PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hardware comparisons: More meaningless than ever

Sony's PlayStation 4 console will need a healthy portion of its 8GB of memory simply to run the console's OS. That's inspired a new torrent of Xbox One and PS4 comparisons. But here's why they don't make sense.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
5 min read
Here, Guerilla Games' profiling tool for the development of Killzone: Shadowfall displays the PS4's use of six out of the eight AMD cores, meaning a maximum of roughly two thirds of the console's memory is available for use.

The news this morning from Digital Foundry that Sony's PlayStation 4 will allegedly require a hefty chunk of its memory to run the console's OS -- 3.5GB of its celebrated 8GB total -- has a few scratching their heads and many a fanboy rushing to the front lines. But we shouldn't be wasting our breath on hardware comparisons that miss the point.

The argument goes that so much memory-hogging kills the soaring ambitions Sony had set out for developers. Sony surprised the gaming community in February when it unveiled the console and showcased its jump from the rumored 4GB to a full 8GB of RAM. But now the concern is that developers won't be able to tap the full potential of the new console's extra muscle.

The news also follows some of the most vicious console-war back-and-forths in gaming history. In April, Microsoft revealed that its Xbox One would also have 8GB of RAM -- openly disclosing that the console's OS would demand three of those gigabytes. But at E3 in May, Microsoft was forced to confirm its widely unpopular policy of requiring Xbox One users to be constantly connected to the Internet, moving attention away from comparisons over specs. Anticipating Microsoft's position on user restrictions, Sony made a point of presenting its PS4 as the less draconian console -- and got an enthusiastic rise from the crowd as a result. Microsoft made a very public reversal the following month, and the debacle seemed to have left the PS4 with a clear lead.

Also, because Sony had initially been unclear about the memory requirements of its console's OS, some fans were left thinking the PS4 was potentially more powerful. Leaked documents had suggested that the 4GB version of the PS4 would require only about a half a gigabyte to run the OS, so some people assumed that the 8GB version might require only roughly a gigabyte -- giving the PS4 an edge over the Xbox One when it came to how smoothly the same games would run on both platforms.

Now, however, with this new memory revelation (if it turns out to be true), Sony fanboys are left feeling like they were played a fool for defending the PS4's graphical advantage and for collectively attacking Microsoft and its Xbox One missteps.

Why the RAM revelation doesn't change anything
But the truth is that Sony's RAM requirements should come as no surprise. They're only slightly more demanding than those of Microsoft's Xbox One. The fact that these consoles are doing a heck of a lot more than just running games -- for instance, constantly storing gameplay footage; integrating activity into social networks and streaming services; recording your physical movements at all times -- inherently means they'll need more RAM to keep chugging along. If you wanted to play games on a less memory-intensive OS, you'd be a PC gamer.

That Sony wouldn't open up about this sooner may have to do with its strategy of keeping the conversation centered less on specs and more on strategy, specifically its corporate pro-gamer mindset and how much more consumer-friendly Sony's PS4 approach was when compared with Microsoft's restrictive disaster. But after all, Sony's closed-mouth strategy is smart marketing, and it shouldn't change your sympathies toward the PS4 if that's the console you've picked. This next-gen is ultimately about the overall gaming experience, with emphasis on platform exclusives; ease and functionality of online play; and the treatment of the blossoming indie game community.

Yes, of course there are still things to wage wars about. Sony is saying it will allow developers to use 1GB of flexible memory, which is an ambiguous consolation considering it's completely unclear how much of that can be split up between games and the console OS at any given moment for any given game.

Nevertheless, for those counting, it means game developers for the PS4 can potentially use up to 5.5GB of memory, while the Xbox One clocks in at 5GB. Does the difference matter? To gamers it shouldn't.

To those who may actually be making these massive, memory-intensive titles, it sure could mean the difference between having -- or not having -- a highly desired feature integrate seamlessly into a game environment. But for the average gamer -- who won't truly have any clue whether Tom Clancy's The Division for PS4 is utilizing that flexible gigabyte to make it incrementally smoother in certain parts than its Xbox counterpart -- this memory race is meaningless.

The true next-gen differentiators
What truly matters is how much more powerful than their predecessors these consoles are. Think about it. Even 4.5GB of memory dedicated to a single PS4 game is nearly nine times more than the PS3, with its RAM maxed out at 512MB, was capable of allocating. That's an incredibly meaningful leap, and one that should be no less influential to the next-gen gaming experience simply because it differs slightly from the competitor's nearly identically powerful black box.

Furthermore, it's simply time we resign ourselves to the realization that these consoles, from a hardware perspective, are almost completely in step. Of course, there are still very minute details that need to come to light before we can truly judge whether the PS4 is more technologically capable than the Xbox One, especially from a development standpoint, which will affect what games stay on certain platforms and which titles can truly live up to their potential.

But for all intents and purposes, these two consoles are now clearly approaching a similarity level that makes a vast majority of nitpicking arguments irrelevant outside the core issues, which should still reside in restrictions, privacy, and the obvious-but-not-often-emphasized matter of what games you will actually be playing.

So if graphics and memory usage are true selling points for you, then I'll say it again: This next-gen console war may not be the place to be hoisting up those priorities. Things like difference of memory usage and other hardware issues should by now be arguments solely for the PC market. And while the consoles now operate with innards that are very similar to those of top-shelf towers, the worth of these gaming gadgets no longer revolves around pointless spec details.