To the naked eye there doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference between the Xbox One – which finally got its unveiling last night – and Sony’s PS4. Both consoles rely on the same PC-like X86 architecture; both the console makers have gone to the same suppliers for CPUs, GPUs and the rest of the console’s components – so what actually are the differences?
Well, one of the main differences between the Xbox One and PS4 is the vision for what each console can do. Sony went out hard on addressing problems developers had with the last PlayStation – so they’ve looked to address problems such as the difficultly in which games are made. Microsoft doesn’t have such worries, they have decades of experience in creating the tools to create great consoles games easily, so they’re vision is to conquer the living room and the TV.
A Glimpse of the TV of the Future
Last night, Microsoft painted a vision of how their Xbox One will change the way we watch TV forever – that’s right, the first segment of the unveil was their plan for dominating the lounge, and in turn the TV. They want to achieve this by have two HDMIs ports on the console, one for input and one for output. The crucial addition is the HDMI input. This means users can connect their subscription TV set top box through a Xbox One, which in turn will be seamlessly overlaid onto the Xbox One’s dashboard.
What this essentially means is the realisation of proper, superfluid, multi-tasking between apps, Live TV, Skype, games – you name it. During the presentation Microsoft bigwigs showed as number of novel ways this could change the way we watch TV forever. One example was snapping an NFL fantasy league app directly to the Live broadcast to create a new level of engagement, another way was calling up info about a film you’re watching and snapping it to the side of the film whilst it’s still playing. Now, this might not sound that revolutionary, but what impressed me the most was the speed in which you could change from game to TV to Skype or combine different apps altogether – basically seamless doesn’t really do it justice.
But there are obviously concerns – what if you don’t have Sky box within range of your Xbox One? How do you connect it to the console? Or can this feature be done with a standard freeview box? What if your TV signal comes from a built-in freeview via coaxial? All of these points remain unanswered. But if Microsoft manages to achieve its vision it could be a real game changer.
Microsoft has said it is “anticipating a global launch over time”.
“Our goal is to enable live TV through Xbox One in every way that it is delivered throughout the world, whether that’s television service providers, over the air or over the Internet, or HDMI-in via a set top box (as is the case with many providers in the US),” it says on the Xbox news site. “The delivery of TV is complex and we are working through the many technologies and policies around the world to make live TV available where Xbox One is available.”
The Real Difference Could be in the Architecture
One of the main differences between the two consoles is the software it will be running, Microsoft explained they’ve gone for an innovative system whereby there is actually 3 operating systems, the first is a new version of Xbox 360 OS; its soul purpose is to run games, the second is the Kernel from Windows 8; this is used for surfing the web and apps; and then there’s a third OS that allows instant switching between the two. Essentially it’s a bit like a double clutch system, the console is constantly able to switch between the two without any delay whatsoever. This means you can switch from TV to a game as if you were changing a channel on your TV. It’s that instant. No loading games, no loading apps, nothing.
The other major difference between the two consoles is Microsoft’s continued support for Kinect. Every Xbox One will come with the camera. According to Microsoft several upgrades have been made to the camera. So it can now handle 6 players at once, with much higher levels of accuracy, and without any lag. They didn’t actually show any new Kinect games, but they did show off the camera’s improved voice recognition, and wide-angle field of view, which Microsoft said, would work in all living room layouts.
Detailed by Microsoft corporate vice president of Xbox Live Marc Whitten at yesterday’s Xbox One presentation, the new Kinect “understands the slightest rotation of wrist, shift balance, transfer of motion, and when you’re exercising it can read your headbeat.”
Battle of the RAM
Another subtle differences between the consoles can be seen in the way each console addresses RAM, Sony has decided to the give the PS4 8Gb of GDDR5 RAM, which is usually the preserve of high-end graphics cards. Microsoft has decided to go another way and has chosen cheaper, DDR3 RAM – which on face value doesn’t seem like a fair fight. But Microsoft has also added what is referred to as “secret sauce”, an extra pool of ERAM, which is highly expensive and will look to address the differences in capability and bandwidth.
Until we see multi-format games side-by-side it going to be hard to predict how these slight changes manifests themselves in the actual look and performance of a game. But it could easily be the case the Sony’s OS isn’t as efficient as Microsoft’s and therefore needs more memory, but just as conceivable is PS4 multi-format games will look better due to the extra memory on offer – basically we just don’t know, and to honest, no-one does.
Discussing the making and capabilities of the Xbox One during a video feature for Engadget, Greg Williams said: “We purposefully did not target the highest-end graphics. We targeted more as a broad entertainment play and did it in an intelligent way.”
Williams went on to say that Microsoft has approached development of the new console “strategically”, with hardware that’s “truly unique”.
The Elephant in the Room
Instead of discussing games, though, the gaming community descended into farce after the initial unveil last night regarding the thorny issue of used games. At first Microsoft inferred that games would be tied to user accounts – so if you want to lend a game to friend he would have to pay to access both the single and multiplayer, unless you sign into your account on their console, over the course of the evening various Microsoft sources begun to send out conflicting messages.
“Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison has suggested that customers who activate a pre-owned retail disc for the Xbox One will need to pay the same price as the original buyer to access the content.
When asked by Kotaku whether the secondhand owner will be “paying the same price we [the original buyer] paid, or less” Harrison responded “let’s assume it’s a new game, so the answer is yes, it will be the same price.”
Harrison also said that owners can trade their secondhand games online, however the company is “not talking about it today”.
The resulting confusion saw Larry Hyrb, head of Xbox Live, write a blog post about the confusion.
“We know there is some confusion around used games on Xbox One and wanted to provide a bit of clarification on exactly what we’ve confirmed today. While there have been many potential scenarios discussed, today we have only confirmed that we designed Xbox One to enable our customers to trade in and resell games at retail.
“Beyond that, we have not confirmed any specific scenarios,” he added.
“Another piece of clarification around playing games at a friend’s house – should you choose to play your game at your friend’s house, there is no fee to play that game while you are signed in to your profile.”
The crucial word there is “your” profile – so lending of games seems to be off the cards, and with it renting games, too. If this is true, and Sony doesn’t go the same draconian way of controlling the second hand market, then this could be one of the major differences between the two consoles.
In truth Microsoft’s unveil was a bit light on games, but the vision they painted was an impressive one, everything from the seamless integration of social aspects of content discovery to the absolutely stunning multi-tasking did look mighty impressive. In two weeks time it’s E3 and both Microsoft and Sony have promised to share a lot more on their respective next-gen consoles – but after round 1 we’d have to call it a score draw.