Today is November 4 and that means that there's less than two weeks until the PlayStation 4's launch, less than three weeks until the Xbox One's launch. It's likely that most gamers have already made their decision on whether to invest in either next-gen console, both or neither. Yet one matter is yet to be decided: which of the two is best.
Yes, the console wars have yet to begin in true earnest and so it is with the utmost respect for both platforms that we must prepare. Over the course of this week I'll be taking a look at five respective areas of each platform and comparing them against each other, followed by assigning a "Winner" in each category. Please take immediate not that I say "Winner" and not winner, because everyone wins when playing video games. Plus, it's just my opinion and stuff, yo.
Today we begin our comparisons with the an area that's already been widely discussed, yet cannot go ignored. Today we start with hardware specifications. Over the rest of the week we'll bounce around from controllers to launch line-ups and ultimately decide on a single console with the advantage as our war begins. Yes... a war begins soon. The war. The return of the CONSOLE WARS!
Day 1: Hardware
Part 1: The Players
Sometimes what's more important than the details themselves are the message that's being spread about the details. That's why instead of starting off this comparison piece with the actual specifications we're going to start with what Sony and Microsoft want gamers to think about the specifications. Let's face it, these marketing lines would probably show up in the comments from fanboys pretty quickly anyway.
Microsoft buzz line from the Xbox One website:
"Xbox One is the perfect balance of power and performance. In addition to Xbox One’s revolutionary architecture, the combination of its CPU, GPU and ESRAM is like having a supercomputer in your living room. But raw power is nothing without speed. So the Xbox One uses its power more effectively, creating lightning fast experiences unlike anything you’ve had before."
Sony FAQ answer on why the PlayStation 4 is more powerful than the PlayStation 3:
"PS4 is capable of 10x the processing power of the PS3 system. The system features an optimized design featuring a unified 8GB of high-speed GDDR5 RAM, an eight core X86 CPU, and a powerful graphics processor. Generally speaking, PS4 will enable game developers to build larger, more detailed worlds than they could with the PS3 system. More realistic lighting models, more complex physics and particle effects, more varied and realistic character animations, sharper environment and object textures, higher screen resolutions (up to 1080p), higher frame rates (up to 60 frames per second), larger multiplayer matches and more will be possible thanks to PS4’s next-generation hardware."
Microsoft spokesperson in response to Kotaku:
"Xbox One architecture is much more complex than what any single figure can convey. It was designed with balanced performance in mind, and we think the games we continue to show running on near-final hardware demonstrate that performance. In the end, we’ll let the consoles and their games speak for themselves."
Sony's Lead PlayStation 4 Architect Mark Cerny to Gamasutra:
"The biggest thing is we didn't want the hardware to be a puzzle that programmers would be needing to solve in order to make quality titles." ... "The hope with PlayStation 4 was to have a powerful architecture, but also an architecture that would be a very familiar architecture in many ways."
Part 2: The CPU
Whether as a matter of coincidence or simply AMD's outstanding sales representatives, both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 will be using a CPU with same architecture. That CPU is an 8-core AMD "Jaguar" processor, though Microsoft has been saying that its CPUT is semi-custom to try and differentiate itself. That doesn't change the fact that both core's CPU frequency begins at 1.6GHz (est).
I say begins, because both Sony and Microsoft have gone out of their way to imply that their chips are actually much faster than 1.6GHz. In early September Microsoft made claim that they'd boosted the Xbox One's speed up to 1.75GHz, right before the console went into mass production. Sony, on the otherhand, was discovered to have made an FCC filing claiming a surprising 2.75GHz CPU frequency.
How did either party come to their resulting frequencies? In Microsoft's case they claim they just straight up have 10% more CPU. Microsoft's Albert Penello says: "We have at least 10% more CPU. Not only a faster processor, but a better audio chip also offloading CPU cycles." It's assumed the Xbox One's CPU has simply been upclocked. As for Sony's claims, the 2.75GHz is likely a theoretical max speed using AMD's Turbo Core technology and is unlikely to be its standard running power. Since Microsoft also has access to Turbo Core, it's safer to assume that the PS4 is still sitting at 1.6 GHz as opposed to Microsoft's upclocked 1.75GHz.
Part 3: The GPU
Here's where both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One absolutely smash the previous generation. Much like the CPU both Microsoft and Sony's hardware is based on AMD's Radeon technology (the real winner here is AMD). Let's get down to specifics:
- Microsoft's Xbox One GPU starts at 800Mhz, 12 compute units with 768 shaders, but later bumped themselves up to 853Mhz and brings the console to a throughput of around 1.31 teraFLOPS.
- Sony's PlayStation 4 is a straight on upgrade, starting at 800Mhz (same architecture as Xbox One), but with 18 compute units and a total of 1152 shaders. Even without the boost that Microsoft has added to its GPU we're talking 1.84 teraFLOPs or around a 40% advantage.
On paper, Sony has the clear advantage, but Microsoft believes that their raise in clock speed while maintaining the 12 CUs actually gives them more of a boost than meets the eye with regards to how games run. Xbox One engineer Andrew Goossen elaborates:
"We actually saw on the launch titles - we looked at a lot of titles in a lot of depth - we found that going to 14 CUs wasn't as effective as the 6.6 per cent clock upgrade that we did. Now everybody knows from the internet that going to 14 CUs should have given us almost 17 per cent more performance but in terms of actual measured games - what actually, ultimately counts - is that it was a better engineering decision to raise the clock. There are various bottlenecks you have in the pipeline that [can] cause you not to get the performance you want [if your design is out of balance]."
Even with Goossen's said hidden advantages the Microsoft GPU is unlikely to catch up to the PlayStation 4's initial power, though with time developers can become acclimated and tighten the divide. It really does come down to those numbers: 1.31 teraFLOPs for the Xbox One and 1.84 teraFLOPS for the PlayStation 4.
Part 4: Memory
Ah, memory! Now here's a place where things get simple, right? It's just a stick or two and a couple numbers. Simple math comparison! Nope! If only! It's as if Microsoft and Sony complicated matters just so we couldn't compare the two machines face-to-face, which is what we're going to do anyway.
Here are the basics:
- Both platforms used 8GB of memory, which is as much because developers wanted it as consumers expected it.
- Microsoft's Xbox One uses DDR3 while Sony uses GDDR5, it's a frequency difference of 5500 MHz vs. 2133 MHz. However, Microsoft has added 32MB of eSRAM, em
- Both memory's bus is sitting at 256-bits.
- Bandwidth. Okay, let's get neck-deep. Sony is simple, with their PlayStation 4's memory bandwidth calculating out to 176.0 GB/s. Microsoft's Xbox One? 63.0 GB/s! Huge difference, right? It doesn't end there though, because... the eSRAM!
Basically, there's no simple way of calculating out how the 32MB of eSRAM adds to teh 63 GB/s memory bandwidth that the Xbox One has with standard memory. What the problem boils down to is that Sony's current set-up is easy, erm, easier to get running at a 1080p, 60fps frame buffer. Microsoft's architecture is also able to do that, but it's not so straight forward. It's going to take some work to get there for some developers.
Crytek perhaps says it best when it comes to the eSRAM:
"We put our most accessed render targets like the G-Buffer targets into ESRAM. Writing to ESRAM yields a considerable speed-up. While 32MB may not be enough to use something like MSAA to the fullest, with a smart memory management strategy it is possible to deal with that."
One final thing that needs to be mentioned is how much of each platform's memory will be reserved for the Operating System. Microsoft's Xbox One reserves 3GB of DDR3 RAM for the OS, while the PlayStation 4 can range between 2.5-3.5GB. Theoretically this shouldn't impact game performance significantly, but time will tell.
Part 5: Everything Else
Here's the area of the comparison where we list several hardware areas that are easy for one party or the other and say how inferior it is, but how it works out in reality is yet to be seen.
- Both Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 come with a 500GB hard drive. Even footing here.
- Neither platform will support external hard-drives at launch, but the Xbox One plans to allow it via USB 3.0 eventually. Eventually. Sony has announced no plans to allow external hard drives.
- Sony's PlayStation 4 will, however, allow the hard drive to be replaced so long as it meets certain standards. That is, it has to be 5400 RPMs and able to fit in the console's drive slot. Basically, that means most people won't be speeding up the console through hard drive replacement, but if users fill up 500GB...
Neither platform comes out ahead in the storage war. Sony's lack of external hard drive support is disappointing, but until Microsoft implements it in the Xbox One they're no better. The ability to replace the PS4's hard-drive is nice, but not efficient. It's more of worst case scenario option as opposed to anything most console buyers will take advantage of.
Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 have their own dedicated audio blocks. While this might not seem like a very big deal to the common gamer, in technology terms it could mean a great deal. The Xbox One features technology capable of 512 audio stream, while the PlayStation 4 can only maintain ~200. That could mean that more of the audio burden falls onto the PS4's CPU, which is already weaker than the Xbox One's, but perhaps it will never come to that point in the first place. Odds are very few will notice even if it does become an issue.
Heating, Sound, Aesthetic Appeal, etc.
Basically, this is the area for all of the things hardware-wise that we simply won't know about until launch and beyond. Certainly, both console's are said to deal better with heat, run much quieter, and from quick impressions look gorgeous. Until those things are in entertainment centers around the world we just don't know. They might be bulky, not fit with other appliances, heat up in enclosed spaces, or sound like a damned vacuum. Time will tell. One good piece of news, the Xbox One will warn users when it's over-heating... so hopefully no more widespread red ring of death.
Conclusion - PlayStation 4 Wins
As of right now, pre-launch, there's no mistake that the PlayStation 4 is a more powerful machine. Its more powerful GPU and much more powerful RAM make it entirely more capable, day one, to run the biggest and brightest games on the market. It's why we're already seeing developers running their games at higher resolutions, with more FPS on the PlayStation 4 vs. the Xbox One.
Down the road will the Xbox One catch up? Absolutely. It's not just a case of developers figuring out how to use the Xbox One, but also of developers knowing the platforms limitations and not exceeding them despite the PlayStation 4's advantage. It's simply bad business to not create equal products. That is, unless one platform or the other sells a ton more than the other. In that case, well, who knows what developers will decide to do.
Ball's in your court, Xbox One.