Holiday gaming gift guide: What to know about the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch

So many games, so little time. From bottom left, clockwise: Xbox Series S (white); Xbox Series X (black); Nintendo Switch; PlayStation 4; Xbox One; Nintendo Switch Lite. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

This is the first holiday season for the ninth generation of video game consoles, as the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X (XSX) have recently hit the market, and Nintendo’s hybrid system the Switch is still a hot seller. The PS5 and XSX are likely to be two of the most-wanted gifts this year, for everyone from kids to nerdy adults.

That, however, assumes that you can find them. Both the PS5 and XSX are currently in short supply at every major retailer, with new shipments selling out almost faster than they can be put on sale. This is fairly typical for any new gaming console for the first couple of months, but in 2020, it’s been exacerbated by scalpers, some of whom are running botnets in order to buy up all of the available consoles as quickly as possible. You can get a PS5 or XSX fairly easily right now — as long as you don’t mind paying vastly inflated prices on auction sites.

Xbox Series X/S review: Microsoft’s new console is a big step forward, but not a leap

It arguably isn’t worth the hassle. In the last couple of generations, the first year has traditionally been the roughest for a new console, as both manufacturers and game developers work the unexpected bugs out of the hardware. That can mean physical defects, design flaws, or outright system failure. Traditionally, disc drives have been especially prone to issues, although that’s not as big a problem now as it was in earlier gaming consoles.

It’s also going to be a while before each library of games catches up to the new tech’s potential. As a result, most of the go-to launch titles for both the PS5 and XSX, such as Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, are also playable on previous-generation systems. They’ll look better and might have a few extra features on the PS5/XSX, but you won’t miss out on any actual gameplay by staying back.

As such, if you’re looking to buy a new next-generation console strictly for yourself, your best shot is to wait until next year. Let the holiday hype die down, wait to see how the launch-edition hardware holds up over time, and take advantage of the wealth of holiday flash sales that can be found on virtually every digital storefront right now. It’s not a bad time to pick up a PlayStation 4 Pro or an Xbox One X, either; one of the best times to crack into a particular generation’s hardware is right at its end, as stores work to clear out their inventories.

If you’ve got to have the next big thing now, though, or if you’ve got a kid, spouse, or relative who does, here’s what you probably want to know before you jump into the next-generation pool. This is a guide for novices, parents, and other newcomers to the hobby.

Which console should I buy?

Many big third-party games like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla will come to every console that will have them, eventually. (Ubisoft Image)

The good news for newcomers is that there isn’t a “wrong” choice. Many of the best modern video games are what’s known as “system agnostic,” meaning that they’re released on as many platforms as possible, either simultaneously or gradually over time. For example, while Ubisoft’s Viking adventure game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (above) is a big launch title for both the PS5 and XSX, it’s also available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, Google Stadia, and Amazon Luna.

If you’re looking for a portable gaming system, something to bust out at parties, or you’ve played and enjoyed Nintendo’s various series like Mario and Zelda, pick up a Switch. You’ll want to get a couple of extra controllers for parties, including a Pro gamepad for longer sessions, and it won’t hurt to pick up a cheap MicroSD card to expand the unit’s storage. If you’re planning to play your Switch in portable mode, a screen protector is useful and surprisingly inexpensive. A cheap monthly Switch Online subscription also gets you access to cloud storage and a big library of Nintendo’s hits from the ’80s and ’90s.

If you’re on a budget this holiday season, sign up for Microsoft All Access to get an Xbox Series X and a Game Pass subscription for a monthly fee. You’ll get dozens of games for a low up-front cost, they’ll look great, and the system is easy to set up. Even extra controllers and rechargeable battery packs can be purchased on the cheap right now as stores liquidate their Xbox One inventory, since Xbox One gear can be used with the Series X. However, especially as the PlayStation 5 continues to mature, fear of missing out (FOMO) will be an issue for Xbox owners.

The PlayStation 5 is the boutique option for the time being. It’s got a proven track record of success and a promising lineup of games. You can’t help but pay markedly more for it than you do for the competition, however, and its entire library is somewhat more pitched towards an adult audience. It’s got kids’ games, sure, but the two best games overall for the PlayStation platform in 2020 are a violent samurai game (Ghost of Tsushima) and an ultra-violent post-apocalypse revenge drama (The Last of Us Part II). In short, the PS5 is the Christmas gift you buy for yourself.

No matter what system you purchase, it will have more great games available for it than you can possibly ever play. There’s actually something of a glut on the market right now. It’s going to be an issue, sooner or later.

PlayStation 5

(Sony Photo)

The PlayStation 4 was the big winner of the previous generation of consoles, and it wasn’t close. Sony is going into this holiday season with a big head of steam, a huge library of award-winning exclusive games, and traditionally, a habit of making terrible mistakes when it’s this far out in front of the pack.

Sony’s PlayStation 5 comes in two models. The Digital Edition ($399) has no disc drive, while the standard model ($499) has an Ultra HD Blu-ray drive for physical media. They’re otherwise identical across the board. If you’ve got a few PS4 games lying around, almost all of them (there are only about nine exceptions, as of this week, since Shadow Complex got patched) are also fully playable on the PS5. Either version of the unit stands 16 inches tall in vertical mode, which is huge for a console, and looks like something out of a cyberpunk novel.

While the PS5 is a quantum leap in technology above its predecessor the PS4, it occupies a couple of particularly important niches in the video game world. For one thing, since the Xbox is notoriously unpopular in Japan and the Switch is relatively underpowered, that leaves the PS5 as the first and sometimes only port of call for many big Japanese games like the Street Fighter series. Expect Sony to continue to leverage that, going forward. It’s already announced that the next Final Fantasy, the sixteenth core game in the franchise, will be a PlayStation 5 exclusive. While Japan isn’t as dominating a force in games development as it used to be, many of the most popular modern gaming series have Japanese roots.

The PlayStation also has an impressive lineup of exclusive games, many of which are considered the best releases of this generation. While some PlayStation games aren’t as exclusive as they used to be, like how Horizon: Zero Dawn came out on PCs via Steam last summer, most of Sony’s first-party games have traditionally remained permanently locked to the platform. Unless there’s a big sea change at Sony, which isn’t impossible, expect that some of the best games in the next decade or so will only be playable on the PlayStation 5.

Early reports do indicate that the PlayStation 5 appears to have a couple of significant technical issues. There are stories going around that it has issues with overheating, possibly owing to one of its memory modules not being in contact with the unit’s heatsink. Other users have reported that it likes to go into rest mode at seemingly random intervals, even while in-game. Sony’s hardware hasn’t been particularly unreliable in the last couple of generations, but it still might be best to wait and see with the PS5.

Note that the PlayStation does not support cloud storage access without PlayStation Plus. However, it does let you back up your files locally with a minimum of hassle. If you’ve got some important saves on your system, such as a big Minecraft world or a near-complete run through The Witcher III, it’s worth making routine backups. Any cheap USB flash drive you’ve already got lying around will do the trick.

Pros:

  • Great first-party games from Sony studios, like Ghost of Tsushima, The Last of Us Part 2, and Marvel’s Spider-Man.
  • The PS5 controller is a big step forward, with neat options like variable-resistance controllers and a built-in microphone.
  • The standard and all-digital editions are running the same hardware, so there’s no performance downgrade for going with the cheaper unit.
  • If you like big games from Japanese studios, many will come to the PS5 first and will come to other systems much later, if at all.
  • You get three free games every month as a PlayStation Plus subscriber, as well as cloud save access.
  • The PS5 has a greater emphasis on audio than the XSX, with a new custom sound engine.

Cons:

  • Expensive, without pricing options like All Access.
  • Looks like an art-deco air filter.
  • Enormous. It can be hard to find a home for it in many home entertainment setups.
  • Users are already finding design issues with the first units. It might be worth waiting for the second model.
  • There are plenty of kids’ games on PlayStation, but its best games are decidedly not kid-friendly.

Xbox Series X

(Microsoft Photo)

The newest Xbox is an unusual spin on a video game console. It can be relatively inexpensive if you opt to purchase it via monthly payments with Microsoft’s installment-based All Access plan. And with the Xbox Game Pass, you get a broad assortment of around 100 new and recent games for a cheap monthly subscription. If you go this route, it’s a bit more like paying for cable TV than buying a gaming system.

The tradeoff is that you aren’t really getting any exclusive games on the platform, at least not in the traditional sense. Microsoft has a solid network of first-party studios within the Xbox Game Studios department, and has been buying up independent software developers like crazy lately, but also maintains an initiative where most of the games it publishes will also be simultaneously available on Windows 10.

While the Xbox Series X has more horsepower for less money than any gaming PC currently on the market (which is also true of the PS5, but probably not for too much longer), you also won’t necessarily need one to play Microsoft’s upcoming library of games. Even Halo Infinite, the flagship title for the system, already has a store page on Steam. Microsoft has a few interesting Xbox Game Studios projects on the horizon, like Everwild and Avowed, but those are years away at best.

Some of the options among the Xbox Game Pass’ monthly lineup from early November 2020, as shown on the Xbox Series S. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

As such, the primary reason to own an Xbox at all is because it’s an easy way to gain access to the Xbox family of services. It’s also user-friendly and relatively cheap. It’s the only major console that offers free cloud saves without a paid subscription and offers a broad suite of accessibility options via Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller. The console emphasizes backwards compatibility for both games and Xbox One hardware, but doesn’t have an exclusive games library to speak of. It won’t break the bank and it’s deliberately easy for anyone to play, but the modern Xbox is operating on a different set of values than its competition.

The newest Xbox comes in two models. The Series X ($499) is a dense black brick with high-end specs, a one-terabyte hard drive (which in practice means it’s only about 800GB), the ability to display compatible games at 4K resolution, and a disc drive for playing physical media. (That drive is apparently the weakest part of the unit overall, with many day-one buyers already reporting that they are noisy or nonfunctional, but at least it’s there.) The cheaper Series S ($299) tops out at 1080p, has slightly lower specs across the board, a relatively tiny 512GB hard drive, and has no disc drive at all.

The Series S has a few things going for it, like its small size, ease of use, and lower price point, but the smaller hard drive means you take a massive hit to the overall experience. At current file sizes, you’ll constantly be reorganizing your Series S’s storage space. If you think your Xbox is going to be in heavy rotation for the next few years, it’s worth the extra money to try and get a Series X in your living room.

Pros:

  • Affordable via All Access.
  • Easy to set up.
  • Edges out the PS5 on graphics, if only barely.
  • The Xbox Game Pass offers a lot of value for your entertainment dollar.
  • Personally, I find “gamerscore” a more satisfying achievement system than the PlayStation’s trophies.
  • Compatible with all Xbox One peripherals and games that I’ve tried so far.
  • Xbox Live Gold comes with three free games every month.
  • With the Adaptive Controller, the Xbox has a solid set of tools to meet anyone’s specific needs.

Cons:

  • A lack of exclusive games.
  • Most of its entertainment value comes from the Game Pass and/or Xbox Live.
  • It’s the only major system that doesn’t come standard with rechargeable batteries in its standard controller.
  • The Series X can put out a lot of heat.
  • The XSX’s extra storage drives use a proprietary model, and are insanely expensive.

Nintendo Switch

(Nintendo Photo)

Nintendo’s newest system, the hybrid desktop/portable Switch ($299), just celebrated its fourth anniversary. While it’s always been less powerful than its competition, the Switch is flexible, inexpensive, easy to travel with, has developed into a major platform for indie titles, and has a broad assortment of games for every age group and taste. It was hard to find earlier this year, both due to increased demand and COVID-related supply disruptions, but most of those have been ironed out by this point.

Traditionally, the single most compelling reason to own a Nintendo console is to play Nintendo’s lineup of exclusive games, such as The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., Animal Crossing, and particularly Super Smash Bros. It took Nintendo a while, but this far into the Switch’s run, most of its tentpole franchises have made their way onto the system. (The only remaining holdout at time of writing is Metroid.) The result is a strong lineup of first-party hits. Animal Crossing: New Horizons in particular has done big business this year, as it’s an escapist, non-violent game that charges you with building your perfect island hideaway. It’s kept a lot of people sane during quarantine life.

A standard Switch with its dock, above; a Switch Lite, which is strictly a portable system, below. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

A standard Switch can be hooked up to a television like any other video game console, using the included HDMI cable. By default, the Switch unit in its tabletop mode is “docked” into a charging station and adapter, and you can pull the bulk of the unit out of the dock and hook controllers up to it for portable play. While a full charge didn’t last long on launch-edition Switches in portable mode, the hardware received an update in 2019 that extended its battery life. Games also perform measurably worse in portable mode than they do while docked, but that only really matters for a handful of third-party games.

Players can also opt to purchase a Switch Lite ($199), a different model introduced last year, which only has the portable functionality and can’t be hooked up to a TV at all. Buyer beware: it’s easy for a newbie to walk into a store to buy a Switch as a gift and end up with a Lite instead. The Lite’s still a great system for solo play, especially on long car or plane rides, but you’re better off with a standard Switch if you ever want to play games locally with anyone else.

One other thing that I like to caution new Switch owners about, particularly if they’ve got small children, is that physical Switch games are tiny. Each cartridge is comparable in size to a postage stamp. They’re easy to misplace unless you’re very careful.

Switch cartridges are also famously coated in a non-toxic bitter substance called denatonium benzoate, so any little kids who put a Switch game in their mouth will immediately spit them out. In the interests of journalism, I have tasted a Switch game and can report it’s deeply unpleasant.

As a result, I strongly recommend that any parents with a Switch stick to an all-digital library until the kids are old enough to buy their own games. (If you’re looking for stocking stuffers, Switch gift cards are available at major retailers. It’s less exciting than a whole physical game, but also less likely to get lost in your couch.)

Fortunately, the Switch has a full online storefront that’s accessible via WiFi, with a wealth of control options to keep a child from spending too much money. As a trade-off, the Switch is markedly more aggro about basic security than other major video game systems, which can be a little obnoxious if you’re the only one who ever uses your Switch; mine has a habit of requiring me to log back into my profile and re-input all my passwords if I’ve put it down for more than a day or two.

A physical copy of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch, with a quarter for comparison. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

Another potential issue is what Switch fans call “JoyCon drift,” where its standard controllers sometimes wear out unusually quickly, which can cause the control sticks to malfunction. If one of your Switch’s thumbsticks always seems to be pulling in a random direction, even when no one’s touching it, you may have a drift problem. Nintendo will fix these controllers for you at no cost if you get in touch via its website; alternatively, you can buy a new gamepad and avoid using the JoyCons altogether. Nintendo makes a solid if expensive alternative called the Pro ($59.99) that’s worth picking up, but you can also explore cheaper options from companies like PowerA, Hori, and PDP. Fortunately, these days, third-party controllers are generally decent.

Another caveat: the Switch is the only one of the three major consoles on the market that does not come standard with any way to back up your data, either locally or via the cloud. Your only backup option for your Switch is to subscribe to Nintendo’s Switch Online service, which offers cloud server access as a perk. Otherwise, all of your data on your specific Switch is hard-locked to that unit. (There are third-party options here, but many of them require aftermarket mods which void your warranty.)

Pros:

  • You can only play the biggest new Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda on a Switch.
  • Both a portable and desktop video game system at once.
  • Inexpensive.
  • Lots of great party games. My Switch saw a lot of use at social events, back when those were a thing.
  • Switch Online is cheap, and comes with a big streaming library of old Nintendo hits from the NES and SNES.

Cons:

  • “JoyCon drift.”
  • The base amount of storage in a Switch doesn’t go very far.
  • Physical games are very easy to lose.
  • No cloud storage without Switch Online.
  • Because the Switch is lower-powered than other consoles, it often loses out on new third-party releases, and the ones that do appear look and perform measurably worse.

The setup process

Be sure to download and update a few games before you give a new console as a gift. (Xbox One X UI)

If you’re new to the market, or if you’re getting back into the hobby after some time spent away, it’s important to know that a modern console is essentially a small, specialized PC. Even if you’re trying to play a game off of a disc, it will require installation to the console’s hard drive and an update or two before it’s playable. Consoles also routinely receive updates to their basic system software, which are often requirements for playing the newest games or retaining access to their online storefronts.

On the PS5 or XSX, this is a much faster process than it was in previous generations due to this generation’s adoption of next-generation hard drives. Both systems run much faster and more smoothly than the PS4 or Xbox One, so a process of patches and updates that could’ve taken hours last year is down to minutes on current hardware. The Switch takes about as much time for an initial setup process as an average new tablet computer.

Even so, setting up a new system is a fairly elaborate process that can take a little while. If you’re planning to give a console as a gift, it’s worth taking the time to set it up before you wrap it. You’ll need to hook it up to a TV or monitor — HDMI is now the standard for all consoles — as well as your local network. (The Switch is WiFi-only without an adapter; other modern systems can do either WiFi or ethernet out of the box.) Fill out the menus, answer the questions, let it update itself, make a few player profiles for the members of your household, and then repackage the console for gifting. That way, the new system will be ready to rock as soon as its new owner can get the box open.

New consoles also offer the option of going all-digital, where you can buy all your games directly from a store application that’s built into the system’s UI. It saves you physical storage space and can often save you money if you luck into the right sale, but as a downside, it does mean you have to input some method of payment into your new console. If you plan to buy digital games or add-ons at all with your system, be sure to also set up a password for it.

Finally, all three major consoles feature online play out of the box, but require a monthly subscription service — Xbox Live Gold, Switch Online, or PlayStation Plus — to activate it. While you don’t need to pay to access some online features like social apps or digital storefronts, you do if you plan to play big online games like Call of Duty. You also receive all sorts of other perks for the various subscriptions, such as access to flash sales, extra perks, and the occasional free game. All three consoles go well out of their way to make sure it’s worth the monthly fee to stay subscribed, but it’s still only worth it for a system that’s going to see regular use.

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