The world of gaming consoles doesn’t have to be a confusing one, but making the right choice for your needs and tastes can save you a lot of money.
In all honesty, the question of the “right” gaming console is one that you could get fifty different answers to if you asked fifty different gamers, because they’d most likely frame it through their own experiences and preferences over the years.
Which is great for them, but unless you’re an identical twin with the exact same tastes, it’s unlikely to be all that useful to you. I mean, if you asked me personally, I’d advocate strongly for the Super Nintendo Entertainment system, because I’m a retro gaming tragic, but I fully accept that not everyone is – and that retro gaming can be a very expensive hobby.
At the time of writing, when you’re talking game consoles of the current generation, you’re essentially talking about a system from either Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo.
Tastes, needs and budgets vary, so I’ll break down the pros and cons of all three current options, as well as the exclusives you’ll only find on each platform so you can make a more informed decision:
Price: $539 (OLED), $469 (LCD), $329 (Lite)
Portability: You could lug a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series S or X around in a bag, but it won’t do you much good without a TV to plug it into. The Switch’s big selling gimmick is that it’s a portable console with its own screen for portable play wherever you are that slots neatly into a dock connected to your TV for big-screen gaming action with multiple players. The exception here is the Switch Lite, which is designed for portable only play, part of the reason it’s the cheapest current-gen system money can buy.
Choice of models: The premium model in the Switch lineup is the Switch OLED, which uses the same OLED screen technology as fancy flat-panel TVs from the likes of LG. It has a larger screen and more robust kickstand, but at a price. The mid-level model has a smaller, slightly less impressive screen, but still has the dock for TV connectivity, while the smaller Switch Lite lacks TV connectivity and has controls fixed to its sides.
Range of controller styles: The default controllers for the Switch are what Nintendo call “Joy-Cons”, slender controllers that slot into either side of the Switch screen – or permanently in place in the case of the Switch Lite. They’re neat and easily shareable, but you could also opt for any of a number of more traditional game controller styles such as the Switch Pro controller (and its many cheaper clones) if the smaller size of the Joy-Cons don’t suit your hands or play style.
Physical or digital game options: If you’re an old-school gamer who likes to have something to hold for your gaming money, most of the more prominent Switch titles come on small cartridges. If you’d rather not have the clutter, Nintendo’s eShop will sell you the same titles digitally, along with a wide array of independently produced games that are available only as digital downloads.
Easily available: While Microsoft and especially Sony have struggled in recent years to keep enough (or in some cases any) stock on store shelves, it’s relatively easy to get hold of a Switch console without having to pay scalpers
Inexpensive to take online: Of the three big console players, the Switch has the cheapest Online subscription service for multiplayer online play by a fairly wide margin.
Notable console exclusives: Super Mario Oddysey, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Mario Kart 8, Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Least powerful console: The Switch’s processing power really belongs more to the previous generation of consoles. In some cases it’s quite remarkable what programmers have gotten out of the Switch, but if you look at any game available across all three platforms, the Switch version will be the one with the least impressive visuals and longest load times – if it exists at all!
Least flexible online: Nintendo’s online subscriptions are inexpensive, but that’s because they’re also the most limited. Where Sony and Microsoft offer up a slew of games on a monthly basis, Nintendo only drip-feeds a selection of classic console titles. Its online matchmaking is significantly clunkier than on Xbox or PlayStation, and its eShop is often very slow to respond, even on fast broadband connections.
Joy-Cons aren’t very robust (and they’re expensive!): Nintendo’s Joy-Con controllers are unlike anything else on the market, and they’re priced accordingly. Sadly, their small size and design makes them very prone to breakages, especially with wear and tear on the control sticks leading to what’s popularly called “Joy-Con drift” issues.
Microsoft Xbox Series X/Series S
Price: $749 (Series X)/ $499 (Series S)
Choice of disc-or disc-free models: The premium model Xbox Series X is Microsoft’s powerhouse console with the choice of digital delivery or traditional disc based gaming, while the slightly less powerful – but cheaper and smaller – Series S omits a disc drive.
GamePass is a great way to sample lots of games: While you can buy Xbox Series X/S games on disc, Microsoft’s really gone all-in on digital delivery for games, and especially subscription gaming through its GamePass service. It’s roughly analogous to a Netflix or Disney+, with a monthly subscription fee giving you access to a library of hundreds of games. Virtually all of Microsoft’s own in-house produced games go onto GamePass on the first day they’re available, which means that you can save a lot of money if you’re not fussed about owning games, just playing them.
Very powerful: The Xbox Series X has plenty of processing power, and even the Series S isn’t a slouch in this regard. That means that pretty much every cross-platform game will come to it, and look just about as good as it possibly can.
Great backwards compatibility: Microsoft’s been in the console game for a while now, even though it’s the “newcomer” against Sony and particularly Nintendo, but it doesn’t ignore its gaming history the way that the other two do. Most Xbox One (that’s the prior generation to the Series S/X) games will play on the newer systems natively, often with graphical or loading speed boosts. A selection of 632 different Xbox 360 games will also play on the system. There’s even support for more than 50 original Xbox games – a system that came out more than 20 years ago – supported on the new machines. There are some catches here; if you buy the Series S console its lack of a disc drive means that physical disc games won’t work, and games that relied on peripherals such as Rock Band guitars or Microsoft’s own Kinect motion sensing peripheral aren’t supported.
Notable console exclusives: Halo Infinite, Forza Horizon 5, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Gears 5, Psychonauts 2
Can be hard to buy: It’s not quite as elusive as Sony’s PlayStation 5, but global chip shortages and shipping issues around the pandemic have made Microsoft’s newest consoles a hot commodity, which means that they’re not always easily available. To make matters worse, when they are, they’re often snaffled up by online scalpers hoping to make a quick buck.
A lot of titles are also available on Xbox One: If you’ve still got Microsoft’s previous generation console, you’ve still got a lot of games that can be played. They’re nicer on Xbox Series S/X, but there’s not a lot that’s really made it a “must-buy” prospect for existing system owners.
Gamepass is great – until you stop subscribing: Paying a monthly fee for hundreds of games is a bit of a bargain, but it is limited by the fact that you “own” none of the games you’re playing. Let your GamePass subscription lapse – or decide against it if Microsoft hikes up the rates – and your game library will shrink massively overnight. While most of Microsoft’s own produced titles tend to stay permanently on the service, games by third-party developers such as Konami, Take Two or Sega come and go, so you could lose access to a game partway through completing it.
Sony PlayStation 5
Price: $749.95/$599.95 (Digital Edition)
Digital and disc edition are the same system: Where the Xbox Series X is a more powerful system than the Series S, the only difference between the “digital edition” PlayStation 5 and the full-fat model, besides the price, is the presence of an optical disc drive. If you don’t want disc clutter and like digital game delivery, you’re not putting up with a less powerful machine.
Innovative controller: Sony’s tweaked around its “Dual Shock” controller design over the years, and for the PlayStation 5 iteration – officially the PlayStation 5 Dual Sense – it’s hit a real winner, with solid build, adaptive triggers, inbuilt microphone and haptic feedback.
Very powerful: Like the Xbox Series X, the PlayStation 5 sits as the current best-of-breed in terms of graphical output, as long as you’ve got a TV that can handle it. Some games – most notably Sony’s exclusive Spider-Man: Miles Morales or Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart – look utterly stunning on a good flat panel TV.
PlayStation Plus offers a large library of games: Sony and Microsoft have gone head-to-head over their online and subscription services for years now. Just recently Sony announced new PlayStation Plus tiers, with a basic level for (mostly) just those who want online gaming, and more premium tiers that offer a range of backwards compatible PlayStation classic titles.
Notable console exclusives: Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Ratchet And Clank: Rift Apart, Stray, Sackboy: A Big Adventure
Can be very difficult to find: Of all the major consoles right now, finding a PlayStation 5 on store shelves is the hardest nut to crack. Online orders get snaffled up by scalpers, and the wait list for in-store purchases can stretch very long indeed.
Australians don’t get the full PlayStation Plus experience: Overseas, the top-tier PlayStation Plus tier includes streaming of PlayStation 3 titles over the Internet. That’s because the rather unusual coding of PS3 games makes them considerably more difficult to more directly port and install as digital titles. However, that service isn’t available in Australia, with the top tier only offering a range of PlayStation One “classics” instead. It’s slightly cheaper as a result, but it’s still disappointing.
Only a handful of new exclusives: This is much the same issue that the Xbox Series X/S have, in that there’s only a small number of actually-exclusive PS5 games given that the system is now a couple of years old. For prior generations, development on the last gen systems would have wound down by now, but the issues around consumers actually being able to buy the consoles have meant that development of PS5-only titles has been much slower than expected.