With the sun setting on the seventh generation of video consoles, this month sees the release of the next generation in home entertainment, with the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One going on sale in the US and the UK.
Microsoft and Sony have spent much of the past year trading blows as they look to gain the upper hand in winning the hearts – and wallets – of console gamers, with some interesting u-turns along the way.
So how do the PS4 and Xbox One compare on paper?
Of the two consoles the PlayStation 4 looks to have the more powerful specification on paper, thanks largely to a better GPU. From the few glimpses we've had so far, it would seem that Sony's console will have a graphical edge over the Xbox One versions of games.
Tucking in to the technical nitty-gritty, the Xbox One boasts an eight-core 64-bit AMD CPU clocked at 1.75GHz, with a 800Mhz AMD GPU in tow.
Onboard is 8GB of DDR3 RAM, 5GB of which is allocated to games, the rest to the OS and apps. There's also 32MB of eSRAM (embedded memory) that's tied directly to the CPU which, in theory, should help yield faster read and write times.
MORE: Xbox One video preview
The PS4 takes a slightly different approach, employing a single-chip CPU and GPU in an 8-core 64-bit AMD processor that works in concert with 8GB of super-fast GDDR5 RAM.
It's not entirely clear how much of a performance boost the Xbox's eSRAM could supply, but developers have suggested that it's easier to produce a game for Sony's system which may give it an advantage in multi-platform games.
So while the PS4 may command a small performance advantage over the One, in other areas they are effectively a match. Each one sports a 500GB hard drive, although the PS4’s HDD can be upgraded with an off-the-shelf hard disc/solid state drive.
The Xbox One has a proprietary hard drive so only official models sold by Microsoft will work. However, unlike Sony, Microsoft has continued its policy of allowing external storage space for games/save data. Despite that good news, the feature won't be available at launch and there's no word on when it will arrive…
The PS4 supports video resolutions from 480p to 1080p, can display video and photos at 4K but not video games (although that is being considered). Bluetooth 2.1 and wireless protocols (802.11 b/g/n) are included, along with an ethernet output, two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI output, an auxiliary port for the PlayStation Camera and an optical connection.
The slot loading Blu-ray/DVD player has been upgraded with a drive that's three times faster than the PS3. Curiously it won't support audio CDs or 3D Blu-rays at launch, however.
The Xbox One meanwhile comes with support for 1080p and 4K resolutions. As with the PS4, it's not clear whether or not (or when) it will support native 4K output for gaming. It comes with both an HDMI input and output, allowing the user to hook up another source and have the Xbox overlay an interface, incorporating gesture and search controls through Kinect.
A slot-loading Blu-ray drive, three USB 3.0 ports (one for Kinect), support for 7.1 surround sound, wireless connectivity and a gigabit ethernet port round things up. There's no support for composite and component cables, however, if you're still using a standard definition TV.
Of the two controllers, from the previous generation it's Sony's Dualshock 4 that's undergone the biggest change – although Microsoft claims that he Xbox One controller has had more than 40 improvements made to it over the Xbox 360 handset.
These changes range from reducing the deadzone of the thumbsticks, adding haptic feedback to the triggers (which should help greatly in racing games), to improving the D-pad, although we'll have to wait and see on that one.
The battery compartment has been redesigned, rotated 90 degrees to take up less space. Two x AA batteries are still needed but the general feeling is that it's much lighter than the existing 360 controller.
After 16 or so years of the same Dualshock design – excusing the weird boomerang prototype that almost launched alongisde the PS3 – Sony has decided to bring the Dualshock closer in line to Microsoft's effort.
HANDS ON: PS4 review
It's still recognisably a Dualshock controller, with the placement of the face buttons (square, triangle, circle, cross) largely unchanged. As with the Xbox, the deadzone of the thumbsticks have been tightened in order to improve accuracy in terms of movement.
There's a new two-point touchpad above the thumbsticks. Underneath that is a small speaker, with the 'Start' and 'Select' buttons now merged into the 'Options' button. The 'Share' button enables players to upload content to social media portals, pausing the game and letting you select which part you want to share.
The triggers have been improved – they now have a concave design instead of the inward convex design on the Dualshock 3. The grip on the handles has been made… well, grippier, with the Sixasis motion control carried over from the Dualshock 3.
For European customers there will be a selection of different coloured pads to choose from (black, red and blue).
The Dualshock 4 has a rechargeable battery (it can be charged via USB) and supports Bluetooth headsets for those more wirelessly inclined. For those who like a wired connection the pad has a 3.5mm jack too.
Both companies launched motion controller sensors in the wake of the Nintendo Wii's success, and the response to both was somewhat underwhelming.
Kinect came in for criticism, mainly due to being inhibited by the design of the 360. Microsoft went back to the drawing board and has come back with Kinect 2.0, a sensor that's being positioned as an integral part of the Xbox experience.
The camera resolution has been bumped to 1080p, with the USB 3.0 connection allowing for faster data transmission rates and reduced latency. For those who don't live in a massive mansion, Kinect 2.0 is said to be much more accommodating in smaller spaces than its predecessor.
Kinect can follow up to six people at once, track your heart rate, act as a microphone for Skype conversations, track gestures made with an Xbox controller, scan QR codes and will remain in sleep mode to receive voice commands. Clever.
But that's only if you decide to use it. During the Xbox One's reveal, Kinect was required for the system to even work. Microsoft then decided to make it optional to alleviate concerns over privacy. Despite that setback, the company still believes Kinect to be at the forefront of new gaming experiences.
Sony, In comparison, has been noticeably low-key with the PlayStation Camera, which will not be bundled with the console as Kinect is with the Xbox One.
Inside the PS camera are two high-sensitivity cameras (1280 x 800 at 60fps) with wide angle lenses at 85-degree angles for a wider field of view. The camera's four microphones can detect sound as well as its point of origin.
The camera works in tandem with both the Dualshock 4's light bar and the PlayStation Move, sensing the position of players in the room by using the light bars on each controller. Sony claims that the position of players in real life could be reflected in-game, a neat touch if so.
More after the break
Like Kinect, it's also capable of facial recognition. How well remains to be seen, but considering that's been a big selling point of the Kinect's features, it would seem that Sony is taking a wait-and-see stance with regards to its sensor.
At launch, voice commands will be limited to turning the console off (but not on) and starting games (but not affecting video playback), with Sony intending to bring Kinect-style functionality over time. None of the third party apps on the console will feature voice integration at launch.
Of the two, Kinect certainly seems to be more advanced and Microsoft has been keen to assert Kinect as a true next-gen experience. There's a sense that there's more to come from the PlayStation Camera, but for the moment it's an extra feature rather than a core one.
Tablets and smartphones have of course become incredibly popular, and incredibly powerful, since the launch of the Xbox 360 and PS3 – not least as games machines.
Predictably, both platform holders have sought to consolidate the console experience on the smaller screen. In Microsoft's corner there's the SmartGlass app; for Sony there's the PlayStation App and what could be the company's ace in the hole, the PS Vita.
Microsoft's Smartglass app is free to download and available on Windows 8, Windows Phone, iOS and Android devices (up to 16 devices can be synched). It's separate from the SmartGlass app for the Xbox 360, and built from the ground up to be a complete companion app for the Xbox One.
While you won't be able to play any Xbox One games on your mobile device, you can set up matchmaking sessions while you play. The app can follow your progress in a game and also offer game-playing tips.
It can function as your Xbox dashboard when you're not playing, giving you access to your friends list, achievements, messages and any video clips you've saved and uploaded to Xbox Live.
Sony's PlayStation App meanwhile (due for release with the console) is similar to SmartGlass in several ways. It's also free for both iOS and Android, though there's no mention of Windows devices as yet.
You can send messages to those who have the app on a PS3, PS4 and PS Vita, you can turn the console on or off through the app, and trigger remote downloads at the press of a button if you purchase an item away from home.
The differentiator between the two companies' offerings is the PS Vita's remote play –arguably one of the most exciting features of the PS4. Sony has mandated that remote play is included by game developers where possible.
The Vita will stream (via wi-fi) the data from the PS4 with little to no lag (that's the promise on a decent network connection, anyway). Download the PS4 Link app (available now) and it will work in much the same way as the Wii U and its GamePad.
In terms of applying the gaming experience to the 'second screen', the Xbox SmartGlass is more of an complementary experience, in much the same way as the PlayStation App complements the console. The PS Vita however enables users to play games away from the TV, which sounds like a strong point to us.
Xbox Live vs PlayStation Plus
In the beginning there was… Xbox Live. Now a decade into its life, Microsoft's online service is still considered to be the market leader. However, after a slow start, Sony has eased into the online race, with its PlayStation Plus subscription beginning to offer tremendous value.
Microsoft has said that at launch there will be 300,000 servers powering Xbox Live, running on Microsoft's Azure platform, and the company is pushing cloud integration as a vital component of the Xbox experience. So, while you'll be able to watch your videos and access your profiles from other devices, what does it mean for gaming?
In short, a faster, reliable service that's more of a social network than ever before. Saves, gamertags/profiles and videos will be stored in the cloud and available to access on any console you log in to.
An Xbox Live Gold subscription will cover both the 360 and the One, with account details, achievements, gamertags and avatars carried over. Smart Match, Skype, OneGuide and DVR functionality are exclusive to the Xbox One and available only with a Gold-tier subscription.
Smart Match is a complete re-do of the service's matchmaking system, pairing players in online multiplayer games based on age, console reputation, skill and language. Microsoft claims it will make for a fairer, more competitive gaming experience.
Smart Match will also take care of finding suitable opponents while you're doing something else. Whether that's on the console, or through a SmartGlass synched device, you can continue to play a game (digital titles only) while Smart Match runs in the background.
The biggest change overall has been the service's slow morph into a social network. Other profiles can be "followed" in a similar way to Twitter, with your own profile becoming a channel on which people you can view your activity, content you've shared and any other vital stats.
The friends limit has been boosted from 100 to 1000, and you can tag which friends you like most, granting quicker access to their profile.
Privacy has been tightened, with your friends able to see your profile in full whereas others can view just glimpses of it. You can also deny profile access to any other user.
Sony meanwhile is taking a similar path with the PS4's online experience, making gaming much more sociable than on previous PlayStation consoles.
The friends limit on PS has jumped to 2000, more than twice that of the Xbox One. You can also assign your real name to your profile, a feature the Xbox One will patch in after launch. You'll need to opt to do this during the creation of your profile.
Free on the PS3 and Vita, multiplayer gaming will come under the umbrella of PlayStation Plus subscription (currently £40 for a year) on the PS4. As on the Xbox One, profiles and saves will be uploaded to its cloud storage, with 3GB of space available for each user. Handily, PlayStation Plus will cover your PS4, PS3 and PS Vita so you won't need to re-subscribe for each device.
The PS4 will also be party to free games every month through its Instant Game Collection, although we wouldn't expect it to be as generous as the offering served up on the PS3 and Vita just yet. Resogun and Contrast are up first for European customers at no additional cost.
The PlayStation 4 will launch with a host of new games including Battlefield 4, Knack, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Metal Gear Solid 5, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Pro Evolution Soccer 14 and plenty more.
While the PS4 is said to support 4K video output (and 3D), it won't be in the form of 4K gaming, which will have to remain firmly on the wishlist for now.
Sony will be entering broadband partnerships with specific providers, offering tailored gaming packages of up to 200Mbps, including dedicated parts of the broadband 'pipe' for gamers to use, in an effort to combat lag and time out issues.
The Xbox meanwhile will be getting a similar line-up of launch titles with Black Flag, Call of Duty, Need for Speed: Rivals and FIFA 14 onboard. Xbox One exclusive games will include Dead Rising 3, Killer Instinct, Crimson Dragon and Forza Motorsport 5.
Microsoft will be looking to take advantage of the company's cloud computing resources, with the Xbox One reportedly capable of offloading calculations to a server.
Forza 5 will be able to incorporate the cloud network with its Drivatar mode, but it remains to be seen how well it will work with broadband connections fluctuating from good to bad around the world.
It's now known that the PS4 will not offer DLNA streaming at launch (along with a host of other stuff). Expect that to be patched after launch, but in the meantime you can subscribe to Sony's Music Unlimited service.
Music Unlimited is available for £10/month and will offer access to all of the service's 22 million tracks. Music will not download to the hard drive but stream to the PS4, removing the need for storage.
High-quality audio streaming is also said to be an important facet of the service with users granted the option to have the music library as a soundtrack to their games.
Sony's other app, Video Unlimited, will have faster start times than before. 200,000 movies and TV shows will be available (depending on your region) and much like the Music Unlimited app, content will stream to the PS4 with all content stored in the cloud.
The Xbox One will ship with Microsoft's respective Xbox Video and Xbox Music apps with DLNA streaming included (with Windows PCs). There's a slight issue with the latter as only devices that meet Microsoft's 'Play To' standard will work with the Xbox One.
An Xbox Music pass (£10 a month) will give users access to the library and content can be played on a variety of SmartGlass synched devices. Content can be searched, initiated or stopped through by voice commands.
Our initial verdict? The PS4's emphasis on building a gaming console first and foremost may well strike a chord with those who like to keep their consoles strictly for playing games.
The Xbox One has more of a focus on being an all-round entertainment hub, offering more third-party apps at launch than the PS4. If that's what you're interested in, then the One will offer that in spades.
But we'd expect the PS4 to catch up – and with one of the Xbox's main features, its OneGuide functionality, not due to launch in the UK until next year one of the console's prime features won't come into play for quite a while.
We certainly think that the versatility and potential of these machines as complete home entertainment machines is massively exciting.
With both systems requiring updates post-launch and plenty of questions remaining over features and functionality, we can't wait to get our hands on the consoles and bring you full reviews very soon...
Which machine do you think is better? And why? Let us know in the comments below.
HANDS ON: PS4 review