So on Thursday morning I stayed up until 3:30 AM with my eyes glued to a corner of my screen and my hands on the keyboard, trying to keep up with the pace of the three hour-long Sony Playstation conference. I was tired, but there were things being said and promised and shown that blew my mind. The hardware inside the PS4 is going to be amazing and some of the facts that Sony revealed signify a big change waiting in the wings for PC gamers as well. The PS4 isn’t out yet, but having one right now would be the ultimate fantasy fulfilled. Only, you’d have zero games to play. Eish…
Sony calls the guts of the PS4 an “Informed System Architecture”. After the heavy weight that was IBM’s enormously expensive Cell processor from the PowerPC family, it seems Sony has learned from its mistakes and has aimed to make the hardware easier to develop for. “Informed” is appropriate because every developer on the planet is familiar with the way conventional x86-64 processors work. From a software and development perspective, this should be a much easier affair for both AAA publishers and studios, as well as indie studios looking to reach towards casual players on the platform. It should also increase the PS4’s chances of seeing more and better multi-platform titles land on its shore, in addition to some really kick-ass exclusives.
PC gamers benefit here as well, as the ports coming direct from the console will be much more palatable and, if done correctly, might actually take advantage of that sixteen-core, Dual-CPU Xeon setup you’ve been using to keep your feet warm in the winter.
As has been previously stated, Sony is going to use AMD’s Jaguar-based CPU, offering up eight cores that are together greater than the sum of their parts. Jaguar is estimated to be at least three to four times more powerful than the Cell processor, with the added benefit that each core has its own floating-point unit, 512KB of L2 cache and amazingly shares the same die space with a really high-end GPU. This is the future of AMD’s HSA plans for the desktop. On the subject of Jaguar, I’ll have a column up next week going more in-depth about what’s cooking in that pot. Rest assured, it’s really interesting stuff.
The PS4 will be AMD’s proving ground to accelerate development into mating a properly spanking GPU on the same die as the CPU, eventually allowing AMD to probably abandon development of discrete GPUs in the future. Mind you, that’s a very long way away – AMD’s assistance in the creation of the first working and commercially shipping APU in the Xbox 360 took around five years and they were piggy-backing off work ATi had already been doing in conjunction with Microsoft and IBM.
The second change that will make things much easier is the GPU, which won’t be as specialised as the previous Nvidia “RSX Reality Synthesiser” found in the PS3 . According to slides from last night’s event, the GPU is capable of 1.84 Teraflops throughput along with around 176GB/s bandwidth. According to a few calculations I did in my head and helped by Google, that equates to a system bus 256 bits wide and a GPU that may be the exact equivalent of the HD7970M running at 800Mhz, as per my original assumptions in another piece I did on the next-generation consoles, titled “More next-gen console speculation hits the net.” What the GPU is capable of isn’t actually known – in a Windows environment, it’s powerful, but not the absolute best solution out there and the overheads DirectX introduces do bog things down a little. With even a quarter of the level of optimisation console developers do, it could easily outrun and look better than today’s high-end gaming rigs. However, it’s not the CPU or the GPU you should be excited about, its the RAM.
8GB of unified memory. Eight gigabytes. Unified RAM means that the PS4 follows the same architecture layouts as the Xbox 360’s Xenos and Xenon layout, but offers up the entire 8GB to the CPU and GPU, as opposed to the PS3’s design allotting 256MB to each chip with no sharing between the two chips. The 360, however, offered only 512MB to both chips, but it did give developers a little flexibility in terms of memory management. That isn’t regular DDR3 RAM on the PS4, though, its GDDR5.
I’ve been speculating on other dark corners of the internet how long it will take for the desktop market to make the transition to a new memory standard rather than continue to sit with DDR3. DDR4 is still in the experimental phase and will first see a home in servers later this year, with Intel’s Haswell successor and AMD’s Steamroller follow-up to be the first platforms available to consumers to use the new memory. GDDR5 is a tweaked version of DDR3, but with high bandwidth and clock speeds, offset by a rather high latency, at least in terms of what the GPU can work with. But because of the unified RAM setup, I’m betting that this is AMD’s early prototype for a fully working HSA with enough high-speed memory to combat the latency issues we’ve seen with desktop APUs, more specifically with the fact that Trinity chips scale really well with memory frequencies higher than DDR3-1866.
Heterogeneous System Architecture is an attempt (a rather successful one at that) by AMD and Intel to put both the CPU and GPU into the same die space with the same addressable memory and, ultimately, the goal ability is to integrate the chips so tightly that they can self-optimise for CPU and GPU workloads on the fly. Its a perfect fit for fixed-system environments like consoles, where the developers can direct and allocate resources as and when they’re needed. Compared to Cell, it’s a massive step forward in performance and functionality. In an optimal environment or situation, the CPU would be able to call on the parallel abilities of the GPU to crunch through a section of code that it can’t finish itself in good time, while the GPU could ask the CPU to do physics calculations while its taken up with rendering jobs, something the GPU would normally take over.
But there’s also something else that Sony announced that I’ll elaborate more on in the future – background processing. What they actually said during the conference is that there’s dedicated hardware that will run the Playstation OS/XMB (if we will call it that in the future) as well as do things like power the browser, upload videos in the background and so all the other little menial tasks, freeing up the real muscles of the console to do the grunt work.
Its very likely that this is a separate ARM-based chip hosted on the APU and designed by AMD. Being small and rather power-efficient, it’ll do all the little tasks and even allow a low-power state that still enables the PS4 to do updates and game installs while in sleep mode, as well as support fast resumes back into the OS or your saved game state. Its mind-blowing that they’re planning the console to be as efficient as possible and it’s great that the company is focusing on the right elements – give the devs something that’s easy and attractive to work with, give the gamers something that will blow their eyes and ears away from day one.
Its entirely possible. In fact, its not just, possible, it’s a reality. Sony is back in the game (it never left it, arguably) and this will probably be one of the most exciting years in recent memory. All eyes now are on Microsoft, to see what they can do and what they’re planning. Whatever rivalry between the two companies ensues, the winner is you. YOU, yes you, the gamer, the consumer. This benefits us most of all and I’m very excited for what the future holds for us.
However, this won’t come cheap, mark my words.
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