Brace yourself. Sony’s PlayStation 5 is going to be expensive

The next console generation will be here soon, with the Sony PlayStation 5 set to face off against the Xbox Series X in late 2020. While Sony has yet to announce the full specifications of its next-generation PS5, interviews and unofficial leaks have slowly filled in the picture — and it looks like the PS5 won’t be cheap.

The CPU is an expensive upgrade

Wired’s interview with Mark Cerny, lead system architect for PlayStation 5, revealed the upcoming console will use a third-generation AMD Ryzen processor. That represents a massive leap forward that will no doubt have consequences for the PS5’s price.

The PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro, as a reminder, use eight-core AMD Jaguar hardware. Jaguar, which wasn’t even cutting-edge at the time the original PS4 was released, is a “low-power” architecture designed with efficiency in mind. It sometimes powered inexpensive laptops and desktops.

AnandTech reviewed the AMD Athlon 5350, a processor with four Jaguar cores, in 2014. It found that the Athlon 5350 didn’t perform well in most benchmarks, even when compared to affordable processors like an Intel Core i3-2100 or AMD FX-4300. While the PS4 has eight cores to help offset Jaguar’s low per-core performance, it’s fair to say the original PS4’s processor was anemic compared to PC desktops available at the time of its launch.

AMD CEO Lisa Ku
AMD CEO Lisa Ku AMD

The PS5 is a different story. It will have an eight-core Ryzen processor built on AMD’s latest mainstream architecture. Compared to a high-end desktop CPU, which can easily cost $300 to $500 (or more), it won’t seem expensive. But it will tack tens of dollars on to the PS5’s per-unit cost. That adds up.

The GPU is another expensive upgrade

It’s the same story for the GPU, which is based on AMD’s Radeon Navi and will include ray tracing support. This is cutting-edge hardware. AMD’s Navi GPUs started to arrive for PC in late 2019, though they currently lack support for ray tracing.

Sony hasn’t said how it will spec the Navi hardware in the PS5, but leaks suggest the PS5 will have 36 Navi compute units. That puts the console on par with the AMD Radeon 5600 XT, a video card that typically sells for $280 today. Sony’s actual cost will, of course, be much less than that, but graphics will remain a significant chunk of the per-unit cost.

For comparison, the PS4 launched with an AMD Radeon GPU based on Graphics Core Next 2.0. GCN 2.0 was relatively new at the time, having arrived in PC graphics cards only a few months earlier. However, the chip’s quoted raw compute power of 1.84 TFLOPs was entry-level, well behind the best PC video cards.

If the PS5’s rumored 36 compute units are true, it’s shooting for a more impressive performance target. That would put the console’s raw GPU power in line with a midrange to high-end gaming PC. The PS5 seems positioned to pack more impressive hardware at release than the PlayStation 4.

The solid-state drive also doesn’t come cheap

Solid-state drives, which significantly outperform old-school spinning disk hard drives, were available when the PS4 debuted, but they were too expensive for consoles (a single drive was often hundreds of dollars). That’s why game load times lag on consoles compared to even a modest PC.

Sony plans to fix that in the PlayStation 5, and the solid-state drive is a key feature. Sony promises drastic cuts to load times and smoother asset loading in large, open-world games. But like every other upgrade, it will be pricey.

A Bloomberg report says fluctuating prices for DRAM (used for short-term memory) and NAND (used for system storage) have thrown a major wrench into the PlayStation 5’s price. Pricing for these key components can rise significantly because many modern devices require them. PCs, smartphones, tablets, and consumer Internet of Things (IoT) devices often need one or both.

According to the report, memory pricing has pushed the PS5’s per-unit cost to $450. By comparison, Sony’s original PS4 was estimated to cost $381 to build. Sony’s PS4 Pro was less expensive at launch, with an estimated cost of about $317.

The all-digital console may (or may not) drop the price

Sony’s reveal of the PlayStation 5 hardware showed off two versions of the console: One with a disc drive and one without. This confirmed speculation that Sony might offer an all-digital edition, just as Microsoft currently offers an all-digital Xbox One S.

However, Sony didn’t reveal additional details about the all-digital version, including pricing. This has led to further speculation and rumor-mongering about how the digital version may impact pricing.

An all-digital version will indeed be less expensive to produce. However, the reduction isn’t enough to justify a significant decrease in price. Sony’s cost for a Blu-Ray drive is likely in the range of $20 to $30; even consumer Blu-Ray drives for PCs are just $50. It’s not clear ditching the Blu-Ray drive helps Sony cut the price enough to make a real difference.

On the other hand, Sony might decide to eat some additional cost on an all-digital Sony PlayStation 5 in hopes of making up that loss (and more) from transactions on Sony’s digital store.

It’s also possible Sony will sell the all-digital version as the “standard” model and present the Blu-Ray model as an upgrade with a slightly higher price.

I’ve yet to hear any concrete information that would tilt me toward any of these scenarios being more likely than the others. For now, we’ll have to wait until Sony release more info — and new leaks appear.

Watch out for hard drive shenanigans

The higher price of solid-state drives remains a pain point for device makers, who want to offer a device at the lowest price possible. That often leads to a compromised, entry-level version that has a small SSD at a lower price.

Every company plays this game. The base MSRP of the Apple MacBook Air is $1,199, but it comes with a tiny 128GB SSD. You’ll pay $1,399 for the 256GB model. The Google Pixel 4 starts at $800, but only has 64GB of space. The 128GB version is $100 more.

Sony will face the same issue with the PS5. It might offer an entry-level version with 256GB of space – but most gamers know that’s enough for just a few games. The model most people want will have a 512GB drive and be more expensive. Want the 1TB model? Expect to pay at least $100, perhaps even $200, more than the base price.

Offering a slim-storage model is a tactic Sony could use to hit a lower-than-expected price point while maintaining a higher price for the version most people buy. I’ll be surprised if Sony doesn’t go this route.

The PlayStation 5 will be $500

My best guess — based on the information so far, the price of past PS4 and PS4 Pro models, and the price of new components planned for the PS5 — is that the console will carry a retail price of $500. This assumes it will have a 512GB solid-state drive.

A price of $500 would be higher than any PS4, but Sony’s first comments on the PS5 suggest the company is taking a premium approach to the console. It’s also possible — even likely — that PS4 consoles continue to be sold for several years as an entry-level alternative.

The high price might be offset by a base model with a 256GB solid-state drive, perhaps priced at $450. On the flip side, Sony could end up pricing a 1TB model — the one serious gamers will want — at $600 or more.

Others have thrown out similar estimates. In fact, former Xbox console marketing director and current Amazon senior manager of project management Albert Penello said on Twitter that the PS5 couldn’t cost more than $500.

I believe in the saying "never say never"

But I gotta say never. No way this console is over $499.

— Albert Penello (@albertpenello) June 12, 2020

As one who has worked on the marketing of gaming consoles in the past, this hopeful estimate would be worth taking into consideration.

These prices might seem disappointing, regardless, but Microsoft’s Xbox Series X could be even more expensive. It includes more Navi compute units than the PS5, which will raise the price. The Xbox Series X may also use 300 watts of power, which will lead to a more complex and expensive cooling solution.

Remember, the Sony PS5 will support 8K televisions, PSVR, and 3D audio, all of which promise the best gaming experience for your living room. That’s why it’s likely to squeeze you for $500.

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