PC sales are in decline by more than 10 percent year-on-year with the situation poised to get even worse; tablets are expected to make up no less than half of the market in 2014. Meanwhile, the Xbox One from Microsoft and PlayStation 4 from Sony are the new kids on the block in the world of games consoles. They've both received a warm welcome, selling millions of units in a matter of days. But is there still a reason to buy a PC rather than a dedicated console? We explore the pros and cons.
PS4 vs Xbox One vs gaming PC: Performance and cost
As you'd expect from next-generation consoles, the PS4 and Xbox One wield bags of power under their plastic bonnets. They have a similar specification but it's the Sony PS4 which has the edge – on paper at least. It's a big jump compared to their predecessors although they have a lot of potential and it will take games developers a while to fully realise this potential.
While consoles may be powerful, users don't have the option to make any upgrades in the future. Gaming PCs can be built-to-order and you can decide how much to spend on a rig. A major advantage is the ability to upgrade individual components, such as a graphics card, hard drive or processor. The downside is that you're likely to spend more on a gaming PC in the first instance compared to a console. You'll need a monitor, mouse, keyboard and some audio gear at the least, and upgrading components isn't particularly cheap.
A gaming PC can be many things aside from a machine on which to shoot through levels, however. Since it is, in essence, an extremely powerful version of a regular PC, you can do all those regular things like load up Office to get some work done, edit photos and browse the web with a decent desktop browser; the list goes on.
Although consoles have web browsers, they're awkward and clunky. A PC equipped with a web browser means you can access any online service, rather than requiring a specific app to be developed for your chosen platform or console. Things like Netflix and BBC's iPlayer are prime examples here. You can use them out of the box on your gaming PC.
Considering what they are capable of on the games front, and adding in the handful of non-gaming features they offer such as video and video streaming, the PS4 and Xbox One offer decent value for money at £349 and £429, respectively. The PS4 price doesn't include the camera accessory while the Kinect comes bundled with the Xbox One, but the former isn't a must-have just yet. Neither console includes the cost of a TV to hook up with, either.
Of course, you don't get much other than the console and a single controller so you'll have to immediately splash out on games to play and additional controllers if you want to get your mates round for a session. Then there are the additional costs of signing up to Sony and Microsoft's respective online services, PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold. You'll have to pay around £30 per year to gain access to things like online multiplayer as well and certain apps and content – pretty lame if you're not expecting it. With a PC what you pay for is what you get.
The cost of games has sky rocketed over the past couple of years to the point that a console title now costs around £50 at launch – whether you buy a physical copy or a digital download. PC games are almost always cheaper which helps recuperate some of the extra cost which is attached to owning and maintaining a decent rig. There's also the advantage of things like Valve's regular sales on Steam meaning top titles which have been out for a little while can be snapped up for under £10 or even £5. Your best chance with getting console games cheaper is to buy second hand. (See also: 5 best gaming PCs in UK: What's the best gaming PC you can buy in 2014?)
PS4 vs Xbox One vs gaming PC: Compatibility
With brand new hardware it's unsurprising that new consoles are unable to be backwards compatible with previous generation games and equipment such as controllers. Loyal customers might be disappointed having spent large amounts on a collection of titles, but the gap between new and old consoles launch is a whopping seven years.
Sony fans will be pleased to hear that an online service called PlayStation Now will bring PS3 games to not only the PS4, but PS Vita and Bravia TVs too. Microsoft is yet to make any kind of announcement in regards to the Xbox One and older games.
This is one area in which the PC has a clear one up on the consoles; Windows is perfectly happy (most of the time) to run older games as well as brand new ones. With hardware constantly evolving, there's no generation gap and you can upgrade as and when necessary, or when you can afford it. This does have its complications, of course, such as when drivers and PCs are adverse to change – something which the 'slot and load' nature of consoles avoids.
PS4 vs Xbox One vs gaming PC: Games
No matter how powerful, slim and beautiful or good value for money a gaming machine is, they are nothing without great games that are worth playing.
If we rewind a number of years, it was the PC that typically had more exclusive games. Titles which were unlikely to make their way to consoles – we're talking the early days of games like Grand Theft Auto, Half-Life, Battlefield and Call of Duty here. However, developers are now well aware that the best way to make money is to launch titles on all possible platforms.
Each of the platforms we're talking about in this feature still has exclusive titles as a way of luring customers but the situation is far removed from what it was. Both the PS4 and Xbox One have been fairly heavily criticised over their respective launch line-ups, with only a handful of exclusive titles for each console and not very exciting ones at that.
Killzone, Shadow Fall and Knack are on the PS4 while Forza 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome are two key exclusives for the Xbox One. Big name titles which you can get only by gaming on a PC tend to be massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) including World of Warcraft, Starcraft II and Guild Wars 2.
Whether any of the exclusive titles is a big enough attraction to get your investment is down to personal taste. (For more advice, see How to buy a great games PC.)
PS4 vs Xbox One vs gaming PC: Conclusion
If you're happy to pay a little more for games and the accompanying subscription fees, the consoles provide an almost entirely hassle-free experience. The devices themselves are relatively inexpensive, especially considering the decent hardware on offer. Slot a game in and it just works plus with a decent internet connection you can access plenty of online content. If we were to split the two, the PS4 is the more pure gaming machine while the Xbox One is more on the side of a multi-media hub.
PC gaming is still a great alternative to consoles because you get all-round functionality, versatility with far fewer limitations. Users gain the ability to customise their setup and upgrade it over time as new and better accessories and components become available. Games are also cheaper and there tends to be no hidden costs such as subscriptions but you're probably going to have to shell out more on physical equipment.
PS4 vs Xbox One vs gaming PC: What about Steam Machines?
Steam Machines are a new genre of gaming device which will launch later this year – likely in the second half and the lead up to Christmas. Something of a cross between a PC and games console, Steam Machines are custom-made to run on Valve's SteamOS. It's the firm's way of bringing the Steam platform into the living room.
The hardware itself will come in many shapes and sizes, with varying specifications and for a wide range of budgets. Valve is launching Steam Machines with no less than 13 manufacturing partners including Scan, Alienware, Cyberpower, Gigabyte and Digital Storm.
Some of these devices will be expensive powerhouses to rival the best gaming PCs while client boxes will use an existing PC's computing power and stream it to your TV. All of the Steam Machines will be compatible with Valve's Steam Controller.
There are plenty of details yet to be announced but Steam Machines will bring PC gaming to the living room, giving gamers access to the latest titles at hopefully cheaper prices than consoles. Future updates will introduce other features such as in-home and online streaming of music and video plus family sharing. Visit GamePro UK.