As we hear more about the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, it’s become clear that storage performance is where both Microsoft and Sony are hanging their hats with this generation of console. While the new systems offer very real gains in both CPU and GPU performance, the vendors are hammering the storage I/O and seek time improvements over and over.
According to Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, what the PS5 offers is beyond what’s available on a top-end PC. “[The PS5] has an immense amount of GPU power, but also multi-order bandwidth increase in storage management,” he said. “We’ve been working super close with Sony for quite a long time on storage. The storage architecture on the PS5 is far ahead of anything you can buy on the PC for any amount of money right now. It’s going to help drive future PCs.”
He could very well be right. Sony has shown more information on this point than Microsoft, but both companies have emphasized custom silicon baked into their upcoming consoles, specifically intended to allow the CPU to be fully devoted to gaming. This makes sense, from an architectural perspective — if you can’t deliver more performance through higher and higher clock speeds, deliver higher performance by making more efficient use of the CPU. PC’s don’t have an analogous function block.
Sweeney’s comments, if true, are actually a very good thing for the PC gaming market. Chatter about the demo has dominated discussion the past day or so, but if you haven’t seen it yet you can catch it here:
Why Consoles Potentially Leaping Over PCs Is Good for PC Gaming
Sweeney is quite clear that he isn’t just talking about what the average PC user has access to, even at the top end of the market. Assume for a moment that the statements are accurate. It’s been true before. The first programmable GPU introduced to market was the Xbox 360, not the Nvidia G80.
Because console and PC games are typically developed in tandem using the same engine, it’s the capabilities of consoles and low-end gaming PCs that collectively set the minimum bar for performance and quality. That’s effectively meant assumptions about storage that were tied to magnetic hard drives and the performance they could offer.
Microsoft and Sony are undoubtedly polishing at least a few mundane technologies as more exotic advances than they are, but they aren’t wrong in the main. We’ve never seen this kind of dedicated NAND cache devoted specifically to gaming, and the performance advantages of doing so could be considerable.
Yanking up the minimum bar sounds great until you consider that PCs don’t have dedicated NAND caches either, at which point it starts to sound like a bad idea again. What I suspect will actually happen here, assuming the issue presents as a problem in the first place, is that we’ll start seeing SSDs showing up as minimum spec requirements for gaming.
I’m not going to dismiss the possibility that Sony or Microsoft could introduce unique game capabilities on consoles that PCs currently can’t match, but I don’t think it’s likely. PCs might need higher RAM requirements or more VRAM to compensate for differences in underlying storage architectures, but it’s unlikely we will see them outstripped.
What’s good about this, though, is that we may start to see developers taking real advantage of the storage medium on PCs as well. Shaking the last mechanical spinners out of AAA gaming will ultimately be good for the entire medium. Even if SATA SSD-equipped PCs actually became the low point for performance over the next console generation, the benefits of making SSDs the default storage solution over HDDs would be enormous.
I admit, I’m making some intrinsic assumptions here. I see three basic possibilities:
1). The PS5 and Xbox Series X’s new storage cache technology is transformative and impacts gaming in ways PCs can’t match. Consoles lead in gaming quality for at least the first few years after launch. PC enthusiasts loudly demand equivalent features, leading to some cutting-edge enthusiast support for capabilities like NVDIMM or Optane DC PM.
2). The PS5 and Xbox’s new storage cache technology is very beneficial, but developers find ways to deliver equivalent or near-equivalent performance on PCs. The end result is still significantly faster games and better load times for all gamers, though conventional HDDs are less supported now.
3). The PS5 and Xbox’s new storage cache technology doesn’t improve gaming at all (and/or) PC developers refuse to adapt the technology for PCs. PC gaming remains fundamentally limited to the performance capabilities of a 5400 RPM HDD. Console owners all receive a free box of sunshine.
To argue option #3, you’ve got to basically believe both console manufacturers decided to double down on storage performance for no particular reason. The jump from a conventional HDD to a SATA SSD is perceptually larger than the change from a SATA drive to a PCIe 4.0 M.2 drive. The implication here is that we’re about to see consoles take a major leap in storage performance in ways that will encourage developers to optimize games for a storage medium we’ve already been taking advantage of for years.
If Microsoft and Sony both opted to spend significant amounts of silicon building specialized hardware decompression blocks that PCs don’t have, it stands to reason that they ought to be better at these tasks than a standard PC would. That doesn’t mean PC gaming won’t be the substantial beneficiary of these optimizations. And all of this assumes that the PS5 really is dramatically faster than a PC in a way that has an impact on gameplay in the first place.