Sony PS5 vs. Microsoft Xbox Series X: Best high-end game console for 2021
Almost a year after launch, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are still evolving -- and both are still playing hard to get. Here's how they stack up.
Lori GruninSenior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
ExpertisePhotography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
"Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
ExpertiseI've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever.Credentials
Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
That's of little comfort to the scores of gamers who still can't find one of these consoles in stock. While shortages were to be expected during the initial launch, both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are still hard to get, and that shortage is expected to continue through the holiday 2021 season. The key is to stay abreast of restock alerts, so keep an eye on our PS5 restock tracker or Xbox Series X restock tracker -- or see if you can snag an equally hard to get Halo Infinite Xbox Series X.
This chapter of the console wars is especially important. Not because 4K-and-beyond-resolution video or ray-traced audio for more natural sound are must-have features, but because the gaming landscape is more complicated and fragmented since the previous generation of boxes came out.
Watch this: Install an M.2 SSD in your PS5 with a heatsink upgrade
Both platforms made a big leap in power over their predecessors. They're based around roughly similar AMD Zen 2-architecture processors plus AMD Radeon Navi-generation graphics processors with 16GB of memory. They both support ray-tracing, decompression acceleration, whizzy new proprietary SSD implementations and a whole lot more.
Aside from its striking design, the first thing that stands out with the PS5 is the new DualSense controller. Sony has replaced rumble with more sensation-specific haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, which delivers a much better gaming experience, as long as developers opt to support them. Plus, it's got new speakers and mics for chat as well as a USB-C connection. The PS5 jumped to solid-state storage, too, making it a better match for large game downloads.
On the downside, the PS5 has a relatively small 825GB solid-state drive. Its NVMe SSD expansion slot is standard-ish, but because it needs to meet specific space, thermal and power requirements, only some M.2 drives will fit, and a built-in heatsink is required. The good news is that you can retrofit some M.2 drives with a heatsink, and all the major SSD manufacturers offer a compatible model.
Microsoft also made controller enhancements, which are more about reducing latency (with its Dynamic Latency Input tech) than tweaking feel and feedback like Sony. Another new, attractive feature is Smart Delivery, which precludes you from having to pay to play a game on the Xbox One if you've already ponied up for a Series X version, and it will automatically serve up the right version for your box.
Beyond the hardware, the Xbox Series X is built around a subscription software model.
Sure, you can give the company $500 for the console itself, but what it really wants is your $15 (£11, AU$16) a month in perpetuity for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. (Skip the cheaper non-Ultimate plan, because then you'll still need a separate Xbox Live subscription.) It includes a Netflix-like catalog of on-demand games, plus online multiplayer, access to some cloud-based games and a decent catalog of PC games as well, including some day one releases. Frankly, it's the single most compelling thing about the platform, and also a key step toward a much more subscription-heavy future for gamers.