This holiday season, we are faced with a tough quandary: The new PlayStation and Xbox consoles are arriving. Which should we gift to our loved ones — or to ourselves?
There are plenty of options. Beginning Thursday, Sony will ship two versions of the PlayStation 5: a $500 model that includes a disc drive, and a smaller $400 disc-free version that runs downloaded games. The Xbox — which also comes in two models, the $500 Series X and the $300 Series S — will launch on Tuesday.
There are many types of gamers, so we — Brian X. Chen, a PlayStation loyalist, and Mike Isaac, who grew up playing Xbox — test-drove both consoles in our homes. Earlier this week, we shared our impressions of the Xbox. This review will focus on the PlayStation 5.
BRIAN Hello again, Mike! Let’s forget about Biden vs. Trump for a moment to continue our debate about Xbox vs. PlayStation.
MIKE Is the PS5 the Biden or the Trump in this analogy?
Mmm, you know what? I’ll avoid answering that.
This is the ultimate test for companies like Sony and Microsoft. Sony spent the past seven years on top with a slate of killer games for the PS4, and largely overshadowed the Xbox.
After a few weeks with the new PS5, what do you think? Is this another winner?
BRIAN I’ll start with some disclosures. I’ve owned PlayStations since the first generation and never had an Xbox. But in 2006, I felt burned by the PlayStation 3, which had mostly lame games compared with Xbox 360, so I’ve kept an open mind for this new generation.
With that all said, I think PlayStation 5 is going to win my vote with my wallet this round. What about you?
MIKE I was reluctant to come out strong and stump for Sony, but you’re right. If I were to plunk down 500 bucks on a piece of hardware right now, it would be the PS5. I want to hear what won you over.
BRIAN Let’s start with hardware before we move on to games and the overall experience.
First things first: The PS5 is a behemoth. It’s more than 15 inches tall — that’s roughly four inches taller than the Xbox Series X. So you’ll need to figure out where you’re going to place it. (There’s also an ugly black stand that can be screwed on to keep it more stable, but I didn’t use it.)
In general, I like the console design. It looks curvy and futuristic and reminds me of a concept car.
MIKE Do you remember that computing brand Alienware? They made really expensive, insane computer systems with neon all over them? The company is part of Dell now, but I remember all of their ads in computer magazines I read during my youth. That was my immediate thought out of the box.
BRIAN Definitely, and that’s basically what the PS5 is: a powerful computer devoted to gaming. Similar to the new Xbox, it has a graphics processor that supports ray tracing, a complex rendering process that makes lighting and shadows look more realistic in graphics.
MIKE The graphics are very good. In the launch game we played, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, I could immediately tell how sharp the characters’ faces and landscapes were while playing. Colors popped, like the brilliant neon purples, reds and greens. Each one of Spider-Man’s various suits looked fantastic!
There is one thing I want to call out, though. I had a strange moment with the PS5 controller that struck me as potentially sensitive. It has a microphone built into it. That’s convenient, since you won’t immediately have to buy a separate headset to chat with friends.
But I wasn’t used to it. I had a moment where I was voice-chatting a friend on my iPhone while playing Call of Duty multiplayer, and my partner in the game reminded me that he could hear me! It freaked me out.
BRIAN Oh, man. Don’t carry your controller with you during bathroom breaks.
MIKE Yes, to be fair there’s a button and glowing icon that tells you when it’s on or off. But still, I wasn’t used to it. Learning curve!
BRIAN The controller is pretty nice otherwise. It’s larger and heavier than the previous PlayStation controllers but feels comfortable to hold for long sessions.
MIKE Can I geek out on the storage drive?
MIKE So Sony (and Microsoft) include what’s called a solid-state drive for storing all of your games and apps on the system. It loads games faster than traditional spinning hard-disk drives. It makes an enormous difference. I can’t tell you how much of my life has been whittled away by PS4 loading screens in the past.
BRIAN Tell me about it. Remember Red Dead Redemption 2 loading screens on the PS4?
MIKE Hah, I used to go to the kitchen and make a snack while RDR2 loaded up!
BRIAN With Spider-Man, it took about three seconds for the game to launch, and that is remarkable.
MIKE Yes, 100 percent. I’ve been really into Call of Duty: Warzone for the past few months — it has been my way to hang out with friends online during the pandemic — and the difference between playing it on PS5 compared with the PS4 was enormous.
For one, the solid-state drive meant that loading each session was so fast that often, I was one of the first people present in the level of every new game. And things just felt smoother.
Did you play any other games?
BRIAN I spent lots of time replaying recent PlayStation 4 titles, like Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last of Us Part II. I also immediately noticed how much smoother those games ran. The frame rates were higher thanks to the beefier graphics processor.
Also very important: The PlayStation 5 was very quiet compared with the PlayStation 4, which had such a loud fan that I always feared that it was going to explode.
This is a good time to bring up backward compatibility — the ability to play games from previous console generations — a major selling point for both consoles.
MIKE Yes! So I’m curious about your thoughts on this.
BRIAN Over all, Microsoft wins here. The PlayStation is backward-compatible with only PlayStation 4 games. The new Xboxes are backward-compatible with games for Xbox One, Xbox 360 and even some games for the original Xbox.
Backward compatibility always sounds nice to have, but in practice, nostalgia is not enough to win me over. I spend more time playing new games than I do revisiting old ones.
MIKE Totally fair. And Microsoft really doesn’t seem to have that much new for us quite yet, right?
BRIAN As we talked about in our Xbox review, we were hamstrung because Microsoft didn’t have much compelling fresh content for us to try. Most of the games we tested were made for Windows PCs or previous generations of Xbox.
On the PlayStation, Spider-Man made a stronger first impression by demonstrating the hardware’s impressive speed and graphics.
Also coming soon to PlayStation is a new God of War game, another popular franchise that is exclusive to PlayStation. Exclusives matter a lot.
MIKE One hundred percent. I am a huge fan of God of War, and I bought the PS4 largely just to play one of its top exclusive franchises, The Last of Us and its sequel, The Last of Us Part II. Sometimes I wait for a year after launch to see what games have come out and how the system fares.
BRIAN The software interface of Xbox also feels inferior. It looks like a cluttered Windows app store. In contrast, the PlayStation interface looks elegant and streamlined.
MIKE Fair. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s still wide-open territory for both Sony and Microsoft to dominate the next-gen system wars. The next year will tell us what games are must-haves and what systems host them.
But the PS5 has won me over early on in the race.
BRIAN Me, too. There are different audiences for each console. Here’s what I think it boils down to: For game enthusiasts who choose only one console, the PlayStation 5 is a safer bet for now. The hardware and software are solid, and the system looks poised to get strong games in Year 1. (If you rarely buy discs, save 100 bucks and get the digital edition, which lacks a disc drive.)
Budget-conscious people and casual gamers will probably gravitate toward the $300 Xbox Series S, which runs games at a lower resolution and can play a plethora of older Xbox titles available for a low cost.
MIKE We’re in agreement. And though the PS5 will put a dent in my wallet, I consider it a form of video-game therapy as the rest of the world is dealing with the whole “elections and the future of democracy” thing.
BRIAN There’s that pandemic, too. I haven’t seen your face in months, but I’m looking forward to seeing your avatar in PlayStation land!