Picking the right video game console may seem like an overwhelming task, one that’s harder than it ought to be. Though there are ultimately just three console manufacturers – Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo – all three have multiple models available, each with its own set of pros and cons. When you ask yourself the question “Which gaming console is right for me?” the answer depends on a variety of factors. Are you a hardcore gamer who spends hours in front of the television, cranking through the latest high-definition AAA titles? Are you a parent looking for a system that your kids will love as much as you do? Do you want a console that combines gaming with multimedia entertainment options?
There are consoles that fit any type of gamer. In this buying guide, we break down the basics of gaming consoles and recommend the best device for a variety of needs. While there’s no single console that checks all the boxes, every major console has its advantages. We’ll help you find the right console for your situation.
Best Network Gaming Console
Network gaming lets you play a video game online, either with your friends or in an open public match. You and anyone you’re playing online with needs to have the same type of console and – in many cases – a paid subscription to that console’s online network.
Of the major gaming consoles on the market right now, the Sony PlayStation 4 is a standout success. With a large library of games, a refined controller and console design, and an array of connected services for online gaming and media streaming, the PS4 is a worthy contender for your choice as a gaming system.
Best Console for Local Multiplayer Gaming
Playing locally means you and other players are playing a game in the same room, typically on the same console and TV. In most cases, the TV screen becomes split-screen, showing each player’s perspective. Typically, Nintendo favors this over Sony and Microsoft.
The newly released Nintendo Switch is the latest video game console from Nintendo since it released the Wii U back in 2012. It’s a step forward for the gaming industry – the entire console is simply a 6.2-inch tablet. Small controllers, called Joy-Cons, can either attach to the sides of the screen or slide off and become two controllers that can be used in multiplayer games like 1-2-Switch, or for two handed motion-controlled games like the upcoming video game Arms. You can also attach the Joy-Cons to the controller grip accessory included with the Switch for a more traditional controller feel.
Best Multimedia Console
If you plan to turn your new console into the hub of your home theater, we recommend the Xbox One with its Kinect camera accessory. Even though it can glitch out from time to time, there’s something very relaxing about coming home after a day’s work, sitting down in front of the TV and turning it and your Xbox on with the simple voice command, “Xbox On.” Between its integrated Blu-ray drive and support for every major streaming service, there’s tons of video to be enjoyed. Microsoft even lets you pass your cable box through the console, so you can watch TV while checking Twitter in a handy sidebar.
Microsoft’s latest video game console, the Xbox One S, improves greatly upon its previous iterations. Barely half the size of the standard Xbox One, this console has 4K capabilities, an internal power supply and a beautiful minimalistic design. Despite an absence of powerhouse exclusive video game titles, something which its competitors – the PlayStation 4 and the handheld Nintendo Switch consoles – have released to great success, the One S is still a powerful machine that makes a statement.
Best Budget Console
The current generation of consoles offers top-tier gaming and premium graphics, but you have to pay an equally premium price. If you’re watching your budget, Microsoft and Sony still sell their last-generation consoles. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are each significantly cheaper than their newer siblings – especially if you buy used, something that’s easy to do when so many people are upgrading to the current generation.
One of the best benefits of buying a last-generation system has nothing to do with price; it’s all about the game library. Ten years of development time translates into a ton of spectacular games. Like movies, there are plenty of duds, but many of those titles are enduring experiences that shouldn’t be missed.
If your budget is super-tight, there’s an even cheaper alternative to the last generation: microconsoles. Most people play games of one sort or another on their phones, usually just to pass the time. Some, however, love the unique take on gaming that the Google Play Store offers and wish they could play the same titles in a much larger venue. Running the same operating system you find in many smartphones, microconsoles let you play Android games on the big screen. As their name implies, of course, microconsoles are far less powerful than full-fledged gaming consoles. Set your expectations to match.
It’s been three and a half years since Microsoft released the Xbox One. Launch titles have earned sequels. The controversial Kinect, once bundled with the gaming console, is now a separate accessory. Yet the One still struggles to find the same success that some of its competitors have long enjoyed.
Best Handheld Console
Gaming no longer has to be a couch-based activity. Handheld consoles allow you to game wherever you are and don’t even require a consistent internet connection. Though these consoles are small and less expensive, they aren’t as powerful as their console counterparts.
For decades, Nintendo’s family-friendly video game consoles – and the worlds created within their unique games – have been beloved to adults and children alike. The New Nintendo 3DS XL aims to continue pleasing with upgraded hardware, improved 3D technology and new games. This handheld gaming system boasts larger screens, plus there are multiple design plate styles to choose from.
What Else to Consider
Cheaper than gaming PCs, consoles are specialized, prepackaged computers designed for playing video games. Their one caveat, however, is that they only work with games made for their particular system. While a few major titles, like Minecraft, can be played across multiple platforms, there is little lenience otherwise aside from backward-compatibility for older games.
The major console manufacturers are Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. Nintendo makes the Switch, Microsoft makes the Xbox One and One S, and Sony manufactures the PlayStation 4 and its Slim and Pro versions. Each have great games and functionality, but the newest consoles have the latest releases and feature the most current technology.
What the mouse and keyboard are to computers, the controller is to consoles. There have been many iterations of the controller over the years, but most follow a similar format: a plus-shaped directional pad on the left, buttons on the right, and a joystick or two thrown in for fine control in 3D environments.
Consoles can also be used for more than just gaming. All versions of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 come standard with Blu-ray drives, meaning you can use them to watch both Blu-ray and DVD movies. Most modern systems also have downloadable apps for social and streaming services like Netflix and YouTube, letting you stream music and video whenever you want. In fact, many consoles become the centralized home entertainment hub for the whole family.
Alongside cross-platform games, those compatible with multiple consoles, each system also has exclusives – games that aren’t available for any other console. Exclusives are a big deal and a driving sales force within the gaming world. If you’re dying to play Halo, you need an Xbox. Heard great things about Uncharted or The Last of Us? Sony’s PlayStation is the only place where they’re available. And of course, Nintendo’s Mario or Zelda franchises can only be played on its devices.
There are more multiplatform games than exclusives, but still, not all of the multiplatform games work everywhere. Any game that states its cross-platform is usually only on the latest Xbox and PlayStation devices, since those two systems have such similar capabilities. Nintendo’s consoles have fun, unique features but just aren’t as powerful, which makes it harder for developers to create comparable versions of their games for their consoles. As a result, Nintendo’s catalogue is filled with many more exclusives. Really though, the lesson here is to discover which games you and your loved ones want to play, then ensure the console you choose supports as many of them as possible.
Nowadays, it’s the standard that new consoles have internet connectivity and basic online multiplayer abilities. However, you can’t play with a friend who owns a different console than you. Xbox Live, Microsoft’s online multiplayer network, only works with recent Xbox consoles; the PlayStation Network – Sony’s equivalent – is similarly restricted. Even playing with people who are on older systems isn’t a possibility – Xbox 360 users and Xbox One users cannot meet up in game.
Another multiplayer option is local multiplayer. Sometimes called split-screen – as different halves of your TV become dedicated to differing viewpoints within a game – local multiplayer lets people play together in the same room and console, with multiple controllers. Though most modern games don’t even support it, since it takes too much processing power to render a game twice over on one screen, Nintendo continues to abide by this option, making them a great option for local gaming.
Consoles for Kids
Gaming consoles are primarily designed for adults, as they can advertise M-rated games with scary or inappropriate imagery; additionally, their interfaces can be rather utilitarian, making them hard for young children to use. Beyond this, it comes down to game selection: If a console doesn’t have a variety of kid-friendly games, it probably isn’t the best choice for the family room. A handful of games on the Xbox and PlayStation are great for kids, but again – neither is really geared toward children.
Nintendo is the clear choice for family-friendly gaming. It’s known for kid-safe titles like the Mario, Donkey Kong or Pokémon franchises, and other arcade classics. The Nintendo Switch already has a variety of titles available, and more will be released throughout 2017. The Switch supports solo or multiplayer gaming on its small screen, or you can connect it to your TV. With its small build and simplistic interface, your kids can easily navigate it.
Consoles also allow for downloadable media streaming apps like Netflix, YouTube, HBO, Hulu Plus and more. These make it easy to watch your favorite shows or listen to music directly on your console. Some consoles even allow you to connect to your cable source, thus centralizing your home’s entertainment center. Consoles also have parental controls, giving concerned parents a higher level of control over what kids can access.
The latest consoles have the processing power needed to make your viewing experience smooth and effortless. All versions of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have Blu-ray players, so you can easily watch your entire Blu-ray and DVD library without having to buy a separate disc player. And since they’re constantly receiving software updates from their respective manufacturers, the console viewing experience is ever improving.
Current-gen consoles offer top-tier gaming and premium graphics, but for an equally premium price. If you’re watching your budget, consider second-generation consoles – like the Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U or PlayStation 3. Another option is handheld consoles. Though they lack the power of high-end consoles, the New Nintendo 2DS XL and 3DS XL, along with the older PS Vita, all have extensive game libraries and great functionality, while allowing you to game wherever you are. Otherwise, consider classic or even used consoles. Sure, classic consoles are more for the collector’s crowd, and their games may be difficult to find, but there are many classic consoles available from third-party retailers for under $100, sometimes even under $50.
Not all consoles are meant for the living room. The current-gen handheld consoles include the New Nintendo 2DS XL, New Nintendo 3DS XL and the PS Vita Slim. Though their hardware is far from comparable to standard consoles, they get the job done and allow you to game wherever you are. You can play AAA titles on them, and some even allow for 3D gameplay. If you want something more powerful but still portable, consider the Nintendo Switch, which allows for handheld gameplay as well as traditional couch-based gaming, for both solo and multiplayer fun.
With the variety of features and functionality available in these video game consoles, it should be easy to find the perfect match for your needs and budget. Whether you want something inexpensive to play after work from your couch, or you simply must keep up with the newest multiplayer titles, these consoles are a great way to get your gaming fix.