updated 04:36 am EST, Thu December 26, 2013
Microsoft Xbox One versus Sony PS4
The next-generation console wars look to be played out between the Microsoft Xbox One and the Sony PlayStation 4, with Nintendo cast as a mere observer as its Wii U struggles to generate the same interest as the original Wii. Both the new consoles from Microsoft and Sony come armed to the teeth with x86-64 AMD octa-core CPUs and Radeon HD graphics. While the two look to be well matched on paper, there is always more to the story than meets the eye. Specification variations here, and software tweaks there help to differentiate the two consoles more than you might expect. So which is best, the Xbox One or the PS4? Read past the break to find out.
Design and construction
The Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4 take completely different design approaches, which is one of the most interesting aspects of the next-gen console wars. The Xbox One has aimed for broad audience appeal by creating an inoffensive box that looks more like a Blu-ray player or piece of audio gear than it does a gaming console. The Sony PS4 is designed to appeal to the core gamer audience, which expects that its gaming consoles reflect the excitement of the gaming experience in their design. In our view, the Sony PS4 is easily the more exciting piece of hardware purely from the perspective of appearance. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft succeeds in retaining its core gaming audience while attracting people more interested in its multimedia capabilities - if not, expect to see a redesigned box in the not too distant future.
Both consoles are made from plastic, but still manage to convey and sense of quality and prestige in their construction. Even though the PS4 and Xbox One take completely different approaches to design, they both utilize a mix of matte and glossy plastic finishes effectively. They are equally well made and look and feel sturdy enough to offer years of service provided they are properly maintained. The other point of note is the size difference between the two. Although they share similar hardware, the Xbox One is much larger, plus it also comes with a large power brick. The PS4 is dramatically smaller, yet still manages to integrate its power supply. Sony has along-standing experience and expertise when it comes to building consumer electronics products and nowhere is this more evident than in comparing the respective footprints of each console.
Despite sharing ostensibly very similar hardware, there is more to the performance equation than first meets the eye. Both Sony and Microsoft worked with AMD on their respective system architecture, yet some estimates peg the Sony PS4 as offering up to 50 percent more graphics performance than the Xbox One. The x86-64 octa-core 'Jaguar' processor in the Xbox One is clocked at 1.75GHz against a clock speed of 1.6GHz in the PS4, which will help with the speed of the Xbox One's multitasking UI. However, when it comes to graphics performance, there is a more substantial gap than most would expect. The PS4 integrated Radeon GPU incorporates 18 compute units with 1152 shaders against the Radeon GPU in the Xbox One, which has 12 compute units comprising of 768 shaders. In terms of performance, the PS4 can deliver up to 1.84 teraFLOPS of processing power, while the Xbox One can produce up to 1.31 teraFLOPS.
Further tipping the performance scales in the PS4's favor is Sony's decision to match the CPU and GPU with 8GB of GDDR5 RAM clocked at 5,500MHz. This gives the PS4 system a memory bandwidth of 176GB/sec, which is very fast and gives developers plenty of headroom when it comes to maxing out the system. The Xbox One by comparison also matches the CPU and GPU with 8GB of RAM, but in this instance it is the GDDR3 type clocked at 2133MHz. This leaves the Xbox One with less than half the memory bandwidth as well. If you've seen Forza 5 in action, you will know that Xbox One titles will continue to look fantastic. However, PS4-exclusive titles like Killzone: Shadow Fall, which is breathtakingly beautiful in parts, suggests that developers will be able to push the PS4 much further than the Xbox One. For hard-core gamers, that will have a big influence on their choice of console. For others, despite the performance differential, their choice of console may simply boil down to which console has the better exclusive titles.
The controllers for both the Xbox One and PS4 have undergone complete revisions for this generation. Microsoft is reported to have spent over $100 million perfecting the new controller for the Xbox One. How much Sony expended hasn't been revealed, but of the two controllers, the DualShock 4 has undergone the more radical reworking. It has been universally acknowledged that the new DualShock 4 is the best controller Sony has ever made, and in our view it is actually better than the new Xbox One controller. Xbox controllers have historically been considered the gold standard for gaming controllers, but this generation, Sony may have taken the lead although it is a close run contest.
Superficially, the Xbox One controller looks similar to the Xbox 360 controller, but it is an improvement over that controller in most ways and remains one of the best ever made. It now properly integrates the battery compartment and has improved its ergonomic design so that it better suits a wider variety of hand sizes and feels great in the hand. The new rumble function in the triggers certainly makes playing racing games more enjoyable. However, we are not fans of the new bumper buttons, which are harder to press. While Microsoft touts moving he X A B and Y buttons closer together as an improvement, we preferred the spacing on the 360 controller. The continued use of standard AA batteries also adds unnecessary weight to the device, while you need to pay extra for a rechargeable option.
The PS4's DualShock 4 is a revelation. It is light, incorporates a rechargeable solution standard and is a joy to hold and use. Even the new touchpad integrated on the top is a positive addition to the gaming experience giving you additional ways to interact with your games. The triggers and bumpers provide the right amount of resistance, while the thumb sticks offer more grip and precision. The built in LED lights are also a cool addition, changing from green to red in some games, when your characters gets taken out. It also glows amber when it is charging, which is a handy touch, while it is also designed to interact with the PS4 camera if you opt to buy one. The new Share button also works well for instant game footage sharing to social networks.
If the design and power of the Sony PS4 reflects its traditional strength in hardware design, then the operating system and user interface of the Xbox One reflects Microsoft's traditional strength in software development. The Xbox One delivers an even more refined version of the operating system and user interface familiar from both the Xbox One and Microsoft's Windows 8 live tile-based modern UI seen on millions of PCs. It is extremely fluid and generally easy to navigate with multitasking capabilities a real standout. Only the Xbox One UI allows you to snap two apps side-by-side allowing you to play a multiplayer game while holding a Skype video call, for example. However, it takes a little while to adjust to the new Menu button on the Xbox One controller, which is necessary to reveal contextual menu options that you cannot otherwise enable. However, out of the box, the decision to bundle the Kinect 2 also gives users the option to use voice control to navigate and control the Xbox One, which works quite well for the most part.
Microsoft had a substantial lead in the UI department, in particular, over Sony in the previous generation. Gamers did not particularly love the Cross-Media Bar (XMB) in the PS3, even if it was quite functional. Although a variation of the XMB persists in the PS4 UI, there are new views of games and other apps and media functions that make it a more sophisticated and immersive experience. Like the Xbox One, you can adjust settings and switch between games and other apps without having to close them completely. It is a fast and fluid experience. The new games view, for example, offers you quick access to additional related content based on the game that you are currently playing. While some might still prefer the Xbox One UI, the PS4 UI is a marked improvement over the PS3. The overall operating system experience is rock solid and stable, although it is thought that Microsoft may have a slight edge in its software APIs allowing developers to get closer to the graphics hardware.
Multimedia and online gaming
The Xbox One has a unique trick that has so far only been fully enabled for US customers that allows users to plug their Pay TV box into the back of the Xbox One and integrate it into the Xbox One user experience. This also comes with a voice controllable TV guide that allows you to navigate and control your Pay TV box with voice commands. There is no doubt that this is a great feature to have, although not everyone will necessarily want to integrate his or her Pay TV or other STB this way. However, like the PS4, Microsoft has not enabled remote server support on the Xbox One meaning that you won't be able to stream content to the box from your PC on the home network as you could on the Xbox 360. Other standard multimedia features are included as well as a wide variety of third-party streaming content services in addition to Microsoft's own Xbox Music and Xbox Video services.
If Microsoft has taken a more generalist approach to covering your content and gaming needs, Sony has chosen to put gaming first on the PS4. Depending on your reasons for buying a gaming console, this may drive your reason for buying it. While it can't compete with Microsoft's clever integration of Pay TV on the entertainment front, it too offers plenty of third-party content experiences as well. Sony also offers its own entertainment services as well, including Sony Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited. Although not currently enabled, CD and USB media stick support will be added in a future update, though like the Xbox One, Sony's own Blu-ray technology is built right in. Both devices will be adding streaming content services over time, but if that is particularly important to you, you might want to research which services you want the most and see which console provides the services that you want the most (or plans to support in the future).
Microsoft's Xbox Live Gold has always been a relatively expensive ongoing proposition. However, in return, you get access to a robust online gaming experience that has long been considered the best, while cloud game saves have become a great convenience. You can also log into a friends Xbox and temporarily install your user profile to continue adding to your gamer points and retaining ranks and other paraphernalia that you have picked up on your own console. Sony has responded to this by adding the PlayStation Plus service that offers a similar online gaming experience. Comparatively, while it is arguable that Microsoft may have the more robust infrastructure, PlayStation Plus offers gamers better value by throwing in free games to subscribers. Microsoft has dabbled with game giveaways, but it does not offer as many titles.
As pointed out earlier, the Xbox One supports Pay TV. It does this by including an HDMI through port as well as an HDMI out port. It supports 4K Ultra HD playback over HDMI that will play a more important role in the coming years. It also comes with three USB 3.0 ports, which will eventually support external storage and perhaps even a keyboard and a mouse. Wireless connectivity is through dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11n or Wi-Fi Direct, although you can connect over a Gigabit Ethernet port if you prefer. Storage, unfortunately, is limited to the 500GB that currently ships standard with the Xbox One, however external storage support will be enabled, which is certainly better than no option. Microsoft previously allowed users to buy and install modular Xbox expansion drives on the 360, but has dropped this option for the One.
The Sony PS4 also supports 4K Ultra HD playback over HDMI, but does not include an HDMI through port. It includes two USB 3.0 ports that are currently almost primarily for recharging the DualShock 4 controller, although they will support additional functions in the future. Wireless connectivity includes dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 and support for Bluetooth 4.0, while you can also create a hardwired Internet connection over its Gigabit Ethernet port. Unlike the Xbox One, the 500GB Sony PS4 hard drive is user upgradeable allowing gamers to buy any standard off the shelf 3.5-inch HDD or SDD to add either storage or boost loading times. For those who would rather not plug in an additional hard drive because of limited power supplies for their home entertainment system, this is a great convenience and gives the PS4 an edge in this regard.
SmartGlass and Remote Play
Second screens have become an important part of the home entertainment experience and both Microsoft and Sony recognize this. Microsoft has released the SmartGlass Xbox One companion app for iOS, Android and Windows Phone that gives you additional gaming potential, or contextual information when watching movies, for example. Sony has also released a similar app for iOS and Android offering the same sort of functionality. However, Sony has also smartly leveraged its powerful PS Vita gaming handheld to allow users to stream and remotely control PS4 games over the device. Even better, Sony's execution of the capability is flawless, giving gamers full and lag-free control over PS4 gaming titles. It solves family room arguments over who gets to use the TV, as well as the convenience of being able to continue gaming when you have retired for the night if you choose.
The bottom line is that even if you do a lot of hand wringing before deciding to jump in and buy one console over the other, you can rest assured that both the Xbox One and the Sony PS4 will deliver a great entertainment and gaming experience. If we were to make a judgement call at this early stage in the life of the two consoles, we would say that the PS4 has an early lead as it offers the most powerful hardware, the better hardware design, arguably the better controller, the option to upgrade its internal hard drive and the ability to let you play PS4 titles remotely over the PS Vita gaming handheld. The Xbox One is very competitive, however, and has quite probably an unassailable edge when it comes to multimedia integration. However, if gaming is your primary intention for purchasing one of these great machines, the decision could ultimately hinge simply on which console offers your preferred exclusive titles - everything else may be irrelevant.