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At a certain point, you’ve watched everything you want to watch on Netflix, and it’s time for something else to do. As millions and millions of Americans continue spending more time at home, video game-based Internet traffic has surged. If you’re looking to get back into video games after a long hiatus — or you’re just ready to upgrade your old console — you'd be joining many others. But not all video game consoles offer the same experience or access. For one, they don't all run the same video games. And, of course, different video game consoles carry different price tags.
Both Sony and Microsoft have released their next-generation consoles, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. But it often takes new consoles time to ramp up, and many folks prefer to stick with previous-generation hardware until the new consoles have a wide selection of games, a price drop or a second edition or refresh (like the PS4 Slim or Xbox One S, which were released later in each platform’s lifecycle).
So which video game console is right for you? To help guide that decision, here are the best video game systems to keep you busy, as well as some of the top games on each gaming console and what you need to know before logging in.
Choosing the best video gaming console for you
There are three main platforms in the video gaming console space right now (not including PCs):
- The Sony PlayStation
- Microsoft’s Xbox
- Nintendo’s Switch
These aren’t the only platforms around. You can play retro games on Nintendo's NES Classic or SEGA's Genesis Mini, for example. Your PC can play games if it has a capable graphics card inside. And subscription streaming platforms like Google Stadia and NVIDIA GeForce Now let you play without a console or beefy gaming PC at all. But most game studios focus on the major consoles when they develop their video games. To determine which one is best for you, you’ll want to first determine your gaming goals — and your gaming console budget, of course. Largely, this means determining which games you want to play.
- Exclusive games are designed with just one platform in mind and typically can’t be played on other platforms.
- Cross-platform games are designed with several — but not necessarily all — platforms in mind.
Nintendo, for example, may not produce consoles with as much raw computing power as its competitors, but it has a host of fantastic exclusive franchises, from Super Mario to Animal Crossing. And while both franchises prove themselves worthy of an all-ages audience, you’ll find some platforms lean moreso that way than others. That means you can also focus on what kind of games you want to play — not necessarily choosing a specific one — or for what age group you’ll be aiming to game within. Perhaps you’re buying a console as a gift for someone else (or as a means to achieve some respite from your kids’ restlessness during isolation and stay-at-home weekends).
Sony PlayStation gaming consoles
Sony’s last-generation console, the PlayStation 4, is the second bestselling game console of all time, thanks in part to a bevy of exclusive, well-reviewed games like God of War, Horizon Zero Dawn and Spider-Man. And according to Sony's latest earnings report, the new PlayStation 5 has already shipped 4.5 million units, in line with its predecessor. The PlayStation platform also has its own virtual reality headset and supports apps like Netflix and Hulu, allowing it to act as a do-almost-anything living room entertainment system. There are currently two variants of the PS5 you can buy (and some old PS4 consoles you can buy refurbished).
PlayStation 5 (sold out)
Sony's do-anything PlayStation 5 is designed to play all the latest games in glorious 4K HDR, including the new Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, plus exclusive titles like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon's Souls. Oh, and it can also play almost every PS4 game, many of which have gotten updates to run better than ever on the PS5 (so if you haven't played God of War yet, now's the time). You can buy games digitally or on disc thanks to the built-in disc drive and blu-ray player, if you're willing to pay a slightly higher price tag up front. The PS5 comes in and out of stock, so you'll need to watch these sites like a hawk if you want to get your hands on one.
PlayStation 5 Digital Edition (sold out)
If you aren't too keen on buying games on disc, you can save a bit of money by getting the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition instead. It has the exact same hardware as the standard PS5, so you get the same games with the same 4K HDR graphics—but in a slightly slimmer form factor. You won't be able to play Blu-rays or buy and sell used physical games, but if you didn't plan on doing that anyway, it's a great alternative. (It can still play Netflix, after all.) The PlayStation 4 has been officially discontinued, but if you want to save even more, you can grab a refurbished PS4 or PS4 Pro for even less — just know that they're running on borrowed time in terms of game support.
Microsoft’s Xbox gaming consoles
Microsoft’s Xbox platform supports most of the same games as the PlayStation 4, minus any exclusive titles Sony has. But while the last-gen Xbox One didn't sell as well as its main competitor, Microsoft had a leg up on power — which means you may experience better performance in some games. It also has a few titles that aren’t on the PS4, like Gears of War and Halo, though it hasn't made quite as many waves as Sony's in-house studios have. A series of developer acquisitions may change that this generation, though all of Microsoft's in-house exclusives will also be available on PC.
Xbox Series X (sold out)
If you want the most powerful console on the market today, you want the Xbox Series X. Not only does it have the best graphics chip of the bunch, but it supports FreeSync (which provides better motion on TVs with the same feature), Dolby Atmos (for incredible surround sound on Atmos systems or soundbars), and — in 2021 — will also support Dolby Vision for games. Couple that with a great library, including the aforementioned Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and Assassin's Creed: Valhalla and all the best games from previous generations, and you have a killer system for any living room. That is, when you can find it in stock.
Xbox Series S (sold out)
If the Xbox Series X is a bit too rich for your blood, Microsoft did something out of the ordinary with their lineup this year: they also introduced an extremely affordable variant alongside their flagship. The Xbox Series S eschews the disc drive and uses a lower-power graphics chip for serious cost savings, while still being able to play the same games—albeit at slightly lower graphical fidelity. You could also grab a refurbished Xbox One, Xbox One S, or Xbox One X for a similarly low price, but it won't get the latest games for as long as the Series S will.
Nintendo Switch gaming consoles
Finally, Nintendo stands on its own in a number of ways. While the Nintendo Switch has some of the same games as Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, its graphics capabilities aren’t nearly as good. The Switch’s biggest draw is Nintendo franchises like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Animal Crossing. This makes it especially great for younger players, but it’s definitely not a kids-only console — as any adult who grew up with Nintendo can tell you, these games are loads of fun no matter your age. And it still has a number of mature-audience games as well, like Doom Eternal and The Witcher 3.
The Nintendo Switch is unique in that it’s both a handheld console — like the old-school Game Boy — and a living room console. Play it on-the-go, then come home and slide it into the dock for gaming on the TV (either with the detachable controllers or the more comfortable Switch Pro Controller). Check out our list of the best games for the Switch if you aren't sure what to play first.
If you aren’t looking to play on your TV, the Switch Lite is a more affordable, handheld-only version of the Switch. It supports almost all the same games, but has a slightly smaller screen and is designed solely for on-the-go play. (A few games, like Super Mario Party, don’t support handheld mode and thus won’t work on the Switch Lite.) Plus it comes in four fun colors.