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 and then 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 five to eight 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.
What types are available?
Three main systems define the current generation of consoles:
Sony PlayStation 4
Microsoft Xbox One
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 three systems each have two 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.
How to compare game consoles
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, consider the following factors.
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 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: Remastered 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. Although it has course-corrected recently, it still falls behind 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 two 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. 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 two.
Nintendo Switch Online allows you to play online multiplayer in games likeMario Kart 8andSplatoonand also gives you access to a library of old-school games from the NES and SNES era. If you want to play legendary classics likeSuper Mario WorldorThe Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Pastwhile 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 when it comes to 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.
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.
Seven things to consider
If you’re buying a console for younger kids, the Nintendo Switch should probably be your choice. Nintendo has more quality family-friendly software than any other console on the market.
If you don’t own a 4K HDR TV, you can save money and opt for a PS4 Slim instead of the PS4 Pro or an Xbox One S instead of the Xbox One X. Though the more powerful units will load faster and have larger HDDs as a default, they’re really intended to power 4K gaming. If you can’t display that on your TV (and you’re not planning on upgrading any time soon), it’s not worth your money.
The flip side of this is that if you own a 4K TV, you really should opt for the more powerful models. Recent games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are utterly gorgeous in 4K HDR.
Microsoft’s new Xbox Game Pass service drastically changes the Xbox One’s value proposition. It’s essentially Microsoft’s attempt at creating the Netflix of video games. As long as you keep your subscription active, you’ll be able to download and play more than 100 games from a regularly updated list. They’re good ones, too. All Xbox’s first-party titles are available on the service at launch, and a respectable amount of recent third-party games show up. With an Xbox One and a Game Pass subscription, it’s entirely possible to play a tonne of great games without ever purchasing a single one.
Unless you own all three consoles, it’s impossible to play every great game. You will miss out on something. But that’s okay. Just try to align your choice with your gaming tastes. Sony’s exclusives tend to be single-player narrative-driven titles whereas Xbox leans more towards online competitive games. Nintendo is more focussed on fun wholesome experiences.
Given that the Switch only launched in 2017 (compared to 2013 for the PS4 and Xbox One), it won’t be succeeded and made “obsolete” any time soon.
Once upon a time, the clever move was to buy the “other” console your friends didn’t own, so collectively you could experience more games. Nowadays, with the rise of online gaming, you might want to consider the opposite approach and buy the same system so you can play Destiny or FIFA online with your friends.
Confused by some of the terms you find when discussing video game consoles? This glossary should help.
Short for “central processing unit”, the CPU is the brain of a gaming console. It’s good at handling multiple tasks, such as running the operating system in conjunction with the dashboard and whatever game you’re playing at the time. These days, CPUs are separated into cores – the more cores, the greater performance (at least, on paper).
Short for “gigahertz”, this is used in relation to CPUs and is used to measure a CPU’s clock speed. The higher the number before GHz, the faster the CPU. The faster the CPU, the more room developers have to make games with better features (larger levels, more enemies on screen, etc.).
A term used to describe the computational speed of hardware, which is expressed in cycles per second (such as megahertz or gigahertz).
Short for “graphics processing unit”, the GPU is the heart of a gaming console, in that it’s very good at doing a single task. In the context of Sony and Microsoft’s latest consoles, this means making games look prettier and, where applicable, at 4K resolutions.
Short for “compute units”, this refers to the processing elements of a GPU. Again, the higher the number associated with CU, the better the potential for more attractive gaming.
Short for “megahertz”, this is used in relation to GPUs, and it measures a GPU’s clock speed. The higher the number before MHz, the faster the GPU. The faster the GPU, the more room developers have to make games look more appealing.
Short for “teraflops”, this is a performance measure. In the case of the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro, it’s used in relation to GPU performance and the larger the number, the faster the GPU. Like megahertz, the faster the GPU, the more room there is for developers to boost the eye candy.
This term is short for “graphics double data rate” and is usually slapped in front of “memory”. For the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X (which both use GDDR5) the term refers to the most recent type of double-data-rate memory.
This refers to “random access memory” (RAM) in a console. The larger the number, the more powerful the hardware. Also, more memory means more system resources a developer has to work within adding more active elements to their game.
This has been used recently in relation to the Xbox One X’s marketing, but is also relevant to the PlayStation 4 Pro. Game addressable refers to the leftover memory that’s available for developers to dedicate towards games. Since all modern consoles are running operating systems and other services in the background (such as the dashboard), system memory has to be shared meaning a console’s memory cannot be solely dedicated to a single game.
This refers to memory, and is represented in GB/s, which is short for “gigabytes per second”. Bandwidth refers to the speed at which data can be read and stored on memory. The higher the number, the better the result for game developers.
This one may seem self-explanatory, but it can be misleading. For the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One, 4K refers to the maximum resolution of 3840×2160 pixels. “4K native” refers to this resolution, whereas “4K upscale” refers to content that has lower-resolution textures that are boosted for a 4K display.
Short for “ultra-high definition”. In the context of the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X, UHD refers to 4K resolutions. It can also be used to refer to resolutions beyond 4K, such as 8K.
Supersampling is relevant for Xbox One X (at a system level) and PlayStation 4 (at a game level) owners playing on 1080p (2K, Full HD) displays. The console uses 4K textures, which are automatically downloaded to the Xbox One X or PlayStation 4 Pro (where available), but displays them at a 2K resolution. The result is greater detail, potentially higher frame rates, and less-pixelated images at lower, non-4K resolution.
Short for “high dynamic range”, this is a feature that requires a compatible screen. Both the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X support HDR, but it also requires an HDR-compatible game (or video content) and screen to display. In basic terms, HDR significantly expands the range of colour and contrast to add more depth to the images by enhancing parts that are lighter or darker.The current standard both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X use is HDR10.
Short for “wide colour gamut”, this is often lumped in with HDR, but they’re not the same. Where HDR increases the range of pictures, WCG boosts the colours.
This term is shorthand for “checkerboard rendering”. It refers to the ability for the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X to render games at resolutions higher than what the respective systems should be capable of creating. This term is contrasted with “4K native”, where the textures are natively rendered at 4K, instead of upscaled, as in checkboard rendering.
Short for “frames per second”, this refers to the rate at which frames are displayed per second for a game or video. The standard is for console games to run at 30fps but certain titles on PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X can be played at 60fps.
Short for “hard drive”, this refers to the storage used for the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X. Both consoles feature internal storage and can use compatible external USB hard drives to expand total storage.
This is an in-game software technique that reduces the occurrence of jagged lines (or “jaggies”, for short) from appearing on the screen to help maintain a smooth image.
Images that are used to create game worlds. In terms of the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X, these textures can extend up to 4K resolutions, which means they look prettier than their 2K (1080p, or below) counterparts on older PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles.
This refers to audio tools that let developers control the exact direction of an in-game sound source. In terms of the latest consoles, this includes protocols like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
This is specific to Gears of War 4 on the Xbox One X, and other developers use different names for it. Basically, terms like this let players choose between prioritising better visual fidelity (aka 4K resolutions) over higher fps. For fps, it means games that run at 30fps on older versions of the respective console may have the option to run at 60fps (which is the case in Gears of War 4), where supported.
This is specific to Horizon: Zero Dawn. Selecting “performance” over “resolution” won’t make Horizon: Zero Dawn reach 60fps, but it will always prioritise maintaining a smooth 30fps, whereas selecting “resolution” will favour higher-resolution textures over frame rate.
David Milner is an award-winning games journalist, former editor of Game Informer magazine, and regular contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Embarrassingly, he only completed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the first time in 2019. Bloodborne is his favourite game ever.
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