Last night, Microsoft unleashed, with no fanfare and minimal ado, the Xbox One. From the looks of things, it's shaping up to be a titan of the living room, but maybe with a little less focus on games than some had hoped. Handily, we live in one of those capitalist societies famed for competition, so there's a slack handful of competitors waiting in the wings.
Well, duh. Microsoft's big rival in the under-TV gaming market since Nintendo decided to give up on gaming and focus on Just Dance: Disney Princess, Sony's PS4 (or what we've seen of it) is the only real contender to the Xbox in the high-end console market. They'll both launch around the same time, costing about the same and with about the same game quality.
We'll have to wait 'till E3 to see which platform is getting which games, but rest assured there'll be good games, bad games and some mediocre ones as well for both platforms. However, the PS4 won't be handicapped by the always-sometimes-on internet connection of the Xbox, so that (and not needing to shell out extra for Xbox Live) might give it the edge. Then again, the Xbox (bless its VCR-shapen head) actually exists right now, while the PS4 box is still a twinkle in Sony's eye.
Nvidia is famous for making the bits that you never see, which is why it was such a surprise when the Project Shield (emphasis on *Project*) gaming platform turned out to be something you could buy with real actual money.
Project Shield is a curious little device, basically a console-sized portable gaming device with a five-inch touchscreen and a Tegra 4 system inside. Either, you play on the go, or you hook up to a TV with the HDMI-out and use it like a console. Sadly, it's going to go on sale at around the £250 quid mark, which makes it very expensive for what is most likely a speculative dabble in the console market.
Maybe you don't want cutting-edge graphics. That's cool. You're more into the indie scene than skin shaders. If that's the case, you can save yourself a fair chunk of change, and get the Kickstarter console to match your Kickstartered games and Kickstartered watch, the Ouya.
Costing £99 and running with the Tegra 3 guts from last year's smartphone inside, the Ouya might not sound like much. But with the Android library of apps at its disposal, not to mention support from a bunch of indie game developers, it's an excellent option for people who aren't really looking forward to the next EA blockbusters with bated breath.
The Razer Edge is the answer to the unasked question of what happens when a giant case mates with a Windows 8 tablet. The result is a super-heavy, horrifically expensive way of doing lots of things with one device, whilst weighing down your shoulders. But thanks to the £1,200 price tag, this is only an alternative to an Xbox in the same way that the Crossrail tunnelling machines are an alternative to a trowel.
The Steam Box is an oft-rumoured but never-seen mini-computer that will apparently run Steam's Big Picture mode on top of Linux, giving you access to Steam games in a tiny form factor. Going off current prices for mini-PCs, like the Steambox-that's-not-a-Steambox made by Xi3, it'll cost a fair bit more than either of the consoles; but at least it'll be smaller, more flexible, and less chained to the iron fist of Sony or Microsoft.
And, running Linux, there will hopefully be the option to install a media service like XBMC, and do all the Netflix streaming that the likes of the One and PS4 can.
Of course, everyone who's ever competed in a Starcraft tournament will tell you that consoles are for pussies, and the only real way to game is with a specially-weighted mouse in your hand and a 750-watt-sucking PC at your feet. They sort of have a point, because if you're really into gaming, nothing will match the performance of a big desktop with a bacon-frying collection of graphics cards.
These PCs can run you anything from five hundred quid to five figures, so I suppose on one end of the scale you could consider them console replacements. They're not really designed to fit under your TV, however, and when you mention your 'water-cooled machinery' to the date you've invited round, you'll probably find yourself playing it a bit more than you'd like.
Most modern smartphones pack enough graphical punch to run optimised versions of slightly old games like GTA Vice City. Of course, the touch interface wasn't exactly designed with gaming in mind, and you're not going to be competing in massive multiplayer shoot-'em-ups, but at least you're (probably) using hardware you've already got in your pocket.
The obvious omission from the list is the Wii U. Although it's technically a console, everything -- from the form factor to the interface to the needlessly complicated multiplayer modes -- is crap, which is why it's been selling about as well as statues of Mario made from fossilised horse manure.