The 9th Console War

The battle lines have been drawn up. The horses are out the gate and the 9th console war has begun. The transition from one console generation to the next, is often defined by huge leaps in graphics. Now in the 9th generation of consoles with the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5, that leap is less pertinent than in previous transitions. At least right now anyway. But that being said there are some platform changes at both the hardware and software level that make these new consoles truly next generation.

Your next generation choices. Until Nintendo joins the fray. Image credit – Future

Storage

Storage might sound like a boring place to start but in the case of these new consoles it’s also the most consequential. In generations 1 through 7, all of the data required to play and enjoy a game (or at least the base game) was self contained on physical media such as a cartridge or a disc. That started to change with the 7th generation (Xbox 360/PS3/Wii) with the option to install games locally to the consoles built in hard drives.

With the 8th generation consoles such as the Xbox One and PS4, regardless of if you chose to buy and own the physical game media, installing games to the hard drive was no longer optional but a requirement. There were some good reasons to do this. For one with the rapid increase in access to high speed broadband, more and more people could take advantage of purchasing games digitally. Second by installing titles to a built in hard drive, games could load more quickly and the consoles could take better advantage of them to improve performance and graphical fidelity.

Now with the 9th generation consoles both Sony and Microsoft have transitioned their consoles to solid state storage (SSD). SSD’s are blazing fast. If a hard drive were a horse and cart, an SSD is a Tesla. The difference is that significant. SSD’s dramatically cut load times. In some cases by 3x or more! And the benefits of SSD’s extend to actually boosting the performance of the consoles, enabling developers to take better advantage of the GPU and CPU with high through put of data. Graphics will look better, frame rates are boosted and SSD’s are just a lot more reliable.

The one downside to SSD’s is they are significantly more expensive than a traditional mechanical hard drive. This situation is exacerbated by some of the choices the console manufacturers have made. In the case of Microsoft, in addition to a built in non upgradeable SSD, they’ve opted for proprietary high speed expansion cards manufactured by sea gate. The performance they offer is amazing but at the cost of your wallet. Sony by contrast offer user upgradeable, high performance SSD’s but good luck finding one! There aren’t any. Not yet at least. Sony has chosen a rather curious albeit fast SSD technology, PCIe Gen 4 M.2 NVMe. Try saying that as quick possible…..

In either case both new consoles offer lightning fast storage, way better load times and much better performance and boot up times. Both consoles offer a quick resume functionality that allows for fast switching between titles that have been paused in memory. And games can take advantage of the SSD’s to do things that just weren’t possible before like instant fast travelling in an RPG. I think the benefits of the move to SSD’s will become more and more apparent as the generation progresses.

Input

Both consoles rely on the tried and tested approach of a game controller. Microsoft have played it safe with a refinement of their already excellent Xbox One controller, making it smaller in the hands and adding a quick share button. Sony by contrast have done something really quite special.

The Xbox Series X controller. Credit – Microsoft

The PS5 introduces a new type of controller called Dual Sense. The name stems from the terrific haptic feedback that the controller provides. It can simulate the feel of a car skidding through mud, recoil as you shoot a gun and even textures such as water. Developers can take advantage of custom API’s to create haptic feedback for their games. It creates a sense of deeper immersion and a more connected experience between you and your game. It isn’t easy to describe this but if you’ve ever owned an Apple iPhone 6S or later, they each contain something called a TapTic engine. And that perhaps is the easiest and most readily available comparison.

The PS5 Dual Sense controller. Credit – Sony

While Microsoft don’t have the same fancy haptic technology as Sony, they have provided full backwards compatibility with Xbox One controllers and accessories. That means their excellent Elite controllers are compatible the Xbox Series X and S too! While the PS5 dual sense is the more innovative of the new controllers, it doesn’t come close to the levels of customisation and performance adjustments possible with the Xbox Elite controllers. That’s great for any Xbox One fans that would like to bring their controller forward to the next generation.

Audio

Audio is another area that will come to truly define the 9th console war. Microsoft have long supported spatial audio with Dolby Atmos and their proprietary Windows Sonic. These specifications crate an immersive, encompassing sound scale that help you feel like you’re in the game world. Your ears are better able to detect the direction that a sound is coming from. In a shooter you might be able to tell the direction that an enemy is approaching from for example.

With the PS5, Sony have done some special work to create their own audio engine. They refer to this as as their Tempest engine. In the console settings it’s called 3D audio. As with Dolby Atmos, it creates a 3D sound scape that better helps you to feel a sense of place and position in the game world. You feel more connected to the content on screen and more entrenched in the world that the game aims to transport you to.

Backwards compatibility

Both 9th gen consoles have taken very different approaches to backwards compatibility. Sony says that the vast majority of PS4 titles are available from day 1 on the PS5. They also continue to support their PlayStation now service which offers streaming of PS3 titles and prior, albeit with a limited selection of games.

Microsoft by contrast really does take the lead. They offer full backwards compatibility with Xbox One games, support for any Xbox 360 game that was part of the backwards compatibility program on Xbox One and even original Xbox games too! That’s backwards compatibility spanning four console generations. Natively, not steamed. Locally stored. This is not just impressive but is incredible gamer friendly. No longer does a transition to a new console generation mean abandoning your old game collection. And as it happens these newer consoles even make your old games look and play better without developers needing to do any extra work!

Developers can of course opt to make patches available to enhance graphical quality and performance for the new consoles and their respective architectures. And it’s great for gamers that even if a developer doesn’t do that, games will still look and play better. Microsoft have even gone a step further with a feature called smart delivery. Meaning that when you download a game from your library, the most optimised and up to date version of that title will download automatically.

Graphics and Performance

Needless to say, the new generation of consoles offer gorgeous improvements to graphics while offering enhanced performance. Unfortunately thanks to both Sony and Microsoft offering mid generation consoles with the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, the benefits in terms of visuals feel a little less pronounced right now unless you happen to be upgrading from the base PS4 or Xbox One.

The Xbox Series X offers 12 teraflops of graphical computer power while the PS4 offers 10 teraflops. Both are way more powerful than either of their predecessors and mid generation predecessors at around a 2X or more increase in power in the case of the latter. 4K resolution is no longer an aspiration but an expectation. There is even potential for some support for 8K as the generation progresses. Not that many people own an 8K tv right now but it’s good to know the consoles are somewhat ready for that future.

The numbers on paper don’t mean that much to a lot of us but what they translate to is higher quality textures, sharper edges, better lighting with support for ray tracing real time reflections, improved shadows, better implementation of HDR and more. The more powerful consoles also boast higher frame rates of up to 120fps. Last generation consoles would often aim for 60fps but where that wasn’t possible would go for a locked in 30fps. These new consoles can in some cases offer a locked frame rate of 120 and in almost all cases 60fps at 4K.

Wrap Up

There are a number of other pieces to the next generation puzzle. Cloud gaming and streaming of titles from your game library to a smartphone. Continued support for VR experiences on the PS5. New user interfaces for the console dashboards and a whole bunch of other smaller updates.

Microsoft have doubled down on their strengths. Backwards compatibility of both games and accessories. Overall more powerful graphics and performance than their rival and a stronger more robust online service with Xbox Live and Game Pass. Sony have also doubled down on theirs. A wider range of exclusive titles, innovation with a new controller with haptic feedback and more immersive audio.

Both consoles make big leaps forward in graphics, performance, connectivity and storage. But it’s those differences in approach that will ultimately sway gamers and decide the winner of this war.

But which side of the battle do you fall on?

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