Sony PS5: What tech will power the next PlayStation? And when will it release?

PS5 is going to happen. Accept it. Shortly after this year’s E3, Shawn Layden (CEO of Sony Interactive America) confirmed to German publication Golem.de that PlayStation 5 is definitely coming. High profile industry analyst Michael Pachter also thinks PS4’s successor is a dead cert, going so far as to claim PS5 will be out by 2019, and be backwards compatible to boot. With over 60 million PS4s currently out in the wild, Sony may not exactly have a burning need to kickstart a new console generation, but when it does, you can safely assume PS5 – or Project Trinity, if the firm goes for another daft, Matrix-inspired nickname – will have a tonne of technology under the bonnet. 

As such, we thought it a good time to collate all the clues so far to try and bring you the clearest possible view of what sort of advanced hardware the next PlayStation might end up packing. We’ll look at some of the best analyst predictions, examine the state of today’s hardware market to see if current trends can give us hints on where console graphics and CPU tech is headed, then cast an eye over some seriously sophisticated Ultra HD TVs that should bring the best out of Sony’s next machine. We’ve even spoken to a few tech engineer sources (who wished to remain anonymous) for their take on what PS5 would likely deliver. So strap in for the 4K future, because it looks like PS5 could be an-all conquering powerhouse. 

The graphics tech

First, let’s try and constitute what would represent a generational shift in power for PS5. At present, the ultimate in luxury is 4K resolution/60 frames-per-second gameplay. While this is obviously beyond current consoles (the upcoming Xbox One X upgrade will technically be capable, but Microsoft isn't mandating it), PC users with insanely beefy rigs (like Alienware’s super expensive Area-51 desktop) can comfortably run games at 4K/60fps, though the costs involved are astronomical. However, it’s definitely possible if you’ve got a cavernous wallet. One of our tech sources explains that developers like Microsoft Studios and Naughty Dog have the budget and means to push for 4K, but most mid-size and smaller creators don’t have the budget or manpower to make it a reality just yet.

If you stump up for an Intel Core i7 CPU, throw 16GB of RAM into your PC, and install Nvidia’s GTX 1080 graphics card, you’ll be left with a powerful rig that can run most 2017 games in true Ultra HD at frame rates far higher than PS4 Pro can manage. Of course, these components cost upwards of £1000/$1300 to assemble – Nvidia’s GPU will set you back the thick end of £500/$600 on its own. However, it’s not as simple as ‘buying better tech for your PC and it’ll make games look nicer by default’. According to one of our tech sources the PC versions of games require more raw horsepower from the graphics card and CPU to get games to run on high settings. Consoles get the same performance more efficiently.

Why? Working with fixed hardware and APIs (on console) makes things more predictable, so you can get better performance from it. PS5 will have consistent hardware specs (as will Xbox One X), meaning developers can be more efficient and effective with what they have. 

Our same tech source continues to explain that consoles can do more with less, so the next Playstation won’t need an Nvidia GTX 1080 to deliver 4K/60fps. Speaking of which...

Will PS5 be able to run games at true 4K/60fps?

Some PS4 games struggle to run at 1080p/30 frames-per-second, so 4K/60fps may be a struggle for PS5 unless creators are able to squeeze serious efficiency from the machine (which will require bigger budgets that some won’t be able to afford for years). Right now the likes of Nvidia’s GTX Titan X and 1080 Ti can easily hand in these numbers, but squeezing such an ungodly powerful (crucially, brick-sized) GPU into a console-sized box would be difficult and expensive. Again, though, it’s not about raw horsepower. In reality, 4K/30fps or 1440p/60fps may well be a more realistic target for many PlayStation 5 games, but the big AAA studios should be able to get to 4K/60. PS4 Pro’s (admittedly compromised) push for 4K gaming means true 2160p presentation is likely going to be a priority for PS5. Something backed up by the tech gurus over at Digital Foundry, who reckon Sony could feasibly manufacture a native 4K-capable console as early as late 2018 if it so wished.   

Tech site Tweak Town is actually more bullish about PS5’s chances of being able to hand in 4K/60fps performance, citing a conversation it had with an unnamed industry insider. According to this anonymous source, the next PlayStation could well have a dedicated GPU. If true, this would be a bigger deal than it probably sounds, when you consider both PS4 and PS4 Pro are slightly hamstrung by the fact they use an APU: a processor which combines the CPU and GPU into the same single architecture. With a dedicated graphics card at its disposal, that isn’t directly connected to a CPU, the prospects of PS5 nailing down 4K/60fps experiences should definitely look a lot rosier.

Clever rendering techniques currently in used on select PS4 Pro games also bode well for PS5’s 4K future. Thanks to some seriously clever optimisation, the Pro (let alone a hypothetical PS5) can already run games convincingly at 4K/30fps by way of checkerboard rendering. More than any other title, Horizon: Zero Dawn represents a great example of this technique in motion. Thanks to crafty shortcuts, devs only need to render a scene at 50% resolution, before blowing up the resulting picture to 4K; a process that requires a lot less rendering power than a true 2160p image. 

When we finally get to PS5, it’s likely studios will be more comfortable deploying checkerboard rendering, meaning the technique should only get more convincing. This should ensure the next PlayStation won’t need a GTX 1080 graphics card under the hood to deliver satisfying 4K experiences.

Will Sony partner with AMD again to make PS5’s GPU?

While Nvidia’s line of Pascal GPUs can now comfortably fit into modern gaming laptops – a stripped down GTX 1080M can run the likes of Hitman and Rise of The Tomb Raider at over 100fps in Full HD on Asus’s recent ROG Zephyrus laptop – Sony will again likely partner with AMD (Nvidia’s longtime hardware rival) when it comes time to pick a GPU for PS5. 

The PS4 Pro already has elements of AMD’s advanced Vega line of GPUs operating under the hood, so it makes sense Sony will stick with what it knows. AMD’s next line of graphics hardware is due out in 2019, and could potentially be an ideal fit for PS5. Codenamed Navi, this tech promises greater scalability and next-gen memory. Providing AMD can keep the form factor compact, Navi should offer a massive leap over PS4’s current AMD Radeon graphics core. 

Will such a cutting edge solution match current top-end PC gear for raw power? Amazingly, probably not. Mark Cerny, PS4’s lead architect, told Digital Foundry last year that the realistic limits for a next-gen console GPU would most likely top out at eight teraflops – there’s that word Microsoft loves so much. In comparison, Nvidia’s recent 1080 TI graphics card can deliver around 11.3 teraflops of performance. Again, though, consistency of hardware is a big deal, so PS5 will likely overperform relative to its specs. Remember the early days of PS3? Developers found it tough to create games on the system, which was technically more powerful than Xbox 360, yet Microsoft’s games were regularly better in terms of visuals and performance. Looking at you, Bayonetta.

The CPU candidate

While graphics upgrades are always the most important single factor in any generational console leap, we’re increasingly seeing how vital strong CPU performance is in modern games. After PS4 Pro launched, many gamers rightly wondered why more titles weren’t running at 1080p/60fps on the beefed up console. 

The simple fact is, while PS4 Pro offers a substantial bump over the graphics hardware seen in the launch machine – the Pro’s Radeon GCN graphics core provides a 2.3x performance boost – CPU gains between the two PlayStations are much narrower. Indeed, the Pro’s AMD x86-64 processor runs with only a slightly higher overclock (2.1GHz, compared to base PS4’s 1.6GHz), representing a 1.3x increase in power. 

PS4 Pro’s modest processor upgrade means performance in many games is bound by CPU limitations. Though Pro has the graphical grunt to output games at true 4K, hitting 60 frames-per-second requires plenty of CPU muscle, even when running titles at 1080p. It’s why the likes of the upcoming Destiny 2 run at 4K/30fps on Pro, instead of 1080p/60fps. Quite frankly, unless your engine is particularly well optimised – see Metal Gear Solid 5’s superbly adaptable FOX engine – both the PS4 Pro and normal PS4’s CPUs are going to struggle to hit that golden 60 frames mark. 

Thankfully, PS5 should be a lot more capable in the processor department. Digital Foundry theorises the next PlayStation will be powered by AMD’s new Ryzen CPU line. Unlike PS4’s existing AMD X86 architecture, which was initially designed with mobile devices in mind, Ryzen has much better console credentials. 

Digital Foundry suggests PS5 could run on a CPU that’s built on the much more powerful Zen CCX module. Away from the overly techy terms, PS5’s processor should be capable of handing in 60fps performance much more easily than PS4, while also offering tangible gameplay benefits that don’t directly relate to resolution or frame rates. With more CPU power to play with, developers should be able to, say, make AI behaviour more sophisticated, or create more destructible environments in shooters like Battlefield. 

What 4K TVs will make PS5 games look their best?

No matter how much you love that 1080p television currently sat above your PS4, eventually it’s going to go the way of the dodo/Sega as a hardware manufacturer/wrist-waggling motion controls. Quite simply, 4K TVs are the future, and you’ll definitely want one by the time Sony sees fit to launch PS5. Actually, that last part was a fib: 4K TVs are already the present. While the vast majority of televisions in homes are still 1080p panels, Ultra HD models are quickly clawing out an ever increasing market share. 

According to recent sales research, almost three quarters of big screen sets sold in North America in 2016 were 4K. If this trend continues, certain analysts predict that by 2018, 100% of all TVs sold in the US will be 4K-compatible. Take a trip to your local electronics store and you’ll quickly realise these stats are probably going to be spot-on – few large scale retailers sell 1080p displays in 2017. 

It’s not as if price is anywhere near the barrier to joining the Ultra HD party it was even two years ago, either. These days you can easily pick up a decent(ish) 4K television for less than $500/£400. By the time Xbox One X launches in November, you’ll be able to buy a 42-inch 4K set for a good deal less than the cost of Microsoft’s powerful mid-gen hardware refresh. 

You’re definitely going to want that 4K screen whenever PS5 launches, too. PS4 Pro has already shown the stupendous results of pairing a respectable jump in processing power with well-tailored 4K presentation – both Horizon: Zero Dawn and Wipeout: The Omega Collection look exceptional played in their Ultra HD modes. Considering PS5 is likely to offer a quantum leap in performance over the base PS4, much of that extra horsepower will be wasted if you’re not playing games in 4K. 

So if we settle on the fact Ultra HD sets will be industry standard by the time Sony’s next PlayStation launches, just what sort of displays are we going to be playing on? Right now, LED sets still dominate the TV market, but they’re not always brilliantly suited for fast-paced games – the underlying tech can often be plagued with motion-smearing issues on many sets. Luckily, more advanced screen tech is already available in the here and now to pair with that shiny PS5 you’re currently dreaming about.

LG’s OLED screens are currently the best gaming TVs money can buy. Most of the firm’s models are 4K, they’re all capable of producing the sort of inky blacks LCD/LED could only have moist dreams about, and they’re nowhere near as expensive as they used to be. By the time PS5 rolls around, you’ll most likely to be able to buy second-hand OLEDs from LG’s 2016 range – which are still phenomenal TVs – for well under $1000/£1000. Not exactly cheap, but certainly in the affordability realm for enthusiasts. What’s more, Sony and Panasonic have now entered the OLED space, and as the market gets more competitive, prices are only going to fall that much further. 

QLED contenders

Samsung has also introduced its new QLED range of sets, which the Korean manufacturer is hoping will be The Next Big Thing in TV tech. These ‘quantum dot light-emitting diode’ panels can display much deeper blacks than regular LED televisions, and with a claimed peak brightness of 1,500-2000 nits, they’re substantially brighter than OLEDs, too. 

Those nits are also important for HDR (High Dynamic Range). A healthy handful of PS4 games already sport HDR modes, but few TVs in 2017 are truly capable of delivering bright enough whites to fully take advantage of the expanded contrast range. Going forward, the likes of QLED (as well as increasingly sophisticated OLED screens) should ensure HDR-compatible PS5 games look stunningly vibrant. With more and more devs inserting the feature into their games, don’t be surprised if the majority of PS5 games support HDR. 

What games can we expect to play on PS5?

Whenever PS5 is announced, expect its games to offer a substantial visual upgrade on what the PS4 can offer. Just compare Call of Duty 3 (which launched alongside PS3 in 2006) with PS4’s day one hit Killzone: Shadow Fall if you’re in any doubt over how much difference a generation can make. We likely won't see that sort of a drastic jump over contemporary PS4 games at launch, but as developers become more adept with the hardware, things are going to get very impressive. 

Will new CPU tech allow developers to create genuinely breakthrough, entirely fresh experiences PS4 hardware simply can’t offer? Or will we ‘merely’ have to settle for playing FIFA 2023 and The Last Of Us Part 3 in glorious 4K? With so many modern-day shooters still stuffed with pea-brained foes, it’d be great if the next PlayStation could utilise what’s likely to be an extremely powerful CPU to substantially improve enemy AI. 

Regardless if gameplay experiences truly evolve in the sort of paradigm-shifting style we’d all like to see or not, you can bet your bottom dollar PS5 is going to have some graphics. Hell, it’s likely to have all of them.