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Sony PS5 vs. Microsoft Xbox Series X: The best high-end game console for 2021

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As the PS5 and Xbox Series X near their one-year anniversaries, competition between the console kings remains fierce. While the base hardware remains the same (aside from in some new PS5 units), new software updates have added features, like and . 

That’s of little comfort to the scores of gamers who still can’t find one of these consoles in stock. While shortages were to be expected during the initial launch, both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are still hard to get, and that shortage is expected to continue through the holiday 2021 season. The key is to stay abreast of restock alerts, so keep an eye on our , or see if you can snag a .

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There are other options, too. Nintendo’s updated and if you can find one, there’s the $300 , which is a  intended for 1440p gameplay rather than 4K.

This chapter of the console wars is especially important. Not because  or ray-traced audio for more natural sound are must-have features, but because the gaming landscape is more complicated and fragmented since the previous generation of boxes came out.

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In addition to competing with , consoles now face challenges from new hardware-free cloud gaming services such as , and , as well as . To a lesser extent, they also compete for your time with mobile game-subscription services such as .

Both platforms made a big leap in power over their predecessors. They’re based around roughly similar AMD Zen 2-architecture processors plus AMD Radeon Navi-generation graphics processors with 16GB of memory. They both support ray-tracing, decompression acceleration, whizzy new proprietary SSD implementations and a whole lot more. 

Design-wise, the  (which ), while . But both consoles have a similar total volume, roughly 447 cubic inches for the PS5, while the chunky Xbox Series X is about 432 cubic inches. 

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Since the November 2020 launch, Sony has leaned into platform-exclusive games like and , while Microsoft has pushed its expansive , including access to new games like The Ascent, Outriders and the upcoming Halo: Infinite. 

Sony has also opened up the storage options for the PS5, first allowing PS5 games to be stored (but not played) from an external SSD, and more recently for you to install your own secondary internal drive. Like the consoles themselves, however, the remain hard to find in stock.

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Below are key takeaways from each platform as well as an updated specs comparison. 

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Aside from its striking design, the first thing that stands out with the PS5 is the new . Sony has replaced rumble with more sensation-specific haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, which delivers a much better gaming experience, as long as developers opt to support them. Plus, it’s got new speakers and mics for chat as well as a USB-C connection. The  jumped to solid-state storage, too, making it a better match for large game downloads. 

While many of its most-important games overlap with the Xbox’s, , including ,  (the sequel to ), , plus timed exclusives for a good number of new titles. 

On the downside, the PS5 has a relatively small 825GB solid-state drive. Its NVMe SSD expansion Slot Online is standard-ish, but because it needs to meet specific space, thermal and power requirements, only some M.2 drives will fit, and a built-in heatsink is required.

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Design-wise, it’s hard to get simpler than a big, black box: Our review described the Series X as a Soviet-era constructivist office block as reimagined by . , they didn’t want anyone to say, “That looks like a microwave.” , though.

Microsoft also made controller enhancements, which are more about reducing latency (with its Dynamic Latency Input tech) than tweaking feel and feedback like Sony. Another new, attractive feature is , which precludes you from having to pay to play a game on the Xbox One if you’ve already ponied up for a Series X version, and it will automatically serve up the right version for your box. 

Beyond the hardware, the Xbox Series X is built around a subscription software model. 

Sure, you can give the company $500 for the console itself, but what it really wants is your $15 (£11, AU$16) a month in perpetuity for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. (Skip the cheaper non-Ultimate plan, because then you’ll still need a separate Xbox Live subscription.) It includes a Netflix-like catalog of on-demand games, plus online multiplayer, access to some cloud-based games and a decent catalog of PC games as well, including some day one releases. Frankly, it’s the single most compelling thing about the platform, and also a key step toward a much more subscription-heavy future for gamers.

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Specs

PlayStation 5

Xbox Series X

Processor

8-core AMD Ryzen Zen 2-architecture CPU at up to 3.5GHz

8-core AMD Ryzen Zen 2-architecture CPU at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT)

Graphics

AMD Navi/RDNA 2-family GPU with 36 CU up to 2.23 GHz (10.3TFLOPS, FP unit unknown)

AMD Navi/RDNA 2-family GPU with 52 CU at 1.825GHz (12TFLOPS FP32)

Video memory

16GB GDDR6 with 256-bit interface (448GB/sec)

16GB GDDR6 with 14Gbps 320-bit interface (10GB at 560GB/s allocated to GPU, 6GB at 336GB/s allocated to rest of system with 3.5GB for GPU)

Storage

825GB SSD at 5.5-9GB/sec; NVMe SSD slot; support for USB SSD

1TB NVMe SSD PCIe 4.0; proprietary 1TB SSD add-on module; USB 3.2 external SSD support

Optical drive

Yes, 4K Blu-ray

Yes, 4K Blu-ray

Maximum output resolution

8K 60fps; 4K 120fps

8K 60fps; 4K 120fps

Audio

3D, accelerated by custom Tempest Engine hardware; for headphones only at launch, supplemented by virtual surround for speaker audio

Dolby Atmos support, audio ray-tracing

New controller features

Haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, USB-C connector

Share button, Dynamic Latency Input

VR support

Yes, compatible with PSVR headset

No

Console streaming

Yes (Remote play)

Yes (Console streaming)

Backward compatibility

PS4 games, some peripherals

Xbox One and supported Xbox 360 and Xbox games

Subscription tie-in

PS Now and PS Plus

Xbox Game Pass, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate

Dimensions

15.4 x 4.1 (3.6) x 10.2 in./390 x 104 (92) x 260 mm

5.9 x 5.9 x 11.9 in./151 x 151 x 301 mm

Price

With optical drive: $500, £450, AU$750; without optical drive: $400, £360, AU$600

$500, £450, AU$749

Cloud gaming

Via PS Now

Coming to Xbox Series X, S and Xbox One

See also