Today marks the release of the PlayStation 5, thus inaugurating a brand new console generation. Where Sony will look to replicate the overwhelming success of the PS4, Microsoft will try to rehabilitate its reputation with the Xbox Series X. The consoles are similar in many respects, but they also reflect the very different visions for the future held by Microsoft and Sony.
We've separately reviewed the PS5 and the Xbox Series X, but in this article we will compare them head-to-head in order to determine where they stand in terms of tech, games, features, and future potential, concluding with a recommendation of which console to buy first. One thing's for certain: It's not an easy choice this time around.
The Specs: Pure Power Isn't Everything
Before we dive in the opinion-related differences between the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, let's tackle pure performance. Both consoles are based around AMD's Zen 2 architecture, but with heavy customization from Sony and Microsoft. These are the listed hardware specifications of each console, side-by-side.
|PlayStation 5||Xbox Series X||Xbox Series S|
|CPU||8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.5GHz (variable frequency)||8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT)||8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.6GHz (3.4GHz with SMT)|
|GPU||10.28 TFLOPs, 36 CUs at 2.23GHz (variable frequency), Custom RDNA 2||12 TFLOPs, 52 CUs at 1.825GHz, Custom RDNA 2||4 TFLOPs, 20 CUs at 1.565GHz, Custom RDNA 2|
|Memory||16GB GDDR6/256-bit||16GB GDDR6||10GB GDDR6|
|Memory Bandwidth||448GB/s||10GB at 560GB/s, 6GB at 336GB/s||8GB at 224GB/s, 2GB at 56GB/s|
|Internal Storage||Custom 825GB SSD||1TB Custom NVMe SSD||512GB Custom NVMe SSD|
|IO Throughput||5.5GB/s (Raw), Typical 8-9GB/s (Compressed)||2.4GB/s (Raw), 4.8GB/s (Compressed)||2.4GB/s (Raw), 4.8GB/s (Compressed)|
|Expandable Storage||NVMe SSD Slot||1TB Expansion Card||1TB Expansion Card|
|External Storage||USB HDD Support||USB 3.2 HDD Support||USB 3.2 HDD Support|
|Optical Drive||4K UHD Blu-ray Drive||4K UHD Blu-ray Drive||Digital Only|
On paper, it looks like the PlayStation 5 is a weaker system compared to the Xbox Series X. CPU, GPU, and memory bandwidth are all lower on the PlayStation 5, with the latter's gains in the unique SSD architecture. The custom SSD implementation in the PS5 has twice the throughput at 5.5 gigabytes per second (GB/s) raw, versus the Xbox's 2.4 GB/s.
That's just the tale of the tape though. What really matters is how the developers use both systems. Will they prioritize the PS5's higher IO throughput, or the higher memory bandwidth that the Xbox Series X offers in that 10 GB of RAM? And developers have to think about optimizing the Xbox versions of a game for the weaker Xbox Series S, while on the PlayStation 5 side there's a single spec. Suffice it to say, we'll need to see how the generation shakes out over the next few years.
The Controller: The DualSense is Far More Ambitious
PlayStation 5:: While the competition only offers a slight redesign and upgrade, Sony really went all-out with its new controller, the DualSense. It takes the basic layout of the DualShock 4 and recasts it entirely. The new shape splits the difference between the DualShock 4 and the Xbox One controller, and ends up being much more comfortable for larger hands. The top bumpers have more of a click to them now, and the triggers feel far more solid than they were before. The DualSense also has a micro-pattern on the arms, allowing for more grip and less slippage during your sweaty gaming nights.
Sony actually upgraded the internals of the controller though, notably those triggers. They're now what's called Adaptive Triggers, using magnets to create resistance. If developers program them correctly, you're able to feel the resistance while breaking in your car in Gran Turismo or the tug of a webline in Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Combined with the improved haptic motors and the controller speaker, the Adaptive Triggers can add a great deal of immersion to your gaming experience.
The drawback is greater use of the Adaptive Triggers and haptics drains the DualSense's battery faster. My battery life for the controller was around 12-13 hours playing a number of games, but reports from others playing Astro's Playroom point to a much lower 4 or 5 hours of playtime. That's because Astro's Playroom is a free game meant to highlight the DualSense's features, with the Adaptive Triggers and haptics turned up to maximum. That said, Astro's Playroom is only 4-5 hours on its own, and is not indicative of normal play. And yes, the rechargeable battery on the DualSense is still not removable, like its predecessor.
Xbox Series X: The Xbox Series X controller is a much more conservative update than the DualSense, roughly matching that of the Xbox One in terms of ergonomics and layout. One key point of interest is the improved d-pad, which combines the flexibility of a rocker with the accuracy of a standard directional input. It also adds a Share button—a last generation feature that is nevertheless very welcome in 2020. Unlike the DualSense, the Xbox Series X controller still runs on Double-A batteries, with a charger sold separately.
Truthfully, there isn't much of a gap between the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 controller. Both are comfortable, familiar, and well-suited for lengthy play sessions. The Xbox Series X has the advantage in terms of battery life—especially if you get some really good batteries—but the DualSense is more ambitious. Neither is sufficient to significantly differentiate one platform from the other.
Winner: PlayStation 5
Unique Features: Xbox Series X Leads in Backward Compatibility
PlayStation 5: Loading up the PlayStation 5, you'll find a user experience that mirrors the PS4 in a lot of ways. It feels like a slight evolution of what came before, rather than a full evolution. The most noticeable addition is the new Control Center. When you hit the PlayStation button on your controller on the PS4, it would bring you back to the Home Screen. On PS5, this brings you to the Control Center, a menu overlay that allows you to go back to Home, switch games, or change device and sound settings. It a good way to change things without fully leaving your game.
The Control Center's Switcher—which allows you to switch quickly between multiple games—unfortunately doesn't work like the Xbox Series X's Quick Resume. It doesn't save state your current progress, so switching between games sees you jumping back to the title screen in most cases. That's a rare feature miss for Sony.
There's also backward compatibility, something Sony shied away from heading toward release, but ultimately supported. Most games run in emulation mode, operating as they did on PlayStation 4 Pro, but a handful of titles—including many Sony first-party games like Ghost of Tsushima—have support for higher resolutions or frame rates. It's a good way to continue enjoying games for the last generation that you're not quite done with.
Xbox Series X: This is where the Xbox Series X shines. Compared to the PlayStation 4, the Xbox Series X features much more robust backward compatibility stretching back to the original Xbox, with super quick load times and automatic HDR. It may not matter much in the long run, but in the early going at least, backward compatibility is a clear advantage for the Xbox Series X.
The Xbox Series X also includes the aforementioned Quick Resume: a feature that allows you to switch between multiple games at will without losing any progress. The only problem? It's currently disabled while Microsoft works out a key bug. Once the feature is active, it will be a nice quality-of-life addition, but for now Xbox owners will have to save and quit their games the old-fashioned way.
Nevertheless, it's apparent that the Xbox Series X has an advantage over the PlayStation 5 in terms of built-in features. That's not even including the easily accessible memory expansion, cloud gaming support for Android devices, and Xbox Game Pass, which I'll get to in a moment. All of these perks make the Xbox Series X worth considering. Of course, the PS5 still has the biggest advantage where it matters.
Winner: Xbox Series X
The Games: Sony's Exclusives Are Still the Best
PlayStation 5: This is one area where Sony excels over Microsoft. Both platform holders enjoy broad support from third-parties, meaning games like Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, and The Pathless are equally available regardless of which one you choose. But Sony used the PS4 generation to build up a strong slate of first- and second-party studios, with the games to match.
Here at launch, the PlayStation 5 enjoys exclusives like the Demon's Souls remake, Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Sackboy: A Big Adventure. Now that's not the most impressive slate of exclusives in console launch history, but it's still a sight better than what Microsoft is offering. And at the same time, hit PS4 games like Ghost of Tsushima, The Last of Us Part 2, and God of War (2018) all run at higher frame rates on PS5. Ghost of Tsushima in 4K resolution at 60fps is a stunning achievement, and it's great for revisiting that excellent open-world adventure or playing for the first time.
Sony also has more exclusives on the immediate horizon. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Horizon Forbidden West are from Sony's studios, but you can also expect third-party games like Arkane Studios' Deathloop and Kena: Bridge of Spirits to hit PlayStation 5 first. And look, if we're being honest, the PlayStation 5 will corner the market on games from Japanese developers, at least when compared to Microsoft's platform.
Xbox Series X: It's been said a hundred times, but it bears repeating: The Xbox Series X's single biggest weakness is the lack of a true "killer app." That role was supposed to be filled by Halo Infinite, but in the wake of a painful delay, Xbox is left to fill the gap with timed exclusives like Yakuza: Like a Dragon. It's not enough.
The Xbox Series X can, however, boast an advantage in at least one area. Its flagship feature is the Xbox Game Pass, a subscription service that I praised as an essential purchase for anyone who decides to purchase Microsoft's new console. For as little as $10 per month, it offers a large rotating selection of high-quality games, including first-party Xbox releases. It's great, and PlayStation Now doesn't come close to matching it.
Looking ahead, Microsoft may well close the gap with Sony thanks to the acquisition of high-powered studios like Bethesda and Obsidian. Playground Games is another studio to watch. For now, though, it's all potential. Sony wins the initial exclusives race handily.
Winner: PlayStation 5
Future Potential: Microsoft Still Has Something to Prove
PlayStation 5: Where is the PlayStation 5 headed in the coming years? We know that at the very least, Sony will offer some of the best first-party exclusives, buoyed by great third-party support. And right now, we're looking at what developers are doing when constrained by cross-generational development. Demon's Souls gives a glimpse of what's possible when you focus on the PS5 alone, and we can't wait for Insomniac, Sucker Punch, and others to go all-in on the new platform.
Sony falters a bit more in terms of services. Microsoft plays to its platform strengths with Xbox Game Pass and xCloud streaming options. Sony has competing options like the PS Plus Collection or the oft-forgotten PlayStation Now, but the former is limited and the latter lacks a giant tech company flush with cloud servers behind it. Sony's backward compatibility options are also limited in comparison to the competition.
So all Sony has is the games. But the games are all you really need. The PlayStation 4 had a very strong generation and it feels like Sony is looking to repeat that this time around. The future is a bit fuzzy, but the truth is you can already point out toward the horizon and see the next Spider-Man, the next God of War, or the next Uncharted waiting there to shock and surprise you.
Xbox Series X: It can't be understated how big of a deal the acquisition of Bethesda is for Microsoft. Fallout and The Elder Scrolls are two of the biggest franchises in gaming, and if they indeed turn out to be Xbox exclusives, that's a massive boon for Microsoft. Add in Playground Games, Obsidian, Ninja Theory, and The Coalition, and Xbox's first-party lineup suddenly looks formidable.
In the meantime, Xbox can claim a headstart in cloud gaming and subscription services—areas that are likely to be critical battlegrounds in the next couple years. By 2022, you could be instantly accessing Starfield through the cloud if you own Xbox Game Pass. That's a pretty enticing possibility.
Nevertheless, Xbox's expensive acquisitions have yet to bear fruit, and Sony generally has a better track record overall. I wouldn't blame anyone for feeling gun shy after the mess that was the Xbox One. In that sense, Microsoft still has a lot to prove, and Halo Infinite's delay hardly instills confidence that it will be able to carry off its campaign of rehabilitation.
This race is much harder to call than it was last generation. In 2013, the PlayStation 4 easily had the Xbox One beat in terms of price, tech features, and games. This time around, both consoles have their merits, with the Xbox being able to boast better quality-of-life features and services like Xbox Game Pass, and the PlayStation 5 having the early advantage in games.
The console you ultimately choose to adopt will probably be down to your personal priorities. Are you more excited by cinematic blockbusters and games developed in Japan? Or would you rather have an experience more reminiscent of the PC, buoyed by western developers like Bethesda? It's a legitimately hard decision; one that was difficult enough that I shrugged and said, "If you can afford it, get a gaming PC instead."
In the end, I probably wouldn't get any console… at least not yet. The selection is slim; the features are kind of broken, and pretty much all of the fall's best games are available on PS4 and Xbox One, even biggies like Spider-Man: Miles Morales. If you must buy one, though, the PlayStation 5 is probably the best option. Much as I like the Xbox Series X, the PlayStation 5 currently has the advantage where it matters: the games. And for the time being, that's enough to keep Sony in its preeminent position in the console space.
Call me in a couple years, though; with a host of exciting exclusives in the pipeline and strong services, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the Xbox Series X overtake the PS5. Either way, it figures to be a far more competitive console generation than the one that's just wrapping up now, and that can only mean good things for gaming enthusiasts.
USG's Pick: PlayStation 5