PS5 vs. Xbox Series X: Which Console Wins?
It currently seems arbitrary to be writing this article, as a relatively high suspension of disbelief is needed to imagine yourself actually being able to get hold of either of the now-current generation consoles unless you have vast swathes of riches (plus a combination of restless impatience and a brazen lack of dignity) to buy one from a scalper, or you’re a bot-using scalper yourself. If the case is the latter, please go away and stop reading this article – we don’t want you here.
Regardless, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will be back in stock at some point, and with any luck will actually be available to the common man. With that in mind, and with the apparently glorious good luck I had to be able to grab both consoles on launch day, I’m going to assess which of the two machines is the best buy. As a caveat, if you’re wanting to read all about SSDs and teraflops, then there are plenty of expert articles and videos out there already that can provide all the acronyms and numbers you could ever want. Frankly, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, so let’s leave the science to everyone else, and instead let’s just talk about video games, shall we?
I’ll try my best not to overdo any fence-sitting in this article but, in all honesty, both of these consoles look pretty cool. There’s no question that the Xbox Series X is the more ‘plain’ of the two, but there is a certain gravitas and modesty to its relatively simplistic plinth design. Some might be thinking I’ve gone mad to assign such personality to what is essentially a long box with a grate on top, but once you hold it in your hands there’s an empowering grandeur about it. It’s surprisingly light and genuinely smaller than I expected – on opening the packaging I could barely believe I still couldn’t see the console poking out from all the card and foam as it’s so snugly tucked away.
The grate is, of course, the focal point of the design, and in the light of day, it looks very stylish to see the underlying signature green quite literally top the whole thing off (unless you rest the console on its side like I was forced to). The only let-down there is that it’s paint and not a green light, so the effect is completely lost when you’re sat in the dark to actually play on it. A futuristic green hue emanating from the top of the console would look amazing, but obviously would be far less cost-effective.
The PS5, on the other hand, is an ostentatious beast that is sure to dominate your electronic entertainment space. It’s something straight out of an 80s sci-fi movie, and that’s really not a knock on it at all. For generations, we’ve seen a bunch of black, jagged husks hosting our favorite games, and it’s as if Sony suddenly came down with a bout of amnesia. This sleek, curvy beauty is undeniably one of the most unique console designs ever, and once you get over the sheer size, it really is quite fetching.
A curved black centerpiece housed inside almost-aggressive white fins is punctuated by a beautiful haze of light in that now-signature PlayStation shade of blue. There’s no question that if you want to impress people with a big ol’ hunk of modernistic machinery then the PS5 should be your party piece. It’s such a wild deviation from what we normally expect that it’s impossible to dislike the way it looks. Games consoles are about having fun and, although the Series X has its own reserved purity, the PS5 is so wonderfully conspicuous that it’s easily the more impressive.
The Xbox controller is great. It has been great since the 360. Absolutely nobody can deny that Microsoft has gradually and subtly improved its controllers with every subsequent new console it’s created, and the Series X is definitely not one to buck that trend. It is, however, the smallest iteration on a games controller I can think of – being basically the exact same design as the Xbox One with some very minor-yet-important adjustments.
The overall shape and feel in the hands is almost a complete replica of the last controller, but Microsoft has cleverly added little dots to both the handles and the triggers for greatly improved grip. The biggest change is the new concave d-pad, which uses its inward curve to allow for the thumb to rest better in its midst. It’s got a nice tangible click to it as well, making it feel more responsive.
On the technical side (I know, I know, I said I wouldn’t go here but just indulge me for a moment), according to Microsoft the controller further utilizes Xbox Wireless Radio for connectivity to more devices like iOS and Android, apparently also capable of remembering more than one device for greater ease of switching between them. Whether that means the controller won’t always switch on the Xbox itself whenever you want to connect to your iPhone is something I haven’t tested but am skeptical about. Microsoft are also keen to emphasize their Dynamic Latency Input technology to further reduce input lag, which will be even more essential in the move towards 120fps.
The controller is not perfect, however, and inexplicably comes with standard AA batteries instead of a built-in one like the PS5’s DualSense, meaning you’ll need to purchase separate charger packs like we were back in 2005. It has a USB-C port for charging, so you can play wired if the AAs die, but it’s needlessly stingy. The share button, while handy, falls into the same trappings as the capture button on Switch, where it’s too close to other buttons to avoid accidental screenshots of absolutely nothing. It’ll likely be something that becomes second nature over time, but for now, I’ve got an album full of mistakes.
With Microsoft evolving a trusted, celebrated design, Sony has once again pushed out the boat with both hands to create a truly revolutionary controller in the DualSense. Packed full of wacky wizardry, it boasts several genuinely impressive innovations that make the whole experience feel fresh and exciting in a way the Xbox can’t even come close to matching. The improved haptic feedback makes for the best controller rumble ever, and the adaptive triggers have game-changing potential, all of which can be tangibly felt first hand in the packed-in Astro’s Playroom (more on that later).
Of course, PlayStation thumbstick placement is PlayStation thumbstick placement. By now there’s no point in complaining that it makes less sense and doesn’t feel as natural as Xbox’s top-left-bottom-right design, but the size of the controller and its elongated handles make this the most palatable iteration yet. The absence of a necessity for removable batteries is, on the surface, a welcome one and means you at least don’t have to buy a peripheral charger pack. Scaremongering has been doing the rounds on social media about the DualSense’s paltry battery life, so even with its chargeable lithium battery, you may find yourself buying a replacement sooner than you’d prefer. For now, though, it’s a thing of real class, to the point of arguably being the early front-runner for a system selling point.
The User Interfaces
Very much a case of grass not always being greener, this. The Xbox Series X’s UI is… well, it’s the Xbox One’s UI. Microsoft updated the last-gen console to prepare us all for their new generation months ago, and as such it leaves the new console a little bit underwhelming upon that maiden boot up. Of course, convenience really is king in the digital age, and simply logging into the mobile app and waiting a few minutes before seeing your Xbox One dashboard snugly pop right back into place is fantastic, but it does take away some of the sheen you’d want when you’ve just bought a $500 piece of brand-new tech.
Luckily, the old UI had been refined and tweaked to its best state, is free of needless clutter, is very customizable and just works. Your recent games are right at the forefront of the home screen, and more can be added manually. The guide is still near-perfect and even better now you can choose the order of the panels to allow for quick and easy access to the things you personally prioritize. Your games library is nicely laid out and can be filtered between storage types, which is perfect for those of us who store games on external hard drives – you simply plug it into the new Xbox and they’re all there ready to go.
The biggest new draw to the Xbox experience is Quick Resume, which allows you to suspend and jump back into up to eight games at a time. On paper, and in promotional videos, this looked truly phenomenal but initially in practice it was broken. It’s splitting hairs now, but before a patch this last week any games that are enhanced for Series X/S just didn’t do Quick Resume, and if they did then they crashed. Luckily with the adaptability of modern consoles first impressions needn’t be everything, and fingers crossed that all issues seem to be fixed now, with jumping from game to game simply magical.
The Xbox UI’s familiarity and refinement may leave the user slightly underwhelmed but, conversely, Sony’s PlayStation 5 UI is new to a fault. Your main home screen is just a big wallpaper of the game you’re hovering over (or currently suspending) with a slapdash row of icons at the top showing games you have recently installed or played, the store and the library icon… and that’s it. Style very much over substance is the order of the day here, and the dearth of customizable folders rearing its ugly head yet again for a PlayStation launch is pretty unforgivable considering how long we all complained about their absence on PS4.
It’s not all bad, however, as PS5 does have some pretty nifty features to make up for its relatively bare-bones main UI. A press of the PS button on the controller will bring up the ‘proper’ home menu, which displays a list of customizable features across the bottom of the screen including notifications, friends, music, your profile and the power off option, which is no longer accessible by holding the PS button down as it was on PS4. Above this menu is the card system that displays things such as news, recent screenshots, trophy progression, and, most impressively, a selection of moments or checkpoints in the game you’re playing that you’re able to jump to almost instantly. I’ve even seen people talk about getting stuck in the geography of Demon’s Souls with the only way to escape being to use these jumping-points from the card menu to avoid having to quit out of the game.
The coolest feature about the PS5’s UI is undoubtedly the screen and game sharing elements of party chat. This is a genuinely revolutionary idea that lets you not only share your gameplay with a friend so they can watch your game in a little corner of their screen while they play their own, but even invite them in to try out your game themselves or take over from you and help you through a tough bit you can’t manage. I haven’t tried this yet (nobody else I know has a PS5 right now!) but I cannot wait to see it in action first hand.
The Launch Games
As far as the Xbox Series X goes… there are no launch games. There are, of course, a far greater number of previous-gen games that are now optimized for Series X/S, but there is a giant hole where a game developed solely for the new hardware should go, and that’s a devastating shame. This year being what it is provides understandable mitigation for this, and a lot of the enhanced games are still very impressive – Forza Horizon 4 and Gears 5 especially – but it definitely rewards the more patient gamer to remove themselves from the shitstorm of pre-orders and scalpers while they wait for a genuine killer app as a reason to upgrade their console. Unless you’re a huge Yakuza fanboy – welcome to the club, kyodai – and you can’t wait for the PS5 version of Like A Dragon to come out next year, but even then we’re talking about an enhanced version of a game that hit Japan in February. Regardless, the wait was very much worth it.
PS5 only really has two titles developed directly for it in the incredible and visually breath-taking Demon’s Souls remake and the wonderful, yet veritable-tech-demo that is Astro’s Playroom. Still, the new generation is very definitely on PS5 right now, and with Miles Morales also propping up the ‘new games’ list – with some seriously impressive loading times on the PS5 version – Sony’s launch is clearly the more impressive. Naturally, if you don’t care for tech demos, brutally hard PS3 remakes, or Spider-Man 1.5 then you’re more than welcome to argue that the PS5 doesn’t really have any proper launch games either, but I’d suggest you all play Demon’s Souls. A lot. It’s amazing.
The Xbox ecosystem is doing some almighty heavy lifting for Series X/S in the absence of actual launch titles. An abundance of enhanced games give a tantalizing taste of what’s to come, and the brilliance of Game Pass means that nobody can complain of having nothing to play. Thousands of games are ready and waiting for subscribers for what is still outrageous value for money, and everything I’ve played runs better, loads faster, and looks sharper. It’s Game Pass that is the big selling point for Microsoft’s console, and will continue to be for the entire generation – it really is just that good.
This isn’t news to anyone, of course, but the real genius of Game Pass is that you know you’re tied in for everything coming out of Microsoft studios on day one at no extra cost. Halo Infinite is already yours, and with the company’s recent Zenimax purchase, so is the new Elder Scrolls and a hell of a lot more. In the face of the $70 launch titles for PS5 (especially considering Demon’s Souls is a PS3 game, even if it is an amazing one), this looks even savvier by the day.
Sony needs to figure out what they want to do with this type of model, and they need to do it quickly. Scorn is being poured on them by those segments of the media not inexplicably in the pocket of big corporations for the absurd $70 pricing of games during a global pandemic, especially considering figures for wage inflation don’t conflate with the ‘games are more expensive to make now and haven’t gone up in price for a decade’ argument. When companies like Activision are making billions on Call of Duty whilst laying off staff who couldn’t afford to eat in their own cafeteria, the notion of charging so much for new games when Microsoft is giving theirs away for $10 a month is almost suicidal.
The one shining light of the currently-up-in-the-air PS5 ecosystem is the PS+ Collection, which is a selection of very, very fine games that are immediately available to play for all PS5 owners (who have a PS+ subscription). It’s obviously nothing compared to Game Pass, but the level of quality in the titles on offer is sky-high. PlayStation Now is the sticking point, and Sony needs to do a lot of work to make it a better value proposition moving forward, as Xbox is far ahead of it in terms of an overall package right now.
The Short Term vs. The Long Term
There’s no question that PS5 feels newer than Xbox Series X does right now. It has games developed specifically and exclusively for it, with Miles Morales picking up any Demon’s Souls slack (of which there really is none) as a sparkly and technically impressive enhanced exclusive. This is vital considering the number of games available to Game Pass subscribers on Xbox, so it really boils down to how much you care about what you’re going to experience today versus what to expect in the coming months and years.
You can shell out on an Xbox and play thousands of games right now, which would be massive if it weren’t already possible on Xbox One. Game Pass isn’t slowing down, though, and will continue to make the Xbox the better value in future if Sony doesn’t gain parity with its own offerings. Time will tell if the greater power of the Xbox makes proper current-gen games better to play on Series X than PS5, but current enhanced games are already leaning in that direction.
Look, I’m an idiot who bought both consoles at launch because I can’t help myself, but not everyone can do that – not even for want of trying. People will already have their allegiances and preferences from the last generation, and there’s no denying that PS4 dominated it. Microsoft knows this, and their focus on a more technologically impressive machine, a greater reverence to backwards compatibility, and a far better ecosystem mean that it really seems like the better choice with the future in mind.
The acquisition of big studios with big IPs is a bold and ballsy move from Microsoft and further bolsters the appeal of Xbox, but there’s no denying that PS4 had a far better set of exclusives than Xbox One did, and inevitable sequels of big franchises will draw the masses in regardless of console power or value for money on subscriptions. The PS5’s bold aesthetics and incredible controller are supplementary positives to the machine’s weaker tech under the hood, and this likely points to the ‘half step’ consoles coming from Sony way before Microsoft.
Xbox is the sensible choice, where you know what you’re getting, and PS5 is the flashy choice with its pretty new games, wacky controller, and cool UI features like screen and game sharing, or jumping to direct parts of the game you’re playing almost in an instant. Without this, Microsoft’s association to the PC market means that a lot of Series X features are, and always will be, available to PC gamers who will soon be able to build more impressive machines than the Xbox is anyway. This is where the PS5’s focus on quirky and bespoke additions, coupled with Sony’s firmer grasp on console-exclusives not winding up anywhere else, keeps it more relevant as a pure games console – especially for those who spent the last generation building elite gaming PCs.
The verdict, then? Well, if you’re here that probably means you love games as much as us, so I’d say just get them both. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some fence splinters to go pick out of my backside.