With the arrival of the so-called ‘ninth generation’ of home video game consoles, we’re seeing a radical shift in the approach of the console manufacturers. For the first time, right out of the gate, both Sony and Microsoft are offering gamers a unique choice: do you or do you not want an optical drive with your next-gen console?
It’s an interesting experiment. That both Sony and Microsoft have seen fit to make this move at the start of a console generation is suggestive of a paradigm shift in games retail. But is the option to indulge in an online exclusive bargain enough to set physical game publishing on course to its demise?
It’s not a question we can fully answer yet. The existence of SKUs with optical drives indicates that, for the manufacturers, consumer choice is still seen as important. But if a gamer does ditch optical media this time around, what lies in store for them?
We thought we’d take a closer look at what going ‘all digital’ is likely to mean: what will you be getting and what will you be missing out on by avoiding that disc drive?
Digital downloads: a next-gen controversy?
The idea of buying games digitally has historically been anathema to some gamers. Those against it view the concept with suspicion; perceiving it as a way to fix pricing and eliminate the second-hand market, which doesn’t offer game publishers any revenue.
From a more personal perspective, it also prevents the sharing of games with friends and relatives. Likewise, gifting a game isn’t quite the same if you cannot give someone a wrapped box.
But if this position were universally entrenched, the PS5 Digital Edition and Xbox Series S would likely not have been manufactured. Both Sony and Microsoft must believe a digital-only box offers value to gamers – and confidence to their shareholders.
So what is on offer?
Next-gen gaming console pricing
In the UK, the PS5 Digital Edition (DE) launched at £90 less than the standard version (£450 vs £360). Meanwhile, the Xbox Series S came in at a not insignificant £200 less than the Xbox Series X (£450 vs £250).
How those savings are perceived will differ between consumers. £90 less for the PS5 DE could make a difference for anyone needing to be conscious of upfront costs. However, £90 across the lifespan of ownership will probably seem far less of a saving to someone who intends to trade in their boxed games after finishing with them.
The £200 difference between Xbox Series X and Series S is a slightly different prospect. The saving is not insignificant, but the lower price point of the Series S has been achieved due to technical compromises.
While not exclusive to the Series S, there is another aspect to console pricing that is unique to Microsoft: the existence of an officially sanctioned monthly payment plan. The Xbox All Access programme provides a Series S console with 24 months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (essentially an online Netflix-style service for games) for £20.99 a month (£28.99 on Series X and £19.99 on Xbox One S).
Paying a monthly fee, at this price, can be likened to a monthly mobile phone contract — it’s a payment model many will be familiar with, and which makes getting a new Xbox that much more attainable.
Under the skin, the £360 PS5 Digital Edition is the same as the £450 box — it just doesn’t have the 4K UHD Blu-ray drive. Memory, GPU, storage – everything else is equal. If you buy the PS5 or PS5 DE, you are basically buying into the same machine.
Compared to the Xbox Series X, the Series S is a slightly lesser machine. With a less powerful GPU and less RAM, the Series S will not handle 4K natively. Instead it has been designed to target an output of 1440p at 60fps. It can upscale to 4K and will be capable of 120fps, if you have an HDMI 2.1 compatible television. Video media streaming services will also play at 4K.
Xbox Series S: lower specs, but not less game
Does this matter? It depends who you are. A resolution of 1440p (sometimes referred to as ‘QHD’ or ‘WQHD’ depending on screen width) is an established and current standard for PC gaming monitors. On a desktop display, especially at high refresh rates, 1440p visuals look impressive — being better than Full HD (1080p). If you’ve not upgraded to a 4K TV, have a QHD monitor, or prefer to use a monitor, then one could argue that targeting a resolution of 1440p is the perfect ‘sweet spot’. As the Series S can simply downscale to 1080p, you’ll also be set for playing on your 1080p FHD TV.
Consider what you need and want from your experience. If you don’t have or cannot get a 4K television, use a non-4K monitor, or prioritise streaming of your gaming sessions (N.B. Twitch streams, at the time of writing, max out at 1080p) then maybe 4K 60Hz/120Hz won’t be of interest to you currently.
As time goes on, you can expect more games to be ‘optimised for Series X’ – meaning there will be a layer of visual fidelity you may not be able to access, until you upgrade your console and display, or play the same game on a Windows 10 PC with a capable GPU.
It should be noted that Xbox Series X also supports 1440p. At launch, PlayStation 5 did not provide native support for 1440p displays. While Sony stated that they wanted to ‘prioritise support for televisions’, it is still possible to use the machine with some 1440p monitors, just not necessarily at the target resolution. It’s expected this may eventually change with a system update.
Solid State Drives: true next-gen storage solutions
The ‘card-like’ NVMe solid-state drives present in the new generation consoles reduce load times by orders of magnitude. Coming from machines with HDD internal drives, the difference in speed is a true ‘generational’ leap forward.
Series S: the smallest next-gen machine
The trade-off for blistering throughput speed is cost. NVMe SSDs come at a premium. While the Xbox Series X comes with a 1TB SSD, the Series S gets just half of that, at 512GB. On the one hand, with a large chunk of 4K game files being composed of 4K texture data, games delivered to the Series S should be around 30% smaller than those on the Series X. This will be underpinned by Microsoft’s ‘Smart Delivery’ system, which seeks to ensure only the file suited to your platform is downloaded, i.e. a Series S owner will not have to download a full-sized Series X game file, saving them storage space.
However, with only around 364GB of the disk space being available to the user, Series S owners will find themselves managing their storage a lot more frequently than owners of the Series X or either flavour of PlayStation 5.
It seems a bit counterintuitive to offer a next-gen console designed specifically for digital distribution with limited storage, but the alternative would be to compromise on the experience that the ‘Xbox Velocity Architecture’ offers: superfast loading times and the ability to utilise ‘Quick Resume’ (i.e. a function that allows players to suspend multiple games in a single session and resume play within seconds) are major selling points. (The PS5 lacks a direct equivalent to ‘Quick Resume’).
Multi-platform storage management
Whatever SKU you pick, storage will — initially at least — be an ever-present concern. Even though the PS5 and Digital Edition share the same amount of storage, it is relatively limited. The custom-designed SSD offers 825GB, of which 667.2GB is usable. That may seem substantial until you consider transferring (or in the case of the Digital Edition — exclusively downloading) your PS4 library alongside PS5 titles, which are upwards of 50GB minimum. The full installation of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, one of the earliest cross-platform releases, takes up 147GB on PS5. Expect those file sizes to grow steadily as the generation advances.
The limitations of external storage
All the new consoles will have the option of adding additional storage to offset the internal SSD size limitations. However, this comes with a caveat. To retain speed and performance, games designed for PS5 and the Xbox Series X/S cannot be played from an external USB 3.0 HDD, although game data can be transferred to and stored on external media.
Particularly for Series S owners, this provides a great partial solution. However, only certified, compatible external NVMe SSD solutions will be usable for installing and playing games. At the time of launch, Sony had not announced a suitable option. Microsoft had one: a 1TB Storage Expansion Card from well-known external storage manufacturer Seagate. Unsurprisingly, the ‘slight’ hitch is the expense: at £220, not only is it expensive – it is almost the price of the Xbox Series S console.
Digital next-gen game libraries
The manufacturers’ differing approaches to hardware reflect more profound differences between the two companies’ visions for the future. Sony appears to be intent on building an audience around a single device. It’s a fairly traditional outlook: build an enthusiastic community around a console, make a newer device, and then incentivise that audience to migrate to the new machine.
Upgrading to the PS5
Whether you choose digital or standard — with PS5 you will be gaming on the same hardware. You can bring your PS4 games over, and they’ll receive performance enhancements. But as the PS5 library starts to grow, new PS4 games will eventually stop being made, and most gamers will wholly embrace the PS5 experience.
Native backwards compatibility has not been provided for games of older PlayStation generations (PS3/2/1), but PlayStation Now goes some way to rectify this — more on that service later.
Upgrading to Xbox Series X and Series S
Microsoft’s next-gen approach is more about curating an ecosystem. The device acts as an access point into the Xbox ‘family’. Buy a game on the Microsoft Store and you can play it on any of your compatible current or previous gen Xbox devices. While games will increasingly be optimised for Xbox Series X, they will be playable on Series S, as well as the older One S, One X and Xbox One — although there will definitely be a step-down in graphics and performance. As time moves on and the install base for the Series X and Series S grows, developers’ focus will also shift to the most advanced machines.
However, backwards compatibility extends right back to the original Xbox. This encompasses a massive library of titles across all machines. Game Pass extends the options for accessing the back catalogue further (more on this key service later).
Next-gen backwards compatibility
The messaging, development, and strategy behind backwards compatibility on both Sony and Microsoft’s platforms has been more robust than with previous generations. And with good reason — it bolsters the relatively small library of titles available at launch and offers a reason to upgrade, for those players seeking performance boosts to their existing collection.
An obvious caveat for the all-digital next-gen gamer is that lack of an optical drive. Without the ability to insert and install old discs, gamers are at the mercy of Sony, Microsoft, and third-party publishers as to whether old games will be accessible and save files transferable, and what sort of enhancements those games may receive.
Accessing Sony’s back catalogue
Even without access to the physical discs, owners of the PS5 DE (and regular edition) can still take advantage of the Playstation Plus Collection. This is a compilation of some of the PS4’s greatest first-party and third-party hits, available to download digitally if you are a PlayStation Plus subscriber.
Of course, if you own a game digitally on PS4, you could simply redownload it from the PSN store, storage permitting. Storage limitations may encourage gamers to only download games they genuinely desire to play. However as playing PS4 games from external USB 3.0 drives is possible, gamers may choose to store and access their old library that way instead.
An interesting third way would be to delve into Sony’s separate PlayStation Now online service. Pay a monthly subscription fee (currently £8.99) and gain access to a library of over 800 titles spanning mostly PS3, but also PS4 and PS2. You can download or stream games, but if you’re looking to stream you will need a reliable and jitter-free internet connection: if your connection drops, you will lose your progress.
Accessing Microsoft’s back catalogue
As with the PS5, it will be possible to download Xbox titles already in your library on Xbox Series S.
However, the route many users will opt for (and which Microsoft is hoping to channel gamers into) is a subscription to Xbox Game Pass. While it bears some similarities to PlayStation Now, the execution is different. Pay a monthly subscription fee and gain access to a library of both brand-new AAA first-party games, as well as older titles spanning the Xbox generations.
If you subscribe to the highest tier (Game Pass Ultimate) you can download games from a selection of more than 250 Xbox titles, and over 100 Windows 10 games for PC. In addition, a selection of titles from EA are free to download via EA Play. Games can also be streamed to mobile devices (with streaming to PC under development).
Ultimate also gives you Xbox Live Gold membership — unlocking access to online multiplayer – plus a monthly free title. While you won’t own the games, you will be able to dip in and out of them at will.
Investing in next-gen gaming broadband
Whichever device you choose, one fact is inescapable: you’ll need access to stable and reliable broadband to take full advantage of the next-gen gaming experience. For the gamer opting to go all-digital, this cannot even be a considered option – it should be a requirement.
An ISP offering ‘superfast’ download speeds will be an attractive option when considering the size of the PS4 or Xbox One library you want to retain, or those texture-heavy 4K game files you’ll be downloading. But will the ISP have the bandwidth to sustain consistent download speeds at any time of the day? Are they likely to avoid throttling your connection during busy periods? Can they promise to not cap your data consumption, when your busy online life is now going to demand more gigabytes a month than ever before?
The reported surge in data consumption that occurred with the release of the Xbox Series X/S and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a pattern that is set to continue with the release of every AAA blockbuster during this generation. More people will be demanding more data simultaneously than ever before.
Enabling the gaming experience you deserve
Not only does Ghost Gamer Broadband have the capacity to allow truly unlimited downloading with no slowdown, it also offers the bedrock performance you’ll need to ensure downloads don’t fail, online multiplayer won’t falter and stutter, and streams won’t disintegrate into an unwatchable slideshow.
Consistency is key, and our dedicated and stable specialist network will ensure that your online experience, on and off the console, doesn’t just improve on evenings and weekends – you’ll receive the same optimised reliable performance whatever you and your household are doing online, whenever that occurs: whether it’s gaming, streaming video live and on-demand, or working from home.
If you’re upgrading your console, shackling yourself to last-gen broadband doesn’t make sense anymore. Find out why more gamers are connecting to the future with Ghost. Get in touch with the team today