Whenever a New console launches, PC gamers like me are quick to remind the gaming community that our platform of choice offers more power and versatility than even the newest and brightest console. It’s still true this time around, but things seem a little … different.
In fact, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are more powerful than the two mid-range gaming PCs in my office, which would have been unheard of in the days of the PS4 and Xbox One. While the PC still has a big head start in terms of performance interval– that is, you can spend more to get more – the latest consoles are more PC-like than ever and narrow the performance gap more than their ancestors.
When Sony announced the PlayStation 4, hardware experts knew it was going to be underpowered. AnandTech noted that console makers didn’t take processor performance seriously enough, and that the GPU was equivalent to a Radeon HD 7850 or 7870 – then $ 140 and $ 170 graphics cards. That’s lower than a mid-range price tag, meaning you can build a PC that would beat the pants of the PS4 and Xbox One at a pretty affordable price – indeed, many games had lower rates, gradient graphics, or both compared to half-decent PCs at the time. (This wasn’t true across the board – some notorious PC ports had their own issues – but it’s clear that even a mid-range PC would give you more raw power to play.)
This was in part due to Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), the semiconductor company that designed the processors and graphics chips for Sony and Microsoft consoles over the past two generations. “When the next-gen consoles were launched, AMD was in bad shape,” says Brad Chacos, editor of games and graphics at PC World. “They were still running their old Bulldozer architecture, which was a big gamble that didn’t pay them off.”
This failure led them to play second fiddle to Intel for years in the PC space, and the Jaguar processors inside the PS4 and Xbox One were toned down, fuel-efficient versions of this already weak product. So while the developers were able to optimize games for this hardware, it still couldn’t hold a candle on a well-built PC.
This year, as Chacos puts it, AMD is “pulling all cylinders,” with its latest Ryzen 5000 processors beating Intel for the first time in a decade and a half. And since these chips also reside in the PS5 and Xbox Series X – as opposed to the older, almost tablet-like Jaguar processors of the last generation consoles – they can come much closer to the performance you’ll find in a good gaming PC.
However, it’s not just processors and graphics chips. SSDs, or SSDs, have finally arrived on consoles, delivering the fast load times we’ve enjoyed on PCs for years. SSDs also allow faster patch downloads and faster commutes, which are real quality of life improvements that made previous consoles feel old and sluggish on release. Put it all together, and the latest consoles are a lot like gaming PCs in terms of graphics prowess.
To be fair, this year’s consoles are also a bit more expensive than their predecessors – $ 500 for the top-tier PS5 and Xbox Series X compared to the $ 400 PS4 and Xbox One (post-Kinect withdrawal). That higher price tag gives manufacturers some wiggle room to include more powerful hardware – but Chacos notes that these consoles are still ‘stellar values’, especially since PC hardware was outrageously tagged in 2020 (thanks, Covid-19). $ 500 may be more expensive than the last gen, but that’s an irresistible price for the graphics fidelity you get, and the digital PS4 hits that old $ 400 price tag with the same performance as the $ 500 version. (Although I would argue that Sony offers this lower price in the hope that you will pay more for digital games long-term.)