5 years after launch, we compared the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One — and it's a harder decision than ever

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Five years ago, in 2013, Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One were on the verge of launch.

Now, in 2018, the two consoles have come into their own – and they’re more distinct from each other than ever before.

They’re also more affordable than ever before. But which to buy?

The answer isn’t so clear.


1. Price.

The Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 cost approximately the same amount of money: The base level for each is $US250 to $US300 in North America.

The ranges in price come from bundle offerings, in which the consoles come with various games or extra controllers or services at a discount that still raise the overall cost. You’re also likely to find sales that put the prices below $US250.

That’s all before we start talking about the more powerful, more expensive versions of the consoles: the $US400 PlayStation 4 Pro and the $US500 Xbox One X.

If you’re looking for the best-looking games running on the most powerful console hardware, then you’re looking at buying one of these step-up versions of the PS4 and the Xbox One. Both do everything the normal PS4 and Xbox One consoles do but have the added benefit of making games look ever better than usual.

In the case of the Xbox One X, games are able to natively run with 4K/HDR visuals; the PlayStation 4 Pro offers a similar visual boost, though a slightly less impressive one. If you just bought a super-high-end 4K/HDR television and want to see what it can do, the Xbox One X is your best option when it comes to gaming.

In general, though, for the average buyer, the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 are evenly matched when it comes to price.


2. Games.

Sony‘The Last of Us: Part II’ is a highly anticipated PS4-exclusive game.

This is where things start to divide pretty sharply: Sony’s PlayStation 4 simply has more games you can only play on the PlayStation 4.

From the “Uncharted” series to “The Last of Us,” “Bloodborne,” “Spider-Man” and “God of War,” Sony has a far richer lineup of exclusive games on the PlayStation 4. Coming heavies like “Death Stranding” loom large on the horizon. And major third-party games like “Call of Duty,” “Assassin’s Creed,” “Madden,” and “FIFA” all show up on the PlayStation 4 as well as the Xbox One.

It has been Microsoft’s biggest problem with the Xbox One in recent years: Not enough great games that can be played on only the Xbox One. There’s “Halo” and “Forza,” and the occasional new exclusive like “Sea of Thieves” and “State of Decay 2,” but nothing of the scale that Sony’s PS4 has.

For many, understandably, the game-library comparison is enough to tip the scale in favour of Sony’s PlayStation 4. But look deeper and you’ll find the competition is more complicated.


3. Services.

Microsoft

Sony and Microsoft offer nearly identical services, which serve as a means of accessing online multiplayer gaming as well as offering “free” games (as long as you remain a paying subscriber).

In Sony’s case, the service is PlayStation Network; in Microsoft’s case, it’s Xbox Live. They cost about the same amount of money ($US60 a year) and offer access to online gaming on their respective platforms. Both dole out a handful of free games to paying subscribers every month, yours to play as long as you continue to subscribe.

PlayStation Network and Xbox Live are industry-standard services at this point. What makes each console stand out in the services department is its Netflix-like gaming services: PlayStation Now and Xbox Game Pass.

With PlayStation Now, users can play more than 650 playable PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4 games on a PlayStation 4 or a PC. The games are running elsewhere – you just start playing – though some are able to be downloaded to the PS4 for local play. It costs $US20 a month, or $US100 a year.

With Game Pass, users can download and play more than 100 original Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games on the Xbox One. It costs $US10 a month. Better yet: Any games Microsoft publishes show up on Game Pass at launch, including the next major “Halo” and “Forza” games. It’s one of the best deals available in gaming for this alone.

Xbox Game Pass is a strong argument for owning an Xbox One and offers a glimpse into the future of video game consoles. Instead of dropping $US60 a game, for $US10 a month you have access to a massive library that includes new, major games. That’s huge.


4. Backward compatibility.

YouTube/Larry Hryb

Sony’s biggest selling point for the PlayStation 4 over the Xbox One is a larger, better collection of exclusive games. It’s a pretty major selling point, as previously noted.

Microsoft’s biggest selling point for the Xbox One over the PlayStation 4 is backward compatibility. An ever-growing list of Xbox 360 and original Xbox games are playable on the Xbox One. If you have a disc for an old game, you simply put it into your Xbox One; if you own the game digitally, it will show up in your game library. Microsoft actually added this feature after the Xbox One launched.

It may sound ridiculous, but there’s a good reason backward compatibility is so important: It’s indicative of Microsoft’s approach with the Xbox brand going forward.

It sets a precedent that Xbox players should expect games from previous consoles to move forward to new platforms. It shows that Microsoft sees the importance of preserving gaming history. Philosophically speaking, it’s a meaningful statement about how Microsoft sees the future of its brand: Xbox as a digital platform for gaming, playable across various devices, in line with the company’s “Play Anywhere” mission statement.

It’s a forward-looking approach that makes the Xbox brand more appealing as a result.


5. Controllers.

Sony

Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 have best-in-class, comfortable, extremely complex gamepads. Two thumbsticks, a directional pad, and over half a dozen other buttons – they’re about as easy to pick up and learn as a computer keyboard.

But, also like a keyboard, if you’ve spent any time using gamepads, you’ll be fine with either the Xbox One or the PS4. For the millions of people familiar with traditional console gamepads, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 gamepads are perfect. For anyone else, they’re a nightmare of confusion.

That aside, the question of which you prefer is one of personal preference. This Minecraft-themed Xbox One gamepad looks sweet, but is – functionally – nearly identical to a PlayStation 4 DualShock 4 gamepad:

Xbox One gamepad (Minecraft)

Since so many blockbuster games are made for release on both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, the gamepads have to be relatively similar. Any company making a unique gamepad isolates itself from major multiplatform blockbusters like “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield” (see: the Nintendo Wii and Wii U consoles).


6. Other stuff.

Sony

Sony’s PlayStation 4 does something the Xbox One does not: virtual reality. Sony’s PlayStation VR headset is a unique aspect of the PlayStation 4.

It doesn’t come with the PS4, of course – you’ll have to drop somewhere in the ballpark of $US200 to $US300 for PS VR. The headset offers a relatively high-end virtual-reality experience, better than a smartphone-based headset (like Google’s Daydream and Samsung’s Gear VR) but not quite as powerful as a PC-based headset (like Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive). There are even some incredible exclusives, like the ability to play through “Resident Evil 7” in VR – a horrifying experience I’d strongly suggest.

Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 have a camera/microphone peripheral – the Xbox Kinect and the PlayStation 4 Camera – neither of which is widely used or required. They both have cloud-save functionality for games, and they both have relatively simple, easy-to-use interfaces. Generally speaking, they’re more similar than different.


7. Cross-play.

NintendoThe Microsoft-owned ‘Minecraft’ features guest characters like Mario when it appears on Nintendo’s consoles, whether the 3DS or the Switch. Though Microsoft and Nintendo are competitors, the two companies work together in some instances — Nintendo Switch and Xbox One players are able to play some games together, for instance.

Lately, Microsoft has led the charge in the video game industry toward a future in which gamers on competing game consoles can play together.

It all started with “Minecraft.”

The Microsoft-owned blockbuster is available on pretty much everything that plays games, whether consoles, phones, or handhelds.

Microsoft – the maker of the Xbox One and a direct competitor to Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Nintendo’s Switch – publishes “Minecraft” on Sony and Nintendo (and Apple and Google) platforms in addition to its Xbox consoles.

More important, even though Microsoft owns “Minecraft,” the game can be played across competing devices. “Minecraft” players on Xbox One can join up with players on iPhone, Nintendo Switch, Android, and PC/Mac – even if you’re playing in a virtual-reality headset!

But Xbox One can’t play with PlayStation 4, and vice versa.

That’s because Sony has refused to play nice with the competition – a stance that became increasingly anachronistic as gamers turn toward the argument that games should be playable across competing platforms.

Thankfully for us, Sony finally relented in September. The game that broke through was “Fortnite,” which can now be played across all platforms. It’s still early days, and Microsoft still has far better cross-platform support than Sony, but there is some progress.


And the winner is … it’s complicated.

The PlayStation 4 is the best console to own for playing the majority of the best games of this generation of game consoles. It’s the only place you can play “Horizon Zero Dawn,” “God of War,” and “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.”

It’s also a blessedly simple, snappy console – even after five years of software updates. The PS4 that Sony released way back in November 2013 still feels surprisingly modern in terms of basic use. The Xbox One, while snappier than ever before, still feels muddy to use.

That said, the Xbox One game library is massive and includes a rich history of Xbox 360 and original Xbox games. Backward compatibility is a huge bonus, as is the ability to play multiplatform games like “Minecraft” and “Fortnite” with friends on competing platforms.

In general, Microsoft’s approach to gaming with Xbox is friendlier to gamers than Sony’s with the PlayStation. Though there are excellent exclusive games on the PS4, the Xbox One – and Xbox as a whole – is the platform I’m more confident in going forward.

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