Now that Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii game systems are on the market, the console wars can begin again. Or maybe not. Any battle between these...

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Now that Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii game systems are on the market, the console wars can begin again.

Or maybe not. Any battle between these systems and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 will be skewed by the numbers this holiday. It’ll be nearly impossible to find a PS3 in stores, and Wiis, although more plentiful, will be snapped up fast.

No, the real war starts when all systems are in full supply and have enough games and features to really compete. At that point, how can you sort them out and which do you choose?

Each console has features that will appeal to different audiences. A hard-core gamer might want to pick up all three, but if you’re looking to buy just one this breakdown might help you decide.

• Just about everything surrounding Sony’s newest console has been confusing. Sony delayed the release date, cut its inventory numbers and hasn’t seemed to be selling us on the machine’s features yet.

Sony PlayStation 3

Reason to buy: Has Blu-ray high-definition video player, graphics look amazing and publishers are rolling out lots of games.

Reason to avoid: Price is too high for what you get, but that could change.

Online service: Seems more like a tryout than the real thing.

Release date: Nov. 17

Price: $500 for basic; $600 for premium

The pricey PS3 stands out among rivals because it’s the only one to come standard with a high-definition video player. It can play movies in the Blu-ray format, which is revving up to compete against HD DVD in a modern-day VHS vs. Betamax battle. But so far, Sony hasn’t given many good reasons to buy a Blu-ray player.

If you don’t have a high-definition television, of course, it doesn’t matter. I watched a Blu-ray version of “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” on my standard-definition TV, and it didn’t look any different than a DVD.

But if you have high-definition television and want to buy a Blu-ray player, the PS3 is a great deal because it’s hundreds of dollars cheaper than standalone players. It was an expensive gamble to put a Blu-ray player in every PS3, and Sony won’t know for a while whether it was worth it.

Sony’s premier launch title, “Resistance: Fall of Man,” is a thrilling shooter that pits you against a creepy, ruthless alien race. The graphics are amazing, better than anything on the PlayStation 2 but not that different from the Xbox 360.

I was interested to see how Sony would compete with the Xbox Live Service that Microsoft has worked so hard on over the past year. The PS2 didn’t have much in the way of online play, nothing that acted as a meeting place or a central store for selling games.

The PS3 has an online Web browser and a store that sells games and offers free game demos and movie trailers. I couldn’t get the browser to work, and the store was disappointing because it doesn’t take advantage of Sony’s entertainment empire.

The trailers were for movies like “House of Flying Daggers” and “Black Hawk Down.” Why wouldn’t Sony showcase more current properties, like “Spider-Man 3” or “Ghost Rider?”

Similarly, why wouldn’t there be downloads of Sony Music’s hottest videos — something from new albums by Beyoncé or Audioslave?

When you want to check out a demo or trailer, you have to wait while the download takes place. On such a sophisticated system, you’d expect the download to move to the background while you were doing other things. No such luck.

I’m not giving up hope on the PS3. Sony clearly has designed this console for the long haul, and a few years down the road it probably will be a one-stop entertainment center, where you can download albums, TV shows and movies, play games and chat with your friends. You can already plug in an external hard drive and store digital content there.

My crystal ball is a little fuzzier on the success of Blu-ray, which could end up losing out to HD-DVD as the standard for next-generation video. The hardware is in place, but Sony has a lot of work to do on the software. Will it be able to pull itself together to get there?

• For all of its drawbacks, the PS3 online service looked good compared to Wii’s. When I tried to connect to the WiiConnect24 online service I got an error code and a message that said, “Please try again later.”

But trying again is the wrong advice to give customers. I called Nintendo’s help line and was told that this is a hardware issue and the machine should be replaced.

Nintendo couldn’t tell me what the hardware problem was or how many consoles were affected, but it seemed like the company was familiar with this one.

It had already set up a system to mail a new Wii to people who called, and asked that the defective Wii be returned in the same box. You get charged if you don’t return the old one within 21 days.

So I can’t tell you anything about the Wii’s online service, which is supposed to give free local weather forecasts and world news. There is also a store that sells classic video games from Nintendo’s past.

I suspect that if Sony had a problem like this it would be raked over the coals.

Nintendo has been making consoles for decades, and should know better than to tell people to “try again later” when there is a hardware flaw. But give the company kudos for acknowledging and quickly fixing the problem once customers call.

Putting aside the online problems, the Wii is as fun and easy as a console can be. Nintendo was smart to include the “Wii Sports” game with every machine, because it shows off the strengths of the innovative remotelike game controller.

“Wii Sports” is a collection of baseball, tennis, golf, bowling and boxing mini-games, and you can play them immediately without reading instructions.

The tennis game was easy — my forehands and backhands were way more successful than in real life. But strangely, the last-minute curve-to-the-left problem I have in bowling showed up in the virtual alley.

One of the most anticipated games of the Wii’s launch, “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess,” worked well with the remote and a second controller called the Nunchuk. You use one controller to navigate around and the other one to open doors and perform actions like fishing.

The Wii’s graphics are simplistic and don’t compare to its rivals, and Nintendo readily admits it has sacrificed graphical prowess for a cheaper and more accessible machine.

The Wii doesn’t play movies, and is not going to be the multimedia hub of your living room. But the machine is so small and unobtrusive that you could keep it in your living room pretty easily, and it’s a good system for families with children.

• The Xbox 360 is a year old, but Microsoft isn’t letting it get stale. The company has made hundreds of updates to its Xbox Live online service, which is more advanced and exciting than what the PS3 or the Wii has.

You can download movies for rent and television shows to own on Xbox Live, a milestone that Sony should have owned. There are dozens of games to buy and a number of demos and trailers to download for free.

I suspect the Xbox 360 is going to hold its own against the PS3 in the new console wars, but I’m not sure if that’s because Microsoft has done well or because Sony has run into problems.

A year on the shelves has given Microsoft time to get a healthy number of game titles out and refine the Live service. But the 360 doesn’t play high-definition movies without an extra $200 HD DVD player that connects to the machine. It doesn’t support Blu-ray.

The average lifespan of past game consoles has been about five years, but these new machines are being designed to last well beyond that. The Xbox 360 seems to be a better buy than the PS3. Microsoft’s rich history of software development shows, in both its offline and online features.

But depending on how the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD battle plays out, my bet is on the PS3 to be the machine that is most relevant in five years.

The company has the business relationships, the gamer goodwill and, now, the hardware basics in place. It just needs to nail the software. Maybe Sony should set up a recruitment center in Redmond.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or