With the launches of Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One now a matter of mere days away, excitement and hype levels have entered the stratosphere. On paper, the PlayStation 4 has arguably looked the more capable games console, with Xbox One tailored more as an all-in media hub. But with the first cross-format games emerging, some are concerned that the performance gap may be bigger than foretold. Why? And can the gap be closed?
When the specifications of each machine were announced, it looked as though the PlayStation 4 would offer a performance edge over the Xbox One so far as gaming is concerned. Since the initial announcements there have been a few tweaks and clarifications, so it's worth revisiting what we know about the key specs which will have a significant bearing on performance.
Both Sony and Microsoft have opted for 8-core CPUs based on AMD's Jaguar microarchitecture, an energy-efficient architecture designed primarily for compact and mobile computers and tablets. Microsoft has upped the clock speed from a base of 1.6 GHz to 1.75 GHz, and though Sony hasn't confirmed the clock speed of its CPU, it's widely believed to remain at the base 1.6 GHz. That may prove a minor edge so far as CPU performance goes, but it's an edge all the same. First blood to Microsoft then, even if it is only a shaving nick.
When it comes to the graphics processing units of the two machines, the story is rather different. Both consoles use AMD Radeon GPUs, with the Xbox One's clocked at 853 MHz and the PlayStation 4's at 800. But more significantly, the PlayStation 4's GPU has 18 compute units to the Xbox One's 12, granting Sony's console 1,152 stream processors to Microsoft's 768. As the GPU does much of the heavy lifting where graphically intensive games are concerned, this has led some commentators to declare the PS4 1.5 times as powerful as the One. IGN reckons that, if you factor in clock speed too, it's more like a 40-percent advantage.
Misty watercolor memory
On the memory front, things are rather more complicated. Both consoles are equipped with 8 GB of RAM, but where the Xbox One makes use of DDR3 memory, PlayStation 4 uses GDDR5, which should prove more adept at handling graphics speedily. The curve ball comes in the shape of the Xbox One's additional 32 MB of much faster ESRAM, which some have speculated tips the balance in terms of actual data throughput back in favor of the One. Were it so easy.
If you've been keeping tabs on the early games coverage of each machine, you'll have heard reports that indicate that there is already clear sky between the performance of the two consoles. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the resolutions of cross-format games. Call of Duty: Ghosts made headlines when it was revealed that, in order to keep the game running super-smoothly at 60 frames per second, the Xbox One version has been made to run natively at 720p whereas the PlayStation 4 manages 1080p (though some media outlets have reported frame rate issues with the PS4 version). Similarly, Battlefield 4 runs natively at 720p on Xbox One compared with 900p on the PS4.
Some have speculated that the Xbox One's ESRAM may actually provide a performance bottleneck. Though it may be tempting to conclude that Xbox One's memory setup cannot handle the data throughput needed for the current standard of graphics at 1080p, it could be that games developers struggling to meet launch deadlines have yet to make optimal use of the One's ESRAM.
Ease of development
If that's the case, it may yet prove a double-edged sword. It suggests that Xbox One may be capable of more than the first wave of launch titles suggests, but also that it is a little trickier to develop for, effectively having two-tiers of memory to worry about compared to the PlayStation 4's single speedy memory stash. Unfortunately, deadline pressure is a perennial issue so far as games development goes, and time will tell if PlayStation 4 continues to offer a performance edge when comparing cross-format games due to the more fiddly nature of optimizing for the One.
Others are speculating that the compromises could come as a result of Xbox One's accessories and features. The new Kinect sensor, which comes bundled with the machine, allows users to switch from a game to a TV channel or Skype call with a simple voice control. The issue is that Xbox One reportedly reserves 10 percent of its GPU's resources to these sorts of functions. Unlocking the potential of the Xbox One may require Microsoft to put some of that power back within reach of games developers.
Ease of development gave many early cross-format titles the edge on the Xbox 360 compared to the PlayStation 3. Sony has gone to great lengths building a simple PC-like architecture to ensure that history does not repeat itself, and though Microsoft has largely done the same, it would be a shame if the memory setup and broader focus of the machine, as a media hub as well as a games console, meant that games performance has been significantly compromised.
It's not just about the graphics
Addressing the resolution issues, Microsoft reinforces the broader scope of Xbox One. "Power is a subjective term," Microsoft VP Phil Spencer told Shack News. "We look at all of the capabilities we put in the box, our investment in cloud, Kinect, and all-in-one entertainment, and our investment in the operating system for fast task-switching." Though that's doubtless true, it may not be enough to convince gamers.
Only time will tell how significant a performance gap exists between the gaming capabilities of the two machines. But for some, Microsoft's positioning of Xbox One as a multimedia hub may prove persuasive. For the dedicated gamers out there, however, the signs are perhaps either worrying or reassuring, depending on which machine they placed their pre-orders.
If you're yet to decide which machine to go for, the first rounds of version comparisons for cross-format titles may prove very compelling indeed.
PlayStation 4 launches in the US Nov. 15, and in Europe and Australia on Nov. 29. Xbox One launches in those territories on Nov. 22.