Editor’s Note: The Nintendo Switch is now available, with versatile multiplayer options and new exclusive games. We’ll evaluate it and add it to our review soon. In the meantime, visit our sister site, Tom’s Guide, to read their review of the Nintendo Switch.

Picking the right video game console is harder than it should be. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony are the only real players in town, so there aren’t many devices to pick from. Yet there are compelling reasons to choose each one over the others. When you ask yourself the question, “Which gaming console is right for me?” the answer depends. Are you a hardcore gamer who spends hours in front of the television, cranking through the latest high-definition titles? Are you a parent looking for a system your kids will love as much as you do?

In this buying guide, we break down the basics of gaming consoles. What are they? How will you know which is right for you? What distinguishes each one, and why should you pick it over the others? There’s no right answer – every major console has its advantages, and none is necessarily better – but there’s a right answer for you. We’ll help you find it. For even more information, check out the additional articles we’ve written on gaming consoles in our learning center.

Console Basics

Consoles are specialized, prepackaged computers designed, first and foremost, for playing video games on your TV. They tend to be much cheaper than gaming PCs, but they only work with games made for a given system. The PlayStation 4, for example, only supports PlayStation 4 games. There are some exceptions to this, mostly around backward-compatibility; for example, Nintendo’s Wii U lets you play all the games that came out for its predecessor.

The three console manufacturers of note are Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. Nintendo makes the Wii U, a family-friendly device with a large library of exclusive games bearing names like Mario and Zelda. It’s not as powerful as what you can get from Microsoft or Sony, but it has its own charm. Microsoft makes the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, while Sony makes the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. All four have great games, but if you’re interested in the best game consoles available, look to the newer Xbox One or PlayStation 4. They let you play the latest releases.

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 thumb stick or two thrown in for fine control in 3D environments.

Consoles are made for playing video games, but some can be used for much more. The Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 all have Blu-ray drives, meaning you can use them to watch Blu-ray and DVD movies. Every modern system has downloadable apps for services like Netflix and YouTube, letting you stream music and video. In fact, many consoles become home entertainment centerpieces, since they’re great for so much more than gaming.

Whether you’re buying a new console for yourself or getting a gift for a loved one, you need to know how it’ll be used if you’re to pick the right system. Ask yourself these four questions:

  • Do you want to buy games that are exclusive to a specific console?
  • Is online multiplayer an important feature to you?
  • Will kids be playing on the console?
  • Do you want it to be the hub of your home theater setup?

Exclusive Games

Many games that come out are cross-platform, meaning they’re available for several different consoles. Each system has exclusives, though – games that aren’t available anywhere else. If you’re dying to play Halo, you need to buy an Xbox. Heard great things about Uncharted or God of War? Sony’s PlayStation is the only place those series are available. And of course, Nintendo’s franchises like Mario and Zelda can only be played on its devices.

There are always far more multiplatform games than there are exclusives, but even they don’t work everywhere. When a game comes out for multiple consoles, it’s usually only on the latest Xbox and PlayStation because those two systems have similar capabilities. Nintendo’s consoles have fun and unique features, but they usually aren’t as powerful, which makes it much harder for developers to create comparable versions of their games. As a result, Nintendo’s catalogue is filled with many more exclusives and far fewer cross-platform titles.

The lesson here is to check to see which games you and your loved ones want to play, then make sure the console you get supports as many of them as possible. When it comes to exclusive games, we can’t recommend one console over another because everyone’s preferences are different. That said, the Xbox One and the PS4 both support many more cross-platform titles than the Nintendo Wii U, so pick one of them if you want the broadest selection possible.

Multiplayer Gaming

All the latest consoles have internet connectivity, and all offer some variation of online multiplayer. Right now, though, you can’t play with a friend who owns a different console from you. Xbox Live, Microsoft’s multiplayer network, only works with Xbox consoles; the PlayStation Network is similarly restricted. Even playing with people who are on older systems isn’t a possibility – Xbox 360 users and Xbox One users can’t meet up in game.

Microsoft and Sony recently announced that they’d be willing to work with each other to allow cross-play between their networks. If that happens, it will fundamentally transform multiplayer gaming in the living room. For now, though, you’re limited to playing with people who have the same console as you.

There’s another type of multiplayer gaming that used to be hugely popular but has since dropped off: local multiplayer. Sometimes called split-screen because different halves of your TV can be dedicated to different players’ views in a game, local multiplayer lets people play together in the same room, on the same console, with multiple controllers. It was incredibly popular before network connections got good enough to make internet gaming a thing, but today it’s largely dropped off. Most modern games don’t even support it, since it takes too much processing power to render a game twice over on one screen. It can still be incredibly fun, though, which is why so many Nintendo games – the ones that aren’t graphically intensive, anyway – support local play.

Best Console for Network Gaming: Sony PlayStation 4

Sony and Microsoft have online multiplayer for their consoles, but you have to pay for them. PlayStation Plus costs slightly less than Xbox Live Gold for an annual membership, but is the same price month-to-month. There are perks to either membership, including free games every month and access to exclusive sales, but PlayStation Plus edges out Xbox Live Gold with more freebies.

One of the PS4’s biggest differentiators is its DualShock 4 controller. Though many critics don’t find it as comfortable as the Xbox One’s controller, the DualShock has features like motion control, a touchpad and a dedicated share button. When you’re in game – assuming you have a PlayStation Plus account – tapping the share button lets you trim and upload a video snippet of your most recent gameplay to the cloud. It’s a great one-touch extra that can make multiplayer experiences all the more fun.

There’s a caveat to our recommendation: If you want to play with friends, they would also need to have PS4s. Though this could change in the future, right now online multiplayer only works across the same platform; if you want to play with friends, you’re best off buying the same console they have.

Best Console for Local Multiplayer: Nintendo Wii U

While the rest of the industry shied away from local multiplayer, Nintendo embraced it with games designed from the ground up for multiple people such as the Wii Sports and Super Mario Galaxy series. Buying extra Wiimotes – the Wii U’s specialized, remote-style motion controllers – is inexpensive, so it’s easy to have enough for family and friends to get in on the action.

Some Nintendo games take advantage of the Wii U GamePad. Different from any other console controller on the market, the GamePad is much larger and heavier than its competitors, with a built-in, tablet-like touchscreen. You can use the screen as a second display to supplement what’s on your TV, which opens up some fun gameplay opportunities: many Wii U games have one player use the GamePad and its screen, while other players watch the action on the TV and interact with Wiimotes.

Consoles for Kids

Consoles are usually designed for adults. Their home screens can advertise M-rated games with scary imagery; their interfaces can be rather utilitarian, making them hard for very young children to use. Most important is game selection: If a console doesn’t have a lot of games to satisfy children’s needs and tastes, 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 neither is really geared toward children. Even if a limited game selection is acceptable, you always need to keep an eye on your kids, lest they stumble across games better suited for teenagers or adults.

If you’re looking for a console that’s dependably family-friendly, Nintendo is the clear choice. As seen with the Game Boy, Nintendo 64, Wii and more, Nintendo’s consoles have always been great for gamers of all ages. Its lineups are packed with kid-safe titles, including classic franchises like Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and Harry Potter. Wii Sports is a blast for family game night, while Wii Fit can keep both you and your children healthy and happy.

Though it was released several years before the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Nintendo’s Wii U is still considered part of the current generation of consoles. It isn’t as fast or powerful, but it makes up for that with some fun design features. The Wii U GamePad, for example, lets you play without the TV by using a screen right on the controller. If you’re watching something in the living room, your kid can be playing in his or her room or on the couch beside you, without interrupting your show.

Entertainment Center

Many modern TVs have network connectivity and built-in apps so you can watch Netflix, listen to Spotify and browse YouTube without plugging in a computer. But even if you have such a TV, those built-in apps are rarely very snappy and almost always difficult to update. DVD and Blu-ray players can have the same apps, but they’re often added as afterthoughts.

Top-quality consoles support Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO, Amazon Video, YouTube and so much more – and they have the processing power you need to make the viewing experience smooth and effortless. The Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 all have Blu-ray players, so you can watch your entire Blu-ray and DVD library. And since they’re constantly receiving software updates from Microsoft and Sony, the console viewing experience is ever-improving.

Best Multimedia Console: Microsoft Xbox One

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.

Budget Gaming

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.

Best Budget Console: Microsoft Xbox 360 / Sony PlayStation 3

If you’re looking for budget gaming and a huge library of titles, buy either the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3. Just as with current-generation consoles, there are many games for the older Xbox and PlayStation that are exclusive to either platform. The entire Halo series, for example, can only be played on Xbox, and Halo 4 – the last one to come out for the 360 – is among the best first-person shooters of all time.

Since it came out a year after the Xbox 360, the PS3 had more time to gestate in Sony’s design lab and has better hardware as a result. Its exclusives, like Infamous and Little Big Planet, look all the better for that extra power. There are certainly plenty of them to try; out of well over 1,000 PS3 games released on disc alone, more than 200 can’t be played on other consoles.

Multiplayer gaming was just as big a part of the last generation of consoles as it is this generation, and you can still play online on both the Xbox 360 and the PS3. In this, the PS3 does have an advantage: you can play online without a PlayStation Plus account. Xbox Live Gold for the 360, meanwhile, costs the same as it does on the Xbox One. We’d give the edge to the PS3 in our recommendation here, were it not for the Xbox 360’s impressive catalogue of games, including its own blockbuster exclusives. Which you choose comes entirely down to personal preference.

Portable Gaming

Not all consoles are meant for the living room. Handheld devices have a long history, dating back to the Sega Game Gear and the original Nintendo Game Boy, lovingly referred to as “the brick” by its fans. There aren’t too many options on the market these days, since smartphones have become such ubiquitous gaming systems, but those that have stuck around have developed their niche of die-hard fans.

If you’re looking for something like the Nintendo 3DS or the Sony PlayStation Vita, check out our reviews and comparison of handheld game consoles. Perfect for the car, train or airplane, they’re a great way to get your console gaming fix while on the move.