The Battle Between the PS5 and Xbox Series X Isn't Going to Be Decided By Specs

Illustration for article titled The Battle between PS5 and Xbox Series X is not determined by specifications

Graphic: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Last week, Sony and Microsoft paved the way for a battle that will (hopefully) take place later this year with the release of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Both systems are poised to bring rich new experiences and high-end features console gaming, but if you think either one is only going to win on specs, think again.

Even without knowing what the PS5 will really look like, it’s clear that the Xbox Series X and PS5 have many things in common by looking at their underlying architecture. Both consoles have CPUs and GPUs based on AMD’s Zen 2 and RDNA 2 architectures, and as unnecessarily thought both Microsoft and Sony. Both consoles will do the same contain wonderful new things called SSDs (despite solid state drives being standard equipment on many laptops and desktops for nearly a decade). Both consoles even support hardware accelerated ray tracing, which is currently only available on PCs.

The end result of those components is that Microsoft says the Xbox Series X will deliver 12 teraflops (TFLOPS), which is a nice but relatively abstract way to quantify the new Xbox’s performance. Meanwhile, Sony says PS5 will have to do with an absolutely meager 10.3 TFLOPS. In the event that my sarcasm isn’t clearly written down, these numbers, while sounding impressive, don’t really mean much. And that’s a good thing.

Microsoft is still waiting to see what Sony's competitive box will look like.

Microsoft is still waiting to see what Sony’s competitive box will look like.
Photo: Microsoft

A gap of about 1.7 TFLOPS in both directions isn’t big enough that the Xbox Series X would be able to play games at 8K while the PS5 would be stuck at 4K. And while that 12 TFLOP figure suggests the next Xbox may be able to pump out slightly more frames per second than the PS5, much of the consoles’ real performance will come down to how well developers can optimize their games for each console. So if TFLOPS doesn’t matter, what’s the important difference between the Xbox Series X and PS5?

Much boils down to the various changes Microsoft and Sony make to AMD’s hardware platform. While AMD will also make Zen 2 and RDNA components for the PC world, PC component manufacturers don’t have the same ability to match the silicon on these components as console makers.

During Sony’s recent Way to PS5 livestream, lead architect Mark Cerny spent a lot of time drawing attention to how the PS5 handles sound using a custom Tempest 3D audio engine with the potential to create custom Head-related Transfer Functions (HRTFs). This means that PS5 can deliver spatial audio specially tuned for how you hear, enabling more powerful and immersive environments. That said, a lot of that is potential, because while it would be nice to build out a personalized HRTF for every PlayStation user, that’s not really achievable, so at launch the PS5 offers five different HRTFs to choose from.

On the Xbox side of things, in the recent version from Microsoft dive into the technology of the Xbox Series X., some notable features were the mention of 120Hz and variable refresh rates. Currently, the PS4 Pro doesn’t really do 120Hz gaming (outside of PSVR) while the Xbox One X can do a limited number of titles. But in the future, by combining existing Microsoft knowledge with the growing number of TVs that support 120fps and variable refresh rate, the Xbox Series X may be a better choice for gamers who really care about getting higher frame rates.

Looking back on the launch of the Xbox One and PS4, people also forget how important basic things like price and core features, such as the ability to trade used games, affected public opinion. Back at E3 2013 before Microsoft finally dropped their plans for DRM on Xbox One, this one video gave the PS4 a huge head start in people’s hearts and minds. And when you combine that with the PS4’s lower launch price of $ 400 (versus $ 500 for the Xbox One), Sony actually won the generation before either console went on sale.

So aside from a major flub, the battle between the Xbox Series X and PS5 isn’t determined by specs and the war will be better for it. Nintendo has already proven with the Switch that specifications don’t really matter, it’s what you do with that hardware. That means Sony and Microsoft can go to war over more important things like games (especially exclusive titles), accessibility, streaming support, affordability and more, and that’s what most people really care about anyway.


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