Numerous production issues have dogged the PlayStation 5 for months, but the most recent news seemed positive, with Sony reportedly increasing its console orders. New information casts doubt on whether the company can achieve its goal, however. Sony has supposedly cut its production goal for the PlayStation 5 to 11 million units, down from 15 million units, for this fiscal year. Sony’s fiscal year is offset from the calendar year and begins on March 31, so we’re effectively discussing sales for the first five months of the PlayStation 5’s life.
It should be said that 15 million units seems to be an aggressive target; Sony’s PlayStation 4 only sold ~7 million units in its first six months, while the Xbox One moved ~5 million units. With 15 million units in targeted orders, Sony was basically betting that it could exceed sales for the Xbox One PS4 combined. Trimming back to 11 million units isn’t a trim at all when compared against the PS4’s actual sales. Sony’s production boost is a result of the pandemic, which the company believes will help it sell more consoles, but Bloomberg states that “the company has come up against manufacturing issues, such as production yields as low as 50 percent for its SOC, which have cut into its ability to produce as many consoles as it wishes.”
It’s interesting to hear that Sony may be encountering SoC issues, particularly given that we haven’t heard anything about similar issues impacting Microsoft. Either Microsoft has kept its projections modest and had no trouble meeting production, or something specific about its chip is helping it hit yields where Sony is falling flat. Normally you’d expect Microsoft’s GPU to be the more problematic design, given that it’s larger and has more compute units.
One possibility is that the issues are related to clock or some other facet of the design where Sony has less leeway than Microsoft. The Xbox Series X targets a lower GPU clock speed than the PlayStation 5 and this may have helped its yield. Microsoft and Sony have also taken very different approaches to how they clock their products with this generation.
Microsoft emphasizes stability and the constantness of its clocks, while Sony has drawn attention to the way its chip can clock up and down to respond to the demands of the moment. One company argues that constant clocks are the benefit it offers developers; the other argues that variable clocks are the secret to high performance. On paper, the Xbox Series X looks substantially more powerful than the PlayStation 5, so exactly what kind of gap will exist between the two is anyone’s guess.
The PlayStation 5 is expected to sell in two flavors: A $499 version, which matches the Xbox Series X, and a $399 version, which will lack a disc drive and come in well above the Xbox Series S. The Xbox Series S, however, lacks the full range of backward compatibility that the Xbox Series X offers, and will only play older games at Xbox One S levels of detail, not the enhanced options created for the Xbox One X. It, like the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, lacks a disc drive. Some analysts have speculated that Sony could bring the console in below these prices, perhaps at $449 for the fat PS5 and below $400 for the PS5 Digital Edition, but if Sony is struggling with yield issues, that would seem to be less likely.
Yield problems could also make one or both of the PlayStation 5’s difficult to find, depending on what’s causing the yield issue in the first place. We don’t know about any spec differences between the two consoles, so it might make sense for Sony to try and sell as many full PlayStation 5’s as it can, in order to maximize profit per unit. If the PS5 Digital has lower clocks or some other difference that directly relates to the yield variation, however, it might be the high-end version of the console that becomes harder to find.
At the same time, however, 11 million consoles by March 2021 would be the fastest-selling PlayStation of all time, besting the six-month sales of the PlayStation 2, 3, and 4. It would also best consoles like the Wii, which is specifically known for meteoric sales against the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, at least in the early part of its life cycle. The conclusion here is not that Sony faces ordinary supply pressures, but that the company has had trouble achieving a stratospheric product ramp during the COVID-19 pandemic.