Sony has been surprisingly open about the design of the upcoming PlayStation 5. The company has unveiled new details about its strategy for the platform at a corporate presentation, including demonstrating improved load times in Spider-Man and promising full backward compatibility as well as PlayStation VR support.
The PS5 won’t be the first console to offer backward-compatibility out of the gate, but it should be able to do so with vastly less difficulty or cost than previous platform iterations. Up until now, every time Sony has provided hardware-level backward compatibility, it has done so using a miniaturized version of the previous console implemented directly in the next-generation platform. To be clear, we don’t know for absolute certain that Sony hasn’t done this, but it’s unlikely. Because the PS5 is based on the same x86 architecture and a similar GPU, providing backward compatibility in software shouldn’t be much (if any) harder than booting up a game you played back in 2013 on a 2019 system.
The Ryzen CPU at the heart of the PS5 isn’t based on the same core architecture as the Jaguar core that powered the PS4, but the beauty of architectural compatibility is that this shouldn’t matter. And Sony is banking hard on showing the improvements that it can offer with an updated system architecture, including the gains it sees from adopting an SSD instead of an HDD, as shown in the video below:
Sony’s official video comparing performance of PS4 Pro vs next-gen PlayStation pic.twitter.com/2eUROxKFLq
— Takashi Mochizuki (@mochi_wsj) May 21, 2019
There’s a little bit of sleight of hand in this. Sony is showing off how fast assets can stream if the game is designed around faster storage, and while this is absolutely 100 percent true, it doesn’t really showcase other improvements on the platform. The great strength of SSDs is that they can literally improve the performance of virtually any system. First-generation Atom netbooks based on Intel’s original Bonnell microarchitecture are noticeably faster if equipped with SSDs than HDDs. Of course, this doesn’t mean the PS5 won’t be faster than the PS4 — it’s just that the PS4 itself would probably pick up a lot of these gains if it ran the same version of the game from the same high-speed storage.
“We will leverage backwards compatibility to transition our community to next-gen faster and more seamlessly than ever before,” the company’s presentation said at the event. The PlayStation 4 will supposedly serve as the “engine of engagement and profitability” over the next three years of its life. This could be read as an implication that Sony might be willing to sell the PS5 at a loss, but it could also be the usual kind of remark companies make when they are revving up new consoles to reassure investors that they aren’t about to torpedo their own markets. Nintendo made similar remarks about the Wii U and 3DS, even as it rapidly EOL’d one and plans by all accounts to do the same with the 3DS now.
Despite the reminder that Sony has spoken about 8K, nobody is reading that as a promise for support for 8K gaming. The resolution is simply too high, and too far beyond the range of any hardware expected to be suitable for the console market in 2019. Other features, like ray tracing support, may be practically supported, but it’s uncertain how much we’ll see them used. Not every console feature winds up widely supported. The original Xbox 360 supported tessellation, though I’m not sure any game ever used the feature, for example. 3D audio capabilities tend to be something the console companies talk about in the run-up to launch, but games that make extensive use of positional audio as a major gameplay element are few and far between, mostly because you can’t automatically assume players have sound systems that can take advantage of these features.
Sony has said it believes game streaming is critical to its overall future and has signed a major deal with Microsoft to collaborate on game streaming going forward, but it won’t be abandoning disc-based players. PS4 games will play on the PS5, and the PS5 will also have a physical media option of its own. Sony did say, however, that “we believe the streaming era is upon us and is about to begin a period of rapid growth.”