The battle for gaming supremacy — and maybe for control of the digital home — has begun.

Sony launched its PlayStation 4 on Friday in the United States and Canada, hoping to get a jump-start on rival Microsoft’s latest Xbox One, which hits store shelves next Friday.

Sony has another big advantage over Microsoft besides an early release date: At $399, it costs $100 less than the Xbox One.

But it won’t be easy to get your hands on one of the coveted machines — at least initially, and especially in Asia — as a shortage of supply combines with a backlog of pent-up demand fuelled by the long wait for the next-gen consoles.

Hundreds of thousands of customers snapped up their new toys at midnight launches across North America and in their rush to hook them up, they put Sony’s PlayStation Network under immense stress.

“PSN seeing very high volume, some gamers may experience difficulty connecting, thanks for your patience,” Sony tweeted from the official PlayStation account overnight. “If you’re getting a network error on the PS4, please sit tight,” read an early morning tweet. “As you can imagine, we’re seeing heavy traffic tonight!” Only about 6 million PS4s and Xbox One systems are expected to ship worldwide this year, with 3 million to 4 million of those dedicated to the US.

India launch in Dec

Sony’s machine is only available to US customers for now. It launches in Europe and Australia in late November. Gamers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia will follow, on December 13, with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia getting the console on December 17, 18, and 19, respectively.

PS4 fans in South Korea, South—East Asia, South Africa and India are also supposed to get the console in December, though Sony hasn’t specified release dates for those markets. Meanwhile, customers in Sony’s Japanese home market will have to wait another three months to get their hands on a PS4.

Command hub of the living room

So what’s all the fuss about? Well it’s been eight years since the launch of the Xbox 360 and seven since the PS3 went on sale. That can seem like a lifetime for a patience-challenged community of tech-obsessed gamers used to updating their other devices every year or two.

According to a recent survey by Parks Associates, interest in the new game consoles is rivalling that of tablets on holiday wish lists.

About 18 per cent of US homes with broadband Internet connections plan to buy a tablet this holiday season, compared with 16 per cent for a game console. Last year, tablets outpaced game systems 19 per cent to 11 per cent.

“Consoles have had a major upgrade in terms of resolution, processing power, new features, and new titles,” said Brett Sappington, director of research at Parks Associates. “Already 14 per cent of all US broadband households use a connected game console to stream video, and the enhancements in the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will further expand the console use cases.” This points to the holy grail being pursued by both Sony and Microsoft. They see the game consoles as the command hub of the living room and even the entire digital house — the place where people will go to stream their music, videos and websites on a big screen, and even close their curtains and raise their heating level.

Both consoles offer 10 times the processing power of their predecessors, better game sharing and improved controllers and menus.

The Xbox One can also function as a cable TV box, comes loaded with all the features of Skype and can be controlled via phone or tablet, in addition to its Kinect gesture—sensing technology.

Console sales seen at $44 b

Strong demand for both systems should debunk the theory that the rise of casual gaming would sound the death knell for video game consoles. Research firm Gartner predicts $44 billion in game console sales of hardware and software in 2013, up from $37 billion last year.

“We’ve been behind on the innovation curve, while you have all kinds of new tablets and smartphones coming out,” Tony Bartel, president of retailer GameStop told USA Today.

Now, he says, “consoles will be the most innovative product that everyone is going to want this holiday season. It will precipitate a great new growth cycle.”

(This article was published on November 16, 2013)
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