PS5 and Xbox Series S/X 2020 Buying Guide

 2020 PS5 and Xbox Series S/X Buyer's Guide

The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X consoles are coming out only a few days apart this coming November and I've already had multiple friends and family ask what they should get.  Here is my guide to buying.  

PS5 at a Glance

The PlayStation 5 is launching on November 12th in the US (November 19th in Europe and elsewhere) at either the $400 price point for an all-digital model that has no optical disc drive, or for $500 that will include a Blu-Ray drive. The only difference between the two models is the optical drive; they both have the same horsepower under their plastic hoods. 

Xbox Series S/X at a Glance

The two machines Microsoft is launching this year are a bit different. Coming worldwide on November 10th, the Xbox Series S will be $299, while the Series X will be $499. Both machines will play the new Xbox Series games, but the S will play them with lower graphical resolution (i.e. not-quite-4K), while the X will promise a true 4K experience. The S may sound like a step down from even the current-gen Xbox One X, but keep in mind that the new generation of games will be more demanding graphically with fancy features like ray tracing and more, so it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. 

What's Common in Both Consoles (hardware wise) 

Both consoles will feature new solid state drive (SSD)-based storage that shortens load times massively. This is almost a bigger deal for what the next generation of games can do than the graphical horsepower that both consoles have, because finally game developers are being guaranteed by the hardware access to storage that is, on paper, 10 to 50 times faster (effectively it seems to be anywhere from 2 to 10 times faster) than a spinning hard drive. If you're not sure about this, just keep in mind that hard drives haven't had significant improvements in speed in over a decade, and it's only been incrementally getting better during the last 20 (!) years. Even the studios making PC games aren't guaranteed storage access this fast, as there's always someone with the old spindle-based hard drive trying to play out there somewhere that has to be supported.

Of course, not all "loading" is done during a loading screen; anyone that's gotten skeptical while running through a long nondescript hallway, had to navigate around a series of walls that blocks viewing of one area from within another, or sat on a conspicuously long elevator ride will realize that the game was loading new graphics and sounds while hiding a traditional loading screen. Most of these game design kludges will be able to be removed or drastically reduced.

The processing and graphics capabilities of both the PS5 and Xbox Series X will not be far apart, as both have similar APUs (that's CPU and graphics in one big chip, if you're wondering) made by semiconductor company AMD.

Both consoles will play previous generation's games through a backwards compatibility mode that should work well considering that for both, the previous gen was the same CPU architecture. All they have to do is dial in a performance profile for each game and the Xbox One and PS4 games should run on their respective next gen platforms just fine. 

The controllers between the two consoles, in my opinion, aren't vastly different from past generations and for me, I've never had a problem with comfort in either one. Sure, the stick placement and the feel of the triggers are different, but it never made much difference to me in the end. Your mileage may vary on this, however. 

A hardware spec comparison, with cheeky addition
of Nintendo Switch "specs" included.

What's Different

While the APUs are the same, the PS5 and Xbox Series X have different approaches to addressing the system memory, and it seems like the Series X has a bit of an advantage here with faster system memory access and a mildly faster GPU that can push more pixels, whereas the PS5 seems to have faster access to storage by removing a couple of bottlenecks in the transfer of game data from the SSD storage into its system memory. Whether any of this actually translates into real differences in games or if cross-platform studio development mostly just keeps these two versions of a game the same, we'll have to see.  

Otherwise, so far it doesn't seem like much separates the two consoles from a hardware perspective, especially considering that most gamers sit far enough away from their TVs now that true 4K resolution - compared to near-4K that's upscaled from from something a bit lower - is actually tough for most people to differentiate, especially when a game is in motion. 

Backwards Compatibility

One difference however is backwards compatibility. Microsoft has said that all Xbox One games will play on their new consoles, and many Xbox 360 and even original Xbox games will too - they maintain a compatibility list that will continue into this generation too. The idea here is that you can either buy these older games digitally on the Xbox store, or without spending a dime, just pop the original discs, if you still have them, into the console and play these games directly after a small download - as long as they're on the list I mentioned above.

Sony, on the other hand, has committed to playing PS4 games on the PS5 (as this is an easy one and requires no emulation), but nothing else has been promised. The console is certainly powerful enough to emulate PS1 and PS2 games and probably could do the PS3 as well, but no direct functionality is there as of yet; there is no dropping in of original discs and playing them on the new console, at least not yet. Sony could offer these games via emulation on their store or even add a system like the Xbox consoles have later, but they haven't stated any plans to do so yet.

Launch Day Games

Simply put, Xbox Series S/X doesn't have a lot going for it with new games coming this year. Most of the launch titles are simply previously released games with a new facelift that can very loosely be called a "remaster" although even then I'd be skeptical of using that term. Halo Infinite has unfortunately been delayed into 2021, and that was going to be the big system seller for them, so this is a big loss. Assassin's Creed: Valhalla will be an Xbox Series X launch game, but it should be pointed out this is coming to PS5 as well as Xbox One and PS4 right around the same time, so this is not exactly a big exclusive for them. Most of the Xbox Series X launch-day library are games that are also coming to Xbox One. 

Sony, however, has lots of true PS5 exclusives in the pipe, and on day one they're offering some good stuff like Spider Man: Miles Morales and the complete remake of Demon's Souls among others. From the perspective of which console has the better launch library of exclusively next-gen games, Sony is the winner here. The rumor is that there may also be PS4 versions of some of their exclusive PS5 launch day titles kind of quietly in the works for launch at around the same time (they wouldn't want to loudly tell people a game is "cross-gen" as that may make it seem like the PS5 isn't as necessary as they want you to believe), but so far we don't have solid info on the entire lineup.

Demon's Souls remake on PS5.

Otherwise, a lot of the big fall games that are coming to both the current- and next-gen consoles will be available for all, often with enhancements on the new consoles. The biggest one I'm thinking of is Cyberpunk 2077, but there are others done the same here. While gamers might scoff at the notion of this, thinking it's not really "next-gen" to have all these games that straddle the fence and run on both sets of systems, it's really a boon for game developers who get to sell the same games on as many systems as possible without having Microsoft or Sony spend their own money trying to kickstart game development on a new platform with a small install base. Without this, these games simply wouldn't be available anytime soon on the new consoles, because third party publishers wouldn't spend a hundred-million-plus of their own money making a big blockbuster game that only the early adopters of the new consoles can buy.

Hardware To Buy Later

Both consoles only come with the one controller, and both companies are offering extra controllers for between $50 and $70. Microsoft has confirmed that Xbox On
e controllers will work with the Xbox Series S/X, which is a nice bonus, and Sony has confirmed that at least some third-party PS4 controllers and peripherals will work with PS5, but mostly they mean expensive wheel and flightstick controllers - Sony says that their own DualShock 4 controllers will not work with the PS5. 

Additionally, the Xbox Series X comes with an internal 1TB SSD and the PS5 has an 825GB SSD inside it, both of which will likely feel a bit inadequate what with even current-generation blockbuster games occasionally exceeding 100GB in size - what will they be in just a year or two? (The Series S comes with only 512GB of SSD storage which does exceedingly small.) Additional SSD modules that plug into special ports on the exterior of the console will be available for both systems, but keep in mind these promise the same speed as the internal storage, which is expensive, so expect to pay more for these than for the add-on hard drives for previous generations. A new 1TB external SSD for either of the new Xbox consoles is confirmed to be $200, and the PS5's similar addition is rumored to be roughly the same. So if you want to have instant access to a serious library of games at any time, prepare for a cost like this. Otherwise, there will be lots of deleting and re-downloading during your time with these new consoles.

The Online Services

As most gamers are well aware by now, online play on game consoles isn't free, and for Xbox and PlayStation, it hasn't been in over a decade - Xbox has their Xbox Live Gold subscription while Sony offers the similar PS Plus. Originally just meant to enable online play, the roughly $60-per-year subscription plans have had added free games and new functionality thrown in over the years as Sony and MS compete with each other.

Xbox has been jumping far ahead here in the last year, offering many free games through Xbox Live Gold as well as access to all of their major first-party games on day one through its additionally-priced Xbox Game Pass service. (For those wanting to play big exclusive Xbox games the moment they come out, and save money over the $60 cover price of these games, it's a fantastic bargain.) They're kicking it up a notch with the Series X by also offering stuff that EA is putting on its EA Play service all with the same subscription fee, too. Additionally, Microsoft just bought Zenimax, which means Bethesda franchises like Doom, Fallout and The Elder Scrolls (i.e. Skyrim, etc) among others will also be on the service soon - likely this year. It could also mean games in these franchises become Xbox and PC exclusives as well, although Microsoft has not made a final decision on those matters.

Pretty soon, being a Game Pass subscriber means
you just (kind of) bought Skyrim again! And yes, it
plays on Xbox Series S/X.

Meanwhile, Sony has also been giving players access to plenty of games to those who maintain their subscription to PS Plus, and this year they're going to be giving players additional access to a library of big-hit first-party PS4 games, playable directly on the PS5 with their PS Plus subscription. The only thing is, they don't seem to be giving access any PS5 games this way, or at least not initially. I believe they're very proud of their exclusives (rightly so in most cases) and are asking gamers to buy those games outright, and will probably slowly trickle them into the free games list with PS Plus months later (or longer), but for now, unlike with Xbox there's no service that gives access to the PS5's biggest exclusives on day one. 

The Combo Deal

One thing I wanted to point out is that Microsoft is offering the very interesting Xbox All Access plan where gamers can pay $35 a month on a two-year contract for an Xbox Series X (or $25/month for Series S) and they will keep the console at the end, plus those two years come with full access to Xbox Live and Game Pass. This means that for one monthly fee, gamers will get a console and access to a library of games including newly released first-party Xbox Series S/X games. Of course, after that two year period is up, canceling the Live/Game Pass subscriptions lets you keep the console, but you'd lose access to the games, so the idea that Microsoft has here is to get people to keep paying their subscription fees afterwards (at their regular lower rates, not the higher contract price) for those games. 

Attention Deficit Gaming

I wanted to point out one feature that MS has been touting for the new Xbox consoles, which is that of seamless and fast game switching. Microsoft have demonstrated how both the Series S and X, with some technology in saving a game's in-memory state plus the super-fast storage, can save moment-to-moment progress in a game before swapping it out to switch to another game, and then swapping back puts you right where you left off in mere seconds. They've shown the ability to swap between 5 games, even ones from different console generations all nearly seamlessly - from a pause screen in one game, directly to a pause screen exactly where you left off in another game. And that doesn't mean quitting one game and starting another - this skips the startup, logo, and title screens and all of that junk. You can suspend one game and pick up right where you left off in another game in roughly 5 seconds. 

For those families with attention-deficit gamers who want to swap games often and want to play NOW NOW NOW, this could be a handy feature - and it's something I haven't seen anywhere else except maybe with app-switching with mobile games on a tablet or phone. You can't even get this on a high-end gaming PC. Hardware-wise, nothing is stopping the PS5 from also doing this, and videos of the  PS5 interface do seem snappy, but so far I haven't seen anything like this feature yet. 

Let's Talk About Physical Media

Many gamers for the first time are considering going all-digital without any discs, either by saving $100 and getting the digital version of the PS5 or by simply buying only digital games on the Xbox. It's a perfectly fine idea, but there are a few things I want to point out, the biggest of which is that as of today, buying a console game on disc still gives you true "ownership" of that game rather than a "license" to play that can be taken away - this is something that is becoming more and more rare in our digital world where media is controlled by some company server that has to be asked permission for you to play something that you supposedly "bought". Your digital games largely can't be lent out, and you can't sell them when you're tired of playing them or give them to a friend or family member. 

Going physical does mean you
need room for something like this.

Tying all of your game ownership to a console account does have its risks. Will your account be hacked by someone and then shut down by Sony or MS? Will a "friend" you invite over to your place get you suspended or banned from Xbox Live by yelling a bunch of terrible stuff into a microphone thinking it's funny to get you in trouble? Will you forget the password to your account and the associated email address that's needed to reset it? Obviously these are all rare occurrences, but all of them can lead to losing access to an account and all games with it, either temporarily or permanently. No one is completely immune to this, and even if it doesn't happen today, who knows in a decade? Because of this, my recommendation is to keep getting disc-based games as much as you can and when you can, because they cost the same money, and you have more freedom to do what you want with those games later on. 

Now, if you often have trouble losing discs, or if they tend to get scratched or damaged in your house, it does make sense to go with the all-digital strategy. 

So What Should I Get? 

It can be hard to remember this as console warriors, who focus on defending their chosen brand, spit out specs and throw memes, but just try to keep in mind that game consoles are nothing without the actual games they play. The answer really comes down to "it depends", so here's what I suggest: 

If you play online games frequently and all of your friends are going with one system, I'd say pick that - don't let brand loyalty keep you away from staying connected with your friends. 

If you mostly just wanna play stuff like this with
your friends, buy the system they're playing on.

If that's not a concern, then if the Xbox has (or will have) the games you want to play and the PS5 doesn't, or if it's the other way around, then the choice should be obvious. If instead you aren't sure exactly what you want to play but you know want more exclusive and next-gen experiences as early as possible, then the PS5 is a fine choice and may have the edge in truly "next-gen" gaming earlier on. If you just want a big library of both new and old games to play on the new hardware on a bit of a budget, then Xbox Series S/X with its more complete backwards compatibility program and superior game subscription services (Game Pass and/or with the All Access contract plan) are a really smart move - as long as you keep in mind that canceling the subscription kills game access.

Frankly, I wouldn't get too caught up in the hardware and horsepower differences. Mostly those differences are going to be hard to notice when you sit on a couch 5-10 feet away from today's 4K TVs anyway. I recommend making your choice based on which way your friends are going and which games you want.