It’s an interesting time to be buying a game console. More than four years into the current console generation, we are seeing (and hearing) about a new array of incrementally improved hardware, such as Sony’s PS4 Pro, Microsoft’s Xbox One X, and sub-platforms like PlayStation VR.
The stratification can become problematic, as the primary benefit of a gaming console is its simplicity. There are many compelling arguments as to why players who care about performance or want access to the greatest number of games should invest in a gaming PC — the ability to mod games, change intricate performance settings, and Steam sales all come to mind — but there’s a large contingency of people deaf to those arguments. They simply want to buy a game and play, and consoles offer the best way to do that.
Why should you buy this? It’s the best version of the most popular console, and has the highest number of high-fidelity games.
Who’s it for? Everyone, but especially players with a 4K TV.
How much will it cost? $400
Why we picked the PlayStation 4 Pro:
The PlayStation 4 Pro is the best version of the most popular game platform available today. With 4K and HDR 10 compatibility, as well as the most powerful components in a dedicated gaming platform, it is the best plug-and-play gaming platform.
A very large majority of both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One libraries are available on both platforms. Though both platforms have popular exclusive franchises, the PlayStation 4 (Pro or standard) generally gets more exclusive games each year. The PS4 also gets access to small number of less well-known indie games and niche titles, such as Japanese role-playing games, that the Xbox One does not.
Picking PlayStation 4 also opens the door for you to pick up PlayStation VR, which, as we’ve noted, is the most affordable premium VR headset available. While there are rumors of Rift support for the Xbox One, PSVR is the only option for console VR right now – and it’s a good one.
While it can be difficult to take advantage of the PlayStation 4 Pro’s advanced features, namely HDR support, the improvements it provides to even unoptimized games make it the most technically impressive way to play the largest number of games on a console. Depending on how well its adopted by developers — and whether 4K and HDR catch on — the PS4 Pro could represent the future of console gaming.
The best console for 4K gaming
Why should you buy this? With a 4K Blu-Ray player and HDR, it offers access to both great new games and high-resolution video.
Who’s it for? Players who want to to play games and watch movies at the highest possible image quality.
How much will it cost? $499+
Why we picked the Xbox One X:
Sony led the charge on the intrageneration console update with the PS4 Pro, but, by taking its time, Microsoft gave us the better hardware in the Xbox One X. It offers the same 4K Blu-ray and HDR video playback that the One S does, while also bringing that visual enhancement to games. Microsoft wasn’t exaggerating when they told us that the Xbox One X is the most powerful home gaming console ever sold.
The PS4 may still have a stronger gaming library than the Xbox One, but the Pro’s improvements are only really noticeable in games that have been specifically enhanced for it. The Xbox One X has proven far better at using its extra horsepower to improve the visuals of all games on the platform, enhanced or not. Microsoft is also doubling down on investing in first-party studios, such as Rare, which could make the Xbox exclusive library more appealing to start with.
For those of us who haven’t made the jump to 4K, both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are great consoles with large game libraries. You will be able to play the vast majority of new and upcoming games, including a few exclusive franchises like Halo, Gears of War, and Forza. Plus, if you are (or were) an Xbox 360 owner, a very large number of last-gen console’s games are now compatible with the Xbox One, which could expand your game library and keep at least some of your old games in rotation.
The best portable game console
Why should you buy this? You want a full, console gaming experience, but on the go.
Who’s it for? Everyone
How much will it cost? $300+
Why we picked the Nintendo Switch:
Nintendo has struggled to keep up with Sony and Microsoft for the last decade. For all its explosive, mainstream popularity, the Wii traded graphical horsepower for the motion control gimmick, and thus took Nintendo out of the third-party AAA platform running for a whole hardware generation. The Wii U tried to bridge the gap, but floundered for lack of identity. Nintendo’s latest console, the Switch, turned all of that around. Nintendo sidestepped the arms race by changing not how you use your console, but where. The Switch is a “hybrid” device that plugs into a television like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but also works as a handheld device.
While it doesn’t quite have the computational oomph to play the latest 4K, 60 fps releases for Xbox One or PS4, the Switch can play Doom (2016) at a smooth 30 fps anywhere you want to, and that’s more than good enough for a lot of gamers. In addition to contemporary titles like the upcoming Wolfenstein II port, the Switch has also proved itself as a fantastic venue for reviving modern classics, such as Skyrim, L.A. Noire, and the recently announced Dark Souls Remastered.
More than just a clearance house for lightly-aged AAA titles, the Switch also offers an ever-growing catalog of fantastic first-party games like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as well as excellent indies such as Stardew Valley, Celeste, and Battle Chef Brigade. Add in some forward-looking experiments with Nintendo Labo, and the Switch is looking like an incredibly well-rounded platform with something unique to offer everyone.
The best complementary console
Why should you buy this? Nintendo makes unique games you can’t play anywhere else, and this is the best way to play them right now.
Who’s it for? Anyone who loves Nintendo and wants access to their quirky, family friendly games.
How much will it cost? $200
Why we picked the New Nintendo 3DS XL:
For the last decade, more or less, Nintendo’s consoles have offered fresh and fun games, but not much in the way of third-party support. As great as they are, consoles like the Wii U and 3DS lack the developer support and diversity of game experiences necessary to be the number one game machine in your life.
However, if you already own a game console (or a gaming PC) and you’re looking to expand your horizons, the Nintendo 3DS will give you access to an entirely new library of games that you can’t get anywhere else, including Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, and Animal Crossing. The console also has its own version of Nintendo’s “virtual console” store, where you can grab games from some of Nintendo’s beloved old-school consoles like the NES, SNES, and Game Boy.
While similar things can be said of the Wii U, its price tag is a bit higher, and its catalog of great games is arguably thinner. There are many great franchises, like Rune Factory, Animal Crossing, and Phoenix Wright, that are available on 3DS but not on Wii U.
One word of warning: Nintendo is expected to launch a new console, the Nintendo Switch, in March, 2017. The Switch will be a “hybrid” console that can be played as a portable like the 3DS, but can also be played on a TV using a docking station. The company said it plans to continue supporting the 3DS after the Switch launches, as it considers the Switch a “home console,” but there is reason to question whether new games will be coming to the 3DS in 2018. That said, after more than five years, the Nintendo 3DS has already built up quite a library for you to work your way through.
The best introduction to gaming
Why should you buy this? It’s a concentrated dose of retro gaming for a very affordable price.
Who’s it for? Nintendo lovers who don’t own a Wii U or Nintendo 3DS, new gamers who never had an NES.
How much will it cost? $60
Why we picked the NES Classic Edition:
If you’re new to video games — or want to introduce the form to someone — there’s something to be said for starting with the classics. Nintendo’s new mini-emulator box offers 30 first- and third-party games from the company’s beloved NES console in a small, standalone package, including the first three Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man II, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy.
The device lacks many of the features we’ve come to expect from a game console: It does not connect to the internet, and is not expandable or customizable in any official way. While many argue that’s a failing, we appreciate the opportunity to play games in a space without connectivity issues and free of in-game advertising. On the NES Classic, what you see is what you get, and that’s great.
It’s totally reasonable to expect that someone new to games might play with this, and quickly find themselves ready to move to a modern console. Luckily, at $60 and zero extra cost for games, the console requires less investment than any other console out there.
How we test
Choosing the best video game console is, honestly, more philosophical than technical. Since gaming PCs currently produce the highest framerate and highest resolution, picking the best gaming console comes down to a number of factors including its design, features, and game library.
We do test them, of course. We’ve spent a lot of time playing video games on these consoles and we even more thinking about what they can do. We make sure that everything we like about these game consoles works and delivers what’s advertised. That includes playing all kinds of games, checking the console’s internet connectivity, looking at the console’s exclusives, and checking if developers are making games for the platform.
4K, HDR, and buying game consoles
Two of our recommendations, the PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X, support high-resolution gaming that can take advantage of emerging display standards, 4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR). Most people, aside from enthusiastic A/V fans, do not have a 4K TV yet, and fewer still have HDR, which is currently broken down into some sub-standards.
Given that there’s a relatively small selection of games for each console that take full advantage of these features, we currently do not recommend that you buy a new TV for the sake of high-resolution console gaming. Currently, no game console requires you to own a 4K or HDR-compatible TV, so you can buy that new console and hold off on buying the TV until you’ve done more research, found games you feel are worth upgrading for, or are otherwise ready to commit.
If you do decide to purchase a new TV for the sake of the console, you should look for a 4K TV that runs at 60Hz and supports HDR 10, as opposed to HDR “Premium.”