Who announces the first details on their next major platform on a random Tuesday? Sony, apparently. This morning I woke up to find that PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita lead architect Mark Cerny had a sit down with Wired to chat all about the next PlayStation. Not "PlayStation 5" technically, because the platform wasn't called that and we have no clue if Sony is going to pull an "Xbox 360" or "Xbox One" on us.
The Guts and Glory
The information given to Wired was more of an outline of the platform, rather than full, hard specifications that fans like myself can pour over. The CPU powering the next PlayStation is based on AMD's third-generation Ryzen with the new 7nm Zen 2 microarchitecture. This is up-to-date hardware from AMD, given that Zen 2 is slated to come to desktop PCs this year as the AMD Ryzen 3000 CPUs. Zen 2 is supposed to be the first 7nm x86 processor to touch the consumer market, boasting eight-cores and 16-threads like many top-of-the-line current CPUs, but the smaller process means higher clock speeds and more power efficiency. (MORE POWER!)
This CPU will be paired with "a custom variant" of the new AMD Radeon Navi. Like the Zen 2, the Radeon Navi is built around a 7nm microarchitecture—like the recently-released $699 Radeon VII graphics card—and we're supposed to be seeing a commercial graphics card release based on the chipset this year. We can't even really guess at performance figures this early on; Navi tests are rumors at best and we're still waiting for AMD's reveal of its 7nm-based hardware at AMD CEO Dr. Lisa Su's Computex keynote on May 27, 2019 in Taipei.
When I speculated about the composition of the next PlayStation and Xbox early last year, I argued that Sony and Microsoft could "dream a bit bigger" and utilize a combination of the Zen 2 and Navi. It looks like Sony was already on that track, throwing what will be the cutting edge into its next PlayStation platform. It's good to shoot for the stars, especially when it comes to new hardware.
One bit of information we did get about the new processors was support for ray tracing, which cements this techniques as the next "it" thing for the gaming industry. AMD rival Nvidia heavily touted ray tracing as the "holy grail of gaming graphics" in a reveal of its GeForce RTX line of graphics cards. Ray tracing simulates the way that light bounces around a scene, allowing for proper reflections, refractions, improved ambient occlusion, and more realistic lighting overall. GeForce RTX handles ray tracing on the hardware side, but it's not quite clear if the new PlayStation will do the same, or rely on a software solution.
Cerny did play up the use of ray tracing for things outside of the visual spectrum. The AMD chipset for the next PlayStation will include a custom 3D audio unit, which combined with ray tracing, can help developers have more precise 3D sounds.
"If you wanted to run tests to see if the player can hear certain audio sources or if the enemies can hear the players' footsteps, ray tracing is useful for that. It's all the same thing as taking a ray through the environment," Cerny told Wired. That's really nice if you're rocking a full surround sound system or a premium headset-Cerny mentioned headphone audio as the "gold standard"-but I'm not entirely sure if I see this being a differentiator to the average consumer.
Best of the Rest - Next-Gen Storage
Last year, I also noted that the PlayStation VR headset has been relatively successful for Sony. The PSVR's install base is a small fraction of the overall PlayStation 4 user base (four million versus 91.6 million), but it keeps Sony future proof and offers new outlets for developers.
"Both PlayStation VR and Gear VR appear to have been successful ventures, and that makes it clear that there is demand for accessible VR. So I wouldn't be surprised at all if VR was a major component of the proposition for next generation consoles. That might simply take the form of improved performance, and perhaps a new bundled headset, with a 'this is the console you need for high fidelity VR'-style pitch attached to it," Mode 7 co-founder Paul Kilduff-Taylor explained to USG last year.
That speculation was largely correct as well. Cerny said the current PlayStation VR headset is compatible with the next console. "I won't go into the details of our VR strategy today, beyond saying that VR is very important to us," said Cerny. I'd expect that you'll see an upgraded PlayStation VR headset for the next PlayStation, probably with improved resolution and newer motion controllers. Bundled in with the system? Probably not, but still a key offering in Sony's portfolio.
In Sony's mind, the ringer is likely the new storage system for the next PlayStation; the subject comprised almost half of the Wired article. The new system is utilizing a solid-state drive, as Cerny noted it was something developers had been asking for. Most speculated this wasn't something that was happening, because SSDs are more expensive, especially when you get to 1TB and above sizes. Sony is digging deep though.
In the demo Wired saw, Cerny showed off Insomniac's Spider-Man on a PlayStation 4 Pro and the new platform. Fast traveling on the older platform saw a 15 second load, while that dropped down to 0.8 seconds on the new system. That's a 19x improvement, bringing us somewhat back to the olden days of cartridge gaming! Cerny also showed off that the new storage solution allows for improved streaming of environmental assets, which is especially useful for open-world games.
But SSDs aren't all that new. They've been in desktop PCs for some time now, and many PlayStation 4 owners have swapped in SSDs instead of the stock PS4 hard drive. What's changed here is the bandwidth of the SSD in the next PlayStation.
"The raw read speed is important," Cerny said, "but so are the details of the I/O [input-output] mechanisms and the software stack that we put on top of them. I got a PlayStation 4 Pro and then I put in a SSD that cost as much as the PlayStation 4 Pro-it might be one-third faster."
Still, Cerny was cagey on what's being used in the next PlayStation. The new PCIe 4.0 standard is coming this year with AMD's Ryzen, and that offers bandwidth of around 64 GB/s, around double the current PCIe 3.0 standard. PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSDs were demoed earlier this year, with 4 GB/s of sequential read and 4.2 GB/s of write performance; the company behind those tests expect faster flash to push that maximum to 4.8/4.4 GB/s of read/write throughput. Current NVMe SSDs like the WD Black top out at 3.4 GB/s of sequential read, and that's a high-end drive that costs around $230 for a 1TB drive. And we haven't even gotten any information on the next PlayStation's RAM, which is key for moving all those high-resolution assets around.
Backward Compatibility is Back
Cerny also showed off the backward compatibility of the next PlayStation in relation to the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro. Not only will the older PlayStation VR headset work with the new system, but as noted above, Marvel's Spider-Man was shown off running on the new console too. Cerny confirmed that the next PlayStation will have a disc drive-no word on whether that's a 4K Blu-Ray drive-and it will be fully backward compatible with the PS4.
This is smart, as it allows the next PlayStation to draw on the excellent software library of the PlayStation 4. It also means that certain games can be released cross-generation: Death Stranding was mentioned in the Wired article, but The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima feel far enough off that they could come to both generations of PlayStation.
There's no word on "how" though. Will the next PlayStation share services with the current PlayStation 4, enabling new platform features through patches like the current PlayStation 4 Pro games? Or will we have to purchase new versions of these older titles? And if emulation of the PlayStation 4 is software-based, how many additional issues will crop up in regards to developer bringing their games over to the next PlayStation? The new platform will also support 8K resolutions, though that's more of an errant bullet point than something developer will likely utilize in actual games. Even with 8K, it's likely that 4K resolution will remain the top-end standard.
Hearing All Those Rumors
There's a lot that not locked down in the Wired article: RAM, storage size and specifics, CPU and GPU performance. It's here that we turn to a few rumors. Back on December 3, 2018, an anonymous person purporting to be a European developer dropped a few tidbits about the next PlayStation.
This person correctly called a "small" Q2 2019 reveal for the system, given that Wired's first look dropped today, early in the second quarter of 2019. The rumor further detailed the 7nm Ryzen CPU and 7nm Navi GPU, with ray tracing support. It also called the backward compatible nature of the new platform and 8k upscaling. A lot of this could come down to random guessing and speculation though, so let's take the rest of the details with a grain of salt.
The rumor points to PS5 dev kits with 32 GB of RAM, with the potential system aiming for 24GB of GDDR6 and 4GB of DDR4 for the operating system itself. It also called for a 2TB hard drive of NAND Flash, which would fit the SSDs mentioned above. 2TB seems way, way out there though; the 2TB version of the WD Black NVMe SSD I mentioned above costs nearly $500, leading me to call bull on this rumor altogether.
Regardless, the rumor further points to an updated PlayStation VR in 2020, with a resolution of 2560 × 1440, matching the recently-announced Oculus Rift S. It also says the headset will have a 120hz refresh rate, eye-tracking, integrated headphones, 4-5 hour battery life, and no breaker box like the current model. The refresh rate actually puts it ahead of the Rift S (which is 80hz), but given that, the rumored $250 feels entirely too low again. (The Rift S is $399.) Further on the VR support side, the rumor states the DualShock 5 will include some sort of camera for VR tracking and a trackpad similar to the Steam Controller.
Gamewise, the rumor states that The Last of Us Part 2, Ghost of Tsushima, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and Gran Turismo 7 are all planned for the launch of the next PlayStation. Third-party titles include the rumor Harry Potter game, the next Assassin's Creed, Battlefield: Bad Company 3, and finally Grand Theft Auto 6 in Holiday 2020. That feels entirely too soon for Rockstar to have a new GTA title, especially since it'll likely be launching Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC around then. Finally, Horizon Zero Dawn 2 is slated for 2021, according to the rumor.
That's a lot of wish fulfillment and speculation I think, but some of the information was spot-on way back in December 2018. Basically, keep it in mind, but far in the back of your mind.
A Potentially Pricey Product
Even without the rumors, using the latest AMD architecture, a solid-state hard drive, and a new type of storage bandwidth points to an expensive system. The rumor states that the PlayStation 5 will cost $499, with Sony taking a loss of $100 on each system. I don't think the market will support anything above $499, so taking that as the maximum the next PlayStation can cost, it feels like it's going to hit that number.
When Sony is riding high, it tends to get a bit arrogant. The PlayStation 3 came off the heels of the white-hot PlayStation 2, with Sony charging $499 for the cheaper 20GB model and $599 for the beefier 60GB model. Price was one of the reasons the PS3 lagged behind its competition; a year later the 60GB dropped $100, and by 2008, the 80GB PS3 finally cost a proper $399.
Given the technology and the general strength of the PlayStation 4 right now, I'd say Sony is going to hit $499 for the next PlayStation. Sony will likely position it as a sliding scale, the PS4 at $299, the PS4 Pro at $399, and the PS5 at $499 for the first year. The market jumped in on the Xbox One X with a launch price of $499, showing Sony that high-end consumers were willing to part with their hard-earned dollars for premium hardware. Even the outline for the next PlayStation is premium, with the hardware we've actually heard about costing a pretty penny in other markets.
Given Sony is skipping E3 2019, I'd expect to see more about this system at either a potential PlayStation Experience later this year, or at an event in early 2020. Launch feels like another November release for Sony, like the PS4 and PS4 Pro. Regardless, as of the unexpected news this morning, the next generation is officially right around the corner.