The year 2020 is shaping up to be massive for video games. Not just because of the huge list of titles slated for release, but also because of the host of new cloud streaming and game subscription services set to significantly expand our options for play. And there's also the little matter of brand new consoles coming from Sony and Microsoft.
Early details paint a picture of significantly more powerful machines that can launch into the middle of a game in an instant, and work with all the games you've amassed over the past six years. Specifically, here's what we know so far about the next generation of consoles, and then some speculation on which will end up being the more powerful.
The PS5 has been confirmed for launch in "holiday 2020", but we still don't know what it will look like or how much it will cost. Most of what we do know comes from details dropped by system architect Mark Cerny to WIRED Magazine over the course of two exclusive interviews:
- The console will run on a central processor and graphics unit based on AMD's Ryzen and Navi lines respectively. The GPU will include hardware for ray tracing acceleration (for advanced lighting, among other things), in step with upcoming PC gear.
- There will be a solid state drive in place of a traditional hard disk, meaning dramatically faster loading and booting. It also potentially means larger open areas that can be traversed faster.
- The PS5 will support 3D audio, 8K video and up to 120Hz refresh rate, and will be backwards compatible with PS4 games and the existing PlayStation VR headset.
- There will still be an optical drive, with retail games coming on 100GB Blu-rays, but the contents will need to be transferred to the internal solid state drive to play.
- The optical drive will also play 4K Blu-ray movie discs.
- Games can be installed in chunks, for example you could have just the campaign or just the multiplayer portion installed, saving you storage space. Content will also be indexed so you can jump to a specific mission or multiplayer event directly from the PS5 home screen rather than having to boot the game first.
Sony's official video comparing performance of PS4 Pro vs next-gen PlayStation pic.twitter.com/2eUROxKFLq
— Takashi Mochizuki (@6d6f636869) May 21, 2019
Separately, Sony has announced that the PS5 will have an optional standby mode that uses far less energy than usual, but still keeps active games suspended. The feature was developed as part of the United Nation's "Playing for the Planet" initiative to get gamers to reduce their carbon footprint.
The company has also indicated that its PlayStation Now and Remote Play services are set to be expanded, and the PS5 will be optimised for talking to the cloud, so you could end up streaming your new games to your phone or playing PS3 games on your PS5 over the internet.
We also have an idea of some changes to the PS5 controller, again via WIRED. The new pad will mostly resemble the existing one, but will charge by USB-C. Inside it features an improved speaker and advanced haptic feedback thanks to voice actuators in the handle, which sounds a lot like the "HD Rumble" in Nintendo's Switch controllers. It will also have "adaptive triggers", meaning the game can determine how much force you need to apply. Pulling back a bow might offer more resistance than squeezing a machine gun trigger for example.
Patents indicate the controller may include a microphone, with the PS5 running some kind of smart voice assistant, but this has not been officially confirmed.
Xbox Series X
In December 2019, at The Game Awards, Microsoft gaming boss Phil Spencer unveiled the Xbox Series X; a tall black obelisk that more closely resembles a compact PC tower than a traditional console. We know it's launching in "holiday 2020", but rumours have long suggested there would be both a powerful console and a second entry level model. Given current Xbox consoles are called "One S" and "One X", we could assume a less powerful next-gen model could be called Xbox Series S.
As for the internals of the Series X, most of what we know for sure comes from official videos and statements from Xbox.
- The machine will run on a custom AMD processor with Zen 2 architecture, apparently making the console four times more powerful than the Xbox One X. The next-gen Xbox will also sport Navi graphics and is confirmed to support real-time ray tracing.
- Comments from developers indicate it will be hardware accelerated. There will be a "new generation" solid state drive for improved loading and streaming, which apparently offers 40 times the performance of the current machine and can be used as virtual RAM.
- MS's patented Variable Rate Shading (VRS) software will allow developers to prioritise individual effects on specific game characters or important environmental objects. "This technique results in more stable frame rates and higher resolution, with no impact on the final image quality," Microsoft claims.
- Hardware-accelerated DirectX Raytracing – a first for console gaming - has also been confirmed. This translates to highly accurate lighting and reflections in 3D game worlds.
- The goal is for games to run in 4K and at 60 frames per second, but the machine will be able to output 8K and 120Hz. It will support variable refresh rates with a compatible monitor or TV.
- Series X will be backwards compatible with Xbox One games and controllers, and the existing catalogue of Xbox 360 and original Xbox games will be expanded. Microsoft promises "thousands of games across four console generations", optimised to work best on Series X.
- The machine will feature an optical disc drive.
- Series X will launch alongside Halo Infinite, the next in Microsoft's celebrated sci-fi shooter series.
Everything from the physical design to the supposed specs indicates the Series X will be an incredibly powerful machine, and potentially more PC-like than any previous console. In 2016 Phil Spencer indicated that Microsoft wanted to do away with console generations, and have the Xbox you buy today be able to play all future games just like a PC. He's seemed to walk that back since, indicating that certain (but not all) games will be available across generations. It may be up to the developer as to whether new games are also playable on Xbox One. In those cases, there are also indications that multiplayer will work across different generations of Xbox machines.
In an interview with Gamespot, Microsoft execs said Series X would be able to maintain multiple supsended games at once, meaning if you swap games you should still be able to jump in exactly where you left off.
Not many details have been given on the Series X controller, but in the console reveal video you can see it's very similar to the existing pad, just a little smaller and with a redesigned D-pad and central "share" button. It's unclear if it will offer an internal battery and USB-C charging like the recent Elite Series 2.
How will the consoles compare in performance?
A December 2019 leak from chip supplier AMD — the exact source of which was independently verified by the tech experts at Digital Foundry — exposed information on the internals of both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Of course these are early numbers and may not reflect exactly what ends up being in the boxes, and there are a number of important variables left undisclosed, but the figures give us our best look at how the two machines may end up performing.
Both consoles are listed as running an eight-core Zen 2 CPU, and as much has been confirmed officially by the two companies, but it's the graphics processing numbers where things get interesting.
For PS5 the leak shows a custom Navi chip with 36 available compute units at 2.0GHz. To boil this down to a more understandable (but simplistic) number, that would make for 9.2 teraflops of computing power, up from 1.8 for the PS4 and 4.2 for PS4 Pro. That's greater than a doubling of graphical power from the current PlayStation machine to the PS5, assuming the numbers are accurate, and in real terms the effect will likely be greater given the efficiency of AMD's Navi over older chips.
For Xbox Series X the leak shows even more impressive numbers, with an enormous 56 compute units. Digital Foundry infers a clock speed of 1.7GHz, which would deliver 12.2 teraflops of computing power; an epic leap from the 1.4 on the Xbox One S and more than double the 6 on Xbox One X.
So taking the numbers at face value, the next-gen Xbox would offer a 30 per cent increase in power over the next-gen PlayStation, but it's worth taking that conclusion with a grain of salt. For starters the data in the leak is more complete for PS5 than it is for Xbox Series X, and more importantly we don't know yet how the machines will be positioned.
If there really is a "Series S" Xbox waiting in the wings, it would stand to reason that it would match more closely with the PS5 while the Series X offered substantially more power at a much higher cost. Sony hasn't given any indication that a PS5 Pro exists, but if it did it would presumably be the machine to take on the Series X.
We also know relatively little about the memory and storage employed by the respective next-gen consoles, which could have a marked impact on how they perform.