Xbox One vs. PS4 (and which you should get)

It’s been a strange thing watching over the past few months as information on the Xbox One and Playstation 4 has come to light. In the past, console hardware was always vastly different between competitors who attempted to use creative setups to get the most possible power out of lowest-possible-cost components. It would seem those days are no more, as both Microsoft and Sony revealed that their next generation consoles will run on x86-64 hardware—the same technology as desktop computers—with strikingly similar specs besides. This is why a while back I ran a post predicting that the two consoles would cancel one another out and PC gaming might again take the lead. But since then we’ve had E3 and a slew of new information what with all the Xbox One debacles that cost two Microsoft employees their jobs. But as controversial as Microsoft’s new console might be right now, it is far too early to count it out for the generation. With time, the initial Xbox One problems will likely become just a distant memory. So controversy aside, is one console better than the other, and if so, which should you preorder?

APU (CPU/GPU): Both the Xbox One and Playstation 4 feature an 8-core AMD ‘Jaguar’ APU (that’s ‘accelerated processing unit’) which is basically a CPU-GPU combo, clocked at 1.6GHz. But don’t get the wrong idea: your netbook with the same clock speed can’t hold a candle to what these two consoles will be capable of. Multiprocessing is the name of the game these days rather than raw frequency, and next-gen consoles will be pretty good at making many calculations at once. And these are no run-of-the-mill AMD products, either—both are semi-custom designs, and that means there are a few differences between them. The Xbox One’s GPU is a Radeon ‘Durango’ variety, while the PS4’s GPU is a Radeon ‘Liverpool’ instead. It’s a subtle difference in itself, but the associated specs are much more dramatic. For example, the PS4’s GPU possesses 1152 shader cores which operate at 1.84 TFLOP/s (that’s roughly 1,840,000,000,000 floating-point operations per second) versus the Xbox One’s ‘mere’ 768 shader cores at 1.23TFLOP/s. Furthermore the PS4’s GPU boasts a fillrate of 25.6 Gpixel/s and 57.6 GTexel/s (‘fillrate’ refers to how many pixels per second a GPU can fill) versus the Xbox One’s 12.8 Gpixel/s and 38.4GTexel/s. Put in those terms it may appear that the Xbox One is roughly half as powerful as the PS4, but bear in mind that there are other factors besides just the GPU that come into play. The Xbox One is at a very real disadvantage when it comes to raw processing power, but not so much as the numbers might make it sound. PS4 games will undoubtedly look a bit prettier, but the difference won’t be night and day.

RAM: Just like not all ‘Jaguar’ APUs are created equal, not all RAM is created equal, either. Both new consoles pack 8GB of RAM, but again the technology behind it is rather different. The PS4 runs on GDDR5 RAM clocked at 5.5GHz with a system bandwidth of 176.0 GB/s. GDDR5 RAM is good for handling graphics data, but not as hot on average system tasks. The Xbox One, on the other hand, uses DDR3 RAM—the same stuff in desktop and laptop computers—clocked at just 2.13 GHz with a system bandwidth of 68.3 GB/s. Furthermore, the PS4 will use a fairly lightweight system that occupies only 1GB, leaving 7GB available for games. The Xbox One’s triple-OS system is more demanding, requiring 3GB and leaving just 5GB open for games. Considering RAM on an APU system acts as both system and video memory, this is quite a blow to gaming performance. To help alleviate this problem, Microsoft has included a 32MB eSRAM module with a system bandwidth of 102.0 GB/s to tackle some of those system processes and hopefully keep them from dragging down performance mid-game. This makes direct comparisons between the consoles difficult, but it is telling of the fact that Sony’s focus is games and Microsoft’s focus is ancillary media center features—not as much the games that made the Xbox popular in the first place.

Storage: As with so many other specs, hard drive storage between consoles appears to be on par at first. Both the PS4 and Xbox One will ship with 500GB of built-in hard drive storage for downloaded games, movies, music, and whathaveyou. The key difference here is that Playstation 4 owners will be able to swap out that hard drive as they please, and Xbox One users will be stuck with what’s included. 500GB is a respectable amount of space, but considering games can easily occupy 15GB these days and HD movies come at roughly 4GB a pop, those first 500 gigs are not going to last most people through the generation. There’s something to be said for the convenience of simply picking up a normal 1TB or 2TB HDD at a reasonable price and plugging it in to your Playstation. Xbox users on the other hand will need to invest in an external USB hard drive instead (note that this option is available for PS4 as well). It’s better than nothing, but the point of going digital is eliminating physical media, so requiring external hard drives is somewhat counterproductive.

Exclusives: The power of exclusive games goes largely unappreciated in the minds of consumers these days, but is nonetheless a reality. In the past, exclusive games made choosing a console easy. There was always a ‘killer app’, a game or two so good that you knew right away you were getting whatever platform they were on. But these days it isn’t so simple. It’s easy enough for developers to port their games to a variety of platforms, and with development costs on high-profile games being what they are, it only makes sense to address the widest possible audience to get the best return on investment. But why is that audience divided in the first place? That’s right: exclusivity still has a hold on the market, albeit a bit more subtle one than before.

Considering The Last of Us (a killer app by many accounts) only now released seven years into the PS3’s life cycle, its tough to say what icons might arise for Sony in the PS4’s future. But at least for now Microsoft wins in the exclusives arena. In my personal opinion Halo is getting a little gray on the noggin, but it maintains a very large and loyal fanbase regardless. Ever since the original Xbox, the green-suited Master Chief has been the symbol of Microsoft gaming, and while no specific Halo title has been announced for the Xbox One, Microsoft took time at E3 to assure everyone it is coming. On top of that, they’ve got Quantum Break, a new time-bending IP by Remedy Entertainment which is set to showcase the Xbox One’s graphical prowess and extra features as well. The game will mix regular gameplay with live action scenes as well as a TV show that will somehow interact with gameplay and vice versa. Details have yet to be revealed on how it will all work exactly, but needless to say Quantum Break is an interesting endeavor that would alone be worth owning an Xbox One to experience. The problem is that such large projects are not sustainable—the average game development studio can’t produce a TV show tie-in, nor can the result be properly experienced, say, ten years down the road.

On the other hand, Sony has a history of future-proof games but as of right now none of them stand out as truly representative of the PS4. Knack, The Order: 1886, inFamous: Second Son, and DriveClub all look like great games, but appeal to a variety of audiences. Then there’s Killzone: Shadowfall, a fairly niche shooter that doesn’t look set to be any kind of Halo-killer.

Don’t get the wrong idea—the PS4 is not lacking great exclusives. But while Sony may have games that appeal to everyone, the downside is that they’ve made it difficult to advertise the console to anyone in particular. Xbox One games are iconic. They only appeal to a certain type of gamer, but that gamer is going to buy an Xbox One, controversy or not. Most of the Playstation’s former best exclusives (e.g. Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider, even Kingdom Hearts) are now multiplatform. In many cases the Playstation is still the best place to experience them, and considering the hardware specs that trend is practically guaranteed to continue. But it is much harder this generation to pick one exclusive title that is the embodiment of all things Playstation. With Studio Liverpool closed down, we won’t even get another WipEout.

Extras: The Xbox One gets its name from the fact that Microsoft wants to make it the one device you go to for all your home media needs. It’s a game console, a media center, a DVR of sorts, a TV guide, a Windows 8 PC (to a limited extent), and yes, it will even order a pizza at your command. The PS4 will cover basically the same range of media center features as the PS3, so you’ll have all of your video, photo, and music needs met, but not much else. In this respect, the Xbox One trumps the PS4. Or does it?

7th-gen consoles have apps, too. If you own a PS3, Xbox 360, or Wii, you have a device capable of downloading and using a variety of optional programs, third-party and otherwise. How much does the average consumer make use of these features? Beyond Netflix and Hulu, not much. When was the last time you used your console to show off your photos to friends or family in the room? What about for playing music? Checking the weather? The machines most of us have in our living rooms are capable of all this and more, yet we usually defer to smartphones, tablets, and other non-gaming electronics to handle these tasks. The average consumer uses a game console for…gaming. These days it’s easy to bury yourself with media consuming devices, but the one thing most of them don’t do well is play games. That’s why game consoles exist.

As as was already mentioned, the Xbox One’s ancillary features come with a significant cost in the area of game performance. If you intend to use those features on a regular basis, then the Xbox One is for you. Otherwise, you’ll be spending an awful lot of money on things you’ll never even use to get an inferior experience with the one thing you bought the console for. It depends on you.

Issues: Nothing in the world is perfect, including major products. The Xbox One is most well known for its DRM restricting games to an individual console and user account and furthermore checking with Microsoft servers every 24 hours to make sure the already-ridiculous restrictions hadn’t been bypassed. That may be gone now thanks to tremendous pressure from gamers and a tremendous response to Sony’s E3 conference, but Microsoft still hasn’t recovered from the problems it brought to the table. Their reputation has been seriously injured, and in the process of trying to defend that reputation Microsoft’s leadership only painted itself as foolish and conceited. And in a moment of childlike all-or-nothing frustration, Microsoft pulled certain sharing features that people actually liked along with the DRM. They might still be pouting in the corner, stroking said removed features affectionately while constantly turning to keep curious playmates from peering over their shoulder to get a look. And all the while, Kinect remains an always-on requirement, which leaves some appropriately concerned considering Microsoft’s recent behavior. While I’d like to say that at least the games looked great at E3, it turns out that none of them were running on Xbox One development hardware. They weren’t even running on Windows 8 and AMD hardware, which the Xbox One is based on. No folks, the Xbox One demos at E3 were all running on HP Windows 7 machines utilizing NVIDIA graphics cards. In the face of all the hubris displayed at the conference, the irony here is almost too much to handle. Toss a heavy pay wall for online access into the mix with the only rewards being old games that everyone already has and you’ve got plenty of reason to call it quits on the Xbox platform.

At least the Playstation has free Internet features…right? Well, it did. During the most fantastic Xbox slam in Playstation history Sony quietly warned that Playstation Plus will be required for online gaming, though services like Netflix and Hulu will not be affected. Smart to introduce that detail while everyone is laughing, right? But the problem still remains: multiplayer gaming requires a bank account. The difference from Xbox Live is that Playstation Plus costs less and rewards subscribers with more free games and discounts than anyone could ever take full advantage of, but the presence of a pay wall is still disappointing.

Conclusion: With the worst of Xbox One DRM removed, Xbox fanboys can feel fairly comfortable with purchasing their console brand of choice. Chances are Xbox gamers want Xbox exclusive games, which the PS4 doesn’t offer terrific alternatives to. However if Halo isn’t your thing and you want a console that will play games instead of TV shows, there’s almost no reason to go for an Xbox over a PS4. There’s a wider range of PS4 games which are sure to be classics, the hardware is significantly superior, and more of that horsepower is available to gaming thanks to Sony’s focus on games as opposed to ancillary functionality. Like the Xbox One, the PS4 does come with a subscription requirement for multiplayer gaming, but the Playstation Plus service is slightly cheaper and vastly superior to Xbox Live and will practically pay for itself in free games and discounts.

Sony has demonstrated that they have their act together, they know what gamers want, and they’re prepared to deliver on it. Microsoft’s errors are not fatal and the Xbox One shouldn’t be counted out for the generation just yet, but that being said it’s probably best for gamers to hold off until it’s clear Microsoft is back on its feet and making smart decisions rather than merely reacting to peer pressure. A message needs to be sent that strict DRM is not the future, it is intolerable. But competition must remain–universally boycotting the Xbox One entirely would hurt the gaming industry far worse than DRM ever could.

With all that in mind, the bottom line for consumers wondering which console to preorder is simple: Halo fan? Xbox One. Anything else? PS4. That is all.