We’re approaching the end of this video game console generation, with both Sony and Microsoft gearing up to release their next-generation consoles – the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X respectively – so those looking for the peak of performance might want to hold off until next Christmas.
Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have all diverged into their own niches in the past few years and each console has its pros and cons. But for our money, the Xbox One X is the best video games console thanks to its raw power and Xbox Game Pass subscription service.
1. Xbox One X: Best overall
If you’re looking for raw power, the Xbox One X is the clear choice. Stack this alongside a suite of entertainment apps and a 4K Blu-Ray player and the Xbox One X is the ultimate multimedia machine.
The problem Microsoft has faced throughout this console generation has been the games - which is a big deal for a games console. Sadly, this is still Microsoft’s Achilles’ heel. But, while they still don’t have big hitters on the same level as Sony or Nintendo, their recent spree of studio acquisitions and the fantastic Xbox Game Pass subscription means that you won’t be short of excellent games to play.
Sadly, the Xbox One X still has a fairly clunky user interface. Updates have improved the situation since we last reviewed the console, but it’s still not where it needs to be. There’s also the cost to consider as the most powerful console in the world comes with the highest price too.
- Read the review: Xbox One X
2. Nintendo Switch: Best hybrid
Presumably taking inspiration from that Hannah Montana song, the Nintendo Switch offers the best of both worlds - it’s both a home console and a handheld thanks to an innovative hybrid design. When connected to the dock, the Nintendo Switch behaves just like any other home console but pull it out and it instantly switches (we see what they did there) into a handheld device.
Nintendo’s first party output has always been stellar and the Switch carries on that grand tradition with critically acclaimed hits like Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8. Support from third parties is still lacking though, so you won’t be able to play popular titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Apex Legends on the Nintendo Switch. Not that you’d want to thanks to Nintendo’s lacklustre online support.
The Nintendo Switch is also the least powerful console on the market. This means third-party games like The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and FIFA 20 will be graphically inferior to other console versions - you just have to decide if portability is worth the graphical downgrade. We certainly think so.
- Read the review: Nintendo Switch
3. Xbox One S: Best value
In many ways the Xbox One S shares the same pros and cons as its bigger brother, the Xbox One X. Both offer fantastic multimedia options, the exceptional value of Xbox Game Pass and a built-in 4K Blu Ray Player. At the same time, Microsoft’s Xbox has a weaker lineup of exclusive games when compared to Sony’s PS4 and Nintendo’s Switch. You won’t be short of games to play, but you’ll miss out on some heavy hitters. The UI is still clunkier than we’d like too.
Where the Xbox One S differentiates itself is in power and cost, forgoing the former to offer huge savings on the latter. If you’re looking for value for money, you’ll be hard beat to find better than the Xbox One S. It’s almost worth buying for the 4K Blu-ray player alone.
If you’re looking for a cheap console to tide you over until the next generation of games consoles arrive next year, the Xbox One S is a clear winner.
- Read the review: Xbox One S
4. PS4 Pro: Best exclusive games
Spider-Man, The Last of Us, Death Stranding, Bloodborne, Gran Turismo Sport. Sony’s PS4 Pro is all about the games. They’ve forgone multimedia options to focus on cramming as many exceptional exclusive games as they can onto one console. If all you’re looking for is the best games, then look no further.
There is also the PSVR to consider - Sony’s proprietary VR headset. The PS4 is the only games console to support VR and the PSVR even has a good number of exclusive VR titles like Astro Bot: Rescue Mission. Add that to VR classics like Superhot VR and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes and you’ve got a fantastic VR machine at a reasonable entry price.
Sony’s claims of the PS4 Pro being a "4K console" do come with a lot of small print though. Due to the power gap between it and the Xbox One X, the PS4 Pro uses a lot of clever tricks and upscaling to reach the mythical “4K” resolution on many of its games. It also lacks the 4K Blu-ray player of the Xbox One X, meaning it loses out in the battle for multimedia supremacy.
But at the end of the day, the PS4 Pro is a video game console and in that regard, Sony has knocked it out of the park thanks to their phenomenal first-party titles.
- Read the review: PS4 Pro
5. Nintendo Switch Lite: Best handheld
The days of the dedicated handheld seem to be numbered, but Nintendo are still putting up a strong defense with the Nintendo Switch Lite. This lighter revision of the Nintendo Switch drops the docking system and detachable joy-cons, simplifying the design down to a more conventional handheld system. As a result, it’s more comfortable to use than its larger cousin. With that said, it’s still a little larger than we’d like and it can become uncomfortable during extended play sessions.
The Nintendo Switch Lite also shares its library of games with the regular Nintendo Switch, so you’ll be able to play hits like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Smash Bros Ultimate and Pokemon Sword & Shield. Add this to third-party goliaths like Fortnite, Rocket League, and Minecraft and the Switch Lite has one of the best game lineups in handheld history.
The lack of detachable joy-cons does mean that some games can’t be played on the Nintendo Switch Lite - this list includes party games like 1-2 Switch, Super Mario Party etc. You probably weren’t looking to play an eight-player party game huddled around a single Switch Lite, but it's worth bearing in mind when weighing up your purchase options.
If all you’re looking for is a dedicated handheld gaming device, the Nintendo Switch Lite is your best - and only - option on the market. It’s still a little bit too bulky, but the ability to play the Mario Kart 8 and The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt on the go is too good to pass up.
- Read the review: Nintendo Switch Lite
Why trust us?
We’ve tested gaming consoles rigorously for over five years. Our most recent evaluations took over 80 hours. Our writer and product tester is a lifetime avid gamer who thoroughly researched and tested each of the consoles, pushing each to their limit to test their quality, features, performance and ease of use. We considered each console’s interface, gaming and video playback, exclusives, price features and overall ease of use, all while examining how effective each console would be for users of all gaming experience levels and budgets.
Our team of reviewers and test assistants worked together throughout the evaluation process. This helps us consider the widest possible variety of features and use cases.
How much do gaming consoles cost?
New gaming consoles cost between $179 and $500, which includes traditional consoles as well as handheld and hybrid consoles. Prices increase according to processing power, but there are other factors to consider such as game selection and home entertainment center multimedia options, like streaming video. Special or limited edition consoles can cost more.
Key features to look for when buying a gaming console?
Many video games are available for multiple platforms, like Minecraft for example. However, some games are made exclusively for a specific console. So if you’re dying to play Halo or Forza, you'll need an Xbox. Heard great things about Uncharted or The Last of Us? Sony’s PlayStation is the only place they are available. Likewise, any title in Nintendo’s Mario or Zelda franchises can only be played on its devices.
While there are more multi-platform games than exclusives, it’s important to keep in mind that most cross-platform games really only work on the latest Xbox and PlayStation devices, since those systems have such similar capabilities. Nintendo’s consoles, however, have fun and unique features but aren’t nearly as powerful as the others, which makes it harder for developers to create comparable versions of their games for Nintendo consoles.
But with the advent of the Switch, Nintendo has begun collaborating with third-party game developer companies, and now games available on the Switch have improved greatly both graphics- and capacity-wise. The lesson here is to discover what kinds of games you and your family like to play, then choose a console that supports most of them.
Nowadays, it’s the industry standard that new consoles have internet connectivity and basic online multiplayer abilities for other users of that same console. However, at least for the time being, you cannot play with a friend who owns a different console than you. Xbox Live, Microsoft’s online multiplayer network, only works with other recent Xbox consoles; the PlayStation Network – Sony’s equivalent – is similarly restricted as is Nintendo Switch Online. Even playing with people who are on older systems isn’t really a possibility at this point.
Another option is local multiplayer. You can play using two TVs in a single location or using the split-screen feature on a single TV. Many modern games don’t support local multiplayer on a single TV, as it consumes too much processing power to render a game twice over on one screen. However, Nintendo continues to create games and consoles that can abide by this option, making its consoles great for local gaming.
Many consoles have media streaming apps such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and more. These let you watch your favorite shows or listen to music directly on your console; some consoles can even connect to your cable source, thus centralizing your home’s entertainment center. Consoles also have parental controls, which give concerned parents more control than ever over the kinds of games, apps and videos their kids can access.
Most of the latest consoles have the necessary power to play media smoothly and effortlessly. Some can even read Blu-rays and DVDs, so you can watch your entire physical movie catalog without buying a separate disc player. And since the consoles constantly receive automatic software updates, the viewing experience is ever improving.
The newest heavy-duty console to hit the market – the Xbox One X – has 4K HDR playback and the most powerful gaming console processor on the market. The Xbox One S and PlayStation 4 Pro also have some 4K and/or HDR playback abilities, though to a lesser degree than the One X. Any of these is a smart choice if you have a compatible TV and access to 4K games and video, and they can make for the perfect binge session of Netflix’s latest 4K content.
It’s easy to see that Microsoft’s consoles put a heavy focus on entertainment over gaming. The best way to compare it is to say that an Xbox is a media center that also plays games, and the PlayStation is a gaming console that also plays media.
Nintendo understands that not all consoles are meant for the living room. The current-gen handheld consoles include the New Nintendo 2DS and 3DS XL, as well as the Nintendo Switch. Though the hardware of the DS XLs isn’t comparable to traditional consoles, they 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 and versatile, which allows for handheld gameplay as well as traditional couch-and-TV-based gaming, for both solo and multiplayer fun, go with the Switch.
As we approach the end of this console generation, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are all gearing up for the future. As a result, none of the previous generation of consoles are still on sale, with exception of Nintendo's 3DS and 2DS line of handhelds. These still offer great value thanks to their extensive game libraries, even if new games are no longer being release.
If you're looking for budget gaming, your best bet is to get one of the entry level consoles like the Xbox One S or PS4 Slim. If you're not attached to physical media, Microsoft also sell a digital only Xbox One S. It doesn't have a disc drive, but it's even cheaper than the normal model.
Otherwise, consider classic or used consoles. Sure, classic consoles are more for the collector crowd, and their games may be difficult to find, but there are many classic consoles available from third-party retailers for under $100, sometimes for as low as $50. You can also find previous generation consoles like the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii U at bargain prices.
Most cities have small, local game stores where you can often find deeply discounted – albeit used – consoles and games. If that doesn’t bother you, it’s a wonderful way to save money. You can also save a ton by buying used accessories. By shopping at these local retailers, not only are you helping out a small business, but you’re also connecting with your local gaming scene – a value that’s too great to pass up. Most of the time, the people running these stores are avid gamers as well and can give you recommendations and keep you notified of upcoming releases, sales and in-store events.
Gaming for kids
Gaming consoles are designed primarily for adults, as they can advertise mature games with scary or inappropriate content. Additionally, their interfaces can be rather utilitarian, making them hard for young children to use. Also, if you save your credit card information on the system for game purchases, it may be easy for your child to buy games without your permission. Some consoles have media streaming apps on them as well, making it easy for your kids to access shows or movies they shouldn’t view.
But knowledge of this, along with adjusting the parental controls on your console, makes any game console infinitely more kid-friendly. Beyond that, 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 console is really geared toward children.
Nintendo is the obvious choice for family-friendly gaming. It’s known for the kid-safe titles in its library, like the Mario, Donkey Kong and Pokémon franchises as well as other arcade classics that typically don’t have unsavory content. The Nintendo Switch also has a ton of exclusive and indie titles available that kids should enjoy. The Switch supports both solo and multiplayer gaming on its small screen, and you can choose to play it on your TV or handheld on the go. With their small designs and simple interfaces, the Nintendo consoles are great options for younger kids.
Should you buy a gaming console?
Gaming consoles are obviously a luxury, but they are rapidly becoming the center of living rooms and entertainment centers, since they combine gaming, listening to music, watching videos, chatting with friends, browsing the web, livestreaming, shopping and more. Consoles are a fantastic way to combine all of your digital entertainment into a single place. Consider your gaming habits, title preferences (past, present and future) along with your budget to ensure you find the perfect console for your needs.
The online gaming community
For most gamers, a functional console, a comfortable place to sit and a steady supply of new games is all they need. Other gamers, however, have discovered that they want more, like a community built around gaming – a place where video game lovers can come together to share strategies alongside tales of victory and failure, and maybe even some laughs along the way. Luckily, such a place exists: the internet.
Gamers around the world share videos with friends and fans alike on websites such as YouTube and Twitch. Here you can find live streams of your favorite gamers playing the latest AAA and indie titles, or even watch e-sports competitions. There are also millions of other popular gaming-related videos, including strategies, gaming news, rage quits, walkthroughs, fail compilations, achievements, tips, game reviews and more. Individual games and gamers alike have garnered cult followings online. It’s also easy to find more niche subcultures. They exist for bigger topics, like for certain console or game studios, as well as for more precise interests, such as a particular game franchise or character.
Even offline, much like the comic book and general geek communities, the video game community boasts multiple annual conventions. The community in general has generated as much merchandise, cosplay, meetups, fanfiction, movies, internet shows, and music as other mediums do. It’s a big industry that’s only continuing to grow each year.
According to a recent report completed by the Entertainment Software Association in 2018, 64 percent of U.S. households own at least one gaming device, and 60 percent of Americans play video games daily. And though gamers are predominantly male, gamers of all ages and genders are present in the study. The report also shows that consumers spent $36 billion on the gaming industry in 2017, predominantly on content.
The gaming community is not without its issues, however. From video game release dates being delayed repeatedly to sexism against female characters and gamers, this dynamic community has as many battles and growing pains to deal with in real life, just as in a video game. But considering how fast this community is growing – and given how many new branches within the community have recently appeared and come to thrive – it’s proof that this is a vibrant community that gamers of any skill level can contribute to, appreciate and share with others.