Enjoying second rounds? Blasts from the past? How about deja vu trips? For many people who went through the launch period of PS4/Xbox One in 2013 — and went through the launch period of the PS5/Xbox Series S|X recently — these past few months must feel oddly, uncomfortably, even annoyingly familiar. A lot of articles published by a lot of outlets go on and on about “the PC-like upgrades of the new PlayStation and Xbox”, about their “evolutionary architecture working just like the one established by PCs” or even about how “home consoles are now basically PCs”.
Comparing the PS5/XSS/XSX subsystems to hardware just now appearing on PCs seems to be an easy, natural thing for some of those outlets. Finding the consoles at a disadvantage even more so. The PC Master Race can go through those articles, feel good about itself and sleep soundly at night, safe in the knowledge that its choice of platform remains technologically superior. Mission accomplished.
In the minds of some it’s 2013 all over again, it seems, as if the last eight years have not proven anything regarding custom hardware, custom software, fixed specs and development tools. CPUs are CPUs, GPUs are GPUs, disks are disks… and so home entertainment systems, like the new PlayStation and Xbox, are just middle-of-the-road, mass-produced personal computers with some fancy casing. Right?
Wrong. The “PS5/XSS/XSX are basically PCs” mantra is not just a myth. It is a failure in understanding how modern consumer products are designed and targeted, it is a terrible disservice to the hard work of dozens of people at Sony and Microsoft, it is an exercise in futility that invites pointless comparison and fanboyism. Let us thoroughly dismantle it.
Common tech: just the starting point
All myths are based on something true and this one is no different: for the last 8 years, the PS4/PS4 Pro and Xbox One S/X did indeed use components originally designed for personal computers, as do the PS5 and Xbox Series S|X (and their successors most probably will too). AMD provided that hardware platform back then — as they do now for the new PlayStation and the two new Xbox systems — combining processor used in laptops and tablets with a graphics subsystem found in midrange graphics cards, all wrapped up in a SOC (system-on-a-chip) that also took care of input and output, memory management, storage management and all other necessary subsystems.
But, even then, what so many publications called “PC hardware” back in 2013 was not “off the shelf” hardware to begin with. The PS4 and the Xbox One used an AMD-designed CPU and GPU in a combined chip (APU) that was specifically made for those devices and was never released to consumers in a similar form. The memory modules were soldered on the mainboard, the memory pool was differently configured compared to PCs, the access the APU had to that pool worked differently… the list goes on and on.
Long story short: the AMD tech itself used in PS4/Xbox One systems was of personal computer origin, yes, but its implementation was so different that it was never replicated with PC components. Same story with the PS4 Pro as well as the Xbox One S/X: AMD-designed architecture but a unique system configuration that was never used anywhere else. So… if the tech in a PS4 or an Xbox One belongs to a PC hardware designer but can’t be found in any actual PC built by any other manufacturer, can it actually be called “PC hardware” in the literal sense of the term?
Well, no, it probably can’t be called that, any more than the tech on the Xbox 360 could be called “Mac hardware” because it was based on IBM’s PowerPC architecture — you know, like the one legacy Macs used for over a decade. Home entertainment systems like a PlayStation or an Xbox are designed to work like appliances, not like personal computers. What’s under the hood matters less to their owners than to PC users who can actually have access to what’s inside. It’s that simple.
That’s just one of the reasons why the whole “PC hardware in home consoles” discussion is pointless to begin with: similar kinds of tech appear in different product categories often nowadays — and that’s perfectly fine. The wheel does not have to be reinvented every single time, consumer products don’t have to be built from scratch in order to offer what they promise. Labeling the tech used in category Z as “X-based” — in a vaguely negative manner no less — just because it also appears in category X is not just naive. It’s inaccurate. When taking into account the custom designs companies like Sony and Microsoft go for, even more so.
Custom blocks: the secret sauce that makes a difference
The exact same thing — “PC hardware… but not really” — happened in 2020 with the PlayStation5 and the Xbox Series S|X. The Zen2 architecture AMD used for both systems can be found in its Ryzen 7 series of main processors, yes. But the graphics subsystem is also combined with it on the same chip — a graphics subsystem that does not even exist on AMD’s consumer roadmap, as it is based on two different generations of graphics architectures with specific customization elements for each system. What’s more, in PS5 and Xbox Series S|X not only is the CPU differently clocked and regulated, but the GPU is also differently configured in a way that will probably affect their common games in the future. It’s a bespoke design in two variations, similar but not the same, not to be found in any PC build.
That is the very definition of a custom block: a piece of hardware designed to spec, regardless of the general platform it’s connected to. Custom blocks are both a common thing and a necessity in home entertainment system design: since these devices are not upgradable, one has to think long-term about the fixed hardware in the hands of developers for 6 or 7 or 10 years’ time. Custom blocks help optimize the operation of a home entertainment system in areas where PCs would just have to be upgraded in order to offer what developers intended. Since a PlayStation or Xbox doesn’t have that option, custom blocks are the way to go.
There are several other custom blocks in a PS5 or an Xbox Series S|X that will affect how games look, sound and behave in the years to come. Both systems, for instance, have custom blocks for data decompression working in tandem with their SSDs. Sony’s system is more advanced, effectively doubling the speed data can be loaded into memory. Microsoft’s implementation of the AMD graphics subsystem, on the other hand, is better than Sony’s and will be more effective in handling raytracing long-term. Sony’s audio subsystem is also more complicated and capable compared to the one Microsoft has implemented: both rely on AMD’s common chipset, but the Japanese giant’s version is extended in certain ways in order to match the work done by Sony in the software side of things.
There are other functions of the two systems that also rely on custom blocks, but the important takeaway from all this is obvious: custom blocks are not designed or implemented as an “added bonus” to the main architectures of these systems. They solve specific problems in the overall operation of a PlayStation or an Xbox so they can perform better in games first and foremost. The same concept simply doesn’t exist in the PC world, where millions of different hardware combinations dictate standards respected by all and there’s no room for optimization specific to certain configurations. It’s one of the key differentiators between “open” systems, like PCs, and “closed” ones (as in “fixed”), like consoles.
Device OS and fixed target hardware: deciding factors
While all of the above differences in hardware design and implementation would have been enough to set any PlayStation or Xbox apart from PCs (of even theoretically “equivalent” configurations) all on their own, there’s more. Another factor to consider is software — on multiple levels — that affects not just how all of that custom hardware is handled but also how the game code is optimized based on specific performance “targets”.
Console software is comparable to PC software when it comes to gaming: there’s an underlying operating system through which all games work and a number of software “layers” between their code and “the metal” (the addressable hardware itself it all runs on). Since a PlayStation or an Xbox are not general-purpose devices, their version of an operating system is tailor-made and gaming-focused: the PS5, for instance, is based on a Linux kernel, while the Xbox Series S|X on a Windows one, but both are heavily modified and “slimmed down” compared to the consumer OS versions we use every day in many important ways. This alone makes a difference compared to PCs, in hardware requirements and performance as well as stability and security.
Then there are the aforementioned “layers of software” that offer developers access to the hardware of each home entertainment system. These, too, are not only custom-built for each such system, but they are also much closer “to the metal” than e.g. the Windows APIs are. This is how developers manage to extract more performance and make much more impressive games on consoles than what their hardware specifications would imply (by PC standards). Developers cannot code “directly to the metal” — because games have to adhere to certain operating guidelines by the console manufacturers in order to get certified — but they can get much closer and have much more “wiggle room” compared to developing for PC. Again: consoles are meant to work like appliances, not personal computers, so their software naturally follows suit.
Which brings the games themselves into sharp focus. Home entertainment systems such as a PlayStation or an Xbox have the kind of fixed hardware configuration that enables developers to “target” specific performance levels — which is quite different from PC games which have to be able to automatically “scale up” or “scale down” depending on the hardware they have to work with. There are no minimum or recommended “system requirements” for a PlayStation or Xbox game, so developers can work towards e.g. making a fast-paced game stick to 60 FPS or a detail-rich game stick to 30 FPS in a much more focused, effective way. This is a difference that can literally make or break a game (just ask anyone trying to play Cyberpunk 2077 on an original PS4 these days) and one of the main reasons why a PlayStation or Xbox will never “be like a PC” in practice.
Truth be told, the current state of the gaming industry is somewhat different as e.g. PS4 developers had to take PS4 Pro into account or Xbox One developers had to take Xbox One X into account in recent games (and don’t get us started on the whole cross-gen situation that’s emerging). But it is still much easier to optimize for 2–3 configurations instead of hundreds or thousands of different ones. Much, much easier.
Consoles are not like PCs — and let us be thankful for that
So here’s a myth thoroughly debunked: despite a number of hardware similarities, home entertainment systems are not and cannot be “basically PCs” because they are never designed to work as such. If nothing else, a PlayStation or an Xbox should not “be like a PC” if it is to offer the entertainment experience consoles promise. PCs are “open” systems, consoles are “closed” ones. PCs are upgradeable and modifiable, consoles are as fixed as a consumer product can be. PCs can do practically anything, home entertainment systems are built for video games first and foremost.
These key differences outweigh any notion of “sameness” between personal computers and custom-designed gaming appliances that just happen to use the same underlying technology. It’s as simple as that. The way games are developed for those two separate categories of devices — and perform even on “similar hardware” — reflects that very fact.
If nothing else, though, we should all be grateful that home entertainment systems and personal computers are so different when it comes to gaming, as in practice they actually complement each other in many people’s lives today. There many, many more varied styles and genres of games out there because consoles and PCs differ in operation, use cases and general approach. Moreover, consumers preferring either category of device would probably never have gotten the chance to play some of the most popular games today if developers and publishers hadn’t leaned into these differences creatively — and that is something worth focusing on instead of making pointless comparisons. Every single time.
About Next-Gen Gaming: Debunked
This story is part of a Road to NextGen series that will unfold while approaching the launch of the new PlayStation and Xbox. Its purpose is to identify ten “myths”, general misconceptions about the forthcoming systems that one might come across in all kinds of publications or marketing material, and dispel them. The current outline for this series of stories looks like this:
- The “PS5/XSX Games Have To Cost More” Myth
- The “Games Can Scale Between Generations” Myth
- The “It’s All About the TeraFLOPS” Myth
- The “Going All-Digital Is Smart” Myth
- The “PS5/XSX are basically PCs” Myth
- The “All Gaming is Moving to Subscriptions” Myth
- The “30 Frames Per Second is History” Myth
- The “An SSD is an SSD is an SSD” Myth
- The “PS5/XSX Games Will Not Grow in Size” Myth
- The “Who cares about PS5/XSX, I Only Play PC games” Myth