How to choose a next-gen game console

Nick Summers
·Senior Editor
·10 min read

Know someone that would love a new console this holiday season? Yeah, so do we. Figuring out what to buy them, though, can be tricky. Should you go next-gen or stick with something cheaper from the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One era? There’s no right or wrong answer. It all depends on your budget and what, if any, kind of hardware your loved one already owns. If you’re still flummoxed by the seemingly-endless options, fear not: we’ve assembled a guide to choosing and gifting a console in late 2020.

Microsoft or Sony?

First, some reconnaissance. Does your friend or family member already own a console? Maybe they live with a DualShock 4 surgically attached to their thumbs, or spend every night chatting about Sea of Thieves and Gears of War 5 on Xbox Live. If they fall into either camp, there’s a good chance they want to stay in their current ecosystem. They might have an established friends list and a growing library of games that they want to keep playing on next-gen hardware. If that’s the case, you can narrow your decision-making down to a single console maker.

Be warned, though: there’s also the possibility that someone bought them the ‘wrong’ console last time, and they’re itching to switch platforms. It’s also possible they want to change over so they can play another system’s exclusive titles. If your loved one has an Xbox One, for instance, they might be clamoring to play some Sony-owned software such as God of War (2018) or Ghost of Tsushima. Acquiring this knowledge will help you out massively. But if you can’t — maybe they love a variety of systems, or haven’t owned a console in years — you’ll need to consider both manufacturers and come to a decision on your own. So let’s break down your options.

Sony

Sony is currently the king of gaming. The company has sold over 110 million PlayStation 4s, which is almost double the Nintendo Switch — a console that’s less than four years old, admittedly — and higher than Xbox One estimates. It also owns a bunch of studios, such as Naughty Dog and Santa Monica Studio, which make critically-acclaimed exclusives such as The Last of Us Part II and God of War (2018). A few of the system’s tentpole titles are now available on PC, such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Detroit: Become Human. But in general, PlayStation hardware is still required to access some of the best games from this console generation.

PlayStation 5

Sony PlayStation 5
Sony PlayStation 5

Next-gen: Yes

Price: $499

Release date: November 12

Where to buy: Direct from Sony, Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, GameStop

Engadget score: 87

Pros

  • Will play games in true 4K resolution

  • Can play PS5 exclusives such as Demon’s Souls Remake

  • Will play the best version of cross-gen PlayStation exclusives such as Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Sackboy: A Big Adventure

  • Will run most PS4 games via backwards compatibility

  • Supports physical games and media

Cons

  • Expensive

  • Larger than the PS5 Digital Edition and PS4 Pro

  • Can’t play Xbox-exclusive titles

Sony’s best console, the new PlayStation 5, is capable of playing games at true 4K resolution. It also ships with an 825GB SSD, which can load software faster than the PS4 Pro and deliver new gameplay experiences like the world-hopping seen in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. The system also supports 3D audio, an object-based spatial sound technology, and comes with a new DualSense controller that features adaptive triggers, haptic feedback, and a built-in microphone. Unlike the PS5 Digital Edition, it also comes with a disc drive that can read physical games and play 4K Blu-rays.

PlayStation 5 Digital Edition

Sony PlayStation 5 Digital Edition
Sony PlayStation 5 Digital Edition

Next-gen: Yes

Price: $399

Release date: November 12

Where to buy: Direct from Sony, Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, GameStop

Pros

  • Will play games in true 4K resolution

  • Cheaper than the standard PS5

  • Slightly smaller than the standard PS5

  • Can play PS5 exclusives such as Demon’s Souls Remake

  • Plays most PS4 games via backwards compatibility

Cons

  • Still more expensive than the Xbox Series S

  • Can’t play physical games

  • Can’t play pre-owned games

  • Can’t be used as a DVD, Blu-ray or 4K Blu-ray player

  • Doesn’t offer Xbox-exclusive titles

The Digital Edition is almost identical to the standard PS5. It has the same CPU, GPU and 825GB SSD, which means it can also run games at true 4K resolution. The only difference is the disc drive, or lack thereof. I know what you’re thinking: does a disc drive really cost $100? Absolutely not. Sony is offering a steep discount because it knows the eventual owner will have to buy all of their games through the PlayStation Store. You should think long and hard, therefore, about whether the person receiving your console will miss the option of physical discs. Over the course of a generation, they’ll easily buy enough digital titles to make up the difference. Or that’s the theory, anyway.

Some people are ready to embrace the all-digital lifestyle: the PlayStation Store is a convenient option, after all, if you have a decent internet connection and want to play something new at 4AM. Sony's marketplace runs regular sales, too, that are competitive with bricks-and-mortar retailers. And some players are ready to go all-in with digital subscription services like PlayStation Now and EA Play. If you opt for the Digital Edition, though, the recipient won't be able to buy pre-owned games or physical copies that have been discounted by retailers such as Amazon.

PS4 Pro

Sony PlayStation 4 Pro
Sony PlayStation 4 Pro

Next-gen: No

Price: $399

Release date: November 10, 2016

Where to buy: Direct from Sony, Amazon, Best Buy, GameStop

Engadget score: 88

Pros

  • Will likely drop in price once the PS5 has been released

  • Can play all of the PS4’s best titles

  • Will play some of Sony’s upcoming exclusives, including Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Cons

  • Can’t play PS5-exclusive titles such as Demon’s Souls Remake

  • Won’t offer the best versions of cross-gen games such as Horizon Forbidden West

  • Over time, developers will release fewer PS4-compatible games

The PS4 Pro still costs $399 on Sony’s website, but we expect a flurry of cheaper deals to emerge once the PS5 is readily available. It’s an older system, but one that can play a massive library of generation-defining games including Marvel’s Spider-Man, Horizon Zero Dawn, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Persona 5 Royal, Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us Part II. If your loved one hasn’t played a game in a while, they’ll still be floored by these experiences. Some of the PS5’s most anticipated titles, including Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Horizon Forbidden West, are coming to the PS4 too. So the recipient shouldn’t feel like they’re missing out on anything for a while.

Microsoft

Microsoft is itching for a comeback. The Xbox One launch was a catastrophe, emphasizing media features that few people cared about and pushing a DRM policy that would have restricted game sharing. Fans were understandably furious and Xbox quickly changed course, focusing on games once again and reversing all of its controversial disc-lending policies. Slowly but surely, the Xbox One has won fans back with Game Pass, a stellar subscription service that includes xCloud streaming, some excellent accessories and massive studio acquisitions including Bethesda, Obsidian and Ninja Theory.

The Xbox Series S and X are a chance for Microsoft to start a new chapter. And unlike the PlayStation 5, the two variants have dramatically different innards that will affect how games look and run on a living room TV.

Xbox Series X

Microsoft Xbox Series X
Microsoft Xbox Series X

Next-gen: Yes

Price: $499

Release date: November 10

Where to buy: Direct from Microsoft, Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, GameStop

Engadget score: 87

Pros

  • Will play games in true 4K resolution

  • Offers the largest SSD on any next-gen system

  • Will play the best version of cross-gen games such as Halo Infinite

  • Supports Xbox Game Pass

  • Can play many Xbox One, Xbox 360 and original Xbox titles via backwards compatibility

Cons

  • Expensive

  • Larger than the Xbox Series S

  • Won’t play Sony-made exclusives such as Gran Turismo 7

The Xbox Series X is capable of running games at true 4K resolution and 120 frames per second, with more realistic lighting via Direct X raytracing. It promises “an unprecedented 12 teraflops of GPU power”, which is slightly higher than the PS5, and a 1TB SSD to store and load next-gen games. The bundled controller has a couple of new features, like an improved D-pad, and officially licensed Xbox One accessories should still work just fine. Game Pass is the big sell, but you can also buy titles a la carte and take advantage of the console’s backwards compatibility, which extends to the first Xbox from 2001.

Xbox Series S

Microsoft Xbox Series S
Microsoft Xbox Series S

Next-gen: Yes

Price: $299

Release date: November 10

Where to buy: Direct from Microsoft, Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, GameStop

Engadget score: 85

Pros

  • Cheaper than other next-gen systems

  • Smaller than the Xbox Series X

  • Can still play games at high frame rates

  • Supports Xbox Game Pass

  • Can play many Xbox One, Xbox 360 and original Xbox titles via backwards compatibility

Cons

  • Can’t play games natively at 4K

  • Has a smaller SSD than other next-gen systems

  • Can’t play physical games

  • Can’t play pre-owned games

  • Can’t be used as a DVD, Blu-ray or 4K Blu-ray player

  • Can’t play Sony-made exclusives such as Spider-Man: Miles Morales

The Series S is Microsoft’s “smallest Xbox ever.” That could be important if your loved one is short on space in their bedroom or living room. Regardless, the console’s cheaper price is worth considering. The box should happily run games at 1440p resolution at 60 frames per second, with support for up to 120 frames per second. It can also upscale games to 4K, which could be enough for people with smaller monitors and TV sets. Like its larger sibling, the Series S also supports backwards compatibility, though it will be running One S — not One X — versions with better texture filtering and frame rates, among other improvements.

Xbox One S

Microsoft Xbox One S
Microsoft Xbox One S

Next-gen: No

Price: $299

Release date: August 2, 2016

Where to buy: Direct from Microsoft, Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, GameStop

Engadget score: 85

Pros

  • Cheap

  • Will likely drop even further in price

  • Can play many games marketed for Xbox Series X and S, including Halo Infinite

  • Supports Xbox Game Pass

  • Can play many Xbox 360 and original Xbox titles via backwards compatibility

Cons

  • Can’t play games natively at 4K

  • Underpowered compared to both the Xbox Series X and S

  • Future Xbox titles, such as the next Forza Motorsport, might not be compatible

The Xbox One X has been discontinued, so if you want something cheaper than a Series S…it’s the older One S or nothing. The system might be tempting — especially if you can get a few games thrown in for free — but we wouldn’t recommend it. The One S simply isn’t powerful enough, at least not by 2020 standards. It can access a huge library via Game Pass, but everything will run natively at 1080p, or 4K via upscaling. If you can, go for the Series S instead. Your loved one will appreciate the system’s higher native resolution (1440p), as well as the superior processor and faster SSD.