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Whether you're buying a game console for you or someone else, it's never been trickier to find the right one. Even if someone says they want the Playstation 4, or the Xbox One, there are still tons of variations—you can't just walk into a store and buy one without figuring a few things out first.
Even for a knowledgeable gamer, deciding on which one to get is tricky. When prices range from $150 to over $300, it's important to buy the one that is right for you.
We're here to help, by breaking down every current game console, explaining all the options that come with each, and who should buy it.
There are tons of things to consider, though, so here's the short version: The three best options right now are the Sony Playstation 4, the Xbox One S, and the Nintendo Switch.
Of those three, the Nintendo Switch is the only way to get first-party Nintendo games like Mario, Zelda, Mario Kart, and the like. It's a newer system that has its own screen for gaming on the go, but it can also dock and hook up to your TV to play games in the living room.
The Xbox One S and Playstation 4 are very similar (most games appear on both systems), though Sony and Microsoft both own game studios that produce "exclusive" games that only appear on their own systems. The Playstation 4 is more popular, but the Xbox One S is a better option if you have a 4K TV, since it can upscale games to 4K, stream 4K from services like Netflix, and plays 4K Blu-ray movies.
Note: we're skipping the consoles that are completely hand-held, such as the Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita, retro consoles like the Super Nintendo Classic, and recently discontinued consoles like the Nintendo Wii U and the original Xbox One and Playstation 4 models.
The Sony Playstation 4 has been out for nearly four years, and the smaller "Slim" variant replaced the original model last year. There are hundreds of games available for the system, and all PS4 games are compatible with all versions of the PS4.
Since the PS4 came out when 4K TVs were exceedingly rare, the system tops out at 1080p. It'll work fine with 4K TVs, but the picture won't be as sharp as if you were using a 4K-ready console like the Playstation 4 Pro, Xbox One S, or a true 4K console like the upcoming Xbox One X.
Though the prices fluctuate with sales, the PS4 Slim typically starts for around $300. For that you can get either a model with a 500GB hard drive, one controller, and a game like Uncharted 4. You can also get a model with a 1TB (1000GB) hard drive and without the game for around the same price.
The Playstation 4 can play Blu-ray discs, but not newer 4K/UHD Blu-rays. It supports all the major streaming services but it doesn't output in 4K or HDR (High Dynamic Range). The PS4 supports Dolby True HD and Atmos sound, but the Slim model eliminated the optical audio output port from the original's design so sometimes hooking up receivers or headphones that require it can be a bit tricky.
Announced last year alongside the Playstation 4 Slim was the Playstation 4 Pro. While the Slim is a redesigned (and slimmed, obviously) version of the original PS4, the Pro includes upgrades that make it more powerful. Though all PS4 games must be compatible with both the Slim and Pro models, games often have enhanced graphics and faster frame rates on the Pro model.
These enhancements vary wildly from game to game, however. The gaming picture quality experts at Eurogamer's Digital Foundry have the best breakdown, having tested nearly every game in-depth. They currently count just under 20 games that run at a native 4K, with 10 of those getting up to 4K at 60 frames per second—widely considered "state of the art" today.
The PS4 Pro starts at around $399 with a 1TB hard drive, with bundles including games going for around $50 more. Sale prices will affect that, of course, but this may be the best investment if you want a PS4 and own a 4K TV or plan to upgrade in the near future.
The one big mark against the PS4 Pro as the centerpiece of a 4K-ready home theater is that it doesn't play 4K Blu-ray discs. It can play 1080p Blu-rays, however, and it can also stream 4K and HDR content from services like Netflix.
Though the original Xbox One can be found refurbished at some places for just $150, the Xbox One S is the current base model of the console. The Xbox One S comes in a wide variety of bundles that run between $250 and $350 that include a controller and at least one game, and it has some significant features that set it above the Playstation 4 Slim.
The biggest advantage is that the Xbox One S can output in 4K. It isn't powerful enough to actually play games at 4K, but it can play them at 1080p and then upscale to take advantage of 4K TVs. That said, it can play content from services like Netflix in 4K and HDR with no upscaling necessary. Furthermore, the Xbox One S includes a 4K Blu-ray player, which you can't get in any of the current Playstation models.
As a media device, the Xbox One S has a lot of advantages. In addition to 4K and HDR compatibility, it offers Dolby Atmos sound as well as an HDMI input allowing you to pipe your cable TV through the Xbox. Though this feature isn't the game-changer that Microsoft initially made it out to be, there are some neat things you can do with it.
The upcoming Xbox One X—originally called "Project Scorpio" while in development—promises a generational leap forward in gaming power. Unlike the Playstation 4 Pro, which can only render a handful of games in 4K, the Xbox One X is designed to compete with current gaming PCs with a native 4K output.
As with the Playstation 4 Pro, the One X will be fully compatible with all Xbox One games; though it's much more powerful, Microsoft doesn't want to fracture its player base. Microsoft has also added substantial backwards compatibility with many older Xbox 360 titles, so some older games will work on newer Xbox One systems.
We haven't yet tested the Xbox One X for ourselves since it is not yet on the market (it's available for pre-order now and goes on sale in November) but by looking at the numbers, we expect it to be capable of living up to the promise of true 4K gaming. The Xbox One X will cost a whopping $500, though, with no games included—at least as far as we know.
If you do pre-order the Xbox One X you can get the "Project Scorpio" edition, which has some unique cosmetic differences as well as a vertical stand, but otherwise still costs $500.
The Nintendo Switch is the newest of all the major game consoles (at least until the Xbox One X hits stores this November), and it's also the most unique. It's designed to function as both a handheld game console that you can bring with you anywhere and a console that you hook up to your TV.
The name derives from this unique ability, letting you switch things around to play it however you like. Unlike traditional handheld consoles like the Nintendo 3DS or Sony Vita, the Switch is nearly as powerful as an Xbox One S or Playstation Slim, letting it play games that would typically be too strenuous for a mobile system to handle.
In typical Nintendo fashion, the Switch even supports fun, quirky games that can be played by a group of people locally. It features two controllers that detach from the sides of the device. When attached, one player has access to all the controls at once. Detach them, and two players can each use one to control certain multiplayer games. This includes traditional games, but also fun one-off titles like one that has you simulate milking a cow (it's more fun than it sounds).
The Switch has an MSRP of $299.99 for the basic kit, which includes the console itself, the two detachable controllers, and the dock to hook it up to your TV. The Switch comes with 32GB of internal storage, but games can quickly fill that up so it's recommended you purchase an extra MicroSDHC/SDXC card like the one we listed here.
If you're buying for yourself, you're likely already leaning toward one of the above options, but here's how they shake out:
The Nintendo Switch offer a unique take on a gaming console that you can bring with you anywhere. While both Microsoft and Sony offer the option to stream your game so you can play on a different display (and even elsewhere in the world), the Switch lets you bring your actual console with you everywhere you go. The Switch is also the only way to get access upcoming games from popular franchises like Mario, Mario Kart, and Zelda, though the Nintendo Wii U (now discontinued) has received some recent ones like Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
If you're planning on gaming mostly on your own couch, the decision likely rests between the Playstation 4 and the Xbox. The two share very similar game libraries, though both companies own several studios that produce exclusive games. For Sony, that means you get games like Knack and Knack 2, The Last of Us, Uncharted 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Bloodborne, God of War, Nioh, The Last Guardian, and more. For Microsoft, you'll get games like Forza, Halo, Gears of War, Dead Rising, and more.
Popular franchises such as all sports games, Destiny 2, Call of Duty, and more all appear on both systems, with many also showing up on older consoles, PCs, and the Nintendo Switch in some form or another. These games will mostly play the same, though the more powerful consoles like the Playstation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X may be able to offer smoother, better-looking gameplay. Some games also get console-exclusive content such as different levels and weapons that only appear on one system.
The last major "difference" is the online service offered by Sony and Microsoft respectively, Playstation Plus and Xbox Live Gold. Both services are necessary for playing most multiplayer games online, both offer a selection of free games you can download every month (and keep as long as you're a subscriber), and both services cost $60 per year.
Our advice? Figure out which games you need to play and go with the console that does the best job with those. If you love multiplayer games and all your friends are on Playstation, get a Playstation. If you love Forza and Dead Rising and want to play those games, get an Xbox. And if you play every Mario and Zelda game as soon as they come out, you'll want a Switch.