Choosing the right games console can be confusing, with buying advice often dense with jargon and assumed knowledge. You might think it’s obvious that Xbox One X is the most powerful console. Or that PS4 has the greatest diversity of games. But this level of knowledge represents a fraction of those who are interested in games. There is no ‘right’ console for everyone and your choice depends on your answers to a number of simple questions.
- Who are you buying it for?
- What's your budget?
- Have you owned a console before?
- Do you like to play in real life or online?
- What console do your friends own?
- What games do you want to play?
- Do you own a 4K TV?
- How often do you watch Netflix and streaming services?
- What's your budget for hidden costs?
We'll address all of these questions in our common-sense guide to choosing the best games console from PlayStation, Xbox or Nintendo. We'll explain what each model means e.g. What’s the difference between a PS4 and a PS4 Pro? We'll keep our advice in plain english, for those who might not be familiar with backward compatibility, streaming services and 4K gaming. We’ll even pick an overall best console, based on all factors. Let's start with the big one…
Who are you buying it for?
The average age of gamers in the US is 37 years-old according to a recent survey but consoles are, obviously, hugely popular with children, teens and young adults. Traditional stereotypes of people who play games are long outdated, with games that cater to all tastes and levels of dedication. Broadly, some consoles are a better fit for different people, based on their age and situation, as we outline below.
Nintendo Switch – Who is it best for?
Best for: Families, Younger Gamers, Anyone who loves good games
Nintendo is like the Disney of games, so it feels absurd to put an age limit on its consoles. However, there’s no denying that it makes the most wholesome, family-friendly, games with iconic characters such as Mario, Link (from The Legend of Zelda) and Pikachu (from Pokemon). While Nintendo games tend to avoid realistic violence and bad language (check each game’s certification for a clearer guide), don’t be fooled by the cartoon exterior: Nintendo also make the most ‘adult’ games in terms of depth, so a title like The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild can be enjoyed by the whole family, and is (almost) as much fun to watch as to play. Nintendo also hosts great party games like Switch 1-2, Super Mario Kart (with its 4-player split-screen races) and Let’s Dance.
Nintendo’s Switch console can be used as a handheld, or hooked up to a TV, and is super easy to use. As such, it’s ideal for commuting, or taking (whisper it) on a day out if you need to keep the children entertained while you attend to more adult affairs. Nintendo further cements its family-friendly credentials through its online environment, where online chat is limited to a smartphone app. There’s no danger of your kids being exposed to the more colourful (or worse) language that you might associate with online games on other consoles, although in truth, all consoles use age gates, to varying levels of scrutiny. Nintendo Switch’s versatility and ease-of-use is a major factor behind its recent popularity.
PlayStation 4 – Who is it best for?
Best For: Older Children, Teens, Adults, Online gamers.
The PS4 is the perfect console for a teen / young adult (or, indeed, any dedicated player), with an amazing selection of mature, single-player, story-led titles like God of War, Days Gone and The Last of Us; plus popular online games such as FIFA, GTA 5’s GTA Online, Call of Duty or Destiny 2. Sony’s online environment, including the PS Store, is easy to use, with an amazing diversity of games (both blockbusters and indies), movies, demos and TV shows. However, PS4 tends to be a little light on truly child-friendly or family games, once you move past the Lego titles or games like Knack 2.
Xbox One – Who is it best for?
Best For: Older Children, Teens, Minecraft Fans.
Xbox offers a broadly similar experience to PlayStation, but Microsoft’s recent purchase of Minecraft means this is (notionally) the preferred platform for the brick-building phenomenon. The Xbox One S is a brilliant, high value, console for younger teenagers, and the Xbox One X is the most powerful console available, better suited for more generous wallets.
Best Option – Based on how you play:
What's your budget?
While consoles are relatively affordable (between $200-$500) compared to the best gaming PCs, those extra few hundred dollars can make a huge difference. It’s all about prioritising what’s important to you (e.g. 4K gaming, exclusive titles, volume of games, online play etc) and then seeking out the best value bundle for your needs. New deals come and go, so to help you out we’ve included special price widgets below, that constantly track the market for the best bargains.
Best Option – Price:
Winner: Xbox One S
It’s hard to beat the Xbox One S for pure value. You get a console that plays (almost) all the biggest games, a great online service, loads of multimedia options (Netflix, web browsing, movies etc), plus it looks good and is easy to use. During Black Friday, it was possible to pick up a 500GB Xbox One S with two controllers and four games, including titles such as Forza 7, Minecraft, Assassin’s Creed and Doom for $199 / £179.
However, PS4 is a close second (only $30 / £30 more), and a better choice for those who value exclusive games.
Have you owned a console before?
This isn’t as daft a question as it sounds, and concerns an area known as ‘backward compatibility’ i.e. do your old games work on your new console. PlayStation 4 only runs PS4 game discs (or PS4 digital downloads), so you can’t play older PS3, PS2 or PSOne discs. It is possible to access hundreds of older PlayStation titles via the PS Now streaming service, but you’ll have to pay a monthly fee like you would Netflix. You can also buy classic, often remastered, versions of PS2 and PS3 games, like Okami HD, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or Uncharted, but you’ll have to pay for each one; albeit only for a few $s or £s.
Xbox offers a far friendlier environment for older games, with Xbox One S running Xbox One S and Xbox 360 games off their discs. Xbox also offers a digital redemption scheme, so if you’ve bought an Xbox 360 game once, you can download it digitally for free, with over 400 compatible titles. For Xbox 360 owners, this isn’t to be sniffed at. Xbox One X is the same, and will run Xbox One games (often enhanced in 4K), plus Xbox 360 game discs. Xbox One S and Xbox One X will also run a selection of *original* Xbox games, including cult shooter Black, with an initial 13 games offering backward compatibility.
Nintendo Switch might be kind to families, but isn’t kind to old Nintendo games. You can’t run DS, 3DS, Wii or Wii U game discs or cartridges (or anything older). Nintendo Switch will *eventually* offer some classic games via its Virtual Console service, but this has been delayed multiple times, and you’ll need to pay again (price TBC) for games you’ve already bought on older consoles.
Best Option – Backward Compatibility:
Winner: Xbox One
How important is playing in the same room with friends to you?
A subtle difference from online play. If you’re more interested in playing collaboratively or competitively *in person* i.e. sat in the same room, then Nintendo is actually a great option. Many Switch games offer split-screen play (like Splatoon 2, Let’s Dance, Overcooked, Snipperclips, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe) or games where you all look at the same TV. PS4 and Xbox both have games that can be played on one screen, like FIFA, PES or Madden to name a few, but tend to be focused on online multiplayer experiences, rather than the more party-friendly vibe of Nintendo. Furthermore, Nintendo’s Joy-Con controller(s) are designed to be split in half, so shared experiences are encouraged by default.
Best Option – Playing in same room with friends:
Winner: Nintendo Switch
What console(s) do your friends own?
This is worth considering, since you'll need to own a game on the same console as your friends to play against them online e.g. FIFA 18 PS4 owners can only play against other PS4 owners. As a blanket rule, PS4 owners can't play online against Xbox, PC or Nintendo owners, with a few rare exceptions.
It's also handy to know people with the same console, so you can swap games once you've finished with them. It's rare to replay most single-player games, so swapping can really save some cash. That said, most high street stores offer game trades (you might expect to recoup £20-25 on a brand new game to fund the purchase of another new game). There are also lots of online game trading sites, such as GameXchange, Game or Music Magpie. It pays to shop around for the best trade-in prices.
Best Option – Most Popular Console:
PS4 – Sony have sold almost 70 million PS4's worldwide, compared to about 30 million Xbox Ones, or 10 million Nintendo Switch consoles. Nintendo Switch has only been available less than a year, however, and is vying to be 2017's best-selling console. It all depends on what console your friends own, but statistically that's likely to be PS4.
What games do you want to play?
This is a question that can be split into parts, depending on your preference for single-player or multiplayer games. Or your love of specific games franchises that are exclusive to each console. As explained, PS4 and Xbox One are by far the best choice for online gaming, with an equally great selection of single-player games. Nintendo Switch has some fantastic single-player titles, including The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, which must rank as one of the best games of all-time – and also works as a brilliant spectator experience.
Switch isn’t your go-to for popular online games like Call of Duty, FIFA etc however. Switch is also less well-served with what are called ‘third party’ games (i.e. games made by other publishers that appear on multiple platforms), including big titles such as Destiny, Grand Theft Auto, Star Wars Battlefront and Call of Duty.
The question of exclusive titles has long been a deciding factor in which console people choose over the other. As things stand, PS4 and Nintendo Switch have the greatest diversity of critically-acclaimed exclusive games, but Xbox should not be discounted. It’s difficult to make a definitive recommendation since tastes are subjective, but we’ve listed the key games on each console to help you choose:
Nintendo Switch – Games
Key Exclusives You Can Buy Now: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Super Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2
Key Exclusives Due For Release (or TBC): Metroid Prime 4, Animal Crossing, Pokemon, Super Smash Bros, Pikmin, Yoshi, Kirby
Key ‘Third Party’ Games (i.e available on other consoles): FIFA, Skyrim, Doom
PlayStation 4 – Games
Key Exclusives You Can Buy Now: Uncharted 4, The Last Guardian, Gran Turismo Sport, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Crash Bandicoot, Bloodborne.
Key Exclusives Due for Release: God of War, Days Gone, The Last of Us 2, Death Stranding, Spider Man, Dreams, Detroit.
Key ‘Third Party’ Games (i.e available on other consoles): FIFA, Call of Duty, Destiny, Star Wars Battlefront 2, PES, Minecraft, GTA Online, Assassin’s Creed Origins
Xbox One – Games
Key Exclusives Due for Release: Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3, State of Decay 2.
Key ‘Third Party’ Games (i.e available on other consoles): FIFA, Call of Duty, Destiny, Star Wars Battlefront 2, PES, Minecraft, GTA Online, Assassin’s Creed Origins.
Best Option – Games:
Winner: PS4 – for diversity and online gaming.
Runner Up: Nintendo Switch – for younger gamers and quality.
Do you own a 4K TV?
If all you care about is having a super-powerful console with the best graphics, then your choices essentially narrow down to a choice between the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. The PS4 Pro is essentially a turbo-charged PS4. It plays all the same games, and has no meaningful exclusives (i.e. all PS4 games work on both PS4 and PS4 Pro), but a fair number of games now offer PS4 Pro enhancements, including 4K resolutions, improved frame rates, HDR effects and other subtle improvements. Xbox One X is similar: it plays the same games as Xbox One, but with some dramatic visual upgrades and the capacity for true 4K gaming. In raw computational terms, Xbox One X is the most powerful console in the world and it’s possible that, over time, that games developed exclusively for Xbox One X will look superior to their PS4 Pro counterparts. Right now, however, PS4 Pro is considerably cheaper than Xbox One X (by the order of $150-200), and the top games don’t look that different.
What's the difference between 4K gaming on Xbox One X and PS4 Pro?
While PS4 Pro offers 4K gaming, it tends to use what is known as ‘checkerboard 4K’, and delivers resolutions of 1440p or 1800p, which is less than the 2160p of 'true' 4K gaming. To be honest, you’d be extremely hard pressed to tell the difference on anything less than a huge 55”+ 4K TV like an OLED, and even then it would need to be viewed closer up.
However, if you’re a purist and want a *true* 4K gaming experience in 2160p, Xbox One X is your best choice. Microsoft’s console is claimed to be 40% more powerful than rival consoles such as the PS4 Pro, even if we’re yet to truly see the difference in action. The point stands: if you want the very best performance on, say, FIFA 18 or Call of Duty to show off your 90” OLED 4K TV (which feels like we’ve narrowed the field to financiers or Premier League footballers), then you want an Xbox One X. It’s the best way to experience the biggest third-party games.
Best Option – 4K Gaming:
Winner: Xbox One X – for 4K purists.
Runner Up: PS4 Pro – for value.
Which consoles support virtual reality?
There's only one console offering virtual reality: PS4, and its PlayStation VR headset. Whether PlayStation VR is worth the money is another question, but the technology is highly impressive and we've seen some significant price drops this year.
Best Option – Virtual Reality: PlayStation 4
How often do you watch Netflix and other streaming services?
This is quite simple. If you’re keen to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, iPlayer or other streaming services – or want to rent digital movies or box sets – you’re far better served by PlayStation 4 or Xbox One than Nintendo Switch. You could even argue that Xbox One S (and Xbox One X) has the advantage for movie fans, since it’s the only console that offers 4K Blu-Ray playback. In fact, it’s pretty much the cheapest way to get a 4K Blu-Ray player *anywhere*, compared to standalone players. PS4 allows you to download or stream digital 4K movies, but doesn’t work with 4K Blu Rays. Nintendo Switch, meanwhile, doesn’t even support Netflix, although there were rumblings of support being added at a later date.
Best Option – Streaming and Entertainment:
Winner: Xbox (if you want a 4K Blu Ray player)
Runner Up: PS4
What's your budget for 'hidden' costs?
All consoles are good-to-go out of the box (apart from the TV to display it on), although some have ‘optional’ accessories and services that are more optional than others. This is largely a matter of personal taste, so we’ve listed the essential and not-so-essential extras and hidden costs below.
If you’re looking to play competitive online games, such as FIFA, Destiny, Call of Duty or GTA Online, you can’t look further than an Xbox One or PS4. Both consoles have premium online services which require a yearly subscription fee. PlayStation Plus is $59.99 / £49.99 for 12 months, Xbox Live Gold is $60 / £39.99. However, both services have frequent sales, so you can pick Xbox Live Gold for $40 right now, and you can pick up subscription cards at up to 50% discounts in Black Friday / Cyber Monday sales, which can be ‘stacked’ – so you can buy a discounted card and use it when your current deal expires.
Nintendo Switch has limited online capabilities, with basic co-op and competitive options, plus voice chat. PS4 and Xbox offer far more sophisticated and intuitive ways to connect to friends, create chat groups and organise games. Nintendo Switch’s online service is currently free, but will become a premium subscription in 2018.
Nintendo Switch – Additional Extras
Essential Extras: Carry Case (if you’re planning to play portably)
Desirable Extras: Additional Joy-Cons, Pro Controller, Joy-Con Charging Grip
Potential Extras: Racing Wheel, Joy-Con Controller Charge Stand, Car Charge Adapter
Xbox One – Additional Extras
Essential Extras: Xbox Live Gold, Play and Charge Kit
Desirable Extras: Stereo Headset Adapter, External Hard Drive, Extra Controller
Potential Extras: Racing Wheel, Xbox Elite Controller, Xbox Chatpad, Media Remote
PS4 – Additional Extras
Essential Extras: PS Plus
Desirable Extras: Headset, Extra Controller, Internal / External Hard Drive, PlayStation VR
Potential Extras: Racing Wheel, PS Move controllers.
Best Option – Hidden Extras:
PS4 – You'll need PS Plus, but the service is tremendous value giving you access to 3 or 4 full price games a month. A spare controller is handy, and look out for deals.
Now you know what you're looking for – which console is best for you?
Before we award our overall ‘best console’ to buy right now, let’s summarise who we think each console is best suited for. Don't forget, these are just recommendations, and the best choice is a matter of personal needs.
Best For: Younger kids and families, but also older gamers who grew up loving Nintendo and are looking for a reason to return after the relative disappointment of Wii U.
Xbox One S
Best For: Students or Younger Teens (and their budget-conscious parents) who want a ‘proper’ console to play popular online games, or watch streaming services. There’s so many games to choose from, and an amazing back catalogue, so you can pick up old titles dirt cheap.
Xbox One X
Best For: Hardcore players for whom money is no object, and / or 4K TV owners who want the absolute best device to show off their new display.
Best For: Teens, Students, Adults… anyone who values online play, and is looking for the greatest diversity of games. If you’ve not bought a console yet, we’d advise buying a PS4 Pro though, unless you’re really budget conscious.
Best For: Dedicated gamers seeking a greater variety of online and single-player experiences, plus entertainment and VR. The best-value entry point for 4K gaming.
Our overall winner is… Nintendo Switch
Switch’s seamless transition between portable device and TV console, plus its brilliant games, make it a great choice for *anyone* who loves games, especially for families. It’s the most exciting piece of console hardware in the last five years, with the possible exception of (the innovative but niche) PlayStation VR. If you're mostly looking to play 'third party' games like Destiny, however, or prefer more mature games, we'd suggest…
Our runner up is… PS4 Pro
There’s not much to choose between this and a regular PS4 or Xbox One S, but it’s currently the best-value way to future-proof yourself for 4K gaming – plus you get access to PS4’s diverse back catalogue and strong exclusives.
- Best PS4 games of 2017
- Best Xbox One games of 2017
- Best free PS4 games of 2017
- Best free Xbox One games of 2017
Please let us know in the comments below if there's any other questions you'd like addressed, or key considerations that you'd like to share with other readers.