The new consoles are almost here! Sony announced two versions of the PlayStation 5: a standard edition with a UHD Blu-ray drive, and an all-digital version. With Microsoft also expected to drop an all-digital next-gen Xbox, you might be tempted to ditch the disc drive this time around. Here’s why you might want to reconsider that.
All-Digital Consoles Cost Less Initially
While neither Sony nor Microsoft has officially confirmed the price of their next-gen consoles, the recommended retail price of each is expected to land somewhere around the $600 mark. The PlayStation 5 Digital Edition is expected to be the cheaper model, as it lacks a disc drive.
In the case of an all-digital PS5, the only difference in build cost to Sony is the price of a UHD Blu-ray player. The Eurogamer hardware experts at Digital Foundry believe the cost of such a drive to a company like Sony is about $20 per unit. Economies of scale, and the sheer volume of drives Sony will have to buy to prepare for the demand, bring the price down.
However, even with a $20 discount, a console that lacks such a prominent feature is unlikely to sell. For the Digital Edition to make sense, Sony has to significantly discount it to make it more appealing.
In July 2020, Microsoft launched an all-digital Xbox One S for only $50 less than the same console with a disc drive, so we might not see a big discount. Another option would be for Sony to sell both consoles at the same price, with increased storage capacity in the digital edition.
Either way, all-digital consoles are typically less expensive than their optical-media-guzzling counterparts.
Digital Games Often Cost More
When you remove a console’s disc drive, you essentially remove a marketplace. All-digital consoles are at the mercy of the platform holder, and whatever it wants to charge for releases. While this is mitigated somewhat by subscription services, like Game Pass or PlayStation Now, what if you still buy all of your games?
Brand-new titles often launch at the full retail price on digital storefronts. Depending on your location, though, some retailers might offer a significant discount on new games. Because Amazon, Best Buy, Target, and Walmart compete with each other, they often have sales, making physical games cheaper than the digital versions.
For example, in Australia, Sony’s latest big release, Ghost of Tsushima, costs around $71 in the PlayStation Store, but retailers are selling physical copies for as low as around $49. At these prices, if you only bought five triple-A games at the retail price, it would offset the $100 you save by going digital.
The prices you see on the shelves at your local game retailer will vary, of course, but competition almost always benefits the consumer.
Of course, not everyone buys the latest release on day one. If you’re on a budget, you might be seriously considering the cheaper, all-digital console. Unfortunately, this will also lock you out of the cheapest game option of all: the secondhand market.
While digital game prices remain at their RRP until a sale hits (and then swiftly go back up again), secondhand games do not. Retailers like GameStop in the U.S., Best Buy in Canada, CEX in the U.K., and EB Games in Australia, dedicate a large amount of shelf space to reduced-price, preowned games.
They don’t offer particularly compelling trade-in prices, but this allows you to sell something quick if you don’t want to bother with listing it on eBay (where you’ll generally get a much better price). If you don’t mind foregoing peeling off the plastic wrap and (maybe) a preorder bonus, you can save by picking up a used copy of a game.
Physical Copies Give You More Options
So, what happens if you get stuck with a turkey? If you’re unhappy with your purchase, some retailers (like EB Games) will allow you to return it within a short time frame for a full refund. This allows you to play the game, decide it’s not for you, and then return it.
If that’s not an option, though, you can still sell it for slightly cheaper than retail on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, or other sites.
That’s impossible on digital storefronts, though. You can only claim a refund from Sony if you haven’t played the game. Even if you download and never launch it, Sony won’t refund it. There’s also no way to sell a key or transfer ownership for any digital games you buy.
Microsoft will only give you a refund on Xbox titles if you’ve launched the game at least once, but only played it for less than two hours. This is more aligned with Steam’s refund policy, but you’re still not permitted to sell keys or transfer ownership like you can on Steam.
In 2016, Microsoft floated the idea that the Xbox One store might let players “sell back their downloadable games to the store for 10 percent of the purchase price in in-store credit.” This somewhat-raw deal never materialized, though.
There’s also the ability to lend or borrow physical copies, which is something Sony and Microsoft’s digital storefronts have yet to fully embrace. While so-called “gamesharing” is possible on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, we’ve cautioned against it in the past.
Digital games aren’t tied to a single console, but they are tied to the account holder’s “primary” console. Since you can’t have two primaries, even sharing a library with your spouse or kids on another console is a bit wonky.
With a physical copy, though, you simply eject the disc and take it into the other room.
Physical Games Are Forever
Microsoft announced that Forza Horizon 3 will be delisted from the Xbox One store on Sept. 27, 2020, most likely due to licensing issues. If you already bought the game, you’ll still be able to download and play it whenever you like. However, if you want to buy it after that date, you’ll have to find a physical copy.
Delisted Games is dedicated to recording the decline of digital titles from storefronts. While it’s rare that a game you’ve purchased will become unavailable to download, it happens all the time with those listed in digital storefronts. It’s also happened in the past with purchased titles, like the legendary P.T. demo released on PlayStation in 2014.
With the exception of the great Atari video game burial of 1983, physical copies of games aren’t removed from circulation very often. Of course, eventually, manufacturing stops on all titles, but you can usually find secondhand copies of long after that. This is why some people only buy physical copies.
There’s also the issue of stores eventually shutting down, like the Wii Store. At some point in the future, Nintendo has also announced “the ability to re-download WiiWare and Virtual Console games will also stop at some point.”
This means the games you’ve purchased digitally for your Wii system will no longer be available for download. If you don’t have them on your console, they’ll, potentially, be gone forever, and you can’t play them on the Switch, either.
You Can Still Go Digital on a Standard Console
Subscription services, like Microsoft’s Game Pass, are one of the more compelling arguments for all-digital consoles. These provide access to around 100 games for a monthly fee. New games are also added each month, while older titles are taken out of rotation after a while.
Sony has PlayStation Now, which provides similar functionality, while publishers like EA and Ubisoft have their own services.
You can also use a digital subscription on a standard console and buy games during digital sales. Plus, if a game you like to play is removed from your subscription service, you can buy a secondhand copy if the price is a concern.
Digital Downloads Depend on an Internet Connection
Digital games are more convenient because you don’t have to leave your house (or sofa) to play the latest release—as long as you have a speedy internet connection without low data caps, that is.
If your internet connection is slow or unreliable, you might find shopping at your local retailer to be significantly quicker, even with a large day-one patch to download. In a recent test, Spiderman took about four hours to download on a 100 Mb connection during off-peak hours, which isn’t bad.
However, not all games download at the same pace as a Sony first-party title. Some are inexplicably slower, even if you tweak your PS4 to speed up downloads. Also, if you live with others or on a college campus, download progress can be hindered by those with whom you share the connection.
Like Movies? UHD Blu-ray Is Nice to Have
While not everyone buying a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X is interested in using it to watch movies, a UHD Blu-ray player is a fine addition to any home. If you’re at all interested in watching lossless, ultra-high-definition content, a modern Blu-ray player is a must.
Furthermore, you likely won’t find a dedicated unit for the gap in price between an all-digital or standard console.
Also, streaming services, while convenient, don’t offer the highest playback quality due to the compression used to stream. Though optical discs might feel somewhat outdated, sales of UHD Blu-rays are surging as more people buy UHD televisions.
There Are Always Exceptions
If you don’t care about buying the latest games, or you’re fine with paying a premium to go all-digital, these arguments largely won’t apply. Likewise, if your next-gen Xbox is just going to be a Game Pass machine, then an all-digital version will likely save you some money,
It also remains to be seen what Microsoft will do with the rumored Xbox Series S. Reports suggest it’s a less powerful, all-digital console for a lower price than the Series X. Unlike the PlayStation 5 (both versions of which have the same core hardware), a cheaper, all-digital next-gen Xbox isn’t directly comparable to the flagship model, which could cost twice as much.