Sony’s Road to PlayStation 5 explained in simpler terms

Sony had to cancel their GDC PlayStation 5 keynote, for obvious reasons this year. So instead, they did a direct presentation in front of some pretty awkward cardboard cutouts. But once you looked past the cringe that seems to set in when Sony doesn’t have a live audience, there was some important info here about Sony’s next big console.

The biggest issue is the info was saturated with numbers and abbreviations, enough jargon to make your head spin. It’s clear that this presentation was geared more for developers and investors that were going to GDC, rather than consumers. We’ve done our best to break down the presentation into simple words, and focus on what it means for you, the gamer.

HD vs SSD

One of the major topics of the presentation was PS5’s new SSD. They estimate that a GB takes about 6-20 seconds to load on PS4, largely due to files being fragmented on the hard-drive. The SSD, of course, spends no time seeking and has a much faster load time, roughly a GB in .13 seconds. That’s an order of magnitude better than PS4’s hard drive. They estimate that PS5 will run at a load speed of 5.5GB per second and, with new Kraken compression technology, this can increase to an effective 8 to 9 GB per second.

They mention that this will actually change the way we develop games, getting rid of things such as elevator rides, long stairways, or twisting corridors that usually serve to hide load times. The SSD can actually load data on the fly, such as the time in which a character turns 180 degrees.

There are a couple other advantages to an SSD. For one, it will avoid major patch installs. Instead, it will simply patch things on the fly.

However, Sony couldn’t just pop in an SSD and call it a day. They had to design around a lot of bottlenecks and around the need to keep PS5 at a price point that is accessible to the masses. Eventually they landed on a size of 825 GB for their SSD to keep performance and price point in balance.

Expandability

PlayStation 5 will in fact be backward compatible, but large libraries will fill up PS5’s internal memory quickly. Players will be able to use hard drives just as data storage to, say, house their PS4 games, but of course these will have low load times. Players will be able to put their backward compatible games on the internal storage, of course, if they want to take advantage of PS5’s advanced hardware.

Players will be able to expand the SSD if they want to with off the shelf parts, though Sony has said that they will have to test drives for compatibility due to differences in speed and the way they handle data. General compatibility with off-the-shelf drives won’t be ready for PS5’s launch but will be available shortly thereafter. Wait until Sony validates the part you want, just to be sure that you won’t end up purchasing a part you can’t use.

Backward Compatibility

PlayStation 5 will be backward compatible with PS4 games, but in a new way. Sony admits that they simply added chipsets from old consoles into their new consoles in past generations. This time, they have developed special backward compatibility modes that will run PS4 and PS4 Pro games.

Of course, this also means that backwards compatibility isn’t 100 percent. Certain games don’t run on PS5’s more powerful hardware. They are checking through PS4’s library, however, and they expect that most of the top 100 titles on PS4 will be playable on PS5 at launch. They did not mention anything about rumored “forever compatibility” though.

Heat and Power Consumption

In the past, Playstation consoles were designed with a lot of guesswork. They would design a cooling system based on what they imagine the worst case scenario would be. If they succeeded, they have a fast and silent console. If they failed, the console chugs, heats up, and possibly even overheats.

PlayStation 5, on the other hand, is given a set power budget tied to the system’s cooling limit. As Marc Cerny explains "Rather than running at constant frequency and letting the power vary based on the workload, we run at essentially constant power and let the frequency vary based on the workload." What does that mean for you, the consumer? Well it means PS5 will hit GPU frequencies way higher than originally expected.

It’s worth noting that PS5 doesn’t actually monitor its temperature, rather it monitors its activity. With this new strategy, all PS5 consoles will run at the same speed with the same performance level in any environment regardless of the ambient temperature.

In short, when a more demanding game is played, instead of letting the console heat up, the processors of the PS5 clock down to conserve temperature, keeping everything running near the max at what the system’s cooling system can handle. Just what is that cooling system? Sony wasn’t ready to say yet but it will be revealed in a full tech teardown sometime in the future.

Audio

Sony had a renewed focus for audio on PlayStation 5. PlayStation 3 had a really sophisticated sound core while PS4 had comparatively very few resources available for sound processing.

PlayStation 5 was developed to handle hundreds of sounds at the same time. In addition, it was developed to handle those sounds individually. For example, it can process hundreds of independent rain drops in reference to the character’s location. Sony’s goal is to use 3D audio to produce a certain immersion that would allow gamers to recognize their space in the game world via audio alone.

"Where we ended up is a unit with roughly the same SIMD power and bandwidth as all eight Jaguar cores in the PS4 combined," Mark Cerny said in regards to PS5’s capabilities. "If we were to use the same algorithms as PSVR, that's enough for something like five thousand sound sources - but of course we want to use more complex algorithms, and we don't need anything like that number of sounds."

In simpler words, this means that much of PS5’s audio tech, named the Tempest Engine, will be central in PS5’s hardware. You won’t need high-end audio hardware to enjoy the experience. A simple pair of headphones and the Tempest Engine should be enough to grant you an immersive audio experience. Sony is also optimistic about getting virtual surround sound from TV speakers and sound bars, as well as multi-speaker systems, but further audio system compatibility will be added post launch.

However, there is a small hitch here. Everyone has a different HRTF (head-related transfer function) which, in short, is how you process sound based on the shape of your head, ear, and inner ear, and so on. There is no standard HRTF, so Sony will include five and a small test to get you to pick the one that gives you the best sound experience. In the future, they may introduce tech that could, say, map your inner ear and have an A.I. design an HRTF model that is right for you.

The Core Specs

If you are interested in the hard numbers here they are.

  • CPU - 8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.5GHz (variable frequency)
  • GPU - 10.28 TFLOPs, 36 CUs at 2.23GHz (variable frequency)
  • GPU architecture - Custom RDNA 2
  • Memory/Interface - 16GB GDDR6/256-bit
  • Memory Bandwidth - 448GB/s
  • Storage - Custom 825GB SSD
  • IO Throughput - 5.5GB/s (Raw), Typical 8-9GB/s (Compressed)     
  • Expandable storage - NVMe SSD Slot
  • External Storage - USB HDD Support
  • Optical Drive - 4K UHD Blu-ray Drive

There is, of course, still more that Sony has to tell us. We still have heard nothing about PS5’s price point, and a lot of what they had to tell us was ambiguous and subject to change. However, more information is coming, so stay tuned. Watch the entire presentation below: