It’s that time again in the console generation. Your games look better than ever, but you’re starting to notice stutters and glitches a little more frequently, and you’re wondering when the console that’s sat under your TV for the past five years might benefit from an upgrade. When can we expect a new PlayStation or Xbox, and what will they be like?
Microsoft is strongly rumored to be preparing a next-generation Xbox platform to encompass both cloud gaming and a more powerful console. Nintendo’s recent success with the Switch gives it a clear runway to iterate upon, and it’s said to be planning updated models for as soon as this year. But Sony’s plans for a presumed PlayStation 5 remain a mystery, beyond CEO Kenichiro Yoshida confirming that next-generation hardware is “necessary.”
The one thing that seems clear is that there will probably be a PS5 by the end of next year. The PS4 came out in late 2013, seven years after the PS3 was released, which, in turn, was nearly seven years after the Japanese release of the PS2. If we don’t see a PS5 by the holiday season in 2020, it’ll be the longest PlayStation generation of all time.
On one level, that wouldn’t necessarily seem far-fetched. With games like Marvel’s Spider-Man, God of War, and Red Dead Redemption 2 continuing to impress on a technical level by any standard, the PS4 is arguably holding up better than its predecessor did at the same point in its life cycle. The release of the mid-generation PlayStation 4 Pro has also helped in that regard, often helping to smooth over situations where the aging hardware otherwise couldn’t quite keep up.
But while Sony is the clear victor of this console generation, the company does appear to be winding it down. Hardware sales have peaked, and the publisher has four major first-party exclusive titles left on its release schedule: Days Gone from Bend Studio, Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II, and Ghost of Tsushima from Sucker Punch Productions. Days Gone will be released in April, but the other three have no set release dates, and any of them could turn out to be cross-generation releases. Sony’s decision to skip E3 2019 also suggests that the company isn’t planning to add significantly to the PS4’s slate of upcoming titles.
Various other sources are pointing to late 2020 as the most likely launch date for the PS5. Kotaku’s well-connected editor Jason Schreier expects the console to come next year, while Sony’s own forecasts for a fall in PlayStation profitability by March 2021 suggest it’s preparing for the heavy costs of a hardware launch before then.
The PS4 platform and its first games were announced at a February 2013 event, though the box itself wasn’t shown off until E3 that June when Sony dramatically revealed its Xbox-undercutting price point. The system eventually shipped that November, a week before the Xbox One. But details of its hardware had been floating around the internet for a long time; Kotaku reported on its “Orbis” codename and AMD x86 CPU in March 2012.
If the PS5 really is set for a holiday 2020 release, all of the major studios will know about its hardware already. And if the run-up to release follows a similar timeline, we may hear about that hardware relatively soon — say, sometime after much of the entire video games industry and the press that covers it gathers in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference in March.
In the meantime, all we can do is make reasonable yet baseless speculations about what that hardware may involve. But that’s fun, so I’m going to do it anyway.
The days of exotic, bespoke console hardware are almost certainly over. Both the Xbox One and the PS4 made the shift to conventional, PC-style processors based on the x86 architecture; Microsoft clocked its CPU slightly higher, though Sony’s better GPU and faster memory were bigger advantages in the end. The change made game development much easier all around, particularly across platforms, and now that it’s been made, there really isn’t any reason to go back.
On the other hand, the choice of CPUs in both current-gen consoles has left them significantly hampered in certain areas today. Both are built around eight AMD Jaguar cores, making use of a low-power design originally targeted at inexpensive laptops, and that’s really what’s holding them back at this point. The best-looking PS4 titles, particularly Sony’s own titles, are some of the most visually stunning games ever made, even when you include multiplatform titles running on a high-end PC. The Xbox One X and PS4 Pro’s GPUs are also able to push high resolutions better suited to a 4K TV. But these machines are rarely able to sustain performance of above 30 frames per second, let alone 60, and that’s because of their slow CPUs.
No doubt the PS5 and the next Xbox will have more powerful GPUs, but there actually isn’t a ton of headroom with current technology to allow for the kind of generational leap we’re used to — at least not if you want to keep the size of the box down and the price around the $400 mark, as the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X are already pushing those limits. We are also very much approaching the point where the cost of improving rendering technology and creating the assets to go along with it is going to outweigh the practical benefits. CPUs are where consoles truly need to catch up to PCs, and that could manifest itself in stronger performance, better AI, and more complex simulations. Developers may well end up spending much of the bigger power budget on delivering native 4K resolution at higher frame rates.
Last year, Digital Foundry predicted that the new consoles would provide a “revelatory boost” in CPU power, speculating that Sony and Microsoft would make use of AMD’s Zen microarchitecture to deliver desktop-level performance. This will also have implications for gaming on PCs where high-end CPUs haven’t been a critical part of builds for years. Since console games have to be designed around the low-power Jaguar cores, it’s rare in practice for the CPU to bottleneck PC performance. But while you can still get great results from an old CPU if you pair it with a modern GPU — Intel’s legendary Core i5-2500K from 2011 maintains a strong following — that’s certain to change when new consoles raise the bar.
If Microsoft’s impressive efforts with backwards compatibility are anything to go by, the true benefit of switching to x86 may be even more apparent on future consoles. The Xbox One X shows what’s possible when running last-generation games on modern hardware, and Sony would be nuts not to attempt something similar given how successful the PS4 turned out to be. The PS3’s byzantine Cell processor would have been impossible to emulate on the PS4, so it’s understandable that Sony couldn’t make a go of it this time around. But if the hundred-million-plus PS4 owners can’t move their libraries over to a PS5 with similar hardware, ideally with performance advantages, Sony will cede a real advantage to Microsoft’s next Xbox.
At this point, we’re starting to get into far less predictable questions of where each company will take their platforms. Microsoft looks to be making major moves in cloud gaming, an area where Sony was one of the first big players but hasn’t backed it up with serious support. PlayStation Now, for instance, was originally positioned as a backwards compatibility solution for PS3 games, but it now functions as a less expansive version of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass. Both companies will undoubtedly make serious cloud-adjacent plays when their new hardware releases, but that will be more about their respective online platforms than the consoles themselves.
For now, though, this is what you need to know. You can expect a PlayStation 5 and Xbox Something within two years. Both Sony and Microsoft will likely make major plays aimed at solidifying users’ game libraries and locking them into the platform. The new games will probably be more impressive in motion than in screenshots due to CPU-focused upgrades.
And in seven years’ time, we’ll be wondering what will replace them all over again.