What we expect to see in the new PlayStation 5
Between its formal announcement, various interviews and official blog posts, there's a lot of solid information out there about Sony's next-generation games console. From the hardware improvements under the hood to the performance boosts these will permit, let's dive into what we know – or very probably know – about the forthcoming machine, which we now know for sure is called the PlayStation 5.
Get the latest updates on the PS5 here.
Things we know
Ray tracing at last
Much of what we know about the next PlayStation originates from a Wired piece with Sony partner Mark Cerny, the system architect behind the PlayStation 4, and, it would seem, the PlayStation 5.
According to the story from April this year, the next-generation of consoles will be the first to support ray tracing thanks to the power afforded by the latest graphics processor, which, in the case of PS5, will be a custom version of AMD's Radeon Navi range.
Ray tracing accurately simulates the behavior of light in a given scene, bringing heightened graphical realism to an image. It's processor-intensive, historically taking vast amounts of time to perform. It's therefore more associated with film and TV special effects, where time is available in post-production for over-powered server farms to gradually render individual frames over hours or even days at a time.
This seems set to change with PlayStation 5's generation, which will bring ray tracing to the console space the way recent PC graphics cards like Nvidia's RTX series have brought it to PC gaming.
Interestingly, ray tracing may also improve sound, Cerny asserts, by tracking whether an enemy can hear the player's footsteps, for example.
What all this means in practice is hard to say. How prevalent ray tracing will be among games, the visual compromises needed to make it viable, and whether we'll see it running real-time at 60 frames per second, remain to be seen.
But, you can get a feel for what real-time ray tracing can bring to PC gaming in the Nvidia RTX demo below.
In the same piece, Wired reports that the PlayStation 5 will sport an 8-core central processing unit based on third-generation AMD Ryzen Zen 2 architecture.
But how important is the CPU for games? When choosing gaming hardware for a PC, conventional wisdom has it that you should spend your money on the graphics card while settling for a decent yet middle-of-the-road CPU.
But that's not to say the CPU isn't important. Often, it will be tasked with the stuff the graphics card isn't well-equipped to handle, a classic example being the AI of non-player characters and processes. A decent CPU is also essential in not proving a bottle-neck on that holiest of holy gaming grails: frame rate. And more and more, the latest games recommend high-end CPUs to run well.
Again, what games on PlayStation 5 will be like is yet to become clear, but there's the tantalizing prospect of larger, richer and more complex game worlds with more advanced artificial intelligence, and potentially increased frame rates at all resolutions.
The important thing here is that the CPU inside the next PlayStation can offer a true generational leap in performance over and above the AMD Jaguar technology seen in both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. But it's down to games developers to make it count.
8K support – with caveats
The same Wired article definitively states the PlayStation 5 will support 8K graphics, but here be dragons, or so common sense would suggest. While it's likely that Sony will future-proof its machine with support for 8K output, this may only apply to video formats, and potentially only years down the line when 8K streaming formats and sources become established.
It's nigh-on certain that even the next-gen consoles will lack the processing heft to throw around 8K graphics at an acceptable frame rate, even if it's theoretically possible for the PlayStation 5 to do so. After all, next-gen consoles aren't going to magically leapfrog the performance of the latest gaming PCs. If you're thinking of shelling out for an 8K display to get the most of your next-gen console games, think again.
Solid state of play
Though the graphical whistles and bells ushered in by each new hardware generation will inevitably steal the plaudits, there are other hardware improvements that, while perhaps less sexy than the visual side, arguably bring more meaningful quality-of-life improvements. Foremost among them are solid state drives (SSDs) and their ability to reduce load times.
In a demo to Wired, Cerny loads a scene from the excellent PS4 exclusive Spider-Man. The same scene is loaded on both a PS4 Pro and a development kit which, it's inferred, is representative of PlayStation 5 hardware. The new hardware boasts a load time of 0.8 seconds, compared to 15 seconds on the PS4 Pro.
It isn't just load times that are affected. In another example from Spider-Man, Cerny explains that the speed that the hero can web-sling through Manhattan is capped due to the limit on the speed at which the world data can be pulled from the drive. On the next-generation hardware, Wired describes the camera moving "like it's mounted to a fighter jet."
Load times are a very real (if distinctly first-world) problem on current-generation hardware. Anyone who's picked up a phone to poke at while enduring a prolonged loading screen will understand the potential of solid state technology to increase immersion in games.
As Cerny himself points out, currently-released solid state technology isn't anything like this fast, but he points out that Sony's next-gen solid state technology has more bandwidth than anything available for PCs. Yet again, the proof will be in the real-world application of PS5 hardware post launch.
Cerny was very keen to discuss sound, describing a generational leap that wasn't evident between the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. The term of choice is "3D audio," making sound seem as though it's coming from all directions, even from above. This apparently requires no additional hardware, working with your TV speakers (or presumably soundbar) or, for best effect, headphones. We're lacking meaningful details on how this actually works, other than that such improvements are possible when you have meaningful processing power to devote to sound.
Standby for efficiency
As reported in recent days, Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) has joined the Playing for the Planet Alliance and pledged to dramatically reduce the environmental impact of its future video game consoles.
The linchpin of these efforts is the console's energy consumption in standby mode, which Sony "estimates" can be reduced to 0.5 W – a staggering decrease from the 8.5 W standby consumption of older PlayStation 4 models.
"If just one million users enable this feature, it would save equivalent to the average electricity use of 1,000 US homes," SIE President Jim Ryan wrote in a blog post. That's an impressive statistic, but note the word "enable." It sounds as though this low-power standby mode won't be the default – perhaps because there will be some restriction in available features when it's selected.
Standby power consumption is just one environmental metric, of course. The power consumption when running and performing various tasks, not to mention the impact of manufacturing and distributing the console, will all influence PS5's environmental footprint – but this is a bold stride in the right direction.
Haptics all the boxes
Hot off the presses, we now know that the PlayStation 5 will ship with an upgraded controller designed to increase players' immersion in game worlds. Sony has announced that the rumble technology in the PlayStation 4's DualShock 4 controller will be replaced with new haptic feedback technology.
Sony explains that this offers much more variety in the possible sensations conveyed through the feel of the controller, so that "crashing into a wall in a race car feels much different than making a tackle on the football field." It also suggests that, presumably by way of haptic feedback on the analog sticks, that running through fields will be conveyed very differently to struggling through mud.
In a brand new piece with Wired, it's reported that this is achieved by way of voice-coil actuators in the grips on both sides of the controller. (The same story also confirms that controllers will be connected and charged via USB-C, which is a welcome change.)
Sony has also announced what it calls "adaptive triggers," which will allow the L2 and R2 analog triggers to feel different depending on the task being performed. Here Sony compares the different sensations of drawing a bow, or stepping on the gas pedal of an off-road vehicle traversing rocky terrain.
Whether the PlayStation 5 can put haptics on the map the way that rumble technology to date most assuredly hasn't remains to be seen. When was the last time you read a review that commented on the use of rumble feedback? Haptics will most certainly face scrutiny in the first wave of PlayStation 5 releases. The question is whether we'll still be talking about it in the years to come.
4K Blu-Ray included
In said Wired story (apparently Sony and/or Mark Cerny's favored publication for all things PlayStation at the moment), Sony reveals the PlayStation 5 will include an optical disc drive capable of playing 4K Blu-Rays. This will allow games to ship on 100-GB discs, though installation of games will be essential, so as to take advantage of the faster load times of the solid state drive.
A richer UI
In the same story, Sony reveals that the PlayStation 5 will feature a much-improved user interface designed not only to launch games, but show you individual activities that can be done within them. This could, Cerny explains, let you launch straight into a multiplayer match with friends, or a specific single-player mission with specific rewards.
How this will actually look is anyone's guess, but anything that gets players into their entertainment of choice (and faster) has to be an improvement – and evidence that Sony is continuing its gamer-centric approach to its platform design.
Coming holiday season 2020
We also now know the PlayStation 5 will land during the holiday season of 2020 – right alongside the next Xbox. A 2020 release always looked likely, with teething trouble with the ray tracing technology of the PlayStation 5's Navi graphics hardware having been thought to have prevented a release this year. We already knew that the next Xbox, which boasts very similar hardware to the PlayStation5, is confirmed for the 2020 holiday season, and it seemed unlikely Sony would allow Microsoft much of a head start if avoidable.
Things we don't know
The eagle-eyed among you will note our hero image above is actually from an old E3 tease of the PlayStation 4 ahead of its release. Will the PlayStation 5 resemble the current generation? Not if a Sony patent registered on August 13 is anything to go by, which you can see online, ably rendered by Lets Go Digital. It shows a machine seemingly optimized for thermal performance with vents aplenty. But this thing could well be the PlayStation 5 development kit. A tweet from one game developer seemed to confirm as much – until it was deleted, that is (likely at Sony's behest.)
We have no idea how much the PlayStation 5 will cost, though most commentators are convinced it won't be cheaper than the PlayStation 4's US$399 launch price. It's very possible it will cost considerably more.
So far, no games have been announced for the PlayStation 5. It seems likely that the final wave of big-ticket releases for PS4 will span the generational divide (with my money on Death Stranding and The Last of Us Part 2). It seems highly likely that PlayStation heavy-hitters like Spider-Man, Uncharted, God of War and Gran Turismo will see next-generation updates.
We also know that the PS5 will support the current PlayStation VR headset, and a newly-published Sony patent strongly suggests that an updated PlayStation VR headset is in the works. Once again spotted by the watchful folk at Lets Go Digital, the patent suggests the next headset will include Bluetooth and could therefore untether itself from the PlayStation (if not from a power socket). There are also additional cameras which could allow Augmented Reality experiences by giving the user a view of what's in front of them, with computer graphics superimposed.
But as for either concrete announcements or new original IP to appear on PlayStation 5 – so far everyone's in the dark. And as with the current generation, exclusive games may be the decisive factor in the battle against the next-gen Xbox. Because based on what we know so far, from the CPU to the GPU, and the solid state storage, the next PlayStation and Xbox have very little else to separate them.