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Video game consoles make playing games on your TV as easy as possible. Unlike PC gaming, which requires some tech know-how, consoles are the plug-and-play option.
New console models tend to arrive in cycles called “generations,” which range from five to eight years long. Console brands 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, we are currently nearing the end of the eighth generation of consoles, meaning that more powerful successors will hit the market by late 2021.
The good news is that current prices are far cheaper than they will be at the start of the new generation. There’s also a huge backlog of great games to play on the current systems, whereas launch software for new 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 the US in November 2013, while the Nintendo Switch arrived in March 2017. Since then, all three have had mid-generation hardware refreshes and have split their lines into high-end and cheaper options.
These three systems each have two significant variations. In 2016, the PlayStation 4 line was splintered into the PS4 Slim — replacing 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, Microsoft’s pricier premium option for UHD gaming.
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 three consoles. But each has its own identity and will suit different people. When making your selection, take these factors into account.
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, but PlayStation 4 has arguably one the greatest line-ups of exclusive games, particularly if you enjoy flashy, big budget, story-driven single-player action experiences. Nintendo also has a reputation for quality exclusives and long-running series.
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.
With only a few exceptions, most of these come to both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with very little to differentiate them. The Nintendo Switch is the outlier here. It’s less powerful than its competitors and, as a result, misses out on some significant third-party releases.
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 is the clear winner. It has little trouble outputting at native 4K resolution with HDR, as well as faster load times.
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 that you can’t perceive the difference.
Nintendo, well aware that its strengths lie elsewhere, is more than happy to sit out the computational power arms race.
The best controller or “gamepad” largely depends on your personal taste and what’s comfortable for you. In terms of ergonomics, the Xbox One pad and the PS4’s DualShock 4 are both good choices.
The Switch’s Joy-Con controllers are different. Because of the Switch’s portability, Joy-Cons are designed to be played in different configurations to match your environment. The most comfortable configuration is simply connecting two Joy-Cons to the included charging grip.
Gaming online with friends can be great fun. But 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 $59.99. Along with allowing you to play multiplayer online, both services offer a few free games every month.
Nintendo Switch Online is cheaper, priced at $29.95. You’ll get access to online multiplayer games like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, as well as a library of old-school games from the NES and SNES era.
Consoles are as convenient as gaming gets, but the arrival of online connectivity and software updates has muddied the waters a bit. On Xbox One, a planned play session can occasionally be derailed by mandatory game updates. On PlayStation 4, you can easily opt of the install and continue playing in offline mode.
Nintendo Switch is the true winner in terms of 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.
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.
PlayStation 4 does not have any backwards compatibility features.
For PS4 and Xbox One, we recommend a 1TB hard drive model. With the bulging size of 4K games, 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, that drive can fill up fast with digital games.
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