5 Reel vs 3 Reel Slots

Whilst the best online casinos can boast of hundreds of slot games to play, these are often broken down into smaller categories making it easier for players to find the types of game within the genre that they most enjoy. One of the common ways casinos will marshal their huge armies of slots is by the rank of 3 reel and 5 reel formats.

The key differences? Well, there’ll be no prizes for guessing that one type has three reels and the other five reels, but there is also a certain type of style that goes with each category. Perhaps most obviously, online 3-reel slot machines often closely resemble the look and feel of original, simple electro-mechanical ‘one-armed bandits’ found in real-world casinos, pubs and clubs in the past. 5 reel slots offer more complexity and use the freedom of ‘virtual reels’ to offer bonus symbols and special features old-school slots (before the video game age) could only dream of.


  • 3 Reel SlotsBy virtue of only having three reels, these slot machines cannot offer the same range of paylines possible with five reels in play, indeed many plays with just a single payline. Sounds dull? Don’t bet on it. 3 reel slots still exist because they are damn good fun to play, and having a zillion paylines is not the be all and end all of the great slot gaming.
  • 5 Reel SlotsWith more reels, more possibilities are opened up too for numerous paylines across them, and game developers make good use of this. It has also inspired some developers, such as Microgaming, to innovate with ‘Ways to Win’ formats that ditch traditional paylines in favor of matching symbols simply needing to be on consecutive adjacent reels to trigger wins. In this way, a typical 5×3 frame of reels can offer a phenomenal 243 ‘ways to win’ across it.


  • 3 Reel SlotsDespite being less complex than 5 reel slots, 3 reel slots can come with a range of volatilities. However, they commonly tend to occupy the lower range so headline jackpots may not be as large as on 5-reelers and wins may be more frequent.
  • 5 Reel Slots – The mathematical possibilities opened up by the two extra reels on these slots gives developers plenty of scopes to engineer games with lots of different ‘feels’, all relating to their volatility. Certainly, the popular high volatility slots are all 5 reel affairs, so it’s more likely you’ll get that feel (if you’re looking for it) from slots in this category.

Graphics and Sound

  • 3 Reel Slots – Since the majority of online 3 reel slots are looking to recreate the look and feel of classic casino machines, they most often keep the graphics and sound very ‘retro’ to create an authentic experience. Animated pyrotechnics on the reels are less likely since it was impossible to do such things with traditional, physical reels! Reel symbols also tend to be pretty old skool as well, so the classic fruit, bells, bar symbols and lucky 7s are common sights.
  • 5 Reel Slots – Since online 5 reel slots are the genetic offspring of the first popular video slots in the 1980s, they’ve gleefully embraced the freedom to transform reels into amazing playgrounds for symbols that can animate, expand, wander about and perform all manner of graphical tricks to both entertain and trigger unexpected wins. The format has also become the foundation for lots of themed games, inspired by popular cultures such as hit TV, films, comic books and board games.

Jackpot Opportunities

  • 3 Reel Slots – A misconception is that 3 reel slots can’t offer big jackpots, and that is easy to dismiss. Playtech’s Gold Rally has a very large progressive to play for, but it is more typical to find fixed jackpots amongst three reel machines, and commonly the range of jackpots found is more modest than the broader spectrum found amongst 5 reel games.
  • 5 Reel Slots – As stated above, these games often cover a wider range of jackpot values (reflecting a wider range of volatilities in the genre). Five reel slots also tend to dominate amongst online progressive jackpot games today.


Special Features – such as free spins, expanding Wilds and second screen bonus trails are not unknown with online 3 reel slots, but it’s 5 reel slots where the most feature rich games are to be found.

Popular examples – 3 reel

  • Bar Bar Black Sheep – this is a fabulous 3-reel slot from Microgaming that has all the classic feel of a real-world fruit machine.
  • Break Da Bank Slot – another 3 reel hit from Microgaming that includes a Wild Multiplier and potential to win a 2,400-coin jackpot.
  • Gold Rally – Mentioned earlier, this Playtech slot is a very modern 3-reel slot, with nine paylines, second screen bonus game, and amazing progressive jackpot.

Popular examples – 5 reel

  • Mega Moolah – A beautiful and simple 5-reel slot, but wildly popular for the massive millionaire-making progressive it can deliver.
  • Immortal Romance – Microgaming’s stunning ‘Date with a Vampire’ themed slot showcasing a rich feature set to reward long-term play.
  • Gonzo’s Quest – NetEnt’s stunningly animated blockbuster, that uses mesmerizing Avalanche Reels in place of traditional rotating symbols to build chain reactions of wins on its paylines.

5 Reel vs 3 Reel Slots: Conclusion

So which to choose? Well, players seeking to recreate that old-fashioned thrill of a simple casino machine with physical rotating reels will naturally gravitate towards the charms of online 3-reel slot machines. These are excellent fun and no strangers to big wins, however, if you’re a thoroughly Modern Millie we suspect the audio-visual fireworks found with most five reel slots will more likely catch you eye. Our choice? We honestly like both, and with great games in both categories to try at our recommended casinos, we’d suggest taking a few for a spin yourself to see what suits your personal style!