There’s a lot that’s still shrouded in mystery about the next generation of consoles, but after the Xbox E3 2019 briefing, both Sony and Microsoft have now spoken openly about what we can expect to see in their respective box and how they envisage this transforming video games.
While both companies have really just been trying to set their own messaging on the upcoming hardware before everything is revealed through insider sources and blurry pictures of dev kits, there’s also a fascinating game of cat and mouse between the two. Sony aren’t at E3 this year, but knowing that Microsoft would be and with the Xbox manufacturer already revealing codename Project Scarlett during the E3 press conference in 2018, they decided to steal away Microsoft’s chance to go first and lead the way.
Either way, we now know several key points about both the next-gen PlayStation – let’s just call it PlayStation 5, shall we? – and the next-gen Xbox Project Scarlett. Let’s see how their confirmed specs and features compare:
|Xbox Project Scarlett||Playstation 5|
|CPU||AMD Zen 2||8-core AMD Zen 2|
|GPU||AMD Radeon ‘Navi’ with custom ray tracing||AMD Radeon ‘Navi’ with custom ray tracing|
|Storage||Next-gen SSD||Next-gen SSD|
|Video output||Up to 8K, up to 120Hz, variable refresh rate||Up to 8K, 4K at 120Hz|
|Special sacue||No sauce||Special sauce|
|Backward compatibility||Xbox One (games & accessories), Xbox 360, Xbox||PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR|
|Release date||Holiday 2020||After April 2020|
That’s right, to all intents and purposes, Microsoft and Sony could have been describing each other’s games consoles. Both are built on common technology with a System-on-a-Chip that combines AMD’s Zen 2 CPU architecture with a Navi GPU alongside. Both will also have tech dedicated to processing ray-traced graphics, will be using GDDR6 for RAM, and will have an ultra-fast SSD to dramatically reduce load times.
So what does this tell us about these systems, and where can they actually diverge and get an advantage over one another?
Right off the bat, Sony describe an 8-core CPU, but Microsoft haven’t specified a core count. AMD are releasing ‘Zen 2’ CPUs in the Ryzen 3000 generation next month on 7th July, with CPU core counts including 12 and 16 cores at the high end. Zen 2 has a more modular design with CPUs fabricated in 8 core ‘chiplets’ which can be combined together. For Microsoft to outgun Sony in core count they’d have to use two chiplets instead of one and a much higher power consumption because of this, making it quite unlikely. Either way, Zen 2 is a huge step up over the Jaguar architecture found in current consoles.
For the GPU, there’s much more potential for variation. Both are using AMD’s ‘Navi’ architecture, which will also be releasing as a PC part on 7th July in the RX 5000 generation. These are even more customisable by picking a higher or lower number of Compute Units (CUs), and it’s already the case on current consoles where, for example, the PS4 Pro features 36 CUs and the Xbox One X has 40 CUs.
For the console outputs, it’s quibbling details, as both will surely be adopting HDMI 2.1 ports. These ports have enough bandwidth for 4K at up to 144Hz (both companies only say 120Hz), 8K at 30Hz, with 60Hz possible through dynamic stream compression, and technologies like variable refresh rates, which the Xbox One X already supports. Expect the industry standards to be covered here.
For backward compatibility, it would be best for both consoles to at least maintain this number of CUs – for older PS4 games without dedicated support, the PS4 Pro literally turns off half its GPU to match the 18 CUs of the original hardware. Of the hardware that AMD are poised to release, this aligns perfectly with the RX 5700’s 36 CUs and the RX 5700 XT’s 40 CUs.
Further to this, both Sony and Microsoft are to feature hardware support for ray tracing, and this is another area where they can diverge. AMD are working on ray tracing themselves for their GPUs after Navi, but their semi-custom design team are allowed to offer their partners future technology – this is how the PS4 Pro ended up with ‘rapid packed math’ despite not adopting the rest of the more modern ‘Polaris’ GPU. This, however, is where I feel that Microsoft might have the biggest advantage. On PC they’ve already implemented DirectX Ray Tracing which enabled Nvidia’s RTX GPUs and the first ray tracing games that launched last year, and so they could be better placed to bring this to their console both in terms of software support and customising the actual hardware design.
Finally, the SSD and the storage set up could be similarly important in combination with the GDDR6 RAM. Both seem to be saying similar things, that the next-gen SSD, presumably built with a customised SSD controller to make good use of the faster PCIe 4 bus that AMD now supports, will be able to feed the RAM with the data it needs almost instantly. Microsoft spoke of this being used as virtual RAM.
These words do lead me to expect that the consoles will employ as hybrid storage system. Though the prices of SSDs are coming down, they still don’t offer the raw capacity of a traditional HDD are comparable prices. A hybrid storage system would make more sense than a huge and expensive SSD, especially with external HDD storage support of current consoles in mind. This would cache the most commonly used files on the SSD, all the way up to storing entire games, and so a lot of performance would be found from customising the SSD controller, the size of the SSD and how intelligently the system software shuffles data around.
While we still don’t have the hard facts about the next generation, as both Sony and Microsoft have yet to reveal nitty-gritty details, there’s still some educated guesses to be made. Both PlayStation 5 and Project Scarlett sound pretty similar on paper and we might be heading toward the most boring era of graphical comparisons, but then the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 specs sounded pretty similar when they were first announced and look how that turned out.