Sidenote: Competitive Analysis of the Next-Gen Consoles

With the spec reveals for both major next-generation consoles done, we can now get into the nitty-gritty of comparing the two and seeing who comes out on top as well as analyzing the overall marketplace they’ll find themselves in.

The Xbox Series X shores up Microsoft’s launch problems from last generation in nearly every way. They haven’t shot themselves in the foot with tone deaf messaging about online requirements and licensing for games, and where the Xbox One suffered from a severe deficit of GPU power and memory bandwidth compared to the PS4, the XSX has amended all of those deficiencies. They’ve come forward with a clean system reveal free of controversies, announced the Smart Delivery feature which will encourage people to buy Xbox One games this year (like Cyberpunk 2077) and will upgrade those titles to Xbox Series X versions for free, and on the hardware front, have introduced a system with higher peak clock speed on the Zen 2 CPU and a higher-power GPU than the PS5, along with theoretically higher maximum memory bandwidth and more internal storage at launch. Lastly, the backwards compatibility work done during the Xbox One’s life has paid off, as Microsoft is promising full reach across generations for backwards compatibility, although limits remain in place with Xbox 360 and original Xbox titles needing patched support, and Xbox One titles may even be iffy depending on the game.

The PS5, on the other hand, seems to have a strong hand with no obvious weaknesses, although due to use of a thermal and power envelope for system clocks, things are a little less certain. The storage system is equally baffling and exciting, as the odd amount of raw space is offset by some jaw-dropping maximum bandwidth numbers. While the overall spec sheet produced by Sony is less-impressive on the core hardware front with lower CPU clock speeds and a weaker overall GPU, the difference between the two systems is minimal and which you buy, if only one, is largely a decision on ecosystem. Lastly for Sony, backwards compatibility remains murky, with the only confirmed support being PS4/Pro titles, and PS1-3 seeming to remain non-supported.

Given all of that, what can we conclude?

Compression is key: 1 TB (or 825 GB) is not a lot of internal storage and means gamers will have difficult choices about what gets to live on their system at a given point in time. However, both Microsoft and Sony talked extensively about compression technology and how both systems have their own secret sauce with storage compression/decompression, which tells me that the plan is to pack the internal storage tight with compressed files, rather than letting developers decide how much space to take up. By using dedicated compression hardware, both teams have made it clear that their launch storage is intended to last longer than we might otherwise expect. If the compression is really good, like 2:1 (and from the bandwidth numbers thrown out, that does seem to be close!), then the 1 TB on the XSX is effectively closer to 2 TB, while the PS5 closes in on around 1.6 TB of effective storage. This is a huge jump from just the numbers published, so take it with a grain of salt, but either way, it is clear – compression is expected to make both systems more capable of storing large games internally and loading them out of storage faster. However, both system designs account for the idea that gamers will eventually cap out, with external proprietary storage cards for the XSX and an open NVMe drive slot for the PS5 allowing players to add more fast storage.

Storage is also key: Storage performance is one of the largest (if not outright the largest) increases in power this console generation. The PS4 and Xbox One were both hampered by incredibly awful mass-market laptop SATA mechanical hard drives, which spin slow and take forever to load data. Final Fantasy XV on my launch PS4 takes upwards of 2 minutes per loading screen! Given that, nearly anything was better – and while I expected SATA SSDs to be a safe, cheaper bet, seeing both companies go straight to NVMe SSDs is actually really cool. Performance off these drives far exceeds what was possible last generation – using even a generous hybrid SSD/HDD combo drive’s read performance, it would take such a drive 77 seconds to fill the internal memory of a PS4/Xbox One, where the NVMe SSDs in the XSX and PS5 can do so in 6.83 and 2.98 seconds, respectively, even with twice as much internal memory! If developers can use it remains an open question, and with launch titles that started development on the PS4/Xbox One, the answer is almost certainly no, but the potential for 3-5 years in the future is promising – massive open worlds stream-loaded with minimal or non-existent loading screens.

Developer control over hardware is baked in: One thing that stands out to me is that both systems make use of variable performance standards which allow differing approaches to how to use the hardware. The XSX has a variable CPU thread count, allowing developers to enable more parallelism at the cost of some frequency. Meanwhile, the PS5 sounds vastly more adaptable, with the CPU and GPU both seemingly having adjustable clock speeds within a shared thermal envelope, meaning that in theory, a developer can opt to push most of the thermal envelope to the GPU for graphically-intense games while keeping the CPU minimally utilized, or vice-versa. What is unclear there is how much control developers have – can you adjust one component way down in speed and the other to max, or does there need to be a closer balance between the two components? The other thing this muddies the waters for is overall system performance – the Xbox Series X has a clear baseline performance that seems to be consistent, where the PS5 specs are listed as a seeming-best case scenario – GPU teraflops rated at max speed, CPU seemingly at its max speed, etc. These things could very well obscure that the PS5 is potentially a fair bit slower than the XSX, rather than the slight disadvantage as it currently appears based on those numbers.

PC Gaming will improve as a result: We reached the point in the current console generation where the systems are tapped out quite a while ago, and while the refreshed X1X and PS4 Pro systems add power, they aren’t a reliable baseline for developers to target since the original, weaker systems remain on-sale and supported. This means that PC games have had to find their own improvements to fidelity from developers willing to put the effort in for stuff that only shows on PC – so some titles got special PC things (RTX features, higher resolution texture packs in games like Monster Hunter World, etc) while others are slightly sharper versions of the console releases with steadier framerates. With the modern, current (and even next-gen) PC hardware in the new systems, we’ll see some vast improvements to games made for PC as well as these platforms. There will likely be a small immediate jump forward as the PC-extra goodies we get trickle into console games and become essential for even console-first titles, then over time we’ll see games continue to push forward and the engines and middleware used by most developers today will also push new features. In particular, I would expect efficiency at 4k resolutions to increase as developers figure out engine tradeoffs to get the higher resolution working smoothly on more hardware, better usage of video cards with 8GB plus of memory, and better usage for gaming systems with 16 GB or more of main memory.

On the PC hardware front, we can see a bit of what AMD will be pushing via RDNA2 thanks to these consoles, but outside of that, Nvidia is likely to respond with high-end GPUs that make use of ray-tracing better and have more memory on faster buses. Intel will have to continue an upward march in core counts for mainstream desktop CPUs – getting to 8 core/16 thread designs in a sub-$300 market segment will be key to compete with AMD, who already have the Ryzen 7 3700x there with that core and thread count and using the same CPU architecture in the consoles with higher clock speeds. When Zen 3 designs come out later this year, I expect AMD will be pushed further forward in the market on the back of the expected and rumored IPC gains. Storage will likely become more critical, with PCI-E Gen 4 NVMe drives capable of meeting the speed of the PS5 and it will behoove Intel to get PCI-E Gen 4 support up and running in a product sooner than later to meet that change, while AMD is already up and running with Ryzen 3rd-generation parts and will continue support going forward.

Thermals will (possibly) be a big part of performance: While I like boost clocks as a concept on PC (allowing strong thermal design through your case selection and cooler choices to increase performance), on a console, variable clock speeds are kind of a problem. Being able to adjust down to decrease power and heat is great, but when you allow a system a dynamic boost when the thermal conditions of the operating environment are a huge variable, it can be bad. My hope is that the PS5’s variable clocks are accounted for in its form-factor and cooling solution. The XSX, while the trashcan design is somewhat contentious for people, is actually pretty well thought through and has a clear design principle behind it. Coupled with steady clock speeds, the system should be capable of dissipating the heat it generates well enough to ensure good performance and lifespan, and the larger casing allows it to use a larger, slower fan that quiets operation. The PS4 design, while elegant and impressive (look at a disassembly video to see how well-packed that casing it) was also monstrously loud and would feel very noticeably warm after use. My concern is that the PS5 design is going to be iffy here, with a just-good enough heatsink inside of the system, engineered to be small and visually pleasing, while the fan will have to ramp to jet engine levels to remove enough heat if your environment is warmer than a controlled 71 degrees Fahrenheit. This is all speculation on my part, of course, because the nature of the variable clocks and the physical design of the system are largely unknown at this point.(Correction – the clocks advertised are maximums, so the only variability on either component is downward!)   Speaking of unknowns…

Overall, both systems are just as good until we know the price point: All the speculation in the world right now about the competitive positioning of both systems is pointless, because the main factor that is going to drive purchases is price. The last gen was so thoroughly a loss for Microsoft at launch because they had a weaker system, a disastrous reveal, and a $500 price point, compared to the faster, sleeker, and cheaper $400 PS4. It took the removal of Kinect, the firmware update overclocks, and software ecosystem improvements for Microsoft to even get to a point where the Xbox One wasn’t a cruel joke of sorts.

Now, this generation, pricing is more crucial but also more flexible, to a point. The Smart Delivery system in Xbox Series X means that if you currently own an Xbox One and a preorder on Cyberpunk 2077 or any other Smart Delivery title, you could actually justify a higher-priced XSX because you won’t then need to re-purchase your game to get the higher visual fidelity and smoothness. If Sony unveils something similar to Smart Delivery, it will likewise pose the same issue for PS4 diehards – if I have a game coming out this year paid off on pre-order, then it would make sense to wait and see what PS5 pricing is and support the system even if it is more expensive, because the ecosystem I’m currently bought into would carry forward.

Outside of current console diehards with Cyberpunk 2077 preorders in mind though, this is a much simpler choice. Whichever system is cheaper wins, more or less. PS3 bombed at launch because they asked for $600 compared to $300-$400 for the Xbox 360 depending on model. Xbox One did the same because it shipped at $500 against a $400 PS4 and was slow to respond to the competitive threat of the PS4. Whichever of these systems ships with the lowest price tag is going to pull interest. While backwards compatibility matters to some, the reality is that if I want an XSX but also to play my PS4 games, I don’t have to get rid of my PS4 and can just keep it around. Unlike phones or tablets, where locked ecosystems mean you want to keep with one operating system once you get bought in, consoles are generally acceptable devices to have multiples of. If you really want to keep both a Playstation and Xbox system in your home theater cabinet, you certainly can! My prediction is this – Sony is going to find a way to market the system cheaper than Microsoft and the PS5 will come in with a cheaper price. Part of this speculation on my part is simple – the often-repeated rumors of a “Lockhart” model Xbox with stripped down hardware tells me that whatever the XSX sells at is likely to make an average consumer double-take. Considering that a generous estimate for the marked-up cost of the PC hardware equivalents of the XSX would add up to nearly $1,000 to a consumer, the idea of a $600 system isn’t out of the question, with the potential Lockhart slotting in lower at $400 or so.

Meanwhile, with Sony, they’re using a smaller silicon budget via a lower CU count GPU, likely 8 GDDR6 memory chips at 2 GB each versus 10 total chips on the XSX, and perhaps even a cost reduction due to the odd capacity of the NVMe SSD in use. While I highly doubt a cost of $400, $500 would be imaginable and would likely come in below whatever Microsoft ends up charging. Having the better-specced system overall may actually bite Microsoft in the ass here, as the silicon cost of a 56 CU GPU stripped down to 52 CUs for yield is quite a bit higher. All of that is without taking into account that neither company can take advantage of AMDs chiplet technology with their designs, which removes another vector for possible cost savings. Manufacturing a large, monolithic SOC on the TSMC enhanced 7nm process, while very possible, is also a bit of an unknown factor and the Navi cards from AMD on the PC tell us that the large size may very well be difficult to yield well given the models like the RX5600XT, which is a cut-down version of the same RX5700 die. I’d assume yields are within acceptable tolerances if they’re pushing ahead in this way, but it does mean that the per-chip cost is higher and the possibility of defects is higher.

One remaining wrench in the works with the current environment and pricing – COVID-19 and the high probability of a global recession. COVID-19 has had tangible effects on manufacturing supply chain for tech products, causing many manufacturers to push out new product reveals or launches. Computex this year may be cancelled or pushed back, and E3 is already off. Combine that with global uncertainty and murmurs in the US of unemployment rates hitting as high as 30%, and that presents a variety of challenges to these systems (and worse challenges to the people interested in them). If they launch on schedule, it will be under supply constraints at low levels like raw materials, through manufacturing chains that involve areas stricken by a global pandemic and recovering, then asking cash-strapped consumers who are struggling to survive to then spend upwards of $500 plus games and accessories on a new entertainment system, with a launch lineup that will likely be mostly upscaled and smoother-running games one could buy just as easily for the current-gen consoles. If you delay the launch of these systems in response, it can cause damage to the ecosystem both companies are hoping to build, but if you launch in this environment and no one can afford to buy your new systems, then that can also cause a similar amount of damage. In short – until we have definitive timescales and economic data from the current cascading disasters, it is really difficult to even wildly speculate how either console will do, because so many things in the current world stage change day by day and even hour by hour.

All told, this will be an interesting battle in the console wars and I remain curious to see how this all plays out!

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