With the launch of two new game consoles, the next generation of gaming has arrived. But what does Sony’s new machine offer that is actually… new?
It is the rarest of thrills for game enthusiasts, the giddiness of unboxing a new console. It brings the promise of previously unseen wonders and the excitement of being part of the “next big thing.”
Both Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X are arriving within days, for those lucky enough to procure a rare preorder. For the rest of us, is it worth the continuous effort to track them down? To put it one another way, what is really new about these new consoles? Today, I will take a look at what PlayStation 5 brings to the living room.
1. Graphical Horsepower
The obvious draw to new game hardware is the most easily seen when you power up the system. It is the raw power that the machine has, the graphics it can push to your television. Mathematically there is a clear progression in GPUs (graphical processing unit), looking at TFLOPs, or trillions of floating point operations per second — a measurement of how much information the processor can handle. The original PS4 was 1.8 TFLOPS, and the PS4 Pro was 4.2 TFLOPS. The PS5 is 10.3 TFLOPS. There have also been upgrades in other technical specifications along the way too, such as CPU, RAM, etc.
What does this all mean in practice? Most obvious is that a game can have a larger, fuller world with more characters, objects, and detail. On a technical level, while PS4 could only do games at typical HD resolutions, PS4 Pro could do them at Ultra HD resolutions, aka 4K. What PS5 brings to the table, besides the 4K, is an increased framerate. Whereas most games run at 30 frames per second, with the extra power, PS5 is more reliable in bringing the smoother 60fps graphics. Everything moves silkier, and gameworlds just seem more present.
There are also improvements in the non-math aspects of graphics: things like color gamut and contrast, particle effects, and other post-processing effects. These are the little touches that make a game feel more vibrant, with graphics being richer and less flat than past consoles. The most important of these is support of a technique called Ray Tracing. This is a feature both next generation consoles are capable of, a mathematically intensive method of doing graphics that previous GPUs were unable to accommodate.
Simply put, Ray Tracing adds physics to lighting, so that light and shadow behave more realistically. Lights and shadows are the correct shapes, and not just faked ovals. Light reflects color off of objects, and mirror-like reflections on surfaces are actually reflecting light and not just doubling a picture in the scene. The result are scenes that look more real due to more realistic lighting. It is the most noticeable improvement in graphics this console generation.
2. Solid Storage
With the last generation of PS4 and Xbox One, you had the first consoles that would install a game on to the hard drive and run it from there, rather than off the disc like in the past. This practice continues with this next generation, except the hard drive has been replaced by a solid state drive. Basically, these drives read and write information quicker because there are no moveable parts slowing things down like a standard hard drive. It’s just memory chips being accessed.
This change makes for several benefits in the quality of life of gaming. First of all, loading time is greatly reduced. Ten seconds and a console starts up. And a few seconds later you are in a game. What would take several minutes before is now like half a minute. Besides less waiting, it makes the experience of playing a game more immersive, with fewer interruptions to load levels in the middle of gameplay. I find it amazing to jump from the console being off to swinging around as Spider-Man within 35 seconds (I timed it).
What isn’t as obvious is how using a SSD benefits game graphics. Games can be larger, because developers can quickly load in new sections of the world as you travel, adding a new building just as you turn a corner or another mountain as you pass through some trees. And you can travel through the world at greater speeds, as overall loading speeds are improved, with locations and objects being pulled into the game quicker than before. New games with the engines that capitalize on this are surely coming this generation.
3. DualSense Controller
The most overt way that gamers will feel a change is in the controller. Looking at the plastic object as you hold it in your hands, it’s capabilities appear similar to past PlayStation controllers. But the PlayStation 5’s DualSense has that name because of the vibrations and haptics you can sense through your hands as you play.
What do I mean? There are vibrations in different parts of the controller now, with greater variety of intensities to the vibrations. You can feel raindrops hitting you, which feels different than a rumble of an engine, or the pain of being suddenly smacked by an opponent.
This is especially true with the new trigger buttons. They have variable tension, which results in the button fighting against you to feel like different things. A trigger on a gun will click in a way that is different than pulling a lever which differs from swimming through the water. It is a tangible improvement in the way playing a game feels.
There are other interesting aspects to the controller. Yes, it has the dual analogs and touchpad that are found on the PS4 controller. But it also has a built-in mic, with a mute button, for online gaming or interactions in games. There is also a speaker on the DualSense, to allow certain sounds during a game. Maybe your character has a gadget that makes noise or you can hear your footsteps.
All of these features come together to create a controller that actually is next generation. Luckily, every PlayStation 5 comes with the fun game Astro’s Playroom which was purposely developed to show off the capabilities of the Dual Sense.
4. PlayStation Plus Collection
For the PlayStation 5, Sony has provided another advantage over the past PlayStations. The company has evolved their PlayStation Plus service. The value proposition has been simple: for $60 a year, you can now play games online, but you also get a game or two free per month — as long as you stay a member of PS+. These free game offerings have exploded.
There is a section of the PS5 menus that highlights the PlayStation Plus Collection, a variety of games from the PS4 era that are completely free to play. At system launch, there are 20 games, from PlayStation themselves to the biggest third parties. Sony’s own masterpieces like 2018’s God of War and Uncharted 4, to AAA games from others, like Monster Hunter World and Call of Duty: Black Ops 3.
Besides being a great value, this upgrade in offerings is a real boon to gamers who have fallen behind on playing all the critically acclaimed games of the last 10 years or who even skipped the PlayStation 4 altogether. Now these gamers can make their way through all these titles, and likely for free because they are already paying for PlayStation Plus.
5. Boosting backward compatibility
For those digging into the PlayStation Plus collection, or continuing to play games they started on PlayStation 4, they will discover another new improvement. Except for a handful of the thousands of games released for PS4 and PS4 Pro that do not work, everything from the last generation is playable on the PS5.
Not only are all these thousands of titles playable, they are improved. The games will load quicker. The briefness of the loading won’t be as dramatic as games developed specifically for PlayStation 5, but reports show games are loading 30% to 50% quicker. Over time, such savings will build up; that can be minutes and hours of your life given back to you.
There is also a graphical improvement of games. Making use of the increased GPU and better RAM, PlayStation 4 games that run on PlayStation 5 will have improved framerates or the framerates won’t drop when things get crazy. So that game that runs at a decent 30fps, which can stutter when the bullets are really flying will now stay buttery smooth.
This feature greatly enhances the backward compatibility of PlayStation 5, an important feature to help gamers in the transition from one console to another, as they finish older games to prepare to focus on new ones. Not to mention the occasional urge to go back and play old favorites.
With these five areas, it is clear that there are advantages to gaming with a PlayStation 5 over the PlayStation 4 consoles. The next generation continues to improve things and innovate in unexpected ways, as it has for other generational jumps in the last 40 years. Personally, this results in a console that does so much right and leaves me excited for all the games to come.
[Hardware and Software provided by PlayStation. Images courtesy of PlayStation.]
Kevin Ohannessian is a freelance journalist who has been playing games since the Atari days and covering them for 15+ years. You can find links to past work at KevinOhannessian.com and contact him with khohannessian AT gmail DOT com.