How to pick the right game console

Video games aren’t just for kids any more! Sure, kids love ‘em, but the long-standing myth that “games aren’t for grown-ups” is very quickly put to rest by the facts. Video games are big business. Years ago, the revenue earned by video games doubled that of the movie industry, and that’s currently heading towards triple. There’s a huge audience for video games, which are only getting more impressive, boasting big-screen production values, epic stories, cinematic scenes and room-shaking audio.

A study done by Bond University last year came up with some interesting stats. The average age of a video game player is 33, and nearly half of them are female. 68% of the Australian population plays video games – a massive number that’s bolstered by the existence of modern game consoles in all their forms.

Consoles make gaming easy, regardless of the format. Just plug it into your TV and audio system, fire it up, shove a game disc in and you’re good to go. There’s no messy setup or configuration required. And as a bonus, the cost of entry can be incredibly low, as consoles are routinely sold at or near a loss by manufacturers that hope to make money off you from game sales down the track!

And we can’t leave out portables, either. While they don’t fit the traditional definition of a “console,” they’re self-contained gaming systems just like their bigger siblings (and indeed, Nintendo’s Switch is both a portable and home console – more on that shortly). If it’s built and sold primarily to play games, we’ll call it a console.

Which one to buy – and at what cost?

Exclusives

Buying a video game console is somewhat different to buying most other tech devices in one very critical way: the actual games you’ll be able to play on your shiny new purchase will depend entirely on which one you end up buying. There’s a few reasons for that, but mainly it comes down to what’s known as “exclusivity.” A console maker like Sony or Microsoft will often do deals with game publishers to keep exciting new releases exclusive to their console. On top of that, the console manufacturers also release their own games, often made by studios they’ve acquired for that very purpose.

So the first thing you want to do is think about which games hold the most interest for you. Make a list if you like – either a general list of game genres, or specific titles you’ve heard about and would be keen to play. Now, pay an online visit to a store like EB Games or JB HiFi and see which console your list skews towards.

There’s some obvious ones right off the bat. If you want to play Mario Kart or the new Zelda game, you’ll have to go for Nintendo. If you want the Forza driving games, then you’ll be eyeing off an Xbox. And if you’ve heard about the cinematic Uncharted series, Playstation’s the only place you’ll find it.

If you’ve got gamer friends and want to play with them online, you should check which console they’ve got, too. Even if a game is available across multiple different consoles, you and your friends need to be on the same one to play together.

Price

No matter which one you choose, a game console can be a sizeable investment. However, they’re great value for what you get packed into that box. Big retail chains regularly run specials on game consoles, so keep an eye on those catalogues. You should especially look out for “bundles” where you can get the console, several latest-release games and sometimes even accessories like extra controllers for a lower price.

The latest consoles – Playstation Pro, Nintendo Switch – will always cost more, but the price point of the long-standing models continues to drop. The first version of the Playstation 3 released in 2008 cost $999 in Australia – nearly $1200 in today’s money. The Playstation 4 is available for a base price of $399 and is often seen far cheaper.

Storage size

Playstation and Xbox consoles are also priced differently depending on how large their internal hard drive is – and it’s more important that you might think. Unlike previous generations, these two consoles can’t run games directly from a disc. You have to install them on the hard drive first. And with modern games regularly using 50GB or more of space, that drive can fill up very fast. You can plug an external USB hard drive into either console to get more space – and that might be a far cheaper solution. Go with the base model of a console with the smaller hard disk space, then you can add a few terabytes of extra storage yourself easily later when you need it.

Five of the best

So, you’re convinced you want in on all the fun of gaming but you’re still on the fence about which console to buy. What are each of them like to use? What features do they have? What are the key games you can play on each of them? And how much are you going to have to pay? Let’s take a look at the options – keeping in mind that in Australia, when it comes to game consoles, it’s basically a three-company race where everyone’s a winner in different ways!

Sony Playstation 4

Sony Playstation 4

Ever since it kicked off the Playstation era with its original console back in 1995, Sony dominated the game console market. Until it was knocked off the “most popular” spot when its Playstation 3 ran a distant second to Microsoft’s Xbox 360. Things have changed now – and changed big time. For the Playstation 4, Sony went back to the drawing board, working with game developers to come up with a console that would be perfect for the next generation of games. The resulting console, with its futuristic slanted black look, was a huge hit. As of March 2017 they’d sold 53 million of them, with the upgrade to a sleeker, cheaper “slim” version in 2016 boosting sales even more.

The PS4 easily has the best user interface out of all the current contenders, a sleek and sensible interactive screen that gives you fast access to your games, other apps like streaming services, your friends, your achievements and lots more. All with a soothing background-music soundtrack (and yes, the entire thing can be customised with “themes”). The interface also tightly integrates Spotify support so you can listen to your favourite tunes while you play your games.

The PS4 is indisputably the most powerful of this generation of consoles, and games available across multiple platforms tend to look and play better on this one. But the biggest selling point is the long list of PS4-only games available – Uncharted 4, The Last of Us, Persona 5, The Last Guardian, Ratchet & Clank, Nioh and the acclaimed Horizon Zero Dawn; amongst many others.

Microsoft Xbox One S

Microsoft Xbox One S

Released around the same time as the PS4 and its most direct competitor, the Xbox One got off to a shaky start with Microsoft advertising it as more of a home entertainment hub than a games console – something that they’ve been working hard to reverse ever since. Not that it’s a slouch when it comes to non-gaming activity, though. It handles streaming services flawlessly, has an in-built live TV guide and you can connect any set top box to it to enable pausing and rewinding of live TV. This “S” version of the console – much smaller, cheaper and even a little faster than the original – also fully supports 4K for streaming services and, unlike the PS4, can play Ultra HD discs as well. That makes it an extremely low-cost UHD player for your 4K TV even before we get to the games!While the game library isn’t as extensive as the PS4’s – yet – all the big multi-platform titles are here. It also offers a few key exclusives, most notably the latest blockbuster in the Forza driving game series, Forza Horizon 3, a masterpiece that also happens to be set in Australia. Xbox One also has the Gears of War series, Quantum Break and Halo Wars 2, amongst others. One feature unique to some games is a “Play Anywhere” feature which gives you a downloadable PC version of your Xbox game at no extra cost, and lets you pick up on one device where you left off on the other. This feature only applies to selected downloadable games.

Xbox One also plays a huge library of Xbox 360 games via backwards compatibility. Just stick your 360 disc in the drive and it’ll download an Xbox One version for you. That’s going to be a massive plus for anyone who’s got old 360 titles hanging around, and they can also be picked up dirt-cheap these days.

Microsoft has a new version of the Xbox One planned, code-named “Project Scorpio”. It’s set for release at the end of 2017 and is being billed as the “most powerful console ever.” But it’s a long way away for now, and the price tag is likely to be a bit more hefty than the $299 you can often pick up an Xbox One S for!

Nintendo Switch

Coming off the widely disliked Wii U, Nintendo needed to come up with a console that was going to have wide appeal and be unique. They pulled it off with the Switch, which is already so popular it can often be hard to track one down at retail stores. The cleverness of the Switch lies in its adaptability – it can be used as a standard home console plugged into a TV as you’d expect, but you can reach over and pull out the “brains” of the console and take it with you. It turns into a touchscreen gaming tablet with a 6.2-inch screen that you can take with you on the go.

Part of this cleverness is the fact that you can switch from home console to portable while a game is still running. Games seamlessly swap from 1080p resolution for your TV to 720p for tablet use without any interruption. You could literally head off to bed and take your in-progress game with you! Battery life in portable mode isn’t great – around two hours – but it’s enough to give you a solid portable session while you travel, with the ability to charge on the go via USB-C accessories.

Games-wise, with only a few months under its belt the Switch is yet to see a huge range of titles, but it’s already got two of the year’s most acclaimed games – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, both Nintendo exclusives that you’ll never see anywhere else. Switch games bought at retail don’t come on discs. They come on tiny “Cartridges” that look a look like the SD cards you might use for your digital camera. That means no installing, and extremely fast game loading.

Sony Playstation 4 Pro

The most recent revision of the PS4 comes in the form of its “Pro” version, which adds a good amount of weight and height to the form factor of the slim version, and uses it for extra cooling with a much larger fan. And the extra cooling is needed – the Pro version runs substantially faster and includes an upgraded graphics chip that can go above and beyond what the standard PS4 is capable of – including gaming at 4K. Many 4K games have already been released for the Pro, and they often take advantage of the extra power to provide better graphics for 1080p users as well. In addition, you can smooth the performance of your existing PS4 games by using the “Boost” mode included with the Pro.

With the Pro coming in at a not-at-all-cheap $560, is it worth it? Well, if you have a 4K TV it very likely is. Though, bear in mind that unlike the Xbox One S, the PS4 Pro cannot play Ultra HD discs, only stream 4K video. If you’re like the majority still using a 1080p HDTV, the benefits won’t be as apparent. However, the extra graphical niceness on some titles is great, and the entire system runs noticeably faster. If you are buying your first PS4, then the Pro version might be a good choice. But is it worth upgrading from an existing PS4? Probably not.

New Nintendo 3DS XL

New Nintendo 3DS XL

Photo: Nintendo

It’s not actually that “new” any more (still newer than the PS4 and Xbox One), but this latest version of Nintendo’s classic dual-screen handheld game console is still the portable device to beat when it comes to popularity. Not to mention its absolutely massive library of games (did someone say Pokemon?). With dual LCD screens that are able to provide effortless 3D in games using a special eye-tracking feature and expanded controls including a handy built-in stick, the New 3DS XL (yes, “New” is part of the name) is an incredible piece of tiny tech that’s been tried and tested by gamers of all ages. It can even record and play back 3D video. It’s also pretty affordable – the 3DS XL comes in at $249 (usually with a game or two thrown in) while the newly-released budget version, the New 2DS XL, retains all except the 3D support and sells for $199.

Which one to buy?

What you’ve got across this range of current game consoles is a solid coverage of pretty much anything you could want for not only gaming, but for general home entertainment such as movie and music as well.

If your primary goal is to play games – as it should be – then you’ll want to pick the system that supports the ones you want to be playing. PS4 has the larger game library, the best user experience and the fastest consoles (for now). Meanwhile, Xbox One offers great value, UHD movie playback and Windows 10 compatibility. Nintendo’s consoles speak for themselves – if you want the many Nintendo-only games out there, you’re going to have to go with the Switch and 3DS!

One thing’s for sure – there’s never been a better time to jump into the world of game consoles, where you’re in for a ton of fun and entertainment no matter which you decide on.

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