Breaking down the tech mentioned in today’s announcement.
There’s a lot to digest, and while we don’t have exact benchmarks for the hardware, there are a few things we can glean about this upcoming beast.
What AMD’s New Chip Means for Graphics and Audio
Mark Cerny, lead system architect of the upcoming console, says this is not another refresh of the PlayStation 4—it is a whole new console. This box has entirely new hardware inside, with an eight-core CPU based on the third generation of AMD’s venerable Ryzen line, and a custom GPU based on AMD’s next-gen Navi family. He didn’t technically state whether the CPU and GPU were separate chips, or whether it was more akin to the APUs, which integrate the graphics cores with the CPU on a single chip. Considering that’s the route Sony took with the PS4, I wouldn’t be surprised if they went with a single-chip design this time around too.
These new architectures are exciting, though, and while neither is available on the PC side of things yet, Anandtech estimates the current Zen 1 chips are three to four times faster than the comparable Jaguar CPU used in the PS4s, which means the upcoming Zen 2 chips in the so-called PS5 will be even faster. That’s a big jump in computational performance.
we still don’t know what framerate Sony is targeting for these games, which will certainly have an effect on how much graphical fidelity they can push.”
The GPU is shrouded in more mystery, though, since we still know very little about the 7nm Navi architecture that will supersede AMD’s current Vega chips. We do know, however, that Cerny claims the console will support resolutions up to 8K along with ray tracing—the graphical rendering technique that traces rays of light back to their origin to provide more realistic reflections, shadows, and lighting effects. You can read more about how ray tracing works here, but to put it bluntly, it’s a very cool but very demanding visual effect.
It’s honestly a little shocking to hear about these features in a console graphics chip, given the serious horsepower required to drive both of these technologies. It’s likely, then, that one or both will come with some compromises. When we tested NVIDIA’s GTX 2080 Ti, we found that it can run Battlefield 5 in 4K just above 60 frames per second, with low graphics settings and ray tracing turned on—and that’s a $1,200 graphics card. Quadrupling the number of pixels to 8K resolution would take a big performance hit, and unless this is going to be a very expensive console, it’s likely that 8K resolution may be partially upscaled, like 4K on the PS4 Pro.
Ray tracing could be similarly toned down: even current PC implementations of the technology use a hybrid approach that combines ray tracing, rasterization, and de-noising to “cheat” a little bit, so it can render those reflections in real time. I wouldn’t be surprised if the PlayStation 5’s ray tracing leaned even more on the computation-light processes in that hybrid approach (especially since we don’t know if the custom Navi-based GPU will even have specialized cores dedicated to ray tracing, like NVIDIA’s current GPUs do). That would allow a lower-powered chip to get some of ray tracing’s benefits without destroying performance. Of course, with a console so far off, though, this is all mere speculation—and we still don’t know what framerate Sony is targeting for these games, which will certainly have an effect on how much graphical fidelity they can push.
Cerny also says that the AMD chip will have a custom unit for the improving console’s application of 3D audio, though he doesn’t give much information apart from vague notions of greater immersion and “presence.” Some are speculating that they’re using ray tracing-esque tech to trace the path of audio reflections and better localize certain sounds. Or perhaps it could build off of Dolby’s existing Atmos technology, which places sounds in a 3D field and assigns them to speakers in your specific surround sound setup, rather than merely applying certain sound effects to dedicated channels. Cerny only said that it will apply to TV speakers and surround sound, though headphones will really be where this new 3D audio shines. Virtual surround audio in gaming headsets is currently a bit polarizing—some people love it and some people find it a useless gimmick—so we’ll see how revolutionary this really is once we get our hands on it.
An SSD Brings Faster Load Times (and More)
Despite the rise of solid-state storage in PCs over the past decade, current-gen consoles—including the PS4 and PS4 Pro—still use slower mechanical hard drives to store your games. This keeps costs low and gives you more space for all your favorite titles, but it also means longer loading times. Sony’s upcoming console changes that by including a solid-state drive, or SSD, which—instead of using spinning platters—stores data on microchips, leading to much faster read and write speeds. If you’ve ever gamed on a PC and moved from a spinning hard drive to an SSD, you know how big a difference it can make (I barely even get a chance to read the loading screen “tips” in some PC games because the scenes load so fast—talk about first world problems, right?).
While you can currently upgrade your PS4 Pro with an SSD, Cerny claims that their next-gen console will contain something a bit more specialized—which, on their current devkits, can take Spider-Man’s fast-travel time from 15 seconds down to less than one. It’ll also allow developers to create faster in-game movement, since the console can read data faster than the current PS4 Pro.
So, while we don’t know exactly what type of SSD they’ll be using, his claims do give us a bit of insight—it’s extremely possible this could be an NVMe SSD that uses PCIe lanes for data transfer instead of the traditional, slower SATA interface. Furthermore, Cerny claims its bandwidth outdoes anything you can get on a consumer PC right now, which could be a nod to the upcoming PCIe 4.0 standard. Still, that would increase the cost significantly, so I wonder whether this will be a true SSD or a hybrid approach like we’ve seen in some other devices—or if Sony is just banking on SSD prices continuing to plummet before this new console is released.
What Would a PS5-Esque PC Look Like in 2019?
Cerny says this new console won’t be out in 2019, so don’t hold your breath just yet—your PlayStation 4 Pro will still be relevant for a while. But this small taste of the new console certainly has us salivating, and wondering: what would a PC with these features look like if you wanted to build one today?
As with all PC-to-console comparisons, that’s hard to answer, since Sony is likely getting some custom hardware from AMD—and the architectures they’re using in the chip aren’t available to PC builders just yet. But if you had a boatload of money to spend, you could certainly put together a system with an eight-core AMD Ryzen CPU, a 500GB NVMe SSD, and NVIDIA’s venerable RTX 2080 Ti—plus a decent motherboard, case, power supply, and 16GB of RAM—for a bit over $2000. Most of that cost is going toward the graphics card, to be honest, but if you want ray tracing at the highest resolutions possible, that’s what’s currently on offer. 8K might be a stretch (unless you can fit two 2080 Tis into your budget), but with something like Samsung’s 8K Q900, you could easily shoot for a resolution in between 4K and 8K and let your TV upscale to split the difference. I wouldn’t necessarily expect 60 frames per second, though, especially in games with higher-end graphics.
Sure, $2000+ is a heck of a lot more than the new PlayStation console will probably cost when it comes out in the next year or two, but let’s be honest: this imaginary PC of ours is also likely to be significantly more powerful than the PlayStation 5. Consoles often cut corners here and there to hit a more affordable price point, and while the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro still look pretty great, a PC will always be able to push the envelope further if you throw enough money at it. We won’t know how apparent those cut corners will be until we see the PlayStation 5 in the flesh, but the hardware nerd in me is awfully curious.
Whitson Gordon is a writer, gamer, and tech nerd who has been building PCs for ten years. He eats potato chips with chopsticks so he doesn’t get grease on his mechanical keyboard.