The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are 4K-capable games consoles. They’re also gaming powerhouses at lower resolutions such as 1440p and 1080p, and possess a host of upscaling tech to boost and squeeze as much as possible over out of those lower resolutions, offering multiple options that span the graphics and performance spectrum.
But which is best? With some trade-offs, each resolution offered by both consoles can be hugely enjoyable. With the best monitors for PS5 and best monitors for Xbox Series X, as well as the best gaming TVs and best 120Hz 4K TVs offering quality options across the spectrum, the choice of resolution can be hard to make if you’re not clued up on the differences.
Consider playing at 4K if...
The current-gen consoles are 4K gaming beasts, no doubt about it. From an image perspective, nothing beats a full 4K resolution. But, like many things in gaming hardware, top specs in one area come with compromises for others. In this case, it’s mainly the frame rate. However, there’s much more to it than this, and, while you can certainly get excellent experiences at 4K with lower frame rates, there are a few key things to think about when deciding on whether to go big or not.
You value image quality and detail over all else
A 4K resolution will offer the best quality image you can get in gaming on console right now, so you should choose 4K if that’s what you value most. Yes, the extra detail, lighting effects, shadows, reflections, and other fidelity enhancement offered at 4K will likely lead to a drop in performance, but, if absolute detail is your goal, then it has to be 4K.
You want all the top graphical enhancements
As well as overall image quality being superb at 4K, choosing this higher resolution will also ensure you usually get the best of every other graphical enhancement. The main attraction here is that of ray-tracing - a rendering technique that can create realistic lighting effects. While this doesn’t rely on having a 4K resolution enabled, choosing a mode that prioritizes a 4K resolution will make it sharper, and unlock more detail in a game’s lighting, shadows, and reflections. If getting the most immersive, hyper-realistic, and lifelike environments is a top priority, then choosing 4K will unlock that.
You have a 4K TV setup
It sounds obvious but it's true and worth reiterating. If you game on a 4K TV, then playing at 4K is ideal. Matching the native resolution of your television to a 4K output from a PS5 or Xbox Series X will enhance the level of detail and will make the most out of your whole setup and tech available to you. While the PS5, Xbox Series X, and modern TVs have a host of tech inside them that make lower resolutions work and look great when upscaled, sticking with 4K will enable all your tech to work at its optimum level, and make your games shine their brightest.
You mainly play single-player games
The slower, play-at-your-own-pace style of many single-player games automatically makes such games better fits for full 4K resolution as the necessity for faster frame rates is not as high as in online games.
This is especially the case with third-person perspective role-playing games (RPGs) where speed and the fastest frame rates are not critical to play - or enjoyment. While performance modes are often available for these games, the Fidelity modes are superb experiences at 30 frames per second. There’s certainly an appeal to maximizing the immersion in the worlds of games like The Last of Us Part 2 Remastered, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Cyberpunk 2077, and Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. Embracing 4K resolutions or modes is the best way to do this without impacting the overall experience, so long as you’re not fussed about that drop in performance.
Consider playing at 1080p if...
Full HD, also known as 1080p, is still a relevant resolution for gaming in 2024. It might have a reputation for being more at home on PC or handhelds, but with all the extra power that the PS5 and Xbox Series X can offer, choosing 1080p definitely has appeal on console. The main benefit of this choice is enabling the console to redirect its hardware chops to performance over quality, This allows for far smoother and seamless action and motion throughout games, at the expense of losing much of the granular detail 4K provides.
In truth, a lot of the same approaches here can also be applied to 1440p resolution, but the number of games that offer this resolution is relatively small.
You want the highest frame rates possible
By reducing your resolution to 1080p, you free up power and resources to increase the rate of frames per second (fps) that can be outputted - this is the clearest advantage of choosing 1080p (or any lower-than-4K resolution) on PS5 or Xbox Series X. Concentrating hardware power and capabilities on a lower resolution opens up the possibilities for significant boosts to framerates. 60 frames per second in performance modes is now commonplace, while a few modern games can even reach the dizzying heights of 120fps (as long as you have an appropriately capable screen). If the smoothest possible action in single-player games is what you prefer, or you need to make sure you get every advantage possible in online or competitive play, then choosing 1080p will get you the performance to achieve both.
You’re not fussed about high-end visual effects
If you don’t care for ray-tracing and the enhanced lighting or reflection it offers, then choosing a lower resolution and a performance mode is the way to go. By opting out of those graphical enhancements at the lower resolution, the experience can focus on faster frame rates and smoother action. While overall image quality and detail will take a hit at 1080p, modern games still look incredible without the top-tier enhancements.
You play fast-paced games or competitively online
As hinted at above, generally, the higher frame rates in fast-paced and competitive games like Call of Duty, Apex Legends, and Fortnite, will give you invaluable advantages during play. Squeezing in more frames per second means the action is much more fluid, allowing for quicker reactions and inputs. Perhaps playing such games at 4K will be the norm in the future, but, until then, playing at 4K usually hits performance hard, so 1080p is your friend for fast gaming on PS5 and Xbox Series X.
You pair your console with a monitor
If you have a multi-device setup at a gaming desk or prefer to team your current-gen console with a dedicated gaming monitor, then you may find 1080p to be the best fit for you. Doubling down on the aforementioned frame rate boost you get at 1080p, complimentary tech in gaming monitors such as variable refresh rate (VRR) and snappy response times (the time it takes to change from one color to another) add extra enhancements to your experience. Throw in the smaller screen to focus on, and (usually) a host of onboard settings to tinker with, and 1080p can really fly and shine on a gaming monitor.
4K vs 1080p on console - overall
As you can see there are a few things to think about when stacking 4K and 1080p up against each other. If we are as reductive as possible, it comes down to which you prefer over image quality and detail or smooth and fast frame rates. But, as you can see from the above, it's a little more nuanced than that, and the games you play will certainly play a big part in your choice.
One way to achieve the best of both worlds from a tech and product perspective is to team your console with a 4K screen - that way you can choose between 4K and 1080p depending on what you're playing as and when and get the best of both worlds.
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Rob is Deputy Editor of TechRadar Gaming, a video games journalist, critic, editor, and writer, and has years of experience gained from multiple publications. Prior to being TechRadar Gaming's Deputy Editor, he was a longstanding member of GamesRadar+, being the Commissioning Editor for Hardware there for years, while also squeezing in a short stint as Gaming Editor at WePC before joining TechRadar Gaming. He is also a freelance writer on tech, gaming hardware, video games, gardens, and landscapes and is crowdfunding a book on video game landscapes that you can back and pre-order now too.