PS5 vs. Xbox Series X: a complicated battle of SSD and GPU speeds

Sony has finally unveiled its PlayStation 5 specs today, and there are some surprisingly big differences between the PS5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X. Both consoles are still arriving at the end of the year, and we’re now starting to get a better idea of what both Microsoft and Sony have prioritized for next-gen games. Sony has picked different CPU, GPU, and even SSD speeds that will impact how next-gen games are developed for the PS5 and Xbox Series X.

On the PS5 side, the console has eight AMD-based Zen 2 cores clocked at 3.5GHz each, compared to eight AMD-based Zen 2 cores clocked at 3.8GHz each on the Xbox Series X. With simultaneous multithreading (SMT) enabled on the Xbox Series X, Microsoft’s CPU cores drop to 3.6GHz each, so the difference here seems relatively minor on paper.

It’s the GPU and SSD sides where the PS5 and Xbox Series X really differ. Sony has opted for a custom AMD RDNA 2-based GPU inside the PS5, which provides 10.28 teraflops of power with 36 compute units running at 2.23GHz each. Microsoft has picked a custom AMD RDNA 2-based GPU for the Xbox Series X, but it can hit 12 teraflops of power with 52 compute units at 1.825GHz each.

Sony is using variable frequencies on both the CPU and GPU, which we’d normally refer as to boost clocks on PCs. It’s slightly different, though. In an interview with Eurogamer, Sony PS5 system architect Mark Cerny reveals the console has a set power budget that’s tied to the thermal limits of the system. That means the PS5 performance will vary depending on how much it’s being pushed by games.

Sony is hoping that by offering developers less compute units running at a variable (and higher) clock rate, the company will be able to extract better performance out of the PS5. The reality is that it will require developers to do more work to optimize games for the console until we can find out how it compares to the (more powerful on paper) Xbox Series X.

Storage is where the Xbox Series X and PS5 differ radically. Sony has created an impressive proprietary SSD solution that provides 825GB of storage and 5.5GB/s of performance. The Xbox Series X includes a custom 1TB NVME SSD, but its raw throughput is less than half at 2.4GB/s. That could mean load times differ massively between the PS5 and Xbox Series X, depending on what game developers optimize for.

Sony is also allowing PS5 owners to expand storage with regular NVMe PC drives, but there’s a slight caveat. We’re still waiting to see PCIe 4.0-based drives that will match the bandwidth of what Sony has implemented in the PS5, and compatibility could be complex given that Sony will need to validate that drives will be fast enough and compatible with the PS5.

Sony’s expansion does mean that PS5 owners should be able to pick up a fast PCIe 4.0 NVMe drive and increase the storage of the console with relative ease. Microsoft is using a proprietary expansion card format for the Xbox Series X, and it has partnered with Seagate to produce 1TB expansion cards for launch. We still don’t know the price of these proprietary cards, nor how much fast PCIe 4.0 NVMe drives will cost later this year.

Sony hasn’t revealed any further details about the software side of the PS5 today, nor how games will take advantage of the promised real-time ray tracing. On the Microsoft side, we’ve seen a demonstration of Quick Resume that lets you quickly switch between Xbox Series X games even after the console has been rebooted for a system update.

We’re also still waiting to see what the PS5 actually looks like. Sony continues to keep the design of the console a closely guarded secret, while Microsoft provided a first look at the Xbox Series X last year. Microsoft also revealed the exact dimensions of the Series X earlier this week.

Ultimately, how the next-gen console competition will pan out will depend greatly on two things: games and price. Sony took an early lead in PS4 sales thanks to being priced $100 less than the Xbox One. Microsoft has committed to not making that mistake again with the Xbox Series X, but neither company has provided any hints at pricing just yet.

Games and the underlying ecosystem will define the success of the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Sony has had a run of great exclusives on the PS4, and the momentum has left the Xbox One struggling. We’re still waiting to hear what types of games will be available at launch for both the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Microsoft has committed to launching Halo Infinite alongside the Series X, but it will also be available on PC.

Microsoft’s answer to games may come in the form of Xbox Game Pass and its subscription strategy. It’s clear Microsoft has been pursuing a Netflix-style game service, and the company is even planning to tie Xbox Game Pass and xCloud game streaming together later this year. Microsoft has also been acquiring studios to create exclusive Xbox games, but there won’t be any exclusive first-party Xbox Series X games at launch.

How game developers respond to the power of both consoles will be important in the coming months. Games need to make use of this new power, especially for load times, frame rates, and real-time ray tracing. We’ve only seen tech demos of how load speeds will work so far, but even if existing games get a big boost to performance, that might be a big enough selling point alone.

It’s now all eyes on the months ahead as game developers prepare to unveil next-gen titles that will really show what the PS5 and Xbox Series X are capable of.

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