Exclusives Comparison Essay

Some are calling it the best E3 in five years – others insist it's the best of all time. But whatever hyperbole gets attached to last week's gaming conference, we can all agree on the focus: Xbox One v PS4.

Amid the chaos of the LA convention centre, Microsoft and Sony pitched their stands barely feet from each other, separated only by a sliver of carpet, a no-man's land of technological rivalry. The two companies then spent three days hurling PR at each other, deafening attendees with their arsenals of mega hype. It was confusing, it was enraging, it was console war – and the first casualty of console war is sense.

So, what did it all mean? Who won, who lost? What do these machines actually do? Here is a quick guide to the next-generation as it currently stands, complete with hardware, services and game announcements. Next stop: release dates and a shift of the skirmish to a hundred thousand shop shelves. This fight has only just begun.

UPDATES – 20 JUNE: The Second Screens section has been updated to clarify Remote Play; the Hardware section has been updated with a developer comment on system memory; the DRM section has been altered to reflect Microsoft's u-turn on game restrictions

Official sites

Before you start, why not check out what the console makers want you to know about their machines? Xbox one is here; PS4 is right over there.

Hardware

Well, black is certainly back, as AC/DC once sort of nearly put it (or Public Enemy, for that matter, but we're getting off the point now). For this generation we have two rather large slabs of dark plastic, one shaped like an early eighties video recorder, the other slightly slanted to give a hint of dynamism. They are monolithic, almost architectural, and they are designed to slide in under your living room TV and then command attention from everyone in the room.

Technically, they are hugely similar: eight-core processors (both reported to be running at a frequency of 1.6GHz), custom AMD graphics processors, Blu-ray drives. But there are some fundamental differences. The two GPUs employ AMD's latest Graphics Core Next architecture, which is divided into working blocks known as Compute Units. The PS4 version has 18 CUs generating 1.84 teraflops of processing power, while the Xbox one has only 12 CUs; which, in theory , gives Sony's machine a 50% advantage in terms of raw shader performance (for example, lighting and other graphics effects). It's never quite this simple because other design and technical elements of the SoC can affect performance, but it's certainly an indication that there is more graphics grunt there for PS4.

Sony's machine also uses 8GB of GDDR5 memory with a bandwidth of 176GB/sec as opposed to the Xbox One with its 8GB of DDR3 RAM. GDDR5 memory is optimised for high bandwidth, which is perfect for use in graphics calculations, but also has higher latency than DDR3 RAM, which would be a problem for a general purpose CPU. However, because the PS4 architecture places the GPU and CPU on the same die, the latency between the two may be minimalised. In short, the adoption of a graphics-friendly form of memory may work to PS4's advantage as a games-targeted machine – even though GDDR5 is more expensive to implement. There's a thorough summing up of the system design here.

It's also worth reading the detailed overview of the technologies at AnandTech, though. The exhaustive article points out that the Xbox One architecture is designed with a variety of considerations beyond gaming – especially implementation with other MS platforms – and this shows in the tech specs.

A developer's view
We asked an experienced games coder about the differences between Xbox One and PS4's approach to system memory. He has asked to remain anonymous, but this is what he wrote...

"Memory-wise there are really deep areas you can get into on how Sony has optimised certain paths to access the RAM. Microsoft will hopefully be doing similar stuff to that, I imagine – we're only disclosed on PS4 so I don't know for sure, they're not dumb though.

"Regarding the RAM type, however, GDDR5 equals 176gb/sec, DDR3 equals 68gb/sec – I don't know the exact numbers for the Xbox One RAM but it'll be around that. GDDR5 is slightly higher latency, which means the time between requesting a piece of data and getting it to the CPU/GPU to work with can be slightly longer than with DDR3. This latency can be hidden by well-written code on CPU and normally is hidden well by GPUs due to how their pipelines work (which is why GDDR is normally found on GPU's).

"Ultimately though, that 2.5x faster bandwidth number means that a larger amount of data can be taken from RAM, processed by the CPU (or more importantly on these new architectures, the Compute Units on the GPU) and spat back out to RAM to either process again or render. At the end of the day, everything in games comes down to: 'grab information'; 'transform that data somehow'; 'spit it back out' – so being faster at this is a very good thing.

"Microsoft is winning bandwidth back for the GPU through the 32MB ESRAM (102gb/sec I believe, and assuming you're using this RAM a lot, it means that the total Microsoft bandwidth is 168gb/sec); this will even things back out a bit but require a bit of extra management by developers and it is only 32MB which limits the amount of uses.

"This kind of architecture with faster RAM for the GPU to use for framebuffers (the block of data storing the image being rendererd out or nowadays temporary graphic buffers storing lighting/material information) is something developers are used to working with, but it's more complex than the approach needed on the PS4."

Motion peripherals

The Xbox One ships with the updated Kinect device, which now tracks six people at once and copes much better with smaller, darker rooms. Its 3D scanner can identify much subtler movements, and it can recognise voices and faces. Microsoft is also telling journalists that the device's IR camera will detect changes in blood flow beneath the skin, thereby working out your heart rate – if you're out of breath, scared or stressed, Xbox One will know. Oh and there's a 1,080p colour camera for video chatting. Meanwhile, the PlayStation Eye will come as a separate purchase, and works with the DualShock 4 controller to track the player's movement in 3D space. Sony isn't saying much else, apart from showing off a range of compatible mini-games at E3. Clearly, while Kinect is at the very epicentre of the Xbone experience, Eye is currently barely squinting.

Controllers

With its new touchpad, the DualShock 4 is the most obviously changed of the two joypads, and Sony has also added a speaker for up-close, player-specific audio. Also important is the new Share button which will let PlayStation gamers record footage of their virtual feats with which to impress/spam their friends.

The Xbox One controller, which apparently went through over 200 prototype stages and features 40 improvements, is more subtle – it has improved triggers that boast greater analogue sensitivity as well as their own dedicated rumble packs. Meanwhile, the D-pad is now a cross shape (good for fighting games) and the sticks are more comfortable to grip. Oh and there's a headphone socket, too. Both controllers look and feel really nice, and while the DualShock has more gimmicks, the Xbox equivalent features smart ergonomics and great gaming comfort.

The cloud

As we move into an era of distributed computing power, it's no wonder that the next-gen consoles want to capitalise on the power of the cloud. Microsoft has claimed that developers will be able to harness three times the power of a single Xbox One, thereby bringing extra oomph to physics and AI processing (although some developers wonder whether latency will ever allow such time-sensitive game elements to be offloaded in this way). We're also promised vast persistent online worlds that evolve as play continues.

Forza Motorsports is even offering a Drivatar, an AI bot that learns your skills and tactics then goes off and represents you in online bouts. There are doubts about the veracity of Microsoft's claims, though, with latency and bandwidth issues likely to make things difficult.

PlayStation 4 promises cloud computing too, but the technology provided by Gaikai will also allow immediate playable access to digital titles – so as soon as you select a demo or full game on the PlayStation Store, the first chunk will be accessible. In theory. It will also be possible for players to remotely gain control of a pal's game, perhaps to help them out of a difficult puzzle or boss fight. Microsoft promises a similar remote playing feature via Xbox One utilising its Skype service.

All the claims are intriguing, but we've yet to see any of it in practice. Furthermore, some worry about the longevity of cloud-supported titles: i.e. what happens to a game that relies on the cloud for computational support when that online infrastructure is withdrawn? Publishers can't support every game forever. Alongside restrictive DRM, the cloud is another indication that the game disc as self-contained functioning product is history.

Second screens

Both the Xbox One and PS4 will offer 'second screen' interaction: the former though tablets and smartphones running SmartGlass, the latter through the Vita handheld console as well as smartphones and tablets. With both machines you'll be able to use your phone or tablet as a companion display in supporting games, perhaps showing map or inventory information, for example. But through Sony's Remote Play technology, PS4 owners will be able to access and play their games via their Vita and a local Wi-Fi connection – so if you're unable to use your main TV, you can grab your handheld and play DriveClub on its lovely little 5-inch display. And unlike with PS3, Remote Play is built into the PS4 infrastructure so all games (except those requiring extra peripherals like the PS Eye) will support it. Although Vita has not sold astonishingly well so far, this is an interesting USP, and maybe a PS4/Vita bundle pack would highlight the possibilities of these intertwined systems.

Launch games

Both Xbox One and PS4 will have the following titles at launch: Assassin's Creed IV, Call of Duty Ghosts, Watch Dogs, Fifa 14, Madden 14 and Lego Marvel Super Heroes. PS4 will add DriveClub, Knack and Killzone: Shadow Fall as exclusives, as well as the free-to-play MMOFPS, PlanetSide 2.

Xbox One meanwhile, will have Forza Motorsports 5, Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3, Killer Instinct and Kinect Sports Rivals. Arguably, Microsoft just shades it there, with some heavyweight third-party support, courtesy of Crytek and Capcom. But in general terms, this is a relatively strong opening for a new generation.

Coming titles

So after the fanfare and bluster of the launches, what can gamers expect next from their chosen machine? Well, Xbox One is promising Respawn's Titanfall in 2014 as well as Crimson Dragon, Below, and Sunset Overdrive, not to mention new outings for Minecraft and Halo.

PS4 is lining up Infamous: second Son, The Order: 1866 and Deep Down, with a new Gran Turismo on the slate as well. Plus, Sony has all those indie developers that it's been courting, adding Mercenary Kings, Daylight, Don't Starve and Transistor to the line-up. And both schedules will be enlivened by multi-platform blockbusters like Star Wars Battlefront, Destiny, Final Fantasy XV, The Crew, Tom Clancy's The Division and EA's Mirror's Edge reboot. Much of the battle will be down to any timed exclusives or unique features the manufacturers can prise into the third-party offerings.

Multimedia and social features

Both consoles will have varied video-on-demand support, involving multiple content partners. Xbox One looks to have the most advanced and ambitious offering, allowing owners to feed in their cable/satellite channels and then control them via the Xbone voice and gesture controls. Microsoft's machine will also allow seamless movement between TV, video content and games, while premium TV content such as live sports will be augmented with exclusive social and gaming features – which haven't yet been properly explained (or clearly rolled out beyond US-centric deals). And of course, both machines allow you to watch Blu-ray and DVD movie discs, and both support 4K output when that becomes an issue. Will that ever become an issue?

Backwards compatibility, pre-owned sales and DRM

Uh-oh, here we go. Neither machine allows straightforward backwards compatibility with previous consoles – however, it's likely that both will eventually offer retro titles via emulation and digital download.

Microsoft has abandoned plans to control the sale of pre-owned titles and limit how many people you can lend your Xbox One games too. As with PlayStation 4, games can be sold and exchanged freely.

According to a statement on the Xbox site, there will be no requirement for regular online authentication – just a single sign-in on purchase. There will also be no regional lock on disc-based games. According to Polygon, this will affect some of the more positive elements of Microsoft's original infrastructure - for example, the ability to share your library of games with up to ten friends or family members has now apparently been removed.

For now, Microsoft's attempts to make console game sales more like iTunes or Steam have been thwarted.

The PR war

In short, Microsoft lost. The internet reacted with savage fury to the pre-owned sales limitations and authentication requirements, while analysts have criticised Microsoft's TV-focused strategy. Sony twisted the knife with a confrontational E3 press conference and a viral video lampooning the Xbox one sharing system. A recent poll by Amazon, asking readers to suggest which machine they would be buying, went overwhelmingly in PS4's direction – although there could be an element of protest voting here.

And Microsoft factions are fighting back. A post on Pastebin, reported to be from an anonymous Microsoft engineer, tries to explain the DRM and pre-owned systems, telling gamers they will benefit in the long run, by cutting profit hungry retailers like Gamestop out of the loop. Game designer Cliff Bleszinski has also waded in to defend the Xbox One setup. For their own part, Microsoft execs have gone rather quiet and are no doubt planning a new public relations offensive in the run up to launch.

Launch details and prices

Microsoft has committed itself to a November launch date, Sony has said nothing else except for 2013; though the smart money has to be on November too. Retailers probably won't allow a simultaneous roll-out (imagine the chaos) so expect one to go early in the month, and the other toward the end. Xbox will retail at £429 ($499), PS4 at £350 ($399). However, as noted above, the PlayStation Eye won't be bundled with the console, unlike the Kinect with Xbox One. Both systems will charge an annual subscription for multiplayer gaming access, with PS4 requiring a paid 'PS Plus' membership.

Verdict

A winner?! Before the consoles are even launched? I don't think so. The history of the games industry is littered with consoles that should have won but didn't; where all the signs pointed in their direction, but turned out to be wildly misleading. And similarly, machines that were expected to dive, turned out to be successes. No one expected the Mega Drive to take off like it did in the States and Europe; and before anyone saw it, almost everyone wrote off the Wii after the under-performing GameCube. Then the Wii Remote was revealed and suddenly the story changed.

Right now, the signs point toward early success for PlayStation 4: on paper, the hardware is more powerful, it has popular support, Sony has said what gamers want to hear. But Xbox One has some great games and there is time for Microsoft to explain and re-spin its business models. The company wants to change the way the games industry works; that's a tough sell to gamers, who are, ironically, an extremely conservative customer base.

What's fascinating is that the whole consumer world is watching. For years, mirthless middle-aged pundits in their global financial research companies have been predicting the death of consoles. These hulking machines are no longer relevant, the kids want to play on tablets; everything is going free-to-play. But it isn't, not yet. Play The Last of Us for 20 minutes and you know why Angry Birds won't somehow replace narrative gaming – as some bean counters have tried to assert.

The first casualty of any console war is sense – everyone seems to lose theirs. No one wins until the launch titles are in the disc trays, or on the hard drives; no one is finished until the last major developer abandons the platform. But it is fun, isn't it, to watch it unfold? Let's not forget the fun part.

We’re a few years into the life of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4; the PS4 surged ahead on sales to begin with, but the Xbox One has seen a turnaround more recently.

No other console generation has seen two rivals so similar in terms of hardware, specifications, software and services, making it surprisingly hard to choose between them. We're going to try to explain everything you need to know in order to make the right choice.

If you're toying with a console beyond the big two, you might be better off checking out our guide to the best games console, which includes the Nintendo Switch, 3DS, and Nvidia Shield too.

The PS4 is generally seen as the hardcore gamer’s choice. Its hardware is slightly more powerful than the Xbox One, and Sony was smarter in focussing the PS4’s software and interface on games rather than some vision of the console as an entertainment hub.

That was Microsoft’s mistake at launch, where the Xbox One seemed too focused on TV, movies and voice-controlled entertainment, and not enough on playing games. Where Sony pushed to make its console more affordable, Microsoft saddled it with a pricey motion control peripheral that nobody really wanted – the second-generation Kinect.

Right now, the situation’s different. Kinect is now an option rather than the default, and the Xbox One has dropped in price accordingly. More importantly, Microsoft seems to have got the message that people primarily buy consoles to play games.

Price

While the Xbox One was a pricier proposition at launch, both consoles are now available at roughly similar prices. 

The re-designed PS4 (a.k.a. the PS4 Slim) is available from Amazon for £224.99/$255 with a 500GB hard drive, and £256.49 with a larger 1TB drive. Both versions are also available in bundles with games, which often represent better value for money.

The Xbox One S (also a re-design from the original Xbox One) is slightly cheaper, available for £209.95 with a 500GB drive. Again, bundles are available, and generally better value - often a game is thrown in for the same price as buying the console on its own.

The comparison is made slightly more complicated by the addition of the more powerful versions of each console. Sony's PS4 Pro costs £349.99/$399.99 with a 1TB hard drive, and offers beefed up performance and quasi-4K video output - widening the existing specs gap between the consoles even further.

Microsoft's Xbox One Scorpio isn't out yet, but the officials specs reveal a console that's even more powerful than the PS4 Pro - and when it goes on sale later in 2017, we expect it to cost even more too.

With both consoles there’s a hidden cost: the annual fee for the subscription service required for online play. An Xbox Live Gold membership costs £40 per year, as does the equivalent PS Plus membership. Both services throw in exclusive trial games, discounts and free games to sweeten the deal.

Connections and ports

To keep things simple, from here on we're going to focus on comparing the main Xbox One and PS4 consoles, including the updated Xbox One S and PS4 Slim. We'll leave the Pro and Scorpio out of it, because they're covered in more detail in our separate PS4 Pro vs Xbox One Scorpio comparison.

The PS4 is the smaller and sleeker of the two consoles, with an angular design in part-gloss, part-matt black plastic. It’s reasonably quiet in operation, though noise levels pick up when you’re playing games, and so far it’s proved as reliable as previous PlayStation consoles.

There are two USB ports at the front, along with well-concealed power and disc eject buttons. At the back you’ll find the power socket, HDMI and Ethernet ports, an optical digital audio output plus an additional USB port for the PlayStation Camera accessory.

The PS4 Slim is very similar, but (unsurprisingly) runs a little smaller. It also loses the gloss finish and rounds off the corners, though there is one small sacrifice for the size: there's no optical audio output. 

The Xbox One is larger and chunkier than the PS4, but it still fits in well into the average home entertainment setup. If anything it’s a little quieter than the PS4, and Microsoft seems to have fixed the reliability issues that plagued the early Xbox 360 consoles.

Around the back you’ll find a bewildering array of ports, with two USB ports, Ethernet, an optical output and a specific port for Kinect, plus two HDMI sockets. One of these is an output for your TV, but the other is designed to take a signal from your Freeview/Freesat PVR or Virgin/Sky set-top-box.

The Xbox One S is broadly the same, but drops the dedicated Kinect port - if you want to connect Kinect, you just use one of the standard USB ports.

Hardware and specs

It’s internally that the key differences emerge. Both consoles are based on the same AMD Jaguar processor technology found in its Temash and Kabini APUs. Both have eight CPU cores, with the Xbox One running at 1.75Ghz to the PS4’s 1.6GHz.

Both also have AMD GPUs, but here things differ. Where the Xbox One’s GPU, derived from the Bonaire architecture found in the Radeon HD 7790, has 12 GCN compute units to play with, the PS4’s GPU, based on Pitcairn, has 18. Even given that the Xbox One’s GPU runs at 853MHz (or 914MHz in the Xbox One S) to the PS4's 800MHz, that still gives the PS4 a tangible advantage on the graphics front.

To make things harder for Microsoft, the PS4 can call on 8GB of 5500Mhz GDDR5 RAM, giving it a lot more memory bandwidth than the 2133MHz DDR3 the Xbox One relies on. Microsoft compensates by using a 32MB ESRAM cache to keep data flowing smoothly, but the PS4 hardware is – when all is said and done – that bit more powerful.

How much does this matter? Well, on the one hand we’re seeing key cross-platform games that either run at a full HD resolution on PS4 but at a slightly lower resolution on Xbox One, or simply run more smoothly with more visual effects on PS4.

On the other hand, the differences aren’t always that noticeable when you’re actually playing the games rather than analysing them frame-by-frame, and the best Xbox One games are still pretty astonishing. The extra power is a key point in the PS4’s favour, but it’s not a deciding blow against Xbox One.

We should also note that neither console is significantly more powerful than a fairly basic, mid-range gaming PC. Generally speaking, the manufacturers and third party developers will do more to optimise their graphics engines and build in advanced features for the console platforms, keeping them delivering amazing-looking games in the long-term, but a games PC remains a powerful alternative, and a more flexible one in many respects.

Interface and features

Both consoles have slick user interfaces. The PS4’s is simpler and better at getting you straight to the functions you use most when playing games.

The Xbox One’s software uses Windows 10 as a base, and features an uncomplicated design and integrates search, friends, messages and notifications for much quicker access. Plus if you have the Kinect sensor, you're now able to use Cortana to record game clips and invite friends to chat or play games by simply using your voice. There's also a universal store, which means you'll see some apps and games available on Windows 10 on the Xbox.

Both consoles have their party pieces though. The PS4 has a brilliant Remote Play feature, where you can stream games from your PS4 to a PS Vita handheld, Sony Xperia smartphone or tablet, or PC or Mac and keep playing while someone else hogs the TV - this can be done locally or over the internet. It also has some great game sharing features, where you can virtually hand over your controller to another PS4 owner, and let them stream a game from your console over the web.

More recently, Sony introduced (or should we say re-introduced?) the ability to stream music via a USB drive while you're playing the PS4, along with the ability to appear offline on your friends list for those times where you're feeling a little... unsociable. 

The Xbox One, however, can give you a split-screen view to run two apps or one game and one app at once. Both the PS4 and Xbox One feature an 'instant resume' which allows you to put your console in standby, turn it on again, and carry on playing exactly where you left off.

Cameras

The Xbox One’s second-generation Kinect camera is a big improvement on the first, with more accurate motion tracking that works better across a range of lighting conditions, and can also track your body in more detail, even down to the individual finger joints. Sadly, it’s been grossly under-used so far, with just a handful of games that use it, and precious little sign of more to follow.

The PS4’s PlayStation Camera is a cheaper and less high-tech affair, and works with the same PS Move wand controllers that Sony first launched for the PS3. Again, it’s barely been used so far, and shouldn’t be considered a must-have purchase - unless you want to try out VR.

Virtual reality

This is a major difference: if you want to try out virtual reality gaming on a console, you need to get the PlayStation 4. It supports Sony's exclusive PlayStation VR platform, which lets you play a variety of different VR experiences and games. 

It's a little expensive at £340/$400 for the headset (and bear in mind you'll probably also want the compatible Move controllers and Camera), but it's still pretty affordable compared to the likes of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and delivers great VR performance for the price. 

By comparison, Microsoft hasn't announced any firm VR plans for the Xbox One. We're expecting some sort of VR support to be confirmed later in 2017 - likely with the Oculus Rift - but for now, PS4 is the go-to platform for console VR gaming.

Backwards compatibility

At first, neither console was backwards compatible, so there wasn't much to compare between them. However, they now each offer some form of backwards compatibility, in very different ways.

The Xbox One is the only console that offers true backwards compatibility, and there are currently more than 300 Xbox 360 games you can play on the new machine - out of a total library of over 1,000.

Sony has handled old games very differently. It launched an on-demand service, PlayStation Now, which lets you stream a range of PS3 games. However, you still have to pay for a subscription to stream games, whether you own them or not, so there’s not a massive advantage if you have a huge PS3 games collection.

Games

The best reason to buy a specific console is to play its exclusive games, and this is an area where the PS4 has arguably built up a slight edge.

The Xbox One has some fantastic racing games in the Forza series, Halo 5, Halo Wars 2, Gears of War 4, and time-stopping shooter Quantum Break. For more, check out our round-up of the Xbox One's best games.

The PS4 has a remastered version of the PS3’s brilliant post-apocalyptic epic The Last of Us, The Order: 1886, the gloomy RPG Bloodborne, space exploration game No Man’s Sky,Uncharted 4, the long-delayed The Last Guardian, and action-RPG NieR: Automata. For more, check out our round-up of the PS4's best games.

Those aside, some of the best games on either console have come from third parties, with Far Cry 4, Batman: Arkham Knight, Destiny, Dragon Age: Inquisition,The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, and an enhanced Grand Theft Auto V. Most of these games look or run slightly better on the PS4, but there’s not much in it.

Entertainment features

Microsoft originally sold the Xbox One as the ultimate all-in-one entertainment system, pushing how voice controls and integrated TV would put it right at the heart of the living room. It still has arguably the best set of entertainment features, with apps for all the major catch-up TV services bar ITV Player, plus all the major video streaming services, including Amazon Instant Video, YouTube Netflix, Blinkbox and Now TV.

The Xbox One also has a Blu-ray drive and playback app, and DLNA media streaming both through the console’s own Media Player and an app for Plex. Throw in Microsoft’s own music and video services and its TV features, and it’s the best console for those who want to do more with their console than play games.

The PS4 has been playing catch-up here, not even having YouTube to start with, but it now has apps for Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Now TV, plus iPlayer and Demand 5. There’s currently no DLNA client for the console, so it’s the less capable media player of the two. On the plus side, you can use Sony’s own Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited services, which are stronger than their Microsoft equivalents. 

SHOULD I BUY SONY PS4 SLIM?

There's not much between the two, but if we had to pick a winner, we'd give it to the PS4. Not only does it edge the Xbox One on sheer graphical horsepower, it also has virtual reality support, and a better library of current and upcoming exclusive titles. The Xbox One is a little cheaper, and boasts better entertainment features, but unless you're a serious Halo or Gears of War fan, right now the PS4 is a better bet.

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