Sidenote: Picking the Perfect (For You) Next-Generation Console

The PS5 and Xbox Series X/S systems will be out in just two-ish short weeks.

I’ve talked a lot about the hardware in both systems, especially with regards to how they’ll drive gaming on the PC forward in a lot of interesting ways, particularly on the storage performance side, but I haven’t really put the systems head to head or made a recommendation about purchases. Today, we’ll change that!

But first, the fun part before everyone gets mad at me – the conclusion.

If you don’t particularly care for the rest of the information, my spicy take on next-gen is this: the system you should buy is….the next generation version of whichever one you have.

Before your jaw hits the ground, let me get the most obvious part out of the way – both systems are, similar to the 2013 launch of their original model predecessors, based largely on the same intellectual property. There’s an 8-core AMD CPU (a much better one this time), an AMD GPU of varying stats that are within 10% of each other (with some disclaimers we’ll dig into later), and the same amount of system memory between the two (minus the Series S, which…we’ll get to). Unlike last gen, where Microsoft underspecced their GPU and especially their main system memory type at launch, creating a huge performance deficit right out of the gate, neither manufacturer has made such an egregious error this time, and both systems are so close together that on a hardware basis, the comparison is mostly irrelevant for console play. We’re still going to spend a few thousand words making the comparison, but for the actual purchase, yeah, it’s not really that important barring some potential long-term omens.

What matters is this – which platform do you have a large library of existing titles for? Which one do you have the greatest array of friends and the most social investment in? Looking at the systems individually, which one has first-party exclusives you are most excited for? This generation, because of that lack of serious performance deficit mentioned above, these questions here are the things that actually matter. And the answer to those questions is likely, well, the platform you already have in your living room.

But, that answer sort of skips the fun nerdy part of the question, and also assumes that you already own a console and aren’t taking your first plunge into living room gaming with the upcoming systems. So let’s break down which system offers you the most, based on what we know so far!

A disclaimer and the first promised bit of content I mentioned above – for this comparison, we’re talking strictly Xbox Series X versus PS5. The Series S is an interesting value proposition, and one worth considering, but comparing it on the basis of hardware means tearing it apart in comparison to the other two for nearly all of the post and then going “well, buy it if you want a cheap gaming box that should do most of what you want” and so I’ve left it out of the head-to-head here.

Let’s dig in!

Hardware Performance, Based on Specs: Xbox Series X

This one is going to be controversial right off the bat. Here’s the thing about the specs of both systems: in both CPU and GPU, Microsoft has a lead with fixed frequency, non-variable clock speeds and performance metrics that aren’t tied to an “envelope” or “target.” The CPU of the XSX is 3.8 GHz without SMT on, and 3.6 GHz with it on, while the PS5 is 3.5 GHz with SMT always on as the capped frequency. The GPU of the XSX is more parallel with 52 CUs at a fixed clock speed, while the PS5 is 36 CUs with a variable clock speed, capped at 2.23 GHz, which gives the system around 2 TFLOPS less available GPU horsepower than the XSX. Further, graphics work tends to be heavily parallel, and in that regard, the Xbox Series X is better equipped to handle it. Now, this could backfire – if games struggle to keep the 52 CUs utilized in the XSX, then the PS5 will likely show up just as well, and could even look better in the end because of being able to hit max utilization and then drive up the clock speed past the XSX GPU. However, in theory and with the ways that games currently operate, I find myself thinking that the XSX is going to edge out the PS5. Couple that with a 10 GB fast GDDR6 memory pool that beats the PS5’s memory speeds by a decent amount, and it seems like the system will supplement its lead in CPU and GPU performance with faster access to data.

However, the SSD systems in each merit mentioning, and here the PS5 handily wins. However, this is a Catch-22 in a heavily third-party ecosystem – third-party titles cannot really be optimized for the PS5 storage to really shine, meaning they’ll show up with faster load times and not much else. Meanwhile, the Xbox Series X SSD, while quite a bit slower, is no slouch, and can still graze the PS5’s uncompressed performance with its compressed data performance. Practically, this should translate to third-party titles simply loading faster on PS5 or supporting reduced levels of pop-in, while first-party titles on PS5 can make much better use of the PS5’s compressed SSD speeds. Some titles like the new Ratchet and Clank already do this, using a portal feature that allows you to relocate across massive levels with no loading screen, pause, or observable stutter. For things like that, the PS5 is going to offer a more revolutionary experience, but both systems will offer sharply improved experiences over current gen on loading and data streaming. This will likely take some time for third-party titles to really embrace, as development either started on the current gen system or is still accounting for PCs with spinning rust. Given the ramp-up time for cross-generation development to stop being a thing, I expect that the PS5 will have some early struggles showing a clear advantage, short of a select handful of first-party games. It will, over time, become a clearly defined advantage and late-gen titles should offer a vastly improved experience.

There is one other thing I want to discuss here which is the sort of black-box nature of the PS5’s component “power envelopes.” On paper, it is simple enough – a power consumption target system-wide is set and both the CPU and GPU trade off with one-another within that envelope based on the current demands of a given task. That wording, which I used purposefully, should illuminate my concern with it. Most analysis from console nerds I’ve seen centers on how the PS5 is “close enough” to the XSX in raw performance, my own above included. However, what could nullify that is rapid shifts down in power. It is unclear to me, based on watching the Mark Cerny event and everything I’ve read since, if the PS5 can manage to run the CPU and GPU at full capped specification simultaneously. It seems like the answer is yes, sort of, in that the system uses the micro-adjustment boosting style of AMD’s Ryzen desktop CPUs but in a different sort of application, moving the CPU and GPU up and down in a tug-of-war based on what needs the resources most for that instant, and in the initial hardware talk, Cerny also codified explicitly that late-gen games would not have the full clock speed of both or even of just one of the components, as a “worst-case game” would require step downs in power consumption to bring everything in line. Given that, while I’ve judged the two systems based on theoretical maximum performance, the PS5 still loses that comparison on all fronts but SSD, and has the potential later in life to lose it…more.

Either way, neither system should be noticeably worse than the other because of features like dynamic resolution scaling, variable rate shading, and other efficiency features built into RDNA2 which will allow developers (and even the system itself in some cases) to make intelligent decisions to not process something or to use reduced horsepower for shading far-away objects, and if those things fail to maintain a steady framerate, the systems can both drop the render resolution for even just a few frames to maintain smoothness, scaling up to meet the display resolution and then upping render res back up once things are running stable again. Does it make all of this comparison sort of superfluous? Probably!

Physical Design: Xbox Series X

Look, I hate to do it, but here’s the thing: the PS5 is way more visually exciting and interesting than the rectangular prism XSX. In saying that, however, here are my concerns. The cooling is handled by a large blower fan in the PS5, which is likely to make more noise than the axial model in the XSX at the same speeds. The heatsink design in the PS5 looks genuinely impressive, as does the liquid metal thermal interface material they managed to make work for the main SOC. The LED illumination and curvy design are nice aesthetic touches and I like them a lot. However, the physical size is a huge obstacle for use in living room furniture, and even some furniture that could handle it will struggle due to the unusual shape. The optical drive on the design is an eyesore, plainly. The PS5 requires a stand in either orientation to maintain balance – although you can chance it without one in vertical layout, the one least well equipped for an average living room TV stand. Installing an upgrade NVME SSD into the PS5 requires prying off the plastic side shell, an act that seems simple enough but is also concerning – are there odds of visual scuffs or other markings happening?

The Xbox Series X is a plain, boring box. It has a little concave ventilation section at the top and a glowing power button, and that’s about it for flash. However, substance-wise, it has a lot going for it. It can be placed on its side easily, no stand required, and fits into far more entertainment consoles for that flexibility. The optical drive is an integrated part of the design that doesn’t stick out or call attention to itself in a negative way. It is exceedingly plain, yes, however, unlike with my gaming PC, I kind of don’t care if the system looks good as long as it functions. The internal design and layout of the XSX is function over form – a large dedicated heatsink that makes use of convection as well as the single chassis fan, sinking all of the heat-generating components into a single heatsink that can be overbuilt for that purpose, and making SSD upgrades a simple slot-in function (although we’ll talk more about that later). On nearly every principle, the XSX is focused on function and being sort of unobtrusive. The PS5 is loud, ostentatious, and wants to be a part of the discussion for its looks as well as its function, but in many ways, it seems this decision is going to be somewhat to the detriment of the system it houses. Rumored thermal measurements from both systems show the XSX running cooler, a feat which is nice, but also, again, for a console is not really significant provided that the PS5 isn’t cooking itself to death. Neither system seems to be failing in testing and as third-party6 reviews begin to come out, we should know more about my hypothesis on fan noise and NVME upgrades for the PS5. For now, on the things we do know, I have to give it to the Xbox Series X.

Software Ecosystem: PS5

This one is a no-brainer on multiple levels. Sony has strong exclusives, continuing timed exclusive deals for third-party content, and a platform whose first party games will have more interesting toys to play with in the form of the SSD technology. PS5 games will have the advantage of being optimized for a single hardware target, which should mean that even third-party titles will see some improvements over the XSX, where Series S assets could cause problems or may force developers into a situation where they use a single asset pack for Xbox regardless of the system, targeting the S first and leaving the X out in the cold.

The only wrinkle here, and it could be a major one, is that Microsoft’s very recent purchase of Zenimax (corporate parent of Bethesda and iD Software) is likely going to mean that future titles from the publisher, including the next Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles, will be Xbox-exclusive. In a recent interview with Kotaku, Phil Spencer (head of the Xbox division at Microsoft) did not deny this, stating that the business model does not require them selling Zenimax titles on other platforms. He was somewhat quick in the transcript to walk this back slightly, but I fully suspect that after the first major releases of this generation (like Deathloop, which is a timed-exclusive for PS5 and will remain so even as it is now owned by Microsoft), we’ll see Xbox/PC claiming exclusivity over the majority of the Zenimax portfolio. It is a risky gamble, but one that could pay off hugely.

Two remaining topics here as it pertains to Microsoft mostly – one good, one sort of interesting in a weird way. The good, firstly – the work over the Xbox One generation done on backwards compatibility patches has paid off in a big way, as MS expects the XSX to be out-of-the-box working with titles across the full Xbox line, and with enhancements to visual fidelity and performance for the XSX. Broadly speaking, it seems like your full Xbox One library will work on the XSX, plus all currently supported Xbox 360 backwards compatible titles and a handful of original Xbox titles. Meanwhile on PS5, the support is severely reduced. PS4 titles are confirmed to work on PS5, but use a stepped-down GPU frequency to match the supported systems for the title in question (matching the clocks to either the launch PS4 or the Pro) which will mean that enhancements the XSX offers to old titles like framerate jumps, HDR, and Quick Resume are not on offer for PS4 games played on PS5. The PS5 will not support backwards compatibility further back, similarly to how the PS4 also didn’t. Any downloadable older titles you can currently play on PS4, like some PS2 Classics titles, will still work, as will anything you can play through cloud streaming on Playstation Now, although PS Now means subscribing to use the game and that you cannot use your existing discs for those titles. This is a win for Microsoft, especially given their anemic XSX launch lineup.

For the last bit of info here, Microsoft’s loss was for me built on a different, unexpected feature they are offering – which I like, but also threatens to make the console they sell outdated already. Effectively every first-party MS title for the Xbox Series X will launch on PC, with day and date availability offered as a soft commitment, which means no delays or waiting longer periods of time. In effect, this means that if you have a beefy gaming PC already today, than you can play all the Xbox exclusives on the system you already have, which pushes your console choice to a single system – the PS5. If Microsoft and Sony are selling next-gen at a loss again (rumors say it is very likely), then Microsoft sort of ekes out an interesting business win here – a PC gamer buying their title paid Microsoft for the title without already having a negative ledger to MS for the loss on the initial console sale. For someone like me, I see it as a win – I can play all of the titles I really want on both systems on my PC instead, which already has a more powerful CPU and a roughly close GPU (a gap which will grow when I get my new system!), and then when PS5 has a game I really want, I can grab one further down the road.

Accessories and Expansion Options: Photo Finish for the PS5

The most important accessory for either system is the controller, and here’s what we know – the Xbox Series X will continue to support Xbox One controllers, and the major new addition to the XSX pad is a Share button in the center of the controller. The physical dimensions and shape haven’t changed, and while fit and finish have been tweaked, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Xbox One pad is excellent for a wide variety of gamers and hand sizes and doesn’t need any substantial reworks to feel good. The PS5 Dualsense controller is visually quite interesting, but all I really care about is how it feels in the hand, a test I cannot complete as of yet. Sony has generally done well with controller ergonomics, in my opinion, and so I expect that to continue.

On other accessories, the PS5 has a camera (big whoop, I’ve had the PS3 and PS4 one and almost never used them) and a wireless headset that uses its custom positional audio, which sounds like a cool feature but also, headsets are largely about personal preference for comfort and audio features. What this comes down to for me is SSD expansion, because both systems will really need it, especially if you install a reasonable number of current gen games to your next gen system.

Because of the special, form-factor busting custom SSD that is soldered directly to the mainboard of the PS5, expansion cannot be done via the same hardware, instead requiring the user to buy a whitelisted PCI-E Gen 4 NVME drive for PC and install it into the M.2 slot tucked away in the PS5’s ivory casing. For a current 1 TB NVME drive that would meet the spec requirements, you’re looking at a cost of $225 or more. The flexible part of the offering is that you could install a smaller drive, like 500 GB or 250 GB, but the smallest I’ve seen a Gen 4 NVME drive go that also meets specs (basically right now just the Samsung 980 Pro series or the unreleased as of this writing Western Digital SN850 lineup) is 500 GB at $150, which is not a good price per gigabyte. The Xbox Series X, meanwhile, has an approved, first-party SSD expansion option. It plugs into an easily-accessed port on the back of the system and is designed to be swappable, with the only caveat being that it requires you purchase the card as an official accessory. The cost for a 1 TB XSX storage expansion is $219.99, about $10 less than the current pricing of a 1 TB NVME SSD meeting Sony’s specs.

The problem for Microsoft in this, however, is long term. NAND flash prices are about to take a shellacking in the market, dropping precipitously in value due to high amounts of overproduction. Because of this, the cost of adding 1 TB to the PS5 will shrink over time, and may even drop in Q1 2021 to a point lower than that of the Xbox Series X, which is not a very large drop to make. If Microsoft (and their manufacturing partner on this, Seagate) maintains the cost of the 1 TB card at $220, they will quickly find gamers questioning what the value is, especially given that the card is slower than the NVME options for PS5 (while still matching the internal SSD on the XSX, mind you). Some console-first gamers I know are already questioning it, because they don’t track SSD prices or know the precise differences in NVME controllers and stats. When you can get a 2 TB NVME drive for your PS5 at $250 in roughly two years’ time, it will be bad if MS maintains the $220 price tag for 1 TB. This definitely comes down to future market movements and shifts, but while I think the Microsoft approach has a certain friendliness to it, it also clearly has a retail margin motivation, and it is my hope that they do not push customers to overpay for SSD storage for too long. Today, it is a good deal. In 3 months, it will likely be a fair deal, and in a year, a bad deal.

Overall Winner: The PS5

Despite the points I’ve made about the Xbox Series X being a good console, because I do believe it is, Microsoft’s approach here is just not aggressive towards Sony and the places where Sony is better, they are way better, while the places where the Xbox Series X wins, it wins in small margins and in ways players may not notice easily. The PS5 has easy wins on unique software library, potential for future first-party games, has inertia from being the clear winner of the showdown of PS4 and Xbox One which includes timed exclusives, larger install base, and developer support, has a larger base of support in Japan which means those devs are vastly more likely to consider PS5 as their lead platform even when also supporting Xbox Series X, and the system is just more interesting to people. Most family and friends I’ve seen discuss the consoles are all talking about the PS5 – I have exactly one friend who has ever even mentioned the new Xbox systems at all. For someone like me, having Xbox first-party titles on PC means I have no reason to buy an Xbox at all, especially when I can also have Xbox Game Pass on PC and play with my established PC friends while even using an Xbox controller like the Xbox One version I have hooked up to it right now.

The PS5 concerns me in some ways – the power envelopes thing is too much of a black box to me to wholeheartedly embrace it, the system design looks fun (sans disc drive) but it’s way too large and unwieldy for my small living room, and I fear the insistence on a blower fan is going to again create a system that runs inefficiently, getting too loud for peaceful living room play. While I know I could install an NVME upgrade into the PS5 chassis easily enough, I don’t think most console gamers could (not intended to be a diss on them, but it just isn’t a thing you do that often) and I think that while the SSD speeds Sony pitches sound amazing, they’re also just not that likely to be utilized outside of late-gen games, first-party titles and exclusives.

Ultimately though, for the console market, I think the single largest factor is inertia, and the PS5 has a strong tailwind from the PS4’s dominance in this last generation and the player lock-in, exclusive deals, and timed exclusives this has netted Sony. The Bethesda deal for Microsoft is an interesting wrinkle, but Todd Howard and company have done all they can to smash the value of Fallout over the last few years, to the point that I believe it may cause Elder Scrolls to get some side eye when the next single-player version hits shelves in insert comical number of years here. Sony has the stronger business model based on established trends and it will be increasingly difficult, although not impossible, for Microsoft to change the course of things. More hardware power means far less to a console audience who doesn’t have the regular comparison points to draw a line between, and so fanboys will go where they must and everyone else will simply stick with the same ecosystem unless a strong proposition is made to them.

But we have one more topic to discuss on that note, the dark horse.

The Dark Horse: What About Xbox Series S?

What about it?

Okay, so when the shrunk down, specced-down version of the Xbox Series platform was introduced this summer, I wrote a bit about how I thought it was a good move. My opinion hasn’t really changed on that front much. Developers have been vocal online about not liking having two targets to optimize for, which means that at least that hype from Microsoft seems to be melted a bit, so here’s where I stand today.

To a gamer contemplating a $500 purchase of either the PS5 or the Xbox Series X, the S makes no sense in that duel. If you have $500 for a console, it’s going to be the big brothers of either lineup, no questions asked (except if a disc drive is important or not on the PS5). That was the animating reason behind leaving it out of all of the above – if you’re narrowing down one of the two brands, it really makes no sense whatsoever to buy the Series S. You’ll need additional storage through add-in cards faster than the X model, you can’t buy discs ever (which might be a plus, maybe), the backwards compatibility runs Xbox One games like it was an Xbox One S, meaning reduced visual fidelity, and the system itself may not last the whole generation (I have a hunch that a mid-gen refresh like we had with the PS4 Pro/Xbox One X will happen again and the S will simply be Thanos-snapped out of existence).

Where I see the S making a lot of sense is in two scenarios.

  1. You’re a PS5 gamer with no gaming PC that wants to play Halo affordably.
  2. A $500 console is not a purchase you’re economically comfortable with.

Neither of those are bad cases, and in the current state of the world, I expect more people to fall into number 2 than would have 6-12 months ago. To be very clear, I think the S is a good move still, but I do think the appeal is somewhat limited. Too much about the system seems to push in the direction of needing to upgrade eventually – whether to a Series X or to a mid-gen refresh system. Halving the SSD capacity in a discless system feels bad, especially when additional capacity is almost the full cost of the system. Not having a disc drive means reduced backwards compatibility – only games you can download will be playable on the Series S, so if you have a large library of Xbox One and 360 discs kicking around, no can do. As an entrypoint to the Xbox ecosystem for a first time player, it makes a lot of sense, and as a system parents can buy for their children to play Minecraft on, it actually really makes a lot of sense. To the core gamer audience, I do feel like it has a limited appeal. A suggestion I saw was multi-room play, like having a Series X in the living room connected to the better TV and then a Series S in the bedroom connected to a Wal-Mart special 1080p display allowing you to pick up where you left off in the living room, but even for someone who buys into excess as much as I often do, that breaks my brain. I’d much rather buy a spare HDMI cable, Ethernet cable, and power cable and cart the system between rooms than spend $300 to play the same games in a different room in my house at slightly worse quality. Like, what?! If you have such a palatial estate that the distance between your two chambers is too far for such manual labor, you probably could just afford a Series X in both rooms, I mean, come on.

As for the PS5, the choice is actually pretty easy between both versions, in my opinion. If you have a large disc-based PS4 game library you insist on playing on PS5, get the disc drive version. If you need to watch Bluray movies on it, get the disc version. Otherwise, the price differential makes no sense to me – buy the discless PS5. Installing off of a Blu-ray is torture, as even the fastest Blu Ray drive moves like an eighty-year old with a rattling walker. Your internet, even if it is slow, is probably still faster than a Blu-ray drive (well maybe, as a maxed out triple-layer disc read speed is 144 Mbps). Either way, the idea of $100 for a disc drive is comical to me and unless you have a strong incentive for getting one, I’d say go without.

And that wraps up what may end up being my most contentious piece yet (assuming that console fans find it, at least!).

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