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Video games have come a long way from Pong and Pac Man, generating over $35 billion dollars in revenue in 2019. It’s safe to say games have gone mainstream, but if you haven’t picked up a controller in a little while, it’s easy to feel lost.
Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are still the three main players in the home console space (gaming PCs are a whole other beast), but their systems (the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch) are all different. By prioritizing certain features, or targeting specific types of gamers, each console maker has carved out a large niche for itself.
If you’d like to get back into console gaming, but don’t know where to start, we’ve broken down the pros and cons of each one below, so you can make an informed choice.
What Are the Best Video Game Consoles?
There are many factors to consider when choosing the best video game console for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Maximum resolution: All of the game consoles below can play games in HD (1080P), but some have enough graphical horsepower to support gaming in 4K. If you have a 4K TV, the leap in graphics quality will be easy to see.
Online service: Every modern game console allows you to play certain games online with your friends, but all of them require you to sign up for a paid subscription for this feature. These services — PlayStation Plus, Xbox Live Gold, and Nintendo Switch Online — come with additional perks, like access to free games, or deeper discounts during digital game sales.
Internal storage: One of the biggest changes to console gaming is the ability to download digital copies of games instead of going out to the store. The Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch all have digital storefronts that allow you to play games the moment they’re released. The downside is that you’ll need to manage your console’s internal storage to make sure you have enough space for all of your games. If you run out, upgrading the storage in the game consoles below is pretty easy.
Exclusive games: All three home video game consoles have a deep library of games, many of which are available on two or more platforms. But, each console has a handful of exclusive titles you can only play on that system. Console exclusive games rarely make it onto other platforms, so if there’s a game you really want to play, make sure it’s available on the system you choose.
1. Best Overall: Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch has been a runaway success since it originally launched in 2017, outselling all but two of Nintendo’s previous systems, and frequently topping the best selling console charts. It’s the only console in our guide that can’t play games in 4K, tapping out at 1080P, but its relative lack of power doesn’t matter because of its marquee feature: the ability to “switch” between being a home and portable game console.
The Switch itself is a tablet with a 6.2-inch 720P screen. Two controllers, which Nintendo calls Joy-Con, are attached to its sides. The Joy-Con can be slipped off, which allows you to play local multi-player games without carrying around extra controllers. In portable mode the Nintendo Switch gets roughly five hours of battery life (the games you play, your screen brightness, and your WiFi and Bluetooth settings will make a big difference), which is a solid amount of time. You can extend the Switch’s battery life substantially by plugging it into a power bank with a USB-C PD port on it.
You can play the Switch in handheld mode exclusively, or connect it to your TV with a dock Nintendo includes with the console. In docked mode, the Switch can play games in up to 1080P.
On a purely technical level, the Switch isn’t as flashy as its competition. It only has 32GB of internal storage, (although you can easily add more by popping in a MicroSD Card) and it doesn’t support 4K gaming. But, the ability to take your console-quality video games with you anywhere is pretty compelling. That’s especially true because some of Nintendo’s most inspired games, like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Super Mario Odyssey are Switch exclusives. The console’s online service, called Nintendo Switch Online, only costs $19 per year, and includes a la carte access to a library of 40 or so Nintendo and Super Nintendo games.
The Switch’s hybrid nature allows it to compete with traditional game consoles and smartphones, and it does a surprisingly good job coming out ahead in both matchups. If raw gaming power isn’t your priority, and you like the idea of taking your entire console library with you anywhere, the Nintendo Switch is the best choice.
2. Most Powerful: Xbox One X
In terms of raw technical specs, Microsoft’s Xbox One X is the most impressive game console ever released. It has enough processing and graphical power to play new games natively in 4K, and upsample (digitally improve) older titles to make them look better than they did upon their original release. The system comes with 1TB (terabyte) of storage, and you can add more by connecting a standard external hard drive. You can play games online by subscribing to Xbox Live Gold, a service that costs $60 per year.
Xbox Live Gold also gives you access to two free games a month (they’ll only stay in your library for the duration of your subscription), and additional discounts on digital games during sales. Microsoft struggled to get exclusive games on the Xbox One, but the situation has improved dramatically since then. Titles like Forza Horizon 4, Rare Replay, and Halo: The Master Chief Collection round out its library nicely. The Xbox One X is a technical showpiece, and the right console to get if you like to be on the cutting-edge of technology. Cross-platform console games and exclusives alike will look and run best on this machine, so you should seriously consider getting this machine if you want a game machine to be a part of your serious home theater system.
3. Best For VR: PlayStation 4 Pro
Virtual reality gaming has always required an incredibly powerful PC to pull off, but Sony managed to bring the experience to home consoles with the PlayStation 4. The PlayStation 4 Pro is a powered-up version of the original console that can can play games in 4K, although a lot of titles will run at 1080P. The console is extremely powerful, though it doesn’t have the same ability to upscale older titles quite as nicely as the Xbox One X can. Still, if you play games on a PlayStation 4 Pro connected to a 4K TV, you won’t find a lot to complain about graphically.
The system comes with a 1TB hard drive, and allows you to upgrade its storage in one of two ways. You can either replace the internal hard drive with one that has more storage space, or plug in an external hard drive. If you have a huge digital game library, you can always do both. Playing games online requires a PlayStation Plus subscription, which costs $60 per year and comes with similar perks to Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold. PlayStation Plus subscribers will get a couple of free games a month (again, you can only play them as long as you subscribe), and discounts on digital games.
The PlayStation 4 Pro has a bunch of great console exclusive titles like Uncharted 4, The Last of Us II, and, Horizon: Zero Dawn, but its standout feature is the ability to play games in virtual reality with the PlayStation VR headset. Not all games are compatible with the headset, but the ones that are will offer an immersive experience you won’t be able to get on any other home game console. If you don’t mind the trade off of sacrificing some visual fidelity, or portability, for the ability to play games in virtual reality without a serious gaming computer, the PlayStation 4 Pro is your best option.