Opinion | Hardware isn't the whole story when it comes to console gaming: Xbox Series X vs. PlayStation 5 specs
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Sony finally released the PlayStation 5’s specifications earlier this week. Much to the chagrin of Sony fans, the PS5 looks a fair bit weaker on paper than its rival, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X. Looking at the custom AMD RDNA 2 GPU of each console, the Xbox is 18.2% more powerful than the PS5 (as measured by TFLOPS).
|Component||Xbox Series X||PlayStation 5|
|CPU||8x Zen 2 cores at 3.8 GHz (3.66 GHz with SMT)||8x Zen 2 cores at 3.5 GHz (variable frequency)|
|GPU||Custom RDNA 2, 12.15 TFLOPs, 52 CUs at 1.825 GHz||Custom RDNA 2, 10.28 TFLOPs, 36 CUs at 2.23 GHz (variable frequency),|
|RAM||16 GB GDDR6||16 GB GDDR6|
|Memory Bandwidth||10 GB at 560 GB/s, 6 GB at 336 GB/s||448 GB/s|
|Storage||Custom 1 TB NVMe SSD and optional 1 TB expansion card; USB 3.2 storage support||Custom 825 GB SSD and expansion slot for external NVMe SSD; USB storage|
|I/O Throughput||2.4 GB/s raw, 4.8 GB/s compressed||5.5 GB/s raw, 8-9 GB/s compressed|
|Optical Drive||4K UHD Blu-ray drive||4K UHD Blu-ray drive|
While the Xbox looks like the better option when it comes to traditional measurements of computing power, PS5 fans have been quick to point out that the PS5’s 36 CUs run at 2.23 GHz, a 22.2% bump over the Xbox’s 52 CUs at 1.825 GHz. But the Xbox has more CUs, which could give it the edge in heavy graphical loads, particularly at higher resolutions.
But ultimately, none of these specifications are a true indicator of how good games will look. With consoles, a game’s graphical fidelity largely boils down to one factor: the developer.
Optimization vs. Hardware
I offer a bit of clarification to start my argument. Consoles are fundamentally the same as the computer sitting on your desk. Both are shells that house electronic components like a CPU, a GPU, RAM, and storage. But on a software level, consoles are very different than their PC cousins. While PCs are designed to run a main operating system with multiple programs on top, consoles are much simpler.
The operating systems for the PS5 and Xbox Series X will likely be more similar to a traditional PC desktop than the operating systems of consoles past, but they will still be simple in comparison. Most consoles are designed to run a single application at a time, be it a game, streaming media via Netflix, or more. Newer consoles have incorporated more features, such as game streaming and chat, on top of games. At the end of the day, though, consoles are still more streamlined in their design than PCs. As such, a console's operating system is fairly lightweight compared to Windows or macOS and thus doesn't demand nearly as many resources.
Also, developers typically have more direct access to a console's hardware than they would with a PC. While PC devs often have to go through APIs to accommodate the wide variance in PC hardware, console devs can typically interact directly with a console's CPU or GPU since it is standardized across machines.
All of this is to say that development in the console space is drastically different than it is with traditional PCs. When comparing a game on two PCs, faster hardware almost always translates to better performance (barring some outlier cases or architecture differences). This is not the case for consoles.
Software optimization matters
We needn't look too far into the past for a perfect example. Back in 2005, Sony announced the PlayStation 3. Compared to the Xbox 360's tri-core CPU, the PS3 had a unique CPU architecture featuring one main "Power Processing Element" (PPE) and seven "Synergistic Processing Elements" (SPEs). On paper, the PS3 looked far and away more powerful than the Xbox 360. However, the complex architecture of Sony's console was also its greatest weakness.
Development for the PS3 was "a nightmare," according to Kazunori Yamauchi, the CEO of the studio behind the famed Gran Turismo racing franchise. In a 2016 interview with IGN, Yamauchi stated that development was difficult "mainly because the PlayStation 3 hardware was a very difficult piece of hardware to develop for." His sentiments were largely echoed by other development teams during that console generation.
Looking at comparisons of broad release titles (read: non-exclusives), it was often the case that the Xbox 360 version of a game ran significantly better than its PS3 counterpart. PS3 ports were generally regarded as inferior, mainly due to reduced framerates, choppy gameplay, and system instability. You can see this clearly in the Assassin's Creed 4 comparison video from Digital Foundry below.
So far, I've only spoken of graphical fidelity. I should also mention how a console's internal specifications do not translate directly to its success. Many of the most successful consoles in each generation were not the most powerful. The Sega Master System was a faster machine than the Nintendo Entertainment System but failed miserably against Nintendo's juggernaut. The Nintendo DS was a joke compared to the PlayStation Portable but outsold Sony's handheld nearly two-to-one. The PlayStation 2 was less powerful on paper than either the Nintendo GameCube or Microsoft's Xbox but completely blew its competitors out of the water and went on to become the best-selling console of all time.
Other factors feed into how well a console is perceived and how well it does in the market. A console's price is a key factor, as are other facets like backward compatibility, according to a recent survey taken by gaming industry legend Ed Boon.
My point is that comparing the internal specifications, especially this early in their lifecycle, is almost pointless. We don't know how well a console will do based on how powerful it is. What makes or breaks a console is the cornucopia of factors gamers look for in their gaming experience. Most of those factors have nothing to do with the silicon running inside the case.