It looks like the two major game console companies will be fighting over your holiday dollars, or at least those that aren’t already earmarked for a Nintendo Switch. The 2020 holiday shopping season is when we expect both Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X. We already know a bit about the PS5 and new Xbox, thanks to deep dives recently offered by Sony and Microsoft, but we’re missing critical facts including their prices, specific release dates and games. And we still don’t know what the PS5 will look like, beyond its logo.
Complicating the situation is the possibility of higher-than-expected prices for the PS5 thanks to ongoing trade disputes and the continuing phone-driven shortage of memory and storage options. Plus there could conceivably be production delays resulting from steps being taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
PS5’s extremely techy presentation explained
This next chapter of the console wars may be especially important. Not because 8K video or ray-traced audio will be must-have features, but because the gaming landscape has become more complicated and fragmented since the last generation of boxes came out.
In addition to competing with PCs, consoles now face challenges from new hardware-free cloud gaming services such as Google Stadia and Nvidia GeForce Now, as well as Microsoft’s own still-in-beta Project xCloud. To a lesser extent, they also compete for your time with mobile game-subscription services such as Apple Arcade.
The most novel aspects I’ve heard about for the PS5 are related to the controller — still unnamed, but my money’s on DualShock 5, for obvious reasons. Sony has replaced rumble with more sensation-specific haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, which may deliver a much better gaming experience as long as developers opt to support them. Plus, it’s got new speakers and a USB-C connection. The PS5 is jumping to solid-state storage, making it a better match for large game downloads. The only game confirmed for the PS5 right now is Godfall.
On the downside, the PS5 has a relatively small 825GB SSD. Its NVMe SSD expansion slot is standard-ish, but because it needs to fit within specific space, thermal and power requirements, Sony will need to validate it, and we won’t know until some time after launch what we can use or how much it will cost.
We at least have an idea of what the Xbox Series X looks like. It resembles a bookshelf speaker rather than the DVD-player-esque Xbox One line. Microsoft has also talked about its controller enhancements, which are more about reducing latency (with its Dynamic Latency Input tech) than tweaking feel and feedback like Sony. Another new feature Microsoft’s touting is Smart Delivery, which precludes you from having to pay to play a game on the Xbox One if you’ve already ponied up for a Series X version, and it will automatically serve up the right version for your box.
While the specs are quite different in places, ultimately we still don’t know how many of them will translate into actual differences in experience. For example, it’s tempting to say that the PS5’s graphics processor is less powerful than the Xbox’s because it’s got fewer compute units and less arithmetic power (as measured by the floating-point operations performance spec, aka TFLOPS).
But the two platforms have different hardware and software architectures, so you don’t know how the components will affect their respective performance or visual quality, or where tradeoffs will hit hardest. For instance, maybe the Xbox needs more CUs because it offloads a lot more to the GPU, or balances the resources differently between the two.
No matter how it balances out, though, they’ve both taken a big leap in power over their predecessors. They’re based around roughly similar AMD Zen 2-architecture processors plus AMD Radeon Navi-generation graphics processors with 16GB memory. They both support ray-tracing, decompression acceleration, whizzy new proprietary SSD implementations and a whole lot more. Toss in backwards compatibility with older games (which gain a lift from the faster hardware), and all of this adds up to the PS5 and Xbox Series X promising noticeably better visual quality, faster frame rates and generally speedier operation than before.
As always, however, the games drive much of the real interest, and as yet we’ve only heard about a few. And price will be key, too, not just for the boxes but for the ancillary add-ons. For instance, the Xbox’s 1TB SSD storage add-on uses a proprietary design, which may make it more expensive than we’d like.
||PlayStation 5||Xbox Series X|
|Processor||8-core AMD Ryzen Zen 2-architecture CPU at max 3.5GHz||8-core AMD Ryzen Zen 2-architecture CPU at 3.6 or 3.8GHz|
|Graphics||AMD Navi/RDNA 2-family GPU with 36 CU at 2.23 GHz (10.3 TFLOPS, FP unit unknown)||AMD Navi/RDNA 2-family GPU with 52 CU at 1.825GHz (12TFLOPS FP32)|
|Video memory||16GB GDDR6 with 256-bit interface (448GB/sec)||16GB GDDR6 with 14Gbps 320-bit interface (10GB at 560GB/s allocated to GPU, 6GB at 336GB/s allocated to rest of system with 3.5GB for GPU)|
|Storage||825GB SSD at 5.5-9GB/sec; NVMe SSD slot; support for USB HDD||1TB NVMe SSD; proprietary 1TB SSD add-on module; USB 3.2 external HDD support|
|Optical drive||Yes, 4K Blu-ray||Yes, 4K Blu-ray|
|Maximum output resolution||8K||8K|
|Maximum frame rate||4K/120fps||4K/120fps|
|Audio||3D, accelerated by custom Tempest Engine hardware; for headphones only at launch, supplemented by virtual surround for speaker audio||Ray traced|
|New controller features||Haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, USB-C connector||Share button, Dynamic Latency Input|
|VR support||Yes, compatible with PSVR headset||Unknown|
|Console streaming||Yes (Remote Play)||Yes (Console Streaming)|
|Backwards compatibility||PS4 games||Xbox One and supported Xbox 360 and Xbox games|
|Notable launch game(s)||Godfall||Halo Infinite, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, Minecraft|
|Subscription tie-in||PS Now||Xbox Game Pass|
|Release date||Holiday 2020||Holiday 2020|