Additional work by Laura Kate Dale
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. Parts of this might look like a buyer's guide, but what we're really trying to highlight is the 'hidden' stuff that you might not realise is necessary.
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, there are three different PS4 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 This has been superseded by the PS4 Slim, significantly smaller and lighter, which uses less power and produces less noise and heat, and the DualShock 4 controller that comes packaged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 plays many games at an increased 4K resolution.
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, a double pack of which will set you back a cool £70 on Amazon.
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.
There's also the Xbox One X available, a more expensive version of the console that plays many games at 4K resolutions. Typically, any game with a 4K resolution update for the Xbox One X will need you to download a huge file to make that update work, so get downloading game updates ahead of the big day if you can
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.
Nintendo's Switch released back in March of this year, and has been the talk of the town ever since. With a new first party game released almost every month since launch the system already has a wide variety of family friendly party titles, single player adventures, and mature shooters available for players of all tastes. Nintendo is on a real roll right now, and the Switch is a big part of that.
Unlike most consoles, the Switch ships bundled with two half size controllers, meaning that out of the box many games can be played two player without needing to go out and buy extra 'Joy-Cons'. The Switch does support more than two people in many multiplayer games, but that will require extra controllers not included in the box – if you've got more than two kids, or fancy getting involved yourself, then an extra Joy-Con pair is probably a must. It'll set you back around £70, which is incredibly steep, but at least you're *kinda* getting two controllers for that price.
Switch currently does not feature a paid-for online service like the PS4 or Xbox One, but Nintendo has warned that a subscription charge for online play will be coming some time in 2018. The cost will be $20 per year in the States, and likely comparable over here. It will provide access to a number of classic Nintendo video games for free as part of the subscription, but will be a barrier to online pay and is not actively advertised by Nintendo.
The 3DS has a library of excellent games, with a great many tailored towards younger audiences.
It has one big issue: certain models include a charger, and certain ones don't. The New 3DS XL, for example, does not include a charger – but the more recent New 2DS XL DOES include a charger. Most older models do not. There’s a reason for this, but it’s really rather boring: suffice to say, check the box of your particular model, and if it doesn't have a charger your best bet at the last minute is a branch of Game. They're not too expensive, thankfully, but if you don't have one then there will be trouble a-brewing.
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 SNES Classic 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 many 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 if it has an install process, that’s mandatory.
In short: investing a little time before Christmas will save hassle 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 doing the annoying stuff in advance to avoid any potential upset. If you've got a PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, this is particularly important if you'd like to take advantage of improved visuals.
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.
The Switch uses a separate smart phone app for parental controls, which also allows you to monitor your child's gameplay habits, give them in game warnings when their game time is due to run out, and give you information about the kids of games they're playing.
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.
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 few 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 in 2015. 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. The Switch allows you to install games to and run them from a Micro-SD card, allowing you to add several hundred GB of memory to the system down the line, which is important as some Switch games are fairly large and the on board storage can fill up fast. 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 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. Same for the Switch. Take the time to fully charge before use and the battery you'll be depending on for years to come will be much happier.