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Xbox or PS5: Which Should I Choose?

February 05, 2021

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Ideology

When trying to decide between the PS5 and Xbox Series X, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae. The Xbox has more teraflops. The PS5 is the size of a small infant. One looks like it’s from the ‘80s and the other looks like what people in the ‘80s thought machines would look like in 2021.

While technical specs and appearance are important, your decision to choose one or the other shouldn’t have to get down to these tiny details. Xbox and PlayStation are so ideologically distinct that, if you really understand what each one is made for, you should have no problem making a decision. (As an analogy, think Mac versus PC, or iPhone versus Galaxy.)

This “ideological” difference isn’t immediately obvious, though, especially to new gamers. After all, don’t these consoles play 90% of the same games, and have largely similar specs?

To understand why your decision to buy a Series X or PS5 shouldn’t be close, we’ll have to go back in time.


The Console Wars

In 2001, when Microsoft introduced a console to challenge Sony’s PlayStation 2, they hardly had a fighting chance. They pushed just under 25 million Xboxes—one sixth of the PS2 which, at over 150 million sold, remains the most popular console ever made.

The competition only became serious the following generation, with the Xbox 360 and PS3. Microsoft made up enormous ground, selling just 3 million fewer consoles than Sony when it was all said and done. So where once Sony held market dominance, now the playing field was level.

For round three (beginning c. 2013), each company would need to come up with some compelling reason for why consumers would choose their machine over the other. The answers they came up with then still affect the console wars all these years later.

Microsoft’s idea was bold. More than merely a bigger, better console, they envisioned the Xbox One as a different kind of media platform. It would function as an entertainment hub—the place where you’d play games, but also stream movies and T.V., and engage with all kinds of other apps like Spotify and Skype. It would replace not only your 360, but your set-top box and your TiVo and maybe one or two other devices along the way.

Sony went the other direction. They stuck to what they knew, focusing entirely on the games. Most notable, as always, was their first-party lineup (games available on PlayStation, but not Xbox), with big-name titles like Gran Turismo, Infamous, and what would become one of the great games of all time, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.

In another universe, Microsoft’s pitch might have been received well. In fact, it could have been seen as a revolutionary new direction for the industry. But, famously, they got off to a bad start, botching the console’s big reveal at E3 2013. Among other failures was a confusing and prohibitive game-sharing policy, and the announcement that the machine would cost a hefty $499 (for context: the same price point as the new Series X, all these years later).

Sony took Microsoft’s wounds and twisted the knife. In response to Xbox game-sharing controversy, they released a cheeky 20-second video demonstrating how easy it is to share PS4 games. And they undercut the Xbox price point by a full hundred dollars: $399.

The PS4 went on to sell more than twice as many units as the Xbox One.


Round Four

With the new generation of consoles, Sony and Microsoft once again have to answer why you should choose them over the competition. What they’ve come up with this time is pretty interesting—same same but different, as the saying goes.

Sony has once again wholly focused on the games. Spider-Man: Miles Morales is the kind of title that sells consoles on its own, and it might take awhile for any next-gen game to beat Demon’s Souls in terms of quality and critical acclaim. Both are exclusive to the PS5. Sony’s got a new, dedicated PS5 headset now called PULSE 3D which features advanced 360-degree audio already being weaponized in games like Miles Morales. Most notable of all, though, is the new DualSense controller. It features never-before-seen haptic feedback capable of simulating all kinds of sensations, from the kick of an assault rifle to the whoosh of an ocean wave. If developers are able to take full advantage of the DualSense, the PS5 will be more immersive than any console before it.

Microsoft isn’t leaning into multimedia this time around. But for the second generation in a row, they’re the ones taking the big risk—the risk that, like the Xbox One’s multimedia gimmick, will challenge the community to reconsider what they value about their gaming systems.

That risk is Game Pass.


The Wildcard

Game Pass is Netflix for games—a monthly subscription model that gives you full access to over 300 games right out of the box. That means new gamers will have more content than they can ever hope to get through, and returning customers will be able to foray into corners of the gaming sphere they’ve missed or simply never thought to try out before. And all of it only adds up to $10 per month. So really, the most surprising thing about Game Pass may be that it took this long to come up with such a good idea (though it’s worth noting that the service began in 2017, in a more limited capacity).

Game Pass is very promising, and the closest thing Sony has to offer—PS Now—doesn’t come close. But this model also has certain complications.

You see, Microsoft, in addition to making Xboxes, also makes the operating software almost all gaming computers run on: Windows. For that reason, what you can find on Xbox you can almost always find on PC as well (for example, Xbox’s first-party games: Forza, Halo, et al). The same is now true of Game Pass. While Game Pass for PC currently has a smaller library of offerings than its console counterpart, it is going to broaden over time.

This raises the question: if Xbox’s big selling point is Game Pass, but you don’t need an Xbox to enjoy Game Pass, do you therefore not need an Xbox?

It’s a flawed question, in some ways: PCs tend to offer most of what consoles do in general, and beat even the newest consoles in terms of technical power and variety of games on offer. So consoles have never been necessary for those willing to shell out for expensive high-end PC hardware. But Game Pass does bring this matter into focus.

We’ll just have to wait and see. Will the “Netflix-for-games” be compelling enough to make all non-Xbox consoles seem like Blockbuster in comparison? Or will it render all consoles, in general—including the Xbox—unnecessary?


Which to Choose?

Hopefully, by now, you understand why the difference between the PS5 and Series X isn’t really about TFLOPS.

The reason to buy a PS5 is that it has the best games, and the best way of playing those games. You can’t ride the subway as Miles Morales, listening to the sounds of the city in 3D audio and feeling the rumble of the tracks below in your hands on an Xbox. You will simply miss out on some of the best games of next gen if you don’t have the only console that runs them.

The reason to buy an Xbox is that, rather than a few amazing first-party titles, you’ll have access to a whole world of good games—so many that, even if you tried to play them all, you’d fail before the next generation of Xboxes comes out. And the cost of all those games, for a full year’s subscription? It comes to less than what you’d spend on Spider-Man and Demon’s Souls alone.

There is no right answer here, only right-er answers for different kinds of people. For example, if you’re a veteran PS4 owner who already has all the best games from last gen, those games will transfer to your PS5. So Game Pass will offer little you don’t already have, and the DualSense might make future remasters better than you’d ever imagined. But if you’re a new gamer, Game Pass is so valuable that it just about makes the decision for you.

These are fundamentally, ideologically different products. One isn’t better than the other, but your decision shouldn’t be close.

Written by Nathaniel Nelson for Knockaround.

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