Games consoles aren't just for gamers. They've muscled their way into more and more living rooms over the years, slotting seamlessly into your home entertainment setup by including DVD/Blu-ray players, support for digital media files (audio, still and video), and internet connectivity, which provides access to streaming services such as Netflix, Stan and Spotify.
The three major manufacturers – Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft – each take a different approach to consoles, although a number of post-release firmware updates have turned the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 into fairly similar machines. So how do you decide which one's right for you? This guide outlines what each has to offer to help you make the right buying decision.
Microsoft Xbox One S
Microsoft wanted the original Xbox One to be the centrepiece of your home entertainment setup and that idea has carried on to its successor, the One S.
- RRP: $499 (1TB)
- The Xbox One S is designed to streamline the transition from gaming to other forms of media so you can, for example, seamlessly switch from first-person shooter mode to watching Stranger Things without having to leave the console.
- It supports the bulk of major media streaming services including Netflix, Stan, iView and SBS On Demand, as well as live HD TV with the official digital TV tuner. You can also stream content over your local network using DLNA into media apps such as Plex, and play digital media files on the console.
- Gaming functions are essentially the same as with the Xbox 360, but with improved graphics and performance, plus the added ability to record and share in-game footage on social media platforms and online video services.
- A classic games subscription service called Xbox Game Pass also lets you stream or download a number of Xbox 360 games without having to worry about compatibility.
- This smaller, more powerful version of the Xbox One adds a 4K UHD Blu-ray player and 4K streaming. While it doesn't deliver native 4K UHD gaming (games displayed 3840×2160), it can upscale HD titles to suit a 4K screen with high-dynamic range (HDR) support, which creates a more vibrant, dynamic picture. This means that it can't display games at a resolution above HD, but it'll do its best to make HD content look as good as possible on your 4K TV.
Xbox One X
Microsoft's answer to the PS4 Pro has a little more grunt, and currently holds the title of most powerful console on the market.
- RRP: $649 (1TB)
- The same interface and operating system as the Xbox One S.
- Like the Pro, the One X delivers 4K, HDR gaming and better overall performance (shorter load times, improved frame rates etc), as well as 4K video streaming from services such as Netflix and YouTube, which is already available on the Xbox One S.
- Some games are "Xbox One X Enhanced," meaning they claim to take full advantage of the extra grunt to deliver improved graphics and performance. Core gameplay will stay the same however.
- It also supports 4K UHD discs, making it the only console on the market with 4K gaming, streaming and video in physical media.
Nintendo's new console, Switch, combines portability and home entertainment into a single unit.
- RRP: $470
- The 6.2-inch 720p tablet-like touchscreen device is similar to the Wii U controller, but it lets you play on the couch, in bed, on trains, planes – basically anywhere you feel like it.
- If you want to play on a big screen, all you need to do is mount the tablet in the Switch dock that's connected to your TV, and it will optimise and upscale the game to 1080p full-HD with 5.1 surround in a heartbeat.
- When you move to a big screen, the controls on each side of the tablet, called the "Joy-Con L and R" can be removed and slipped onto a mount called the grip, which replicates a traditional controller. These also have motion sensors, and can be used for two-player games with each person holding a left or right Joy-Con, plus you can link a bunch of Switch tablets together for multiplayer on-the-go.
- Even though it's mobile, the Switch is a traditional console at heart, one that's quite similar to the Xbox One S and PS4 in terms of game play and design. Still, Nintendo seems to be banking on unique hardware over technical capabilities, as the Switch's specs don't compare to the Xbox One S and PS4.
Sony PlayStation 4 (Slim)
The PS4 stripped back a lot of the media functions of its predecessor (PS3) to focus on the games at launch, but many of these have since been introduced through firmware updates.
- RRP: $440 (500GB HDD)
- The PS4 supports 3D Blu-ray playback, many digital media formats including mp3, FLAC, AVI, MP4 and MKV, either on the console or via a local network using DLNA, and online streaming through paid video services.
- Social networking and content sharing functions have been added, so you can easily record and distribute footage of your gameplay for the online PlayStation community.
- Motion-sensing controls are available as an optional extra, and the PS4 can connect to the handheld PSVita game console for remote gaming.
- Where it really sets itself apart is the SharePlay service which lets you play games with friends over the internet for 60 minutes, even if you don't own a copy. Unfortunately, while the PlayStation Now cloud-based game rental service (which is similar to Xbox Game Pass) has launched overseas, it's yet to make its way to Australia.
- It's the only console that supports virtual reality, with Sony selling its own headset called Playstation VR, or PSVR.
- The Slim model is a physically smaller version that has the same hardware as the original PS4.
Sony PlayStation 4 (Pro)
Sony is selling a supercharged version of the PS4 called the PS4 Pro, with improved specs that basically boil down to better performance, higher frame rates and nicer graphics.
- RRP: $559
- The only console that can handle native 4K and HDR gaming (although it'll be stripped of this distinction when the Xbox One X launches later this year)
- It has enough grunt to stream 4K video from services such as Netflix and YouTube – however, it doesn't support 4K UHD discs which is an odd decision on Sony's part.
- The extra kick can cut back on load times and improve general performance, particularly on PlayStation VR.
- It's a worthwhile purchase if you're buying your first PS4, or upgrading to a 4K UHD TV (to understand more about 4K UHD, see How to find the best smart TV).
Even though these consoles have enjoyed their day in the sun, you can still find them kicking around in stores and online.
The PS3 is as much a media device as it is a game console.
- It can play CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray and even 3D movies, and can also stream content as a media server from other DLNA devices and receive digital video and audio.
- There are hundreds of movies and TV shows available to rent or buy on demand via Sony's digital distribution service, the PlayStation Network (PSN), and through streaming service apps like Netflix and ABC iView.
- PSN has a huge library of games available for download too, as well as classic PlayStation titles.
- While its days as a gaming device are numbered it still stands up as a media hub, and you can find plenty of units kicking around the second-hand market for around $150.
After taking the world by storm with the Wii's easy-to-use motion controllers, Nintendo took the Wii U in a different direction by removing motion from the box, and replacing it with a tablet-like controller with built-in touchscreen (Wii motion controls were still supported, but became an optional extra).
- There seemed to be real potential for some unique, dual-screen console games, but the Wii U didn't gain a significant foothold with gamers, third-party developers and the average consumer compared to the PS4 and Xbox One. This was thanks, in part, to unimaginative application of its unique controller, limited media streaming options, and no DVD/Blu-ray support.
- Some pulled support due to slow console sales, while those who stuck around had to downgrade their games to work with the system's hardware which wasn't as powerful as the PS4 or Xbox One. In the end, it wound up looking like the little brother in the console race, which was a shame as Nintendo still released a handful of good games such as Mario Kart 8, Zelda: The Wind Waker HD and Super Mario Maker.
- Although the Wii U is no longer in production there are plenty of models floating around on the aftermarket, and Nintendo is still releasing the occasional game for it as well.
The Xbox One launch model is all but retired, as Microsoft and most retailers have shifted focus to the One S and with good reason – the One S is a better overall console that doesn't cost that much more. That's not to say the original is outdated – the One S is only really worth the upgrade if you own a 4K TV – but we recommend first-time buyers skip the original. There is one exception: the slightly improved Xbox One Elite released between the One and the One S.
- The One Elite saw a reasonable performance boost thanks to its SSHD drive, which is faster than the other console's standard HDD, but it doesn't support 4K and UHD.
- This generation of Xbox was largely thought of as the console of choice for "serious gamers". This wasn't just because of the major game releases, but also because of the wide range of independent games available in the Xbox Live Arcade. And it was well regarded because of the ease of setting up online play with friends.
- Microsoft initially supported the now defunct HD DVD disc standard (in opposition to Blu-ray) but eventually abandoned it due to lack of support for the format. This left the Xbox 360 with only DVD playback. However, the 360 has a substantial number of entertainment apps and downloadable content.
- A number of video streaming services including big names like Netflix, Stan, YouTube and smaller brands such as Crunchyroll (anime/Asian drama) are available on PS4 and Xbox One.
- The PS4 and Xbox One consoles also support free catch-up service apps like ABC iView, and TenPlay. Most can be found on both consoles, but there are a few exclusives.
- Our streaming services compared article and the Xbox and PlayStation websites provide a detailed list of what's available. Some services are available on the Wii U as well, including Netflix, but the offerings aren't quite as extensive, while the Switch hasn't launched with any services at all.
Streaming your own files
- PS4 and Xbox One also include DLNA support, which means you can stream your own digital video files to the console from devices on your home network, such as a PC or NAS drive. You can use proprietary DLNA software on the console, or third-party programs such as Plex, which have additional features.
- Alternatively, you could just plug a hard drive filled with files directly into your PS4 or Xbox One.
Video rental and buying services
- Microsoft and Sony run digital video purchase and rental services via their consoles.
- The Xbox One can also function as a basic set-top box if you buy the digital TV tuner accessory ($39.95), which brings free-to-air HD TV to the console with an inbuilt electronic program guide (EPG) similar to the one included with most digital TVs.
- Music streaming is somewhat limited. Spotify is available on all variations of the Xbox One and PS4, but Xbox owners can also access Microsoft Groove Music.
Playing games in 2D and 3D is so 2015. All the cool kids are using virtual reality headsets! Well, some of the cool kids.
- Sony is the only console company to officially jump on the VR bandwagon with PlayStation VR (see our PSVR review). A PlayStation camera and Move motion controls are required for the best experience which, with the PSVR kit, will set you back around $750 in total. This may seem like a lot, but similar headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive cost between $900 and $1400, and need a top-tier computer to run, which starts at around $2500. PSVR's graphics and performance can't compete with high-end devices, but it can provide a mid-range experience that's good enough for the average user who's interested in VR.
- Nintendo and Microsoft are keeping mum on the subject, but there are rumours around of low-cost, third-party headsets coming for the Xbox One. These are expected to be around the $300 mark.
- New release games usually sell for $69–99 on disc or via digital distribution on all major consoles.
- Independent downloadable titles usually cost up to $30.
- Digitally distributed classic games are generally about $7–15.
Modern consoles have embraced online gaming and digital distribution with open arms. In some cases, an online access fee is required. Consider these additional costs before making up your mind:
- Wii – Free
- Wii U – Free
- Switch – $5.95 per month, $11.95 for three months or $29.95 per year. Apps and downloadable games, movies etc are not locked behind this paywall, but additional fees may be incurred.
- PS3 (PlayStation Network) – Free (PlayStation Plus subscription optional, see prices below)
- PS4 (PlayStation Network) – Online play costs $27.95 for three months or $69.95 per year. Apps and downloadable games, movies etc are not locked behind this paywall, but additional fees may be incurred.
- Xbox 360/Xbox One (Xbox Live Gold) – Online play costs $33.95 for three months or $79.95 per year. Apps and downloadable games, movies etc are not locked behind this paywall, but additional fees may be incurred.
Paid subscriptions also get special discounts and free games once a month. Accessing official online stores that digitally distribute games, apps, music and movies is free.
These are the recommended retail prices for official controllers. Third-party devices and costs are not listed.
- PS4: $89.95–99.95
- Switch Joy-Con (individual, left or right): $69.95
- Switch Joy-Con (pair, left and right): $119.95
- Switch pro controller (no touchscreen): $99.95
- Wii U pro controller (no touchscreen): $69.95
- Xbox One (standard): $89.95
- Xbox One (elite): $199.95
- Xbox One-S: $89.95–99.95
Small price differences in the PS4 and One-S controllers depend on the colour. Nintendo's pro controllers are a traditional design, similar to the Xbox One devices. Xbox One controllers are compatible with the One-S and vice versa. The Xbox One Elite is a high-performance controller aimed at serious enthusiasts and professional gamers. It has improved weighting, balance, additional paddles on the base, replaceable buttons and thumbstick covers with different sizes. It's built with high-end materials and claims to offer better comfort, grip and reduced wear damage over time.
Retailers have phased out PS3 and Wii controllers. You may be able to find old stock or second-hand units in some stores or online.
Cameras and controllers that let you play games by detecting your body movements have been available for the Xbox One and PS4 since launch, but the market seems to have fallen by the wayside. The Xbox, for example, initially shipped with the motion-sensing Kinect camera, but now it's sold as an optional extra.
The PlayStation Camera V2 and Move motion controls barely warranted a mention until recently when they were integrated into the PSVR system to detect hand and body movement. You won't find many 2D non-VR motion-sensing games on either console as result.
Both cameras also add motion and voice controls that can be used to power up, turn off and navigate the console. The voice controls can be useful even though the response rate is hit and miss, but motion navigation is a bit of a gimmick which quickly loses its charm. Expect to pay around $150 for a Kinect and $90 for the PlayStation Camera V2. The first version of the PlayStation camera which launched with the PS4 is still available too, but the differences are only cosmetic, hence the same asking price.
- PS4/PS4 Pro: Replaceable 2.5 inch SATA hard drive. Capacity limit unknown. Similar to replacing a computer hard drive. Supports external hard drives as of update 4.50 (March 2017).
- Switch: Micro SD storage with 2TB capacity limit (well beyond current market cap). Recommended as one or two games will likely fill inbuilt 32GB drive.
- Xbox One: Supports external hard drives connected via USB. Some third-party companies such as Seagate sell "game drives" that look like they're optimised for Xbox, but the specs aren't all that different to a standard external HDD.
Other things to keep in mind when shopping for a console include:
Limited editions of the Xbox One, One-S and PS4 have been released over the years, usually as a tie-in with particular games or pop-culture topics such as Star Wars and Call of Duty. Unique art and start-up sounds differentiate them from the default versions, but the benefits only run skin deep for the most part (save for larger hard drives in some cases). All the other bits and pieces that make these machines go are more or less the same. Still, some of the designs look quite good, which could justify the slightly higher asking cost if you're after something a little different.
Buying in bundles
All major consoles are available in bundles that include a few games and accessories in addition to the core console. They usually vary from retailer to retailer – JB HiFi and EB Games bundles are likely to have different titles for example – so don't stop at the first option you see. While bundles have a higher base cost than buying a console on its own, they almost always wind up being much cheaper than the cost of each item combined.
Feel like playing some vintage games? Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony sell classic titles from consoles gone-by in their online stores as digital downloads. Sony also runs a cloud-based subscription service called PlayStation Now which lets you stream a selection of pre-PS4 games for a monthly fee. Microsoft is set to launch a similar service for the Xbox One/One S later this year which offers Xbox 360 games.
You can find most big-name games on PlayStation and Xbox consoles, but each company has a small range of exclusive titles that you won't find anywhere else. Halo and Forza games are only available for Xbox, while PlayStation has the Uncharted series and Horizon: Zero Dawn locked down. Neither can quite compare to Nintendo, however, which has exclusive rights to iconic games such as Zelda and Mario titles.
Most games released for Xbox One and PS4 won't make their way to the Wii U or Switch either, as Nintendo consoles don't have as much processing power and graphics grunt. This kind of puts Nintendo in a league of its own, to the point where it's not uncommon to see homes with a Nintendo console in addition to a PS4 or Xbox One.
High dynamic range (HDR)
HDR theoretically gives your console the ability to display a wider range of colours, brighter highlights and darker blacks, with increased detail across the board. This basically means that HDR-enabled games will look a lot more vibrant and dynamic if the developer has used the technology to its full potential. The Xbox One-S, PS4, PS4 Slim and PS4 Pro support HDR, but you'll only notice a difference if you have an HDR-enabled TV and the game includes an HDR-rendering option.
Optional items such as headsets, carry cases, screen protectors and charging docks are available from first- and third-party manufacturers.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.