Sidenote: The Unveiled Specifications of the Playstation 5

Along with last week’s full Xbox Series X specification reveal, we received the very same for Sony’s Playstation 5.

Similarly to last generation, the most interesting thing here is that with AMD marketing a similar semi-custom design to both companies, the few differences that do exist become crucial distinguishing points.

Last generation, at launch, the Xbox One shipped with a stronger CPU but had only 2/3rds the GPU horsepower and tied all of it down to a much slower DDR3 main memory standard that could strangle the bandwidth needs of the GPU in the system, while Sony shipped a weaker version of the same CPU, but a much stronger GPU and GDDR5 main memory which traded off latency for vastly higher bandwidth, feeding the GPU much better and allowing PS4 games to carry higher visual fidelity through much of the generation. The Xbox One had to release firmware updates that effectively overclocked the CPU and GPU, and reduced the main memory strain of the operating system.

This generation may be shaped by similarly small differences, although this generation, perhaps going the other way.

First, let’s discuss the specs of the PS5!

The CPU: It is also Zen 2 like the XSX, but unlike that system, comes clocked at a max of 3.5 GHz and has SMT always on, meaning it offers a steady 8 physical cores with 16 threads. The frequency is set to be variable, which, given the wording, suggests to me that it can downclock to save power, but it is difficult to tell if that means it has a boost clock. Given that consoles rely on steady baseline performance, I highly doubt that boost would sneak into the conversation, but I suppose it is possible. Looking at the materials, it seems like Sony has pegged the system to a thermal allowance system, meaning both the CPU and GPU can indeed boost, but it is more of a static configuration design – a smart developer can push the system by effectively min-maxing their software to the strengths of the design.

The GPU: RDNA2, again, similarly to the XSX. What differs here quite a lot is the power. While Microsoft has gone with a 52 compute unit beast at a lower clock speed, Sony has gone with 36 compute units but clocked much higher than Microsoft’s GPU choice. This decision was made, supposedly, because the RDNA2 design works better with high frequency, but that is what Sony says and I would expect them to justify their own decision in a way that sounds good. Since we don’t have RDNA2 in any accessible form to view on our own, it is hard to tell for sure if this holds true. The difference in clocks is pretty sharp, however, such that Sony claims 10.28 TFLOPS for the PS5 GPU compared to 12 TFLOPS for the XSX. The difference in power is literally the TFLOP rating of the original PS4 GPU, which is a funny bit of coincidence – the XSX is capable of PS4+PS5 processing!

However, the teraflops rating doesn’t really tell us all that much for graphics, as it is a raw compute throughput rating. What we understand of AMD’s new RDNA design as it currently exists on the desktop PC is that it is more efficient and capable per FLOP than the older GCN designs of last era, and so the difference will largely be down to how developers push the hardware. Last generation, the difference between the PS4 and Xbox One was enormous – both in raw power and also in memory bandwidth. This generation, the power seems a little less split – the PS5 is technically behind, but not by a lot, and at launch and for a while, we are unlikely to see either system pushed to its limits. Unlike last gen, where Xbox One titles less than a year into the system’s life were already using upscaling to get to 1080p at acceptable framerates, we’re unlikely to see any such thing this generation for a long time. In all likelihood, games will be able to run at a native 4k for much of the system’s lives, and by the time we start to hit a wall, we’ll probably see another “Pro” type refresh to push higher level hardware.

The Memory: 16GB of GDDR6 just like XSX, however, the difference here is that the PS5 uses a very standard fixed single bus, so where XSX has variable bandwidth to two banks of memory contained within that 16 GB figure, Sony has one at a steady bandwidth of 448 GB/s. This places the bandwidth squarely between the high and low ends of the XSX memory numbers, so while the Xbox theoretically can be faster, as games start to use the full allotment available, the PS5 will pull ahead to a small extent. The effect this will likely have on performance will be almost impercetible and only measurable with tools for benchmarking – but there will be differences, with smaller games favoring the XSX and games using the full memory allotment favoring PS5.

The Storage: This is where things get…weird, for Sony. Where Microsoft has a fairly standard-sounding NVMe SSD on the XSX with some custom interface at a standard 1 TB capacity, Sony has kitted the PS5 with an 825 GB (?) NVMe SSD, but it is a more customized option. Per Sony’s hype description, the SSD has fully custom hardware for control and compression/decompression, and has a bandwidth over twice that of the XSX’s NVMe drive (5.5 GB/s vs 2.4 GB/s). On top of that, Sony is offering a standard M.2 NVMe interface for expansion with a third-party SSD, allowing you to add additional storage with your choice of SSDs, although compatability is a big question mark for me – there are DRAM-less SSDs that are awful on performance, slower drives with DRAM caches, and the top-end drives from companies like Samsung and Corsair.

However, on the surface, the biggest difference between the two systems is definitely in storage – Sony’s storage performance is vastly higher than Microsoft’s, however, the challenge with this is that at launch, it isn’t likely to make a huge difference either way. Having NVMe-speed at all is going to be a vast improvement over laptop-slow mechanical hard drives, and current games don’t exhibit huge changes past the mechanical hard drive – on a desktop PC currently, a SATA SSD that maxes out at 500 MB/s read speeds is functionally almost identical to a 3500 MB/s NVMe SSD, with the percentage improvement over the SATA drive being almost margin of error despite being theoretically 5 times faster! This is the real challenge Sony has – investing a lot into strong storage technology is cool and I want to give them props for that, however, the current state of things means that we are about 3-5 years out from software even getting close to using that advantage in a meaningful way, and for third party developers, they’re likely to stick to the XSX as the guideline for development on storage, which will mean that the advantage here is likely to remain theoretical.

Overall, the system that will be the PS5 sounds great, and I still think that the delta between the two systems isn’t anywhere near as large as last generation, where the PS4 completely blew out the Xbox One where it mattered for gamers and it took the mid-lifespan refresh and upgrade for Microsoft to pull ahead (as the Xbox One X is more powerful than the PS4 Pro, by a fair margin). There are some key problems I have with the PS5 rollout, however – no console design photos mostly, and with both systems, they are obviously still holding things close to the chest (no release date confirmations, no pricing, the Lockhart Xbox hardware that is supposed to be cut-down for mass-market is still not confirmed), but the next 9 months are going to be very interesting in the console space!

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