Who Won the Console War? The Ultimate Guide to Buying the Best Gaming Console in 2021

best gaming consoles of 2020
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The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X finally arrived last year, ushering in the latest wave of the console wars. For decades, gamers have been fiercely ranking and debating the best gaming consoles, with Microsoft and Sony waging a perpetual battle to be king of the hill.

But here’s the problem this time around: Thanks to a little thing known as the Covid-19 pandemic, consoles have been in extremely short supply since launch, making it impossible for most normal humans to get their hands on one without dedicating days (or weeks) to hunting one down. This has made it hard to really tell who has the upper hand when it comes to sales and brand perception.

But even ignoring all that, when it comes to overall performance and quality, let’s get one thing out of the way right now: There is no objective standard for choosing the best video game console. That was true in the ’90s, and it’s still true today.

Chantel Keona
2 years
Cool post!

Chantel Keona
2 years
Cool post!

Sure, one console will end up winning the popularity contest, but does that automatically make it the superior gaming machine?

The PS4 handily outsold the Xbox One, but the Xbox had enough unique offerings that it’s hard to suggest that it wasn’t the better console for some people. Similarly, the Nintendo Switch, which was a late entrant into the previous generation of console wars and is severely underpowered compared to the PS4 and Xbox One, has spent the last 3.5 years outselling both consoles and produced no fewer than five of last decade’s best games.

Considering that the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are virtually identical when it comes to hardware (both run on an AMD Zen 2 CPU and RDNA 2 GPU) and the gameplay experience they offer online and off. What will differentiate the two consoles are the exclusive games they offer, and if history is any indication, both will have enough heavy hitters that favoring one console over the other is merely a matter of taste and not one of quality.

If you love Final Fantasy, God of War, The Last of Us, Spider-Man or whatever comes out of Hideo Kojima’s brain, there’s a chance you might like the PlayStation 5 more. If you’re obsessed with games like Halo, Minecraft, Doom, Fallout or Gears of War, then maybe Xbox Series X is the console you’ll enjoy more. And let’s not forget that new mainline entries for Zelda, Metroid and Bayonetta are still in the works for the Switch.

But even if you know which company flag you want to fly, there are multiple versions of every console, and they all have unique selling points when it comes to value and features. This is why, instead of trying to predict which single system will be the best gaming console for most people, we’ve put together a guide to help determine which system is best for you based on the games you love and how you like to play them. (If you end up deciding that every video game console is great and worthy of purchase in its own special way, welcome to the club.)

  

1. PlayStation 5 Digital Edition

Retailing for $399, the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition is the most accessible version of Sony’s next-generation console in terms of cost. But despite having a price tag that’s $100 less than the standard PS5, the only tradeoff here is that it doesn’t have a 4K Blu-ray drive for playing physical versions of games and movies. However, it still comes with the same custom 8-core AMD Zen 2 CPU (clocked at 3.5 GHz) and RDNA 2 GPU which produces 10.36 teraflops of pixel-pushing power, along with 16GB of GDDR6 RAM and a custom 825GB SSD that promises lightning-fast load times.

You Should Buy this if… You want the widest selection of the biggest third-party AAA games. You regularly play online with your friends.
Why: Sony has a strong portfolio of game franchises that it develops in-house, such as God of War and Spider-Man, but the real advantage for PlayStation consoles is that they almost always have the strongest lineup of third-party AAA games. The PlayStation 5 is shaping up to be no different, with Final Fantasy XVI already slated for future release as a PS5 exclusive. However, even at launch, there are plenty of exciting PS5 video games to enjoy.

But the other reason to grab a PS5 is if you do a lot of online multiplayer gaming with your friends. Cross-platform online multiplayer is still not as common as you’d expect, which means that if you own an Xbox and your friends all have the PlayStation, there are a lot of games where you won’t be able to join in. Since more people tend to buy the PlayStation than the Xbox, the safer move here would be to go with the PS5 if you’re not yet sure which gaming console your friends are likely to buy.

Playstation 5 Digital Edition - Best Gaming ConsolesCourtesy of Amazon
  

2. Xbox Series S

With the launch of the latest-gen Xbox console, Microsoft has decided to launch two different models. The Xbox Series S is the less powerful of the two, capable of up to 1800p resolution output at 60 frames per second instead of 4K, but with a $299 price tag that is the same as the three-year-old Nintendo Switch. While this doesn’t support 4K resolutions and only has 10 GB of RAM (compared to 16 in the Xbox Series X), it is still built on the same AMD Zen 2 CPU and RDNA 2 GPU that the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 use, which means that you’re still going to get all the same lighting effects and textures, just at lower resolutions (which, on a TV smaller than 75-inches, may not be as noticeable as you’d https://spy.com/wp-admin/edit.php?post_type=pagethink).

You Should Buy This If… You’re really hyped on cloud and subscription-based gaming.

Why: For more than a decade, you’ve been sold on a future vision for cloud gaming where, as long as you have a screen, a controller and an internet connection, you can load up a game on any device you want and have a no-compromises experience because the game is actually running on a remote server and being streamed to your phone. Many have attempted this and mostly failed, but with the launch of xCloud as part of Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft is close to delivering that future you’ve been waiting for. Not only do you get unlimited access to hundreds of games for $15 a month, but you can stream many of them from your Xbox, smartphone, laptop or tablet in 720p resolution without having to download anything because they’re powered by Microsoft’s cloud servers.

Assuming this all sounds amazing to you, the Xbox Series S is the best gaming console for you, since it’s $200 cheaper than buying an Xbox Series X. You can still purchase and download all the next-gen Xbox games you want for local, offline gaming, but if streaming games from the cloud is what you’re really after, you don’t need that extra power anyways. In fact, you theoretically don’t even need the power of a $300 console for xCloud to work (and we envision a future where you can access this service through a Smart TV app), but for the time being, buying an Xbox Series S is the best and easiest way to tap into this technology.

Xbox Series S - Best Gaming ConsolesCourtesy of Amazon
  

3. PlayStation 5 Standard Edition

As mentioned above, the only real difference between the PlayStation 5 Standard Edition and its digital counterpart is that the former has a 4K Blu-ray disc drive. Everything else — the CPU, GPU, RAM, SSD and graphical output — is the same.

You Should Buy This If… You can’t say no to the collector’s edition of your favorite games. You buy used games. You have slow internet.

Why: The most obvious reason for paying an extra $100 to get a PS5 with a disc drive is if you are the collector type who loves collector’s sets and physical versions of games in general. But whimsy aside, there are a couple of other, more utilitarian reasons why you might want a disc drive in your game console.

If you like to save money by purchasing used games, you’re going to need a disc drive for that. If you don’t want to bother with managing available storage space once you inevitably fill up that SSD, then having a disc drive is definitely for you. And if your home internet connection is not so quick, you might actually be able to drive to a store and purchase a game in less time than it would take you to download it. Finally, if you have a bunch of physical PS4 games that you want to revisit (or play for the first time), the PS5 is backward compatible, so you don’t have to have an extra console connected to your TV.

As an added bonus, that disc drive happens to play 4K Blu-ray movies, which should please movie snobs who can’t unsee the inferior quality of a Netflix stream.

Playstation 5 - Best Gaming ConsolesCourtesy of Amazon
  

4. Xbox Series X

If we’re talking pure specs, the Xbox Series X has everything you want from a console without many compromises. Like the PS5, this console is capable of 4K resolutions and frame rates up to 120 fps. But on paper it is the more powerful of the two consoles capable of 12 teraflops of graphical power compared to the PS5’s 10. And just like the Xbox Series S, you still have access to Xbox Game Pass, but with so much more horsepower.

You should buy this if… You want the most technically impressive machine you can get your hands on.

While the Xbox and PS5 both say that 120 fps gaming will only be supported at 1440p resolutions, some game devs already have their titles running at 120 fps and 1800p, so its possible the extra horsepower of the Xbox is being put to work here. And while it’s much too early to know how the Xbox Series X or Series X will perform with more demanding titles down the road, the beefier CPU and GPU of the Series X, along with the added RAM (16 GB vs. 10 GB), could potentially safeguard against any hiccups in performance.

Admittedly, paying a premium for some of these extra features is a risk. A more powerful GPU on paper doesn’t automatically translate to better graphics, and early games likely won’t push the Xbox Series X to its graphical limits. There also aren’t many TVs with a 120Hz refresh rate currently, which means that unless you’re planning to play on a computer monitor or an expensive 75-inch flat-screen, you might not get to take advantage of this until you buy your next TV. But, eventually, things will catch up, and while it may take some time for game developers and television makers to support all of the powerful features offered by the Xbox Series S, you’ll be ready and waiting once they do.

Xbox Series X - Best Gaming ConsolesCourtesy of Amazon
  

5. Nintendo Switch Lite

Like we stated earlier, Nintendo may won a major victory in the gaming console wars by not even attempting to compete on specs or hardware. Instead, the Japanese company focused on making fun games that anyone can enjoy. You don’t need a bunch of expensive accessories, and there are 2,000 titles available to play. Unlike the full Nintendo Switch, the Lite version of the console is handheld and designed to be played on the go. And with a super affordable price tag of just $199, it’s hard to beat the Switch Lite on price.

Buy this if… You love Mario, Tom Nook and Zelda but aren’t a hardcore gamer. If you’d rather go fishing and hang out with your friends then slaughter your enemies on the battlefield, the Switch Lite is the gaming console you want.

Why: The Switch Lite is a great option for the more casual gamer who typically plays solo during their downtime. It’s a great distraction at the end of a long day or while you’re traveling, and it was the perfect console for the quarantines of 2020. Even though it doesn’t have all the same features as the full Nintendo Switch, you can play all 2,000 titles on the Switch Lite. Plus it comes in cool colors, so there’s that.

Unfortunately, the only way co-op gaming with your friends is fun is if you can throw it up on the TV, which means that you’ll need the full-sized switch to maximize the joy of wrecking them in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

Nintendo Switch Lite Courtesy of Nintendo
  

6. Nintendo Switch

The Nintendo Switch is without a doubt the most popular gaming console of the last several years, and it has a huge appeal that spans all demographic groups. The Nintendo Switch retails for $299.99, although price gougers often sell it for closer to $400 on sites like eBay, Amazon and Walmart. However, for Switch fans, there’s nothing better than an extended gaming session with your friends. And with Nintendo’s impressive roster of characters (the entire Mario and Luigi family, Tom Nook and the Animal Crossing gang and the Zelda universe), there’s so much to love about the Switch.

Buy this if… You love Nintendo games and want to play them on your TV. You have kids and want to introduce them to the joys of gaming with co-op all-ages titles.

Why:The Nintendo Switch might be way less powerful than the last two generations of Sony and Microsoft consoles, and it might not be as cheap or portable as the Switch Lite, but we love the Switch for one simple reason: versatility. If you want to game in bed, you can do that. If you want to game on your TV, you can also do that. And because such iconic games as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are made by Nintendo, the only way you’re ever going to play them (legally) is on a Switch.

But it’s also a great console for gaming with friends IRL thanks to games like Super Mario Party, Mario Kart and Overcooked. Owning the bigger Switch means that you instantly have two controllers thanks to the split design of the Joy-cons, and if you also buy a Switch Pro Controller (which you totally should because it’s amazing) then you have three. But the only way couch co-op gaming with your friends is fun is if you can throw it up on the TV, which means that you’ll need the full-sized switch to maximize the joy of wrecking them in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

nintendo switchCourtesy of Amazon
  

7. NVIDIA GeForce Now

If you haven’t been paying close attention the last couple of years, a big shift is taking place in the gaming world. Just as video games moved from running on arcade machines to living room consoles, they’re again moving, but this time to cloud servers. While there is still no perfect cloud gaming service and they’re all works in progress to varying extents, NVIDIA’s GeForce Now is currently the best cloud gaming service due to the fact that you can stream games in 1080p on multiple platforms (mobile, PC, TV) and there’s a free-to-use subscription tier.

Buy this if… You want to stream your existing game library to other devices. You want to play Fortnite on your iPhone (it’s the only way).

Why: It’s almost impossible to get your hands on a PS5 or Xbox Series X right now. A gaming PC that can properly support the new generation of AAA games is prohibitively expensive. But with GeForce Now, you can run those same games for little more than the cost of the games themselves. The way GeForce Now works is that you must own or buy all the games you play through the service, but it links up with the Steam, Epic and UPLAY stores so that you verify that you own the PC version of the game before you install it to the GeForce Now servers. That means that you could stream games you already own on much better hardware than your own. And if the game isn’t supported by the service in the future, or GeForce Now eventually shuts down, you aren’t left with nothing to show for it.

GeForce Now Cloud Gaming ServiceCourtesy of NVIDIA
  

8. Microsoft xCloud

Offered as part of the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription, Microsoft’s xCloud is the cloud gaming service with the most long-term potential. However, whether or not it reaches its full potential all hinges on whether or not Microsoft can follow through on its promises to build the service out in the coming years. For now, xCloud is only compatible with Android devices, and because it’s only focusing on streaming to mobile devices for the time being, it streams at 720p. But the end goal for Microsoft is to have this service up and running on TVs, PCs and at 4K resolutions.

Buy this if… You want to don’t want to pay $500 for a console and want unlimited access to hundreds of games for one monthly fee.

Why: The biggest draw for xCloud is the fact that you have access to 200 games (several of which are current-gen AAA titles that can take advantage of server-grade hardware) for $15 a month. Considering you don’t have to buy a console, you could potentially save hundreds of dollars over a five to seven-year span by going this route if you’re a serious gamer. Microsoft is fully invested in pushing its cloud-based technologies forward (Windows Azure is among the biggest and best server infrastructures around), while explicitly stating that it sees cloud gaming as the future. With games such as DOOM Eternal, Control, Forza Horizon 4, The Witcher III, Nier: Automata and Dragon Quest XI S, there’s enough here already to warrant giving this service a try.

microsoft xcloud cloud gaming servicesCourtesy of Microsoft
  

9. Google Stadia

Google Stadia promised the world when it was first announced in 2019. Not only did Google pitch a vision of lag-free, 4K HDR game streaming, but it had some of the biggest game studios supporting the platform and would be deeply integrated with YouTube so that you to hop into a game with your favorite content creators and pro gamers. More than a year after its launch, about the only thing Stadia has delivered on is offering solid 4K HDR game streaming on a number of devices including phones, tablets, laptops and TVs. That in and of itself is an achievement (even if it uses a whole lot of bandwidth), but that doesn’t amount to much if the game selection is thin. Still, it has its merits.

Buy this if… You want to play a functional version of Cyberpunk 2077.

Why: Considering that Cyberpunk 2077 is barely playable on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, and with the PS5 and Xbox Series X in short supply, the best way to check out Cyberpunk 2077 as it was intended is through Google Stadia. Sure, you could buy the PC version, but unless you already have a rig with an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 card, you’re going to be spending $2500 to get the full experience. And when it comes to these services, Stadia probably has one of the smaller libraries, even if it offers Cyberpunk 2077 and a handful of other recent AAA titles. Alternatively, you can spend $9.99/month for a Stadia Pro subscription to get access to 4K HDR streaming and a handful of free games. Sure you’ll have to pay full price for Cyberpunk 2077 still, but you won’t be paying $2500.

Google Stadia cloud gaming servicesCourtesy of Google
  

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