The cats are out of the bag, as both Microsoft and Sony have revealed the detailed specs of their upcoming next-gen consoles. There’s a lot of common ground between the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, with AMD’s latest tech, ray tracing, SSDs and more, but with the cold, hard numbers in hand, which is more powerful? And how will this affect the price?
First up, let’s just compare the specs in a lovely table, before diving into each area and discussing it.
|PlayStation 4||Xbox Series X|
|CPU||8 Zen 2 Cores @ 3.5Ghz w/ SMT (variable)||8 Zen 2 Cores @ 3.8Ghz / 3.6Ghz w/ SMT|
|GPU||10.28 TFLOPS – 36 CUs @ 2.26Ghz (variable)||12 TFLOPS – 52 CUs @ 1.825 GHz|
|GPU Architecture||Custom RDNA 2 with hardware ray tracing||Custom RDNA 2 with hardware ray tracing|
|Memory||16 GB GDDR6||16 GB GDDR6|
|Memory Bandwidth||16GB @ 448 GB/s||10GB @ 560 GB/s, 6GB @ 336 GB/s|
|Internal Storage||825 GB NVME SSD||1 TB Custom NVME SSD|
|I/O Throughput||5.5 GB/s (Raw), 8-9 GB/s (Compressed)||2.4 GB/s (Raw), 4.8 GB/s (Compressed)|
|Expandable Storage||Pre-approved M.2 NVME SSDs||Custom 1 TB NVME Expansion Card|
|External Storage||USB External HDD||USB 3.2 External HDD|
|Optical Drive||4K UHD Blu-Ray Drive||4K UHD Blu-Ray Drive|
|Video Output||HDMI 2.1 – Up to 4K at 120Hz, 8K, VRR||HDMI 2.1 – Up to 4K at 120Hz, 8K, VRR|
|Audio||Tempest Engine 3D audio||Dolby Atmos, Windows Sonic 3D audio|
|Backward Compatibility||PlayStation 4||Xbox One, Xbox 360, Xbox|
|Availability||Holiday 2020||Holiday 2020|
The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are pretty evenly matched in terms of CPU. Both have 8 cores of AMD’s Zen 2 CPU architecture, and both are similarly clocked. Microsoft quote a maximum clock speed of 3.8Ghz, but with Synchronous Multi-threading (SMT) to run multiple threads per core, that drops to 3.6Ghz. Meanwhile, Sony’s CPU speed tops out at 3.5Ghz with SMT, with the CPU speed fluctuating as the game demands a shift between it and the GPU.
The reason for Microsoft’s distinction is that games are currently developed with 7 cores is mind on PS4 and Xbox One. That can easily translate to Xbox Series X with minimal fuss, and having a higher clock speed can help boost frame rates – this is one way that Intel have managed to maintain a diminishing gaming advantage over AMD in the last few years.
As we see SMT more widely adopted, the Xbox Series X advantage here should diminish a little.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Both are using AMD’s RDNA 2 architecture with ray tracing built in, but Microsoft have gone big on their GPU design, packing it with 52 Compute Units (CUs) compared to the PlayStation 5’s 36 CUs, a 30% advantage.
That gives Microsoft 12 Teraflops of power at 1.875Ghz, but Sony have decided to clock their GPU higher, boosting up to a potential 2.23Ghz if the CPU allows it to. That gives them 10.75 Teraflops, a 10% drop, and Mark Cerny contends that this gives them lots of advantages through the whole GPU, the only downside being larger latency to the memory.
This could actually be fairly close, though Microsoft still hold a certain advantage. On PC, it’s often the case that overclocking a lower spec GPU can close the gap to a higher end GPU, however, this will push the envelope and has historically seen the efficiency of AMD’s designs plummet. How well this works will depend on the RDNA 2 architecture.
Both consoles have 16GB of GDDR6 RAM, but Microsoft and Sony again have slightly different philosophies. Sony have straight up got 16GB all at the same speed, delivering 448GB/s, but Microsoft have two pools, one of 10GB of ‘optimal’ memory at 560GB/s, while another 6GB “standard” memory at 336GB/s. Games can access 13.5GB, while the final 2.5GB is for the system running in the background, so 3.5GB of slower (but still fast) memory can be used for more general elements for the CPU, audio, the game executable, with the GPU having the advantage of higher bandwidth in its optimal pool where it matters.
Feeding the RAM with data at lightning speeds are two ultra-fast SSDs. Sony’s is ultra-faster, though. More than twice as fast.
The Xbox Series X 1TB SSD is equivalent to a high-end PCIe 3.0 drive, with a throughput of 2.4GB/s which is doubled to 4.8GB/s by compression. Meanwhile the PlayStation 5’s 825GB SSD fully embraces PCIe 4.0 speeds, has a throughput of 5.5GB/s, which could be improved to 8 or 9GB/s with compression. This is faster than anything available on the market today, with PCIe 4.0 SSDs currently topping out at 5GB/s.
A great deal has been done by Sony to let that data be used as rapidly as possible, with a six-channel flash controller allowing for data prioritisation and Mark Cerny describing the possibility of letting the SSD behave almost like RAM to dynamically load in data as quickly as you can turn around the camera. By contrast, Microsoft’s approach feels more like a PC, but make no mistake, this is still a potentially revolutionary jump that offers developers many new possibilities for creating their game worlds.
The SSD expansions
Neither console will let you replace their SSD, but you have some expansion options. Microsoft have partnered with Seagate to create a diminutive 1TB expansion card that plugs into a custom slot on the rear of the Xbox Series X. This will match the speed and specifications of the internal SSD.
Sony, by contrast, have stuck with the philosophy of the PS3 and PS4. An M.2 port will be accessible, supporting certain off-the-shelf NVMe drives. However, the SSDs will have to better the base throughput of the PlayStation 5’s internal SSD – and make no mistake, these are ultra high-end specs – and even then, they’ll have to pick up the slack of not having the six channel design using the CPU to manage the data priority. It will also have to fit the slot with whatever heatsinks the SSD makers have attached. As such, Sony will work to create an approved list of drives that are compatible.
In both cases, expansions will likely be very expensive.
Both consoles have USB HDD support, but you won’t be playing Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 games from an external drive. Both consoles will allow you to play backward compatible games from external drives, but you’ll be sacrificing the improved loading times of having those games installed to the internal SSD.
As on Xbox One, Microsoft will support Dolby Atmos and Windows Sonic for spatial audio, and will be able to leverage the GPU’s ray tracing to process the positional sounds and how they reverberate through the environments.
The PlayStation 5 features a custom Tempest Engine chip, based off the RDNA 2 Compute Units, but modified to act more like the SPUs of the Cell CPU in the PlayStation 3. This allows for fast, dedicated audio processing of sounds in the hundreds or thousands, far in excess of Dolby Atmos’ tens of sounds.
Additionally, they’re hoping to make those sounds seem real. Not just from the perspective of “that sounds like a car”, but like “Bloody hell, there’s a car right next to me!” To achieve that, they’re using Head-related Transfer Function (HRTF) to customise the audio to your ears. Initially there will be five generic HRTF profiles, but this is an evolving field of development, and could eventually have you sending photos of your ear to Sony or playing an audio mini-game to find the closest HRTF profile that fits.
Beyond that, they’re getting this positional audio to be universal to all audio devices. Initial work is being done for headphones, but it will extend to TVs and soundbars, before they work on 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound systems.
So which is more powerful?
Looking at the numbers, the Xbox Series X is clearly the more powerful of the two, but that’s not the whole story. The PlayStation 5 might be able to use what it has a little more effectively, while offering its own advantages
Microsoft have set out hard limits for the CPU and GPU, while Sony’s approach is more fluid and dynamic with a smaller GPU clocked significantly higher, sharing a set power limit with the CPU. Overall, there’s more power in the Xbox Series X, but tapping into the power of the PS5 might be easier for developers thanks to its ultra-fast SSD that’s twice as fast as that of the Series X. The Series X might also have to dedicate some resources to processing audio that the PS5 has a dedicated chip for.
But simplistically, the Xbox Series X looks to be the winner on the spec sheet.
These are not going to be cheap games consoles, that much is for sure. Where the last generation played it safe in order to be more affordable, these consoles are full of cutting edge and therefore expensive technology. Wherever the price ends up being, it’s not certain that either Microsoft or Sony could really undercut their rival by that much, even if the world wasn’t about to suffer the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Microsoft are spending more on the central chipset, with a larger GPU that will drive up their costs and faster GDDR6 RAM to feed it. Sony’s approach has a smaller GPU in their design, but then they’re spending that money on their SSD – a typical 1TB 2.4GB/s SSD is around £110, while a 1TB 5GB/s SSD is £240-280, and Sony’s design goes much beyond those, even – and the bespoke Tempest Engine for audio.
Obviously nothing has been confirmed, and both companies are likely having to wait until closer to their planned launch dates before they settle on their price.