PS5 vs Xbox Series X: does the most powerful console always win?

This week, we finally learned what the PS5 specs and Xbox Series X specs are. These are early days for both consoles, but our expert's opinion is that "the PS5, at least on paper, is much less powerful than the Xbox Series X." There's a lot more to dig into than that, though, and we recommend reading both of our in-depth specs analysis articles, linked above, for some informed opinions on the new consoles.

Historically, it's hard to tell how important hardware specs end up being to a console's success. Usually, there are other factors to consider, most obviously the range of games, but also the price of the console, or its appeal beyond traditional players. Timing, too, can play a key part, and additional features may also inform their success.  

Why did each console actually win its respective generation, then? Below, we've gone back through the last four generations of consoles, to remember how they came out on top, which might give you some idea of what'll determine the victor this time around.

Why the PS4 beat the Xbox One

Did the most powerful console win the generation? In terms of the base consoles, yes. The PS4 had an edge in performance over the Xbox One from the start, with many games achieving higher resolutions on PS4 than Xbox One (there's a long list of comparisons on this front in IGN's database). But the later-released Xbox Series X is more powerful than the PS4 Pro, and Xbox is still ending the generation well behind overall, with PS4 sales topping 100 million. 

What actually won the generation? Other factors determined the PS4's victory lap. The Xbox One was more expensive at launch, and experienced a PR disaster around its stance on pre-owned games (which it was forced to retract). Its Kinect peripheral was also removed entirely after release, which seemingly showed a lack of confidence in the offering, though it enabled Microsoft to bring the price down. The Xbox One has also never had the quality of software that the 360 did, despite highlights like the Forza series and Sea of Thieves. The PS4, meanwhile, has thrived with big, story-driven narrative exclusive titles like God of War and Horizon Zero Dawn.

Why the Wii beat the PS3 and the Xbox 360 

Did the most powerful console win the generation? No. The Nintendo Wii won with over 100 million units sold, and it couldn't even output in HD. But there was no clear loser in this generation, really. The PS3 and 360 both ended in similar positions sales-wise (80 million+ units), and despite the PS3 being tricky to develop for (to the point where PlayStation's Mark Cerny referenced it this week), games ended up performing similarly across both after a rocky first few years for PS3 ports. There were some notable exceptions, though, like Bayonetta's notoriously bad PS3 version.

The Wii U, which launched in 2012, had a better GPU than its competitors did (and a reportedly less capable CPU), but otherwise ran games to a comparable quality. Its real problem, though, was that its USP of a second screen simply didn't catch on. The Wii U didn't look like a serious upgrade to PlayStation or Xbox players, either, and proper next-gen consoles would follow a year later. 

What actually won the generation? Casual gaming. The Wii's promise was all about gaming as part of your family's lifestyle, with Wii Sports promoting local multiplayer, and Wii Fit expanding Nintendo's remit beyond Mario, Zelda and company. Motion control had a serious novelty factor that sold the Wii to many people outside of the traditional gaming audience. But the PS3 and 360 both had solid generations, ultimately, and Microsoft in particular made huge strides over its preceding console in sales thanks to the quality of its software and industry-leading online offering.  

Why the PS2 beat the Xbox, Dreamcast and GameCube

Did the most powerful console win the generation? No. The PS2 was considered less powerful than the GameCube and original Xbox (here's a good old Popular Mechanics article on that), but that didn't matter one bit. The PS2 is the best-selling home console of all time at over 140 million units, while neither of its competitors broke 30 million. The consoles had so much overlap in their software offerings, too, that you'd be hard-pushed to notice the difference between the consoles unless you paid attention to subtle visual details or load times, where the Xbox was particularly strong. 

What actually won the generation? The PS2's DVD player combined with its massive third-party library of software won out, eliminating the Dreamcast early on. The PS2 was also first to market after the Dreamcast, beating the GameCube and Xbox by over a year and a half, giving it a serious advantage. By that point, the PS2 already had mega-selling games like Gran Turismo 3 and GTA 3, ensuring its dominance. 

Why the PlayStation beat the N64 and Sega Saturn

Did the most powerful console win? No, but this case is complicated by more factors than the N64 having a more powerful CPU and more RAM than the PlayStation. Sony's decision to use CD-ROMs gave it a serious advantage in terms of capacity and audio, while Nintendo stuck with 4-64MB capacity cartridges. Games like Metal Gear Solid wouldn't have been the same on N64 because of the amount of audio (dialogue, in Metal Gear's case) stored on the CDs. That's why it's a miracle that Resident Evil 2, say, released on N64 at all (here's a great feature on Eurogamer about that).

What actually won the generation? This one was all about software: the range of it, the quality of it, and the price of it. And Sony won on all counts, while the N64 struggled with third-party support after dominating with the SNES. The PlayStation killed the Sega Saturn, too, by costing $100 less in North America, and it didn't help that Sega's console never had a proper Sonic game to help it sell. The N64, too, released over a year later than the PlayStation, and was extremely slow to build up its software library. 

The conclusion? 

Games tend to matter more than the hardware itself in each console generation. When people see what a Horizon sequel looks like on PS5, they won't be thinking about how the specs line up next to the Xbox Series X. They'll just be wishlisting the console to themselves.

That's why it's so important that Xbox gets the right balance of games during this generation. And while you can tell Microsoft has an immense amount of pride in its new hardware, its spate of developer acquisitions like Obsidian and Ninja Theory underline that it knows great exclusives are fundamental to the success of each system.

This feels like a generation where both manufacturers should avoid their past mistakes, and really provide each other with some effective competition. Still, we don't know how much these consoles will cost yet, and so much depends on that.


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