Why Are Modern Game Consoles So Big and Will They Ever Shrink?

Key Takeaways

  • Modern consoles like the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are the size of PCs because they essentially are PCs, using similar components and technology.
  • Both Sony and Microsoft have prioritized cooling solutions in their consoles to avoid past overheating issues, resulting in larger cooling systems that take up more space.
  • While the future of consoles may involve slim revisions, the latest technology and performance demands mean that consoles will likely continue to be large despite being less upgradeable compared to PCs. Cloud gaming is a potential future, but it is unlikely to replace consoles soon.

Do you remember when you could fit the latest console neatly in the entertainment unit beneath your TV? The latest games consoles are Kong-sized compared to those from only a few generations ago. So what happened?

Today’s Consoles Are Pre-Built PCs

The reason that modern consoles like the Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5, and even the revised PlayStation 5 “Slim” are comparable in size to modern PCs is that they basically are modern PCs at this point. Though you can build mini PCs that take up less room, the average PC case still takes up a hefty amount of desk space (or better still, floor room under your desk).

Whereas older consoles tended to use more bespoke components, modern consoles do not. At the core, both the PS5 and Series X use custom AMD system-on-a-chip components. This is the same technology that was used to create PC components like the Ryzen 3000, 4000, and 5000 series of desktop processors.

One point of difference is the lack of a separate GPU by way of a removable graphics card. Instead, the PS5 and Series X combine GPU and CPU on the same circuit board. Despite form factor differences, the GPU technology found in Sony and Microsoft machines was used in AMD’s Radeon RX6000 class of PC graphics cards.

Camouflage Skin on the PlayStation 5 with matching controller and headset.
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

The other components found in modern consoles, and the interfaces used, are very reminiscent of modern PC builds. Both use GDDR6 RAM and NVMe solid-state drives, like you’d find in a modern PC. There is even a slot for expanding storage capacity on the PS5, with a drive that can also be used in a regular PC.

Finally, both Sony and Microsoft machines do away with external power bricks and incorporate the power supply into their designs. These are typically less thirsty than those found on modern PCs, with the Series X shipping with a 315w power supply while the PS5 has a 350w supply. But they’re still sizeable.

Even the form factor of the Series X mirrors some smaller PC builds, like the Corsair One. And cases like the NZXT H1 let you get that Series X rectangular tower look in a DIY build. The PS5 is a bit of an anomaly with its “popped collar” aesthetic, but you could probably gut a dead unit and build something performant inside of it with a Dremel and some serious dedication.

Modern Consoles Have Modern Cooling

The more power a component consumes, the more heat it produces. You can see this by looking at the difference between a console or a PC at rest and the same console or PC while playing a demanding 3D game. Both the components and the power supply kick out heat, and this heat needs to be dealt with.

Both Microsoft and Sony have made missteps in the past with sub-par cooling. In older machines like the Xbox 360 and the launch model PlayStation 4, heat was a serious problem.

At best, heat causes undesirable jet-engine-like noises. The PlayStation 4 was especially bad for this, and the problem only got worse with time as the console filled up with dust, lint, and pet hair (among other things).

At worst, you end up with a situation where the heat causes components to fail. The Xbox 360 was plagued with “red ring of death” (RRoD) errors linked to thermal output. The solder joints connected to the console’s GPU cracked due to the heating and cooling process that occurred when the console was utilized and then power cycled.

To avoid retreading old ground, both Sony and Microsoft went hard on cooling solutions in the PS5 and Series X. In iFixit’s Xbox Series X Teardown, they described the console as “an air conditioner with a graphics card” on account of its highly capable cooling system

Xbox Series X console powered-on
Corbin Davenport / How-To Geek

The Xbox Series X houses a vapor chamber cooler that uses a cycle of vaporization and condensation to efficiently move heat away from hot components to metal fins, where it dissipates into the air. On top of this, Microsoft put a relatively large 130mm fan inside to move air over the internal components, so that the unit acts as one big cooling tunnel.

Though the PS5 lacks a vapor chamber, Sony went with an even larger heat sink than that found in Microsoft’s machine. The PS5 is full of copper heat pipes that move heat away from toasty components. The PS5’s processor also makes contact with its cooler using a thin layer of liquid metal. This is one of the most efficient conductors of heat, commonly used in high-end PC builds and components.

Modern cooling systems use more metal and bigger fans, which means that they take up a lot more space inside the consoles.

PlayStation and Xbox Probably Have “Big” Futures

We can only guess what the future holds for Microsoft and Sony. But it’s hard to imagine a future where consoles push the boundaries of visual fidelity and get smaller.

A quick look at the PC market suggests that many components are only getting bigger and thirstier. NVIDIA’s RTX 4090 is a comically large GPU that’s as tall as an Xbox Series X. It also chugs a lot of power, so it demands a powerful power supply, which means a bigger power supply. Of course, the RTX 4090 doesn’t make it into most gaming PCs because it’s a product that costs more than three times what you’d spend on an Xbox Series X, that will also increase your power bill.

In time, components shrink. We’ve seen this in “slim” console revisions, the latest of which is the PS5 Slim, which has around a 30% total reduction in volume compared to the launch edition. That said, the PS5 Slim isn’t the massive reduction in size that we’ve seen in past console revisions. We’re a world away from the svelte-looking PS2 Slim revision of 2000.

Sony PS5 Slim and PS5 Slim Digital

Unlike PCs, consoles cannot be meaningfully upgraded to improve performance as they age. Using cutting-edge components that have yet to adapt with smaller manufacturing processes means that launch consoles are big. A lot of fuss is made at launch about the benefits of a new console generation, but the latest and greatest technology generally means sacrificing more of your living room.

There are outliers, of course. Nintendo marches to the beat of its own drum, and has done since the GameCube era. The Nintendo Switch is a hugely popular, yet diminutive hybrid console that avoids the “cutting edge” market entirely. Simmilarly, Valve’s handheld SteamDeck has a far lower performance target than most PC gamers are used to, but it’s priced competitively and fills a niche.

But if those consoles aren’t small enough, there’s still the potential end of home consoles altogether.

Could Cloud Gaming Spell the End of Consoles?

For some, the future of consoles is very limited indeed. You can already buy Samsung TVs that integrate cloud streaming using a Game Pass Ultimate subscription, removing the console from your living room altogether.

The real question is whether or not you trust your internet connection enough to make or break both multiplayer and single-player gaming experiences.

Xbox Cloud Gaming on Xbox.com

Cloud gaming is something that pretty much every console manufacturer has experimented with to some degree. Microsoft’s Game Pass Ultimate streaming option is arguably the most fleshed out of the bunch, but Sony also relies on streaming to play older titles via the PlayStation Plus Premium tier. Even the Nintendo Switch has a handful of titles that rely on streaming, since the console lacks the power to play them natively.

While it’s certainly feasible that streaming could become a formidable force in gaming, it’s hard to see cloud gaming taking over any time soon, and certainly not before the next generation of consoles arrives.


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