It’s an interesting time to be buying a game console. Three 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 “Project Scorpio,” and sub-platforms, like PlayStation VR.
This is somewhat 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 is a large contingency of people deaf to those arguments because they simply want to buy a game and play it.
Still, game consoles remain the easiest way to get into gaming. And while consoles are changing, our top picks remain the same.
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 and 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) does receive 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 over Xbox One or Wii U 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 movie-lovers
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 use their game console as the centerpiece of their entertainment center or home theater.
How much will it cost: $299+
Why we picked the Xbox One S:
While the PlayStation 4 Pro plays games in 4K, that benefit is primarily aimed at playing video games. Microsoft’s mid-cycle refresh of the Xbox One sports an 4K Blu-Ray player, and can support 4K HDR video playback through a receiver, making it the clear choice for players who want to play games and watch movies in 4K.
While you are trading 4K gaming for more 4K media options, the Xbox One S upscales from 1080p and still produces a notable visual improvement over the standard Xbox One for gamers with a 4K TV. (The physical set is also the nicest looking of the current consoles.)
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 access to a great variety of games at all times.
Who’s it for: Everyone
How much will it cost: $649 – 849 (without a contract or upgrade plan)
Professional photographers always they say, “the best camera is the one you have with you.” The same, it could be said, goes for gaming platforms. Despite the resolve of the Nintendo 3DS fanbase, “portable gaming” and “mobile gaming” are very nearly synonymous. If you have a smartphone on you at all times, and you love playing games, it stands to reason that you will spend some time playing games on your phone.
If having access to mobile games — particularly smart, interesting games made specifically for mobile platforms — than the iPhone is the best choice. Though Google Play and iOS App Store are much closer to parity than they used to be, and the rise of free-to-play games has made Android’s piracy issues far less relevant to this conversation, there are still some developers (Including Nintendo) making games for iOS first.
There’s no doubt a 3DS can deliver a deeper gaming experience, but we’ve found that true on-the-go often benefits from simple, engaging games that can be played for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. There, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are superior, not only because of the variety of games offered, but also because smartphones are always close at hand. The 3DS, small as it is, doesn’t easily fit in most pockets.
The best complimentary 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: $199.99
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 S, 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 are only a few 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 supports HDR 10, as opposed to HDR “Premium.”