The makers of video game consoles may someday develop a machine that delivers on all the pre-launch hype, but we're not there yet.
The new PlayStation 3 from Sony Corp., the Wii by Nintendo Co., and even the year-old Xbox 360 from Microsoft are not magical boxes that will revolutionize your gaming experience.
They will, however, certainly improve it with better controls, built-in Internet capabilities and other new multimedia tricks.
There's an important lesson this time around with one of the most overblown features: the graphics. They surely dazzle, but they aren't everything.
My jaw dropped open when I first saw the visuals on PS3 games like "Genji: Days of the Blade" and "Resistance: Fall of Man" when plugged into a high-definition television.
The frenzied sword fights in "Genji" feature richly drawn warriors wearing outfits with incredible details like rippling fabrics and swaying hair. The gun battles in "Resistance," meanwhile, enveloped me in a chaotic, cinematic scene of fiery explosions and swarms of angry, freaky-looking aliens.
The graphics on the PS3, which costs $600 for a high-end model, are already as good if not better than anything I've seen on the Xbox 360, a remarkable achievement considering the PlayStation is brand new and game makers have only begun to tap its power.
Then there's the quirky Wii, a small, unassuming white box with graphics not much better than they were on Nintendo's previous GameCube console. Its price is modest as well: $250.
Yet the Wii was the most fun and the easiest to use. It can deliver on Nintendo's promise to bring more non-gamers into the fold.
When I popped in "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" or the included "Wii Sports," I wasn't even thinking about the graphics after a while — I was too engaged in the experience, swinging around the Wii's wireless remote like a baseball bat to hit virtual balls out of the park and riding a galloping horse to explore a fictional countryside.
While uniformly gorgeous, the initial PS3 games look and play exactly like they do on the Xbox 360, which costs $400 for a high-end model. In fact, many of the PS3's 14 or 15 games that will be available at launch are remakes of games that have already been released for the Xbox 360, which by now has a library of over 100 titles.
It's not that I wasn't impressed by the PS3 games, but after breaking into a sweat from a few hours with the Wii, sitting on my couch to shoot aliens in "Resistance: Fall of Man" felt pedestrian.
The Xbox comes out ahead with its online service.
Xbox Live, available for free or as a more robust subscription service, has an unmatched set of online features to chat and play games with friends and download new content.
Nintendo's WiiConnect24 or Sony's PlayStation Network, both free, should be working by the time the Wii and PS3 launch, but neither appears to be as comprehensive as Xbox Live.
As on the Xbox Live, the online services for the new consoles will allow you to buy games and download them to the unit.
All three systems will also play game discs for each manufacturer's previous consoles, but only Nintendo makes it hassle-free.
Though the PS3 ran several dozen PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games I tried out with no problems, many won't (go to Sony's Web site to see if your games will function).
Worse, none of my well-worn PS2 controllers and memory cards filled with saved games can connect to the PS3 (I'm sure someone will sell an adapter to fill this void). You'll want to keep your old PS2 around for games like "Guitar Hero," which is controlled with a special plastic guitar attachment.
Beyond games, the Xbox 360 and the PS3 have the ability to play movies in competing high-definition formats.
With its Blu-ray drive, 60 gigabyte hard drive and built-in wireless, the $600 PS3 would seem a natural first choice as the new centerpiece of my home theater system. (There's a PS3 model with a smaller hard drive and no wireless available for $100 less.)
Yet without a TV-style remote control, basic functions like fast-forwarding through ultra-sharp Blu-ray movies are cumbersome using the controller. I'm sure someone will sell a remote, but for the price you'd think Sony would include one.
The Xbox 360, meanwhile, can only play standard DVDs. An HD-DVD attachment from Microsoft is available for $200.
The Wii isn't really a competitor here — it doesn't support high definition and can't even play DVDs, just Wii and GameCube games.
One thing I did notice for those AV fans: the PS3 is significantly quieter than the Xbox 360, which whirs up like a hair dryer when I'm playing games. The Wii is practically silent.
Declaring one of these systems an overall winner is impossible, mostly because of the oddball Wii. It's just so different from its rivals, it's almost unfair to compare it to the PS3 or the Xbox 360.
But the Wii's unique controller and approachable $250 price could make it the surprise hit of the three.
I don't think Sony or Microsoft have anything to worry about. Their vastly more powerful systems will cater to more experienced gamers, an influential contingent that will continue to drive the industry forward with cutting-edge graphics and unmatched multimedia capabilities.
It really boils down to what kind of gamer you are.
Hardcore? The PS3 and Xbox 360 are very competitive, with the technological edge going to Sony. Casual or newcomer? The Wii delivers an amazing experience for a relatively low price.