Rumors are starting to swirl about new games consoles from Microsoft and Sony on the horizon, but we're not likely to see them this side of 2020. But honestly, we're not really ready for them yet anyway – this is the prime time of the current console generation, when companies have settled into the rhythm and are releasing a solid stream of great games that push the hardware to its limits. If you haven't already jumped in, now is the perfect time, and to help you decide which console is for you New Atlas is comparing the specs and features of Microsoft's Xbox One, Sony's PlayStation 4, and Nintendo's Switch.
Meet the consoles
While there's plenty of crossover of course, the three main players are each targeting different corners of the gaming market. Microsoft is trying to cater to a wider entertainment audience by making the Xbox One an "all-in-one" hub, rolling in games, streaming video and music, and even live TV. Sony is more focused on the games themselves, offering a wide range of titles from kid-friendly platformers to gory, gritty shooters and mature story-driven adventures. And then there's the ever-quirky Nintendo, which has for decades nailed the Disney tactic of catering to kids without ostracizing adults, and now released a console that can be plugged into a TV at home or taken on the go.
It's also worth noting that both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have received mid-generation hardware upgrades, in the form of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. We've included them in this roundup because they both represent decent steps up from the base models – and when we say "base models," we're referring to the Xbox One S and PS4 "Slim," which were released in 2016 to replace the aging launch editions.
With that out of the way, let's dive right in!
Sony and Microsoft both worked closely with chip manufacturer AMD to design the brains of their new consoles. The end result in both cases are similar custom chipsets called Accelerated Processing Units (APUs), which incorporate both the CPU and GPU into one chip.
While the performance differences are murky and complicated, both companies rely on teraFLOPS (floating operations per second) as the main metric, and in that regard the PS4 had the lead with the original launch consoles, before Microsoft blew Sony out of the water with the Xbox One X – which is, technically speaking, the most powerful games console ever made.
Nintendo, meanwhile, doesn't concern itself with teraFLOPS. It partnered with Nvidia instead, who adapted the Tegra X1 chipset to bring the Switch to life. Specs are hard to come by, but it's a far cry short of the competition in terms of pure grunt. That said, it's impressive for a portable device, and Nintendo's cartoony visuals usually do a good job of disguising technical shortcomings.
The Xbox One S, PS4 and PS4 Pro all have 8 GB of RAM, but Sony's machines are using the faster GDDR5 type. With the Xbox One X, Microsoft leapfrogged Sony by upgrading to that same type and cramming in 12 GB. The Switch is content to use just 4 GB of a mobile RAM.
The base model Xbox and PlayStation come with either 500 GB or 1 TB of storage space, while the advanced versions dropped the lower tier. The Nintendo Switch has a pretty paltry 32 GB, which will fill up pretty quick if you indulge in the eShop.
If you do fill up the hard drive, the storage on all five of these consoles can be expanded by plugging an external drive into the USB ports or, in the case of the Switch, slotting in a new MicroSD card.
The PS4 Pro is the bulkiest of the bunch, being considerably both longer and wider than the Xbox One X. The redesigned base PS4 though is slimmer than the Xbox One S – although overall, it doesn't make much difference to your living room setup.
The only one where size is really a factor is the Nintendo Switch, being a portable device. In that sense, it's a bit bigger than your average tablet, making it easy to slide into a bag to take wherever.
Both of Microsoft's machines are considerably heavier than their rivals, but again, this doesn't really matter for a box that you're not moving around too much. The portable Switch is the featherweight of the group, tipping the scales at about 400 g – that's lighter than an iPad Pro.
Now we're getting to the important stuff. Full HD is the new baseline, with all five consoles outputting to TVs at a resolution of 1080p. Both Xboxes are capable of 4K visuals with High Dynamic Range (HDR), although the Xbox One X renders at 4K natively while the S upscales from FHD. The PS4 Pro also ups the visuals of select games to 4K and HDR.
Nintendo is a relative newcomer to HD, and 1080p is as pretty as the Switch's visuals get. Undock it and use the built-in screen, and that figure will drop back to 720p.
Although digital downloads and streaming are becoming increasingly important, all five consoles still support physical media. The Xboxes and PlayStations can all play Blu-Ray movies and games, as well as your old DVD collection.
Spinning optical media doesn't really cut it on the go though, so to reduce the moving parts Nintendo has gone with a memory card system for the Switch. The game cards are basically thicker versions of those used in past portable systems like the DS and 3DS.
Gone are the days of playing multiplayer games online for free – servers cost money to run you know. All three companies now charge for the service, but the prices are pretty reasonable: US$60 a year each for both Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus. To sweeten the deal, both services give members discounts on the digital store and throw in free games that cycle monthly.
For now, playing Switch games online is free until September, when the Nintendo Online service rolls out. After that it's only $20 a year, and again includes free classic games, discounts and a cloud backup service for your precious save files.
Brick-n-mortar stores are going the way of the dinosaurs, with all consoles having their own digital storefronts. These are all loaded with current titles, regular sales, and healthy backlogs of classics from earlier consoles. Rumors are suggesting that the next generation may move to be entirely digital, with no need for physical discs and cards – although whether that sounds like a good idea to you will probably depend on how good your local internet speeds are.
One of the key selling points of any given console is the quality of its exclusive games, and Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all have big franchises they trot out to make their machines stand out.
Nintendo's first party lineup is particularly strong, with 30-year staples like Mario and Zelda under its belt. The Switch is home to arguably the best games in these franchises – Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – along with great versions of Splatoon, Mario Kart, Kirby and Donkey Kong. Two other huge exclusives are due before the end of the year as well, in the form of Pokémon and Super Smash Bros.
Sony has kicked a lot of goals this generation too, with the fourth games in the God of War and Uncharted franchises changing up their respective formulas and great new IP like Horizon Zero Dawn and Detroit: Become Human. Plus, the upcoming sequel to The Last of Us is one of the most anticipated games of… well, ever.
Microsoft may have fumbled a little on the exclusive front lately, but it's definitely not without its offerings. Car nuts can lose themselves in several Forza games, while the big guns of Halo and Gears of War already have titles out and new ones on the way. The Xbox One is also the only place to play the open-world zombie survivor sim State of Decay 2 and Rare's pirate-themed Sea of Thieves.
All the consoles make use of the extensive back catalogs from each of the companies. The Xbox One has a direct Backwards Compatibility feature, where you can slot in the discs of select original Xbox and Xbox 360 games and the console will recognize it and download a virtual version free of charge. The library of compatible games is constantly growing, too.
While PlayStation 4 doesn't read old discs, it does have a bunch of original PlayStation, PS2 and PS3 games for sale on the digital store, and available to stream Netflix-style through the separate service, PlayStation Now.
Although Nintendo has a strong catalog to mine, it hasn't done so yet with the Switch. Frustratingly there don't seem to be any plans to bring a Virtual Console shopfront, seen on the Wii and Wii U, to the new device, but the upcoming Online service will include 20 free NES games with the promise of more to be added regularly.
Consoles are about more than just games these days. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, YouTube and Twitch are among the major video streaming services available on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles, with Sony adding its own services like PlayStation Vue and Video.
Microsoft positioned the Xbox One as an "all-in-one" entertainment box, and (provided you live in the US) you can also run your live TV and cable box through the console if you want to use it like a DVR.
Nintendo has been pretty quiet on the video front, and while there are rumors that the likes of Netflix will bring apps to the platform down the track, the only one to do so so far is Hulu.
All of these consoles have several different controller setups.
The Xbox One comes with a standard controller that's essentially a refined version of the Xbox 360 model. There's also a premium version called the Elite, which includes interchangeable parts and hair triggers for extra precision. And finally, if you liked the big bulky beast that was the original Xbox's controller (affectionately nicknamed the "Duke"), Microsoft has rereleased a version of that as well.
The PS4's standard controller is the DualShock 4, the newest iteration of a design that hasn't changed much since the PlayStation 1 days. The most noteworthy new feature is the large trackpad in the middle, which can be drawn on like a touchscreen or pressed in like a button. For PSVR users, there's also the motion-sensing PS Move wands.
The Switch has had the most drastic update to its control scheme over the last Nintendo console. The main controllers are the small, Wii Remote-like things called Joy-Con, which pack motion sensing capabilities as well as a host of regular buttons, thumbsticks and triggers. These can attach to the sides of the main console in handheld mode, or slot into a plastic grip that makes it feel like a more conventional controller.
For the more traditional gamer, the Pro Controller has a more tried-and-true layout. Or, if you're in the camp that reckons the GameCube was the pinnacle of Nintendo's home console controllers, those are also now compatible with the help of an adapter. The company is even releasing a new line of them alongside the launch of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in December.
Motion controls have been built into Nintendo systems natively since the Wii, and the Switch continues that tradition with the Joy-Con. As a result, they feel like true 1:1 motion, and the sparing use of it makes Nintendo the clear winner here.
With the launch of PlayStation VR, Sony's Move wands became relevant again, and while they do the trick for a mid-range VR system, the tracking is a bit too jittery and imprecise when compared to the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or even Nintendo. The camera that runs PSVR also includes a microphone, to allow voice commands.
Microsoft has had a rougher go of it this generation. At launch, every Xbox One console came bundled with a Kinect, the infrared camera system that picked up whole-body movements in front of it and could listen for voice commands through a built-in microphone. But pricey hardware and not much software to justify it led to the company discontinuing the system. It's still available secondhand if you want to give it a try, but Microsoft is so committed to forgetting about it that you'll need an adapter to plug it into the Xbox One S or X models.
The key selling point of the Nintendo Switch is that it can be undocked and taken basically wherever you like. Ninty has dominated the handheld gaming scene for decades, ever since the GameBoy in the 90s, so it makes sense that it would continue that tradition with the most powerful portable device ever built. With the bonus of hooking it up to the big TV in the living room, of course.
All PlayStation and Xbox variants are at-home consoles only.
Microsoft has begun to integrate its console and PC gaming into one ecosystem – buying a game that's part of the Play Anywhere program will give you access to both the Xbox One and Windows 10 version of that game. Save files can be shared across both platforms, and online multiplayer brings in players from everywhere into the same servers.
Sony has a more limited system. Downloading the Remote Play app lets you play PS4 games on PC, PS Vita or Sony Xperia phones, and the PS Now subscription service can also be used to play on either PS4 or PC.
But the really interesting development is the fact that Microsoft and Nintendo have started to become strange bedfellows. Certain games, such as Fortnite and Minecraft, allow gamers to jump in together regardless of whether they're playing on Xbox One, Switch or PC. Sony has apparently been invited to the party, but has so far been fashionably late.
The original versions of the Xbox One and PS4 were both launched in November 2013, just a few weeks apart. In 2016 both also received a refresh in the form of the Xbox One S and PS4 Slim, offering minor hardware tune-ups in smaller packages.
The PS4 Pro launched in November 2016, a full year before Microsoft's Xbox One X. And in March 2017 Nintendo launched the Switch, pulling it out of step with the rest of the console cycle.
Having been out for a few years, prices on the consoles have come down. You can now pick up either an Xbox One S, PS4 or Switch for $299. The PS4 Pro will set you back $399 while the beefy Xbox One X will leave a hole in your wallet of almost 500 bucks.
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