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Best game console while we wait for PS5 and Xbox Series X: Switch, PS4, Oculus and more

The PS5 and Xbox Series X are coming, but here's what you can get right now.

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
Expertise Over 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping advice Credentials
  • Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
John Falcone
8 min read

The next generation of console gaming arrives on Nov. 12, when the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X hit stores. Expect them to be the classic impossible-to-get holiday gift, arriving in small quantities and marked up by online resellers. PS5 preorders are already tough to get, and preorders for the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S open Sept. 22.

As exciting as those consoles look, however, the current gaming landscape is arguably stronger than ever. The new Oculus Quest 2 from Facebook hits in October, and it's the mainstream, fully wireless VR headset that we've long been waiting for. The Switch, which debuted in March 2017, is Nintendo's biggest hit since the Wii, with its unique ability to let you play games on your TV or on the go. And while anyone looking for a new Xbox or PlayStation should definitely put any new investment towards the new 2020 models, at least any investment in games for the PS4 and Xbox One will transfer directly over to the new PS5 or Xbox Series X and Series S going forward. 

That said, you don't need a dedicated console for gaming these days. PCs are the best way to enjoy games with all the graphical bells and whistles turned on (at least for gamers with deeper pockets and the patience to tweak settings and optimize drivers). And "gaming as a service" is already available in the form of Apple Arcade, as well as game-streaming services like Microsoft's Project xCloud and Google's Stadia -- expect those options to increase in a future where 5G and superfast broadband are the norm. 

Read more: Best gaming PCs for 2020

But if you're homebound because of COVID-19 and looking for a less passive distraction than bingeing endless hours of TV shows, dropping $200 to $500 on a plug-and-play game console has its appeal. We've updated and streamlined our recommendations for the current marketplace in 2020 below; PS5 and new Xbox options will be added once they become available (and we've reviewed them).

Just note one important caveat: Demand for all three has spiked to unprecedented levels because of the coronavirus pandemic, so these remain harder to buy than at any point since they first launched. Don't be afraid to opt for used or refurbished models, and don't pay any prices that are exorbitantly marked up beyond list price. This story is periodically updated.

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The Switch lacks the flashy visuals and many of the triple-A "hard-core gamer" titles (Red Dead Redemption 2, the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077) that you'll find on the Xbox One and PS4. But you'll be too busy playing a long list of exclusive Nintendo franchises like Zelda, Mario and Animal Crossing to care. Unlike rival consoles, it can also hot-swap between playing on your TV and gaming on the go -- just pop it in or out of the included charging cradle. So, while you're unlikely to take a Switch on a plane in the age of COVID-19, you can move between rooms when other family members need the TV without skipping a beat. 

Yes, plenty of great old-school NES and SNES games are here, as are vast numbers of kid-friendly titles like Pokemon and Minecraft -- but the Switch has more M-rated games like Wolfenstein II and The Witcher 3 than all previous Nintendo platforms. (Yes, Fortnite is here as well.) The only problem? The Switch was out of stock for months, which is why many people have been opting for the Switch Lite instead (see below). But inventory seems to have returned to many retailers since September.

See complete Switch coverage at GameSpot.

Watch this: PS5 vs. Xbox Series X: Full comparison
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The original Oculus Quest was a bit of a gaming dark horse: It was the first consumer VR headset that was fully wireless and self-contained (read: no need to pop your phone into a plastic mount). With the Quest 2, Oculus has delivered improved screens in the headset and more polished hardware along with a nice price cut versus the original: The Quest 2 starts at $299 for 64GB, with a $399 version that quadruples that. Oculus is even curating an impressive list of games, including some familiar franchises like Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell. The biggest downside is that you now need a Facebook account to use it -- a new requirement we could do without.

Read our Oculus Quest 2 review.

Marta Franco/CNET

The Switch Lite can't connect to a TV like a regular Switch can, and it's got a smaller screen than the OG Switch. But it lets you play 99% of the same games, and it costs $100 less. For many -- especially now that everyone is stuck at home -- the lack of TV output is a deal breaker. On the other hand, the Switch Lite can sometimes be found in stock without crazy marked-up pricing, unlike nearly all of the other consoles listed above. For that reason alone, it's worthy of consideration for many.

Read our Nintendo Switch Lite review.

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The PlayStation 4 has trounced the Xbox One in the sales charts since both debuted back in November 2013, and with good reason: The PS4 started off at a lower price, and was laser-focused on producing a great gaming experience, with an impressive list of exclusive franchises like God of War, Uncharted, Spider-Man and The Last of Us, none of which is available on Xbox or Switch. (Gaming is central to the PS4, but it can also play Blu-ray discs and stream Netflix, Hulu, HBO and most other popular entertainment apps.) Outside of the Quest 2, the PS4 also has the best virtual reality integration of the current "big three" console trio, thanks to the PlayStation VR add-on.

Now, we know the PS5 Digital Edition is coming Nov. 12 and costs "only" $400. So why pay upwards of $300 or more for an aging PS4 system? Two reasons: First, the PS5 may well be impossible to get this holiday season. And, Sony may again offer the baseline PS4 for $200 with a bundled game or two, as it has in past Black Friday deals. As all parents know, a PS4 on Christmas morning is a much better option than an IOU for a PS5.

See complete PS4 coverage at GameSpot.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's nearly impossible to get an Xbox One right now. Both the Xbox One X (which enabled 4K gaming) and Xbox One S All-Digital Edition (which lacked an optical drive) have been officially discontinued, and the Xbox One S (pictured) seems to be out of stock everywhere. That may well be by design. While 4K gamers will be eyeing the $500 Xbox Series X on Nov. 12, Microsoft is also bowing the $300 Xbox Series S the same day. That model offers no optical drive and half the storage (512GB), but it plays all the same games as the Series X, albeit at a lower 1440p resolution, but supposedly at the same speeds. (Preorders open for both on Sept. 22.)

Read more: Xbox Series X vs. Xbox Series S: It's all about 4K vs. 1440

Microsoft has said that it intends for the Xbox One line to "coexist" with the newer models, at least for now. But barring a price drop, there seems little reason for it to exist if you can scoop up a Series S: The 2020 Series S costs the same and runs all the same games, in addition to all the forthcoming Series X games, too. 

Still, there's the issue of availability, which might make a new or used Xbox One S attractive for some. And all these Xbox models have access to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. In addition to activating online multiplayer options, this subscription service opens the door to accessing dozens of additional titles at no extra cost. That includes any forthcoming Microsoft titles like the upcoming Halo Infinite and Psychonauts 2. Microsoft is also touting a program called Smart Delivery that will automatically slot versions of games that are optimized for the Series X from your cloud library, if and when you upgrade, so you shouldn't need to repurchase specific titles to see them in their next-gen glory. 

Furthermore, Microsoft has extended its Project xCloud online gaming service to Game Pass Ultimate subscribers at no extra cost, meaning you can play streaming-based versions of many titles via (Android) phones and laptops, so long as you have a solid broadband connection.

See complete Xbox One coverage at GameSpot.

Retro game options

And for gamers who came of age in the '80s and '90s, reliving the hoary days of 8-, 16- and 32-bit gaming is the electronic equivalent of comfort food -- returning to a carefree world where your biggest problem was that the princess was in another castle. It's now easier than ever to replay your memories of Atari, Nintendo, Sega -- and even Turbografx 16, if you were that guy. Just keep two things in mind: These old-school games are probably less fun than you remember, and they're definitely much more difficult and unforgiving than nearly any modern game. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Alas, the beloved NES Mini and SNES Mini have been discontinued, but you'll find the bulk of those games available for download at no extra charge on the Switch's Nintendo Online Service ($20 per year). The same goes for Nintendo's Mario Anniversary Game and Watch, which is basically just two classic Super Mario games from the Online Service distilled into a tiny $50 handheld that arrives Nov. 13. (Good luck fighting collectors and shopping bots for that limited edition unit.) If you want to relive fond Nintendo memories, spend your money on Super Mario 3D All-Stars for the Switch instead.

The Nintendo 2DS/3DS platform, meanwhile, is also a retro gaming paradise -- if you can find the cartridges you're looking for. But that system has effectively been discontinued as Nintendo has doubled down on the Switch. (Pro tip for retro gamers: Seek out the 2DS XL, which was the best iteration of that platform.)

That said, there are a couple of current retro consoles that let you score dozens of titles in one shot for $50 to $100. If nostalgia is your thing, these might help you kill time until you can find an Xbox, PlayStation or Switch in stock. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sega's answer to the NES and SNES Mini is largely a winner. Like those now-expired Nintendo options, this micro console includes two vintage controllers (just like the old days, they're wired) and an easy HDMI hookup for connecting to any modern TV. There are 42 old-school games built in, and that's the list you'll want to check: If replaying Ecco the Dolphin, Toejam and Earl, Virtua Fighter 2 and Altered Beast is your idea of a good time, then by all means take the plunge. Just keep in mind that this unit frequently goes on sale for $50 (that's the price you should wait for), and console owners would be better off buying the Sega Genesis Classics, a fantastic $30 retro collection for Xbox, PS4 or Switch that nets you 51 titles, many of which are the same ones you'll find on the Genesis Mini.

Read our Sega Genesis Mini review.

Watch this: The Sega Genesis Mini is so rad

This new handheld console has a 4.3-inch screen (reminiscent of the late, great Sony PSP) and takes cartridges that package retro game collections by publisher, each of which cost about $20 and house up to 20 games. Kick things off with the $80 Atari bundle or the $100 Evercade Premium Pack, which adds Data East and Interplay cartridges. See Evercade's site for the full breakdown of which games are on which cartridge, but this system is more about deep cuts, like titles from the rarely seen Atari 7800 and Lynx consoles -- you won't find any Nintendo games here. Still, this handheld packs a nice surprise: Unlike the Switch Lite, it can also output gameplay to your TV screen. But since external controllers aren't supported, you'll need both a long HDMI cable and a mini-HDMI-to-HDMI dongle to make that setup work.

Read our Evercade review.

Watch this: Evercade plays 100s of retro games and it doesn't suck

Read more: 3 great VPNs for Xbox in 2020