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Thursday, April 18, 2024

What You Need to Know About the Newest Game Consoles

Consoles: They're new, they're shiny, they'll be here next week. Sony's PlayStation 5 and Microsoft's Xbox Series X launch a couple days apart, and together, they're expected to usher in a new era of gaming. But which features actually matter? Is support for 8K resolution even something you'll be able to use? Which console makes the most sense to buy? And is cloud gaming ever going to make consoles obsolete?

This week on Gadget Lab, we talk with WIRED service editor Alan Henry about the ins and outs of the new systems, and what the future of gaming will look like.

Show Notes

Read more about the Playstation 5 here, and the Xbox Series X here. Read more about cloud gaming here. Read more about the politics of Call of Duty here. Follow all of WIRED’s video game coverage here. Follow Wiredmag on Twitch.


Alan recommends the game Genshin Impact. Lauren recommends the show The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Mike recommends Soulboxer cocktails in a bottle, specifically the brandy old-fashioned.

Alan Henry is @halophoenix on Twitter. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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Michael Calore: Lauren.

Lauren Goode: Mike.

MC: Lauren, it has been a long week.

LG: Longest week ever.

MC: While everyone may be still talking about the presidential election, we are going to take a little break from that here. So have a seat. Turn off Twitter for a minute. Stop refreshing the map and let's talk about something super fun.

LG: Ooh, kittens?

MC: No, we're going to talk about video game consoles.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music]

MC: Hi everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor here at WIRED, and I'm joined remotely by my co-host, WIRED senior writer, Lauren Goode.

LG: Hello, hello.

MC: We are also joined by WIRED service editor, Alan Henry, who also leads our Twitch live streams on our Twitch channel and runs all of our video game coverage here on WIRED. Hello, Alan. Welcome back to the show.

Alan Henry: Hi. Hi, thanks for having me.

MC: As always, of course. Today, we're talking about the two new video game consoles that are out in the world, the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X both launch next week, just a couple of days apart. Both promise a whole bunch of technical improvements that will guide the games industry for the next few years. We'll get into the business of gaming later on in the show. But first, let's dig into the details about the consoles themselves. Alan, not to feed into the great console wars too much here, but how do these machines stack up?

AH: In a lot of ways, they're very similar. Design wise, they couldn't be more different. One is a tall black rectangular prism and then the other one looks like a beach bro with a pop color. They are priced similarly too. The PlayStation 5 is $599, the version without a disc drive, they called it the digital edition is $399. The Xbox Series X, which is the beefier one is $499. The Xbox Series S is $299. They both come out, oh man, November 10th for the XBox consoles and November 12th for the PlayStation 5. They're just both beefy computers. They're both big old computers with tons of memory. I mean, they're gaming PCs wrapped up in a proprietary shell.

LG: So I've dropped in a gamer admittedly since probably 1996. This is because I have a bit of an obsessive personality and so when I get really into something, I get really into it and I would probably spend 10 hours a day playing video games and then I would never file any stories to Mike and that would make him very sad. So instead, I tend to focus on other areas of technology obsessively. But I have covered video game events like E3 before. Many years ago, I was sent to cover a video game console event. It was a Sony PlayStation event in New York city at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I remember, Alan, that it was hugely hyped up, right? Of course, as all of these tech product launches are. They didn't show the console. They talked about it and talked about its specs and its features and what it was going to do, but there wasn't like a final version of the console ready.

I remember walking away, I was looking under the seats and going, "Are there consoles under here?" It just seemed like it became very clear to me as a noob game reporter at the time that for gamers, they actually don't care that much about what the physical console looks like necessarily. They tend to be pretty ugly. It's really just all about how powerful they are.

AH: Yeah. I mean, I think Microsoft played into this a lot, especially because they're kind of late to the game, right? I mean, we all remember back in the day, Nintendo and Sony with the PlayStation and then Sega which doesn't make consoles anymore. But I mean, Microsoft jumped into the whole game console market by saying, "We have the biggest beefiest box. It's the most powerful. It's extreme." I mean, to the point where Xbox huge, I'm doing air quotes for the folks who can't see, XBox huge was always a moniker for being absurdly large. I mean, Microsoft is still doing some of that. They're still talking about how powerful their consoles are how much memory and how many teraflops and all this stuff that really only matters to gamers who already have picked a side in the console wars. No one cares about the number of teraflops that a console has, except somebody who's already made a buying decision.

MC: Considering most people have already picked a side, as you say, you're either an Xbox person or you're a PlayStation person. You still do have a decision to make when you're buying one of these things. So as you mentioned, each console comes with a premium version and then a budget version. So if you could, what is the decision-making that has to happen between whether you should spend the extra $100 or $200 and get the full featured one, or if you should just cheap out and get the lower priced one?

AH: With the PlayStation 5, it's an easier call. The real difference in price, I mean, $100 difference in price is whether or not you want a physical disc drive in your console. Do you have a lot of games, physical copies of games that you want to continue playing? Like PlayStation 4 games or PlayStation 3 games, because the PlayStation 5 does offer some backwards compatibility. If you don't and you do digital downloads for all of your games or you have ubiquitous high speed internet and that's fine for you, then the one without the disc drive is OK. I don't know if I would recommend it.

I mean, I know a lot of people will say, "Oh, no, just get the one without the disc drive. You'll save money and everything. Who buys physical games anymore?" Well, I do. I still like having a thing in my hand that says this is my game. So, but it's up to everybody. With the Xbox, the new Xbox's, it's a little different. The Xbox Series X is actually a more powerful device than the Xbox Series S. the Xbox Series X also has native 4K support, which, I mean, if you have a 4K TV is a good thing, especially as more and more games kind of push those graphics limits.

The XBox Series S does not. It is 1080P. It'll upscale to 4K if you have a 4K TV, but, it's a tougher call there. I mean, the Xbox Series S is better for somebody who doesn't have a huge game library or plays primarily digitally downloaded games, doesn't want to spend as much money. The Series X is definitely that top of the line console on that side that maybe you might want to hold off a little bit before buying to make sure that there's some games coming along that will really take advantage of its power.

LG: Traditionally, the game console makers wouldn't release new consoles for several years.

AH: Right.

LG: But increasingly, we're seeing these tiered versions of products like the Series S or the "digital edition" of the PlayStation 5. Has this spurred more frequent upgrades for gamers or are they holding onto their consoles for a really long time?

AH: I think everybody's still holding onto their consoles for a really long time. Also, the gaps between game console generations has been traditionally pretty large, like 5 to seven-ish years. So now I think having these different versions, like a light version and a pro version of a console has kind of started to bleed into console manufacturers' dreams of shortening that upgrade cycle. So somebody who buys an Xbox Series S today may in two years when the games they really want to play are in gorgeous 4K and everyone has a 4K TV, well, now it's time to sell it and get an Xbox Series X and now they have a customer who has bought two consoles in four years rather than one console in eight years.

MC: We saw that with the Switch, right? The Nintendo Switch came out and then a year later the Nintendo Switch Lite came out.

AH: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there's still people who were like, "Oh, I prefer the Lite." Other people who are like, "No, I'm holding out for a full-sized Switch." I mean, when I bought a second Switch for my household, I held out until I could find a full-sized Switch. I didn't want a Switch Lite. But that's just personal preference. But yeah, Nintendo got me twice.

MC: So one thing that there's a lot of debate about right now about these consoles is there support for 8K gaming, because both claim that they're 8K ready. I don't think I know anybody who has an 8K television or is ready for 8K gaming. But can you talk us through that a little bit?

AH: Yeah. They both claim they have 8K support. There are no games in 8K right now. I mean, even if you had an 8K TV, yes, technically you could hook this up to that TV. I guess, if you 8K source material, it would display in 8K. But the source material doesn't exist and the TVs are so rare. It's one of those things that everybody's saying, "Yeah. Well, essentially, because we support this version of display port and we know that that version of display port is on these TVs. If somebody develops a game that is 8K, we can push that much video data than it'll work. I guess, technically." It's like trying to prove an unknown. I guess, it'll work when it happens, but it hasn't happened yet.

LG: Does that support extend to media streaming? So if you're running Netflix on your console, which is what some people use them for, will that support 8K streaming if, I guess, all the stars align, all the 8K stars align and the content is 8K and the streaming platform supports 8K and also your console does?

AH: I don't know for sure. I hope so. I would hope so. I hope they wouldn't promise 8K support and not include if Netflix or Hulu or somebody said, "Hey, we have 8K videos now." Man, what would an 8K video even look like? What would we start with? I mean, when 4K started, we started with nature documentaries and things just to show off how beautiful it was. But I mean, I guess, we're going to have to wait and see if 8K TVs take off first before anyone-

LG: Right. Which we see CES every year. But we don't actually see in the wild.

AH: Right. I mean, I know for a fact game developers right now are not pouring resources into making their games like beautiful 8K masterpieces because they know the audience isn't there and it's not worth the development resources.

LG: So I think with 8K, what's going to happen is instead of having the vague feeling like we're living in a Black Mirror episode, we're actually just going to be living in it. That's how immersive it's going to be.

AH: It's like looking out a window.

MC: More K than I need, and certainly more K than I want.

AH: Exactly.

MC: So I need to point out here real quickly that none of the people on this episode of Gadget Lab have tried the new console, but we do have writers at WIRED who have tried it and are writing their reviews. The reviews will appear within a week or so. They're embargoed, which means that the company will give you a device to use as long as you promise that you won't write about it until a specific date and time, which is very standard across consumer electronic reviews. All the big smartphones are embargoed. All the video game consoles are embargoed. Car releases are usually embargoed as well. So we're adhering to that embargo and we don't have anybody on the show is actually used it. That said, there's been a lot of talk on the internet about the controllers and how the controllers are new. What can you tell us about that?

AH: Well, I'll start off with the easy one. The Xbox Series X and Series S controllers are more or less the same as the Xbox Elite controllers from the previous generation. Some subtle changes, but nothing crazy. The PlayStation 5 controller, however, the boomerang, I mean, I don't know if anybody else is calling it that, but I am, it is wild looking. I mean, it actually kind of looks really cool. I haven't put my hands on it, but it looks like a significant departure from the DualShocks of years gone by. If people remember the kind of spaceship looking PlayStation controllers with the big black wings and everything. Imagine like a sleek BMW electric car, blue trim, led version of a futuristic space fighter that you put in your hands, and of course, of course it has touch control and all this other cool stuff.

I hear it's very comfortable and I hear it's really, really cool. I can't imagine what it's battery life is, though, because it has a lot going on in there and a lot of lights too. As we know, you add more lights, gamers love it, but at the same time you kill the battery life. But it's supposed to be really neat. It's supposed to, ironically, be better than the Xbox controller, which for a long time was kind of the standard, right? I mean, the PS2 controller was everybody's favorite way back in the day and then the Xbox controller became very ergonomic and also worked really well with Windows PCs, which I have an Xbox controller on my desk. Now, Sony, I think, is trying to kind of get back in there and say, "Our controller's great. Maybe you want to play games on your PC with this one too." Don't know if Microsoft's going to let that go over real easy, but we'll see.

MC: Yeah. They're hoping the good vibrations win.

AH: Yeah.

MC: All right. Well, we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk a little bit about the business side of things.


MC: Welcome back. It is a topsy-turvy time for politics, for public health, for the economy, and of course, for the video game industry. The launch of a new console generation always brings about some big changes, but what would those changes look like in 2021 and beyond? Is it just the games will look prettier and be more expensive or are there some more fundamental changes happening right now? Alan, let's start with cloud gaming. Is that going to make consoles obsolete or what?

AH: It won't make consoles obsolete. I can happily say that. Well, I don't know if it's happily, but I can say that. I could say-

MC: Confidently, maybe.

AH: Yes, confidently say that. I can confidently say that consoles won't be obsolete. Mostly because big banner games that get lots of marketing publicity, the kinds where publishers have enough cash to throw around to buy ads in Time Square, those kinds of games are so big that they need a physical place to live while you play them. So like the upcoming Call of Duty game, Call of Duty: Cold War, the one that everybody's talking about because Ronald Reagan is in it. That game is … Do you want me to back to that?

LG: I think you probably just saw my eyebrows go up on Zoom. Wait, Ronald Reagan is in it? Tell me about this.

AH: So it was a bit of a controversy because the game is set during the 1980s and you, of course, it's a Call of Duty game so you play an elite soldier and an elite team of guys who go do the thing and shoot the bad guys. Unfortunately, because it's set in the '80s and you extensively are working on behalf of the American government, Ronald Reagan is there as the Commander in Chief and he's sending you off to do the war crimes and it's cool. Everybody have fun. Of course, Ronald Reagan isn't actually in the game, but his very accurate likeness is in the game. The developers behind the game said they studied hours and hours and hours of archival footage and interviews to try and recreate him as faithfully as possible.

Then when another journalist, another games journalist asked the game developers, "So how are you guys going to deal with the whole political side of that and the whole war crime side of that?" They just kind of ducked the question. They just said, "We're not trying to make a political game. We're not trying to comment on Ronald Reagan's politics or anything. We're just trying to be as realistic as possible."

MC: It's literally called Call of Duty: Cold War.

AH: Right! So this speaks to a bigger problem in games with developers who are like, "We don't want to be political, but we want to have political settings." Anyway, so that's all super wild. But yes, Ronald Reagan is in the game. He sends you off to do the war crimes. Also, the game is 250 gigs. It is 250 gigs all by itself and then we don't even know how big it will get after there'll be patches and updates and things. So that needs a physical drive of some kind to live on before you can play it. Cloud gaming will be great for games that don't need that much space and games that you can play in multiple places.

Xbox and Microsoft is making a big play toward cloud gaming with the Xbox Game Pass, offers hundreds of games for a monthly subscription that you can play on your PC, you can play on your Xbox. In many cases you can even play on your phone and put down on your phone, pick up on your Xbox, put down on your Xbox, pick up on your PC, and play the same game experience, which is really cool. Sony, on the other hand, hasn't really kind of clued into that yet, partially because Microsoft has cloud infrastructure that they want to sell people on. I mean, Microsoft has Azure and they want people to use it. They want developers to use it. Sony doesn't have a comparable product. So they've kind of slowly been eking more towards giving people access to their games on multiple platforms or multiple places. So it's not-

LG: Is that … Oh, go ahead, Alan.

AH: No, no. I was just going to say consoles won't go extinct, but cloud gaming will definitely change how people play games in the long run.

LG: I'm wondering if that's the biggest driver of cloud gaming, the idea that people would keep playing on multiple devices and so you just basically keep them hooked into the game for as long as possible. Or if there are other elements of cloud gaming that are appealing to the console makers, like lower costs, right, higher margins, less environmental waste if you're not making physical goods? What is actually the biggest driver of trying to put everything in the cloud?

AH: I think for one, it absolutely reduces costs. Developers and publishers don't have to ship as many games. They don't have to invest in tons of storage. Also, they can kind of rely on the ubiquity of high speed broadband in most gamers' homes and say, "OK, you can download this piece of the game, like the game client and play it on whatever device you want to play it on." Then you can download another client. I don't have to ship a console with a terabyte hard drive. I don't have to ship drive updates or drive upgrades. I don't have to fight with publishers to shrink their games. I can just let you have the games. For gamers, on the other hand, they have a different kind of value add here. Cloud gaming is usually couched in terms of how many games do I get for my subscription?

So with Xbox Game Pass, you can get hundreds of games. With PlayStation Now, it's dozens, but a lot. With Google Stadia, which is also a player in the cloud gaming space, there's no physical console at all. There's just their service, a compatible TV or controller or like a Chromecast or something and they just stream the games to you over the internet. So these companies that have cloud infrastructure are using it to kind of power these new game subscriptions, ala Netflix, ala Hulu, and then also sell you a console. But the only way it's catching on is because all of these companies are just shoveling their great old, usually old games, games that people used to play and love into these subscription services and saying, "Hey, you want 100 games for 30 bucks a month?" Sign up for Game Pass." People do it because it's a good value proposition.

MC: It makes a lot of sense for a lot of people.

AH: Yeah.

MC: As we talked about earlier in the show, it's been several years since the last console refresh. One of the things that has substantially changed during those years is the explosion of live streaming. So as the person who runs WIRED's, well, one of the primary should I say the marquee talents of WIRED's Twitch channel.

AH: I'll take that.

MC: What sort of impact do you feel that this double console release is going to have on platforms like Twitch?

AH: Twitch is already growing at a clip that makes me skeptically uncomfortable. I find that … I love Twitch, don't get me wrong. I love Twitch. I love streaming. I love seeing a lot of people kind of glom on to Twitch as a new social network. In a lot of ways, it really is that. It's more of a social network than a place like Netflix or Hulu, where you go to watch a thing. Sony has made streaming, live streaming, a big part of the PlayStation experience for a really long time. There is a single button on the PlayStation controller to start streaming. I mean, once it's set up, you just hit the button and start streaming whatever you're playing.

Microsoft, it's a little bit trickier. There's a menu. Yeah, but it's still relatively easy. So there are going to be a lot of people streaming the new games, like Spider-Man: Miles Morales or Bugsnax, or I'm just trying to rattle off launch titles that are relevant to my interest. But a lot of people are going to pick up these consoles and then try to stream for the first time. Yeah, they're going to be right out of the gate and early. I mean, Twitch's growth has eclipsed a lot of other kind of streaming sites like Facebook Gaming and that's the whole deal with new console releases is it injects a number of streamers into the streaming market that weren't there before.

LG: So Alan, which of the two new consoles are you going to get?

AH: That's not fair. I don't want to answer that question. The problem right now is that if you say you're going to get one, everybody's going to accuse you of being biased against the other. I have no dog in this hunt whatsoever. OK. But honestly, my truest, most correct answer is still going to be unsatisfying. I will likely get neither. I'm not planning on buying. I skip long console generations. I think I got a PlayStation 3 after the PlayStation 4 was popular. So I get them used years down the line. I'm very tempted, however, to get a PlayStation 5 partially for the new Spider-Man game. But partially because I feel like Sony has a bit more of a strong launch lineup, like the games that they're planning to launch with are much more compelling.

But on the other hand, X-Box Game Pass is a really good value with a ton of classic strong titles that still live up to all the beauty that they had back in the day. So it's going to be a tough sell for me. I might wind up getting a PlayStation 5, but subscribing to Game Pass, which is a weird thing, but wouldn't be new for me. I split product lines pretty often.

MC: Nice. I love the non-answer. That was great.

LG: It's almost like saying you're not going to vote or something.

AH: I would never say that.

MC: Going for the throat.

AH: Yeah.

MC: All right. Well, let's take a break. When we come back, we'll do our recommendations.


MC: All right. Alan, let's start with you. What's your recommendation?

AH: OK. My recommendation is a fun little game called Genshin Impact that a number of people listening to this will probably have heard of already. It is available for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, iOS, and Android. It is one of the first games I've played that creates that seamless experience where I can stop playing the game on my PC, go over to the couch, open it on my Android phone and pick up exactly where I left off, which is fantastic. So I really enjoy it. It's free also. It's beautiful. There are controversies around it and it's gacha mechanics. But I find that if you just ignore them entirely, you don't have to spend any money on the game.

MC: What do you mean by gacha?

AH: So gacha is short for Gashapon, which is popular kind of vending machine game style in Japan and a lot of other countries, including the United States, I guess, where you put in money, you turn the crank, you get a prize out, and that prize is guaranteed to be one of the things, one of the pictures on the front of the machine. It's not guaranteed to be the thing you want, but it is definitely one of those things. In video games, gacha mechanics are I put in money, I buy a currency of some kind that's special to the game, and then I essentially roll the dice to try and get a character I want, a weapon I want, an upgrade I want, something like that. The odds are usually stacked against you very heavily, like one percent to get the thing that you probably want.

But it's very easy to create this feedback loop, where you keep putting money into the game and you keep rolling the dice and then you keep putting money in the game and doing it over and over again and then you never get the thing that you want. I still haven't gotten these shiny fiery boy that I want in Genshin Impact, but I had to stop rolling because my wallet hurts. Don't be me. Please, don't be me.

MC: So what you're saying is you can just ignore all that and just play the game.

AH: Yes. Ignore all of it and play the game. You get the currency I'm talking about naturally through gameplay as well, just much slower than if you open your wallet, and that therein is the way that a lot of these publishers who produce games that are free, like Genshin Impact is free, I'm doing the air quotes again, that's how they make money. They need those people to open their wallets and buy the currency.

MC: Freemium.

AH: Yeah.

MC: Lauren, what's your recommendation?

LG: Can I make a recommendation for the original Nintendo?

AH: Yeah.

LG: I do have an original Nintendo. It's the only game console that I own. Actually, I just tried to pull the cartridge out of it so I could blow into it on the air and it stuck. It's Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt and it's stuck and I don't own a Duck Hunt gun so the only thing I can play is Super Mario Brothers and I'm OK with that. Yeah. That's not actually my real recommendation, but there's something I love about it and I hope to have this console forever. It was a gift from an ex and that relationship lasted a really long time and this console is lasting even longer. So that is really impressive. That's all I have to say.

My real recommendation this week is The Queen's Gambit. It is a show on Netflix that you may have heard about because it is all the rage right now, about an orphan child prodigy chess player. I'm not even done with the series yet. I'm only on episode five. I think there are seven and I'm obsessed with it. It's been a really nice little respite this week, which as Mike noted earlier in the show has been an extremely stressful week for a lot of people. So yeah, if you're not playing video games and you're looking for something else to stream, The Queen's Gambit on Netflix, that's my recommendation. Mike, what is yours?

MC: So as we all know, it has been a very stressful week. One of the things that I am turning to to help myself unwind at the end of a long day is a substance called alcohol. Maybe you've heard of it. It is a depressant. It makes you relaxed. It makes you feel good until it doesn't. Anyway, if you enjoy alcohol in moderation, you might enjoy a cocktail. I also like cocktails and it's been a really long time since I've actually had a real cocktail. So I started experimenting with this thing called cocktail in a bottle. It's a pre-mixed cocktail sold in a 750 milliliter bottle and you can buy like an old fashioned or a Manhattan or a martini and you basically just pour it over ice. So it has all the ingredients in it. It has bitters and lemon juice or whatever goes into the cocktail that you're buying.

So the one that I'm going to recommend is by a company called SoulBoxer and it is a Brandy Old Fashioned. So it's like an old fashioned that is made with brandy and it has bitters and all the other things going on old fashioned, I don't even know anymore. But you just pour it over ice and it tastes delicious. I was skeptical because you have a really good cocktail you pay 12 or $14 for like a nice bar and you expect something to be really high quality and it is. Then you buy this bottle that costs just a little bit more than a round of cocktails at a fancy bar and it's the same quality. It's really tasty. So that's the one I'm going to recommend SoulBoxer, Brandy Old Fashioned. But I would say if you can't find SoulBoxer near you, just try one of the other ones, because I've tried a few and so far, all of them have been not bad or very good or truly excellent. So a cocktail in a bottle. It's a great way to feel like you're out and having a fancy cocktail without all the work.

LG: Without being out anywhere these days. What I'm hearing you say is that there are some versions of it that are very WIRED and others that are a little more tired and, but perhaps it'll make you feel inspired.

MC: Yes, or expired. All right. Well, that is our show for the week. Thanks again to Alan Henry for joining us. Alan.

AH: Thank you for having me. I had fun.

MC: As always, total pleasure. Thank you all for listening. If you have feedback, you can find us on Twitter, just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth and we will be back next week.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music]

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