It’s clear that the PS5 is nimble and smart while the Xbox Series X has brute force power, but there are many other aspects to consider. Here we outline them all
We now know some of the technology behind the Xbox Series X and PS5. We no longer have to rely on rumors. Microsoft revealed some of the Series X specs in February 2020, before a much more in-depth look on March 16. Like a political opponent keen to win us all over, Sony then did the same two days later.
There’s good news. The hardware of both consoles is so dynamic you can’t compare it like-for-like with any PC system currently available. And there’s bad news. Several pieces of information you are probably keen to know still are not out there. We don’t know what the PS5 looks like, for example. Images of the dev-kit console have leaked, but the final product will probably look nothing like it.
A quick look at the specs
Several of the Xbox Series X and PS5 specs sound similar. They have fast all-SSD storage, 16GB GDDR6 RAM and both a CPU and GPU made by AMD. But if you a little deeper, their differences become apparent. To simmer it down to a reductive analogy: the PS5 is nimble while the Xbox Series X is out to win with brute force power.
The PS5 uses incredibly intelligent hardware optimisation and custom silicon to tease remarkable performance out of its core components. But the Xbox Series X has a more powerful GPU, which is the first metric by which any console is usually judged. Their hardware belongs to the same family, though. They have AMD Zen 2 generation CPUs and AMD Navi-based graphics chipsets. The latter will share some hardware with PC graphics cards not even released yet.
At this point, the Xbox One X and PS5 diverge. The Microsoft console’s GPU is more powerful, with 52 compute units to Sony’s 36. This suggests the Series X may have 1.5x the graphics power. But even the teraflop counts, the metrics you’re most likely to have seen so far, are not quite so far apart. Microsoft says the Xbox Series X has 12.155-teraflop power, and the PS5 delivers 10.28 teraflops. This suggests the Xbox is around 1.18x as powerful.
But nothing is quite as simple as a single figure these days. One way Sony manages to narrow the performance gap between the PS5 and the much more powerful “engine” of the Series X is to use a variable GPU clock speed. The Xbox Series X GPU is locked at 1.825Ghz. Sony’s PS5 GPU can reach 2.23GHz, but will not always operate at this frequency. It has a less “beefy” CPU, but can work it harder. And this makes us wonder about its cooling system, which we have not seen yet.
In his recent demonstration, PlayStation architect Mark Cerny said the way the PS5 approaches clock speed is not like that of an overclocked gaming PC. However, it can’t wipe away the fundamental issues of power draw and heat production when a processor is worked harder. And this suggests that while the PS5 can in a sense outperform its on-paper specs, the Series X will likely be able to sustain its performance for far longer. The PS5 can sprint, but it can’t sprint all day.
In real terms this may mean the developers creating games for both platforms will use slightly more advanced effects in their Xbox versions.
The PS5 has one big advantage
There’s another area the Sony PS5 categorically outpaces the Series X: storage speed. Both consoles use fast, custom NVMe solid-state drives with their own custom controller hardware. And both systems are more advanced than what you’ll see in today’s laptops and desktops.
The PS5’s drive is far faster, though. It is capable of 5.5GB/s data transfer, which turns into 8-9GB/s when compression is used. This does not slow the console down either, as there is hardware dedicated to decompression of this data. Microsoft’s Xbox Series X SSD is fast, and can use similar hardware-based compression, but its speeds are 2.4GB/s, or 6GB/s with compression.
But what does this actually mean for games?
If you upgrade the storage of a PS4 or Xbox One to an SSD drive, the only major difference is in load speed. Some games hide this in elongated scenes of your character looking at their nails while in an elevator, or simply leave you staring at a loading bar on an otherwise static screen.
Ultra-fast solid-state storage will let developers change the way their game worlds are constructed. The 16GB RAM of these consoles will still hold the data, the textures and models, used to create the world in view. But as the entire 16GB RAM can be refreshed in under two seconds, in a PS5, developers can both create seamless worlds more easily and be much more liberal about how much data is used to create smaller areas within them.
For a little context, what takes 1.8 seconds in a PS5 (theoretically at least) would take around two minutes 40 seconds in a PS4.
How useful is the PS5’s added speed?
It should certainly make what loading times remain in this generation even shorter than the Series X’s. But we do have to question how much the faster storage will really come into effect in games ported to both systems.
We’re likely to see best use of this technology in first-party titles, particularly as while the PS5 may be better at flinging around data-heavy assets, the more powerful GPU of the Xbox means it is likely better a rendering them under pressure.
The Xbox Series X has a 1TB drive, the PS5 an 825GB one. Both let you add to this. Microsoft will sell a custom 1TB SSD Expansion, the PS5 has a slot for an SSD, although these need to be “verified” by Sony to ensure they perform well enough. And those you can buy today will not.
What about ray tracing?
Fast storage is perhaps the most impactful change in the way consoles operate, particularly from the perspective of die-hard nerds and developers of visually lush titles. But the actual gamer sat with pad in hand likely wants to hear more about ray tracing. This models the path of light rays in the game world, based on how they would behave in the “real” one. You can see its effects on Minecraft on YouTube, in videos posted by top pioneer of the tech Nvidia.
Both the PS5 and Xbox Series X have GPUs optimised for ray tracing, lowering the computing cost of what is otherwise an extremely labour-intensive sets of techniques for creating more realistic shadow, atmospheric lighting, reflection, water and transparency effects.
However, from what we know so far this hardware acceleration seems to be a largely intrinsic part of the particular AMD Navi GPUs in the consoles. Ray tracing is likely to be a huge part of the look for upcoming games, but these hardware reveals hasn’t changed much here.
Will they have VR?
To date, Sony’s official PS5 announcements have not explored or even confirmed a new virtual-reality headset. Bloomberg wrote in February that Sony “tentatively” plans to release a PSVR 2 headset after the PS5 launch. Rumours about a product you can already imagine without too much effort do not get much vaguer.
Another rumour deals with perhaps the most important part of the headset hardware, though, the screen tech. Display panel maker JDI announced a high density 1,600 x 1,600 resolution LCD panel in February. It could theoretically be used in a PSVR 2, and would represent a significant increase in resolution, with 2,560,000 pixels per eye rather than 1,036,800. It’s also a 120Hz panel, and faster refresh rates tend to reduce VR motion sickness.
However, these are LCD panels, and not ones with incredibly fast response times. This will likely result in smearing of motion, which can undo the nausea-reducing work of a high refresh rate. So perhaps this isn’t the panel Sony will use after all.
Conclusions? We have few, other than that there will probably be a third PSVR (Sony has already made two models) and it probably won’t be around alongside the PS5.
Head of Xbox Phil Spencer has largely dismissed the idea of an Xbox VR headset in the near future, citing a lack of real demand. He clarified his position in February, in a podcast with GamerTag Radio.
“We have to focus our efforts on the things that we’re doing right now,” said Spencer, those things being finishing the console itself.
Microsoft is already a major proponent of augmented or “mixed” reality, having made the Microsoft HoloLens and the Windows Mixed Reality platform. Such projects let the company develop technologies in this area without the extreme spend and risk of a consumer product that needs to sell in the millions to really be considered a success.
Both consoles bet big on audio
Sony and Microsoft have also announced big audio plans for the consoles. The PS5 has the Tempest Engine, able to position up to thousands of sound elements in a sound field based on HRTF calculations. That stands for “head related transfer function”, and refers to the changes to the sound wave as received/perceived by our ears/brain, based on the source’s position relative to our heads.
Guess what? Microsoft has gone and come up with something similar. It calls this, unhelpfully, audio ray tracing. The Xbox Series X also has a dedicated sound chip to deal with calculations that will likely be comparable to those of Tempest Engine.
These are not new concepts. In the 1990s we had Creative’s EAX and Aureal’s A3D, features you’d find in a lot of sound cards at the time. They offered 3D positional audio, although the trend simply died out, along with the entire concept of PC soundcards.
And just like that time, the 3D audio of the PS5 and Xbox Series X will only really work if you use headphones. PlayStation architect Mark Cerny has talked about getting 3D audio to play nice with the kinds of speakers many of us have at home. But, make no mistake, that soundbar below your TV will never do the job well.
How much will they cost?
The prices of the Xbox Series X and PS5 are unknown, and may only exist as a rather wide-bracketed set of figures in the Sony and Microsoft headquarters.
This is particularly true in the UK, where quantitive easing measures intended to mitigate some of the social and economic impacts of coronavirus have had predictable side-effects. The pound is worth a lot less than it was when Sony detailed the PS5 just a few days before this piece was published.
Many have had their say already, though. Analysts Piers Harding-Rolls of IHS Market Technology and Serkan Toto of Katan Games believe both consoles will launch at $499. Macquarie Capital analyst Damian Thong says the PS5 will likely cost around $470. The consoles will cost more than the PS4 did in 2013. And while US prices may match the early original of the Xbox One, they will be significantly higher in the UK. We initially paid £429 for the Xbox One.
When are they coming out?
We also have release windows for the consoles. But can we trust them? Microsoft and Sony say the Xbox Series X and PS5 will be out by “Holiday 2020”, which in English means “before Christmas”.
We, and numerous analysts, find it harder to imagine these dates will stick as every day passes. China mounted an aggressive and, seemingly, very successful set of countermeasures to bring the coronavirus’s spread under control. But it has already caused supply-chain related delays and production issues for Asus, Oppo, Lenovo and Xiaomi.
That every top-five territory for the consoles is far behind China in terms of viral containment is important. And how bad it will prove to be in North America and the UK is yet to be seen. A console can be the perfect pal during “self isolation”. But that does not mean producing millions of the things, getting them half-way across the world, and sold to people who may no longer have jobs is no small challenge.