October 22, 2019

PlayStation 5: The 4 features that matter (and 4 that don’t)

Sony is slowly building a public vision for the PlayStation 5. In an interview about the next-gen console with Wired today, it confirmed the PS5 name and its holiday 2020 release window. Sony Interactive Entertainment president Jim Ryan and PS5 architect Mark Cerny also gave some new details about the system’s features.

PS5’s previously revealed solid-state storage drive (SSD) will load games faster, but it may also save you space compared to the old spinning-platter hard disk drives. Sony is also including 4K UltraHD Blu-ray disc playback and a controller with adjustable triggers.

But which of these features are actually going to matter, and which just sound cool in the sales pitch? Let’s break down the four announced features that will make your gaming life better and four that we may end up forgetting about.

4 PlayStation 5 features that matter

The SSD

Sony is emphasizing the SSD in the PS5 for a good reason. SSDs represent a generational leap forward in terms of speed compared to HDDs.

This should mean no more minute-long loading screens to boot up games. Instead, that process is going to take seconds. Gamers on PC have long enjoyed the benefits of this technology.

But a guaranteed SSD in every PS5 also has gameplay implications. Creators can design games that can stream assets in at a much faster rate than the existing consoles. This could lead to new kinds of experiences that were never possible before — not even on PC, where developers have to account for players using older drives.

Ryzen CPU

From Wired’s April PS5 report, Sony confirmed that it is once again working with AMD. The next console will use an 8-core Zen 2 7nm architecture chip that is efficient and powerful. This tech powers the new Ryzen 3000 CPUs that debuted in July and continue to blow me away.

The Xbox One and PS4 use AMD’s ancient Jaguar CPUs that were weak when the consoles debuted in 2013. Even as we get new CPUs from Intel and AMD over the next several years, Zen 2 is not going to age out for quite some time, even in the PC space.

And a modern CPU is going to make a huge difference in games. Developers can create more complex open worlds with more realistic simulations. This is where next gen should see the biggest gain — especially as console continue to get diminishing returns from visual fidelity.

Hardware-accelerated ray tracing

But visual fidelity should also get a big boost thanks to real-time ray tracing. This is a technology that creates lighting in games that behaves much like real-world light does in the physical world. Rays of digital light emanate from the in-game camera, and then bounce off of objects in the world. The color and reflective characteristics of those materials then change the nature of those light bounces.

By mimicking the behavior of real light, digital scenes look much more natural. And we’ve seen the benefits of this for years in movies where ray/path tracing improved computer-generate effects. If you want an example, check out the gorgeous lighting in the opening of Toy Story 4, which is the first in Pixar’s series to use ray tracing throughout.

The problem with games is that they render in real time depending on the input of the player. But calculating ray tracing is computationally expensive. Movies can just spend however long it needs to do that rendering and then put the results on film.

To get that same effect in games, you need to calculate the light rays at least 30 times every second. Even the most powerful GPUs struggled with that. Instead, you need separate, dedicated hardware, and that’s what the PS5 has.

“There is ray-tracing acceleration in the GPU hardware,” Cerny told Wired. “Which I believe is the statement that people were looking for.”

Adaptive triggers and haptic feedback

The PlayStation 5 controller will have haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. And both should improve how immersive PS games feel.

Haptic feedback is a next-generation rumble (and similar to Nintendo Switch’s HD Rumble and the haptics in the Xbox One gamepad’s shoulder buttons). Haptics uses subtle vibrations and pulses to provide more information than a raw rumble. Developers can design haptic actions to convey the sensation of moving on different surfaces or traveling at high speeds.

Microsoft uses haptics to help Forza players feel the grip of the tires on the road, and it’s something that I’ve loved this entire generation. That is not just a cool little gimmick — it provides useful information that makes the game better.

Now, PS5 is getting that. And it’s also getting adaptive triggers. This new feature adjusts the tension of the trigger buttons depending on the in-game action. Different weapons will feel different, and so will specific actions. This seems like another great way for a game to provide feedback to the player that is useful and immersive.