When it comes to gaming you’ve got one real choice: console or PC. Sure, you’ve got a range of options within the two, but when you get down to it, that’s the big choice you’re making. Aside from the shape of the controller and the occasional exclusive game, it doesn’t matter whether the box under your TV is a PlayStation or an Xbox. Similarly, every PC sits under your desk, makes a whirring sound, and has Steam installed.
Consoles are always cheaper than PCs up front, but there’s more to the cost of a gaming set up than just the initial sticker price. You’ve got to buy a steady stream of games and, potentially, subscribe to an online service. What do these costs look like in real terms?
If you’re looking to invest in a new gaming setup in 2017, how much is it really going to cost you? Sure, consoles are cheaper (that’s just not up for debate), but how much cheaper are they?
Let’s dig in and find out.
What Does a Gaming PC Cost Anyway?
When I’m talking about a gaming PC, I’m not just talking about specced-out rigs, with water cooling, neon lights, and an over-the-top custom case. Sure, that might be the popular image of what a gaming PC should be, but it isn’t what they have to be. If you don’t need to play every new game in 4K at 60 frames per second, you can get away with a far cheaper build.
We’ve looked before at how to build a cheap gaming PC from server parts, and a few years ago, Danny put together a decent gaming PC for under $500. You don’t need to invest $2,500 to be able to play the latest games, but you’re still paying a lot more than for a console.
Let’s set a base PC price of just under $900. That’s a lot of money, but it’s not so much that people who are really serious about gaming wouldn’t consider spending it. It’s a bit more than a good work PC, but it’s nowhere near Mac Pro money. You can build a gaming rig cheaper, but you’ll be cutting some corners. For that price, you’ll get every computer component you need.
A good PC build should be able to last five years. That’s slightly less than a full console generation, but by the end of the PlayStation 3’s life, it had fallen far behind PCs in gaming ability. It wasn’t even a competition at that stage. Halfway through your PC’s life, you’ll probably need to upgrade your RAM, throw in a new graphics card, and so on, so let’s budget another $300 for that.
That means the lifetime cost of our reasonably priced gaming PC is $1,200.
What About the Consoles?
The starting price of a console is a lot cheaper than a gaming PC. Right now on Amazon, a Playstation 4 Pro is going for $399 [CDN$ 499.96/£332] and an Xbox One S is about $349.99 [CDN$ 379.96] depending on the bundle you pick.
Let’s assume the same 5 year life for a console. Sure, it’s not a full generation, but we’re a few years into the current one. The only upgrade available for a console is a new hard drive, but there’s no real need to factor that in; most people won’t need one.
The big extra cost is online gaming. On a PC, it’s essentially free — as long as you’re not signed up to a MMORPG. On consoles, however, it isn’t.
Both PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold cost $59.99 a year. Over a five year console lifespan, that’s an extra $300. And that’s if you buy annually — if you’re subscribed monthly, it’s $9.99 each month for a total cost of just under $600.
That puts the total price of a PlayStation 4 at $698.95 and an Xbox one at $649.94. Or up to a max of $998.40 and $949.39 respectively if you’re paying for online services on a monthly basis.
Even assuming the worst case, you’re still coming in a few hundred dollars cheaper than our PC. In the best case, a console costs just over half the cost of the PC.
Does the Cost of Games Matter?
It used to be the case that PC games cost $10 to $20 less than the equivalent on a console. That was because Sony and Microsoft took a cut of every game sold for their platform. Now, for whatever reason, the situation has changed: AAA games cost the same across all three platforms.
I checked out some of this year’s biggest releases — games like Dishonored 2, Call of Duty: Infinite War, and Watch Dogs 2 — and all the games cost around $59.99 on every platform. Sure, there’s the odd saving of $0.07 here and $0.03 there, but for the most part it’s $60 flat if you want a new AAA game.
If you’re interested in indie titles, you’re always going to have more options on a PC. Releasing a game through Steam is simple compared to trying to get one into Sony or Microsoft’s stores. There are countless smaller games that cost just a few dollars which are available on a PC but not on a console. Offers, like Humble Bundles, make it even easier to pick up cheap titles.
The thing is, it’s impossible to compare like with like. If you just play indie games on your PC and someone else only plays AAA titles on their PS4, your lifetime cost for the system might end up lower. But if they mainly play used games while you pick up every major title, you’ll spend three times the money they do.
The other complicating factor is that both PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold offer their members free games to play. While you don’t get to pick the titles, there’s a steady stream of awesome games available to play for no extra cost.
There are also regular sales through the online stores. The prices might never drop as low as they do on Steam, but you can still regularly pick up awesome older console games for under ten bucks.
When it comes down to it, AAA games cost the same where ever you play them and there are cheap options available for every platform. If you mainly want to play indie games because you prefer them, buy a PC, but don’t get one just because you think it will save you money on games in the long run.
The Cost of Virtual Reality
Gaming is about to change. Over the last few years, virtual reality has gone from fantasy to fantastically awful to functional. It’s not really here yet, but it will be soon. More and more games are shipping with VR support.
At the moment, the Xbox One lags behind the PS4 and PC in terms of VR. Sony offers the $400 PlayStation VR headset (UK), while on PC, the best current options are the $600 Oculus Rift and $800 HTC Vive. The prices are obviously going to fall as VR becomes more available, but it’s clear that it’s not magically going to be cheaper on PC. If anything, the console manufacturer’s economies of scale will let them offer VR headsets at a lower price.
Both games consoles and gaming PCs have other uses outside of playing games: you can use a PS4 or Xbox One as a media center and a gaming PC, is still a fully functioning PC.
Since your games console is already plugged into your TV, it makes sense to set up Netflix or whatever streaming services you subscribe to on it. They work well as media centers, although they aren’t quite as intuitive as a Roku or Apple TV. If you just need a way to stream stuff for yourself and other tech-capable people, using your games console will save you a hundred bucks on a set top box.
On the other hand, a PC is still a PC. If you want, you can do all your regular computer stuff on your gaming rig. Unfortunately, though, gaming PCs make terrible day to day computers.
Unless you’re editing photos or videos, they are massively over powered for most tasks — a video card does very little except run up your electricity bill when you’re on Facebook.
If you’ve got a console, you can pick up a budget laptop as well and still not come close to the cost of even our moderately priced rig. You’ll have a dedicated games system and a lightweight flexible PC you can carry around with you.
Adding Things Up
Whatever way you slice it, games consoles are a cheaper way to play games than gaming PCs. Even a moderately-priced system has a lifetime cost of about twice that of consoles. Sure, you can build a super-cheap rig but it will go out of date faster than the milk in your fridge. If budget and being able to play the latest AAA games are your only concerns, buy a console. I have a PS4 and I couldn’t be happier with it.
That’s not to say PCs don’t have a lot going for them. If you love indie games or maxed-out specs, they’re the best way to get them. But don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re somehow saving money because after finishing up gaming you can open a spreadsheet. Gaming PCs have always been, and continue to be, a terrible financial investment.
Do you agree or disagree with us? Would you invest more money for a good gaming PC? Let us know in the comments below!