Video Game Console Buying Guide

In today's connected world, gaming consoles are expanding the definition of what a modern entertainment device can be, allowing you to stream content from HBO Max, Netflix, and Spotify; play Ultra HD Blu-ray discs; and even make video calls with apps like Skype. That’s a long way from merely being used to play the latest edition of “Super Mario” or “Halo.”

This buying guide aims to help you decide which console is best suited for your needs.

What You Should Know

What is a video game console? At minimum, a video game console is a device that connects to your TV and allows you to play games using a controller—but the concept has evolved greatly in the past decade or so. Consoles now include other entertainment options, such as streaming audio and video. They’ve also become more social, allowing you to play with your friends online and record and share gameplay footage.

What consoles are available? As of July 2021, the newest consoles on the market are the Microsoft Xbox Series X and Series S (think of these as siblings; we’ll explain more below), the Sony PlayStation 5, and the Nintendo Switch. The Xbox One and PS4 from 2013 are still available in stores (albeit in limited quantities) but are no longer considered current.

Who are you buying the console for? Though many games are available for multiple platforms, a console is largely defined by its exclusive games. For example, if you want to play "Mario," you’ll need a Nintendo console, and if you want to play "Halo," you’ll need a Microsoft console (or a gaming-tier PC). Some consoles also offer more robust A/V options than others, so keep that in mind if watching movies and TV shows is important to the person you’re shopping for.

Additional expenses. Consoles alone don't do much out of the box; you'll need to spend more money to get the most use from them. First, of course, you'll need to buy games, which have crept up in price with the most recent consoles. Whereas previous prices usually topped out at $60, you can now pay upward of $70. You'll also need to pay a subscription fee to play online.

The Consoles

Microsoft Xbox Series X
Released in the fall of 2020, the Xbox Series X, $499, is the successor to 2013's Xbox One. In the box you'll find the console itself, an HDMI cable, and a wireless controller. Additional controllers cost around $60. Microsoft also makes a dedicated AV remote, which may feel more natural to use while watching movies and TV shows, that costs $20.

The Xbox Series X is a powerful console that plays games at up to 4K resolution and framerates at up to 120 frames per second, which means gameplay appears twice as fluid or smooth as games running at the previous standard of 60 frames per second. It also supports HDR (high dynamic range) technology for both games and movies, which helps create more detailed images.

The Series X also supports plenty of entertainment options. The built-in disc drive can play 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and has a robust selection of streaming entertainment apps, like Disney+, Netflix, and Spotify.

To make the most out of the Xbox One X, you might consider pairing it with a subscription service called Xbox GamePass. This starts at $9.99 per month and grants access to a Netflix-like library of popular games that are yours to play as long as your subscription is active. For an additional $5 per month, you can also play GamePass games on your PC and mobile device. Read more about GamePass here.

The Xbox Series X is also compatible with a wide selection of older games designed for the Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox gaming consoles, often with enhancements like higher resolutions and faster loading times. Microsoft’s website has further details on which games are compatible and what, if any, enhancements are present.

Check availability at: Amazon, Best Buy, Target, Walmart

Microsoft Xbox Series S
Released alongside the Series X in the fall of 2020, the Xbox Series S, $299, is geared toward consumers who want access to the full Xbox library of games and multimedia content at a lower price. What do you give up in exchange for that price? The Series S does not have a built-in Blu-ray drive, meaning you’re not able to play disc-based games or movies. Instead, games must be downloaded from the console’s app store. Games can be several gigabytes in size, so you’ll want to pair this with a speedy broadband connection (unless you like waiting . . . and waiting . . . to play).

The Series S is also slightly less powerful than the Series X and is optimized for 1080p gaming rather than 4K gaming. Because of that, it might be best suited for an older, non-4K TV.

Check availability at: Amazon, Best Buy, Target, Walmart

Sony PlayStation 5
Released in the fall of 2020, the PlayStation 5 is Sony’s latest-generation console. It's available in two different models: the standard model ($499), which includes a built-in 4K Blu-ray disc drive, and a Digital Edition ($399) that does not have a disc drive. Games for the Digital Edition can be purchased from Sony’s app store. These two editions are otherwise the same, with no power or performance difference between them.

Included in the box is the console itself, an HDMI cable, and a wireless controller called the DualSense. Wireless controllers are available separately in several colors for around $70. A remote control intended for use while watching movies and TV shows is also available for around $30.

The PS5 can play games at up to 4K resolution and 120 frames per second, and supports HDR for both game and movie playback. It can also play most PS4 games, in some cases with enhancements like higher resolutions, smoother frame rates, and faster load times.

Like the Xbox, the PS5 also has a robust library of entertainment apps available to download, including the usual favorites like HBO Max, Netflix, and Spotify.

PlayStation Plus is the name of Sony’s online service that unlocks online multiplayer gaming. It costs $60 for a 12-month subscription, which also includes access to a handful of free games per month that are yours to keep as long as you maintain the subscription. The company does not currently offer a GamePass-like (or Netflix-like) service that lets you download games for a monthly fee. Read more about Sony’s online offerings here.

Check availability at: Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart

Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch was released in the spring of 2017. There are two models of the console currently available, with a third set for release in October.

The Switch ($299) is the standard version of the console and can be used portably and while hooked up to an HDTV. It has a 6.2-inch LCD display. An HDMI cable and dock, both used to connect to your TV, are included in the box.

The Switch Lite ($199) can be used only on its own; it cannot be connected to an HDTV. It’s available in several colors and has a 5.5-inch LCD display.

Due for release in October is the Switch OLED model, which will retail for $349 and operates much like the standard version except it has a higher-end OLED display. As we know from TVs, OLED displays produce deeper blacks and have higher contrast ratios than LCD displays. There is no difference in performance between the standard model and the OLED model.

The Switch has two types of controllers: Joy-Cons and the Pro Controller.

Joy-Cons connect to the right and left sides of the Switch itself while used in portable mode and can be held in your hands while the Switch is plugged into a TV. A single pair of Joy-Cons comes packaged with the Switch and costs around $80 purchased separately.

The Pro Controller, around $70, is a more traditional wireless controller similar to the ones included with the Xbox and PS5. It’s also bigger than the Joy-Cons, so it may be more comfortable to use for players with larger hands.

The Switch is perhaps best thought of as a pure games machine and has access to a much smaller library of streaming apps than the Xbox or PS5. There are no apps for popular services, including Netflix, Disney+, or HBO Max, but there are apps for YouTube and Hulu.

Nintendo also offers an online service called Nintendo Switch Online that unlocks multiplayer gaming and grants access to a library of older games from consoles like the NES and Super NES for $5 per month. Read more about Nintendo Switch Online here.

Check availability at: Amazon, Best Buy, Gamestop, Nintendo, Target, Walmart

Remote Play

Remote play means being able to play games that are installed on your console on a mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet, instead of on your TV. This might be handy if someone is taking up the TV and you’d still like to play, or if you’d merely like to sit somewhere other than the couch. Remote play uses your home WiFi network.

Both the Xbox Series X/S and PS5 support remote play via an app on your mobile device. You then connect the wireless controller to the mobile device to control the game.

The Switch, being a portable-capable system, can be played “remotely” without any additional software.

Shopping Tips

For various reasons, actually buying one of the new consoles is somewhat challenging, with retailers like Best Buy and Walmart frequently out of stock and third-party sellers on platforms like eBay and StockX charging upward of double the retail price. With the manufacturers stating that they expect these supply constraints to last into 2022, it’s going to take some effort to actually track down a console, particularly the Xbox and PS5.

Perhaps the most effective thing to do is follow a social media account dedicated to sending in-stock alerts, such as Wario64, PS5 In Stock Alerts, Xbox Series X/S Stock Alerts, and Matt Swider on Twitter, as well as the NerdSpeak channel on Discord. You’ll want to enable mobile notifications so that you’re alerted via the Twitter or Discord app when there’s stock somewhere. Even then, you’ll have to be quick.

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When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.