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PlayStation 5: Why to be skeptical about next-gen console reveals

What’s promised vs. what’s possible

the PlayStation button icons flying across a blue background Samit Sarkar/Polygon

The first official details for Sony’s next video game console have been released, and while the specs seem straightforward, they warrant some important context. Yes, the next PlayStation will likely be more powerful and capable than what is currently available. But we should approach grand next-gen console pronouncements with some skepticism.

Historically, there’s been reason to take PlayStation announcements with a grain of salt. Back when the PlayStation 3 was announced, Sony promised a variety of things that didn’t quite turn out to be true. Backward compatibility was available, but only if you bought the early launch models. Gameplay shown off at the announcement was said to be running in real time, when it wasn’t — amazing previews of games like MotorStorm and Killzone 2 were pre-rendered. While Sony touted support for “true high-definition output at 1080p resolution,” most PS3 games ran at 720p.

Sony was much better about delivering on promised features and specs when it came to the PlayStation 4. Most of what Sony showed off pre-release — instantly sharing screenshots and video, suspending and resuming gameplay — turned out to be true. But even so, there have been a few missteps along the way. When the PS4 was unveiled, Sony’s Gaikai technology was supposed to let console owners “instantly experience anything that you want” from the PlayStation Store.

“Try it for free, share it if you like it, and pay only for the games you fall in love with,” Gaikai co-founder David Perry said at the console’s unveiling, but instant access to PS4 games never panned out quite like Sony promised.

When the PlayStation 4 Pro was announced in 2016, it promised games at 4K resolution — but the reality is that few games support 4K natively on the upgraded PS4 while also delivering a consistent frame rate. Some of Sony’s biggest first-party games, most recently God of War, have benefited more from the frame rate boost than greater resolution.

With the announcement of the PlayStation 5, it’s worth remembering that there is sometimes a gap between what Sony’s hardware is capable of, and what most game developers can actually accomplish with the hardware.

The PS5’s CPU and GPU, for example, which are supposed to support ray tracing and 8K graphics, sound a little too good to be true. For one thing, there are few consumer-oriented 8K TVs on the market today. It may be years before we see affordable 8K screens, and longer till we see mass adoption. Even if the TVs were widely available and affordable, top-of-the-line PCs have difficulty hitting 4K at a stable 60 fps.

Ray tracing is a little more complicated. Ray tracing is powerful rendering technique that can simulate realistic interactions between light and objects of different materials, producing more lifelike virtual worlds. But it’s also a very taxing process to do in real time on current hardware.

Nvidia has made a push toward real-time ray tracing with its new RTX line of graphics cards, but the GPUs are expensive: The high-end RTX 2080 Ti costs over $1,000. The PS5’s GPU and CPU will be designed by AMD with ray tracing in mind from the beginning. But since most of the technology required to deliver 4K (let alone 8K) with ray tracing at playable frame rates isn’t available for consumers yet, it’s difficult to say just how well this might work in a console, or how powerful these chips will have to be.

The Wired report also mentions that the PS5 will have a solid state drive that will allow for much speedier load times. To illustrate that, the author describes that on the PS4 Pro, loading something from Marvel’s Spider-Man takes approximately 15 seconds. But when played on a PS5 development kit, that same action takes less than a second. It’s impressive — but it’s worth remembering that that’s a PS4 game, not a PS5 game. There’s no telling what the load times for most of the games we’ll play on the upcoming system will actually end up being. Similarly, the article notes that the PS5 can render Spider-Man’s world much more quickly than the PS4 does. Again, though, there’s no telling how actual PS5 games might run on the console.

These dramatically reduced PS4 load times are promising for backward compatibility, but Sony gave no details on the functionality. Will your existing discs work? Is it download-only? Will we get a repeat of the PS3 backward compatibility debacle? We don’t know yet, though it’s good to hear the functionality will exist in some capacity, at least.

Of course, Sony never outright says that every PS5 game will hit 8K resolution and load in less than a second — these are just details that are offered to contextualize how much of a jump in power the PS5 will provide. Still, as we await the full reveal of the console, and until we can see actual PlayStation games running on actual hardware, it’s better to keep our expectations in check.

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