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Sony PS5 vs. Microsoft Xbox Series X: The best new game console for holiday 2020

The reviews are in, even if the consoles are hard to find in stock.

Two of the major living-room game console companies, Sony and Microsoft, are fighting over whatever holiday shopping dollars you have -- or at least those that aren't already earmarked for a Nintendo Switch. The  highly anticipated PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X have shipped, though it seems like they'll remain in short supply well into 2021; check often for PS5 and Xbox restock info. Microsoft also tossed a wildcard into the mix, the $300  (£250, AU$499) Xbox Series S, which is a scaled-back version of the Series X intended for 1440p gameplay rather than 4K.

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The PS5 has been routinely selling out despite the $500 (£450, AU$750) and $400 (£360, AU$600) price tags, the latter without an optical drive and probably the better choice of the two models. Despite Microsoft's attempts to the contrary, the $500 (£450, AU$749) Xbox Series X and the Series S both faced shortages almost immediately after their preorders began. 

Read our reviews of the Xbox Series X and PS5.  

But if you can't manage to get in an order for one, don't let the FOMO get you down -- or don't even try.

This next chapter of the console wars seems especially important. Not because 8K-resolution video or ray-traced audio for more natural sound will be must-have features, but because the gaming landscape is more complicated and fragmented since the last generation of boxes came out.   

In addition to competing with PCs, consoles now face challenges from new hardware-free cloud gaming services such as Google Stadia, Amazon Luna and Nvidia GeForce Now, as well as Microsoft's own still-in-beta Project xCloud, which has been subsumed by Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. To a lesser extent, they also compete for your time with mobile game-subscription services such as Apple Arcade.  And Sony and Microsoft are playing the game differently this time, as well.

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Neither of the new console designs was greeted sans mockery, which is funny given that they're polar opposites: the PS5 is predominantly white, slender and curvy (which Sony's PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan calls "bold, daring and future-facing"), and the Xbox Series X is a boxy black tower.      

Both platforms have 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. 

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Toss in backward compatibility with older games (which gain a lift from the faster hardware and technologies like Microsoft's HDR reconstruction for the Xboxes), and all of this adds up to the PS5 and Xbox Series X promising noticeably better visual quality, faster frame rates and generally speedier operation than before.    

Sarah Tew/CNET

Aside from its striking design, the most novelty seems to be in the new DualSense controller. Sony has replaced rumble with more sensation-specific haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, which may deliver a much better gaming experience as long as developers opt to support them. Plus, it's got new speakers and mics for chat and a USB-C connection. The PS5 jumped to solid-state storage, too, making it a better match for large game downloads. 

While many of its new and upcoming titles overlap with the Xbox's, it does have quite a few exclusives, including Gran Turismo 7, Horizon Forbidden West (the sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn), Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, plus timed exclusives for a good number of new titles. 

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, Sony will need to validate it, and we won't know until some time after launch what you can use or how much it will cost.

At $400, the digital-only model does offer a slightly lower price than both the $500 PS5 and the Xbox Series X if you want the full 4K experience, but the Series S' $300 tag looks awfully attractive if your primary wish is to save money.

Read our PS5 review

Read our ongoing coverage of the PS5.

 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Xbox Series X looks like a bookshelf speaker rather than the DVD-player-esque Xbox One line. Microsoft 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. There's frequently a price premium of about $10 if you want something to run on both, though.

Read our Xbox Series X review.

 

As always, however, the games drive much of the real interest, especially those that will be available at launch. And price is key, too, not just for the boxes but for the games, potential bundles and ancillary add-ons; for instance, the Seagate 1TB SSD storage add-on uses a proprietary design, which makes it more expensive than we'd like at $220.   

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Games

 Titles slated to launch within a month of the two Xbox consoles include:

There are more than a few PlayStation "exclusives" -- limited windows in which they won't be on Xbox, Nintendo Switch or PC that is -- though a handful will only be on the PS5. Those expected out by end of 2020 are in bold:

A few will be PlayStation -- i.e., PS4 and PS5 -- exclusives:

Note that these aren't comprehensive lists and there's overlap between the two platforms for big titles and franchises.

Read more8 great driving games for Xbox

Confirmed specifications


PlayStation 5 Xbox Series X
Processor 8-core AMD Ryzen Zen 2-architecture CPU at up to 3.5GHz 8-core AMD Ryzen Zen 2-architecture CPU at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT)
Graphics AMD Navi/RDNA 2-family GPU with 36 CU up to 2.23 GHz (10.3 TFLOPS, FP unit unknown) AMD Navi/RDNA 2-family GPU with 52 CU at 1.825GHz (12TFLOPS FP32)
Video memory 16GB GDDR6 with 256-bit interface (448GB/sec) 16GB GDDR6 with 14Gbps 320-bit interface (10GB at 560GB/s allocated to GPU, 6GB at 336GB/s allocated to rest of system with 3.5GB for GPU)
Storage 825GB SSD at 5.5-9GB/sec; NVMe SSD slot; support for USB HDD 1TB NVMe SSD PCIe 4.0; proprietary 1TB SSD add-on module; USB 3.2 external HDD support
Optical drive Yes, 4K Blu-ray Yes, 4K Blu-ray
Maximum output resolution 8K 60fps; 4K 120fps 8K 60fps; 4K 120fps
Audio 3D, accelerated by custom Tempest Engine hardware; for headphones only at launch, supplemented by virtual surround for speaker audio Ray traced
New controller features Haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, USB-C connector Share button, Dynamic Latency Input
VR support Yes, compatible with PSVR headset unknown
Console streaming Yes (Remote Play) Yes (Console Streaming)
Backward compatibility PS4 games, some peripherals Xbox One and supported Xbox 360 and Xbox games
Subscription tie-in PS Now Xbox Game Pass, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate
Dimensions 15.4 x 4.1 (3.6) x 10.2 in/390 x 104 (92) x 260 mm 5.9 x 5.9 x 11.9 in/151 x 151 x 301 mm
Price With optical drive: $500, £450, AU$750; without optical drive: $400, £360, AU$600 $500, £450, AU$749