Sep. 22, 2013 at 4:03 PM ET
As the video game industry barrels toward the launch of next-generation consoles this November, the Internet has become awash with arguments pitting Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4 against one another in a hardware-heavy fight to the death.
When the two companies first showed their hands to gamers, most tech-savvy critics sided with Sony when it came to the PS4's sheer horsepower. Not wanting to lose a race that hadn't even truly begun, Microsoft responded by increasing the clock speed of the Xbox One's central processing unit (CPU). At one point, Albert Penello, the Xbox team's director of product planning, even went into the trenches of gaming forum NeoGAF to argue against accusations that the One was "underpowered" compared to the PS4.
Despite Microsoft's campaigning, the influential British gaming magazine Edge dropped a bombshell — based on entirely anonymous "high-level game development sources" — saying that the "PlayStation 4 is currently around 50 per cent faster than its rival Xbox One."
But that still wasn't the last word: Game industry heavyweight and tech genius John Carmack, who pioneered 3-D computer graphics, said during his keynote at the 2013 Quakecon convention that the two systems were "very close" to one another.
How can these two devices be perceived as both entirely unmatched and neck and neck, at the same time? For some insight, we turned to Ryan Smith, the senior editor of graphics processing units at Anandtech. (That's right, lest you doubt their cred, just realize that these guys are so hard core they have an entire editorial job just covering GPUs.)
"Going back eight generations, the major systems have never been this similar," Smith told NBC News. While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 had dramatically different architecture, the Xbox One and PS4 have a lot of the same guts — the CPU and eight-core graphics processing unit were both made by the same chip manufacturer, AMD, for the first time.
Yes, Smith acknowledged the main difference, the one that's highlighted by PlayStation fans: The PS4 graphics processor weighs in at 1.84 trillion operations per second ("teraflops"), while the Xbox One's, even after the spec bump, only hits around 1.3 teraflops.
There are many more granular details here — for instance, the Xbox One's CPU, originally estimated to be on par with the PS4 at 1.6 GHz, could actually be faster than its rival's at this point — but people are right in thinking the teraflop differential may have an impact in some situations. In cases where a game is optimized for a PS4 in one way or another, Smith said, Xbox One players might see slightly lower-quality image resolution or graphical fidelity. But these issues will play out based on factors such as which console a studio develops for first and of course the nature of the game itself.
That's the dirty secret: The added juice won't matter if the software doesn't make use of it. Game developers "tend to appeal to the lowest common denominator," he said, so even if the PS4 is more powerful, it may not get many chances to use that extra power — at least for non-exclusive content.
If the Xbox One manages to repeat the Xbox 360's success by capturing a large enough market share, it will become that lowest common denominator, and the cross-platform studios will ship something for both consoles that looks pretty much identical.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.