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Buy this, not that!

Why new consoles are some of the best buys in tech

With the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One being released this fall, gamers and parents of gamers will have to decide whether it's time to buy the latest gaming consoles. But with so many new electronic devices to choose from, like tablets, portable media players, gaming handhelds, laptops, and even computer desktops, paying $400 or $500 dollars might be a steep a price to pay. Unless...you really think about what you're getting.

The upfront cost

Photo: Sean McMenemy
It's just a gaming console, you might think. It's hard to justify spending $500 on a toy. But really though, what else does $500 get you technology-wise? Well, it's the price of a new 16GB iPad, or the price of a really cheap (and probably not great) laptop. If you want an entry-level mirrorless camera, like a Panasonic Lumix GX7 or Sony NEX-3N, those range anywhere from $450 to $1000.

We usually pay $200 for a new smartphone, but that's because the carrier subsidized some of the price by locking us into a contract. In reality, a new phone could cost upwards of $700. So when you consider the price of a brand-new console vs. most new and affordable electronics, they don't seem that overpriced.

Longevity

Photo: Jennifer Morrow
Of course, merely pointing out that other devices cost the same or more is like comparing apples to oranges. You really need to look at how much value and use you get out of the device itself. If you consider this year as the end of a console generation (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii), if you bought one early in its life cycle, then you've gotten about seven years of good use out of your console.

Good use means that from about 2006 until this year they were the top-of-the-line in their field, maybe not from a graphics or technology standpoint, but in the sense that nearly every top game was available on at least one of the three consoles. While you may have built an awesome gaming PC seven years ago, or purchased a tablet three years ago, chances are it doesn't run new games very well, if at all.

Dynamism



One of the ways consoles from seven years ago have stayed fresh is that they continue to be supported and upgraded over the course of their life cycle. If you were to look at the dashboard menu of the original Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, you'd see a very rudimentary version of what you see today. New features like video streaming services, improved chats and messaging, and visual tweaks have kept these workhorses from gathering dust.

In fact, most computers begin to decline from the moment they are released. Because of the speed at which hardware and software improve, the first day you buy a computer or tablet is its peak. While consoles are essentially computers, you often won't know how good they can be until years down the road. They are the rare exception where nothing really replaces them until the next generation of product. So the companies who make consoles spend time refining them, squeezing out every last bit of potential.

Replay Value

Photo: Scott Feldstein
Even after a console is part of the past it can still retain a lot of value. Great games often have a timeless quality to them that is so much more than amazing graphics or developer support. While some games definitely age better than others, it's a great thing to dust off an old system, blow on a cartridge, and play something you might have loved as a kid. The sense of nostalgia alone makes old game consoles worth keeping, which is more than we can say for CD players, laptops, desktops, laser pointers, televisions, VCRs, DVD players, Pokémon cards, yo-yos, and the movie novelization of Batman Returns.

The Wii U question



There are of course those notable examples where consoles were duds. For many gamers the first console that comes to mind might be the Sega Dreamcast. It was supposed to be the first next-gen console after years of Nintendo 64 and PlayStation domination. And it was good, until Sega discontinued it in 2001, two years after it launched.

If you are going to be an early adopter it's important to make it a safe bet. Right now, the biggest gamble is the Wii U. After launching last year, it has failed to sell very well or come out with many great games. Nintendo has been around a long time and has a history of making some of the most cherished and unique games, but if you're at all skittish about buying a new console, it may be better to wait a little longer or go with Sony or Microsoft.

Consoles are dead... long live consoles

Photo: Spoon Monkey
Today many people wonder if consoles are still relevant. Physical media, like discs, are in decline while platforms like Steam allow gamers to buy everything digitally. Tablets and smartphones are the preferred choice of casual gamers who like paying $0.99 or nothing at all for a few minutes of distraction.

It's true that if they don't evolve, then the reign of consoles will come to an end. But if it's a value issue and not a question of future relevance, then consoles are very hard to beat. Consoles take a long view that is refreshing in a technology world where every year or few months, the next big thing overtakes and makes obsolete the old thing.

They are the last true appliances in electronics. Gaming consoles forgo the anxiety of future proofing by providing us with the assurance of longevity. They don't buckle in the face of new advancements: they evolve. As long as you make the right choice at the beginning and take care of your investment, it will last you a long time, which is why a console is still one of the best buys you can make.