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Why is the PlayStation 4 more compact and lighter, and yet still has more power than the Xbox One?

We’ve spent a lot of time comparing the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in terms of hardware specs, software, and games, but one thing we haven’t discussed is the engineering side – the form and design of these consoles. Physically, the Xbox One and PS4 are very different consoles: While the Xbox is huge and boxy (aptly enough), the PS4 is much slimmer and lighter.

Furthermore, despite being thinner and lighter, the PS4 has an integrated PSU, while the Xbox One has a separate power brick. Is Sony simply superior to Microsoft when it comes to industrial design and engineering? Or is there another reason for the design disparity between the PS4 and Xbox One?

Defining the parameters

From the outset, we know that both the PS4 and Xbox One are essentially x86 PCs. As a PC builder, I can tell you that you can basically make a PC as big or as small as you like – it’s just a matter of defining how the system will be used, and how much you want to spend.

In general, if you keep a certain performance target in mind, computers get more expensive as they get smaller. For example, if you want to build a system that’s capable of 10 teraflops, it’s much cheaper to build a large PC than a small PC.

Likewise, other stipulations also affect the size and cost of your computer – if you want your computer to play optical discs, have a removable hard drive, or be guaranteed to survive for a certain amount of time, there are hard limits on your choice of components, cooling solution, and chassis.

Once Sony and Microsoft had defined exactly how much performance they wanted from the PS4 and Xbox One, along with any other hardware features (Blu-ray playback, HDMI passthrough, and so forth), it’s then a matter of designing a device that meets these requirements, while not going over-budget.

PS4 versus Xbox One: Very similar specs with wildly different designs

What’s interesting is that, despite the PS4 and Xbox One having very similar hardware specs, their final designs turned out to be very different. If we boil it down, the only real hardware difference is that the PS4 has a 50 per cent larger GPU, and thus higher peak power consumption. This means that Sony either had to include a beefier cooling solution (driving up cost and/or noise levels), or design the system to operate safely at higher temperatures. If we take a look inside the PS4 and Xbox One, though, the two consoles are designed very differently. Here are the PS4’s internals:

And here are the Xbox One’s internals:

As you can see, the Xbox One is basically just a motherboard with a PC-style Blu-ray drive, 2.5in hard drive, and an APU with a huge heatsink and fan. There is a lot of empty space in the Xbox One – and don’t forget there’s a separate power brick, too. The PS4, on the other hand, is much denser – not only did Sony opt for a cut-down Blu-ray drive without the heavy steel enclosure, it also decided to integrate the PSU. A single fan cools both the PSU and the APU. On the PS4, the hard drive can be removed with a single screw; on the Xbox One, there’s a huge steel enclosure that can’t be easily removed, preventing everyday consumers from upgrading the hard drive.

Despite the PS4 integrating the PSU and being designed to have an easily removed hard drive, the console still only weighs around 2.7kg, while the Xbox One is a hefty 3.6kg before you factor in the PSU. Despite being the more powerful console of the two, the PS4 is smaller and lighter than the Xbox One. It would seem that the PS4 is much better engineered than the Xbox One – but is it that simple?

Why is the PS4 so much lither than the Xbox One?

When asked why the PS4 is so physically superior to the Xbox One, the simple answer is: Sony is better than Microsoft at designing hardware. If you’re a PlayStation fanboy, this is probably the answer that you’ll proudly parrot for the next six years or so. In all honesty, that might be the actual answer, too. We should look at the other possibilities, though.

For example, we must remember that the Xbox 360 suffered from awful reliability, mainly due to thermal issues. It is highly likely that the Xbox One was intentionally over-engineered so that it had absolutely no chance of suffering the same fate. Microsoft also says that it designed the Xbox One to last for 10 years – and again, such epic longevity is only really possible through intentional over-engineering (a thicker chassis, a larger-than-necessary fan, heavier and higher quality components).

Given the fact that the PS4 seems to be suffering from reliability issues post-US launch, it’s possible that Sony’s engineers pushed things just a little too far. It is much too early to make that call yet, though – it’s entirely possible that the large number of negative user reviews in the States is purely down to the increased power and prevalence of the web and social media. We will have to see if the Xbox One can make it through this first post-launch weekend without getting hundreds of one-star Amazon reviews, and then perhaps the over-engineering argument will indeed have legs to stand on.

We’re a little more dubious on the thermal failure front, though. In testing, Digital Foundry found that the Xbox One and PS4 have very similar thermal characteristics – in fact, rather than being significantly cooler than the PS4, the Xbox One’s case temperature is actually higher. During games, the Xbox One case temperature (directly above the CPU) was 49 degrees Celsius; the PS4 was just 44 degrees Celsius. The PS4 is slightly noisier under load, but you won’t notice the difference from more than a metre or two away (i.e. sitting on your couch). It would seem that all of the extra space in the Xbox One doesn’t serve much purpose.

It’s worth noting that load temperatures of under 50C are incredibly low for a PC-like system – the AMD APU in both consoles is probably rated to work faultlessly for years at 70C or more. Judging by the similar load temps, we would argue that the Xbox One’s increased size isn’t about reducing the chance of thermal failure – rather, it’s a sign that Microsoft’s engineering team simply wasn’t good enough to design a console that was small, light, and had good thermals.

While you’re here, you might want to read our full review of the Xbox One, and hands-on with the PlayStation 4. We’ve also taken a closer look at the US PlayStation 4 launch which highlights Sony’s biggest failures therein, and we have a piece on whether the Xbox One is a true living room revolution in the making, or a mere box of gimmicks.

Image Credits: iFixit Xbox Teardown, PS4 Teardown