Two days ago, Sony unveiled the PlayStation 4. We don’t know what it looks like, how much it costs, or when it will launch – but, rather surprisingly for a game console, Sony did tell us a lot about the PS4’s hardware.
In Sony’s own words, the PS4 contains a “supercharged PC architecture,” which is a little hyperbolic and condescending if you’re a PC gamer, but for a game console to use the x86 architecture is really quite extraordinary. Other than the original Xbox, no major console has used the x86 architecture, instead opting for RISC chips made by the likes of IBM, NEC, and Toshiba. Sony’s sudden shift to x86 will take many gamers and developers by surprise, but it makes a lot of sense if we look at the bigger picture.
Historically, console makers have shied away from x86 for a number of reasons: Cost, power consumption, and simply because consoles are not PCs. Up until very recently, game consoles did just one thing: Play games. It didn’t make sense to have an expensive, bloated x86 CISC chip when a cut-down RISC chip could provide the same frame rates at a fraction of the transistor count.
The trade-off, of course, is that each console generally requires game developers to learn an entirely new hardware architecture, and how to use the new developer toolkit.
This is why first-generation games usually pale in comparison to second and third-generation games produced by the same studio. By moving to a standard, well-understood architecture, it should be easy for developers to produce excellent games from launch.
The x86 CPU, incidentally, is a 64-bit, 8-core Jaguar CPU made by AMD, probably clocked at around 2GHz. Jaguar is the next step up after Bobcat, and is targeted at low-power (and low-cost) laptops. Jaguar is expected to be around 10 per cent faster than Bobcat – and the core count is quite impressive, if developers can make use of them all – but overall, the PS4’s CPU isn’t spectacular.
It isn’t merely a CPU inside the PS4, though – it’s an APU! Bundled with the CPU, on the same die, is what Sony is calling “a next-generation Radeon” GPU. Beyond that, all we know is that the GPU has 18 compute units and is capable of 1.84 Teraflops – i.e. somewhere between the Radeon 7850 and 7870.
We assume that the GPU is based on AMD’s GCN architecture, but the use of “next-generation” is a little bit puzzling. Rather than featuring GCN 2.0, though, “next-generation” probably refers to the fact that the PS4′s Radeon GPU has been tweaked to “allow for easier use of the GPU for general purpose computing (GPGPU) such as physics simulation.” All in all, the PS4′s GPU is more exciting than the CPU (which is par for the course with game consoles), but again – on paper at least – it isn’t spectacular.
Probably the most exciting feature of the PS4 is 8GB of GDDR5 system memory, used by both the CPU and GPU. Sony promises bandwidth of 176GB/sec between the APU and RAM, which is really quite impressive – and 8GB should be more than enough to feed some very demanding games. One of the biggest issues that developers face with existing and previous-generation consoles is their lack of memory, and the tricks and hacks that must be employed to create rich and interactive worlds. In the words of Sony, with the x86 CPU, a well-known GPU, and lots of RAM, the PS4 is a console “made by game creators, for game creators.”
Rounding out the hardware, the PS4 has a Blu-ray optical drive, a hard drive (no SSD, alas), at least one USB 3.0 port, Ethernet, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. Sony also briefly mentioned a second, custom-made chip that manages background tasks on the PS4, such as downloading and updating games. This chip can function while the console is turned off.
At this point we would do well to put the PS4 into perspective. At best, the PS4 has the on-paper spec of a mid-to-high-end gaming PC. The PS3 and Xbox 360, by comparison, had bleeding-edge specs that PCs simply couldn’t match. The Xbox 360′s tri-core PowerPC Xenon CPU is capable of 115 gigaflops; a contemporary Pentium 4, on the other hand, was capable of around 10 gigaflops. Seventh-generation console GPUs weren’t quite so crazy, but they were still comparable to £300 or so desktop graphics cards. In short, you got a lot of bang for your buck when you bought an Xbox 360 or PS3.
Such state-of-the-art performance didn’t come cheaply, though: Both Sony and Microsoft sold their consoles at a loss. With the incoming eighth generation, both Sony and Microsoft seem to be taking a more sedate route that still provides decent performance, but without the need to loss lead. Having unseated the PC from the gaming throne, maybe Microsoft and Sony no longer feel compelled to compete in a hardware arms race. Maybe Microsoft and Sony simply had a conference call and agreed to make hardware that can turn a profit from day one.
Finally, it’s also worth noting that the Xbox 720 is also expected to move away from PowerPC to an x86 CPU. While the shift to x86 will certainly help developers, it’s also an implicit admission from Microsoft and Sony that their next-gen consoles are as much about games playing as watching Netflix. By switching to x86, the Xbox 720 and PS4 become much more general purpose – just like a PC. Really, it sounds like the eighth generation of video game consoles are glorified set-top boxes that can also play games.
For more on Sony's upcoming console, see our article entitled Sony PlayStation 4 launch: all the big questions answered, and also PS4: Putting PlayStation back on top.