PS5 vs. Xbox Series X: How do they hold up one year later?
These premium game consoles, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, are still evolving -- and hard to find.
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
It's been one year since the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X went on sale (Nov. 12 and Nov. 10, respectively). I went back to my original Day One reviews of the PS5 and Series X to see how those initial impressions have held up over the past 12 months.
What I found was that some things have changed, as one would expect from an always-online platform built around downloadable content. On the Xbox side, the entire platform is now much more centered around the Xbox Game Pass service, which has since added features like cloud gaming.
One of the PS5's changes this past year was a hardware revamp that shifted internal components around, subbing in a smaller heat sink and redesigned fans -- perhaps to make manufacturing easier or less costly.
But one thing that definitely hasn't changed is that both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X remain almost impossible to find. The same is also true for the less expensive Xbox Series S variant.
Demand outstripping supply is to be expected when a new game console arrives, and I've seen it happen with every console launch I've covered, going all the way back to the Sega Dreamcast. But that overwhelming demand, plus pandemic-fueled supply chain and shipping issues and a worldwide chip shortage affecting all types of technology, has led to a perfect storm of sold out consoles.
Even one year later, restocks at online stores are gone in fractions of a second, and some people have made a career out of tracking down where to find one. Most of the attention goes towards the shortage of PS5 consoles, but the situation is similar for the Xbox Series X and Series S, as well as the new OLED version of the Nintendo Switch.
Both consoles have also attempted to address internal storage issues. With 1TB of space in the Xbox Series X and about 800GB in the PS5, gamers could very quickly hit those limits, with many games taking around 50GB of your console's space and some coming in at 80GB or higher. Each console tackled this problem in a different way, and neither solution is perfect.
The Xbox Series X and Series S allow non-Series X games (from the Xbox One and Xbox 360, and so on) to be played from a standard external solid-state drive hooked up via USB-A. Modern Series X games could be stored on the external drive, but you'd have to transfer them back to the internal drive for play.
Why make something universal when you can make it proprietary? Microsoft also created a custom plug-in storage drive that fits into a special port on the back of the system. Technically it's an external drive, but it behaves like an internal one, and you can both store and play any Series X game on it. So far Seagate is the only company making these drives, and the first version was a $219 1TB drive. If that feels expensive, that's what happens when you have a proprietary device with no competition.
The PlayStation 5, on the other hand, has made big game storage moves this year, even though it's still not as easy as it should be to get additional space. After a few software updates, you can now play PS4 games from (just about) any external SSD connected via USB-C, and you can also store PS5 games on the same drive. But like the Xbox, those newer games can only park there; you have to transfer them back to the internal drive to play.
The much bigger move was when Sony unlocked, again via software update, an empty internal M.2 storage drive slot inside the console. That meant you could install an appropriate drive and both store and play PS5 games from it. The good news is that no one company has a lock on M.2 drives. The bad news is that the compatibility rules are a bit tight, requiring your drive to be a certain physical size and also include a hefty heat sink. Those drives have been hard to find, but once you install one, it's smooth sailing.
At the end of Year One, both game consoles have retreated a little further into their respective corners, and they feel less similar than they did at this time in 2020.
The Xbox Series X and Series S have leaned heavily into the $15 monthly Game Pass Ultimate service, which threatens to be a bigger brand than the Xbox console itself some day. Many of the biggest Xbox games like Halo, Forza or Sea of Thieves are all included in the subscription, along with a growing and rotating library of PC games -- and the ability to play cloud-based versions of some games on nearly any device. It also includes a cross-membership for the EA Play subscription service and a back catalog of great Bethesda games.
I really think Game Pass Ultimate offers one of the best values in gaming right now even if you don't own an Xbox Series X. It makes the less-expensive Series S much more full-featured and adds a big catalog to older Xboxes too. Microsoft also continues to expand its FPS Boost program, which brings higher frame rates to older games, especially on the Series S. Streaming media and social sharing remain a much bigger part of the Xbox mix than in the PS5. It frankly feels like an obelisk-shaped gaming PC: It can play games, but it can also do a lot more.
The PlayStation 5, on the other hand, has two subscription service options -- PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now -- that feel anemic in comparison to Game Pass Ultimate. But the PS5 has an enviable library of exclusive games, including many gamers have been raving about for the past year like Deathloop, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, Returnal and more. And no, Sony is not putting all of these A-list games in some all-you-can-eat subscription service, so be prepared to shell out for each one.
And while these still-new consoles will most likely continue to improve and evolve through software updates, they can't easily escape the one handicap of all living room consoles -- being built on a fixed hardware platform. The custom AMD chips inside can't compete with high-end Nvidia and AMD parts for gaming PCs. That's fair, because these are $500 consoles, not $2,500 Alienware or Razer laptops, but it also means the PS5 and Xbox Series X started aging the day they hit stores. Even at launch, they couldn't reliably play new games at 4K resolutions at 60 frames per second, and gamers usually have choose one spec or the other from a menu for "performance" or "quality" modes.
The 20-year view
The original Xbox console debuted in the US 20 years ago this month. Its contemporary rival, the PS2, had arrived a year earlier. Back then, it was easy to see the Xbox as Microsoft's attempt to sneak a computer into your living room under the guise of a game machine. The PlayStation 2 was more of a game-centric gadget. For example, the Xbox shipped with a broadband connection built in, while for the PS2, the broadband connection came in the form of an add-on module you had to buy separately and slot into the back of the console.
Two decades later, and 12 months after their latest iterations, the landscape frankly feels pretty much the same. Despite any changes, the Xbox Series X is still an all-around entertainment box built around massive amounts of subscription content, and the PS5 continues to focus on big exclusive games, with only a nod towards anything else.