The PlayStation 4's graphical advantage over the Xbox One has frequently been cited among the reasons that Sony's (NYSE:SNE) console has built an early sales lead. The fact that Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) latest console carries a higher MSRP is likely a bigger factor, but stories of multi-platform games offering superior performance on Sony's console have entered the collective consumer conscience of early hardware adopters.
Every time that an Xbox One software release offers a lower resolution or frame rate than its PS4 counterpart, bad press for Microsoft's console is generated. The company has already released updates for the system designed to rebalance and improve performance, but the PS4's graphical performance advantage has remained largely unchanged. Now, recent developer comments and the announcement of Microsoft's DirectX 12 programming interface suggest that the Xbox One may get a significant power upgrade. Is Microsoft's console really getting stronger and closing the power gap with PS4?
Xbox One to become twice as powerful?
At last month's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Microsoft announced the DirectX 12 application programming interface for use across its hardware platforms. The new API has been built to allow for greater control of hardware resources and could allow for significantly improved CPU and GPU efficiency. After the announcement of DX12, multiple sources claimed that the new interface would double the Xbox One's performance. Brad Wardell, CEO of software developer Stardock, was quoted as saying the release would effectively double the capabilities of the One's GPU. This would allow Microsoft's console to more easily run games at a resolution of 1080p, a clear advantage currently enjoyed by Sony's PS4.
News of a possible performance boost, courtesy of DX12, was followed by claims from Oddworld series creator Lorne Lanning that the Xbox One had become a substantially more capable system over the months since its launch. Lanning stated that the performance gap between the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One was shrinking, citing improved toolsets that Microsoft released to developers. While developers will undoubtedly get more comfortable with the Xbox One and achieve better performance with ongoing updates, it remains unlikely that the console will ever be able to match the PS4 in terms of raw performance.
PS4's hardware advantage is too big to overcome
Compared to the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 has a greater supply of superior RAM, a greater number of compute units, and a substantially more powerful GPU. Put simply, the hardware in Sony's console essentially guarantees that the device will be more graphically capable than the Xbox One throughout the systems' respective lifecycles. The benefits that DX12 will bring to the Xbox One will likely be situational, and developers will also continue to improve on the PlayStation 4 as they become more familiar with it and better tool sets are released.
Even if DirectX 12 was to provide a significant across-the-board performance boost to the Xbox One, the interface won't be available until 2015. This means software that takes full advantage of the suite's new tools and resource management customization is still far off in the distance. Microsoft's console will have to endure press about its comparatively weaker hardware every time a multi-platform release runs better on PlayStation 4 -- a common occurrence in this hardware generation. With that in mind, Microsoft must concentrate on improving other elements of the user experience to improve the appeal of the Xbox One.
Raw power isn't everything
Previous hardware cycles have made it clear that offering the most powerful tech is not a surefire ticket to market leadership; the most successful console tends to be the one that offers the best overall package and value. Microsoft dominated the online landscape with its Xbox Live service early in the last generation, but Sony's PlayStation Plus platform currently offers users a greater amount of content for their subscription dollars. Xbox Live is central to Microsoft's gaming strategy, and the service will need to offer greater value to stop users from migrating to Sony's online network.
Microsoft must win on software and user experience
The Xbox One's future does not hinge on being the most powerful console on the market or receiving performance boosts. But, it has a slim chance of achieving market leadership if Sony is offering a more robust experience at a lower price. With the One's much-touted interactive TV and original programming features being slow to materialize, software and online ecosystem offerings become the console's primary means of meaningful differentiation. Xbox One will never match PlayStation 4 in terms of raw graphical power, so Microsoft's task is to convince consumers that its box is capable and that it offers experiences not provided by the competition.