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Why is the PS5 outperforming the ‘world’s most powerful console’?

Early game comparisons show the PS5 outperforming the Xbox Series X

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Microsoft has been proudly discussing how powerful its Xbox Series X console is for months now. There have been deep dives into the tech inside, promises it’s “the world’s most powerful console,” and even news that the company waited on a specific AMD technology to give it a mysterious edge over the PS5. On paper, the Xbox Series X looks more powerful than the PS5. But in practice early game tests show the PS5 outperforming Microsoft’s console.

Digital Foundry has been analyzing a number of new games across both the PS5 and Xbox Series X, and the results are surprising. With the Xbox Series X capable of 12 teraflops of GPU performance vs. 10.28 teraflops on the PS5, most onlookers expected there to be a small gap between the consoles. Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox also has higher levels of memory bandwidth and more compute units, but Sony offers developers less compute units running at a variable (and higher) clock rate to extract better performance out of the PS5.

While the Xbox Series X takes a slight lead in 4K and ray tracing performance modes on Devil May Cry 5, the high frame rate mode runs noticeably better on PS5 with frame rate gaps between the two systems at more than 40fps in some scenes. “The dips look really strange to me, and it kind of suggests to me some kind of API limitation on the Xbox side where the GPU is being held back by something,” suggests Digital Foundry editor Richard Leadbetter.

These dips matter because sudden drops mean a more obvious judder or stutter for players. Variable refresh rate displays can help smooth this out, but if the dips are significant then you’ll still feel the changes in frame rates either way.

Devil May Cry 5 also offers a ray tracing quality mode, where the Xbox Series X doesn’t show a significant lead. “I don’t really have any technical explanation for it, except the sense you’re getting here is that PlayStation 5 spec wise is punching above its weight, and something is up with Xbox — which on paper at least should be significantly ahead,” adds Leadbetter in the Digital Foundry analysis.

Elsewhere, Microsoft has a marketing deal for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla so that every time you see it promoted in a TV ad, it’ll appear alongside next-gen Xbox consoles. You’d expect Xbox Series X would be the best place to play this new game on console, but the PS5 outperforms again. Digital Foundry found that the Xbox Series X version of Valhalla includes a lot of screen tearing and regular dips below 60fps. The PS5 version appears to run a lot more smoothly. Variable fresh rates do make up for this screen tearing on the Xbox Series X, but you’ll need a modern TV to support that.

The Xbox Series X also falls behind the PS5 in both image quality and resolution in Dirt 5. The PS5 version (in image quality mode) gets better texture filtering and the average resolution is a little higher, too. Over in the performance mode, which targets 120fps, the detail level on PS5 is far higher than the Xbox Series X. Codemasters has acknowledged the gap here and says it will be fixed in an upcoming patch. As the performance mode has higher textures on the PS5, the performance dips below 120fps more often than Xbox Series X, but it’s hard to compare these two modes without Codemasters fixing the detail-level discrepancies. Either way, variable refresh rates on the Xbox Series X certainly help smooth out the gameplay experience, but they shouldn’t really be needed.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War also demonstrates the differences between these consoles. It shows an advantage for Xbox Series X in ray tracing performance, but Microsoft’s console falls behind in the 120fps mode. Black Ops Cold War includes ray-traced shadows, which aren’t as demanding as ray-traced reflections, but they add some depth to scenes. The PS5 drops to 40fps in some scenes with ray tracing, where the Xbox Series X holds 60fps.

All of these comparisons show that the Xbox Series X isn’t outperforming the PS5 in most scenarios, and it’s often Sony’s console taking the lead. Some of these differences could be down to bugs, but I’ve been speaking to developers (who wish to remain anonymous) about the Xbox Series X development environment and it’s clear things are a little complicated.

Microsoft only allowed developers to submit games for Xbox Series X certification in June, after delivering an update to its Game Developers Kit (GDK). That followed the company’s rather tight schedule for dev kit allocations, all while I’ve been consistently hearing that many developers had access to PS5 dev kits far in advance of Xbox versions.

Microsoft’s Xbox Series X console.
Microsoft’s Xbox Series X console.

It always takes time for developers to get used to the new software and tools involved in creating games for next-gen consoles. One developer tells me Microsoft’s switch to the GDK has been troublesome for basic things like user profile switching or gamepad linking.

Microsoft has spent years improving its tooling situation since the Xbox One, which was a messy launch period for developers. Still, I consistently hear that Sony’s tools are superior, even in the basics of providing more clear documentation for developers to follow.

Not all developers are still getting used to the GDK, though. The team behind Dirt 5 praised Microsoft’s GDK ahead of the Xbox Series X launch. “We started doing the groundwork for Xbox Series X development long before we even received the hardware,” said Codemasters technical director David Springate back in June. “This kind of thinking from Xbox allowed us to get a real head-start on next-gen development, so after receiving our early Xbox Series X hardware, we were up and running really quickly.”

These performance gaps, weird bugs, and differences between the Xbox Series X and PS5 versions of games look like issues related to the games rather than a platform problem for the Xbox. If Microsoft delivered dev kits and tools far later than Sony, then it could take creators more time to optimize further for Xbox. It may also explain why we didn’t see a lot of Xbox Series X gameplay in the months ahead of launch, but Sony was happy to regularly deliver PS5 gameplay.

Picture of the Xbox Series X, showing its power button and vent.

Expect to see a lot of game patches either way. Codemasters is fixing up Dirt 5, and I understand Ubisoft is working on an Assassin’s Creed Valhalla patch for the Xbox Series X to improve gameplay. Microsoft is also working with developers to resolve issues and has acknowledged the comparison videos in a statement to The Verge.

“We are aware of performance issues in a handful of optimized titles on Xbox Series X|S and are actively working with our partners to identify and resolve the issues to ensure an optimal experience,” says a Microsoft spokesperson in a statement to The Verge. “As we begin a new console generation, our partners are just now scratching the surface of what next-gen consoles can do and minor bug fixes are expected as they learn how to take full advantage of our new platform. We are eager to continue working with developers to further explore the capability of Xbox Series X|S in the future.”

Microsoft also hasn’t explained why it waited for full RDNA 2 support from AMD for the Xbox Series X. Xbox chief Phil Spencer revealed to The Verge recently that Microsoft started manufacturing consoles in late summer. “We were a little bit later than the competition, because we were waiting for some specific AMD technology in our chip,” says Spencer.

Things have clearly been coming in hot on the Xbox Series X side, but the PS5 has also launched without variable refresh rate support to help smooth out any frame rate issues. These features and overall performance do matter greatly on these consoles as it affects how we all experience playing the games that developers create. The Xbox One consistently struggled to hit 1080p early on compared to the PS4, and while the differences aren’t that big yet this time around, it will clearly take months or even years to determine how this next generation of consoles will change the way games are played.

Microsoft may have been beating its chest about 12 teraflops and the “world’s most powerful console,” but that hasn’t materialized yet. Despite this, I understand Microsoft is still quietly confident that bigger and more obvious performance gains will appear on Xbox over time, thanks to full RDNA2 support and its maturing developer tools.

Exactly what “full RDNA2 support” will bring is still unclear, though. Microsoft hasn’t detailed why it waited for AMD or why full RDNA2 matters. This is all while AMD is still working on its super sampling technology that it’s promising will improve ray tracing frame rates and could be available on Xbox Series X.

Ultimately, it’s the games that matter and Microsoft’s launch lineup has relied heavily on third-party games that aren’t backing up its performance claims. The Xbox Series X has been great at backward compatibility, accessibility, and accessory support, but Microsoft still needs to deliver more games from its Xbox Game Studios to really show the power of the console.