Microsoft and Sony have released new consoles, the Xbox One and Playstation 4 respectively. It’s been seven years since the two companies released new boxes, and a lot has changed. The last systems, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, launched in a world pre-iPhone, pre-Netflix streaming, and pre-tablets. Systems and apps were bolted on over the years to take advantage of the evolving tech scene, but they were still the same old systems underneath.
The new systems are built with Internet connectivity in mind. They’ll both be able to record live gameplay and stream it to the Internet via services like Twitch and Ustream. The Playstation 4 will be able to stream games to the Playstation Vita, so you can play the games you’d normally play on your couch, just about anywhere. Rumor is Microsoft is working on a similar technology to be used on Windows phones, tablets and laptops.
Add to that ecosystems that encourage online play, digital purchases over disc-based retail buys, and the use of a variety of streaming entertainment options (from Netflix and Hulu to each company’s own music programs) and you’ve got two full-on media boxes that all but require good Internet connections. That’s going to be a problem here in America.
The Speed of Slow
According to DSL.com, for a smooth gaming experience, you should shoot for a connection speed of at least 6 Mbps. You can get by with less of course – 3 Mbps should be fine if you’re not too serious about competitive gaming and high-quality media streaming –but you’ll need more to take advantage of all the new features of the new consoles without lag and constant buffering.
But can you get more speed? Many Americans can’t. A 2011 Pando Network study found that the average Internet speed in America is at about 616 Kbps. That’s Kbps, as in kilobit, as in very slow. With that kind of connection, you’re looking at lag-filled multiplayer matches, the worst streaming quality—if you can stream at all—and none of that cool online multitasking Microsoft has been touting (talk to your friend on Skype and play Call of Duty online at the same time!). Speeds have improved a bit since then, with more companies like Verizon and Google laying down fiber, but it will take a lot more coverage to bump up that average.
Microsoft eventually walked back on their initial idea of an always-online, always-connected console, but the message is still there between the lines—these systems are best when connected to the Internet. At what point will console manufacturers be required to put a connection speed requirement sticker on the box? Should they? It would probably be nice to know if you live in Idaho that the box you’re walking to the checkout won’t be able to do half of what it advertises because of your poor Internet connection.
Light on Details
Connection speed has been the elephant in the room at many of the console press events this year. Sure, it’s neat that the Playstation 4 can stream games to the Playstation Vita, but what if you’re on a sub-3 Mbps plan in a crowded city, where peak times drive speeds down below the national average? Streaming a game to your handheld isn’t as cool when it streams at five frames per second.
Sony and Microsoft haven’t addressed speed issues, leaving the door open to customer backlash, which Microsoft in particular does not need more of. Maybe they’re waiting for the systems to get out there, see what works with the average speeds and make adjustments accordingly. Or maybe they just don’t care about those with poor connections. You can still play games offline…without patches, multiplayer, updates or additional downloadable content.
The new consoles look amazing and come packed with features—tech you should be excited about if you’re at all interested in tech. But if you plan on getting one and your Internet speed isn’t great, adjust your expectations—your new system wasn’t built with you, Mr. Slow Internet, in mind.