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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The PS5 and Xbox Series X Are Closing the PC-Console Gap

Every time a new console launches, PC gamers—like myself—are quick to remind the gaming community that our platform of choice offers more power and versatility than even the newest, shiniest console. That's still true this time around, but things feel a little bit … different.

In fact, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are more powerful than both of the midrange gaming PCs in my office—which would have been unheard of in the PS4 and Xbox One days. While the PC still has a big leg up in terms of performance range—that is, you can spend more to get more—the latest consoles are more PC-like than ever, and are closing the performance gap more than their forebears did.

When Sony announced the PlayStation 4, hardware experts knew it was going to be on the underpowered side. AnandTech noted that console makers weren't taking CPU performance seriously enough, and that the GPU was equivalent to a Radeon HD 7850 or 7870—then $140 and $170 graphics cards. That's lower than a midrange price point, which means you could build a PC that'd beat the pants off the PS4 and Xbox One pretty affordably—indeed, many games had lower framerates, downgraded graphics, or both compared to halfway decent PCs at the time. (This wasn't true across the board—some notorious PC ports had their own issues—but it's clear that even a midrange PC would get you more raw power to play with.)


Part of this was due to Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), the semiconductor company that has designed the processors and graphics chips inside Sony and Microsoft's consoles for the last two generations. "When the last-gen consoles launched, AMD was in bad shape," explains Brad Chacos, senior editor of gaming and graphics at PC World. "They were still running their old Bulldozer architecture, which was a big gamble that did not pay off for them."

That failure had them playing second fiddle to Intel for years in the PC space, and the Jaguar processors inside the PS4 and Xbox One were toned-down, power-efficient versions of that already weak product. So while developers were able to optimize games for that set hardware, it still couldn't hold a candle to a well-built PC.

This year, as Chacos puts it, AMD is "firing on all cylinders," with their latest Ryzen 5000 processors beating Intel across the board for the first time in a decade and a half. And since those chips also reside in the PS5 and Xbox Series X—as opposed to the old, almost tablet-esque Jaguar processors in last generation's consoles—they can come much closer to the performance you'd find in a good gaming PC.

It's not just the processors and graphics chips, though. Solid-state drives, or SSDs, have finally come to consoles as well, providing the fast loading times we've been enjoying on PC for years. SSDs also allow for faster patch downloads and snappier fast travel, which are real quality of life improvements that made previous consoles feel old and slow out of the gate. Put all that together, and the latest consoles look a whole lot like gaming PCs in terms of graphical prowess.

To be fair, this year's consoles are also a bit more expensive than their predecessors—$500 for the top-tier PS5 and Xbox Series X compared to the $400 PS4 and Xbox One (post-Kinect removal). That higher price tag gives the manufacturers some wiggle room to include more powerful hardware—but Chacos notes that these consoles are still "exceptional values," particularly given the fact that PC hardware has been outrageously marked up in 2020 (thanks, Covid-19). $500 may be more expensive than last gen, but it's a compelling price for the graphical fidelity you get, and the digital PS4 hits that old $400 price point with the same performance as the $500 version. (Though I'd argue that Sony's offering that lower price in hopes you'll pay more for digital games in the long run.)

But the PC vs. console debate was never just about raw power—as I've written before, the versatility of PCs offers a customizable, tailored-just-for-you experience that consoles can't match. But they are getting closer: Since the last two generations have used the same x86 architecture that PCs have used for decades, they can now tap into more backwards compatibility benefits. Both the PS5 and Xbox Series X can play PS4 and Xbox One games, respectively, meaning you have a much wider library of compatible games—it may not be as wide as the decades of games you can run on a PC, but it's more enticing than the strict subset of games you got from the consoles of yore.

For us nerds, "performance modes" have also become more common in console games, allowing you to choose between graphical fidelity and higher framerates—something PC gamers have been able to do since the dawn of time (albeit with more fine-grained control). Couple that with game streaming, cross-platform play, and even some limited mouse and keyboard support, and you're able to tailor the PS5 or Xbox Series X to your playstyle more than ever before. Though for the record, Chacos is skeptical these types of features are mind-changers for shoppers on the fence. "They're cherries on top," he notes—but they're unlikely to change the fundamental value proposition for those already married to a specific platform.

But he does admit that these extra features create a new dynamic in the gaming space. "I think we're reaching a weird point with graphics right now, where it's kind of hard to go much further in terms of raw pixel count," he explains. "If you jump to 8K, it won't make much of a visual difference. I think that's why Nvidia and the rest of the industry are focusing on ray tracing—to improve the fidelity of those pixels."

And that's where the PC may be able to widen the gap again in the coming years. When new consoles come out, they can be a great value, but PC hardware iterates so much faster that consoles often feel underpowered when the next generation of graphics cards come out. And even if next year's hardware doesn't push more pixels, features like Nvidia's DLSS—which allows for much better performance alongside ray tracing—could provide huge leaps forward for the PC. That is, unless AMD has its own console-compatible tricks up its sleeve.

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