Home Tech PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S: what we know about next-gen consoles

PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S: what we know about next-gen consoles
PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S: what we know about next-gen consoles avatar

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Holiday 2020 is shaping up to be massive for gaming, with two brand new consoles and heaps of new games scheduled to arrive despite the setbacks of a global epidemic.

Both Microsoft and Sony are promising faster and more powerful machines to rival all but the highest-end PCs, but they're also taking two very different directions in terms of games and services. Specifically, here's what we know so far about the next generation of consoles, and then some speculation on which will end up being the more powerful.

Xbox Series X/S

Announced all the way back in December 2019, the Series X is a tall black obelisk that more closely resembles a compact PC tower than a traditional console. More recently we've also been introduced to its smaller and more affordable white sibling, the Series S. Both have very functional designs that draw attention to huge cooling vents and square edges. These machines will be sold in Australia from November 10 for $749 and $499 respectively.

The Xbox Series S, and the much larger Series X.

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Xbox has been evolving over the course of the current generation to be less a line of machines and more an ecosystem of games you can access from any number of devices. This includes PCs and various consoles, and will soon extend to any device with a screen thanks to the cloud.

In this context you could view the Series X as the option for those who want the highest fidelity version of the traditional console experience, with a heap of raw power to make the most of Xbox Game Pass and the growing library of titles past present and future from Microsoft and third parties. The Series S has most of the same benefits but targets a lower resolution, meaning you can sacrifice native 4K gaming to save $250. Here are the specs:

  • 8-core CPU based on AMD's Zen 2 architecture. Series X is clocked at 3.8Ghz, Series S at 3.6Ghz.
  • 16GB of GDDR6 RAM for X, 10GB for S.
  • Custom RDNA 2 graphics processor from AMD.
  • Support for hardware accelerated Direct X raytracing (for advanced lighting, among other things), plus variable rate shading, a technique which prioritises rendering objects closer to the player to free up processing power.
  • NVME solid state drive for storage, meaning dramatically faster loading and potentially bigger worlds. Microsoft also says it will enable you to suspend multiple games at a time so you can jump in where you left off instantly. It's a 1TB drive for Series X, 512GB for Series S.
  • Support for external USB drives to store games or run Xbox One and older games, but next gen specific software needs to be on the SSD to run. Microsoft will sell tiny additional SSDs that plug into the back.
  • Compatible with all Xbox One accessories and thousands of games across Xbox One, Xbox 360 and original Xbox.
  • HDMI 2.1
  • 4K Blu-ray optical disc drive for Series X, no disc drive at all for Series S.

The goal is for Series X is to run games at 4K resolution and at 60 frames per second, although it supports up to 8K and 120 FPS. The goal for Series S is 1440p, also known as QHD. That's an unusual resolution, but it's between Full HD and 4K so it should look good on both kinds of TV. Series S has an integrated hardware scaler so it doesn't have to rely on your TV's internal one. In terms of frame rates Series S targets 60 FPS but also supports up to 120 FPS.

Game Pass is arguably the biggest selling point of Xbox's entire ecosystem. An $11-per-month subscription service, it gives you access to a library of more than 100 games on console. Everything Microsoft's own studios publish, and many other games, are included in Game Pass from day one so you could conceivably go without purchasing games at all. The $16 per month Game Pass Ultimate also includes access on PC, and will soon include a library of games from EA.

In Australia Microsoft has partnered with Telstra for Xbox All Access, a program which gets you a console and 24 months of Game Pass Ultimate for a monthly repayment and no up front cost. It's $33 per month for Series S, and $46 for Series X.

Backwards compatibility is a big piece of the puzzle for Microsoft, as it means it can dip into a well of thousands of games across four generations for its Game Pass service. Just like getting a new PC, you can expect your existing library of games not only to work on Series X but look and run better. That means faster load times, higher resolutions, better frame rates and even HDR visuals (applied via an AI software solution). Not every game will benefit automatically but some will be updated to make specific use of the new machine's power. For example Gears 5 has been shown off running its multiplayer mode at 120 FPS on both Series X and Series S.

All Xbox One controllers will work on the next gen consoles too, including the recent Elite Series 2, and the newly redesigned controller packaged with the Series X will play friendly with your old Xbox One. The new controller has seen only slight tweaks in shape, with a new directional pad and share button the only obvious changes. Microsoft is working on improving latency between the controller and screen, and says Xbox One controllers will be able to reap the benefits via a software update.

PlayStation 5

The PlayStation 5 is a massive machine which, with its white and black curvy body and blue lights, you could not mistake for anything other than a game console. It's been confirmed for launch in "holiday 2020", but we still don't have an exact date or a price. We do know, however, that it will come either with or without a disc drive; the "Digital Edition" will presumably cheaper but with the exact same internal specs.

The PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, standard PS5 and DualSense controller.

The PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, standard PS5 and DualSense controller.

In contrast to Microsoft, Sony has been very clear it intends to eventually cut ties with the previous generation and start anew with PS5. It has confirmed that at least some PS4 games will work on the new machines, but hasn't given many details, and it seems unlikely the older games will be improved on PS5. On the other hand, without the need to support older games or less powerful systems, you can be sure Sony's stable of world-leading studios will be able to squeeze every drop of performance out of the PS5.

Indeed while the Xbox Series X closely resembles a powerful PC, the PS5 is a bit more exotic. It's a machine built for exclusive games, rather than ubiquitous games, so it has some unique features.

Here are the top-line specs:

  • 8-core CPU based on AMD's Zen 2 architecture. Unusually for a console it has a variable frequency depending on load, with a maximum clock of 3.5Ghz.
  • 16GB of GDDR6 RAM.
  • Custom RDNA 2 graphics processor from AMD, also with a variable frequency.
  • Hardware accelerated raytracing for advanced lighting among other things.
  • 825GB solid state drive, meaning dramatically faster loading and booting, and bigger worlds.
  • You can't add your own off-the-shelf storage right away, but Sony says once similar spec NVMe SSDs are on the market users will be able to open up the PS5 and install their own.
  • Games can be installed in chunks, for example you could have just the campaign or just the multiplayer portion installed, saving you storage space. Content will also be indexed so you can jump to a specific mission or multiplayer event directly from the PS5 home screen rather than having to boot the game first.
  • HDMI 2.1.
  • Retail games come on 100GB Blu-rays, but the contents will need to be transferred to the internal solid state drive to play. The optical drive will also play 4K Blu-ray movie discs; a feature that was missing from the PS4.

The PS5 will support up to 8K video and frame rates of up to 120 frames per second. Sony has also made a big deal of the system's support for 3D audio, with dedicated sound processing hardware inside. The console supports the existing PSVR headset, which not-coincidentally is very similar in visual design to the PS5. Sony also showed off a matching set of wireless headphones and a media remote.

The PS5 controller has seen a significant overhaul. Dropping the DualShock moniker Sony has used on and off since 1997, the DualSense has longer and more curved handles, but the same linear stick layout.

The triggers have additional haptic feedback motors and tech that allows developers to set the tension. That means the trigger could be easier or firmer to pull back depending on your in-game vehicle, weapon etc. There is also now a microphone and speaker embedded in the pad, so you can have quick chats with other players with no headset required.

Finally the buttons and other inputs are largely the same as on the DualShock 4, though the Share button has been renamed "Create", indicating there may be more ways to package and broadcast your gameplay than simply posting screenshots or videos to Twitter.

Sony hasn't announced a game subscription service or lower-spec console to match the Xbox for value, but its game studios appear toe be firing on all cylinders to create a lineup of exclusives you can't play anywhere else. The game it's showed most of so far is Ratchet & Clank: A Rift Apart, which makes clear use of the new SSD to move the characters between various massive worlds with barely a few seconds of loading in between.

How will the consoles compare in performance?

Comparisons between these three machines are tricky, because they all have such distinct goals. For starters, let's look at the Series X versus the PS5.

If we're going purely off the on-paper specs, the Xbox is the brawnier console. Both Sony's CPU and GPU have a variable frequency based on workload, while Microsoft's are constant and higher than the PS5's maximum. For example on the Xbox the CPU will run at either 3.8Ghz or 3.6Ghz depending on whether the developer has opted to use it in a single- or multi-thread mode, but on PS5 it will vary up or down depending on workload to a maximum of 3.5Ghz.

It's a similar story with the GPU, where Sony's system achieves a maximum of 10.28 teraflops of power, and Microsoft a consistent 12.

But measuring in this way largely favours Microsoft because of its PC-like structure. PS5 is using an unusual design that tailors the performance of the CPU and GPU to the specific task and workload, while also allowing unused CPU power to be routed to graphics. All this means we could see much higher performance from the PS5 then we expect from the numbers alone.

It's also important to note that the big generational leaps this time occur with the systems' processors, solid state storage and ray tracing, which are not taken into account in the traditional measures of performance I've included in the graph above. On paper Sony and Microsoft appear to have similar hardware here, but their implementation could result in better performance for one over the other or differ game-to-game.

In short it's possible to compare the Xbox Series X to a highly customised powerful PC, and in 2020 there's no way you could build a PC this powerful for $750. But comparisons become a bit trickier when it comes to the PlayStation 5. It's possible we'll see third party games perform better on the Xbox, but games made specifically for the PS5 may be able to tap into some special tricks.

Comparisons are difficult too with the Series S. In terms of its RAM and raw GPU power it's less capable than Xbox's last generation One X, and about on par with the PlayStation 4 Pro, but this doesn't mean it's any less of a next generation machine.

The key to remember here is that the One X and PS4 Pro, like the Series X and PS5, target gameplay at 4K resolution while the Series S aims lower. But the Series S is a significant leap over last generation's HD consoles, the Xbox One S and PS4, plus it has the same CPU architecture, custom SSD and raytracing gear that powers the Series X. For $499 it seems like an extremely capable box.

Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.

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