- Video game consoles are next-level awesome these days. Not all consoles and gamers are alike, however, and it’s important to select the right one for your needs and tastes.
- Of all the consoles out there, the PlayStation 4 Pro is our top pick for most gamers. A great game library, 4K Ultra HD output, compatibility with popular streaming services, VR capability, and an excellent gamepad make this console the best plug-and-play system out there.
- Black Friday and Cyber Monday are fast approaching, and many products in this guide will likely be on sale. You can check out our Black Friday and Cyber Monday deal coverage on Insider Picks here. We’re also covering all of the latest Black Friday tech deals here.
Video games were popularized decades ago in public arcades, where kids and adults alike spent many hours and quarters playing titles like “Galaga,” “Contra, Donkey Kong,” and “Pac-Man” on bulky standing machines with built-in joysticks and flickering CRT monitors. It wasn’t long before people started dreaming of the day when they could play their favorite games right at home, however, and so the gaming console was born.
Consoles have become a staple of consumer technology since popular models like the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System blazed a trail back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but these devices have come a long way from the old 8-bit 2D graphics of decades past. Gaming machines today boast a mind-boggling array of features and advanced hardware to create highly detailed virtual worlds and cinematic experiences, with the latest models even allowing the use of a VR headset for unparalleled immersion.
Not all consoles and gamers are alike, however, and it’s important to select the right one for your needs and tastes. Serious gaming enthusiasts should look for a system with 4K capability for use with Ultra HDTVs (such as the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X), although even if you don’t have a UHD television, the improved hardware inside these machines delivers better overall performance and the consoles are future-proofed if you decide to upgrade to a 4K TV later.
For kids, families, and more casual players, on the other hand, a simpler console that offers a more social and user-friendly gaming experience may be more suitable. Portability is another consideration, especially for children or people who are on the move a lot and want to take their games on the go. In this case, handheld systems like the Nintendo 3DS XL or even hybrid machines like the Switch are a solid option.
To help you decide which gaming platform is right for you, we’ve researched and picked out the five best systems available on the market today, from beefy 4K machines to home consoles and portable devices aimed at more casual users. We’ve graded our selections based on hardware specs, game libraries, price, and special features like 3D or VR capabilities, among other things.
Here are the best gaming consoles you can buy:
- Best gaming console overall: PlayStation 4 Pro
- Best gaming console for multimedia: Xbox One S
- Best video game console for casual players: Nintendo Switch
- Best portable gaming system New Nintendo 2DS XL
- Best gaming console for enthusiasts: Xbox One X
Updated by Lisa Sabatini on 11/27/2019: Updated prices, links, and formatting.
SEE ALSO: The best gaming PCs you can buy
SEE ALSO: The best gaming laptops you can buy for $1,000 or less
The best gaming console overall
The PlayStation 4 Pro boasts excellent hardware with a fantastic game library to match, and its re-designed DualShock 4 controller is a much-needed upgrade over previous versions of Sony’s gamepad.
Sony has been one of the top names in consoles since the classic PlayStation was released in 1994, and its latest offering does not disappoint. The PlayStation 4 Pro is the latest revision of the original 2013 PS4 and boasts an upgraded GPU that gives this gaming machine 4K capability and improved performance with PlayStation VR, Sony’s own virtual reality headset. The PS4 also shipped with a re-designed and much-improved DualShock controller, and the newer DualShock 4 is among the best gamepads ever designed. It also does double-duty as a fantastic PC controller, too, according to Wirecutter.
Prior to the announcement and release of the Xbox One X, the PS4 Pro was the only gaming console capable of playing games in 4K (3,840 x 2,160) resolution. 4K play is currently available on a select number of titles, and naturally, you can only take full advantage of this feature if you own a 4K Ultra HD television. Nonetheless, the improved processing power of the Pro still delivers a better performance with fewer frame-rate drops and smoother gameplay even if you’re not playing 4K games on a compatible television. A 4K console is also future-proof. If you decide to upgrade to an Ultra HD TV later, you won’t need to buy a new console to fully enjoy it.
Aside from its boosted hardware and 4K HDR capabilities, where the PS4 Pro really shines is its game library, according to Digital Trends. The PS4 has possibly the best lineup of triple-A, indie, and import games, including many that other consoles like the Xbox One do not receive — consider exclusives like “The Last Guardian,” “Bloodborne,” “The Last of Us,” and the upcoming “Shadow of the Colossus Remastered.” This is, admittedly, subject to taste. If you’re the type who can’t get enough of Xbox-exclusive franchises like Halo, Gears of War, and Forza, then Microsoft’s gaming platform might be a better fit.
By far the biggest drawback to the PlayStation 4 Pro is its curious lack of a 4K Blu-Ray player. It’s somewhat baffling that Sony, the company that invented the Blu-Ray medium, would omit a 4K Blu-Ray player from its much-hyped 4K console. This was presumably done to cut costs on what is admittedly a fairly expensive console — the PS4 Pro is not cheap at $399 — but the console can still stream 4K HDR video and can play standard Blu-Ray discs.
Another drawback, and one where Sony lags behind Microsoft, is with backward compatibility. Unfortunately, the PlayStation 4 Pro cannot play PS3 game discs. The only way to enjoy legacy media is through Sony’s PS Now streaming service, which offers paid game rentals or a monthly subscription plan. And while Sony has expanded the list of available games since the console’s release, the service has not been received well by gamers who have no way to purchase titles (PS Now only lets you rent and stream games for a set period of time) or to play older ones that they already own.
Pros: Great hardware specs, a solid library of games, 4K Ultra HD capability with high dynamic range (HDR), “boost mode” enhances older games, and it can support the PlayStation VR headset
Cons: It’s more expensive than the Xbox One S, offers limited support for legacy games, and cannot play 4K Blu-Rays
Buy the PlayStation 4 Pro on Amazon for $299
The best gaming console for multimedia
The Xbox One S offers great capabilities — from running the latest triple-A games to playing 4K Ultra HD Blu-Rays — and accomplishes it at a price that should make other console makers blush.
It might seem redundant to have two Microsoft consoles on our list, but the Xbox One S is far from old and busted even if the Xbox One X is the new hotness. Although the Xbox One X boasts more impressive hardware, the S is our top pick for buyers who want an affordable all-in-one gaming and multimedia machine that can play the latest AAA games as well as stream shows and movies via popular services like Netflix and Hulu. The console also offers a true 4K HDR experience with compatible TVs, including the ability to play 4K Blu-Rays, and comes in at half the price of the newer X.
The Xbox One S is the second revision of Microsoft’s eighth-generation console. It’s a slimmer, smaller update to the original system, with improved hardware and the ability to stream 4K video and play Ultra HD Blu-Rays, according to Digital Trends. Even the controller was upgraded with new Bluetooth connectivity that lets you use it with Windows 10 without the need for a wireless adapter, a nice bonus for PC gamers.
The PlayStation 4 might have a slight edge when it comes to its game library, but the Xbox One is no slouch with its own solid lineup of triple-A and indie titles as well as huge exclusive franchises like “Halo” and “Gears of War.” It’s also backwards compatible with a large and growing number of Xbox 360 titles. But where the Xbox One S really stands out, in our opinion, is in its multimedia capabilities. Along with a 4K Blu-Ray player, the Xbox offers great support for popular streaming services like Netflix, making the console a great all-in-one entertainment machine.
Another big point for the Xbox One S is its low cost relative to the X and the PS4 Pro, and there is a myriad of bundles available at different price points, including many special edition consoles, to suit almost any taste. Considering its hardware and extensive multimedia capabilities, the S is arguably the best value in a home gaming console right now.
Although the Xbox One S can stream in 4K and has an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player, be aware that it cannot render games in 4K — to do that, you need a system designed for it like the One X or PS4 Pro. Furthermore, while Microsoft has said that future games developed for the X’s beefier hardware will still be playable on the S (although at lower settings), this still leaves some questions as to how well the older system will handle newer titles and how long Microsoft intends to support it. Nonetheless, it’s highly unlikely that Microsoft will drop support for the Xbox One S any time soon, so this should not be a major concern for the foreseeable future.
Pros: A 4K HDR Blu-Ray player, improved specs over the original Xbox One, more affordable than other consoles, backward compatibility with many Xbox 360 titles, numerous bundle options available, and great streaming support
Cons: Cannot render games in 4K, and it’s unclear how well the console will be able to handle future titles developed for the Xbox One X
Buy the Xbox One S on Amazon for $199
The best video game console for casual players
The Nintendo Switch is a great console for families, people who love multiplayer titles, and casual gamers, and its unique design lets you play at home on a TV or take it on the go.
Nintendo is a brand that needs little introduction. This Japanese company made gaming consoles mainstream (and probably saved the game industry) with the 1983 release of the Famicom, later released in the West as the now-legendary Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo has continued to innovate and redefine the home gaming market with unique products like the motion-controlled Wii, but the new Nintendo Switch might be the most ambitious console design yet, according to Digital Trends and other reviewers.
The developers at Nintendo love to re-invent the wheel (or in this case, the console) and the Switch does exactly that. Its 2-in-1 hybrid design lets you use the Switch as a home gaming system with its docking station plugged into your TV, or if you want to use it as a portable device, the tablet-like “body” of the system can slide out of its dock so you can take your games on the go.
The Nintendo Switch also offers a great at-home social gaming experience, something that modern consoles have largely ignored in favor of online-focused multiplayer. While the Switch does feature online play for multiplayer games like the delightful “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe,” its removable control paddles also make it simple to hand out controllers and let your friends and family join in the fun right beside you. For those interested in online multiplayer gaming, Nintendo Switch Online is less than half the price of Xbox Live Gold and PS Plus for a 12-month subscription.
The biggest question mark with the Nintendo Switch pops up in regards to what is arguably the most important part of choosing a console: the games. Right now, the Switch has a somewhat skimpy lineup of titles, and it’s unclear how the system will handle older games. Both the Wii and the Wii U were backward compatible with previous-generation game discs, a great feature that the Switch notably lacks. The hardware is also weaker than that found in other consoles — something that has been common with Nintendo consoles since the GameCube — which brings into question its future ability to handle modern triple-A games.
Backwards compatibility isn’t a deal-breaker for most buyers just looking to enjoy newer games, however, and while the Switch library is a bit light at the moment, it’s a completely new console (not just a hardware upgrade like the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X) but already offers some great single- and multi-player games like “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “Splatoon 2.” Owners can also expect plenty of Nintendo’s famous first-party franchises, including Super Mario, Kirby, Super Smash Bros, and Mario Kart, coming to the Switch in the future. Numerous third-party developers have also pledged to bring their games to Nintendo’s new system.
Pros: A unique form factor lets you switch from console to portable mode, it’s great for at-home and online multiplayer gaming, and it’s a good choice for kids and families
Cons: Game library is somewhat lacking at the moment, weaker hardware compared to other consoles, and it’s unclear how the system will handle legacy media
Buy the Nintendo Switch on Amazon for $298.99
The best portable gaming system
With a great library of first- and third-party titles, backward compatibility with the huge catalog of DS games, and large and vibrant dual display, the New Nintendo 2DS XL is the top choice for gamers on the go.
Nintendo has been the king of handheld gaming since the classic GameBoy became a hit in 1989. There have been a number of competitors over the years (remember the Sega Game Gear?), but none have come close to knocking Nintendo off of the throne. The New Nintendo 2DS is the company’s latest foray into portable game systems — the Switch’s hybrid design notwithstanding — and despite being out for several years now, still enjoys massive popularity.
The 2DS carries on everything that was great about the DS: a fantastic library of first-party Nintendo titles like Zelda, Pokemon, Mario, and Fire Emblem, a long list of great third-party games, and an intuitive and responsive dual-display touchscreen setup.
Like most other recent Nintendo systems, the New 2DS XL also offers backward compatibility with last-generation games. The first GameBoy Advance and GBA SP could play original GameBoy games, while the Nintendo DS and DS Lite featured a slot for GBA cartridges. The 2DS, including the latest revisions, is fully compatible with the entire backlog of DS games. The DS had a huge and awesome library.
True to its name, the XL is fairly large in the hands for a portable device — imagine two large smartphones connected by a hinge — so it’s less pocket-friendly than smaller systems like the standard New 3DS or the original 3DS.
While the large screens are great, the XL’s size can wear on you after awhile if you’re playing it for extended periods or carrying it around all day. It’s also not ideal for little hands.
Pros: Great first- and third-party titles, lots of casual and kid-friendly games, and complete backward compatibility with the huge DS library
Cons: It’s fairly big for a handheld system (and for little hands)
Buy the New Nintendo 2DS XL on Best Buy for $149.99
The best gaming console for enthusiasts
Serious gamers who don’t want to mess around with building a desktop PC would be hard-pressed to find a more powerful and efficient 4K-capable gaming machine than the Xbox One X.
Hardcore gaming enthusiasts tend to be more demanding of their hardware than most people. Many choose to build gaming PCs, and while this is a great option, it’s also expensive (although cost-efficient), time-consuming, and can be a hassle for the uninitiated. A powerful system like the Xbox One X, on the other hand, proves that gamers can enjoy the benefits of great hardware with the plug-and-play convenience of a console.
The Xbox One X is Microsoft’s second revision of the Xbox One and features the most advanced hardware of any gaming console yet, with 6 teraflops of graphical processing power (compare this to the 4.2-teraflop PS4 Pro GPU) which delivers 40 percent more power than any other current system is capable of. It also employs a boosted 12GB of RAM, 4GB more than the 8GB that has been standard on other modern consoles like the PS4 and original Xbox One.
As has already been explained, more powerful hardware makes for an improved experience even if you aren’t playing in 4K, although if you consider yourself a gaming enthusiast then you likely already own a UHD TV or plan on getting one in the future. Developers have stated that they plan to take advantage of the Xbox One X’s power for upcoming games, while Microsoft has guaranteed that these newer titles will still be playable on standard Xbox One and Xbox One S consoles, albeit at lower specs.
Along with its boosted power, the Xbox One X retains all of the features we love about the Xbox One S: a 4K Blu-Ray player (the most notable omission from the PS4 Pro), great multimedia streaming options, and backward compatibility with many Xbox 360 games. Microsoft is even starting to roll out support for original Xbox titles as well. This gives the Xbox One X a big leg-up over the PS4 for gamers who want to enjoy their old favorites on new hardware. One thing that the Xbox lacks, however, is a dedicated VR headset. Microsoft does have plans to bring virtual reality to the console in the future, according to Wareable, but for now, the company remains well behind the VR curve.
This beefy console comes with a hefty price tag and will set you back $500. Also, like all Microsoft consoles since the original Xbox, the Xbox One X requires a monthly subscription to the paid Xbox Live Gold service in order to enjoy online multiplayer. This is, sadly, becoming par for the course for consoles, with Nintendo being the last holdout (at least until 2018, when the paid Nintendo Switch Online service launches). However, this isn’t necessary to enjoy most games and doesn’t really affect single-player titles.
Pros: The most powerful hardware available on a gaming console, true 4K HDR capability with a 4K Blu-Ray player, and backward compatibility with many Xbox 360 games
Cons: It’s the most expensive console on the market, and no VR capability as of yet
Buy the Xbox One X on Best Buy for $349.99