Top Pick for
In 2021 there are plenty of gaming consoles to choose from. Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo have all released next-gen gaming consoles over the past few months so it can be tricky to work out which one is right for you. We've done the legwork for you and come up with our best guide for gaming consoles that has a little something for everyone.
For this list, we picked products based on our own expert experience and reviews, as well as key product features and prices. Read more detail on our methodology below.
There's always going to be fierce opinions on which is better between the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Both are extremely powerful consoles with beefy specs, up to 120Hz refresh rate and gorgeous graphics. Either way you're getting a fantastic machine.
But unless you're dedicated to the exclusives offered by PS5 (more on that later), there are a lot of reasons to consider the Xbox Series X instead. And while there are things like more 120Hz options on Xbox right now, it mostly comes down to quality of life inclusions.
The rapid-fire loading times are a literal game changer. This is particularly handy when utilising the Quick Resume functionality that lets you jump right into where you left off after exiting out of the game.
Backwards compatibility is also a huge drawcard if you're a long-time gamer who wants to revisit their favourites, or someone who wants to experience the classics for the first time. Xbox Series X allows this for Xbox One, Xbox 360 and even OG Xbox games. Comparatively, PlayStation 5 only has backwards compatibility for PS4 titles.
The Xbox app is also excellent, allowing users to set up their console quickly and conveniently with a code, similar to some streaming services. It also allows you to voice chat as well as easily save and share in-game screenshots.
Xbox Series S also has PlayStation beat in terms of Crossplay, which lets you play compatible games across your console and PC, as well as play with friends regardless of which they're using.
Crossplay has allowed me to revisit Destiny 2 with a bunch of mates lately, all of whom are playing on PC. I love that I can do that from the comfort of my couch with extreme ease.
But perhaps the biggest win for Xbox Series X is Game Pass. Xbox now has 3 different tiers that give you access to over 100 games, EA titles as well as perks and discounts. PlayStation Plus just doesn't compare. While Game Pass Ultimate will set you back $15.95 a month (which is very much worth it in my opinion) you can get your first month for just $1 and Microsoft frequently has promotions that extend this deal out to 3 months.
But there are of course some downsides. You can only expand your storage with proprietary Microsoft products and there's no rechargeable battery option. I find myself having to plug n' play a lot or go through a ton of batteries.
I'm also not the biggest fan of the UI, which hasn't changed since the last generation. It continues to be very busy and difficult to navigate at times. I sincerely hope this changes in the future.
I may be tough on the UI, but 1 thing I'm happy to praise is the set-up experience. This is exclusively thanks to the Xbox App. For the first time you can use it to set up your shiny new console from your phone. And it makes a world of difference.
All in all, the Xbox Series X feels like a friendlier, more consumer-focused console that offers a huge suite of options for all kinds of gamers – those who are itching for the latest title, those who want to play with their PC buddies and those who are content playing more casual or a little older games.
And if you want more info, we have a review of the Xbox Series X.
Like I said above, there will be plenty of people who prefer PlayStations in general over the Xbox ecosystem. I totally get and support that. One of the biggest unique drawcards of the PlayStation 5 is its exclusives. This is something that Xbox is seriously lacking in.
The only way you're able to play some of the hottest games of the year are through PlayStation. This includes Returnal and Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales. PlayStation has also been the home of other huge exclusives like The Last Of Us Part II, Final Fantasy VII Remake, the Uncharted series and Death Stranding. Plus many, many more.
Other upcoming exclusives include Horizon Forbidden West, Final Fantasy XVI and God of War: Ragnarok. While some PlayStation exclusives do eventually come to other platforms, they take ages. And thats very much on purpose.
So if you froth PlayStation exclusives and are after a truly powerful next-gen console, PlayStation 5 is the way to go. If you can actually get your hands on 1 during the yearlong shortage.
Nintendo revolutionised the modern gaming market with the Nintendo Switch back in 2017. The seamless conversion of console-to-handheld gaming was a game changer and has resulted in 3 more Switch consoles in 4 years – the Nintendo Switch Lite, a revamped regular Nintendo Switch and the new Switch OLED.
I was determined to rag on the Switch OLED due to it seeming like an incremental upgrade on paper. And if you already have a Switch you probably don't need it. But if you're a first time buyer or your older model is broken, it's worth the upgrade.
Playing the Switch OLED in handheld mode is a delight. It's lighter than the regular Switch, the chassis is nicer to the touch and the larger OLED screen is truly beautiful. The colours are punch and bright, the blacks are as dark as heart and the glare is reduced. Alongside it, the display on other Switch devices look washed out.
That being said, it is pricey and there is no point to it if you are mostly going to be playing it on your TV. The internal specs minus upgraded storage are the same as the 2019 Switch. This means there is no performance difference while docked.
Considering the Switch OLED is $539 (which is more expensive than an Xbox Series S), you really only wanted to consider it if you're a handheld fiend who will benefit from the external upgrades.
Read more in our full review of the Nintendo Switch OLED.
Both Xbox and PlayStation released digital editions of their next-gen consoles back in 2020. This gave customers a cheaper option if they either wanted to save some money or weren't interested in using physical media like game discs or Blu-ray.
But the 2 companies had different approaches to their digital-only offerings.
Unlike the flagship Xbox Series X, the Series S had more modest specs. It has half the amount of storage (512GB vs 1TB), a smaller processor (4 teraflops vs 12) and a weaker resolution (1440p vs true 4K).
However, it does still have up to 120fps frame rate and is capable of 8K HDR.
Comparatively, the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition has exactly the same high-powered specs as its disc-wielding counterpart, but for $150 less. So for that reason, it wins out among digital-only consoles.
That being said, if you're looking for the cheapest option, and don't care about less beefy specs, the Xbox Series S is still worth considering. Its RRP is only $499 vs $749 for the Series X.
Following on from the above, the Xbox Series S is definitely the best value console of this generation.
While you don't get the best specs, it's still powerful enough to handle games beautifully and is $250 cheaper than the Xbox Series X. If you're someone who doesn't care about pushing your console to the absolute limits with the likes of 8K and HDMI 2/1 gaming, it's a great pick.
But what really makes this the best value is Xbox Game Pass. This has been a game changer for console gamers, particularly those of us with an ever growing shame pile of titles we have been meaning to catch up on. We don't need to get into the nuts and bolts of Game Pass again (check Best Overall if you skipped right here) but I'll say this again – it's great.
The other advantage of the Xbox Series S is that it's far more compact than the Series X, which is large and reminiscent of a supervillain's lair.
If you're looking for the cheapest way to get a newer console, you can't go past the Nintendo Switch Lite. It has an RRP of $329.95, but you can find deals online for under the $300 mark.
The Nintendo Switch Lite offers the ultimate portable gaming experience. It's lighter than regular and OLED versions of the Switch and it has fun new colours. It also has a better battery life than the original 2017 Switch. You get access to the exact same suite of digital and physical games as the larger models too. And most importantly, it's cheaper.
But there are some trade-offs.
The Nintendo Switch Lite is handheld only. So unlike the other Switch consoles in the range, it can't be played on a TV. The in-built screen is also smaller than its counterparts.
You can't remove the Joy-Cons so you're also not going to have a great time with games that require this functionality, such as Mario Party Superstars, which was released on the day this article was written.
If you prefer a handheld-only experience (personally this is how I play my Switch the majority of the time) then it's an excellent option. Why pay for a bunch of extras you won't use?
If you're on a budget or simply don't need the sheer power offered by the PlayStation 5, perhaps consider a PS4 Pro instead.
This upgraded version of the OG PlayStation 4 is the closest you're going to get to both native and upscaled 4K gaming without paying a new-gen premium. While Xbox Series X reigns supreme on this list, PlayStation has Microsoft beat in terms of the previous generation.
Now to be fair, not all of the more heavy-duty games will be capable of consistent native 4K on the PS4 Pro. But I'm willing to bet that if you're looking here instead of at the PS5, that probably isn't the biggest priority for you.
It's also worth noting that the internal Blu-ray player isn't capable of running 4K, but it can handle regular DVDs and Blu-ray discs. 4K streaming services work just fine as well.
But in general, if you want your games to look a little better but aren't ready to go for a full upgrade yet, this is still a decent option.
Here's our full review of the PlayStation 4 Pro.
Over the last few years we have seen a slew of "Mini" retro console releases. In essence, these are miniature emulators. They are babies of the original console with digitised versions of some the most beloved games loaded onto them.
As a SEGA girl growing up, I am extremely partial to the Mega Drive/Genesis Mini. It has 42 games loaded onto it, including classics like Golden Axe, Sonic the Hedgehog, Virtua Fighter 2 and Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle.
But despite my love for SEGAAAAAAAA, the mini console crown has to go to the Super Nintendo Mini. It has fewer games, but they're very much all killer and no filler. And as our resident retro gaming expert explains, it even includes some rare titles that are harder and more expensive to get usually, as well as the unreleased Star Fox 2.
This kind of consideration and added value for retro fans is hard to beat, so it gets our vote.
Read our full review of the Super Nintendo Mini here.
|Specs||Nintendo Switch||Xbox One X||PlayStation 4 Pro|
|CPU||4 ARM Cortex A57 cores (theoretical max 2GHz)||8 core CPU @ 2.3GHz||x86-64 AMD "Jaguar," 8 cores|
|GPU||256 CUDA cores (theoretical max 1GHz)||6 teraflop GPU @ 1,172 MHz, 40 compute units||4.20 TFLOPS, AMD Radeon-based graphics engine|
|Memory||4GB||12GB GDDR5||GDDR5 8GB|
|Storage size||32GB expandable to 2TB with MicroSD||1TB||1TB|
|Dimensions||Switch: 6.2 inch, Dock: 104mm x 173mm x 54mm||300x60x240 mm||295×55×327 mm|
|AV output||HDMI (connects to Switch dock)||HDMI out port (supports 4K/HDR)||HDMI out port (supports 4K/HDR)|
Video game consoles are designed to make playing games on your TV as easy as possible. Unlike PC gaming, which requires some tech know-how and the odd bit of tinkering, consoles are the plug-and-play option.
Just connect one to the power, use the included HDMI cord to connect it to your television and you're ready to go. You'll also need to connect to the Internet if you want to play online.
Because consoles aren't as flexible as PCs and the hardware is fixed, they're significantly cheaper too.
New console models tend to arrive in cycles, called "generations", that range from 5 to 8 years long. Console makers aren't as upgrade-happy as PC or mobile phone manufacturers, so if you choose wisely, you'll get many years of entertainment out of yours.
That said, be warned: we're currently nearing the end of the eighth generation of consoles, meaning that by late 2021 more powerful successors will hit the market.
While this might deter you from jumping in right now, it does mean prices are far cheaper than at the start of the generation. There's also a huge backlog of great games to play on the current systems, while launch software for generation consoles is notoriously underwhelming (though visually impressive).
Three main systems define the current generation of consoles:
Both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launched in 2013, while the Nintendo Switch arrived 4 years later. Since then, all 3 have had mid-generation hardware refreshes and have split their lines into high-end and cheaper options.
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are functionally similar. Built around modified PC architecture, they're designed to sit in your living room and deliver high-fidelity gaming to your television.
The Switch is different. Though you can play it in HD through your TV, you can also detach it from its dock and play it in handheld mode using the 6.2-inch screen attached to the console. Raw power is limited for portability and convenience.
These 3 systems each have 2 significant variations. In 2016, the PlayStation 4 line was splintered into the PS4 Slim (which replaced the base launch model) and the more powerful PS4 Pro, which has improved overall performance and the ability to output some games in 4K HDR.
The base Xbox One was usurped by the Xbox One S and the beastly Xbox One X, which is Microsoft's pricier premium option for UHD gaming.
And in 2019, Nintendo added the Switch Lite to the fold, a cheaper, lighter version of the Switch that focuses exclusively on portability and cannot be docked and played on a TV.
Now that the generation has progressed and the early kinks have been smoothed over, we can confidently recommend all 3 consoles. But each has its own identity and will suit different people. When making your selection, take these factors into account.
Your primary consideration when buying a console should be the games you can play on it. After all, we don't play consoles, we play games.
Each system has its own exclusives that cannot be played elsewhere. These are most often developed by internal first-party studios, but occasionally third-party teams will sign exclusivity deals.
Sony invested heavily in internal development at the start of this generation, and it shows.
The PlayStation 4 has arguably one of the greatest line-ups of exclusive games ever, particularly if you enjoy flashy, big budget, story-driven single-player action experiences. God of War, Spider-Man, Bloodborne, Uncharted 4, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Last of Us 2 and Persona 5 are all modern masterpieces only available on PS4.
Nintendo similarly has a reputation for quality exclusives. Long-running series like The Legend of Zelda, Mario, Fire Emblem, Smash Bros. and Mario Kart form the family-friendly core of Nintendo's identity, and excellent entries from all of these franchises have hit the Switch.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is already spoken about in the hushed tones typically reserved for "best games ever" shortlists.
In contrast, Microsoft infamously positioned the Xbox One as an "all-in-one entertainment platform" at the start of this generation, neglecting significant investment in exclusive games while focusing on oddly misguided endeavours like now-shuttered internal television studios.
We don't know why either.
Although it eventually course-corrected, the console still falls behind the compeition on the exclusives front. That said, Forza Horizon 4 is the best arcade racer on the market, and no third-person shooters feel better in hand than Gears of War 4 and 5.
The vast majority of console games are made by third-party developers operating under publishers like Ubisoft, Activision, Electronic Arts, Warner Bros. and Bandai Namco, among others.
With only a few exceptions, most of these come to both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with very little to differentiate them. Occasionally, these games will have console-specific content like exclusive maps and skins or early access to DLC, but this is fairly trivial and shouldn't drive your decision.
The Nintendo Switch is the outlier here. It's less powerful than its competitors and, as a result, does miss out on significant third-party releases, notably Call of Duty, Destiny and newer Assassin's Creed games.
However, because of its runaway success, the Switch is faring better than Nintendo consoles typically do in this regard. Publishers seeing dollars in the size of the install base are turning to older games and remastering them for Switch.
Dark Souls, The Witcher 3, Doom, Wolfenstein, Skyrim and older Assassin's Creed games all have solid Switch versions. There's enough to keep you busy, and being able to play a game as epic and deep as The Witcher 3 while on a long-haul flight is an experience not to be overlooked.
If you want your games to run at their absolute peak resolution and frame rate with the most advanced lighting and visual touches, the Xbox One X, the most powerful console on the market, is the clear winner here.
Its AMD APU chip (basically the console's brain) operates at 6 teraflops, while the PS4 Pro does a respectable 4.2 teraflops. (On the entry-level end of the scale, the Xbox One S hits 1.4 teraflops and the PS4 Slim 1.84.) The Xbox One X also leads on the RAM front, with 12GB of fast GDDR5 RAM compared with the PS4 Pro's 8GB of GDDR5 RAM.
What this means in practical terms is that the Xbox One X has little trouble outputting at native 4K resolution with HDR. Load times, when properly optimised for, are also significantly faster on Xbox One X.
The PlayStation 4 Pro can display games at 4K HDR, but it's not "true" native 4K. Instead, it uses a clever method called checkerboard rendering – essentially only displaying half the pixels on-screen at any one time and then alternating to the other half so quickly you can't perceive the difference.
Nintendo, well aware its strengths lie elsewhere, is more than happy to sit out the computational power arms race.
Consoles are played using controllers or "gamepads". This will largely come down to personal taste based on what your hands find comfortable. In terms of ergonomics, we'd give the honours to the Xbox One pad but only by a fraction. The PS4's "DualShock 4" is PlayStation's best ever controller, with Sony finally looking at a pair of hands before designing it.
The Switch's "Joy-Con" controllers are different. Because of the Switch's portability, Joy-Cons are designed to be played in a few different configurations to match your environment. The most comfortable configuration is simply connecting 2 Joy-Cons to the included charging grip.
We'd recommend trying them all out in a store or at a friend's place. Remember, you'll spend hundreds of hours holding these things, so it's important they don't make your hands cramp up.
Gaming online with friends can be great fun. However, unlike with PC gaming, it's not free – you need to subscribe. A 12-month subscription to either PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold will set you back $79.95. Along with allowing you to play multiplayer online, both services offer a few free games every month, often quite good ones, usually from the last year or 2.
Nintendo Switch Online is significantly cheaper at only $29.95. That price allows you to play online multiplayer in games like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon and also gives you access to a library of old-school games from the NES and SNES era. If you want to play legendary classics like Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past while you wait for the bus, you can.
Consoles are as convenient as gaming gets, but the arrival of online connectivity and software updates has muddied the waters a tad. On Xbox One, in particular, a planned play session can occasionally be derailed by mandatory game updates, during which time you'll have to play something else (on PlayStation 4, you can easily opt not to install a hefty patch and continue playing in offline mode).
But it's the Nintendo Switch that cannot be beat regarding convenience. Updates are always small and fast, and with the ability to play any game on your TV or in handheld mode while on the move, it's the only console that bends to your lifestyle (and not the other way around). If you travel a lot, or struggle to claim the lounge room TV from binge-watching housemates or family, the Switch is a game changer.
Traditionally, as new consoles emerge, old games get left behind. This is no longer a concrete rule.
As mentioned, you can play classic games on the Switch via its online subscription system. But the Xbox One blows this out of the water. Microsoft put a lot of effort into ensuring games from the previous Xbox 360 and original Xbox generation work on Xbox One.
Though not every game is backwards compatible, most of the ones you'd hope for have received this treatment. If you've got a stash of old games lying around and want to play Halo or Gears without dusting off the Xbox 360, this is worth considering.
PlayStation 4 does not have any backwards compatibility features. However, some classic games are available on the PlayStation Store, often with remastered graphics. Unfortunately, these games aren't free to download, even if you own the originals. (Prices typically range between $10 and $20.)
For PS4 and Xbox One, we recommend getting a 1TB hard drive model. With the bulging size of 4K games, many larger than 100GBs, the older 500GB drives fill up fast.
The Switch only has 32GB of internal storage, but it can be expanded with a standard SD card. Though Nintendo games are generally smaller at around 5–10GBs, if you're buying games digitally, that drive will fill up fast. You'll need to factor in the cost of an SD card into your calculations.
Microsoft and Sony are planning to release brand new consoles this year. While an exact date hasn't been announced, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are expected to hit stores during "holidays 2020". There's a chance the launch could be delayed to early 2021 due to the coronavirus, but either way, 2 new consoles will be entering the market very soon.
With that in mind, it might be worth waiting to see what the new consoles offer before throwing down cash on a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. The Switch, meanwhile, is earlier in its life cycle and will likely remain Nintendo's flagship console for at least a year or 2.
Needless to say, the new consoles will be much more expensive at launch and you can expect all games to cost upwards of $90. If you only play games casually, our advice would be to wait.
Confused by some of the terms you find when discussing video game consoles? This glossary should help.
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