There are a lot of video game consoles on the market, even between "The Big Three" companies like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Some of these are better suited for specific purposes than others, whether you want on-the-go gaming or a system that delivers the very best graphics possible. Because of its versatility and affordable price, the Nintendo Switch (opens in new tab) is easily our top recommendation. Those looking to spend extra for more premium features can look towards the PS4 and Xbox One.
Disclaimer: While all of the consoles on this list are amazing, they're soon to be joined by a few others come November. Sony is releasing the PS5 ($499) and PS5 Digital Edition ($399), and Microsoft is releasing the Xbox Series X ($499) and Xbox Series S ($299). These consoles are set to be some of the most powerful that the market has ever seen. That, along with the pandemic, means you should expect prices to fluctuate.
Best Overall: Nintendo Switch
The best of both worlds
Nintendo Switch tries to give you the best of both worlds — form, and function — and succeeds for the most part. It's certainly not as powerful as the competition, but it still has enough power to run most AAA games today, an aspect that more third-party developers are taking note of. Now you can play some of the best games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3 on a machine that also runs Pokémon, Super Mario, and Animal Crossing. That's impressive. Not only can you take a game like DOOM on-the-go, but you can also play a main Pokémon game on your television.
Players aren't tethered to their television anymore, either. Nintendo Switch systems can be brought anywhere because they are also handheld. This makes it the perfect party console because everyone can bring theirs and have fun together. It's lightweight, portable, and can even fit in your pocket if you've got some big pockets.
Where the Nintendo Switch lacks is its online capabilities. Yes, it's premium online subscription service is much less than the competition, but that's because it's an inferior service. Online gameplay just isn't as good on Nintendo Switch as it is Xbox or PlayStation. On top of that, a lot of people have found Joy-Con drift to be an issue, meaning even if you aren't moving the Joy-Con's thumbstick, it will register in-game as if you are. Not exactly conducive for perfect accuracy.
Best Graphics: Xbox One X
Xbox One X
A lot of power in a small package
The Xbox One X is by far the most powerful console on the market (until the Xbox Series X releases). It sports six teraflops of computing power, making games run faster and look better than any other console before. If you're looking for a console with the best performance, look no further, because you won't beat the Xbox One X. It doesn't always offer 4K resolution and 60FPS at the same time, but you'll have plenty of games offering a choice between either.
Microsoft also ensures that Xbox is the best place to play by creating a welcoming gaming ecosystem. Xbox Game Pass is a monthly subscription service that gives players access to hundreds of titles in a rotating catalog like Netflix. But these games are downloaded directly to your console instead of streamed, making the performance and reliability that much better. This only complements the console's backward compatibility, allowing people to still play their old Xbox 360 games — provided the games support such features.
What some people consider the bread and butter of every video game console, its exclusive games, tend to be arguably inferior on Microsoft's part. The company just doesn't have acclaimed exclusive franchises like The Last of Us, God of War, Uncharted, and Horizon Zero Dawn. It notably has Gears of War, Halo, and Forza, but many have either found those to have grown stale or believe they can't compete with the likes of what Sony can offer. Microsoft is investing more in first-party titles, but Rome wasn't built in a day.
Microsoft did recently acquire ZeniMax Media, though, and now owns the studios like Bethesda, Arkane, Tango Gameworks, id Software, and more. Acclaimed series like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls — even the upcoming Starfield — could very well be Xbox exclusive when they launch.
If your primary concern in a console is power, it might also be worth waiting until the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S come out in November. The Series X boasts 12 teraflops of computing power on top of a fast 1TB SSD. The Series S may only have four teraflops, but it can still best the Xbox One X thanks to the wizardry of Microsoft's engineers.
Best Exclusives: PS4 Pro
PlayStation 4 Pro
Emmy-worthy video games
Sony's known for its top of the line exclusives. PlayStation is the only place to play masterpieces like The Last of Us and God of War, not to mention upcoming games like The Last of Us Part II and Death Stranding. The quality of Sony's portfolio is nearly unrivaled — at least for the moment — and some of these PS4 games are certainly worth buying a console for alone.
PlayStation is also the only console to offer proper VR support, and PSVR runs best with a Pro. There are definitely some aspects that hold it back from being amazing, like all of the wires. But other consoles simply can't compete when they don't even have a dedicated VR headset — and no, Nintendo Labo VR does not count.
As good as the PlayStation 4 Pro is, it falls behind Xbox in terms of features and power. It can offer 4K and 60FPS gaming, just less often. And it doesn't have any backward compatibility nor a service to genuinely rival Xbox Game Pass, as much as PlayStation Now may try.
That backward compatibility issue is set to change with the PS5, which will be able to play nearly every PS4 game. If that's something that interests you, you can buy a PS5 now ahead of its release in November. Despite the PS5 launching shortly, the PS4 Pro still a great machine that'll play upcoming games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Horizon Forbidden West. If you're trying to go all-digital, Sony is also offering the PS5 Digital Edition, which has the exact same specs as the PS5 but without the disc drive.
Best Starter Console: PS4 Slim
PlayStation 4 Slim
Great for beginners
The PS4 Slim is what you get when you want Sony's exclusive games but don't want to pay the extra money for better performance. A standard PS4 gets the job done admirably and still provides a substantial gaming experience at 1080p and 30FPS, which is good enough for most consumers. Plus, it has its own dedicated virtual reality headset, which is something Xbox cannot say.
There's a lot to love and not a lot to hate here. Its most significant downsides are that it isn't as powerful as the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, and it's not portable like the Nintendo Switch, which is understandable given its nature as a home gaming console.
Best Value: Xbox One S
Xbox One S
Bundled with games
When the Xbox One first launched it was criticized for being bulky, heavy, and underpowered. The Xbox One S rectified this. It's not leaps and bounds more powerful, but it does feature a slight boost in performance over its older sibling. What makes it better is its design. It's no longer an unwieldy VCR with an external power brick. Now everything is internal, and it's a much more appealing machine to keep on your entertainment stand.
Again, like the Xbox One X, don't go looking for the best of exclusives here. Some people swear by what Microsoft offers, but by and large, most people agree that Sony is where it's at when it comes to exclusive games. Bear in mind, however, this may change with Bethesda under Microsoft's wing.
Best Handheld: Nintendo Switch Lite
Nintendo Switch Lite
The Nintendo Switch Lite is effectively Nintendo's latest handheld device after the 3DS. It's no longer compatible with televisions like its counterpart, but its focus on portability shaves a significant amount of money off of its price point, and it doesn't sacrifice any of the games that you love. All Nintendo Switch games are playable on the Nintendo Switch Lite; sometimes you may need to buy some extra accessories, though.
The smaller screen size may turn off some people from buying it, but that's also a selling point to others. If you were content with a Nintendo 3DS and what that system had to offer, you'll be more than happy with a Nintendo Switch Lite. Plus, it has a longer battery life and a proper D-pad, and you can't go wrong with that.
Best Re-release: SNES Classic
Never before released games
Nintendo knew there was a market for classic mini consoles and it cashed in with the SNES Classic. It's an affordable way for people to play games otherwise unavailable to them or just a great way for older people to re-experience the games they loved as children. It may only come with 20 games, but one of those is the never before released Star Fox 2.
Since this console was so popular and Nintendo did not continue to produce them, you're likely going to have to settle for a used or refurbished SNES Classic. If you want a brand new one, don't be too surprised if the asking price is a lot more than it originally retailed for.
Most Nostalgic: NES Classic
The legend returns
Here's a nostalgia punch for everyone. Nintendo decided to re-release the NES as the NES Classic, a mini-version of the beloved system that kickstarted home console gaming. Now you can play your favorite childhood games on your modern-day television via HDMI, and it comes packed with some extra special features like the ability to rewind your gameplay.
You'll need to be content with only having 30 games included, though. What's more is that Nintendo did not make a large quantity, and given how popular the NES Classic was, it quickly sold out at most retailers. You're looking to pick it up used or at some astronomical price otherwise.
With next-gen consoles shipping in less than a month and the pandemic still on-going, prices of older hardware will continue to fluctuate. Generally you should be seeing prices fall over the next several months as people buy new systems like the PS5, Xbox Series X, and Xbox Series S. Because Nintendo isn't offering a new console, however, the Nintendo Switch will probably stay around the same price and stock will likely be difficult to find.
You can't go wrong with a Nintendo Switch (opens in new tab). There's a reason it's one of Nintendo's best-performing consoles. It finally has proper third-party support and is the perfect hybrid console for when you want to relax on your couch and play on the television or undock it and take it on a car ride. When you factor in its stellar exclusives lineup and the digital SNES and NES shops, picking up a Nintendo Switch is a no-brainer.
If you want the best graphics possible without splurging on a dedicated gaming PC, you'll want the Xbox One X (opens in new tab). It's the priciest console available, but that's because it delivers a powerful product. Staying ahead of the curve in terms of performance isn't cheap.
As for those who are looking for the best games, especially single-player games, pick up a PlayStation 4 Pro (opens in new tab). Your taste in games may be subjective, but most people will agree that Sony offers some Emmy-worthy adventures in a variety of different genres. You're bound to find something that you like, whether it's during the post-apocalypse or in an otherworldly realm altogether.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Jennifer Locke has been playing video games nearly her entire life, starting all the way back with an NES and now primarily gaming on PS4 Pro, Xbox One X, and Nintendo Switch.