Despite console developers repeatedly assuring consumers that the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 would last for a ten year lifespan, it appears that some analysts were correct in predicting that 2013, not 2015/2016, would be the year of the next-gen video game console. Sony has already announced the next iteration of the Playstation, and Microsoft is expected to do the same for the Xbox soon. Come E3 in June, we can anticipate a lot of next-gen content set to culminate in commercial releases this holiday season. So why not go ahead and start asking the inevitable question: which console will be superior?
So let me preface this post by saying that some of what is to follow is based on speculation and rumor, not hard facts. There is yet time for details to change, but based on what we do know it is possible to get a good idea of where things are heading in the console market.
Console hardware is a funny thing. It always has been. Rarely has a console been powerful by desktop PC standards upon release. After all, cost is a major player with these devices: drive it above the $300 mark and gamers become slow to purchase. But at the same time, back in the 90s the 30MHz processor of the original Playstation was churning through code our vastly superior Pentiums and 3Dfx cards struggled with. What gives? Well, it’s always been about efficiency over architecture. In other words, developers were perfectly happy to use unusual hardware so long as it worked well for gaming. Software developers were not always so keen on learning how to use it, but that’s a topic for later. Throughout the years, we’ve seen some pretty creative arrangements of processors and memory chips to deliver the highest possible performance at the lowest possible cost.
This year, though? All that is going to change.
It was speculated that both the Xbox 720 and PS4 would feature AMD hardware this time around, and for their part Sony has already confirmed this to be the case. Considering the Xbox 360 featured AMD hardware, it’s very likely the 720 will as well. Controlling the lionshare of both competing products is a big win for a company that was struggling to keep up only a few years ago, but NVIDIA seems much more interested in Android right now anyway, so I’m not sure there was much of a choice for Sony. In the end, here’s the specs they gave us shortly after their PS4 press conference:
Single-chip custom processor.
Low power x86-64 AMD “Jaguar” 8 cores.
1.84 TFlops, AMD Radeon Graphics Core Next engine
8GB GDDR5 RAM
Blu-Ray drive 6xCAV.
DVD drive 8xCAV.
Super-Speed USB (USB 3.0).
Ethernet (10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX, 1000-BASE-T).
IEEE 802.11 b/g/n.
Bluetooth 2.1 (EDR).
Digital output (optical).
And the Xbox 720 will probably feature very similar specs, right down to the brand of processor. Not too shabby, but it’s definitely odd to see consoles, especially the Playstation, with PC specifications complete with standard x86-64 architecture. But the really weird part? Neither console is expected to come packing a graphics card. Yes, you read that correctly. Instead, they will make use of what’s known as an APU, or Accelerated Processing Unit. It’s basically a CPU and GPU rolled into one tiny package. It’s nothing new—all of our tablets and smartphones use such processors, as do most laptops produced within the last few years. In theory an APU is capable of being much faster than a separate graphics card due to the fact that it’s hard-wired to all the components it needs to communicate with. However, we’ve never seen this theory in practice before due to the physical limitations of the devices we use APUs in. It will be interesting to see what an APU can do when it’s given the same level of resources as a discrete graphics processing unit.
You might expect that because Sony has revealed their new hardware, Microsoft would go and add a bit more oomph to theirs just to one-up the competition. Don’t anticipate this happening, though. Game developers are mostly interested in multi platform titles these days, which means that the weakest console will set the mark for both. There is almost no advantage to putting more power in the Xbox 720 when only the resources of the PS4 will be required for any given game. It is very likely that specs between the two will be more similar both to each other and to PCs than we’ve ever seen in a console race before. Both machines will be respectably powerful, and it likely will come down just to pricing to see who wins this round.
As was previously mentioned, creative hardware has been a point of contention for game developers. With each new console being so different from the last, everyone has to start over at square 1 and learn how to create games that take full advantage of the new systems. This is partly why companies want consoles to have such long production cycles—it gives the devs time to figure things out. However, we have none of that in upcoming consoles. x86 has been the PC development standard for decades now, and any software developer worth his salt is very familiar with it.
Although produced by Microsoft, the Xbox 360 didn’t use x86-64, opting instead for a PowerPC architecture. If they stick to that development platform, that will actually mean the PS4 is more like a PC than Microsoft’s own console, which seems ironic to say the least. However, I expect Microsoft to also jump ship from alternative architectures and put an x86-64 chip in the Xbox 720, once again putting both new consoles right on par. Microsoft has expressed tremendous interest in unifying the Windows experience across all of its devices, and we can safely expect to see many Windows 8 influences in their next console. x86-64 is their most unifying choice, to be sure—I’ll bet they never intended to unify with Sony, though.
Software is a tough call, seeing as we still have lineups of great games yet to be released on current-gen consoles. Who knows what games we will see over the lifespan of the next console generation? Whatever they are, they will continue to be the true deciding factor of superiority. Hardware is useless without software to run on it, and at this point it’s highly unpredictable what software we’ll see running on our PS4’s and Xbox 720’s. As was already mentioned, a major shift away from exclusive titles is taking place, and with future consoles’ hardware being virtually the same, that trend will only gain traction. Of course, there will still be some games that we’ll always associate with one platform or another. You won’t be playing Halo 5 on your PS4 or Little Big Planet 3 on your Xbox 720. So which console will have the edge on the exclusives?
That depends on you.
If you ask me, it’s time to put Halo to rest. Certainly, the series still sells well, but for how much longer? And does it have strong enough pull anymore to get Playstation gamers to purchase an Xbox 720? And what about the flipside? Will fans of fast-paced shooters trade in their assault rifles and rocket launchers for Popits and platforms? Ultimately, I have a hard time seeing exclusive titles making any difference in people’s decisions. The pull is just not strong enough on either side.
What could end up being a deciding factor is Xbox Live Arcade versus Sony Entertainment Network. The latter plans to eventually offer every Playstation game ever made via streaming services…which includes many, many classics. We haven’t heard anything from Microsoft suggesting they will attempt something similar, meaning that for now we can expect XBLA to continue churning out cartoony, arcade-style action games. However, that’s not to say everyone is fond of the streaming idea replacing backwards compatibility, and it won’t be available until some time after launch anyway. If we use history to predict the future, the PS4 will probably have better store content, but in any case, it’s the big titles and not the downloadable games that really sway consumers one way or another.
Following foolish comments by a now-former Microsoft employee, rumors are hot once again that the Xbox 720 will ‘feature’ an always-on internet requirement. Should this prove to be true, the Xbox experience will definitely be ruined. Lose your internet connection, lose all access to your console—whether you’re actually playing online or not. I for one do not believe such rumors will prove true, though. If nothing else, the backlash from gamers in regards to the rumor should convince Microsoft to scrap such plans if they even made them in the first place. However, it is most likely that this is an unfortunate case of sensationalism that gained more ground than it should have. We already know that the PS4 will run games offline, so if Microsoft pulls a doozy and does require a constant connection to verify legal copies of games, the PS4 will definitely be the console to get. It would be a ‘killer app’ in a new sense of the term for Microsoft, effectively turning off the majority of their consumer base. With two similar products, one doesn’t necessarily need a singular crazy-amazing advantage to win at the sales figures—if one just has a distinct disadvantage, it’s enough to guarantee the other’s victory.
Otherwise, the experience of each next-gen gaming machine will likely come down to a matter of taste. The revamped Playstation Store is definitely reminiscent of the PS3’s store, but of course features a lot of enhancements and UI tweaks to make things just that much better than the last iteration. Microsoft will probably make more dramatic changes to the Xbox interface in order to further unify the experience with that of Windows 8. The changes may very well coincide with those of Windows 8.1 set to release later this year, although as of yet we haven’t seen any significant changes to the Xbox portions of Windows 8 in the coming update. Microsoft also intends to expand the Xbox from just a game console to a total home media center, which could mean a lot more focus on movies, music, social networks, and other web-based services. Somehow I doubt they will pull in a lot of non-gamer customers for it, and the potential is there to turn off some gamers in the process.
In the end
So in the end, which console will end up being the best? If the rumors of the ridiculous always-on internet requirement for the next Xbox prove false (and I remind you, I expect that they will), the honest answer is: neither.
Not Microsoft nor Sony has expressed any interest in backwards compatibility, which means the libraries gamers have spent the better part of a decade building will all go to waste under a new system. But considering the new system is basically a PC, why not hang on to your 360 or PS3 and just buy a gaming PC instead? We can expect to see a lot more and better console-to-PC ports in the coming generation, and there are fewer and fewer killer exclusive games to keep consumers coming to one brand over another. At the same time, Valve has been ramping up its efforts to turn Steam PCs into game consoles, and its offerings are a far cry from the issues of the PS4 and Xbox 720 (backwards compatibility and internet requirements). A good PC will run practically every game in the history of gaming from Pong to Crysis 3, has every social and media center feature you could ever want (no need to buy a Hulu Plus subscription!), an it will easily last you a full decade or longer with just a few affordable upgrades along the way.
The goal of this post isn’t to turn people into PC gamers, so I will stop there. Suffice it to say though that Sony and Microsoft are banking heavily on a solid user experience and incredible console-exclusive games, neither of which are safe bets. In their quest to make something new and incredible, it’s possible that both companies have forgotten what they’re creating and who they’re creating it for: game centers for gamers. It’s as simple as that. Gamers are not growing weary of AAA titles because they lack Facebook integration, they’re growing weary of them because the people behind the games need to get back to their roots and create a solid core gaming experience before considering everything that surrounds it. If that starts to happen in one office or another, perhaps disparity will begin to arise. Otherwise, you can plan on getting either an Xbox 720 or a PS4 without wondering if you made the right choice. Or don’t—there’s always PC gaming.