We compare the new consoles to the PCs of today, and find that things have changed a lot since the PS3 and Xbox 360 hit the market.
By Bennett Ring on December 5, 2013 at 8:16 pm
Despite my well-earned reputation as a PC elitist, I’m actually platform agnostic (*sound of editor snorting with laughter*).
I don’t give a damn about the brand or cost; I simply follow my retinas to the best visuals, and my fingertips to the most interesting mainstream experiences (I’m sadly not a fan of indie or retro gaming). While the PC has been the rock in my relationship with games, I’ve had lengthy dalliances with the SNES, PS1, Xbox and Xbox 360, yet I’ve always returned to Ye Olde Faithful, drawn by the allure of its constantly evolving hardware.
With the release of two next-gen consoles, I figured I’d share my impressions of the new consoles from a PC lover’s perspective. Rather than just give you the specs of each, I’m going to talk about them from an experiential perspective. How do they look, sound, operate and play compared to the PC?
External Sight and Sound
If there’s one thing the Playstation 4 and Xbox One have over the PC, it’s their case design. Massive by console standards, yet tiny when stood next to your average monolithic gaming PC, the Xbox One is a sexy box of shiny blackness. Even more impressive is the PS4, which is about half as tall as the Xbox One, a surprising size considering the more powerful components within.
This slim chassis comes at a cost, however. I housed both next-gen consoles in a standard AV cabinet, with a glass door across the front. Close this door and the PS4 started to get overly hot, evidenced by the howling cooling fan emitting a shrill buzz from behind the glass door. It was painfully loud, even with my cinema speakers cranked up. In contrast the Xbox One remained absolutely whisper quiet, no matter how long I forced it to choke on its own hot exhaust gases behind the closed glass door.
Thankfully opening this door solved the PS4’s noise issues, so I have to give both consoles the nod when it comes to cooling noise while under load, as my PC would probably catch fire if I put it in such a confined cage.
Setup and interface
Both consoles have a mandatory online update straight out of the box, which took around 30 minutes on my supremely awesome Internode ADSL2+ service. There were no crashes or hitches, and they basically did everything themselves without any intervention from me. Yep, even your nan could do it.
Once both consoles were ready, they stepped me through the basic setup options — Wi-Fi, Kinect calibration and retrieving my PSN network and Xbox Live accounts. Both were extremely simple, updating each console with my account details without any fuss. So far so good — yet Windows 8’s new setup routine is equally IQ-free.
Navigating each console’s interface required a little patience, as they’re basically brand new. Testimony to the quality of the interface design is how simple it was to find everything, especially on the PS4, which lays everything out in a very logical pattern. The Xbox One wasn’t quite as simple though, but I soon discovered that using Kinect’s voice recognition was a much smarter way to get around, especially once I’d familiarised myself with the various keyword commands. However, the Xbox One has a glaring omission in its menu system – there’s very little info for storage management.
Given that both consoles ship with 500GB drives, and game installs are now mandatory, it’s not going to take long the hard drive is chockers. Yet it’s impossible to check this beforehand on the Xbox One, unlike the PS4. There’s also no way to monitor your controller’s battery life on the Xbox One, while the default settings for the PS4 make charging your controller a nightmare, as the system automatically shuts down the power to the USB ports after 20 minutes. Thankfully there’s a setting buried in one of the menus to fix this.
While the interface of these consoles are very slick, PC users will probably be frustrated at the lack of information. Given that they’re designed for novices though, overall I have to conclude that the console interfaces are the superior solution for the masses.
Upgrade and Connect
One of the key benefits of the PC is its ability to be upgraded. As expected, the consoles ship with relatively fixed hardware, although the PS4’s hard drive can be upgraded with little trouble. Unfortunately the Xbox One’s cannot, which simply reeks of money grubbing behaviour to me.
Microsoft suggests its magical cloud storage as one way to alleviate this issue, but that’s no solution for the high-speed access required by games and other apps. Hopefully the upcoming support for external drives on the Xbox One will resolve this, though if it’s like the Xbox 360 some games won’t play of external drives.
Both consoles are also putting a much bigger focus on downloadable apps, especially video streaming. Well, that’s the theory. Australians miss out on the majority of apps available overseas such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, but it’s not the fault of the console makers. Blame Australia’s Jurassic media overlords for that. However, getting around the region blocking that stops these apps working in Australia is incredibly simple on the PC, yet is much more difficult on the consoles.
One incredibly stupid oversight is the inability of either console to stream videos from your home network. Apparently you can push content from another device to the Xbox One, but who on Earth would want to do that? Again, this reeks of money grubbing, forcing users to instead pay $7 to rent a semi-HD movie off the online rental stores.
Enough whining, let’s get to the good bit – connectivity. The Playstation 4 comes with 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1, a single Gigabit Ethernet port and twin USB 3.0 ports. The Xbox One is very similar, with 802.11n Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi Direct Support, a single Gigabit Ethernet port, and three USB 3.0 ports. Both are stuck with HDMI 1.4, which should make the move to 60Hz 4K very interesting, if not impossible.
As you can see, both consoles have wisely chosen to use USB 3.0 as the preferred method for connecting devices to them… which makes us question why the Xbox One has absolutely zero backwards compatibility with prior Xbox 360 USB devices such as fighting sticks, flight controllers and steering wheels. This is a massive slap in the face for people like me who have spent far too much money on a 360 racing wheel and pedals. There is simply no way in hell I’ll spend that much again, just because Microsoft says I have to.
Sony has done the opposite, with most PS3 wheels working on the PS4, leaving the decision up to the developer of each game. This approach proves there’s absolutely no logical reason for the Xbox One not to do the same.
If there’s one nifty feature that both consoles have in terms of connectivity over the PC, it’s the second screen approach. Both allow users to sync their tablets and smartphones with the console, using it as a second display for developers to utilise. Receiving a phone call on my Galaxy Note 3 from one of Dead Rising 3’s characters was fantastic, helping to bridge the gap between the reality of the screen and my gaming den. The PC doesn’t have anywhere near as much support for using second screens in this manner.
Finally, the Xbox One also has a HDMI input, used to integrate cable TV services with the One guide. As you well know, it does nothing in Australia, so isn’t even worth mentioning until it’s finally activated down under — if it’s ever activated at all.
When looking at upgrading and peripherals, the PS4 clearly has the edge over the Xbox One, but both can’t come close to the ridiculously huge library of gadgets available for the PC, from VR HMDs to motion controllers to keyboard and mice. There’s also the fact that the PC is infinitely upgradeable, which means it’ll never go out of date, provided your bank balance is nice and juicy.
The Gaming Experience
Now, onto the crux of the matter – can these consoles match the exquisite gaming experience provided by a high end PC? I’m going to focus on the audio visual experience mostly, as it’s such a key element of gaming to the vast majority of gamers (no disrespect intended to those who don’t value presentation, but there’s a reason the graphics and art teams make up most of the staff in AAA development studios).
As a result of my love for PC gaming, I’ve always run high-end PCs. Despite this, at prior console launches such as the Xbox 360 or Playstation 2, I honestly felt that these console’s offered PC-beating graphics, at least for the first year or two after their release. They had cutting edge hardware inside that easily matched, if not bettered, what was available at the time on the PC. It’s not just my imagination — there are lengthy articles out there comparing the hardware within these consoles to that found in the high end gaming PCs of the day, and the consoles shipped with components that simply couldn’t be found yet in PCs.
However, this generation is a very, very different ballgame.
In the last eight years the PC has seen the GPU arms race reach new heights, with a rivalry between AMD and NVIDIA that made the Cold War look like a hippy love-in. Graphics cards are now the most expensive and complex piece of hardware within a PC, easily costing two to three times the price of the next most complex piece, the CPU. These huge slabs of silicon guzzle down massive amounts of power that simply can’t be delivered to the consoles, which are heavily restricted by overall TDP (Thermal Design Power), not to mention the cost of the components.
As a result, today’s consoles can only be described as entry-level gaming PCs. Their CPUs might have twice as many cores as most gaming PCs, yet they run at around half the frequency. The Xbox One’s GPU is the equivalent of a Radeon HD 7770, which currently retails for the meagre sum of just $89. The Playstation 4 goes one better, increasing the streaming processor count by 50%, and doubling the number of ROPs, to deliver a GPU in the realms of performance of the Radeon HD 7850. This retails for $159, again highlighting how far behind something like an R9 280X or GeForce GTX 770 both machines are.
Consoles have one advantage in that they can be “coded to the metal”, cutting through the overhead of DirectX to scrape out the absolute best possible performance from the hardware within. Their fixed hardware also makes it easier for developers to extract the absolute maximum performance out of each component. However, with AMD’s custom API Mantle soon releasing on PC (with Battlefield 4 support due sometime in December), that benefit won’t be as great as it once was — at least for AMD users running Mantle-compatible games.
Despite this efficiency of code, the consoles simply don’t have the ability to push out anywhere near as many pixels as the PC, nor light sources, shader effects or texture detail. In fact, they only have one advantage that makes a huge difference – draw calls. These are the calls that the CPU makes before rendering a scene, and on PCs this is crippled by DirectX. On the consoles there’s no such issue, which allows the building of scenes with huge numbers of objects. Those objects may not be as highly textured, well lit or have such fancy effects as the PC version, but there can be many more of them.
This draw call advantage can be seen most obviously in Killzone: Shadow Fall. One level displays a large city with an incredible number of buildings on screen at one time, far in excess of anything I’ve seen on the PC. There’s also another scene that shows dozens of massive spaceships warming up for a biffo, and again the base complexity is boggling. Ryse on the Xbox One has a similar advantage, with some scenes built from a much larger number of objects at longer distances than we’re accustomed to seeing on the PC.
However, the crispness of the image of these console games falls a long way behind the PC, due to issues with resolution and antialiasing. As you probably know, nearly every Xbox One game is running natively at 1280 x 720 and then upscaled to 1080p, leading to massive blurring and aliasing issues. The PS4’s superior GPU allows it to run most of its games at the native resolution of 1920 x 1080, but it doesn’t have the necessary oomph to use advanced aliasing techniques, instead falling back on primitive measures such as FXAA.
The textures used on these objects are also lacking to those found on the PCs, with text being an unreadable blur that would otherwise be perfectly legible on PC.
As a result, not one of the launch games looks any better than today’s sexiest PC games. In fact, compare titles available on all three, such as Battlefield 4 or Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, and you’d have to be blind not to notice the huge leap in graphical quality. Having said that, I’m comparing the consoles to a PC running twin GTX 780s, which can only be described as a high end PC. Compare the consoles to a much more middling gaming PC and the difference won’t be as noticeable.
But my point remains – in prior generations, it didn’t matter how expensive my gaming PC was, the consoles still looked superior. This time around this is not the case.
That’s not to say the games are ugly. Forza V, Ryse and Killzone are the most impressive of the launch titles when it comes to graphics, and they’re all downright gorgeous. But they’re not in the same league as Battlefield 4 or Metro 2033 on the PC.
PC rules the roost
When I first unpacked my Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, inhaling the sweet smell of fresh gaming hardware deep into my lungs, I barely touched my PC for several months. Over the next year the consoles became my dominant gaming platform, while my PC languished under a coat of dust.
I can’t say the same about the last four weeks. I’ve managed to complete both Ryse and Killzone, but haven’t felt the same urgency to play these next-gen consoles that I did in the past. I’m sure I’ll return to them as more big hitting games come out, and there’s absolutely no way I would have regretted purchasing them, as I know there will be some fantastic exclusive titles on the way. However, if one of these upcoming blockbuster games is also available on PC (such as Thief, Destiny or Titanfall), I’ll be playing it on my PC, that beautifully ugly black box that sits outside of my AV rack — surrounded by a small jungle of cables and looking about as sexy as a bar fridge.