We’ve been getting glimpses of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X for months, but at long last the new consoles are starting to feel real, with price, pre-order, and release dates officially set, hardware shown off, and launch game trailers plastered over YouTube to drool over. But now that consumers finally have enough intel to make an informed decision, both companies have announced lower-priced, digital-only alternatives to their high-end machines, which can make a decision much more challenging.
The High-End: Xbox Series X vs PS5 Specs
In order to compare the disc-less PS5 Digital Edition and Xbox Series S, we need to start with the high-end models: the $499 PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. We haven’t had a chance to put any of these consoles through their paces, so when it comes to practical performance, we can only go off what the manufacturers have told us – while maybe gleaning a bit from past consoles.
Both machines boast 8-core AMD Ryzen CPUs, with 16GB of RAM and custom AMD Radeon integrated graphics. However, the PS5’s CPU runs at 3.5GHz (with variable clock speeds) and its GPU at 2.23GHz, with 10.28 teraflops of graphical horsepower. The Xbox Series X’s CPU is marginally faster at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with multi-threading is used) and the GPU slower at 1.825GHz – though its higher number of compute units put its total computing power at about 12 teraflops, a bit higher than the PS5.
Clock speeds and teraflops aren’t the end-all-be-all of performance, but it’s the only hint we have right now at how the consoles will compare. Both are aiming to output graphics in 4K, and can handle up to 120 frames per second for super-smooth motion – though many games will probably require you to step down the resolution to hit that frame rate. Most games will likely aim for 30 to 60 frames per second at 4K.
The consoles aren’t running identical hardware, so it’s likely one will have slightly stronger capabilities (if we’re speculating, it’s probably the Xbox Series X), but the two are going to be more similar than they are different, playing many of the same games with comparable graphical fidelity. I’d be surprised if the average gamer could tell the difference between graphics without pixel-peeping.
That said, peepers gonna peep, so we’re sure to see these differences soon enough. The Xbox One X, for example, was able to run games at slightly higher resolutions than the PlayStation 4 Pro, or with fewer framerate dips – that ultimately meant slightly sharper graphics with smoother motion. If a console, like the PS5, has to upscale a lower resolution to 4K, it can also introduce small “artifacts,” or graphical glitches, to the image. You can see some examples in this video from Digital Foundry, which compares checkerboarded 4K on the PS4 with native 4K on a PC. We won’t know how wide that gap is with the next generation of consoles, and how the slower model’s disadvantages manifest, until we see some more games in motion.
Xbox Series S vs PS5 Digital
Sony and Microsoft probably knew $500 was a tough pill to swallow, so they’re both providing lower-cost alternatives to their top-of-the-line models: Sony offers the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition for $399, and Microsoft offers the Xbox Series S for $299. It may be tempting to directly compare these two – after all, you’ll probably see them sitting side-by-side on some shelves – but they’re different enough that such a comparison doesn’t make much sense.
The PS5 Digital Edition has the same exact specs as its disc-friendly big brother, meaning games should look and play identically on each. The only difference is the 4K Blu-ray drive, which is not present on the Digital Edition. That’s pretty self-explanatory: if you plan on buying games digitally and streaming instead of watching Blu-rays, the Digital Edition is well worth the $100 savings.
The Xbox Series S, on the other hand, uses different hardware than the Series X in order to hit that budget-friendly $299 price point. Its graphics chip can only hit 4 teraflops, with 10GB of RAM and a 512GB storage drive that’s half the size of the terabyte drive inside the Series X. Microsoft says it’s aiming for a 1440p resolution, which lies somewhere between the 1080p of the original Xbox One and 4K of the Xbox Series X. It’ll upscale to 4K, and it’s capable of playing games at a super-smooth 120 frames per second, but again, it’s likely to be closer to 30 or 60 frames per second unless you drop the graphics down on games that support such options.
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Perhaps most revealing is the fact that the lower-cost Series S, while backwards compatible with last-gen games, will not play the Xbox One X-enhanced version of those games – instead, it’ll play the “Xbox One S version” – the “default” backwards-compatible version – albeit with some improvements like smoother frame rates, faster load times, and HDR. In other words, it may fall somewhere between the One S and One X in terms of graphical fidelity. So, while the PS5 Digital Edition is a next-gen console through and through (with a small discount for the lack of disc drive), the Series S seems more similar to a last-gen console in terms of its graphical output, while still being able to play the latest games.
Microsoft hasn’t said exactly what this will look like beyond resolution and frame rate, but it could also mean certain graphical settings are downgraded – maybe shadows will be a bit more wobbly, or perhaps certain textures have a bit more blur on the Series S. Ray tracing could be scaled back as well, for slightly less realistic lighting, according to Microsoft. Last-gen comparisons might give us a clue what the differences could be – in Shadow of War, for instance, faraway objects like trees are noticeably less detailed on the Xbox One S than they were on the Xbox One X. And if you remember its predecessor, Shadow of Mordor, was seriously hamstrung on the Xbox 360 and PS3 compared to the PS4.
I’d be surprised to see a difference between the Xbox Series S and Series X as brutal as something like Shadow of Mordor’s cross-generational stumbles, but it depends on how far developers push the limits of the hardware. Most of what we’ll see is probably slightly scaled back graphics, with lower resolution and/or framerate. Even with those minor sacrifices, the Series S sounds like a screaming good deal at $299.
So Which Do You Buy?
If you’re biting your nails trying to decide which of the four new consoles to buy, here are a few considerations:
Games: Picking between Camp Xbox and Camp PlayStation is probably easy: the games are likely to make all the difference. If you’re a fan of God of War, Horizon, and Spider-Man, those games will all have exclusive representation on the PS5 (and PS4). If you’re addicted to Halo, Fable, and Forza, those’ll all be getting their own installments on the latest Xboxes.
Resolution: Between the Xbox Series X and Series S, the Series X is going to provide the best experience in terms of detailed graphics and smooth motion – albeit at a higher price. If you don’t have a 4K TV, you’re just a casual gamer, or if you just want to get some better bang for your buck, the Series S is going to be a great budget option with minor sacrifices.
Performance: Pixel count aside, both versions of the PS5 and the Xbox Series S/X will be able to hit framerates of up to 120FPS – though it’s likely we’ll still see plenty of 30-60FPS games as well. Given the lower-tech gear powering the Xbox Series S, it’s likely that you may see some reduced visuals as well – like running a game on “normal” vs “high” settings on PC.
Digial vs Physical: On the PlayStation end of things, the Digital Edition is hard to say no to: for $100 less, you get a system with the exact same specs as its bigger brother, just without a disc drive. If you already plan on buying games digitally, it’s a no-brainer. That said, don’t discount the value of discs. Buying physical PS5 games could provide enough savings to offset that $100 in the long run, since you can buy and sell discs used. Plus, 4K Blu-rays are amazing – better than 4K streaming – making both disc-based consoles enticing for movie buffs.
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And don’t feel like you have to make this decision right now. If you’re on the fence, holding off could help you avoid a case of buyer’s remorse, letting you see how these consoles perform in the flesh before you fork over your hard-earned cash. That is, if you can stand the wait.
Whitson Gordon is a writer, gamer, and tech nerd who has been building PCs for ten years. He eats potato chips with chopsticks so he doesn’t get grease on his mechanical keyboard.