If you can feel the icy hands of Father Christmas closing around your throat because Dec. 25 is rapidly approaching — and you've been unable to find a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One for a gift — don't despair. Although they lack the shiny newness of their more powerful younger brothers, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are still plentiful, and if you don't already have one, now is the best time to buy.
It may seem counterintuitive to buy a console at the very end of its life cycle and eschew the newer systems, but a game console is not like a tablet or a computer: You can't just buy next year's model and run the same software at a better clip.
The fact is that buying an Xbox 360 or PS3 now gives you access to perfected interface software, a vast library of excellent games and a bevy of streaming content services. Even better: Hardware and games are cheap, and as the new consoles establish themselves as go-to devices, the current-gen stuff will only get cheaper.
Before you exhaust yourself and your wallet with an Xbox One or a PS4, read on to find out why an Xbox 360 or PS3 could be the right call for you.
Polished system design and user interface
The Xbox 360 and PS3 both look very different than they did when they were first released. A far cry from the noisy, oversized boxes prone to overheating, both systems took on sleeker appearances: the Xbox 360 with pleasing curves and the PS3 with a matte finish, and both much smaller than their initial designs.
The Xbox One and PS4 are both well-designed systems, but there's no reason to think that their current forms will dictate their future appearances.
Both the Xbox 360 software and the PS3 software are also leaps and bounds ahead of where they started off. At the beginning of its life cycle, the Xbox 360's interface was nothing but a bunch of drab, gray menu screens that gave access to rudimentary video, music and online marketplace features. Now, it's a colorful jumble of streaming services, game extras and personalized recommendations. It's not necessarily easier to navigate, but it's much prettier.
The PS4 interface has changed in less drastic ways, but it's still gained a number of streaming video and music services over the years. The XrossMediaBar is still as easy to navigate and snappy today as it was when it first launched in 2006.
Great games, low prices
The primary purpose of getting a game console is to play games, which is why the Xbox One and PS4 are both tough sells right now. Their launch libraries were not terrible, but nothing to write home about, either. Some of the best games on either platform — like "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag" and "Injustice: Gods Among Us" — are available for the Xbox 360 and PS3 with only minor graphical differences.
The Xbox 360 has been around for about eight years, and the PS4 for seven. During that time, they have amassed enormous libraries of hits. In addition to being able to play blockbuster franchises like "BioShock," "Assassin's Creed" and "Final Fantasy," you'll also have access to a number of system-exclusive series.
Xbox owners can enjoy the sci-fi shooter franchises "Halo" and "Gears of War," in addition to the role-playing game series "Fable" and the psychological thriller "Alan Wake" (available for PC, but not PS3). Those who choose PS3 will want to check out the Indiana Jones-inspired "Uncharted" series, along with the kid-friendly "Ratchet & Clank" and bloody action-brawler "God of War."
The best part about these games is that, save for the big hits of 2013 that just came out, they're generally inexpensive. Major releases for either system never went out of print, and tend to be available for $20 to $30, brand-new and shrink-wrapped.
If you're willing to buy used or trawl the Internet, you could get them even cheaper. In fact, as many gamers sell their old collections to make room for the next-gen consoles, you could stand to pick up dozens of games at dollars apiece by keeping an eye on eBay and Craigslist.
The most streaming services
The Xbox One and PS4 are both touted as comprehensive living-room entertainment centers, but the truth is that the Xbox 360 and PS3 are just as good — and, in some respects, actually better.
The Xbox 360 currently has access to almost 60 entertainment apps, including mainstays like Netflix and Hulu Plus, sports programming like MLB.TV and NBA Game Time, and traditional TV programming like NBC and PBS. You can even access shows from your cable provider via Time Warner, Verizon or Xfinity (Comcast). Currently, the Xbox One offers fewer than 20 apps (although it does let you access your full cable subscription — a feature not offered on the Xbox 360).
Likewise, the PS3 has access to more than 20 entertainment apps, while the PS4 has only 13. Netflix and Hulu Plus are present, as are three sports apps, streaming music services and two channels devoted to anime.
There's also the matter of streaming your own content. Both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 support streaming from outside media servers, like your own computer, or services like PlayOn. The Xbox One requires a workaround to accomplish this (it requires a very specific sequence of events involving the Xbox Video app and the Windows 8 media player), while the PS4 does not support it at all.
The Xbox One and PS4 will no doubt surpass their predecessors in time, but as matters stand now, the Xbox One and PS4 are, at best, comparable choices for comprehensive entertainment — and, at worst, lagging behind their predecessors.
The basic Xbox 360 with 4GB of storage, one controller and no games generally retails for $200, although this time of year, it's extremely easy to find it for $180 — or even $150, if you catch an especially good sale. Additional wireless controllers generally cost $50 apiece. Games, both downloadable and physical, can range anywhere between free and $60.
You can also find bundles if you want to buy everything together, some of which include 250GB Xboxes, the Kinect camera and games ranging from "Batman: Arkham City" to "Kinect Sports." These bundles can cost up to $400, but expect to find them for $350, or even less, around Christmas.
A basic PS3 with 12GB of storage, one controller and no games will cost $200, and sales appear to be few and far between. Controllers retail for $55, and games range from free to $60.
Bundles are actually the better deal in this case — for $250, you can get 250GB systems that come with hit titles like "Uncharted 3," "The Last of Us" and "Batman: Arkham Origins." (Generally, it's one game per bundle.)
The bottom line
If you already have an Xbox 360 or a PS3 and have played them to your heart's content, it's probably time to seek out an Xbox One or PS4, although you'll have better luck finding one come January.
If you never bought the Xbox 360 or PS3, however, consider picking up one instead and catching up on what you've missed. When you can put your feet up in front of your brand-new console rather than bludgeoning other shoppers over the last PS4, you'll be glad you did.
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