We’re on the eve of the launch of brand-new video game consoles – always a momentous, exciting time, and arguably a needed pop culture respite from the unrelenting horror and tedium of life in the time of COVID-19. Console partisans are snug in their beds, while visions of flame wars dance in their heads, and the massive international corporations that make these respective platforms are sinking tremendous amounts of marketing and R&D money into them in the hopes that you will choose to transfer some of your hard-earned money over to their voluminous coffers.
But which one of these enormous boxes should you bring home? Which platform has the better games? Which one has more robust multimedia capabilities? Which one will fill that yawning void inside of you? These are big questions, and to that end, I am thrilled to present you with the only guide you will need to help you decide which console to buy, whenever you are able to buy them again because as of this writing pre-orders are pretty much sold out and they might only be intermittently available through the holidays. Commerce!
By the way, I am acutely aware that this is scheduled to run the day after the election so there is a good chance nobody is going to read this and I can pretty much say whatever I want. Yabba-dabba doo! I am seventeen feet tall and made of solid gold! Ducks aren’t real!
Microsoft and Sony are the two largest competitors in the home video game console market, representing the Xbox and PlayStation brands respectively. This is far from their first dance – Sony entered the console market in 1995 with the original PlayStation, while Microsoft has had some iteration of the Xbox console on the market since 2001. While the market leader crown has been passed back and forth – Sony’s hubris after the riotous success of the first two PlayStations led them to release their PlayStation 3 console at a significantly higher price than Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in 2006, leading to a stumble at launch from which they never fully recovered, while the PlayStation 4 came out as a more coherent, user-friendly alternative to Microsoft’s media-focused Xbox One and dominated the most recent hardware cycle – the two companies are considered to be each other’s most direct competition and compete more directly over the “hardcore”, graphics-focused gaming market (the other part of the console fracas, Nintendo, focuses instead on their own impressive library of intellectual property and cheaper, unique hardware and they’re doing quite well as a result).
The two companies will release their respective “next-generation” hardware soon. Microsoft will strike first, launching two separate console units on November 10th – the high-end, ultra-powerful Xbox Series X with a focus on 4K visuals and greater processing power, and the budget-conscious Xbox Series S, a less powerful machine that still represents a step up from the existing Xbox One and Xbox One X hardware and will only play digital games. Sony’s Playstation 5 drops on November 12th, also in two models, but the difference is simpler – the more expensive version has a disc drive, the cheaper one can only play digital copies of games.
Both Microsoft and Sony were cagey about the cost of their respective devices, going so far as to play a game of Chicken with each other for months to see who would blink first on price until Microsoft broke the seal in early September. The Xbox Series X will launch at $499.99, while the Series S comes in at a more svelte $299.99 – the clear “budget option” of the next-generation arms race (comparable to Nintendo’s Switch platform, for what it’s worth). Sony responded a week or so later with a competitive price – the disc drive version of the console will retail at $499.99 and the drive-less “Digital Edition” comes in at $399.99. Microsoft is also offering players the chance to pay $25 per month for two years to get an Xbox Series X and the all-inclusive Game Pass Ultimate – effectively a cell phone-esque installment plan that lets you own the console after 24 months if you don’t want to drop the cash right away. It’s not a bad deal, if you’re okay with a credit inquiry and a monthly charge rather than buying it outright.
Who wins?: It’s mostly a push and depends on how much having the best possible tech means to you. Ultimately, the raw difference between Sony and Microsoft’s higher end consoles isn’t significant enough to be noticeable for most players, but If you aren’t overly fussed about having the fastest possible framerates and highest possible resolutions and don’t particularly care about owning physical copies of your games, the Xbox Series S is going to be your cheapest entry point into the next generation. However, for $100 more, you could get a fully powered PlayStation 5 model (the “Digital Edition” is identical to its more expensive counterpart in terms of hardware apart from the lack of a disc drive). In general, it’s a draw. The price comparison gets more complicated, however, when you account for Microsoft’s real strategy this generation – more on that in a moment.
POWER, DESIGN, AND FEATURES
Powerful hardware doesn’t make for better games – but it doesn’t hurt. On a purely hardware level, the Xbox Series X is generally going to be a more powerful system than the PS5 (both are going to likely lag behind a mid-to-high range PC, however). However, that gap is not very big – while the Series X has advantages in both the processor and GPU areas, both are capable of up to 8K display (largely pointless at the moment, because 8K televisions are still expensive and not widely adopted), both have 16 GB of RAM onboard, and both boast SSD storage drives to ensure faster load times and switching between game elements (arguably the most exciting innovation for those of us sick of waiting several minutes for high-end games to load). The Series S lags well behind the other two systems, with less and slower RAM, smaller internal storage, and a significantly slower processor, but is still a passable powerhouse in its own right. The PS5 also has some other neat bells and whistles, like a programmable fan that can adapt to the data it collects from different games and liquid metal cooling to keep the components from running too hot – considering how loud the cooling fans on current consoles can get, here’s hoping it helps keep things a little quieter.
On the input side, Microsoft is taking a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, simply making small adjustments to their existing, very good Xbox One controller with a focus on compatibility. Sony, on the other hand, is betting big on its DualSense controller to set its platform apart this cycle – building on the company’s previous iterations, the new controller includes a built-in microphone, easier creation and sharing features for online streaming, and new tweaks to make gameplay more immersive and responsive. While it is always best to take these boasts with a grain of salt, the DualSense will reportedly have trigger buttons that offer greater resistance to simulate how weapons handle differently or how tired your NBA player is, as well as new “haptic feedback” that allows you to feel different surfaces and sensations – for instance, the crackle of electricity as Miles Morales uses his “venom blast” to punch a bad guy or the force of an anti-lock braking system in a racing game. Early reviews indicate that the effect actually does work pretty well in the pre-installed Astro’s Playroom game, too. While this sounds good it’s also important to note that similar features haven’t worked well in the past – the Switch’s much-vaunted “HD Rumble” promised the ability to simulate nuanced feedback like being able to feel ice cubes shaking in a glass, though few games used it to its full effect and in practice it was mostly just a louder form of rumble. At $70 a pop, it’s a simple calculus: the controller better do what they say it will. I actually got mine a couple days ago (well in advance of the system’s release) and it’s certainly a well-engineered piece of hardware with decent durability and heft that I look forward to actually being able to do something with eventually.
Finally, we come down to the industrial design of each console. First, both of these machines are huge: the Xbox One X is nearly a foot tall and six inches wide – a large black box that may have difficulty fitting into your entertainment center, especially in its default “tower” mode. The Series S is sleeker and frankly nicer-looking but has a giant vent at the top that makes it look like a drive-through speaker. The PS5 is bigger yet, clocking in at a whopping 16 inches tall, 10.24 inches deep, and 4.09 inches wide, with eye-catching but somewhat unwieldy “fins” – making it possibly the biggest console of all time, and forcing you to do some disassembly if you want to set it on its side. But…honestly? It looks kind of futuristic and cool and just stupid enough to be interesting.
Who Wins?: The two consoles are largely similar on the hardware front, but you are getting slightly more bang for your buck with the Xbox Series X. The DualSense controller seems promising and looks cool but it remains to be seen how widespread implementation of its features will be. Both consoles are way bigger than you might expect and neither one looks like it will easily fit into most entertainment centers. We’ll call it a split decision – the Series X has brutalist simplicity and power on its side but the PS5 is just…neat, and I am not quite jaded enough to write off that controller.
This one is easy, for me, and it is the source of my personal decision – the PS5 is launching alongside Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and the Xbox systems don’t. But even if you aren’t the easiest mark in the world for Spider-Man, Sony is boasting a decent if not earth shattering lineup of exclusive games alongside its console launch – in addition to the aforementioned Spider-Man and the free Astro’s Playroom platformer pre-installed on every console, there’s the family-friendly 3D platformer Sackboy: A Big Adventure and the remake of the legendarily difficult and critically-beloved Demon’s Souls. While these games are also playable on the PS4, they will undoubtedly perform and look better on the new hardware. Sony also has a business relationship with Activision, the company behind the blockbuster Call of Duty franchise, and it is possible that the new Black Ops: Cold War game will be optimized for and have some exclusive perks on the Playstation hardware as well.
By comparison, Microsoft’s single biggest exclusive – its system-seller, really – Halo Infinite was delayed from the critical console launch date in November to an unspecified time in 2021. The game was officially delayed as a result of development difficulties pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic and related logistical hurdles, though a widely-panned July demo that led to fan complaints about the game’s visuals probably didn’t help. So, Microsoft is in the unenviable position of having basically no exclusive games at launch…and yet.
See, Microsoft, by all accounts, does not seem to care when you get a new Xbox or even if you do. The company’s primary focus right now seems to be on its Game Pass Ultimate subscription model. Coming in at roughly $15 a month, the Game Pass gives you access to online play on the Xbox platform as well as a massive library of games from Microsoft and third-party developers that are yours to play so long as your subscription is current – not unlike a Netflix for games. That same pass gets you a library of games to play on your PC too, as well as access to their new xCloud streaming game platform and games from the EA Play service, including titles like Madden and FIFA. Oh, and Microsoft is bringing all of their first-party titles (like Halo) to the service day-and-date at no additional cost, and setting up sweetheart deals with some publishers (Sega is heavily promoting the upcoming Yakuza: Like a Dragon as an Xbox-optimized title) while also outright buying others – as of September, Bethesda (the company behind games like Fallout, Doom, and Elder Scrolls) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the company and it is likely their games will be exclusive to the service. Oh, and GPU and the associated games will work on your existing Xbox One console and PC too.
It’s a bold strategy, making the actual hardware your company produces largely superfluous to the games you release. But it’s also a smart one – why rely on a one-time purchase of a $500 console or a $60 (soon to be $70) game when you can instead get $15 a month from millions of subscribers in perpetuity on multiple platforms? As the streaming wars have taught us, content is king – and Microsoft is betting less on hardware and more on you buying into their content ecosystem. So in a real sense, if you already have a PC or other means of playing these games, you may not need an Xbox Series X at all – and in a real sense that may ironically win the console war.
It should also be noted that both consoles feature backwards compatibility – meaning that you will be able to play games from previous hardware on them. However, this comes with caveats – the Xbox Series X will be able to play digital and disc-based games from all the way back to the original Xbox, but only on a case-by-case basis for the consoles prior to its Xbox One predecessor (though the list is still lengthy). Recently, Microsoft promised all the back catalog games that can run on Xbox One will be able to do so on the new hardware, so those looking to delve into the platform’s history will most likely have no trouble doing so. The PS5 can run disc and digital games from the PS4 with only a few exceptions, but older games are limited to the digital re-releases available on the PlayStation store and streamed through the additional PS Now streaming service. In addition, on both platforms some last-generation games (including Madden 21) will unlock free next-gen upgrades when installed on the new hardware.
Who Wins?: On a component level – and largely by default – the PS5 just has a better list of exclusives at launch, even if many of them are playable on the PlayStation 4 hardware as well. There’s not a lot you can only do on the Xbox Series X at launch, especially if you have existing Xbox hardware. But $15 a month for a rotating list of games on multiple platforms is a pretty enticing proposition all the same, and those looking to take advantage of that at a high level might find the Series X a more cost-effective proposition than a fully-powered gaming PC. Plus, there are tons of great old Xbox games that will look and play better on the new system. We’ll give Sony the slight edge at launch but honestly in the long-term Microsoft’s “fire hose of games” strategy and extremely healthy back library might be hard to top.
The simple fact is this: unless you’re a hardcore gamer who needs to have the latest and greatest hardware, there’s not a compelling reason to jump into the next generation yet. That may feel like a cop-out, but it’s true.
First, the existing Xbox and Playstation hardware will undoubtedly plummet in price as the new consoles arrive. Both systems have a deep bench of games and will be able to play most of the big titles from this holiday season – and Nintendo’s Switch is no slouch itself. Second, there’s not enough daylight between the two new consoles (and many questions yet to be answered) to definitively say one is better than the other right now – waiting to adopt will give you a little more time to see how their respective strategies shake out, as well as uncover any potential hardware failures or glitches (launch consoles have a long track record of developing problems that are fixed in future iterations).
But that lack of separation also means that you really can’t go wrong either way – it’s a matter of deciding what you’re most interested in, and which ecosystem you want to buy into. In that light, if you want the best possible tech and an affordable, massive library, right now it looks like Microsoft is the way to go; but if you want some experimental potential and a stronger set of exclusive(ish) launch games Sony’s box is for you. Also, it has Spider-Man.
Until next time, make some space under the TV and keep wearing your mask.
Note: Due to time constraints I had to finish this on 11/2/2020 – facts in this column are subject to change as both companies are tweaking their hardware and making content deals right up to the finish line. So if something is wrong or missing, I assure you it was not when I wrote it.
By: Dr. Bryan Carr
Bryan Carr is an Associate Professor in the Communication, Information Science, and Women’s & Gender Studies departments. Among other things, he is the host and producer of “Serious Fun”, a podcast taking an academic look at popular culture on the Phoenix Studios podcast network. But let’s be honest, we have never really improved on the Sega Dreamcast.