An Explanation of the Innovative Features for PS5 and Xbox Series X | JoyFreak

An Explanation of the Innovative Features for PS5 and Xbox Series X

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Disclaimer: This is a very long post, so if you intend to read through it in its entirety instead of just skimping through some points and proceeding to argue with me in the comments, you might want to grab some fried chicken and popcorn to keep your stomach full while you read through this post. I've divided the post up into sections to make it easier to read but I won't be providing a TL:DR because doing that imo takes away a lot of context and doesn't adequately explain things. I've tried to explain detailed things in simple terms, so analogies won't be perfect but they should give you a general idea and understanding of the things I'm trying to explain. I'm also not claiming to be a technical savant, so if you spot something wrong, don't just yell about how it's wrong and how I should be ashamed to even live on this planet. Explain why I'm wrong so that I don't make the same mistake in the future. Thanks for reading!

INTRODUCTION
Over the past week I have been poring over every single detail that Sony and Microsoft revealed about their next gen consoles, all the while grinning gleefully because these consoles sound amazing and are packed with innovative features and solutions which I can't wait to see be implemented in games, which is why I find it so annoying and infuriating that the conversation around these consoles is dominated by the number of TERAFLOPS™ (Trademarked by Fanboys worldwide) each console has.

Don't get me wrong, a console's power is very important, but beyond a certain point it doesn't really matter (for me at least). Both these consoles are powerful enough to run games at 4K60. The Series X is more powerful, yes, but that was the case this generation anyways with the launch of the One X. We'll see that extra power being utilised in games to deliver higher or more stable framerates (Microsoft said that 4K60 is their base target and they want games to be able to run upto 120FPS, kinda like how the One X achieves 4K30 and can run games upto 60FPS) and maybe somewhat prettier or more detailed games but the power gap doesn't seem to be so large that games will run on the Xbox at a higher resolution (like it was the case with some games early in the generation this gen) or significantly higher FPS. I'm not dunking on the Xbox here, Microsoft has done an astounding job and they've delivered upon their promises, but imo a year into next gen, games are pretty much gonna look the same across both platforms, as has been the case in the past.

To me, the power of these consoles, while amazing, is the least exciting thing that was revealed about them. Other features of these consoles are much much more interesting and innovative but due to the somewhat technical nature of these features, everyone seems to be ignoring them.

So in this post I'll be highlighting most of these features, for both consoles, and explaining how these features are going to have an effect on the games we play and what it is that makes these features innovative.

Before we start though, I have to say that I'm very happy about the directions these consoles are going. I think most people, including me, assumed that they're basically going to be extremely similar to each other and to PCs but after the reveals it's quite clear that not only are they quite different from each other in terms of how they achieve the shared target that they have, but they're also different from PCs. This brings us to our first point of discussion:

PROCESSING POWER AND COOLING
I'm not gonna talk about the processors because they're fairly similar and standard components. What I want to talk about is how they're configured.

The Series X uses a tried and tested design. They set a specific Frequency target for both the CPU and the GPU and supply the chip with increasing amounts of power till the chip hits those frequencies. However, this power draw is not uniform i.e it is a variable range. In certain game scenarios, more power is required to hit that frequency while in others less power is required (to be noted here: increase in power doesn't correspond to an equal increase in frequency i.e it does not scale linearly. To hit higher frequencies you need to input more and more amounts of power to the point where it becomes a case of diminishing results). Power consumed=Temperature outputted. As such, the temperature outputted by the chip is also a variable range like the amount of power consumed (you can actually see the variance in power consumed in real time by the amount of noise the fan is generating. If its spinning faster and louder it means that more power is being consumed). So the design team and engineering team have to design a cooling system that is sufficient and works well for a range of temperatures/power consumed. The catch here is that they're making a prediction about the amount of power that might be drawn by a game and this prediction might end up not being good enough for certain games i.e the cooling system might not be sufficient enough for certain games which means when this game is being played the console is gonna run hot and loud. The Series X designers have clearly taken note of this because the entire design of the console is based around this. I think its fair to say that the Series X has one of the most unique designs out there, and that is to accommodate the cooling system. How well it'll run remains to be seen but the design team seem very confident and I think we can trust them.

Now onto the PS5. The PS5 eschews years of traditional console design and goes for variable frequencies or boost clocks. However there is a huge misconception among people because of the word 'boost clocks'. To understand further, lets take a look at something that has boost clocks in the traditional sense - a PC processor (GPU or CPU, both will do). A PC processor usually has two clockspeed targets - a base clock (lower frequency) and a boost clock (higher frequency). Variable power will be supplied to the processor so that it consistently hits that base clock (so basically what the Series X is doing). However, if there is thermal headroom (i.e more power can be supplied to the chip without it overheating) the processor will be supplied with more power so that it hits the boost clock. However at this boost clock, the temperatures will start to rise and eventually the processor will have to come back to the base clock to prevent overheating. In this type of configuration, both the power and the frequency are variable.

The PS5's boost clock is not the same as this. Lots of people have been talking about how the teraflop number is a sham because the PS5 won't be able to run at this 'boost clock' most of the time. That is simply false and here's why:

The PS5 has a specific power limit i.e it's power consumption is not variable and is a consistent figure at all times. Thus the temperature that the chip outputs is the same at all times. This allows the designers to design a cooling system around the exact temperature that it outputs. What this means is that the PS5's fan is not gonna spin much faster or much slower depending on the how big or small power consumption is. Its going to spin based on ambient temps, as the thermal output of the processor is already know and they only need to account for the variance in ambient temps (which makes the temperature range that the cooling system has to be designed for much more predictable and exact i.e a one degree rise in ambient temperature can be more accurately accounted for than the rise in power consumption). So all the people who suffer through the obnoxiously loud and hot PS4s and PS4 Pros, rejoice for you have to suffer no longer (that is, if you're getting a PS5)!

How is Sony achieving this though? Well here is where the variable frequency part comes in. The PS5's processor will be able to see what the games are actually doing i.e what activity is going on in-game, and when those game scenarios occur where power consumption spikes up, it'll downclock. Game developers will be able to tell exactly when it is that this power consumption goes up and as such, be able to account for the reduced frequency then (so in a way, you have the predictability and reliability that comes with setting a specific frequency target, but it also mean that devs will have to work a bit harder to fine tune and optimise things). The crucial thing here is that it doesn't have to downclock by a lot. Remember when I said this a couple of paragraphs above:

Increase in power doesn't correspond to an equal increase in frequency i.e it does not scale linearly. To hit higher frequencies you need to input more and more amounts of power to the point where it becomes a case of diminishing results
Well the opposite is happening here. Decrease in Frequency leads to an exponential decrease in Power consumption. So a 2-3% decrease in frequency (that's about 40-70 MHz in the PS5's case) can deliver at least a 10% decrease in power consumption. So what this basically means is that the PS5 is going to be hitting the targeted clockspeed of 2.23 GHz most of the time (unlike a PC processor with boost clocks), when it downclocks it's not going to be by a significant amount (again, unlike a PC processor) and while doing all this it is going to remain cool and quiet. Quite an innovative and novel concept huh? This is why the PS5's variable frequency is unlike that of the boost clocks found on PC and shouldn't be compared.

So the summary for this section:

- Xbox Series X: Variable power/temps but constant frequency

- PC: Variable power/temps and variable frequency (unless you overclock it, in which case it'll perform like the Series X processor)

- PS5: Constant power/temps but variable frequency.

The exciting thing for me and maybe others who are interested in hardware and engineering is that these are three different ways to achieve the same general target. Just goes to show that these companies are putting lots of effort into the design and engineering and not just copying things and definitely not skimping on anything.

Now lets move on to the next and imo the most innovative part of these next generation consoles:

SOLID STATE DRIVES
This is it folks. This is the game changer. This is what's going to deliver a generational leap. If you're worried that the change from 8th gen to 9th gen consoles is going to be like the change from 7th gen to 8th gen wherein it was a jump in graphics but not really a jump in generations, this should allay your fears. It's disappointing to see people downplay the capability of a SSD to just faster loading times and worry about the size of storage, because the inclusion of a SSD can change the way games are made. But before I talk about how the SSD can change things, I want to talk about the PS5's SSD because it's just insane and because while Microsoft has been mainly pushing the idea of faster loading times and being able to suspend and resume multiple games in quick succession, Sony is pushing the message that this is going to be game changing.

When Xbox revealed their 'velocity architecture' and their SSD solution I was extremely impressed- 2.4GBps of raw IO throughput is cutting edge. Microsoft has also done a lot of work on integrating the SSD into the system. They built a hardware decompressor that allows for 4.8GBps of compressed IO throughput and made changes to the DirectX API and wrote specialized code to ensure that the performance of the SSD is amazing. I was sure then that Sony is going to have egg on their face, just like I was sure that they're going to embarrass themselves when they claimed that their SSD is faster than any SSD on PC.

But the madlads actually went ahead and did it. The PS5's SSD is easily the most impressive part out of all the other parts of both consoles. In fact I would go as far as to say that its one of the most impressive hardware to be made in the past few years, alongside the likes of AMD's Zen architecture.

Just to show you how impressive the SSD is - No consumer SSD on PC will be able to match or exceed its raw speed (5.5 GBps) for another year or so. No consumer SSD on PC will be able to match its compressed speed (8-9 GBps) until the next revision of PCIE gets adopted by manufactures (which will happen many years from now) or until a CPU manufacturer implements a dedicated hardware decompressor in its processor (which is extremely unlikely to happen). No consumer SSD on PC will be able to match its performance in games because the storage interface that Sony has built for its SSD is better than the NVME spec that is standard on PC.

Now getting back to how such super fast storage is going to change the way games are made. The largest impact that the SSD is going to have is on Game and Level design. Currently, and ever since we stopped using cartridges, games have had to be designed with the speed limit of HDDs (and in the past, discs) in mind. You can actually see these limitations while playing a game - All those super long corridors and long elevator rides, they're there not because the game designer loves corridors and elevators, but because designers are forced to implement them because of the speed limit of HDDs. This is still an abstract explanation, lets see what impact it has on an actual game:

One of the most requested features from fans of the game Horizon Zero Dawn for its sequel is the ability to fly by mounting robots which can fly. However, this simply would not be possible now because the game was designed with the slowness of a HDD in mind. Here's why it wouldn't work - Lets consider Meridian, the large and detailed City that's in the middle of the map and on top of a mesa, with one end being connected to the adjoining hills by long bridges while the other end is connected to the flatlands below by tall elevators. It was surely a creative decision to design a city like that, but it was also a technical one. Because the City is so detailed and large, with a large number of NPCs each with their own dialogue and music, the data for the city cannot exist in system memory at the same time as the data for the rest of the game world. So when you're walking towards the city the game is dumping all the data for the open world and loading the data for the city, but since HDDs are slow, the bridge has to be longer and the elevators have to be taller to ensure that the game has enough time to load the city. They also have to put in place artificial limits - for example Aloy's running speed when she is on the bridge is slower than when she is out in the open world and she cannot ride a mount (the game's controllable robot horses) into the city because it would be too fast (this is also why you cannot ride a horse into Athens in Assassins Creed Odyssey). Similarly, flight cannot be a thing because the game, or rather the HDD, simply cannot keep up with the speed of flight. If you tried to fly into Meridian the game would just get stuck until its all loaded up and that's something no game dev will allow.

Another example is GTA V. Don't you think its odd that while the map is so large and detailed, you cannot enter most buildings and the city itself is not as populated and feels rather empty? GTA V was a 7th gen game so it had limitations like amount of RAM (the PS3 only has 512 Mb which is just fucking crazy) and rendering power in addition to the limitation of the HDD. But with the current gen, those two limitations went away and yet we ended up with a game that's very similar to its last gen counterparts and that's because of the slow HDDs.

The improvements aren't just limited to open world games either. Linear games will also see a big change. Lets take The Order 1886 as an example. It's a game with extremely detailed settings. In fact its graphical fidelity is among the best of the games that were released this gen. However, almost all of it felt like a facade, because it was. For example, in a section of the game you enter a bar/brothel and in it you walk in a long corridor full of doors. However you couldn't enter any of those rooms, you couldn't see what was inside, you couldn't interact with anything. Why? Because the corridor is actually a hidden loading screen, as you're walking across it the games is unloading everything from the last big area of the game and loading everything required for the next big section of the game. It simply cannot load anything else. So if you felt that linear games were just movies that occasionally let you press buttons on your controller, this should change that.

So far we've talked about how the SSD will remove limitations forced upon game devs. Now lets talk about how it'll enable designers to expand their vision and to do that I want to highlight one game in particular - Beyond Good and Evil 2. With BGE2, the creative director, Michel Ancel, wants users to explore a Solar System and on some of these planets of the solar systems there are vast cities, larger than any of the cities Ubisoft has done so far. Ancel wants people to be able to be in space and then seamlessly travel to a city on the face of a planet and explore its depths and then seamlessly travel back to space (i.e he wants all this to happen without loading screens). This type of game simply would not be possible on platforms without SSDs unless the creative vision was seriously compromised with (by either adding loading screens, making things so slow that they space travel doesn't seem like space travel anymore or by significantly reducing the size of the city).

With the PS5's SSD, Sony wants everything to happen in a snap, they want things to be immediate, they want you to be able to ride a flying robot dinosaur into a large city, shoot some unruly robot in the face with an arrow, then mount a horse-like robot and exit the city at breakneck speed towards your next objective, all without artificially stopping you in your tracks, without making you walk across long bridges or wait through a long elevator ride. They want loading times to be 1 second, not 10 seconds. They want you to be able to get back to playing again after dying without having to look at 'tips' for 2 minutes. They want your fast travel subway rides across New York to be over in 1 second, not 3 minutes. It might not seem much to you now, but once you experience that sense of immediacy, of things happening instantly, going back to anything that isn't this, that is slower, is going to be annoying.

So after all this, you can understand why I'm so excited for the SSDs, specifically Sony's solution and why I was using terms and statements that seem hyperbolic at first to describe these SSDs.

Before moving on to the next section, I want to talk a couple more things about the SSD.

Number one thing is, it's going to reduce game sizes or at the very least, ensure they stay the same. Developers often copy the same thing multiple times across a HDD to ensure that it is there when they need it. Now instead of having 200 postboxes on storage, they only need 1 since it can be accessed in an instant. Also, a vast portion of a game's file size is taken up by uncompressed audio. For example, when No Man's Sky launched, it had a file size of 5GB iirc. Around 4GB of that file size was taken up by audio. With the presence of great hardware decompressors on both platforms, devs can now compress the audio to a much smaller size, thus reducing total file size.

Second, its going to make development of games slightly easier. Devs won't have to spend a lot of time carefully specifying memory usage and fine tuning everything. They wont have to spend time getting the length of a bridge and the characters walking speed across that bridge just right so as to ensure everything loads in time.

Third, games aren't going to get slower after release. You might've noticed that games get 'slower' over time when they've received a lot of updates/patches. This is again because of HDDs. With a SSD, this isn't going to happen.

IMMERSION AND PRESENCE
This is a PS5 specific thing. A key tenet of Sony's next gen console is 'immersion' and 'presence', the feeling that you are inside the game that you're playing. How are they going to achieve that feeling? Through two things - reactive interaction and immersive sound.

The first, reactive interaction, is a term I just came up with to describe the haptics on the controller. Sony didn't talk about this in their presentation but if you read the Wired interview, you'd know that they're going all in haptics. They don't just want the vibrations that the controller makes to be 'strong' or 'soft', they want it to have 'texture' and 'weight'. In the article the journalist describes a PS5 version of GT Sport with enhanced haptics. He says that while driving a car, he could feel the difference between driving the car on an asphalt surface and driving it on grass. Another example given was a platforming game where one could feel the difference between walking on snow and walking on mud.

The second, immersive sound, seems to be the second biggest feature of the PS5, after the SSD. Now I'm not going to go too in-depth about the PS5's Tempest 3D audio tech, because a) its quite complicated and frankly I don't fully understand some parts about it and it probably deserves a post of its own and b) Cerny again does a better job of explaining that I ever will be able to. What I can say however, is that its the most complicated and advanced sound solution that I know of that has been put into a consumer product.

Over the past week I've actually seen a lot of comments saying how this is basically useless and doesn't work or about how this technology already exists in AMD's GPUs and is called AMD TrueAudio and that the Series X also has this feature through an implementation of Microsoft's Project Acoustics. Both of these notions are false. The PS5's Tempest audio tech does work (in theory) and its much more advanced and different than either TrueAudio or Project Acoustics.

Before I go into why it should work, lets talk about how its different than TrueAudio and Project Acoustics. TrueAudio is basically a dedicated chip to process audio instead of using the CPU or GPU to do so. AFAIK this technology is already used in the PS4 and Xbox One and hasn't really been put to much use in AMD's GPUs or the consoles apart from for VR games. To explain Microsoft's Project Acoustics, we need to take a slight detour into Physics 101. You might be aware that Light has dual-nature i.e it behaves like a particle and also behaves like a wave. The prime difference between particles and waves is that particles travel along straight lines (i.e rays) while waves can 'bend around' objects. While light behaves like a particle and a wave, sound only displays wave nature i.e it is a wave and displays properties of waves. In games however, wave properties of sound like occlusion and reverberation haven't been properly implemented. In games, devs code sound to be like a ray, it originates from one specific source and travels from there like a ray does. They try to simulate wave effects like reverberation but it isn't very accurate. Project Acoustics basically changes that and implements real life wave-like behaviour of sound like occlusion, obstruction and reverberation in game.

Now the tech I mentioned above isn't quite specific to 3D audio but should lead to a general improvement in audio quality. Sony's Tempest audio tech meanwhile, is trying to achieve this and much more, specifically in the department of 3D audio. Now, 3D audio isn't a new idea whatsoever, in fact you've probably already experienced it if you've been in a theatre with Dolby Atmos or own a Atmos certified sound system or if you have a particularly good piece of surround sound equipment. However, Sony's implementation of 3D audio is quite different and more advanced than the consumer implementations we've seen before. To see how it's different, I'm going to compare it to Dolby Atmos:

First off, it is to be noted that the way we perceive sound is unique to all of us (i.e its different for everyone) because of the difference in the shape of each of our heads and ears. AFAIK, Atmos doesn't account for these differences while Sony's tech is trying to, key word here being 'trying'. The obvious caveat here is that since the way each of us perceive sound is unique to us, there is simply no way Sony can program a unique algorithm for each of the millions upon millions of people who are going to be buying a PS5. What Sony is doing instead, is scanning as many people as they can, and building 5 general algorithms based on all the people they scan, and the end user can select the algorithm that suits them the best out of these 5. What this means is that for most people, game sound should be extremely close to how they perceive sound irl, for some people it's going to be exactly how they perceive sound irl while for some people the improvements in audio is not going to be perceivable because they're outliers i.e the way they perceive sound is much much different than the way most people perceive sound. This is just at launch though. Sony has said that it's a multi year project for them, so they'll be building more algorithms as they collect more data from people, this is what Cerny meant by 'send me nudes of your ears'.

The second difference is quite straightforward. Atmos uses 36 individual sources of sound. Sony's tech can use hundreds and thousands of sources of individual sound and the quality of the sound streams themselves can be much higher.

The third difference is that use of Atmos requires specialised, certified hardware that matches Dolby's spec. Sony's audio tech doesn't require certified hardware and it will work with any set of headphones, TV speakers or surround sound systems. Not everything will be supported at launch though. All headphones will be supported and Cerny says that headphones will be the gold standard. Currently they're working on implementing support for TV speakers and in the future they'll implement support for multi speaker surround sound systems.

So all this is quite exciting stuff then. There is however an issue. While the SSDs will have an objective improvement in games, the sound technology and controller are going to be much more subjective and the improvements they will offer isn't exactly clear. For example, you might not like the haptics at all and completely disable it or you might be one of the outliers in terms of how you perceive sound and hence you won't be able to tell much of a difference. As for me, my opinion on the PS5's audios system is gonna depend entirely on whether or not it comes with a 100 hour long Mark Cerny read the LOTR Trilogy ASMR audio file.

So until we see, or rather experience games built for the PS5, it's impossible to tell if all this will have much of an effect. Regardless, the concept alone is quite innovative and exciting and I have to give Sony props for following through with this despite the complexity of it all.

ENHANCED CONTINUITY
This is a Series X feature, at least for now. What I mean by enhanced continuity is basically enhanced backwards compatibility. The backward compatibility features of the Series X, courtesy of the amazing Xbox Backwards Compatibility team at Microsoft, is easily the most impressive part of the Series X for me (again, the power of the Series X is jaw dropping, but beyond a certain point it doesn't really do much for me. Meanwhile, the PS5's SSD kinda overshadows the still impressive Velocity Architecture of the Series X).

Sony talked about 'machine learning' in one of their Wired interviews but it was just a vague term and so far we've not seen anything about the machine learning capabilities of the PS5 or even if it is actually present on the PS5. Meanwhile Xbox has actually showed off an impressive use of machine learning. The fact that the Series X can play thousands of Xbox One, 360 and OG Xbox titles is amazing but its ability to automatically play the game at higher resolutions and framerates and even apply HDR to it is just downright jaw-dropping. Of course the caveat is that not every previous-gen Xbox game is going to work but because the backwards compatibility team has been working on this for the past 4-5 years. we can play thousands of previous generation games at launch on the Xbox and that's just frickin awesome.

The PS5's backwards compatibility situation was kinda blown out of proportion with many people assuming that it isn't backwards compatible at all or that only 100 titles were going to be backwards compatible (which just goes to show you how little people were paying attention during the whole event) when in fact Sony is just doing what Xbox has been doing for the past 5 years - testing, certifying and improving games on a title to title basis. What is disappointing though is that it took them so long to finally start doing this and now they're just so far behind Microsoft with regard to backwards compatibility.

This idea of enhanced continuity also extends to the peripherals. All Xbox One peripherals will be compatible with the Series X, that's all well and good, but they'll also receive a software update that brings with it the Latency Reduction features that Microsoft has baked into the Series X controller and that is awesome.

SERIES X SPECIFIC FEATURES

There are a couple of more features that Microsoft announced that while innovative, I can't really talk much about because there isn't much to talk about it. So I'll just list them out.

Another thing to note is that these are Series X specific features for now. The fact is that unlike major components like the SSD, Processor or the Audio chip, these features already exist in the base AMD processors that both Sony and Microsoft are using or can be implemented via software updates. So far only Microsoft has talked about these features so I'm gonna assume that only the Series X has these features unless Sony says otherwise. So here's the list of features:

  • Minimising Input Lag
  • Variable Refresh Rate
  • Elimination of screen tearing
  • Variable Rate Shading
  • Smart Delivery
CONCLUSION
So there you have it, I've highlighted why I believe that this generation of consoles might be the most innovative in decades. Now I understand that this is a very big statement to make.

Some of you might argue that back when consoles used specialised, purpose built hardware like the PS3's Cell Processor, consoles were more innovative, but to that I respond by asking, how does it matter if those consoles were packed with innovation when developing games for them was so hard that you couldn't even make full use of many of those innovations?

Others might also say that just like it has been in the past, no developer will actually make use of these features and I understand why people might be so skeptical. In the past console manufacturers have promised a lot of things but have almost always ended up under-delivering. However, I believe this generation will be different. For one, both manufacturers are listening to the developers and implementing features that developers are asking for rather than creating their own features and forcing developers to use it. Case in point being the SSD. Devs seem more excited about the SSD, specifically Sony's SSD, than any of the other improvements and features and according to Cerny the number 1 requested feature was the inclusion of a SSD. One of the top priorities for the consoles manufacturers is also to ensure that developers have an extremely easy time developing games for the system and that they get to grips with the system as soon as possible.

Secondly, there seems to be a no BS talk being said by both Microsoft and Sony. Cerny outlined his vision for the system and explained with detailed reasons why they made the technical choices that they made while Xbox has been extremely upfront about their vision, aims and achievements with the Series X. There is just a lot more 'real' and honest communication coming from both manufacturers (at least until now, it could all change as we near launch period). During the pre-launch period of the current gen consoles we kept hearing about the cloud or TV or other completely unrelated and BS stuff, so it's nice and refreshing to have Sony and Microsoft just focus on what matters - the games.

I'm also very happy to see that these consoles are different from each other, each with their own unique features. I really cannot wait to see the games that are being built for these consoles and I cannot wait to get my hands on them when they launch.

 
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