for your own home.

Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with any of these – you can just get a lot more “right” for your money if you choose the console that best suits the way your family plays.

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check-mark.jpgWhy it’s right for your family:

It’ll get you moving

Microsoft’s ingenious motion-control system, Kinect, might be reason enough to declare Xbox 360 the winner in this shootout. Small (it’s basically a webcam on steroids) and simple to set up, Kinect enables you to play games on your Xbox 360 simply by moving your body – no controller required. Though fewer than 50 Kinect games have been released to date, there’s something for every member of the family in the system’s available titles: from interactive storybooks for toddlers to hardcore dance and fitness challenges for Mom, Dad, and teens.

It’s got plenty for older gamers

Of course, Xbox 360 also remains a system of choice for the older, more seasoned gamers in your family, with close to 1,000 sports, action, strategy, and, of course, shooter games (including the Xbox 360-exclusive Halo series) available. Many older Xbox games – before the system became “360″ – remain compatible for Xbox 360, and you can also use the system to watch DVDs (just not Blu-ray discs) and play audio CDs. Plus, because it can wirelessly network to your home PC via Windows Media Center, Xbox 360 can stream music, videos, and more from your computer’s hard drive onto your TV or A/V system.

The online features rock

Microsoft’s online service, Xbox LIVE, further expands the system’s capabilities, thanks to the ability to compete in multiplayer games; stream movies, archived TV shows, and live sporting events; download exclusive full versions of games; and connect with friends online. An upcoming refresh of the service, code-named “Metro,” also promises to unite video on demand with live cable TV and expanded Web integration (Xbox LIVE already syncs with Facebook and Twitter). Though it limits the primo features to its paid services, Xbox LIVE is available in a free version that enables you to download game demos, chat with fellow players, and customize family settings to limit the content and features your kids can access.

x-mark.jpgWhy it might not be right for you:

It’s expensive

A one-year Gold Family Pack membership for Xbox LIVE – which adds perks like discounted games and the ability to give up to four family members their own Xbox LIVE accounts – will cost you $100 while a standard (non-family) Gold membership runs $60. The good news is that if your family plans to stream and download a ton of content – avoiding video-rental stores and kiosks in the process – either membership could pay for itself after a few months.

It’s known to have bugs

Finally, for all its awesome features, Xbox 360 has a well-documented history of technical issues, although Microsoft claims to have made great strides in correcting these and generally offers excellent support if your system is still under warranty. That said, if you’re the type to do extensive research before plunking down $300-plus for a piece of hardware, you should dig into the Wikipedia and Microsoft Support pages to prepare yourself – especially if you’re searching Craigslist or eBay for a less-expensive used console.

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check-mark.jpgWhy it’s right for your family:

It does everything – and more

“It only does everything,” goes the old Sony marketing campaign – and indeed, PlayStation 3 offers all the features its Wii and Xbox 360 rivals do, and then some. Motion-control games? Absolutely; just connect Sony’s wireless PlayStation Move controllers. Streaming movies, TV, and live sports? Yup; just use your Netflix, Hulu, MLB.TV, and NFL Ticket subscriptions. CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray Discs? This system plays all three and streams photos, music, and videos to your TV or entertainment system.

It has 3D capability

Unlike its competitors, the PS3 is also capable of running 3D games – although, as with anything “3D-capable,” you need the TV, glasses, cables, and other hardware to support 3D in the first place. And, because the PS3 isn’t the only gaming device Sony makes, you can even use your PlayStation Portable (PSP) system over your home wireless network as a sort of remote control for the console.

It’s budget-friendly

Along with enjoying the hardware perks, budget-sensitive families will appreciate that Sony’s online service, PlayStation Network, costs $0, as opposed to Microsoft’s $60-$100 fee for similar features. So if you’re into multiplayer gaming, you can jump into an online match for no fee. You can also text and chat with friends and fellow players, and because PlayStation Network includes both a Web browser and Facebook integration, you can send real-time Facebook updates or hit the Web to find cheat codes for whatever game you’re playing.

Of course, Sony doesn’t give away everything with a PlayStation Network subscription. You can download free game demos, but the PlayStation Store charges for video rentals, full game and movie purchases, and add-ons such as characters and new game levels. The subscription service PlayStation Plus, which includes members-only games, discounts, early previews of new games, and the ability to save games to the network instead of your hard drive, is also available in either a one-year ($50) or three-month ($18) package.

x-mark.jpgWhy it might not be right for you:

Extreme gamers may be disappointed

While the PlayStation 3 has clear advantages as an all-purpose home-entertainment system, it remains a hair behind Xbox 360 in the gaming category – which is just enough to matter if your family would rather play games than stream movies and play Blu-ray discs. (Comparing either console to Wii is another story altogether – we’ll get to that shortly.)

Free isn’t always better

Though the price gap can’t be denied, paying for Xbox LIVE does have perks: Developers tend to release new content several months earlier to Xbox 360′s captive, hardcore audience than to PlayStation 3′s wide-open network of free accounts; and there’s also the Indie Marketplace, which gives up-and-coming developers the chance to debut their games on Xbox 360 at a discount to players (some indie games will run you just $1). If exclusive games are a deal-breaker, Microsoft also edges out Sony by around 50 titles – although, to be fair, PS3-exclusive hits like God of War III and Little Big Planet are no slouches compared to Halo, Kinectimals, and other Xbox 360-only releases.

It’s been hacked before :

And, of course, there’s the great hack of 2011 – a massive hit that took down PlayStation Network for over a month, left thousands of Sony subscribers’ private info vulnerable, and exposed how poorly the company had been safeguarding its users’ information. To Sony’s credit, the company followed its initial PR disaster with action, including discounts on its flagship console, significant hiring steps to bolster its security, and a promise of a hack-proof future. The fact that it’s reportedly added 3 million new subscribers since the debacle seems to indicate that the tide has turned.

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check-mark.jpgWhy it’s right for your family:

It was made for families

Of all the big-three consoles, Wii is the only one that arrived out of the gate with families-as opposed to hardcore gamers-as its primary audience. For this reason alone, Wii will always have a special place in our hearts.

The sheer range of family-friendly titles available for Wii is unequaled on any other game console, whether you’re talking old-school classics like Donkey Kong and Mario, new franchises (like Wii Sports), or any of the hundreds of games with E (everyone can play) or E10+ (everyone 10 and older can play) ratings that continue to arrive for the system.

Old games work, too!

Because Nintendo designed the Wii for new games as well as for backward compatibility (meaning games for older Nintendo consoles can be played on Wii as well), we never had to sell our old GameCube or Nintendo 64 favorites just to accommodate the new console. That’s something neither Xbox 360 nor PlayStation 3 owners can claim.

While it’s easy to overlook in the face of Microsoft’s controller-free Kinect, Wii also redefined modern gaming with its Wii Remote motion controller – a revolution that got us off the couch and into the action. Unfortunately for the more serious gamers out there, Wii also got comfortable with keeping its technology consistent while the other two consoles got hyper-aggressive with evolving theirs – which brings us to the flipside of the Wii argument.

x-mark.jpgWhy it might not be right for you:

The graphics aren’t as pretty

It really comes down to the graphics. While Wii is promising full, high-definition gaming in its upcoming next-generation console, the Wii U, the flagship system remains a few years behind PS3 and Xbox 360 in the HD department. In other words, even if you have a 1080p (a.k.a. Full HD) television set, the best graphics you’ll be able to squeeze out of your Wii still can’t utilize your TV’s full capabilities. Of course, whether your family really needs to see Mario, Kirby, Donkey Kong, and pals in pixel-perfect resolution is another story, but if there are hardcore gamers in your home, trust us – they’ll know the difference.

Its online component isn’t the best

Like its competitors, Wii also has a wireless-enabled online element, but this, too, pales a bit compared to what you’ll find on PS3 and Xbox 360. Sure, you can stream movies if you have a Netflix membership (although even these also don’t utilize Full HD), and the console also has a built-in Web browser, but games are the main reason you’ll use Wii’s wireless connection. You can download demos, purchase new games using Wii Points (Nintendo’s virtual currency), and even revisit your youth through downloads of old-school Nintendo 64, GameCube, and NES titles.

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