Why Sony's PlayStation 5 specs matter to PC gamers: Ryzen, Radeon, SSDs, and ray tracing

System architect Mark Cerny gives us our first taste of the PlayStation 5's capabilities

Credit: IDG

Brimming with x86 processors and AMD Radeon graphics, modern gaming consoles share a lot in common with modern gaming PCs—or at least they did when the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were announced all the way back in 2013. Now, those aging AMD Jaguar CPUs wouldn’t be found in any self-respecting gamer’s system. But Sony’s PlayStation 5 will drag the console back into relevance with hardware upgrades sure to bolster gaming as a whole, according to a Wired interview with Sony system architect Mark Cerny.

First up: Those creaky old CPU cores are getting the boot. Finally. The Jaguar cores persisted in both the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro, a pair of mid-cycle console upgrades that greatly enhanced graphics performance, and their limp processing power limit what modern titles can achieve since many developers create their games with console ports in mind. Even PC gamers can’t escape the reach of these ancient console CPUs (which frankly weren’t too impressive even when new).

The PlayStation 5 will pack another of AMD’s all-in-one APUs, which blend CPU and GPU cores onto a single chip, but it’ll feature technology that even PC gamers can’t get their grubby paws on yet. Sony’s console will revolve around AMD’s third-generation Ryzen CPU cores, which are expected to launch for the PC market this summer. AMD’s first- and second-gen Ryzen processors kicked all kinds of ass, and this newest iteration will be the first mainstream x86 architecture built using the cutting-edge 7nm manufacturing process.

Depending on the final details, those Ryzen cores should sing—especially compared to those icky old Jaguar cores. And sticking with AMD allows Sony to leverage one of the strengths of the PC: Backwards compatibility. Since the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 both use the same x86 architecture, it should be easy to coax older titles into running on the newer hardware, and Cerny confirmed that backwards compatibility with PlayStation 4 games is coming.

AMD’s next-gen Radeon “Navi” GPU architecture will handle graphics duties for the PlayStation 5. Graphics cards based on Navi are expected to launch sometime this year, though AMD hasn’t provided an official timeline yet, or any sort of performance guidance. Even a middling Navi GPU should provide a huge step up over the PlayStation 4’s capabilities.

And get this: Cerny says the PlayStation 5’s Navi GPU should support real-time ray tracing. AMD hasn’t announced plans to support real-time ray tracing in its Radeon graphics cards, so the announcement comes as a bit of a shock.

But the details matter. Real-time ray tracing can technically run on any GPU but it’s incredibly computationally expensive. The technology only started appearing in games over the past six months or so, spurred on by a new generation of Nvidia GeForce RTX graphics cards that include hardware dedicated specifically to speeding up the task. Even still, it nukes gaming frame rates. Nvidia recently enabled ray tracing on GTX-brand graphics cards that lack that dedicated hardware, and well, the results aren’t pretty. It’ll be very interesting to see if these Radeon Navi GPUs include their own dedicated ray tracing hardware.

AMD’s CPU and GPU improvements will enable modern features like 3D audio and 8K video output on the PlayStation 5. The former could come in handy for PSVR owners—Cerny confirmed Sony’s VR headset will work with the PS5—while you should take the latter claim with a grain of salt. 8K televisions aren’t common, and the PlayStation 4 Pro’s 4K performance isn’t all that inspiring, struggling to maintain playable frame rates at that resolution in many games. Unless AMD’s Navi architecture delivers unimaginable performance increases compared to current Radeon graphics cards, it’s hard to imagine a midrange version of it playing games well at 8K resolution. For reference, that’s equivalent to four 4K outputs.

The final major improvement might be the most significant of all, and one Cerny calls “a true game changer.” We agree. The PlayStation 5 will ditch its predecessor’s pokey spinning hard drive for a modern solid-state drive. The benefits of moving from a hard drive to an SSD can’t be overstated. It’s the best upgrade you can make for any PC, the electronic equivalent of supercharging your car with nitrous. They’re fast—and that should alleviate the awful loading times that plague modern consoles. Cerny showed Wired a fast-travel sequence in Spider-Man. On the PlayStation 4 Pro, it took 15 seconds. On an early PlayStation 5 developer kit, it took 0.8 seconds.

Yeah, upgrading to an SSD is like that.

Cerny didn’t go into deeper spec details or say much else about Sony’s next-gen console, other than to say it won’t hit stores in 2020. But what’s been revealed so far should excite even diehard PC gamers. The PlayStation 5 is more PC-like than ever before and appears poised to bring technologies currently limited to pricey gaming rigs to the mainstream masses—which should help spur adoption of ray tracing and larger open worlds. The PlayStation 4’s lackluster Jaguar cores need to die already.

Even if you’re a staunch anti-console zealot, pairing modern Ryzen and Radeon hardware with a speedy SSD will surely rise all boats. Game on.

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Brad Chacos

Brad Chacos

PC World (US online)
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