3 Reel vs 5 Reel Slots

When it comes to choosing a slots game, online slots players get to choose between 3-reel and 5-reel versions. The main difference between these two versions is the number of spinning reels you get to play with. 3-reel slots are based on more traditional slots games and only have 3 reels while 5-reel slots are relatively new but more popular as their extra reels allow for greater variety in combinations.

Combinations and Paylines

5-reel slots: the 5-reel slot was introduced to add more excitement to traditional 3-reel slots, which only allow a limited number of combinations. 5 reels mean far more possible combinations, with a 1 in 100,000 chance of hitting a specific combination. With 5-reel slots there can be many more symbols on each reel, allowing for massive jackpots thanks to the low probability of the jackpot actually being won, along with the rise of progressive jackpots.

Probability-wise, more reels may sound like they offer a lower chance of winning, but in reality 5-reel slots offer payouts on several combinations, which may be composed of five, three, or sometimes two symbols, giving players more chances to win smaller prizes.

3-reel slots: 3-reel slots are designed to be simpler than 5-reel slots, but with a higher probability of winning the jackpot. Because of the 3-reel’s simple model, it offers fewer paylines compared to 5-reel varieties, making it much easier for beginners to understand. See Fantastic 7s slots for an example of a great beginner’s 3-reel slot.

Risk vs. Reward

Volatility explained: Volatility is the balance between high risk with high reward vs. low risk with low reward. If a game is highly volatile it means that it takes longer to win and you could experience some dramatic swings with your bankroll, but the win is likely to be bigger. With slots, the volatility increases as the number of combinations per spin increases. This means 5-reel slots have higher volatility than 3-reel slots.

5-reel slots: If you’re in the game for that big win then you will probably want to choose 5-reel slots because of their high volatility.

3-reel slots: Lower in volatility than 5-reel slots, 3-reel slots are suited to players who want to play for longer and prefer to have smaller wins as they play. Ideal for beginners who want to learn the game, or for people who want to make their money go as far as possible and aren’t looking to win big.

Jackpots and Payouts

In terms of payout percentage, generally 3-reel and 5-reel slots have the same rates ranging from 86% – 98%, depending on the casino. This percentage represents the amount that the house pays out, keeping the rest in commission. Online casinos tend to have higher payouts because they have lower overheads than land based casinos.

5-reel slots: Jackpots are always going to be higher with 5-reels because there’s the possibility of so many more combinations. When you add in progressive jackpots (see here) found in many online casinos the potential for big jackpots is astounding. As an example, in December 2012, John O from the UK won more than $8 million on the progressive jackpot on the Mega Moolah 5-reel slot.

3-reel slots: In contrast, 3-reel slots generally have smaller jackpots but because they are lower risk, there is more chance that you will win at least a small amount.


Both 3 and 5-reel slots are based on the same mechanics of the player choosing a bet size and then either pulling a lever or pushing a button to spin the reels.

5-reel slots: Over the years, 5-reel slots have evolved into complex games with elements like bonus rounds, free spins, and hidden bonuses.

3-reel slots: 3-reel slots tend to stick to a traditional model of matching fairly basic symbols.

Graphics and Sound Effects

5-reel slots: If you’re looking for more excitement and animation then 5-reel online slots are the best pick for you. They have sophisticated animated graphics, more symbols, video clips and interactive bonus rounds. They also have complex themes and story lines with the sound effects to match. Popular 5-reel slots like Tomb Raider and Dark Knight have sound effects and graphics closely matching the films on which they are based.

3-reel slots: If you want the traditional slot machine appearance with classic features, go for the 3-reel slots. The sounds effects on 3-reel online slots will generally be more realistic in terms of sounding more like a traditional poker machine you’d find in a bricks and mortar casino.

Bottom Line

If you prefer the traditional slots and just want to have a bit of fun while stretching your bankroll as far as possible, then stick to 3-reel slots. If you don’t mind a bit more risk for the chance of winning big, try your luck at 5-reel slots. The great thing about modern online casinos is that you’re not restricted to one or the other. You can try both varieties and see which appeals to you the most.