By: Mark Walton
If the many rumours and supposed leaks surrounding the Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4 are to be believed–and according to GameSpot’s sources there’s every reason to–both will represent a dramatic change in console architecture. With the exception of the original Xbox–which was based on an Intel Pentium III–consoles have traditionally relied on custom processors and graphics hardware to power them. The Xbox 360, for instance, uses a custom 3.2GHz PowerPC processor, while the PlayStation 3 uses Cell, itself also based on PowerPC architecture.
Traditionally, that has presented something of an issue for developers, particularly for those who started in PC development based on the much more ubiquitous X86 architecture that has powered PCs since the late ’70s. Most famously, Valve’s Gabe Newell called the PS3 a “waste of everyone’s time”and said that developers won’t “gain anything except a hatred of the architecture [Sony has] created.” Strangely, he changed his tune at the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo and the launch of Portal 2, but there are other developers who have gone on record to question the ease of PS3 development.
The rumoured specs of Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox 720 show that both companies are creating hardware that will make developers’ lives easier, even if it’s unconsciously so. The PS4 is rumoured to be powered by an x64, 8-core AMD processor. The Xbox 720 is similarly rumoured to sport an x64, 8-core processor running at 1.6GHz. While the current information on the Xbox 720 doesn’t specify exactly which processor it’s using, given the lack of 8-core parts from Intel outside of its server-based Itanium range, it’s safe to assume that it too is powered by AMD.
The specs of the chips line up nicely with those of AMD’s upcoming Jaguar architecture, which is a design intended for use with notebooks, ultrabooks, and tablets. While that doesn’t immediately scream “high performance,” the chips do have several features that are desirable in game consoles. Most notable is that the Jaguar is based on a 28nm fabrication process that integrates the GPU into the CPU die. It’s an efficient design that means there are fewer parts to be made, there’s less heat to disperse, and power consumption is much lower. Given that the original versions of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 pulled close to 200W under load, with reliability suffering as a result, Jaguar’s design should be more cost efficient and reliable.
From a performance perspective, numerous benchmarks show AMD’s chips lagging behind Intel’s when it comes to raw power. The situation is flipped, however, when it comes to pushing 3D graphics. While it’s not clear what family of GPU will be powering the next generation of consoles, the fact that it’s integrated suggests something similar to AMD’s current mobile chips, like the 7970m (itself a close relation of the desktop 7870). Indeed, the 800MHz clock speed rumoured to be in both the PS4 and Xbox 720 show that it’s most likely a slightly trimmed-down version of the 7970m. That chip runs at 850MHz and features 20 of AMD’s Graphics Core Next units.
Looking at the performance of the 7870m gives us some indication of what power to expect from both next-generation consoles. The folks over at Tom’s Hardware reviewed the card late last year and produced a great set of benchmarks with games running at max settings at 1080p: Dirt 3, 74.4fps; Battlefield 3, 54.2fps; Metro 2033, 25fps; Skyrim, 62.2fps; and Starcraft II, 104.5fps.
Those keen to see a huge leap in GPU power over the last generation of consoles, or those hoping for Ultra HD 4K resolutions, may be disappointed with those results. However, it’s worth remembering that without the overheads of a fully fledged operating system like Windows, and the advantages of an integrated design, there’s potential for much greater performance over a similarly configured PC.
That is, unless both Sony and Microsoft opt to use a much more complex operating system to power their consoles. While there’s no information on either console’s OS at present, the rumour that both will come with 8GB of RAM is an indicator that multitasking is at the forefront of their design. With the Xbox 360 and PS3 increasingly being used more for media playback, Sony and Microsoft may wish to offer more-advanced, PC-like features that increase functionality, at the expense of some processing overhead. Would Microsoft go as far as to use Windows 8 to power the next Xbox? Probably not, but at the very least it would make sense for Microsoft to extend the same user interface values present in its desktop OS and Windows Phone 8 over to the Xbox to reduce consumer confusion.
Regardless, developers should be able to hit the ground running in a way that just hasn’t been possible with past console generations. That’s the hope anyway. Sega’s Dreamcast gave developers the option of using Windows CE and DirectX to program games, but most of them opted to use Sega’s own software instead. Or they simply went and developed for the PlayStation 2 with its notoriously complicated Emotion Engine. The original Xbox–which used actual PC hardware to power it–suffered less from the intense popularity of the PS2, but that was down to the allure of Xbox Live more than ease of development.
Still, with both consoles said to sport a design that’s much closer to PC architecture than it has ever been, there’s a hope that launch titles will make much better use of the power available. Having to wait for years until developers get a firm grasp on what each console can do should be much less of an issue this time, provided both companies can come up with alluring and easy-to-use developer kits. And given the similarities between both consoles, porting between them should be a much easier process too.
PC gamers should also see a benefit. For better or worse, consoles have been the lead platforms in multiplatform game development for some time. But by making the transition to x64 architecture, scaling games up for more powerful PC hardware or scaling them down for consoles should be an easier process. And make no mistake: a current quad core i5 or i7 PC armed with a high-end GPU like a GTX 680 is–at least in theory–comfortably more powerful than what’s rumoured to be in the new Xbox and PlayStation. But if developers are able to leverage that power and trickle it down to consoles, or even Valve’s upcoming Steambox (rumoured to be based on AMD hardware), there’s a strong chance we’ll see some real visual advancements.
Indeed, at last year’s DICE summit, Epic’s Mark Rein all but confirmed that Unreal Engine 4 (as shown in the video above) is up and running on next-generation consoles, or in his words, on “systems [they] can’t name yet.” Sure, the Xbox 720 and PS4 might not be the leap in technology some were hoping for, but if we see anything like the Unreal 4 tech demo running on those consoles, the future is looking very bright indeed for video games.