I’ve always been a little hard on Sony. For five years I’ve been bemoaning the decisions they made with the PlayStation 3, including but not limited to the price-inflating integration of Blu-Ray into a system that was too far ahead of its time for its own good; when the PlayStation 3 came out in 2006, it was priced at $599 for the 60 GB model while competing against the year-old Xbox 360 Premium, which offered only 20 GB of storage but sold for $200 less than the PlayStation. The cost and lead-time disparities ensured that Microsoft enjoyed a larger North American market share than they’d had with the original Xbox, which (compared to the PlayStation 2) sold like lemongrass-arugula-tofu burgers at Sturgis.
I’ve always been inclined to root for the underdog. Maybe most people are the same, I don’t know, but I like to watch something that sucks become something that doesn’t suck. I like to see improvement lead to success, and I like to see success maintained through merit, as opposed to draconian end-user licensing policies and back-room exclusivity deals. Now that more information about each console has been released at this year’s Esoterically Eclectic Excellent Exhausting Elephantine Entertainment Electronics Exposition Extravaganza — E3² — including full hardware specs, price, and a few launch titles, it’s time to prognosticate a winner for the eighth generation of game systems. On each of the previous two occasions that these companies launched a system, they’ve done so either ahead of or behind the other, but this will be the first time that they’ve left the gate together. To extend the racing metaphor even further, one of these horses is faster, but the other has a better jockey.
The PlayStation 4 is using GDDR5 system memory, which is faster than the GDDR3 found in the Xbox One, but the Xbox One uses 32 MB of SRAM, which can offset the slower memory by reducing GPU memory bandwidth requests if the SRAM is managed as a cache. In this case the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One would have similar memory bandwidths, but at the cost of a more complex development process for the Xbox; will this be enough to make an effective difference in the games that you play? Probably not. Keep in mind that GDDR3 is less expensive than GDDR5, which might favorably influence Microsoft’s price policy a few years down the road, but Sony is committed to using pricier GDDR5 for the life of the PlayStation 4. (Please allow me to clarify a previous statement; when I say “better jockey,” I don’t mean “more skilled.” I don’t even mean “talented.” I don’t mean “ethical.” What I mean is that Sony’s horse is faster, but Microsoft’s jockey is willing to drive an animal — and you — half to death in order to move it across the finish line before anyone else. So by “better jockey” I guess what I really mean is “maniacal vertically challenged demon horse-hater with a spike-studded crop and an wicked laugh.”)
The PlayStation 4’s GPU is also faster, boasting 33% more peak theoretical shader throughput than the Xbox One’s GPU. What does this mean, in practical terms? Not much when it comes to cross-platform titles, but it might give PlayStation-exclusive studios like Naughty Dog and Insomniac an edge in making their games look richer when compared to those developed by Xbox-exclusive developers. Also, the fact that the PlayStation 4 is (in some areas) significantly more powerful than the Xbox One will not hurt its perception of value to on-the-fence adopters.
Another thing that won’t hurt the PlayStation 4’s perceived value is the fact that it is a better value right out of the box; at $399 it’s $100 cheaper than the Xbox One. The Xbox One does come with the required Kinect sensor, so some would argue that the difference is made up right there, but let me phrase this another way; Sony is not requiring the use of a camera peripheral that must be plugged into the PlayStation 4 at all times, thereby mitigating the possibility of pictures of your crotch appearing in some formerly super-secret NSA database, and in the process they save you $100. And it’s got faster RAM. To me, that’s a better value.
When it comes to lending games to friends and family members, the PlayStation 4 comes out ahead once more. (Watch this video for a series of comprehensive instructions on the process.) With Microsoft’s new policies regarding game trading, lending, and renting, coupled with the higher price of the Xbox One, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the PlayStation 4 become the must-have holiday item for 2013. If it receives a price drop, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wii U pick up some much-needed steam in terms of system sales towards the end of the year. (I’m pulling for you, Wii U! Suicide is never the answer, little trooper!)
As far as the always-on broadband connection goes, the PlayStation 4 wins again; if you don’t mind the notion that your Xbox One must connect to the internet every 24 hours in order to play games offline, then this won’t be a problem for you. But if you resent the assurance from Microsoft that this is okay because “every Xbox One owner has a broadband connection,” and if you find it unappetizing to mix in a liberal helping of tautology with your steaming rationalizations, the Xbox One probably isn’t the machine for you. Sony has stated that there will be no restrictions placed on trading, selling, lending, reselling games, and that there will be no daily online verification system for games to be played offline.
SCE seems to be enjoying a favorable spotlight for the first time since the last century, when their stock peaked at $150 and the PlayStation 2 was the machine in everyone’s targeting reticle. While the system specs for both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are similar, the perception of their differences, along with the restrictions Microsoft has placed on the way that you use their system, has put Sony in a very good position for the start of the next generation. Personally, I have no interest whatsoever in a system that dictates to me how I’m going to use it, when it has to be online, which useless (to me) peripherals must be connected at all times, what I can’t do with its games, all while using its interface to repeatedly remind me that I’m not spending enough money on its products. I don’t think I’m alone here.
While Microsoft is busy trying to forcibly change the user experience across all their platforms, Sony seems content to get out of the way and let the PlayStation 4 be primarily about gaming. Only time will tell, of course, but it’s been a while since I’ve been sanguine about any Sony product; with all things considered, but mostly regarding price and policy, for this coming generation my money’s on the fast horse to win by a length.