Saturday, January 26, 2013

In Depth: So just how powerful are the PS4 and Xbox 720 going to be?

In Depth: So just how powerful are the PS4 and Xbox 720 going to be?

It's been a long time coming, but specs for both of the major next-gen games consoles, the Sony PS4 and the Xbox 720, have been leaked. And they're both based on pure AMD technology.

Before we deep dive into the details, is the leaked information accurate? One can never be sure. But the signs are good.

First, it checks out in terms of plausibility. The hardware is based on known and realistic tech. The information is detailed, particularly that revealed by a few days ago. And it makes sense.

Secrets from CES

The timing ties in with lots of opportunities for leaks at CES and there's little doubt discussions will have been taking place behind closed doors. What's more, similar information has appeared from several sources, which is usually a good omen. On, then, to the meaty details.

The next Xbox is codenamed Durango, while the PS4 is known internally at Sony as Orbis. Both will be powered by chips based on AMD's upcoming Jaguar CPU architecture and offer AMD's Radeon GCN graphics technology.

What's more, the CPUs in both Durango and Orbis will be clocked at 1.6GHz and both will pack eight processing cores. Where the two appear to differ however, is in the graphics engine.

AMD's Graphics Core Next

Sony PS4 Orbis gets 18 Radeon GCN units. Microsoft Xbox Durango makes do with just 12. Elsewhere, Durango will have 8GB of shared DDR3 RAM along with 32MB of superfast ERAM for the GPU and a grand total of 170GB/s of bandwidth.

The PS4, meanwhile, will sport just 4GB of RAM, but it will be of the ultra-quick GDDR5 variety. All told, it's thought Durango will pack a grand total of 1.23 teraflops of raw compute power to Orbis's 1.84 teraflops. Oh, and both are expected to have Blu-ray drives.

On paper, then, and if the leaks are accurate, the next Xbox seems to be clearly outgunned by Sony's new PlayStation. But is that really the case? And what can we really expect from these two consoles in terms of a gaming experience?

Those eight-core CPUs in full

First up, let's deal with those apparently identical eight-core CPUs. Jaguar is AMD's next low-power, low-cost CPU architecture. Per core, it's less powerful than AMD's full-feature Piledriver architecture as found in both the FX desktop chips and A10 fusion processors.

Problem is, even Piledriver is marginal in terms of per-core performance for gaming. So the prospect of Jaguar cores clocked at just 1.6GHz is certainly the biggest worry concerning the performance of both consoles.

Yes, both offer eight cores. But the simple fact is that, to date, game developers haven't really cracked the problem of spreading game-engine work loads across many cores. Having individual cores that can process a single thread super fast still matters.

That's why, just as a for instance, Intel's quad-core, quad-thread Core i5-3570K is a faster gaming CPU than AMD's eight-core FX-8350.

PS4 vs Xbox 720 vs Wii U

Admittedly, game consoles have lower operating system overheads. They're also easier to develop for thanks to a fixed target to aim at in terms of hardware specs. But we'd still prefer to trade core count for a more powerful underlying architecture.

If you're wondering how all that compares with the Wii U, well, Nintendo's latest has a triple-core IBM PowerPC processor running at 1.24GHz. That sounds bad given that even the 8-year old Xbox 360 has three PowerPC cores running at 3.2GHz.

But the Wii U's CPU is a relatively complex in-order design. Overall, we suspect the performance of the Wii U's CPU will be similar to Durango and Orbis on a per core basis, it's just that it has fewer than half the number of cores.

As for the graphics half of the equation, we can make direct comparisons with PC hardware again. Each of AMD's Radeon GCN (or Graphics Core Next) compute units packs 64 shader cores. So we're talking 1,152 shaders for PS4 and 768 for Xbox 720.

PC power

AMD's fastest current PC graphics chip, the might Radeon HD 7970, packs 2,048 cores. So even assuming everything else is equal, including clockspeeds and memory bandwidth, Sony Orbis will deliver roughly half the raw graphics grunt of a top end PC.

Again, lower operating system overheads and superior software optimisation usually allow consoles to close the gap. But there's little doubting the next brace of games consoles fall well short of the best performing current PCs, much less hardware that will be available in six month's time.

Arguably, it's not how the consoles compare to PCs that matters, but how much they change the game compared to previous consoles and how they compare to each other.

On the first point, both will be a huge step forward. And in many ways, that will be mostly down to a massive increase in memory. Xbox 360 and PS3 have just 512MB of memory and it's a limitation that games devs are beginning to despair of.

The new consoles will be very liberating in that regard and the result will be games with huge, open and seamless environments, the likes of which have never been seen before. That'll be good news for PC gamers, too, since consoles provide a baseline for game development.

Get out your guns

As for comparative performance between the new big console guns and also compa red to the Wii U, we won't know for sure until we have hardware in our hands. Both are likely to have much more powerful graphics than the Wii U.

But we reckon Sony Orbis's performance advantage in the graphics department will prove mostly theoretical. That's because the performance of those AMD Jaguar CPU cores could well be a leveller.

As for when we'll find out, the heavy odds are currently on an initial reveal of both consoles in March to coincide with the Games Developer Conference, or GDC, and on-sale dates towards the end of this year.

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//PART 2