With every major retailer offering huge discounts on consoles this holiday season, you might be wondering if it’s time to break the bank and get a current-gen console.
The PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One have both been resounding successes since they came out in 2013, while the Wii U lags behind in sales. But don’t write it off just yet.
Here’s what you need to know about the current Big Three consoles, so that you can pick the right one for your household.
The PlayStation 4 was released in North America in 2013. If you believe in the “console wars,” then so far PlayStation has been the winner, at least as far as the numbers game is concerned.
It costs $349.99 and comes with a wireless DualShock 4 controller. The DualShock 4 is a little different from other controllers. It has a light bar on the back that changes colors depending on what game you’re playing, and in some multiplayer games it will reflect the color of your character. Media Molecule’s Tearaway Unfolded uses the light bar as an extension of the controller’s ability, letting you “shine” it into the TV and see it in the game.
The DualShock 4 also has a large, rectangular center button called the touchpad, which is both a touch surface and a button. You can use the touchpad to type and scroll in certain apps.
The controller connects to the PS4 via Bluetooth. It charges with a USB cable when the PS4 is powered on and the controller is connected. It has a gyroscope and accelerometer (i.e., it can sense angles and speed), and a rumble pack. You can hook a headset or headphones up to the controller, and it also has a small speaker.
My favorite thing about the DualShock 4 is how easy it is to take screencaps and share them. When you press the DualShock 4’s “Share” button, your game will be paused and the moment captured. You can choose to save the screencap or a short video of your past 15 minutes of gameplay with the press of a button, allowing you to return quickly to the game. You can also choose to share your capture to social networks like Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube directly from that screen. Pressing “Share” will allow you to start a Twitch stream of your gameplay, and you can toggle chat so that it’s visible on your TV screen while you play.
The only downside to the DualShock 4 so far is that the rubber covering of the joysticks is prone to rub off under prolonged use. Polygon has a tutorial for fixing it, but it involves taking the whole controller apart. I’ve chosen not to fix mine, and so far it hasn’t been a huge problem. Like I said, one controller comes with the console. Additional controllers cost $49.99.
That’s enough about the controller. What about the console itself?
The PlayStation 4 is sleek and angular, with no visible buttons to speak of. But they’re there—just two of them, on the front, disguised as light bars. One button to turn on the system (which you can also do from your controller, so I rarely press it), and the other to eject discs. The box can rest flat or stand up on its side.
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are virtually identical when it comes to what’s inside them. I’m not going to break down all the nitty-gritty details for you, but you can learn more about it in this write-up from Extreme Tech.
With a PlayStation 4 you can play virtually any new game coming out, with the exception of licensed console exclusives like Halo or any of Nintendo’s flagship franchises. But PlayStation has its own exclusives. Developers like Naughty Dog and Sucker Punch Productions make games exclusively for Sony consoles. So if you want to play The Last of Us, the Uncharted series, or the inFAMOUS series, PlayStation is the console to get. On the more family-friendly side, Media Molecule’s Tearaway Unfolded is exclusive to PlayStation 4, as is the platformer LittleBigPlanet 3.
Outside of games, the PlayStation 4 has all the media streaming apps you could want. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, Crunchyroll, etc. are all on the PlayStation 4. You can use these without a PlayStation Plus subscription; obviously if you want to watch Netflix, you still need to be a Netflix subscriber.
If you want to play games online, though, you do need the PS+ subscription, and it costs $49.99 a year. With PS+ you also get free monthly games to download from the PlayStation Store. It’s an awesome way to find new gaming gems, and it’s also an awesome way to fill up your hard drive fast. The PS4 comes with a 500GB hard drive. Games like Destiny take up 40GB of space, even if you buy them on a disc. Jenna Pitcher at IGN found that you can put about a dozen of these big-name AAA games on the PS4.
To put it in perspective, my console is butting up against that 500GB limit. I’m rushing to finish games like Life is Strange or Tales From the Borderlands, just so I can uninstall them and free up an additional 10GB of space wherever I can. It’s a nuisance, and we’re seriously considering buying a 1TB hard drive and following Sony’s instructions for installing it. When even cheap laptops come with a 1TB hard drive, it’s hard to understand why a top-tier console doesn’t.
Sony is selling a 1TB PlayStation 4 in Europe, and you can buy refurbished 2TB PS4s at Gamestop. Hopefully Sony will bring the 1TB model to North America, but currently the only way to get it directly from Sony is through this bundle with Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
If you want to store a lot of game-capture footage on your system, spring for the bigger hard drive, or just be diligent about off-loading your videos often. Since the PS4 captures video in 15-minute HD chunks, it can take up a lot of space.
Other bundles you should consider: Sony offers a 500GB PS4 with two controllers. Playing couch co-op is awesome, and I guarantee if you get a PS4 you’ll be wanting that second controller eventually. There are also single-controller 500GB bundles for Destiny: The Taken King, Star Wars Battlefront, and Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. Any of these would be an awesome choice for the holiday season, especially since the game is right there in the box. The only thing you’re sacrificing is that bigger hard drive, which again is only available with Black Ops III or as a refurbished model through GameStop.
The future looks pretty solid for the PlayStation 4. It has a good library of games, with more on the way. Sony is developing its own VR headset, called PlayStation VR. That’s scheduled to come out in the first half of 2016.
Despite the limited storage, I don’t regret choosing the PlayStation 4 as my primary console. I use it every day, whether to stream television (we cancelled our cable subscription and just use the PS4’s streaming services) or to play video games. I wish I could play games like Sunset Overdrive, which is an Xbox One exclusive, but that doesn’t exactly keep me awake at night. If you like what you’ve read about the PS4, compare its game library to the other consoles you’re considering and let the chips fall where they may.
- It has exclusive games from developers like Media Molecule and Naughty Dog.
- The DualShock 4 is one of the most ergonomically pleasing controllers.
- You get access to Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and Crunchyroll.
- It can double as a Blu-ray and DVD player.
- It lets you play on the PlayStation Vita instead of the TV.
- No batteries are needed for the DualShock 4.
- First-party virtual reality is on the way with PlayStation VR.
- There’s no backwards compatibility.
- PS Plus costs $49.99 per year.
- Games are installed directly onto the hard drive, and take up a lot of space—even if you have a disc.
- Upgrading to a bigger hard drive is complicated; 1TB models only come in bundles.
- Sony’s customer support is not great.
Nintendo’s Wii U is the oldest console on this list. (It came out in November 2012.) Despite having a whole year’s head start on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it has never been able to come near their sales numbers. However, don’t let that make up your mind for you. The Wii U has a lot to offer. (Plus, it’s cheaper.)
First up, the second screen. The Wii U’s primary controller is called the GamePad, and as you can see above, it has a little touch screen embedded. The GamePad looks a little weird at first, but I love it. I find the GamePad to be super comfortable to hold, and it has a lot of great features built in besides the screen, like a front-facing camera, a microphone, a headphone jack, a rumble pack, an NFC reader (for smart toys like amiibos), and even a TV remote. Plus, it’s very easy to charge and comes with a charging stand.
The screen itself is not very high-resolution—it’s got nothing on your iPhone, for instance—but its presence has allowed for some seriously cool game design. For example, in Nintendo Land, you can play minigames where the player holding the GamePad sees a different version of the map than the players who are using the TV. Art Academy: Home Studio allows players to use the second screen as an artist’s canvas. Many games use the GamePad’s screen to display area maps at all times without forcing the player to go to a pause-screen menu. Some other games, like Mario Kart 8, only require one screen, so you can play on the GamePad while someone else watches a movie on TV. I also love this because my eyes get tired after working on a computer all day, and I can take off my glasses and hold the GamePad right in front of my face. It’s lovely.
Another cool thing about the Wii U: backwards compatibility up the wazoo. Not only is the Wii U backwards compatible with the Wii (which has over 1,500 games on its own), but it also gives you access to the Virtual Console. The Virtual Console is a library of console and handheld games stretching back to the ’80s that have been ported to the Wii U and are available for cheap. So far there are almost 200 games on the list, and they include everything from the original Legend of Zelda for NES to more modern games like Kirby: Squeak Squad for the Nintendo DS. Are you a Mario fan who never owned a GameBoy Advance? You can now purchase the games you missed from that series and play them on your Wii U. These games aren’t free, but they are very cheap, many costing less than $5. And they come with other benefits, too, like the ability to remap your controller or to chat about your progress in an online community.
But the Wii U’s modern, HD games are the number one reason to purchase this console. Nintendo is the number one brand for family games, and it has dozens of top-notch titles that are excellent for gamers of all ages and skill levels (Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart 8, Mario Party 10, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, and Splatoon, to name a few). Nintendo only releases a few first-party games (that’s games developed in-house) per year, and with good reason. Every game that it puts out is super polished. That commitment to quality has paid off. The Mario game franchise is the biggest in the world, and the little Italian plumber is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. And you will never find a Mario game on any console that isn’t owned by Nintendo.
In terms of hardware, the Wii U can’t compete with the Xbox One or the PlayStation 4. In fact, it only has up to 32GB of storage—that’s about half of the space it takes to store Halo 5 on Xbox One. But the Wii U doesn’t need a terabyte of space, because its games are nowhere near as big as the games for PS4 or Xbox One. I’ve only just recently hit my space limit, and I’ve been playing on my Wii U for two years.
Of course, the Wii U also comes with apps like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Plus, and YouTube (though you cannot play DVDs or Blu-rays). You can also browse the Internet (albeit somewhat awkwardly) and explore Nintendo’s online community, the Miiverse, to start conversations, leave hand-drawn notes, or see what other gamers have been playing. Nintendo monitors the Miiverse closely to make sure it all stays very family-friendly.
I have to mention, Nintendo has announced that they’re working on their next console, codenamed the NX. While we know next to nothing about it, analysts guess that it could be coming out as soon as the end of next year. That means that there may not be a ton of new Wii U games coming out.
Overall, if you prefer family-friendly puzzle games to first-person shooters, the Wii U is an excellent option.
- It’s cheaper than other consoles ($299.99).
- Dual-screen gaming is super cool.
- Many of its games use amiibos (if you’re into smart toys).
- Virtual Console gives you access to popular Nintendo games from the last 30 years.
- There are tons of great family-friendly games to choose from.
- Apps like Netflix and Hulu are available for instant streaming and internet browsing.
- There aren’t many AAA games like Call of Duty or Destiny.
- It doesn’t have the high-end processing of other consoles.
- The next Nintendo console might come out as soon as next year.
The Xbox One was released in November of 2013. It had a somewhat shaky launch due to some mixed marketing messages and backpedaling after its announcement. It’s currently selling less than the PlayStation 4, but a lot of big-name games have been released for it in the last month.
It costs anywhere between $349.99 and $499 based on the bundle or peripherals included. This holiday there are three major bundles: one with Halo 5: Guardians, one with Rise of the Tomb Raider, and one with Fallout 4. These each include the console with a 1TB hard drive, a controller, and a copy of the game, along with other extras. Other bundles include other games and smaller hard drives. There are definitely trade-offs here. With the 500GB model, you’ll be able to install about 8 to 10 big-name games before running out of space. But if you want something in a bundle with a smaller hard drive—like the one that includes Kinect—it’s super easy to purchase and hook up an external hard drive for more space.
Most of the Xbox One bundles come with standard controllers, but Microsoft recently released the Elite controller, which is a highly customizable controller built for pro-level gamers. Another peripheral that’s included in one bundle or sold separately is the Kinect. In the beginning, the Kinect came with every console, but Microsoft removed the peripheral from all models in order to reduce the cost. The Kinect has had a mixed reception. There are a limited number of games that take advantage of it, and its other features, like voice commands, have proven problematic for many users. In my opinion, the Kinect is worth the extra cost, especially if you have kids who play games on the machine. The voice commands have always worked for me and have proven invaluable when you need to pause a TV show immediately.
Speaking of which, the Xbox one plays Blu-ray discs and supports all major streaming services like Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu for free. You can also Skype with friends and stream games using Twitch. But you can get lots more goodies with a subscription to Xbox Live Gold. A Gold subscription costs $59.99 per year, though you can usually find discounts at most retailers. With Gold you can play multiplayer games with other players online. You also get two free games every month and discounts on other games. Xbox Live Gold can be shared with anyone who uses the same console. In addition, the Gamertag that owns the subscription can sign into any Xbox One anywhere and use Gold there. Another perk of Xbox Live Gold is the ability to use EA Access, a service by publisher Electronic Arts that allows you play older games and up to 10 hours of newer games for free.
Xbox One features exclusive Gamertags, which are your unique identity on Xbox Live. As you play games, you can earn achievements, which contribute to your gamer score. The gamer score doesn’t do anything than give you bragging rights, but it’s a fun incentive to continue playing games or play them in a different way. You gamer score carries over from console to console, so your score from the Xbox 360, if you owned one, will transfer to the Xbox One.
The Xbox One doesn’t look all that different than the PlayStation 4 except the Xbox One has more straight angles. The console is black, but there are bundles that have differently colored consoles and controllers. The Halo 5 bundle is an example.
The Xbox One really has a leg up on the PlayStation 4 this holiday when you consider the console-exclusive games. Both Halo 5: Guardians and Rise of the Tomb Raider are exclusive to the Xbox One and were just released within the last month. Rare Replay, which is a collection of 30 games created by storied developer Rare, is also exclusive to Xbox One. But there are other great exclusives from previous years like Sunset Overdrive. Other big third-party games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and Fallout 4 appear on the machine, but are not exclusives.
Another major advantage of the Xbox One is its new backwards compatibility feature. You can now play lots of your Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One as long as you have proof that you bought them on the 360. Right now there are about 100 games available, but Microsoft plans to continue adding games in the future. If you owned games digitally, they’ll appear automatically in your games list, ready for download and install.
The third big feature of the Xbox One is the ability to stream games to any computer that’s running Windows 10. This allows you to continue playing games if your TV needs to be used for other purposes. It also allows you play games on your laptop rather than being tethered to your console.
- It has lots of exclusive games, including big recent titles like Halo 5: Guardians and Rise of the Tomb Raider.
- There are multiple options for controllers and peripherals.
- You get free access to video streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix.
- You can Skype with friends or stream games via Twitch.
- It’s easily adaptable to external storage devices.
- You can take advantage of streaming to any computer with Windows 10.
- It has premium services like EA Access.
- Lots of great features are only available with Xbox Live Gold.
- Xbox Live Gold subscriptions are $59.99 for a year.
- Bundles with big games have trade-offs as far as space and peripherals.
- You need to own a Kinect to play most of the kid-friendly games.