What the Playstation 4 specs mean

It’s that time again. Rumors of the next cycle of console upgrades have been swirling around for some time and Sony has finally announced their specs. This marks the beginning of a new iteration in the game development cycle and, if these specs are any indication, it should be a good one.

There is a seemingly unending cycle in video games. And no, I do not mean the Reapers. Over time, the usual incremental improvements that come with the new models of computer hardware add up. Every few hardware generations, PC gamers decide the improvements are enough to justify some new hardware on their student loans. However, our console brethren are not so lucky and have to go six or seven years between generations. At the start of a console cycle, their performance tends to be similar to a budget gaming computer. By the end, about any $100 video card thrown in an old Dell will put the consoles to shame.

Thanks to cross platform development for most big titles, the rather lethargic upgrade cycle of the consoles has come to define game development for everyone. When the cycle has just started, the consoles are close enough to a high end GPU that it is relatively easy to make games scale nicely and utilize both platforms well enough. As progress marches past the static consoles, this performance gap approaches an order of magnitude or more and the consoles are missing new technologies and standards. Therefore, many cross platform games do not fully take advantage of PC hardware in the later part of the cycle. This is where we are at present.

As most gamers now know from continuing rumors of the PlayStation 4 and Sony’s recent press conference, the PlayStation 4 will be starting the next cycle with respectable specs. According to Engadget, it will be powered by an AMD APU with eight AMD Jaguar cores and 18 GPU compute units putting out a respectable 1.84 TFLOPS [1 & 2]. Additionally, it will sport eight gigs of ram [1]. The exotic Cell architecture of the PlayStation 3 is gone. In its place, there is a fairly traditional CPU and GPU. In other words, this is a basic gaming PC with a different operating system and case.

This will not break the slow console upgrade cycle, but it will likely make cross platform development easier than last time, especially since the rumor mill indicates that the new Xbox will be similarly speced. The Cell architecture was significantly different from both PCs and the Xbox 360, reportedly making cross platform development more difficult. Additionally, developing a custom architecture like Cell is harder and riskier than adapting existing hardware. Last time, Sony was not particularly well rewarded for the extra efforts and risks. This may have been a factor in Sony playing it safe in terms of system architecture.

With regard to the hardware specs, the eight Jaguar cores are not going to be anything special. It is a new version of AMD’s low voltage chips and is rumored to have a clockspeed around 1.6 GHz [3]. This is wonderful news. Game developers have been dragging their feet on multithreaded support since the first dual core CPUs. Having to develop games for a couple platforms (provided that rumors of similarly speced Xboxes turn out to be true) with poor single threaded performance will hopefully force them to get better at it. Better multithreaded performance would let PC gamers make better use of all those overclocked i7s out there.

The slightly modified desktop GPU and extra ram are going to make things easier for developers. The extremely limited RAM in previous consoles was reported to be a nuisance to work with, so eight gigs should let developers spend time on things besides memory management (not that computing purists would call this a good thing). The video card is rumored to be similar to AMD’s HD 7850. This is likely correct because the quoted performance of 1.84 TFLOPS is a little faster than the 1.76 TFLOPS of the stock 7850 and we would expect them to use the latest GPU line [4]. The HD 7850 is an upper midrange gaming card that will probably outperform a lot of the hardware PC gamers are using at present. This similarity in hardware will make cross platform development much easier for developers in the near future.

In the long run, we should expect the PlayStation 4 to age more gracefully than comparable PC hardware. This is because PlayStation games can be optimized for the specifics of one particular set of hardware. PC games will never be as efficient because they have to run on a wide variety of hardware, not to mention the inefficiencies associated with running a bloated operating system like Windows. It is commonly observed that all of the patches and updates for Windows and its associated software like anti-virus programs will slow down a computer compared to a fresh install. A dedicated console can minimize this bloat and will probably see a perceived performance gain as developers get better at optimizing for that architecture.

The overall pattern of console development shows no signs of changing with this iteration. However, Sony’s (and presumably Microsoft’s) decision to conform to the norms of computer hardware should have a positive impact on developers and game quality. A generation of consoles that are essentially specialized computers will likely benefit all involved. Developers should have an easier time and a few generations of games will not be technologically limited by cross development.

[1] Engadget – R Lawler. (2013, Feb 20th). Sony details PlayStation 4 specs: 8-core AMD ‘Jaguar’ CPU, 6X Blu-ray [Online]. Available: http://www.engadget.com/2013/02/20/sony-details-playstation-4-specs-8-core-amd-jaguar-cpu-8x-bl/

[2] Tom’s Hardware – Dave James. (2013, Feb 21st). PC Gamer vs. PlayStation 4: How much does a comparable rig cost right now? [Online]. Available: http://www.pcgamer.com/2013/02/21/pc-gamer-vs-playstation-4-theres-only-ever-going-to-be-one-winner-right/

[3] PC Gamer – Dave James. (2013, Feb 21st). PC Gamer vs. PlayStation 4: How much does a comparable rig cost right now? [Online]. Available: http://www.pcgamer.com/2013/02/21/pc-gamer-vs-playstation-4-theres-only-ever-going-to-be-one-winner-right/

[4] AMD. (2013). AMD Radeon HD 7850 Graphics [Online]. Available: http://www.amd.com/us/products/desktop/graphics/7000/7850/Pages/radeon-7850.aspx

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