It was a casual aside: a colleague mentioned, with some regret, that Apple doesn't make a games console. It led to a debate: just what is a games console? Ultimately it is nothing more than a personal computer that is locked to one platform, with the intention of playing games. By that rationale Apple has many games consoles, or at least devices on which you can play games. They just offer other functionalities. To be fair, of course, so does the Xbox One with which we compare the iPad here.
It may appear an odd comparison but we hope that it will seem less so as we go on. The aim is to provide advice to anyone considering purchasing an Xbox One or an iPad, so we'll focus mainly on the iPad Air, with reference to the iPad mini 2 with Retina Display, as they are the new iPads on sale now. But the advice is generally applicable to all iPads.
And yes, we love any excuse to pit Microsoft against Apple. We're old school in that respect.
iPad vs Xbox One for games: general points, price
First things first, a new iPad will set you back at least £399 for the iPad Air, or £319 for the iPad mini with Retina Display. The Xbox One costs £429. But before you start thinking the iPad is a cost-saving option, it is only fair to point out that £399 gets you the basic iPad with only 16GB of storage, and the other eight models range from £479 up to £739. In most cases the iPad Air will cost more than the Xbox One (although it can cost less. This is confusing).
Let's move on to safer ground: the iPad offers some capability that the Xbox One doesn't, albeit outside the area of gaming on which this article focuses. You won't be editing documents on your Xbox One, but you can on the iPad. But the Xbox One is something of a complete living room, set-top box, offering web browsing, TV streaming and communications. The iPad can of course do all of this. Both allow the installation of apps, of course, but there are many more apps for your iPad than there are for the Xbox One. And the iPad offers greater portability - try to take your Xbox One on the train with you for a gaming session. And although half the iPad models don't offer cellular connectivity, no Xbox does.
iPad vs Xbox One for games: display, controls
Of course you need an external display for the Xbox One, although not one for the iPad. But if you are a hardcore gamer, you probably want to play on a massive display. Similarly, you need external controllers to play on your Xbox One, where the iPad's touchscreen is its own controller. But again, for gamers this is properly a positive. The Xbox One's new controller takes the well-loved design of the Xbox 360 controller and refines it further. You get one bundled with the console and, well, it's great. Smaller than is the 360's, it has yet more precise and -responsive sticks, a vastly improved D-pad, and buttons that are a little closer together and easier to press. The triggers have their rumble motors, which is really effective in some games and gimmicky in others. Either way it offers a better gaming experience than can the iPad.
And then there is Kinect, the Xbox One's motion sensor controller.
The new Kinect is leagues beyond the Xbox 360's Kinect. It's great, if not perfect: smaller, and works well in dim light. Eighty percent of the time, it works every time. And it offers something more than can the iPad (or any other gaming device).
iPad vs Xbox One for games: choice of games
Below is a putative list of Xbox One games out now or in the next year, 15 of which are exclusive according to Microsoft. You'll note that versions of many are available on iPad. Not all are out now, they may not all be great, and all will be expensive (around 50 quid). You'll also note that some are ports of existing franchises, versions of which are available in the iOS App Store:
Amazing Spiderman 2; Angry Birds Star Wars; Assassin's Creed 4; Battlefield 4; Capybara; Call of Duty: Ghosts; Carmageddon: Reincarnation; Child of Light; The Crew; Crimson Dragon; D4; Dead Rising 3; Destiny; Dragon Age Inquisition; Dying Light; Elder Scrolls Online; Fable Legends; Fantasia: Music Evolved; FIFA Soccer 14; Fighter Within; Final Fantasy XV; Forza Motorsport 5; Halo for Xbox One; Halo: Spartan Assault; Just Dance 2014; Killer Instinct; Kinect Sports Rivals; Kingdom Hearts 3; Lego Marvel Super Heroes; The Lego Movie Videogame; LocoCycle; Lords of the Fallen; Madden 25; Mad Max; Max:The Curse of Brotherhood; Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain; Mighty No. 9; Minecraft; Mirror's Edge; NBA 2K14; NBA Live 14 ; Need for Speed Rivals; Peggle 2; Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare; Powerstar Golf; Project Spark; Quantum Break; Ryse: Son of Rome; Shantae: Half-Genie Hero; Skylanders Swap Force; Sniper Elite 3; Star Wars Battlefront; Sunset Overdrive; Thief; Titanfall; Tom Clancy's The Division; Trials Fusion; Valiant Hearts: The Great War; The Walking Dead: Season Two; Warhammer 40,000: The Eternal Crusade; Watch Dogs; Whore of the Orient; The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt; Wolfenstein: The New Order; Xbox Fitness; Zoo Tycoon; Zumba Fitness World Party.
On the other hand there are, literally, tens of thousands of games for iPad - including everything from free casual games to FIFA 14, Football Manager, Minecraft, Infinity Blade, Deus Ex etc. And they top out at around seven quid. We've listed a few of our favourites here: The 69 best iOS games: Great gaming apps for iPad & iPhone.
If you have to have the most complex versions of the latest games, the Xbox One is likely to be the place to be for the forseeable future, but don't discount the iPad as a gaming platform. Games coders know they can make good money in the App Store and the days of the iPad being only a casual gamer are long gone. See also: iPhone 5S vs iPhone 5C comparison review: what's the difference between the new iPhones?
iPad vs Xbox One for games: performance
It's a similar tale here. The Xbox One is clearly the more powerful device, but the iPad Air is far from a poor gaming tool. In our tests, Geekbench 3 showed the iPad Air's processor clocked at 1.39 GHz – a tad higher than the Apple A7 in the iPhone 5s which reads 1.30 GHz – and it returned a score of 2703 points in multi-core mode; and 1487 points for a single core.
In the Egypt HD graphics test the iPad Air could play at an average framerate of 48 fps, and we really can't imagine anyone being disappointed by its gaming capabilities.
The Xbox One delivers a thoroughly next-gen experience, however. Forget all that fanboy nonsense of the past few months about native rendering resolution and such.
Gaming on the Xbox One is both more fun than expected and an arresting visual spectacle on a par with the best the PlayStation 4 has to offer. Forza Motorsport 5 is the sharp, clean, smooth racing sim a next-generation launch title should be. Dead Rising 3 is impressive in its scope, and we didn't notice any crippling slowdown when mowing down hundreds of zombies.
It's miles beyond what any current-generation console could hope to pull off, and further miles beyond the iPad Air.
iPad vs Xbox One for games: the verdict
If you need the best, have the funds to pay for expensive games, controllers and displays, and portability isn't an issue, the Xbox One is the only game in town. But don't discount the iPad Air as a gaming device (or indeed any iPad). The iPad enjoys a wider selection of much less expensive games, and offers a portability that the Xbox One cannot match, being locked into your front room.