The expert's view
Shopping for one of the best games consoles initially seems simple. There are only three to choose from, right?
Not so. There are three Xbox Ones, three PS4s and a Switch. And there are a few choices outside the main names too.
UPDATED: The PlayStation 4 has had slightly lower than anticipated sales recently, according to Sony. The company has revised its anticipated sales figure from 16 million to 15 million sales. Why is this? Sony doesn't give a reason but maybe it's due to the PS5 getting closer to a reality? And while the Nintendo Switch is currently doing great guns for Ninty, there is a new version coming out soon - this one improves on battery life, which is something that is definitely needed. There is also a Nintendo Lite version of the console, which is purely a handheld device.
For the true console newcomer, Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s are traditional home consoles. The Switch is a bit of a hybrid. You can plug it into a TV, or use it as a handheld. As its controllers are wireless you can even prop the Switch screen up with its built-in kickstand and use it on a train table, two people playing at the same time.
Alternatives to the big names include mini “retro” consoles that became popular a couple of years ago and Android-based boxes. We'll look at whether they are worth considering.
Want the short version? For families and those with barely enough time to play games, the Nintendo Switch is the obvious choice. It has the easiest parental controls, its best games are suitable for a wide age range and you can happily use it in five-minute chunks.
Hardcore gamers should choose out the Xbox One X. It's the most powerful home console by some margin, and has a 4K Blu-ray drive as a sweetener. The Standard PlayStation 4 is a happy middle-ground. It costs less than either, and has the best line-up of exclusive games if you are not a Nintendo die-hard.
The Nintendo Switch has become more popular than we could have imagined. And it's not just thanks to the enduring appeal of Nintendo's games. The Switch is the only console we regularly find time to play when busy.
Microsoft's most powerful console is the techy's choice. It flattens everything else out there for sheer power, and suits a high-quality 4K TV better than any other.
Sony's standard PS4 is our pick for those who want a reliable traditional home console that doesn't cost as much as the turbo-charged models you can buy today. Its game line-up is brilliant, and the interface is easier to tackle than Microsoft's.
The shortlist: best game console
1. Nintendo Switch
It’s a portable. It’s a home console. It has all of Nintendo’s most-loved franchises on-board. This is the obvious choice for 90s kids and those with families. And we actually like it more as a portable than a home unit.
However, despite seeming like the most accessible console available, it’s not the deal-hunter’s choice. Its price hasn’t changed much since launch, the most desirable games are still expensive years after release and there’s no great back catalogue of classic cheapies to dig into.
2. Sony PlayStation 4 500GB
This is the base version of Sony’s console. Buy this if you want an affordable console and prefer Sony’s exclusive games to Microsoft’s.
You can also use Sony’s virtual reality headset with this console. It’s called PSVR. We recommend paying slightly more for the 1TB version if you think you’ll download or buy a lot of games. Modern high profile titles use a lot of space even if you have the disc version.
3. Xbox One X
This is the most powerful of all the games consoles, and the best fit for a high-end 4K TV with HDR. Some games appear sharper than the PS4 Pro’s, you’ll see a little less judder in tough titles like Red Dead Redemption 2. There’s not much in it, but for hardcore crowd, a little can mean a lot.
The Xbox One X also has a UHD (4K) Blu-ray drive, a brilliant extra for those with a great home cinema setup. This is a real both barrels games console.
4. Xbox One S 1TB All-Digital Edition Console
Microsoft has made a version of the Xbox without a disc drive. That may sound sensible given physical media may soon be part of the past. But it’s usually not much cheaper than the disc drive version, and means you can’t pick-up the bundles of great older games second-hand.
5. SNES Classic Mini
Mini versions of classic consoles have become very popular over the last couple of years. They don’t use cartridges, but come with a whole stack of games pre-loaded. The tech-savvy have found ways to add more, but you can’t officially do so, or buy any new titles.
The SNES Classic Mini is our favourite, but at the time of writing its price has risen almost to Xbox One S level. And we’d much rather have an Xbox.
6. Xbox One S 1TB
The Xbox One S was actually a redesign of the Xbox One S. But the flavour of the original is still very much the same.
This is an affordable console, often selling at a price similar to the PS4 with half the storage. It has a UHD Blu-ray player too. You could easily pay this much just for just a disc spinner.
7. PlayStation 4 Pro
This is the turbo-charged version of the PS4. It is more powerful, made to satisfy 4K TV owners wondering why their games console is still stuck at “Full HD”.
It has a club sandwich-style triple decker design and has a 1TB hard drive as standard. Graphics tend to look slightly better than those of the PS4, but it varies game-by-game. However, the PS4 Pro isn’t as punchy as the Xbox One X, and does not have a 4K Blu-ray drive.
8. Nvidia Shield TV
Is this a games console? We think so. You get a gamepad in the box, and it can play stacks of titles.
The accessible games are those made for Android. But Gameloft’s Asphalt 8 feels completely different with a gamepad, on a big screen, to the phone experience. This is one to consider if you want a media box that can also play games.
How we chose the best games consoles to test
We test all sorts at Shortlist, from tents to the best food processors. Choosing game consoles to test is pretty easy, as there are not that many of them.
There are two major versions of Microsoft’s Xbox, two main PS4s. And Nintendo has the Switch. We’ve used all of them.
We haven’t included pure portable games consoles, as the important models are either discontinued or on their way out. Sony’s PS Vita has been wound-down. And while Nintendo’s 3DS consoles were a huge success, you can now only buy the 2D Nintendo 2DS and New Nintendo 2DS XL.
Why? Almost no new games are released for the 3DS/2DS at this point. If a classic handheld is what you want, we still recommend a 2DS. Its games library is excellent, packed with classics you can still buy, new or second hand.
We will also check out a few other options at the end of this test, the Android-based Nvidia Shield TV and the popular Nintendo SNES Classic Mini. One is a set-top box that comes with a gamepad. The other is the best of the recent wave of mini “retro” consoles.
Can either really replace an Xbox One or PS4? We’ll find out.
How we tested the best games consoles
We’re big gaming fans at Shortlist. We have used the Sony PS4 since shortly after its release in 2013, and the Xbox One for around four years. The Switch? Around a year. We’ve had a Nintendo SNES Classic Mini since its launch and the Nvidia Shield TV since mid-2018.
We can tell you what it’s like to live with these consoles, and what tastes they suit.
The meat of the testing comes in breaking out of the way we used these games consoles every week, to see what else they can do. If you have a young child keen on gaming, how much control do these systems give you? We’ll find out.
To do this we setup an account just as you would for your own child, and tested the parental controls on offer. You don’t want your kids to see, or hear, something they shouldn’t.
We’re also interested in the real cost of a games console when you factor in any accessories and games you’ll need to buy as well.
Some of those accessories can also seriously add to a console. We’ve tried a Nintendo Labo creation kit, Sony's PSVR virtual reality headset, and all the popular racing wheels to see whether they should figure in your decision.
Media is one of the biggest concerns too, as these days we use games consoles to stream video more often than play games. All of the included game consoles bar the SNES Classic Mini support at least one streaming service.
This is particularly important if the smart features on your TV aren’t all that up-to-date, or feel a bit slow in use. Really lean on your game console for media and you may end up using your TV as a dumb screen and nothing more.
Games console reviews: games and exclusives
These numbers do not get to the crux of which game library will be better for you. Nintendo’s first-party games are the main, and for some single, appeal of the Nintendo Switch.
You can play Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey and Mark Kart on Switch, and they will never come to the other consoles. These games have a cross-generational appeal virtually no Xbox or PS4 games can match.
They are suitable for fairly young children. Adults love them too, and not just those who grew up with the characters in decades past.
Switch exclusives are bright, colourful, and often suitable for younger players
The Xbox and PS4 offer more titles made by third-party companies, for several reasons. These console were released several years before the Switch, and as Nintendo’s console is less powerful than the others, older games have to be significantly re-tooled to work on Switch.
Grand Theft Auto V is available for PS4 and Xbox One, for example, but not the Switch. Even new games often don’t make it to Nintendo’s console. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Resident Evil 2 did not.
You also have a much wider choice of high-quality, low-cost games for PS4 and Xbox One. And those remade for Switch often come at a premium. The massive open-world fantasy game Skyrim costs £14.99 for PS4 on Amazon right now, but it’s £49.99 for Switch.
Head to a shop that sells second-hand games like Game of CeX and you’ll find mountains of cheap used Xbox One and PS4 games. But even the less popular Nintendo Switches ones are still relatively pricey. This is also why we don't recommend the "digital only" version of the Xbox One, as you can't play games on disc.
Before buying a Switch, check out our best Switch games feature to make sure there’s enough to keep you happy. We should stress: many of Nintendo’s own games are incredible, and the ability to play them on-the-go is brilliant for those without much spare time.
Keen on the idea of the PS4 and Xbox One’s abundance of titles? Exclusives make the difference here.
PS4 exclusives: brilliant, but there's a lot of brown in that palette, and they tend to suit older players
Sony’s are stronger. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Gran Turismo Sport, God of War and Uncharted 4 are not available for Xbox. And they are some of the most celebrated games of this generation. Check out the best PS4 exclusives.
Microsoft’s Xbox One exclusives are less plentiful, and fewer of them make it onto our must-play list. Top picks include Forza Horizon 4 and Gears of War 4.
The most popular Microsoft exclusive series through the Xbox console generations is Halo. But it is not as popular as it once was and the next Halo game will also be release for Microsoft’s next console. It’s called Scarlett and is planned for a 2020 release.
Xbox exclusives are often less high-profile than PS4 ones, but there are a few less "adult only" titles
Who are the winners and losers? The PS4 has the best classic home console line-up. Nintendo’s Switch has the most charm-filled exclusives, but there’s not much for bargain hunters there.
Games console reviews: Game subscription services
The Sony PS4 and Xbox One also a Netflix-like service for games. Sony’s is called PlayStation Now. It costs £12.99 a month and lets you stream more than 750 games over your home internet. Not all of these are from the PS4 generation. PS3 and PS2 games are a big part of the library too.
Microsoft’s subscription service is called Game Pass. It costs £7.99 a month, significantly cheaper, but you get access to fewer games, 331 at the time of writing. You could easily solely use these services, and never buy a digital download or disc.
We much prefer Microsoft Game Pass, because it does not use streaming. You download and install games just as you would if you bought them from the digital store.
PlayStation Now does use streaming, where your home internet carries the video signal. This introduces some lag, a delay between your gamepad presses and the on-screen reaction, and it degrades the visuals a bit.
With either service, games can come and go, so you may want to buy favourites you’ll play month after month.
Games console reviews: online membership services
All three console platforms offer another kind of subscription.
You need this subscription to take part in online play, and these subs come with additional perks. Nintendo's is the cheapest at £17.99 a year, or £31.49 for a family of up to eight accounts.
It's called Nintendo Switch Online. You don't need it for multi-player on the one screen, just any that pit you against other players online.
And the perks? Nintendo Online gives you access to a library of NES oldies, games from the late 80s and early 90s. You also need it to play the free-to-download Tetris 99, which made it into our best Switch gamesfeature. It's brilliant.
PlayStation Plus is the Sony PS4's main subscription. Again, you need it for online multi-player.
Two games are made available to PS Plus members each month too. This usually includes a high-profile game that might have shot straight to the no. 1 sales spot when it was released, and a quirky indie title.
Add these to your library and you're free to re-download and play them as long as you have a PlayStation Plus subscription. Stop your subscription and you'll lose access to them. It costs £49.99 a year.
Microsoft's Xbox Live Gold is similar. It's £49.99 a year, and grants you access to multiplayer, special store discounts and different games every month through the Games with Gold perk. This usually consists of two Xbox 360 games and two Xbox One games, if not always ones as high-profile as Sony lays out.
Family and Parental Controls
We won’t mess about here. If you want to buy a game console for the whole family, including some pre-teen kids, a Nintendo Switch is the best choice.
All three lead platforms actually offer great parental controls, but you’ll feel safest with the Switch. Why?
There’s an iOS and Android app that lets you set play time limits, times of the day play is allowed. And you can see what has been played, and what is being played. It’s all so breezy and simple on Switch.
Even if you don’t use the app, you can block unsuitable games (all have an age rating) and online communication. That’s a good idea if younger kids will play online.
Any restrictions you set apply across the console, but you can enter a pin to lift them when you play. There’s another pleasant surprise too.
The Nintendo Switch is the best console for busy parents, as it’s the one you’re most likely to be able to find the time to play. You don’t have to deliberately set aside hours. Keep the Joy-cons attached and you can simply pick it up when you have a spare five minutes. Or fire it up when the rest of the family are watching something on TV you don’t fancy.
You could play it in the bath (if you’re careful, as the Switch is not water resistant) or while on the way to work.
What restrictions can you put on an Xbox One or PS4? Plenty, although we do find them more fiddly to apply.
On Xbox One, you need to create a Family Group, used to manage access across Microsoft accounts, not just the console. You can set the times the console can be used, time limits and apply an age restriction for each of your kids.
You can do the same on PS4, and again the controls are linked to the account your kids use to sign in, not across the whole console. Both of them also let you restrict or block internet browsing, limit spend or buying power.
The PS4 also lets you stop your kids using the PSVR virtual reality headset. It’s not recommended for under-12s.
Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft have all paid a lot of attention to parental controls. However Nintendo’s simply feel the simplest and friendliest. They are clean, clear and easy. The other consoles require a little more figuring out.
Games console reviews: movies and TV
A game console makes a superb media machine. They are almost invariably faster than a TV's smart system, and you often get more apps too.
All this applies to the PS4 and Xbox One. They are fantastic general entertainment boxes. But the Switch? Not so much.
It has YouTube, and that's it.
The Xbox One and PS4 combined cover all the UK catch-up services for terrestrial TV, the popular video streaming services and more. Each has just a few gaps.
There's no ITV Hub for the PS4, so no Love Island. And no Shudder, which is Amazon's horror movie (and TV) streaming service. The Xbox One does not offer MUBI, a cineaste Netflix alternative, because it is owned by Sony.
PS4 will play standard Blu-rays, but not 4K ones. 4K Blu-rays are not terrifically popular, but those who care enough about image quality to prefer physical media over streaming should take note.
Only Xboxes have Dolby Atmos decoding too. This is an audio format with extra-clever positional audio. A PS4 can only pass through this signal to a home cinema receiver that can handle Atmos (and that requires a little tech know-how).
You need a PS4 Pro to stream Netflix in 4K on the Sony side too. The standard PS4 is capped at 1080p (Full HD). The Xbox One S and One X can both handle Netflix at 4K resolution.
The Xbox One S and Xbox One X are out in front for home video, by some distance. And the Nintendo Switch is miles behind either, which is a shame when it would make a great portable video player given the abillity to download programmes for offline viewing.
The rankings are almost reversed for accessories and add-ons that can make these consoles more fun to use. Nintendo's Switch has Labo. The PS4 has PSVR. And the Xbox One S/X? Nothing exclusive of note. Microsoft used to make an augmented reality camera bar called Kinect, which hooked onto your TV, but this was discontinued in early 2018.
Labo is the Lego of game console accessories. Nintendo currently sells four Labo kits that let you turn the Switch into a robot, a musical instrument, a VR helmet and more. They are a great way to have some creative family fun time with a game console, as you construct Labo kits out of cardboard, rubberbands and other lo-fi bits and bobs.
These creations then link with apps and games you get with the kit.
Nintendo's Labo Variety pack lets you make all these things: the keyboard is our favourite
The fun of making, and engaging your brain, is the main appeal of Labo. You're not going to learn to play the piano with a Labo cardboard keyboard, and the VR quality of the headset is pretty poor. But it's some of the most fun you'll have with a Switch regardless.
PSVR is the main extra on the Sony PS4 side. This is a virtual reality headset you simply plug into your PS4. We've tried all sorts of games and apps on it, and think it is one of the most accessible ways to try out high-quality VR. Its image isn't as sharp or detailed as that of HTC Vive or Oculus RIft, but there's a similar wow factor in store for those who haven't tried VR yet. And the game library is surprisingly strong.
Related: Best PSVR games
Big, ambitious games like Resident Evil 7, Skyrim, Gran Turismo Sport and Doom all support PSVR. However, we recommend starting with one of the titles made specifically for VR, like Job Simulator or the wonderful Astro Bot: Rescue Mission.
There's another often-forgotten accessory: the racing wheel. We published a whole article on the best racing wheels for Xbox One and PS4.
These offer a very immersive, realistic racing experience in games that take car handling more seriously, like the PS4's GT Sport or Assetto Corsa (Xbox One/PS4). The wheels use force feedback, where a motor emulates the forces you'd feel in a real car.
You won't find these sort Nintendo Switch, just silly plastic rings in which you put a Joy-Con. They only benefit fluffy arcade racers like Mario Kart.
Best games console for enthusiasts
Xbox One X review
The PS4 has outsold the Xbox One by a huge margin. But we have to hand the Xbox One X the win for the hardcore crowd.
It is easily the most powerful console, with almost an additional 50% grunt over the PS4 Pro. In practice the Xbox One X often makes games look sharper. The difference isn’t huge, but may be worth the extra expense if you have a large 4K TV.
The Xbox One X also streams video at 4K, through services like Netflix. Microsoft uses a clever vapour chamber cooling system that makes it less noisy under pressure than the rival PS4 Pro.
It has more hardware in another respect too. You get a UHD Blu-ray drive here, not seen in any PlayStation console. You need one of these to play 4K Blu-ray discs. A relatively small percentage of Xbox owners actually buy “these next-gen DVDs”, but they do offer significantly better image quality than 4K streams. The difference is usually most noticeable in dark scenes.
Like the bump up in graphical fidelity, you’ll need a good TV to benefit from the boost.
There are stacks of fantastic games for the Xbox One X. Its exclusives don’t match up to the Switch’s or PS4’s. And maybe that matters, but that’s for you to decide.
The Xbox One X (and S) also have the best game subscription service, though. Xbox Game Pass costs £7.99 a month and offers hundreds of games with zero compromise to the visuals or overall experience.
Best games console for families
Nintendo Switch review
The Nintendo Switch is easily the most wholesome of the games consoles. The Xbox One and PS4 have great parental controls, but the Switch is a cut above because its online system is made from the ground up with children in mind.
Start playing a multiplayer game on PS4 or Xbox One with audio switched on and you may well hear swearing and racial slurs within 30 seconds. There’s much less of that with Switch Online.
The games themselves demonstrate this effect too. Sure, there are plenty of family friendly titles for the other consoles. But the best, most desirable Switch games have a cross-generational suitability. Your kids are much less likely to badger you to buy a game you are not sure they should play.
There’s another side to the Switch’s family friendliness, one it took us a few months to appreciate. If your life is 95% packed with work, family duties and general admin, the Nintendo Switch is likely the only console you’ll find time to play as a parent. It's the best console for busy, time-starved people, full-stop.
You can sneak in a quick 15 minutes while cooking dinner. Five minutes on the toilet? Why not? The Nintendo Switch is also a dream for the work commute. And this doubles as a way to keep the console out of your kids' hands after school if you want to keep their gaming to weekends only.
The Switch earns more points as the only console that comes with everything you need for “couch co-op”, where the people playing are all in the same room. Each half of its Joy-con controller acts as a pad by itself when you load-up a two-player mode and turn the controller on its side.
Open up the kickstand and two can play Mario Kart, even while on the train. The Xbox One and PS4 only come with a single gamepad, and official ones cost around £40. Games for those consoles also focus hugely on online multiplayer rather than “local” multiplayer.
You can use a Nintendo Switch for family bonding time. It even starts to seem full-on educational when you add one of the Nintendo’s Labo construction kits.
Assuming you don’t care too much about the graphical drop-off of the lower-power Switch, and the relative lack of high-profile adult games, ongoing cost is the only issue. Games are quite expensive. You can buy enough well-reviewed Xbox and PS4 second hand games to keep your going for a year for £20. Not so here.
Best games console: all-rounder
Sony PlayStation 4review (500GB/1TB)
If you want a traditional home console at a lower, buy a Sony PlayStation 4. On paper is may seem a worse deal than the Xbox One S. It often costs a little more, even when you get a 1TB hard drive with the Xbox. And that box has a 4K Blu-ray player drive, missing from all versions of the PS4. However, this is only really of interest to those who consider home cinema a hobby.
The PS4 has the edge because it has better games than the Xbox One S, and is more powerful. Some games look sharper on PS4, others have more objects in each scene. Play Grand Theft Auto V, for example, and you’ll see more foliage in the PlayStation version. Does it matter? Not to most people, but there other gaming advantages.
Exclusives like Horizon: Zero Dawn, God of War and The Last of Us flatten what Microsoft offers in our opinion. And you simply get far more exclusives than with an Xbox.
Of course, if all you want to do is play games and aren’t too fussed about the exclusives on offer (most games come out for Xbox and PS4), there’s nothing wrong with choosing an Xbox One S.
There are a few other features that tip it over too. We prefer the interface of the PlayStation 4. It’s clean and simple, where the Xbox “Dashboard” software can seem like a bit of a labyrinth.
You also get the option of PSVR, Sony’s virtual reality headset. It may not be the finest VR helmet in the land, but it is cheaper than the other high-end choices and the game library is surprisingly great. It’s in a completely different league to the VR headsets a phone slots into, which some of you may have tried.
Want a top tip? We suggest buying the 1TB version of the PlayStation 4 if you can afford the extra. Game installs eat up 500GB quite quickly. The popular Red Dead Redemption 2 takes up around 100GB on its own. Ouch.
One to avoid
The Xbox One S All-Digital Edition is the only variant of the high-profile game consoles we suggest you avoid.
From one perspective, it makes sense. We're all moving towards using downloaded games rather than physical media, and this removes one piece of hardware that might go wrong in a few years.
However the All-Digital Edition is often barely any cheaper than the standard Xbox One S. And it means you lose out on a couple of Xbox highlights.
It won't, of course, be able to play 4K Blu-rays. Or normal Blu-rays. Or DVDs, or even CDs. Most of you won't want to do this often, but at the very least a game console makes a good emergency player for your old music CDs.
The real sting for deal hunters like us is that you can't play second-hand games. This is the best way to build up a game collection without spending much money, as you can find many great games for just a few pounds on eBay or on the high street. You're stuck with digital downloads with an All-Digital Edition Xbox One S, and they tend to cost more.
Best games console reviews: Alternatives
We’ve included two alternative game consoles. They offer something completely different to the big three platforms.
Our first is another Nintendo option, the SNES Classic Mini. This is an official retro re-release of the SNES console, with 21 games pre-loaded and two gamepads that feel a lot like the originals from the 90s.
Two people can huddle around the TV, and play some of the best games from almost three decades ago. And you don’t have to worry about spending any more money on games. You can’t, in fact. There’s no official way to add to the game library (although people have found out ways to “hack” more games onto the SNES Classic Mini).
There’s no online functionality at all, so you don’t have to worry about the kids getting up to something untoward with other players online. It costs a lot less than the other consoles too.
The problem lies at the root of the appeal. All the SNES Classic Mini’s games are old. Some of them hold up very well, like Mario Kart, but you may get bored of others within 10 minutes. Games have improved a lot in 30 years. If you have a child who wants to play Fortnite or Minecraft, they are unlikely to be too impressed with a SNES Classic Mini.
Most of the retro consoles have the same benefits and problems. These include the NES Classic Mini, NEOGEO Mini and (weakest of the lot) the PlayStation Classic. If you're into consoles as nostalgia, read our article on the best retro consoles.
Nvidia’s Shield TV is another console-a-like you may want to consider. It’s a set-top box that runs Android TV, a version of the software seen in phones, tweaked to look and feel better when controlled by a TV-style remote.
You can buy the Shield TV with a bundled gamepad. It is similar to the Xbox One pad, if not quite as good.
Most of the games available to the Shield TV are the same as those you’d play on your phone. However, Nvidia has worked with developers to bring over a few extra-special titles just for Shield TV. These include critically acclaimed puzzler The Witness, Tomb Raider, Half-Life 2, Doom 3, Resident Evil 5 and Portal.
All of these (apart from the more recent The Witness) are quite old, but they were big budget blockbusters on release. And a few of them are all-time classics.
The Shield TV can also use GeForce Now. This is a game streaming service that lets you play stacks of amazing PC games that you own on game store Steam.
The problem? You can get an Xbox or PS4 for only slightly more than a Shield TV. So you need to appreciate the box’s specific skills too.
It has Google Assistant, which you can talk to using the remote. There’s a mic on it. The Shield TV also lets you install and run loads more apps than any game console. What do you want a set-top box to do, though?
Now the traditional game consoles have both some form of game subscription service (apart from the Switch of course), we find it hard to recommend a Shield TV over an Xbox or PS4 to many, impressive as it is.