The future of consoles is just over a year away. There's plenty of key questions still unanswered, like how the major publishers will approach retail versus digital sales in 2020 and beyond. But if you're interested in knowing what the next PlayStation can do, there's a ton of info already out there.
The PlayStation 5 won't be released until next year, probably just before Christmas.
The PlayStation 4 launched in Australia in November 29, 2013, mirroring the console's worldwide release. It was a return to a familiar pattern for Sony - the PlayStation 3 was meant to launch concurrently worldwide, but a shortage of components for Blu-Ray drives meant the console didn't arrive in Australia until March 23, 2007.
Barring the PS3, the holidays are when Sony puts new hardware into the wild. The PlayStation released in November 15, 1995, having originally launched for the 1994 holidays in Japan. The PS2 launched on November 30, 2000, and slim versions of the PS2, PS3 and PS4 have launched in the September/October/November busy period.
So there's a long-standing pattern of releasing hardware just in time for Christmas. But extra confirmation came from AMD, the makers of the semi-custom chip that will be in the PS5, Xbox's next console, and the current console generation.
In a quarterly earnings call, AMD confirmed that revenues in their semi-custom business - the part of AMD that makes bespoke chip designs, and the unit whose earnings are mostly driven by console sales - would be down for the FY2019-2020 financial year.
"As we go into 2020, without talking about any specific customer, we believe that semi-custom will return to a growth business for us in 2020 and beyond," AMD CEO Dr Lisa Su said.
Lead Sony engineer Mark Cerny also confirmed that the PS5 wouldn't release in 2019, but it's also unlikely that we'll see it in early 2020. The console uses the 7nm manufacturing process that AMD's new Ryzen and Navi CPUs/GPUs are built with. But the amount of units that have to be made for a simultaneous worldwide console release is well beyond the amount of new desktop CPUs and GPUs that go into the wild.
And while manufacturing silicon gets more efficient over time, the sampling and testing process that follows can take several months, especially at the quantities that a Sony or Microsoft would require.
Expect loading times to be massively reduced.
Sony's official video comparing performance of PS4 Pro vs next-gen PlayStation pic.twitter.com/2eUROxKFLq
— Takashi Mochizuki (@mochi_wsj) May 21, 2019
Sony, Microsoft and other executives have already spoken about some of the things that annoy gamers. One of the easiest wins is with loading times, especially since the current generation of consoles are still built using older SATA-based hard drives, instead of the lightning quick NVMe drives in newer laptops, or the still-quite-fast SSDs that have become commonplace in most gaming rigs.
The PlayStation 5 will ship with an SSD, which translated into a sub-second loading time in Insomniac's Spider-Man, as demonstrated by Sony recently. (You can see the demo shown to select Japanese press above.)
The exact SSD that will ship in the PS5 will be custom-made, supporting more raw bandwidth than what you'd supposedly get in today's gaming rigs.
Cerny wouldn't confirm to Wired whether the PS5 was supporting the higher-bandwidth PCIe 4.0 standard, which just became commercially available this week with the new AMD Ryzen platform, but he did mention that the "details of the I/O mechanisms and the software stack that we put on top of them" were just as crucial to the console's performance as the console's raw read/write speeds.
The PS5 will support real-time ray tracing.
While the Radeon 5700 and 5700 XT cards that just launched don't have any on-board support for AI or real-time ray tracing, it'll definitely be a feature of the PS5. AMD was very tight lipped about ray tracing before E3 - understandable, given that it wasn't supported in the products that launched - but Lisa Su did say they had made specific optimisations for the PS5.
So they're finally out: AMD's answer to the latest generation of hardware from Intel and Nvidia. But how much will they cost?
"We certainly have done very specific optimisations for Sony," Dr Lisa Su said in a roundtable interview at Computex, as transcribed by Anandtech. "What you should expect though is ray tracing is important technology, and you will see it across our portfolio. Particularly working with the ecosystem will ensure that there will be strong ecosystem support."
But another key element of ray tracing is audio. "With the next console the dream is to show how dramatically different the audio experience can be when we apply significant amounts of hardware horsepower to it," Cerny said in the PS5's Wired reveal.
"If you wanted to run tests to see if the player can hear certain audio sources or if the enemies can hear the players’ footsteps, ray tracing is useful for that... It's all the same thing as taking a ray through the environment.”
As Cerny noted, using ray tracing for audio has been done before. The best visual example of this is in a demonstration of Battlefield 4's audio obstruction system, which indicates whether there's an object between the player and the source of sound.
The PS5 will play PS4 games.
The biggest problem with playing PS3 games was the console's custom-built processor - the 8-core Cell CPU, which cost around $400 million to develop.
So when Sony threw that out the window and went with an AMD semi-custom design for the PS4, older games had to be rewritten, or emulated, to work on the new console. The next-gen PlayStation uses the same architecture as the PS4, so if you want to see what your PS4 games looks like at 8K or with a more stable frame rate, you'll be able to.
You'll undoubtedly get the other hardware benefits, like the faster loading times mentioned above, but precisely how far the new console can push older games is unknown. Traditionally, Sony lets developers decide how best to use new hardware.
The PS4 Pro eventually received a Boost Mode letting the console run games a little bit faster, a half-step for instances where developers hadn't released a patch utilising the beefier hardware. It's logical to expect a similar approach with the next-gen PlayStation, as not all developers are seeded with devkits at the same time, and the nature of development means many won't have a next-gen patch ready by the time new consoles launch.
It's worth noting that the next-gen PlayStation will also play physical media, a requirement if you're to play older PS4 games with the console. That'll undoubtedly make a lot of local gamers happy - retail stores are generally still cheaper than the digital pricing at launch for new games, although deals on places like PSN have become much better these days.
Speaking of backward compatibility support...
The PS5 will support the PSVR, and it might power a new, more advanced PSVR too.
For those who invested in PSVR, hold onto it. Mark Cerny confirmed PSVR would be "compatible with the new console", but was very strict about saying anything further. "I won't go into the details of our VR strategy today," Cerny said.
A second generation PSVR, however, is definitely coming. The company's global head of research and development, Dominic Mallinson, told CNET this year that PSVR has to evolve. "It's not quite there yet as a mass market proposition... we do want it to be lighter weight, and easier to put on, less cables, less mess," Mallinson said.
Whether Sony opts for a wireless VR future, which most consumers would want, is another thing. Removing wires ramps up the cost of materials significantly, and a huge element of PSVR's appeal was that it made VR more affordable. But Sony has taken out a patent for a wireless VR headset, which shows the headset communicating with the PS4 via a breakout box (similar to what the PSVR has now).
Sony's also filed patents recently for other VR peripherals, including new controllers with analogue sticks and a control system that's "capable of presenting the sense of force for the movement of each finger of the left and right hands of a user".
The PS5 will support 8K output.
There's not much detail on this one, other than the initial confirmation that the next-gen console will support 8K graphics. It's supremely unlikely that you'll get 8K/60fps out of the gate, much in the same way 4K consoles now generally target 30fps instead of 60fps.
But what is more likely, since nobody owns an 8K TV yet and plenty of people only just upgraded to 4K HDR TVs, is support for higher frame rates at 4K. The latest HDMI standard, 2.1, allows for up to 120Hz refresh rates and, consequently, justification for consoles to support frame rates beyond 60fps. The new standard also supports the following:
- Dynamic HDR, which is capable of changing HDR settings on a frame-by-frame basis.
- Enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC), which enables the use of object-based surround sound formats, such as Dolby Atmos.
- Variable Refresh Rate (VRR), Quick Frame Transport (QFT) and Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM), which are helpful for video games since they reduce input lag, latency, and refresh rate for smoother, more accurate gameplay.
- Quick Media Switching (QMS), which removes the delay when switching between resolutions and frame rates.
Variable refresh rate will be a massive boost for games with unstable frame rates or inconsistent frame timings. But just as interesting is dynamic HDR. An upgrade to the existing HDR support in TVs and certain monitors, dynamic HDR adds additional metadata that allows for frame-by-frame or scene-by-scene adjustments, meaning that each individual scene or shot can be optimised for the content in it.
The kicker is you'll need a new HDMI cable for all the good stuff. Older HDMI cables won't support the additional bandwidth in the new standard, so get ready for another couple years of knock-off HDMI cables filling up the aisles of JB Hi-Fi and co.
Expect some kind of functionality with cloud streaming.
Sony has dabbled in the cloud gaming space for years, even if its PlayStation Now service stubbornly hasn't made it to our shores. But with the recent strategic partnership between Sony and Microsoft, which allows the former to use the latter's Azure data centres for "game and content-streaming services", Sony's cloud streaming should be more of a possibility.
You can, after all, already use your PS4 or PS4 Pro to stream games to phones and PCs. It's called Remote Play, and while it's best with a PS4 Pro connected via Ethernet, it works pretty damn well. The limitations of the consoles, however, meant you could only stream at 1080p and 60fps with a PS4 Pro, or 720p from a base PS4.
Sony unleashed its latest major software update for the PS4 on the world last night, and with it came Remote Play on PC and Mac. The idea is pretty attractive, especially for those with families or large sharehouses where there's a high possibility of the TV being in use. I've toyed around with Remote Play for a number of hours across a variety of games. And so far it's pretty impressive — with a few caveats.
In a release sent out on the corporate Sony website this year, Sony said streaming was one of the main pillars for the "future direction of PlayStation". "PlayStation streaming: Through the evolution of 'Remote Play' and 'PlayStation Now,' provide a seamless game experience anytime, anywhere."
Precisely what the evolution of Remote Play looks like is anyone's guess, although the direction Microsoft is going with Project xCloud provides a useful guide.
"Imagine that you just began a single-player campaign the day before heading out of town and want to keep playing from where you left off," Microsoft said in a xCloud blog post. "Maybe you just need a few more minutes to wrap up that weekly challenge before you head into work, but your bus just won’t wait."
That's undoubtedly what Sony is thinking as well, especially since they partnered with Microsoft specifically to help fuel their cloud gaming aspirations. Exactly how much processing is done in the cloud, and how much is done on a local device or the local console, is another matter.
Before the next-gen PlayStation launches, expect Sony to talk a lot about playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Last of Us Part Two and probably Death Stranding on a train or bus.