Every few years, the planets align and we're introduced to a new Xbox, a new PlayStation, and a new generation of PC graphics cards all at once—the perfect storm for a gaming-centric flame war. And with Nvidia's latest cards costing $500 to $1,500, console users are singing the common refrain: "PC gaming is too expensive." But these cost comparisons are often misleading.
You Already Own a PC
When people see a $500 graphics card, they think, "Holy smokes—I can buy an entire PS5 for that, and PC gamers are paying that much for just one component?" But that's not really a fair comparison, because you (probably) already own a computer—so it makes more sense to compare the cost of a PS5 to the cost of upgrading your existing (or next) PC.
Let's say you have a decent, somewhat modern desktop PC, but it uses integrated graphics, making it a gaming slouch. If you wanted to game on that PC, you wouldn't need to build a new computer from scratch—you'd just need to pop in a new graphics card, maybe with an upgraded power supply (depending on your graphics card's power needs). This isn't a hugely complicated task—just read those two steps from our PC building guide—and you could easily do it for the same price as a modern console, or less. Nvidia's latest cards start at $500, but those are just the high-end models—for each new generation, the enthusiast models come out a few months before the midrange GPUs most of us buy. Keep an eye out for some great $250 to $300 cards next year.
But let's say you don't have a desktop PC, having opted for a more portable laptop instead. You could upgrade it with an external GPU enclosure (if your laptop has the right Thunderbolt port), but that gets expensive once you factor in the cost of the graphics card that goes inside it. For a more cost-effective solution, I actually recommend buying two PCs. Yes, you read that right.
Let's say you're eyeing the $400 PS5 Digital Edition, and you currently own a $500 Windows laptop—a budget-friendly but not bottom-of-the-barrel setup that totals $900. The next time you're ready to upgrade your computer, you could skip the new laptop and put together a solid $600 gaming PC instead, with a $300 Chromebook for coffee shop work or chilling on the couch. The total package still costs $900, but you get a gaming PC without giving up portability. The Chromebook won't necessarily handle everything your old laptop did, but your desktop Windows PC can pick up the slack whenever you need Windows.
If you generally go for more expensive $1,000 laptops, you have a lot more room to play with—you can put more money into the gaming machine, or put more money into the laptop. I switched to this two-computer setup years back, and it's been incredible—even after replacing an otherwise high-end Dell XPS 13 with a cheap used Chromebook.
That exact situation won't work for everyone (and the $300 Xbox Series S certainly throws a wrench into things on the absolute low end), but you get my drift: With some outside-the-box thinking, PC gaming is absolutely attainable on a console budget, if you take a more holistic approach to your buying decision.
PCs Have Some Hidden Cost Savings
And that's only the price of the initial hardware. When you factor in the other costs that come along during a gaming machine's life, the PC still comes out looking pretty good.
Consider games, for example. While people often cite ever-regular Steam sales as evidence that PC games are cheaper than their console counterparts, I haven't found this to be entirely true—pop recent games into price trackers like PS Deals and IsThereAnyDeal and you'll find many PC games share similarly low sale prices as their console counterparts. However: You definitely don't see as many giveaways and bundles on consoles as you do on PC, thanks to companies like Epic and Humble. Even when PC gamers find themselves low on cash, they never have a shortage of games to play.
More importantly, console gamers are required to pay a subscription to PS Plus and Xbox Live Gold for online multiplayer. This is an insane concept to PC gamers, for whom multiplayer is almost always free (with the exception of certain games, like World of Warcraft, that have their own fees). If a $60-per-year subscription is required for feature parity, you need to factor that into the console's total cost, rather than just comparing the cost of the initial hardware. Heck, saving that $60 a year is enough to get you close to a mid-cycle graphics card upgrade for your PC.
I'm not trying to argue that consoles are more expensive than PCs—far from it. They're a fantastic value with plenty of their own advantages. I'm merely pointing out that the two platforms, when taken as a whole, are on more similar footing than many give them credit for. PC gaming isn't just for the rich spec nerds dropping $1,000 on graphics cards.
There's More to PC Gaming Than Better Graphics
In fact, most PC gamers aren't spending thousands of dollars on high-end rigs. According to Steam's Hardware Survey, many PC gamers play on 1080p monitors with older, mid-tier graphics cards like Nvidia’s GTX 1060 (which came out in 2016 and cost $250). Those cards are not far off from the power of the Xbox One X, meaning top-tier graphics probably weren't the deciding factor in those people's platform of choice.
For most people, PC gaming isn't about spending loads of money just to get the best graphics around. PCs, from cheap potatoes to ultra-pricey dream machines, offer flexibility no console can match. Want to lower the graphics settings and get a higher frame rate? The PC can do that in just about every title (so long, games locked to 30 frames per second). Want to play with a super-precise mouse and keyboard instead of a controller? Doom Eternal just got a whole lot easier. Want to play with a controller on the couch? PCs can do that too, and you can even choose which control scheme you want to use on a game-by-game basis.
And that's to say nothing of backwards compatibility: While Xbox and PlayStation owners are arguing over which previous-gen games their new consoles can play, PC gamers have their pick of just about any title released in the past decade (and beyond). You aren't limited by arbitrary console "generations," and really old games can be emulated with DOSBox, re-released on GOG, or modded with more modern graphics. And, while you don't have to play with graphics settings to game on PC, it's an awfully nice bonus for those who want full control over the experience. (Oh, and I don't have to fight anyone for the TV at night, which is something you can't put a price on.)
Consoles are great. PCs are great. But it's about which product is best for your needs—price doesn't have to be a barrier. With a bit of forethought, both platforms are easily attainable with a reasonable budget.