One of the good things about this job is that you acquire a certain tech-savviness almost by osmosis. Even if you’re more interested in the sausage than how it’s made, you don’t get any nasty surprises on Christmas Day when you or a family member receive a gift of a new console because we know exactly what to expect.
Invariably, this also means you end up fielding annual requests from confused friends and relatives who are looking to buy console hardware for their nearest and dearest and don’t really know what’s what.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a guide designed primarily for parents, but really for anyone buying a console for Christmas who would like to make sure everything’s set for the big day. Read on, and hopefully your kids can enjoy a festive season free of tears, tantrums and trips to the petrol station up the road for batteries.
Part I: The Hidden Costs
The current market leader is likely to be on the Christmas list of many a kid (or big kid). This year, there are three different models to choose from – though you’ll only see two of them in most shops.
The original PS4 is still available in some places - you’ll be able to recognise it from its more angular form and its half-glossy/half-matte finish. This has been superseded by the PS4 Slim, significantly smaller and lighter, which uses less power and produces less noise and heat, and the DualShock 4 controller that comes packaged with the console has been subtly improved. As well as the controller, inside the box you’ll find a single earbud headset with microphone (designed primarily for chatting online) as well as a power cable, a USB connector and an HDMI lead.
Alternatively, there’s a more powerful option: the PS4 Pro. This comes with a 1TB hard drive, and retails for £349.99, though at the time of writing it’s sold out in a number of places, so you’re not guaranteed to be able to stroll into your local retailer and buy one.
You can stream TV and movies online for free, but if whoever you’re buying the PS4 for wants to play games online, they’ll need a subscription to Sony’s online service, PlayStation Plus. This costs £5.99 for a month, £15 for three, or you can buy a yearly sub for £39.99. This also gets you a couple of freebies every month: Sony selects a handful of games every month that subscribers can download for free.
You might also need another wireless controller for multiplayer gaming: these come in at £44.99 each, though at least you won’t need to buy any batteries, as the pad can be recharged via the USB cable that comes with the console.
If you’re feeling particularly flush – or generous - there might be a PlayStation VR under the tree. But be careful you haven’t missed any essential parts of it: you’ll need a PlayStation 4 camera (£39-ish) to use PSVR, while some games demand the use of PlayStation Move controllers, which are as rare as hen’s teeth. Currently, Game is selling a double pack for a frankly ludicrous £150+, so we suggest you wait until more stock appears, and in the meantime avoid Move-specific titles. Most VR games support the regular controller anyway.
Though Microsoft’s console is still lagging behind its rival in sales terms, it’s still a strong option, sharing much of its game library with PlayStation 4, alongside some excellent exclusive titles. Its online service, Xbox Live, is still faster and more reliable than Sony’s PlayStation Network. And, in this writer’s humble opinion, it has comfortably the better controller of the two. It’s also the only console that plays 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays: the PS4 Pro doesn’t support the format.
One more thing: if you own any Xbox 360 games, you might just be able to play them on your Xbox One, unlike PlayStation 4 which doesn’t play titles from previous hardware. Not all games are supported, but the number of compatible games is growing. You can find an up-to-date list here.
As with PS4, to play online multiplayer games, you’ll need to pay a subscription fee. Xbox Live Gold is similarly priced, at £5.99 per month and £39.99 per year and for my money it provides the more consistent service of the two. You’ll also get free games each month for your fee, under the Games With Gold banner – and after a poor start, the selection is improving. There’s a free option, too (Xbox Live Free/Silver) which still allows you to download content from the Xbox Live Marketplace and keep your friends list. Video apps including Netflix, YouTube and Hulu are all available without needing a Gold subscription, and though it commands a separate subscription fee (£3.99 a month, or £19.99 a year) EA Access gives you, well, access to a number of games from the publisher – and this isn’t available on PS4.
The controller uses 2 x AA batteries, and one pair is included in the box. Spares are always going to be used at some point.
You’ll probably want an extra controller, too. The premium option is the fully customisable Elite Wireless controller, designed in collaboration with pro gamers. This costs around £99 alone, or £119.99 with Halo 5. To be honest, it’s a beautiful object but you don’t really need it - and the price is ludicrous. There are several variants on the standard controller, which is more affordable but still a wallet-skewering £49.99 to £54.99. The Dawn Shadow Special Edition is pretty tasty.
And then there’s Kinect. The motion- and voice-sensing camera peripheral was originally bundled with the hardware, but quickly dumped as Sony’s cheaper PS4 eclipsed the Xbox One’s early sales. Few new games use the device, though if you shop around you can pick up some early Kinect games much more cheaply these days. It also affords you the luxury of voice commands for those times when pressing a couple of buttons is too much effort, and lets you make video Skype calls. These days, you can buy Kinect separately from the Microsoft Store for £79.99 – but watch out if you’re a new owner, because it’s designed to work with older models and doesn’t come with an adapter for the Xbox One S. That’ll cost you an extra £29.99.
Nintendo’s eccentric home console only came out at the tail end of 2012, and already it’s in the twilight of its life, with very few major releases this year and only one significant first-party game (next year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) to come. With Nintendo’s impressive hybrid device Switch coming out in March, Wii U is unlikely to be a popular choice this Christmas.
Wii U does have classics among its software library though - this being Nintendo, of course, there’s not too many you can buy on the cheap. Your best option for any post-Christmas bargain hunting is to browse the Selects range, with some prime picks at reasonable prices – The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, for example, costs just £14.00 at Tesco Direct.
Not many, really. The Wii U doesn't require a subscription to play online games, though it has fewer of those than Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Most local multiplayer games support the Wii remote – if you didn’t get rid of your Wii hardware you’re laughing, but if you need one you can choose from a variety of designs at the Nintendo Store (among other places) for £39.99. Alternatively, there’s the Wii U Pro Controller for a similar price.
If you’re using Wii remotes you’ll need 2 AA batteries for each one.
Sony’s sleek portable promised blockbuster games on the move, but after a strong launch it struggled to make good on that promise, never quite reaching a wide enough audience to make it worthwhile for bigger publishers. It has, however, turned into a wonderful second home for indie developers, and its library now boasts a pretty broad selection of unusual and innovative games.
There is one big thing to look out for with Vita: it uses proprietary memory cards for extra storage. Realistically, you’ll want at least a 16GB card and that’s going to set you back a pretty penny.
Nintendo claims the imminent arrival of Switch won’t necessarily mean the end for 3DS, and it will be supported in 2017, but it’s fair to say this isn’t going to be a long-term investment. Still, the 3DS has a library of excellent games, with a great many of tailored towards younger audiences.
Before I even start talking about the different models available, the very first thing you need to know is that the Nintendo 3DS line doesn’t come with AC adapters. There’s a reason for this, but it’s really rather boring, suffice to say you’ll need to pay extra for a charger. Thankfully, they’re pretty cheap.
Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System
In short: good luck.
The Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES Mini for short) lets you play 30 pre-installed retro classics from the 8-bit era. It’s the ideal gift for retro fans and terrific value for kids, so naturally Nintendo hasn’t released enough units to keep up with demand. Reports suggest that stores in the US from Toys R Us to Target and Walmart will receive stocks in the run-up to Christmas, but there’s little word of any more reaching the UK. Naturally, this means you’ll find some at ridiculously inflated prices on eBay and Amazon. With an RRP of £49.99, we’d strongly recommend waiting it out, and checking your favourite stores for stock updates.
Again, you’ll need to buy an AC adapter to play the system, as it’s not included in the packaging. Thankfully, as the machine is powered by USB, you’ll just need a standard USB adapter plug. You might need to invest in another controller for two-player games; like the console itself, these aren’t easy to find. If you still have a Wii console lying around, however, you can use a Classic Controller or Classic Controller Pro instead.
Part II: Setting it up
Buying a console is actually the easy bit. Making sure they’re properly ready for Christmas Day is more of a challenge. In the past you might have been able to plug and play (the NES Mini, assuming you can find one, is the closest you’ll get to doing that) but today it’s better to open the box beforehand and get your hardware properly set up.
Happily, just about every current console has a quick start guide that talks you through the basics of plugging everything in and switching it on. You might think you could just do all that on Christmas morning. But there’s a bit more to it than that. Modern consoles have their firmware updated fairly regularly, and you can face a long wait while the update downloads, especially if you have a slow internet connection. Fancy telling your kids that they can’t play with their shiny new toy for six hours? Thought not.
In my experience, Xbox Live downloads tend to come down the pipes faster than their PlayStation equivalents, which in turn are quicker than the Nintendo Network – albeit the download sizes tend to be smaller on Wii U and 3DS. The console setup process will talk you through connecting to the internet – you can hook it up via Wi-Fi, though I’d recommend using an Ethernet cable if possible for the setup. Plugging that into your router tends to improve the stability of online play, and you’ll probably notice a small increase to download speeds.
This is important for software, too. Unlike The Good Old Days™, games don’t always ship in perfect shape, even those that come on disc. The day-one patch is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it’s probably easier to find a game that hasn’t been updated post-launch.
To be completely clear: even if a game comes on a disc, you won’t be able to play it immediately. In some cases, you can skip updates if you’d rather get on with playing the game, but that in turn will disable its online features, and so that won’t always be a viable option. And you can’t skip the install process. That’s mandatory.
In short: investing a little time before Christmas Day will save time on the day and let your kids get on with playing. Perhaps you’ve already wrapped it up but if not it’s probably worth that bit of hassle in advance to avoid any potential upset.
AKA the bit your kids will hate you for. As a general rule, it’s wise for parents to find time to play games with their children, not just to keep tabs on the kind of interactive experiences they’re having, but also to explain any questions they might have. But it’s never that simple: you can’t watch them at all times. During these moments there are certain things you might not want your kids seeing or playing. Which means setting up parental controls to specify the kind of content they’ll be able to access.
The process is straightforward in just about every case. You’ll either enter a passcode, or perhaps set up individual user accounts or profiles for your children, which will let you restrict content that falls above certain age ratings. If your kids try to access anything beyond that, they’ll need to input the code. Assuming they don’t have the patience to try every possible combination, they’ll obviously need to seek your permission first.
There are some useful online guides available if you’re setting up a console and you can’t find the options you’re looking for, or if you just need further assistance (or information on how to allow exceptions to the rules you establish). Click the links below for your chosen hardware.
The NES Mini has a PEGI rating of 7+, which makes it just about suitable for all but the very young.
Now you’ve bought your console and set it up, in theory you’re in for a Christmas day full of happy gaming. But there still might be a few tears before Boxing Day. Sadly, while Christmas is a time for giving, certain cyber-attackers think it’s a time for taking away: in the last two years, black-hat groups Lizard Squad and Phantom Squad have launched Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks to disrupt online services. In 2014, PSN and Xbox Live were both taken down on Christmas Eve, while Xbox Live was brought to its knees again last year. You’ll be fine with any games that don’t require an online connection, but otherwise just be aware that these things sometimes happen. It’s another reason why it pays to install games and updates ahead of time.
Running out of hard disk space shouldn’t be a problem that affects you over the festive period unless you’re really spoiling your kids, but you may wish to future-proof your console at some point by organising extra storage. Speaking from bitter experience, the 500GB PS4 doesn’t have enough room on it to comfortably manage more than a handful of big games, especially when your library is mostly digital. In theory, the new PS4 models and the Pro make it simpler to remove the old hard drive and install a bigger one, but it’s the kind of process that folks in tech will tell you is a doddle when it isn’t.
The PS4 does support external storage, but as you can’t use it to play downloaded games, it’s a bit pointless. No such trouble for the Xbox One, which lets you plug in just about any USB 3.0 hard drive you care to mention and does the rest for you. With the Wii U, you can plug in an external hard drive as long as it has its own power source; while technically you can use USB sticks, Nintendo doesn’t recommend it. 3DS owners have it easiest – any 32GB SD card will suffice for all but the most voracious digital purchaser.
Get some AA batteries in. You’ll need them for Xbox One controllers and Wii remotes. And probably your smoke alarm, come to think of it.
Make sure you’ve got a spare plug socket or two free. PSVR, for example, needs its own power supply.
Oh, and charge your 2DS or 3DS console fully before using it for the first time.