It’s been a year since I reviewed the Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5, and a lot has changed in that time. We’ve had 12 months to live alongside them, watch their game libraries grow, and see developers harness the next-gen capabilities of both consoles. Or, we should have, at least. It’s been a year of supply shortages, so a lot of people are still stuck in ridiculous digital lottery waiting-lines in hopes of snagging a new console.
Usually, a “versus” article would pit the Xbox Series X/S versus the PS5 head-to-head, comparing their specs and stats and games. We’ll get to all that for sure, but the interesting question isn’t “How do they stack up?” It’s “How do they stack up, given, y’know, everything?”
They're Tough to Buy
By the end of September this year, Sony had sold 13.4 million PlayStation 5s. Microsoft doesn't release sales numbers, but an analyst for market intelligence firm Niko Partners estimated that it has sold around 8 million Series X and S consoles, combined. Those are some healthy numbers considering the supply shortages, but they don’t really paint a picture of how hard it still is to get your hands on either console. An entire year has passed, but it’s still a choice between paying extra to scalpers on eBay and Amazon or repeatedly signing up for up-to-the-second in-stock notifications and waiting in an online queue during a “drop" of new consoles at a retailer. They sell out in seconds, leading to a lot of disappointed would-be next-gen gamers.
Both the Wii and the Nintendo Switch were scarce and therefore hard to buy well into the second year of their lives, but it’s unusual for Xbox and PlayStation. Supply would usually start to match demand by now. You should normally be able to pick one up at any local electronics store or buy one for its actual retail price on Amazon. That's not the case.
The Game Libraries Have Improved
It took a year, but both consoles’ game libraries are beginning to be decent. They're still not great, and there aren’t nearly enough tentpole titles to make either console a must-buy, but things are improving.
Exclusive titles still aren't here. We won’t see Halo: Infinite on the Xbox until the end of 2021, and Horizon: Forbidden West doesn’t come out for PlayStation until February 2022. Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls are fun on PS5, but the Xbox Series X/S feels like an echo chamber at this point.
Perhaps by design, it's also hard to tell whether a new game is actually a next-gen or previous-gen title. Aside from exclusives, most new games are still coming out with Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions at the same time.
The nice thing is, both consoles seem to have all the good third-party games. That’s good for anyone who manages to buy either console, but not so great for Sony and Microsoft, since there’s increasingly little to differentiate the two consoles.
Graphics and Performance
The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 couldn’t look less alike. One’s a literal box; the other is a curvilinear space oyster that looks like a background doodad from Mass Effect. But on the inside, they’re practically twins.
They’re the same price. They have the same 8-core AMD Zen 2 processors with slightly different clock speeds (the PS5’s 3.5 GHz to the Xbox’s 3.8 GHz), the same AMD RDNA graphics chipsets (again with minor differences in clock speed), the same 16 GB of RAM, almost the same off-the-shelf storage capacity—825 GB for PS5, and 1 TB for Xbox Series X. And they both output to 8K, 4K, and 120 Hz.
The cheaper Xbox Series S, by contrast, is really more of half an upgrade over the Xbox One. It doesn’t output games at true 4K, but it does support ray tracing and—theoretically—120 FPS gameplay. It’s a good choice if you don’t have a 4K TV and don’t plan on getting one, but I’d advise most people to just hold onto their money and wait until the Series X is more readily available. It’s more future-proof, thanks to its more powerful hardware.
In terms of storage space, PS5 has the leg up here—but only if you’re comfortable cracking open your PS5 and installing some new hardware. You can bolster its stock 800 GB hard drive with an additional M.2 drive, but doing so takes some hardware know-how and isn’t for everyone. You can also use an external drive that you just plug in, but you can’t use that extra space to store games you’re currently playing, only to store them instead of say, deleting them and re-downloading them. For the Xbox Series X, you just have to buy an expansion card and plug it into the console. They’re super easy to install and work great, and you can play games off of them no problem. Unfortunately, they’re expensive at $220 for 1 terabyte of extra storage. Both consoles should have shipped with more internal storage and easier expansion options. The Xbox Series S is even worse, shipping with only 500 GB of storage.
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PS5 Has a New Controller
The easiest way to tell these two consoles apart is by their controllers. The Xbox Series X/S controller is largely unchanged from previous generations. It’s the usual Xbox controller you’ve used since the Xbox 360, with an added share button. On the other hand, the PS5 boasts a radical redesign (at least, for Sony, which has had the same controller for decades) and a force-feedback system.
Sony's new DualSense controllers provide more than your standard rumble. The trigger buttons can have varying levels of resistance, depending on in-game factors like which weapon you’re using—so you can actually feel it when you’re using a hair-trigger handgun versus the heavier pull of a large rifle.
The haptic feedback system also provides a really three-dimensional sense of where that feedback is coming from. Instead of two rumbling motors in the palm of your hand, the motors in the DualSense controller can vibrate across the controller. When it works, it’s amazing. For example, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla looks and plays great on both consoles, but with the DualSense controller, the trigger pull is different for each type of bow, so you can really feel the extra tension in your big-bad-predator bows or the quick, feather touch of light bows. It gives you a real sense that these weapons are different, and that they feel different in your character’s hands. Few games take advantage of the DualSense's new bells and whistles, but it's fun when they do.
The Services Are Costly, and a Must
Both consoles have multiple subscriptions that are required to play online games, and another to access a library of games to play for “free.” Xbox Series X has Xbox Live Gold and Game Pass Ultimate, and the PS5 has PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now.
Game Pass Ultimate is the best. It gives you access to online multiplayer and has a fantastic, very current 100+ game catalog that you can download on your console and often PC. You can actually install the Xbox app on a gaming laptop or desktop and download a lot of them with ease.
PlayStation Plus offers just a few “free” games you can download each month and is required to play games online. Then there’s PS Now, which is more like Xbox Game Pass but focuses on older PS4, PS3, and PS2 games. It gives you access to a deep catalog of 800-plus older PlayStation games to play online.
These subscription plans are all super confusing. Why is it like this? At this point, nobody knows.
The Winner: Everyone and No One
So, which console is the winner here? Neither. Because it doesn’t matter how good your console is if nobody can buy it. PlayStation 5 is the better console, and since more of them are selling, your friends are more likely to have one or get one, but I wouldn’t call it a winner.
DualSense is great, but internally, both consoles are pretty much identical, and it shows. It’s like Sony and Microsoft both bought the same Honda Civic, but Sony installed a cool-looking after-market steering wheel. Sure it’s cool, but is it really that much better? Or are they both kind of aggressively medium?