A games console is the perfect Christmas present – it’s exciting, it’s cool and everyone can join in on the day (as long as you’ve had the foresight to sneak it out of its packaging on Christmas Eve to download the inevitable six hours of system updates). But selecting which machine to opt for is complicated and confusing, and if you get it wrong you may end up with yet another unloved gadget crammed in the cupboard where you keep the air fryer and mini candyfloss machine.
Here are some tips for harassed parents or partners who have found the words “games console” on a loved one’s Christmas list and are experiencing technophobic panic.
There are three major consoles: the Sony PlayStation 4, the Microsoft Xbox One and the Nintendo Switch. The PS4 and Xbox One are very similar in terms of technology (they’re basically mid-range PCs), providing high-end graphical performance, especially if you purchase the more expensive PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, which include full support for 4K television displays. Both machines also let you easily stream your gaming online so others can watch, if you have teens who care about that.
The Nintendo Switch is very different; it’s not as powerful as the others, so the graphics aren’t as impressive, but it comes with a built-in screen so you can plug it into your TV, or play it on the go.
Who will be using it?
Is the console primarily for young children, teenagers or adults? Or do you want something everyone can play together? If it’s the latter, the Switch is a great family option: most of Nintendo’s own games are suitable for children, they’re intuitive (which makes them great for parties where some participants aren’t gamers), but they’re also challenging enough to appeal to experienced players. However, teenagers and adults are more likely to want to play the sort of action adventure and shooter games (such as Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider and Red Dead Redemption) that don’t come to Switch. A PS4 or Xbox One may be better if you have a mature household.
What kinds of games do you like?
The Switch is for people who really like Nintendo’s own games. Although other publishers do occasionally support the console (Switch can run Fortnite and Minecraft, for example) it’s the beautiful homegrown titles, such as Super Mario, Mario Kart and The Legend of Zelda, that most Switch owners are here for. Its online store is also packed with most of the best smaller independent games of the past few years.
The PS4 and Xbox One are better options for the big blockbuster titles from companies such as Activision (Destiny, Overwatch), Electronic Arts (Fifa, Battlefield) and Capcom (Resident Evil, Street Fighter).
Although these consoles get a lot of the same titles, both also offer exclusive “first-party” games that don’t appear on other machines.
PS4 is the best option for epic narrative adventures that are fun to watch as well as play, because it offers the brilliant Uncharted series, God of War and Marvel’s Spider-Man. Sony also has a PlayStation VR virtual reality headset (sold separately).
However, if you like racing games and shooters, the Xbox One may be preferable, because you get the thrilling Forza Motorsports and Forza Horizon driving sims as well as the Halo and Gears of War space combat games.
For more background on the consoles with the best games for you or your family, explore our game reviews or the reviews aggregation site Metacritic, which lists the best games on each console (just head to the “Browse by platform” section).
Will you be playing online?
If you or your child wants to play games such as Destiny, Battlefield or Fifa with friends online, check which consoles those friends have. If you buy your daughter a PS4 and it turns out all her friends have Xbox Ones, it will be harder for her to join and chat with them in-game. Xbox One and PS4 charge monthly fees for accessing online play, but the services are very reliable and offer in-depth parental controls.
The Nintendo Switch also has an online gaming subscription, but it’s much more geared toward “local” multiplayer gaming – ie all of the players in the same room using the same TV. Are you buying a console so the whole family can, say, play together on wet Sunday afternoons? The Switch is made for that sort of scenario.
What else will you be doing?
The Switch is not for anyone planning to watch video streaming services on a console, because it doesn’t support third-party entertainment applications. But this can be a boon if it will be used by a child.
PS4 and Xbox One have access to services such as Netflix, Amazon and iPlayer, and can stream 4K movies and TV programmes in full UHD resolution (as long as the broadband connection is up to the job). However, get an Xbox One if you want to play 4K Blu-ray discs on your machine – the PS4 does not play them.
The Xbox One and PS4 also offer access to old games, but in different ways. The Xbox One will let you put your old Xbox 360 games into the drive and play them (although only a selection of games are compatible). You can also play dozens of classic Xbox titles by buying a Game Pass subscription. The PS4 does not play old PS3 discs, but it offers a subscription service, called PlayStation Now, which lets you stream and play a huge selection of favourite PlayStation titles from yesteryear.
How much do you want to spend?
Right, this is complicated. A Nintendo Switch costs around £280; an Xbox One S is around £200, an Xbox One X is £450; A PlayStation 4 is £250 and a PlayStation 4 Pro is £350. Those prices are for basic hardware packages. Spend a little more to pick up a bundle deal, which includes the console plus a game and possibly an extra controller, for roughly £50. With Black Friday approaching, it’s a good idea to see what deals retailers like Game, HMV, Argos, Amazon and supermarkets are offering.
On price alone, the Switch is a good deal, as you’re getting a console with two joypads, plus a portable games machine, all in the basic package. But the Xbox One S – at £200 – is also very good value, and if you sign up for Xbox Game Pass you’ll get access to hundreds of games too.
What if you just want to play the classics?
You don’t have to buy the current machines if all you fancy is a few hours of nostalgic button bashing. Nintendo has released two retro machines, The Mini NES (£50) and Mini SNES (£70), which both provide more than 20 built-in games, while Sony’s PlayStation Classic (£90) comes crammed with favourites from the original PlayStation. Nothing brings a family together at Christmas like Double Dragon II: The Revenge.
PlayStation 4: With impressive graphics performance, a large range of excellent exclusive titles, virtual reality capability and access to your favourite streaming video services, the PS4 is a brilliant all-rounder. It’s the best-selling console of the three for a reason.
Xbox One: With comparable performance to PS4 but a narrower selection of exclusive games, this console adds the ability to play 4K Blu-ray discs, to control your TV viewing and to connect with your PC (via the Xbox Play Anywhere feature), making it a good choice for people who want the console as a 4K media hub as well as to play games. It also has admirable accessibility support.
Nintendo Switch: Not as powerful as the other two but offers lots of its own innovative child-friendly features, including a built-in screen for playing on the bus, making it the best choice for younger families (and also time-pressed parents whose home gaming time is minimal). Plus, this is the only place you’ll be able to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – some of the greatest games of the decade.