Shortly after Microsoft created shock waves with its tell-all spec release for the Xbox Series X, Sony has finally unveiled details about what makes the Playstation 5 tick. After yesterday’s event, we now have a good picture about the capabilities of both ninth-gen consoles. While, on the surface, it might appear as if the Xbox Series X has the upper hand in terms of raw processing and graphics power, Sony’s console has a few tricks up its sleeve thanks to bespoke acceleration hardware for a number of functions that have traditionally been CPU-bound, open up all-new ways for developers to create immersive experiences.
That means that any possible spec comparison is, inherently not a pure apples to apples affair. If Sony is able to deliver the PS5 at a cheaper price than the Xbox Series X and if it can keep up the steady flow of exclusives, it might have another winner on its hands. Let’s take a deep dive now, into the specs:
CPU: 8 Zen 2 core at up to 3.5 GHz
The Playstation 5’s CPU upgrade is a true generational upgrade. Where the PS4 Pro simply upped the clocks on the existing Jaguar cores, the Playstation 5 uses cores based on the entirely new Zen 2 architecture, and increases clock speeds by over two times relative to the base Playstation 4, which was clocked at 1.6 GHz. It’s also a significant improvement over the PS4 Pro, which comes in at 2.1 GHz. Put together, this represents an over 4x increase in CPU throughput, on account of the clockspeed gains, IPC improvements, and the presence of up to 16 threads. Much like with the Xbox Series X, the gains to CPU throughput will allow developers to engineer games that are fundamentally different from existing current-gen titles, in terms of their scale and complexity.
We expect that at least some Playstation 5 games at launch will leverage these capabilities to a greater extent. We expect to see titles with immersive physics interactions, complex AI interactions and quest structures that go far beyond the “go here, kill this, fetch that” loop that’s been ingrained for as back as Grand Theft Auto III. One interesting aspect of the Playstation 5’s CPU configuration is Sony’s decision to use variable clocks.
These are not dependent on thermals—which vary from location to location—but on power draw, which means that all PS5s will hit the same clock speeds with a given work load. This allows Sony to optimise power draw by sacrificing a few frames per second at peak load to substantially drop power draw (and thermals too, by extension), without compromising the overall experience.
GPU: 36 CU RDNA2 clocked at up to 2.23 GHz
The Playstation 5’s GPU spec was one of the biggest surprises at the initial reveal. Many of us were expecting a 9 TFLOP part that would deliver performance more or less on par with the first-gen Navi 10 GPUs. We also expected Sony to dial in conservative GPU clockspeeds, much as they’d done with the PS4 Pro. With the Playstation 5, Sony went in exactly the opposite direction. The 36 CU GPU actually has fewer shader resources available to it than the RX 5700 XT. However, it is clocked so high at 2.23 GHz—far higher than any retail Navi unit—that it delivers 10.28 TFLOPs of compute, slightly higher than the 5700 XT, and not that much worse than the Xbox Series X. Sony made an interesting point here: GPU clockspeeds don’t just affect shader throughput.
The performance of all the functional units on a modern GPU, apart from memory, are pegged to the core clockspeeds. This means that a higher clocked part can, effectively, punch above its weight, potentially narrowing the gap between the PS5 and the Xbox Series X’s GPU. Sony utilises dynamic clockspeeds here as well, scaling top-end boost clocks depend on the power draw. Compared to the base Playstation 4, we’re looking at a 5.6x increase in GPU power, and a nearly 2.5x improvement relative to the PS4 Pro, when just factoring in raw compute. However, this doesn’t tell the full story. AMD’s RDNA architecture delivers roughly 25 percent IPC improvements over the GCN architecture leveraged in the earlier Playstation iterations.
In practice, this means that we’re looking at a GPU that’s three times as capable as the PS4 Pro, and nearly 7 times faster than the base Playstation 4. While this might look great on paper, it’s important to note here that the Playstation 5 is targeting 4K as a resolution standard, and this necessitates 4x the GPU throughput of 1080p rendering. This means that much of the Playstation 5’s extra graphics horsepower will go towards running scaling visuals up to 4K. There are already games in the here and now that run at just 1080p on the Playstation 4. We’re slightly worried about what this implies for the Playstation 5’s ambitious 4K goal. Other elements of the Playstation 5’s makeup, such as the faster SSD and enhanced CPU will contribute meaningfully to what appears onscreen: this means we will still get visuals that look a generation beyond the Playstation 4, even while running at 4K.
The Tempest Engine
One of the most exciting bits of new functionality—and a key PS5 differentiator—is the Tempest engine, delivering a true generational leap in term of audio capabilities. Sony’s appreach was essentially to customise an entire AMD RDNA compute unit—with 64 shader cores, stripping away the cache and utilising DMA transfers instead—to function as a dedicated audio processor with as much power as all of the Playstation 4’s Jaguar cores working together. This allows for hundreds of unique sounds to be layered on-scene at a time: for instance, individual drops of rain and their different sounds can each be layered into the audio mix.
The Tempest engine will also utilise HRTF (head related transfer functions) to deliver true surround sound over earphones, customised to take into account individual differences in anatomy. Basic surround sound and MP3-quality audio have been mainstays in the console space since the sixth generation. Apart from incremental improvements, there’s been no fundamental change to Playstation audio feature set since as far back as the Playstation 2. Tempest, then, represents a multigenerational leap. It’ll be interesting to see how developers use Tempest to create unique soundscapes and audio experiences in-game.
Memory and storage subsystems
The Playstation 4 uses 16 GB of GDDR6 memory across a 256-bit memory bus for 448 GB/S of bandwidth, in line with Navi 10 and a bit behind the Xbox Series X. From a generational perspective, though, this is 2.5 times the bandwidth available to the Playstation 4 and nearly double the PS4 Pro’s. Because 4K performance scales with memory bandwidth, higher bandwidth is basically a prerequisite for quality 4K experiences. While 16 GB might seem as bit limited, especially considering that it is a shared GPU and CPU memory pool, Sony has an ace up its sleeve: A custom 825 GB NVMe SSD paired to a next-gen storage controller for unprecedented levels of I/O throughput.
Dedicated DMA controllers, a 12-channel memory interface, an efficient compression algorithm, and some very high-speed solid-state storage mean that the Playstation 5 can fully saturate its 16 GB memory pool with data from the SSD in just 2 seconds. This means an effective transfer rate far more than anything we’ve seen on PC and besting the Xbox Series X. High speed storage paired with the memory should enable developers to create seamless open worlds without loading screens and load and swap out the highest quality assets on the fly with minimal disruption. The dedicated I/O hardware also frees up valuable CPU cycles which can then be utilised in other in-game functions.
The Playstation 5 is in many ways, both what we expected it to be and fundamentally different,. At its core, this is still an x86-based console built around a solid Zen 2/RDNA2 base. However, Sony’s numerous customizations, including bespoke I/O and audio hardware mean that the Playstation 5 might well hold its own against the more technically capable Xbox Series X, offering unique experiences, especially in first party titles, not available anywhere else, even on PC.
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