Sony (SONY 1.37%) and Microsoft (MSFT 1.78%) recently unveiled additional details about the technology powering the new generation of consoles launching later this year. Despite rumors that the COVID-19 outbreak might delay the release of the new devices, neither company has updated the previously announced timeline as of this writing. The current expectation is that the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will be available in time for the holidays. 

These two tech giants have battled each other for years for console supremacy, but Sony's PlayStation has always managed to outsell Xbox. The PS4 has outsold the Xbox One two to one, but the PS4 hasn't managed to match its all-time best seller, the PS2, which launched in 2000 and sold over 155 million units. 

So who is best positioned to win this next round? Here's what to expect from the new video game consoles.

A group of men and women and a young girl sitting on the floor playing video games.

Image source: Getty Images.

Plenty of power and speed

What's interesting this time around is that neither Sony nor Microsoft are trying to sell their respective system's horsepower, instead focusing on user-friendliness to gamers and developers. On paper, Xbox Series X is slightly more powerful. The major difference is that the new Xbox has a central processing unit (CPU) that runs at a faster clock speed of 3.8Ghz and has more computing units. Plus, it features a graphics processing unit (GPU) that runs at 12 teraflops versus 10.3 teraflops for the PS5. 

But both consoles include the same technology from Advanced Micro Devices. The PS5 and Xbox Series X are powered by AMD's latest Zen 2 CPUs, and both systems will feature a custom GPU based on AMD's new 7-nanometer chip known as Navi 2x or RDNA 2. The RDNA 2 GPUs will allow both consoles to run games with ray tracing to enable more realistic lighting and shadow effects.

Tech Specs PlayStation 5 Xbox Series X
CPU 8-core AMD Ryzen Zen 2, at 3.5 GHz (variable frequency) 8-core AMD Ryzen Zen 2, up to 3.8GHz
GPU Custom 7nm AMD Radeon RDNA 2, at 2.23 GHz, 10.3 TFLOPS Custom 7nm AMD Radeon RDNA 2, at 1.825 GHz, 12 TFLOPS 
System memory GDDR6 16GB, 448GB/s bandwidth GDDR6 16GB, 10GB at 560 GB/s, 6GB at 336 GB/s bandwidth
Storage 825GB SSD, 5.5GB/s read speed 1 TB Custom NVME SSD, read speed at 2.4 GB/s (raw), 4.8 GB/s (compressed)
Physical disc drive 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Video out 4K 120Hz, 8K, VRR 4K 60Hz, up to 120Hz
Audio Tempest 3D AudioTech NA

Data source: Sony and Microsoft.

Despite Xbox's faster processors, there are more factors that determine how a console performs than just comparing the raw numbers on a spec sheet. This is evident in that the PS5 and Xbox Series X can play games at 4K resolution up to 120 frames per second, which is on par with a high-end gaming PC. Although Microsoft doesn't list 8K resolution on its official spec sheet, the Xbox Series X clearly has the power to match the PS5 on video output.

As Mark Cerny, the lead architect for PS5, explained on a livestream on March 18, Sony's console was designed after listening to the needs of game developers. Sony's mission was to build a console that could simply run games at faster frame rates at higher resolutions, such as 4K.

Even though Microsoft could tout the Xbox's faster processing speed to market its fancy offering, it's not doing so. Jason Ronald, director of product management on Xbox Series X, has said, "We don't believe this generation will be defined by graphics or resolution alone." 

The standard of this generation is speed. The biggest improvement gamers will notice when playing games on one of these consoles will be faster loading times that will be enabled by high-speed solid-state drives (SSDs). This will make in-game performance much smoother, especially while transitioning between a cutscene and real-time gameplay. It will also allow game developers to render the appearance of textures and virtual worlds in a more lifelike manner.

As Cerny discussed in the livestream, the PS5's "enhanced speed will enable game developers to create larger, richer worlds without traditional limitations, such as load times, and also allows gamers to spend more time gaming than waiting." 

A screenshot from a video game running on the Xbox Series X.

A Gears of War title running on the Xbox Series X. Image source: Microsoft.

Key differences

One thing that Sony enthusiasts will appreciate more than the Xbox is that the PS5 will feature immersive 3D audio, which could persuade some that a bird has gotten inside the house while playing Take-Two Interactive's Red Dead Redemption 2

But Xbox fans will appreciate Microsoft's user-friendliness when it comes to backward compatibility. The Xbox Series X will run games from every generation going back to the original, whereas Sony has only confirmed that the PS5 will be able to run the top 100 games played on PS4. 

In the end, there is not enough to separate these consoles in terms of technology. As in the past, I believe the new generation will ultimately be won by the company that can offer the strongest game catalog. Sony has historically been the champ on this front, although Microsoft has been in an acquisition frenzy in recent years, scooping up game studios to beef up its exclusive game roster for Xbox. 

Microsoft's more aggressive game plan under CEO Satya Nadella could make the latest round of the console war more competitive than the last. Sony has more to lose, since the gaming segment makes up over a quarter of its annual revenue. On the flip side, gaming revenue made up only 9% of Microsoft's business in fiscal 2019. 

Pricing is still an unknown, but both console makers will likely find a way to keep their prices competitive so as not to give the other an advantage.