September 3, 2009

360 vs PS3 - Which Offers a Better Online Experience?

Troy Benedict Says Welcome to the first of a multi-part, pound-for-pound, comparison between Microsoft's Xbox 360 Elite and Sony's PlayStation 3. Now that both systems are available for the same retail price it's an even playing field, right?

Microsoft and Sony both claim that their system is the best deal for that price. They both offer a unique online gaming experience, both can be used to watch movies, both have an exclusive games library, and both have unique hardware benefits. But which one is really better?

During this series I will first look at the simple facts of each category and pass a judgment based only on the facts. I will then take a deeper look at each system's strengths and weaknesses in each category. For example, I will offer a counter-point in some instances or discuss any hidden fees or required accessories that aren't mentioned in the simple facts.

The points I make are all objective, but the final judgment is subjective. Now that the rules have been explained, let's move on.

PlayStation 3 users have boasted that their free-to-play online gaming infrastructure is superior to Xbox 360's. Is it really?

Let's begin the pound-per-pound comparison of the Xbox 360 Elite and the PlayStation 3 with a look at each system's online gaming experience!

  • It is absolutely 100% free to play games using a PlayStation 3. A Gold Membership, which retails for $50, is required to play online using an Xbox 360.

  • Every Xbox 360 Elite comes packaged with a headset for online chat. The PlayStation 3 does not come with a headset for voice communication.

  • The PlayStation 3 can be connected to the wireless network without any additional costs. A $100 wireless adapter is required to connect an Xbox 360 to a wireless network.

Judgment: The PlayStation 3 is absolutely free to sign up and play online. Voice chat, while recommended for team-based games, is not required to play online. The wireless network option is purely a matter of preference, but the $100 price tag for the wifi adapter is a major knock against the Xbox 360.

Based on the simple facts, the PlayStation 3 the best way to get online and play with friends.

DEEPER LOOK - ONLINE EXPERIENCE: The PlayStation 3 is a truly free-to-play system. If you have a valid email address, you can set up an account and hop into a game without it costing you a single cent. There are no strings attached, nor any hidden fees required to play a game online.

The Xbox 360, on the other hand, offers two types of membership: Silver and Gold. The Silver membership is free, but the experience is limited. For example, Silver members cannot play online games against other members--except during certain promotional periods. Silver members also have to wait about a week to download exclusive demos and video content, which is first made available to Gold members. Silver members can purchase and download Xbox Live Arcade games and other premium content the same day it's released on Xbox Live Marketplace. A Gold membership requires the purchase of monthly or annual subscriptions. A 13-month subscription retails for $50. However, most frugal shoppers can get a membership for as low as $30. Some retailers will include console bundles that include a gold membership for no additional cost.

The PlayStation 3 might offer a free-to-play online service, but the Xbox 360 offers a much more feature-rich community-based experience. This, of course, is my personal opinion, but I will provide some facts to back up my opinion.The Xbox 360 offers the following online features that the PlayStation 3 (as of firmware 3.0) does not:

  • Cross-game invites - This means that you can send a request to a friend to join your game, even when they're playing a completely different game.

  • Group Chat - On Xbox 360, you and any other gold members can form a party and chat, even if the members of the group are watching different video content or playing different games.

  • Voice Messages - While this option seems almost expected, the PlayStation 3 does not offer the and ability to send a member a voice message. The Xbox 360 does.

  • While both online experiences offer a friends list, the details of what your friends are playing, and how your gaming skills compares to theirs, is much more detailed on the Xbox 360.

  • Achievements and achievement points have been included in every single Xbox 360 game, and are used as something of a digital bragging rights amongst gamers. The Xbox 360 ties the achievement information into each gamer's profile with a Gamerscore--a sum of collected achievement points.

  • Xbox 360 also has better online integration with leaderboards. Even if you're not competing directly with one of your friends in an online game, you can still try to best their scores on a leaderboard.

PlayStation's answer to the community aspect for the PS3 is PlayStation Home. A free community-based service where each user has an custom avatar, a "HomeSpace" to customize with default items, and a world of social environments to explore, like the bowling alley, the mall (where you can purchase items for your HomeSpace or avatar). There are also custom game-themed areas to explore, based around popular titles like Resident Evil 5 and Uncharted.

PlayStation Home has been criticized by gaming media as well as vocal gaming enthusiasts that it didn't and still hasn't delivered to its original potential. For example, friends can get together to play a game of virtual bowling, or play on some of the in-game arcade games, but they still have to wait in line for other virtual players to finish playing their virtual games. Originally, players were told they could decorate their HomeSpaces with trophies achieved by playing certain games, or invite your friends over and watch a movie or other piece of video content on your HomeSpace's television. None of those features have been executed or effectively implemented yet. A major patch, version 1.3, is expected to be released this month and will address a lot of issues including universal game launching from within Home.

The Xbox 360 also has a more effective system with which to file complaints against other users. In fact, Microsoft's Stephen Toulouse, the Director of Policy and Enforcement for Xbox Live, has been spotlighted by gaming media several times, discussing how he and his team review every complaint filed against a user. He also has said that because of the way that Xbox and Xbox Live was developed, it is possible to determine when people are playing with modified Xbox 360 hardware, cheating the achievement system, and illegally obtaining premium content for free. These people can be suspended on several different levels, or have their gamertag and/or console banned from the online service.

Because the PlayStation 3 is a more open service to almost anybody with a valid email address, policing the system is a lot more difficult. Sony has also not been very vocal about discussing the security with their system.

It is a fact that every Xbox 360 Elite comes packaged with a headset. The PlayStation 3 does not come with a headset.

Any Bluetooth headset should pair up with the PlayStation 3, however, the often-recommended Official PlayStation 3 Bluetooth headset retails for $50. Frugal shoppers can find it for cheaper. Any USB headset with a microphone should also work, but the length of the cord will limit the player's distance from the system.

Voice communication is purely a preference, but when its required, Xbox 360 owners should be prepared without any additional cost, and because the headset plugs into the controller, there should never been an unexpected loss of communication -- unless the controller runs out of battery power, too.

Finally, let's discuss the issue of wireless connection options on both systems. Xbox 360 requires the additional purchase of a $100 wireless adapter, while the PlayStation 3 has it built in. This is a huge plus in the PlayStation 3's corner - but it's also a matter of preference, which, to me lessens the advantage.

Personally, I have both the PS3 and 360 plugged into the Internet via Ethernet cables. I have digital cable, and the Internet router is split off from the connection that goes to my cable box. I've never had the cable box or the router more than a few feet from my television and entertainment center. All of the gamers I know personally have their 360s or PS3s connected via Ethernet cables. I can see the PS3's advantage in a home where there are multiple systems spread across several different rooms in the house, and not just connected to the "main television." Like I said, wireless is a personal preference. To me it's not that big of a deal, but perhaps to others, it's a very big issue.

Judgment - Deeper Look
Just because a system is free doesn't always mean that it's better.

Based on the deeper look, I have to say that the Xbox 360 offers a better online experience. It is very obvious that a lot of thought and planning went into developing every part of the experience, both off and online. Sure, you're going to have to pay for an annual subscription, and might have to purchase a wireless adapter depending the layout of your home, but the integration of online gaming, community, and security is so much better on Xbox 360.

Even though free is good, sometimes things are just worth paying for.

The next article in this series looks at which console offers a better movie-watching experience?