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A non-gamer's guide to next-gen consoles

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With Sony and Microsoft releasing their respective next-generation consoles this month, video game enthusiasts may already have a clear idea of which console they favor, if they want to upgrade at all. But if you aren't inclined to turn to the hardware for gaming purposes and haven't been playing close attention to the console race, don't worry, both next-generation consoles may have something for you.

TV AND MOVIES

When the Xbox One was first revealed by Microsoft in May, the corporation put a glaring spotlight on the console's media functions and non-gaming entertainment aspects. The Xbox One features an HDMI input that allows users to plug in a set-top box, opening up the ability to multitask between apps while watching TV.

"Of the benefits running the TV through the Xbox One is that if you are watching a show and you want some information, you can have Internet Explorer to the side of the screen," Adam Pollington, Microsoft Australia's category lead for Xbox told Polygon, "So you can call up those type of statistics without missing a moment of the show."

The console's motion sensor called the Kinect, which comes packaged with the hardware, allows owners to swap back and forth between games, television, music and Internet explorer using voice commands and hand motions.

There is also an Xbox One Guide that provides full local TV listings, where users can swap between programs by voicing the name of a particular channel or show. Consumers can also rent or purchase movies and TV programs from the Xbox Video marketplace on the Xbox One. Products such as Netflix and Hulu Plus are available on the console, but they will require an Xbox Live Gold subscription to use.

Earlier this year Microsoft established Xbox Entertainment Studios. Headed by Nancy Tellem, the studio is dedicated to creating original interactive content for Microsoft's consoles, including "a range of scripted interactive content," such as a Halo TV series. It is also reportedly working on an unscripted series about street soccer named Every Street United, as well as a Blake's 7 remake.

"There is no reason why there isn't the ability to enable better resolution down the track."

Sony Pictures is also working on an original programming plan for its own respective console. According to the CEO of Sony Entertainment and Sony Pictures Michael Lynton, the unique content will be created with gamers in mind and will be available through the PlayStation Network for the console.

PS4 users will have access to media services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video without the requirement of a PlayStation Plus subscription. The Redbox Instant streaming service will also be available on Sony's next-gen console, offering a collection of 7,000 movies to PS4 users.

PS4's Video Unlimited streaming service consists of a library of movies and TV shows, such as new movie releases "weeks before DVD and Blu-ray," as well as TV shows "the day after they air." Video Unlimited will be available on PS4, PS3, PS Vita, BRAVIA TV and Xperia Smartphones.

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MUSIC

PS4 owners will have access to Sony Network Entertainment's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited, which will be available at the console's launch in North America.

The Music Unlimited subscription service offers users a music library of millions of songs, allowing them to create their own soundtracks and listen to music while playing games. As the PlayStation 4 doesn't support playback of music CDs and MP3s, Sony recommends that PS4 owners get a Music Unlimited subscription — which range from $4.99 to $9.99 monthly. Music Unlimited accounts can be accessed on the PS4, PS Vita, Android and iOS smartphones and devices.

The Xbox One will be DLNA-compatible, acting as a receiver when streaming media from other devices such as Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 machines and supported Windows Phones. The system will also feature audio CD playback but, unlike the Xbox 360, users won’t be able to rip CDs  and store or playback MP3 files. The Xbox One's music streaming service, Xbox Music, will be available from launch. Users can snap the application to the side of the screen so they can can multitask while they listen to music, watch TV or play games.

SKYPE

The Xbox One runs on three distinct operating systems, allowing the console to run non-gaming apps like Skype, Internet Explorer and media players. This frees up the gaming-dedicated operating system to do what it does best — play games — and allows the console to multitask applications.

Skype will be available in widescreen HD on the Xbox One and will allow for group video calls on the TV. Using the "Snap" mode and Kinect's voice commands, users will also be able to multitask on the console when using Skype, allowing them to have a Skype conversation no matter what they are doing on the console.

FITNESS

For those who aren't into games but want to use the consoles for exercise, each offer their own respective options. Microsoft's console offer a few fitness-centric titles, such as Zumba Fitness: World Party and Xbox Fitnessa subscription-based service that will provide dozens of individual workouts at launch. The program uses the new Kinect motion sensor, which can track a player's body, measure temperature, be aware of color changes in a player's face and monitor which muscle groups are being used during exercise.

The PS4 will feature Ubisoft's upcoming dance game, Just Dance 2014, at launch and will include more than 45 songs from artists such as Lady Gaga, Daft Punk, Psy and Nicki Minaj. PS4 players can either use the PlayStation Eye Camera for full body tracking or the console's accelerometer-equipped Move controllers to play the dancing title.  The game will also be available on the Xbox One.

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SECOND-SCREEN

PlayStation 4 users will be able to use a smartphone, tablet or PlayStation Vita to act as second screen using the PlayStation App. The app can be used to make PlayStation 4 game purchases, send messages to friends, begin console downloads and watch gameplay from remote streams. For example, the app will also allow second screen devices to act as an in-game map or smartphone.

Microsoft's second-screen experience, SmartGlass, will allow users to use the app as a remote interface for the console. SmartGlass app runs on any smartphone or tablet, acting as a remote to navigate the web on the console, adjust the TVs volume and select media to play. 16 different devices running SmartGlass app can connect to a single Xbox One and Microsoft is working with developers to create entertainment applications for the app.

SPORTS

Microsoft will be launching two sports-centric apps on its next-gen hardware: an upgraded version of the existing ESPN experience and, in a five-year deal reportedly worth $400 million, an NFL-specific app. The ESPN app on Xbox One will retrieve users' preferences from their ESPN web accounts. The NFL on Xbox One app is a live feed of the NFL Network and will draw in content from the NFL website. Fantasy football users on the NFL's site will also be able to track their teams and leagues.

Since 2011, PS3 users had access to NFL content through DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, a channel allowed football fans to watch Sunday games from other regions for a fee. Perhaps relating to the Microsoft and NFL agreement, it was revealed shortly after the deal's announcement that PS3 users will no longer have access to the service.

With the departure of NFL content from the PS3, and possibly the PS4, users of Sony's next-gen console may receive sporting content from another sporting franchise: Major League Baseball. The 2013 MLB.TV application for PS3 was announced earlier this year and Sony has confirmed that app will carry over into next-gen, meaning PS4 users should have access to MLB season games live in full HD, archived games, home and away broadcast feeds and more.


DASHBOARD AND ACCOUNTS

The Xbox One's main menu, the first page shown when a user logs into the system, is composed mainly of five icons showing the last five games and applications used on that console for a user.

Up to six players can be logged onto a single Xbox One, where each user can have their own customized dashboard. Users can pin their favorite games and applications to a menu just to the left of the home screen, if they wish. Users can set up the Kinect so it will automatically sign a user into their profile when they walk in front of the Kinect.

This feature done using the Kinect's facial recognition capabilities, where the Kinect measures distances between key points on a users face. That data is used to create a numeric value that represents the each user, which is then stored on the console. Microsoft recently stated that the particular information is not shared beyond that point.

The PS4’s user interface (demonstrated in the overview below) will feature a 'What's New’ screen, home screen, profile page, share and video edit pages. The interface will also integrate messaging features, social networking, video chats and video game download options. According to Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida, the PS4's UI has a strong social aspect, with its most exciting feature being the possibility for "discoverability" of new games

"The minute you boot up, you'll see all the information about games you own, what your friends are doing, whether there's any new DLC coming out, or if your friends have shared a video or screenshot," Yoshida wrote. "And you can also spectate anyone playing PS4."

"It's like checking your social media every day," he said. "I really like that people can find out about new games, information, and what their friends are doing, without even booting the game. For example, you can check out whether you have had new challenges from friends from the home screen of every game. All the important information is presented to you immediately."

The PS4 also offers sub-accounts, however, a new master account must be created on the console once a person reaches the age of 18.


MEMBERSHIPS

For the PlayStation Network, accessing online features, such as multiplayer gaming, will require a PlayStation Plus membership, priced at $49.99 annually. The yearly subscription includes free and discounted games monthly.  Use of entertainment apps — such as Netflix, Facebook and Crackle — will not require a PlayStation Plus membership.

The subscription service will have "a prominent role" on Sony's new console, according to Jim Ryan, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.

For Microsoft, accessing online multiplayer and other services, such as Netflix, Xbox One Guide and Hulu, will set users back $59.99 per year for an Xbox Live Gold membership. Extended indefinitely, Microsoft offers subscribers the Games with Gold program, which provides members with two free games per month.

Current-gen users will be able to use their PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live memberships on their next-gen consoles.

DESIGN PHILOSOPHY AND LIFESPAN

According to Microsoft, the Xbox One was developed with a 10-year future-facing vision, which embraces the cloud, the new Kinect and upgraded SmartGlass integration. The Xbox One will have 300,000 dedicated servers around the world, a cloud service called Xbox Live Compute. All developers will have access to these dedicated servers, cloud processing and storage for saves. According to Microsoft, the console and its apps will continue to evolve as cloud processing power becomes more powerful.

"Effectively as the cloud grows in power so does the power of the Xbox One and I think that bring great benefits to any application you can use on the xbox one," Pollington said. "The ability to grow the processing power overtime is a great reassurance for customers.

"Effectively as the cloud grows in power so does the power of the Xbox One."

"It is up to the individual developer to how they want to use that power but really it is an open slather," he said. "We are in talks with partners to bring more apps to the Xbox system. It is totally up to the developers to what they chose to bring to the Xbox One system moving forward."

Yoshida previously revealed that PS4 developers can also take advantage of cloud computing for their products. The PS4 will use cloud-based technology for streaming games, instant-play demos and offloading gameplay to an online friend.

"Linking, matchmaking... there are already many computations being done on the cloud side," Yoshida said, highlighting that current cloud computing technology carries limitations due to latency and bandwidth.

Sony's cloud gaming service, Gaikai, could eventually be used to stream PlayStation games to PCs, televisions, Blu-ray players, smartphones and tablets. The technology won't roll out to the console until 2014.

The PS4 features a secondary custom chip that handles uploads and downloads of shared content and that "digital titles are available to play even as they download."

At the moment, the Xbox One console will work with TVs with a resolution of up to 4k, but it's unlikely that any Xbox One games will work at that resolution any time soon. Using the previously mentioned cloud features, Microsoft told Polygon, the console can be upgraded in the future to support greater resolutions.

"We have the ability to upgrade the console and leverage its power through the dedicated servers," Pollington said. "There is no reason why there isn't the ability to enable better resolution down the track."

At launch, the PlayStation 4 will support media output resolution at 4K for photos and videos but not for games.

Microsoft's next-gen hardware will be available on Nov. 22 in the U.S. for $499.99. It will also launch in Australia and Europe on the same date. Japan will receive the console in 2014.

Sony's upcoming console will launch on Nov. 15 in North America for $399.99 and Nov. 29 in Europe and Australia. It will arrive in Japan Feb. 22, 2014.

This is part of Polygon's Gen Next series, stories that will examine the transition from current-generation to next-generation consoles, what it means if you don't make the transition and if and when you should. Follow along here.