Why is the PS4 so far behind to current technology – we investigate.
In the light of the recent announcements from Nvidia which stated that Sony’s new upcoming Playstation 4 console is no more impressive than a low to mid ranged PC, several comments have arose asking why Sony (and other console manufacturers) would choose ‘outdated’ or ‘lower spec’ hardware technology for their systems.
As usual – there isn’t a single answer, but rather several which combine to form the reason. The Playstation 4 and Xbox 720 are looking pretty similar. Both are going to be going the AMD route, with the CPU and GPU being made by AMD (with their new fusion technology – or, to put it another way, their new APU). The CPU being a AMD Jaguar (although both Microsoft and Sony are said to be have some custom changes to the silicon), and the GPU being a version of the Southern Island series – or the Radeon HD 7000 series.
The CPU – the AMD Jaguar, is an 8 core CPU – whaich on the face of it, sounds like a monster. 8 cores vs the 4 or less typical cores found in most modern PC’s. But, this doesn’t of course take into account the IPC (Instructions Per Clock) along with clock speed. AMD are readying the release of the Radeon HD 8000 series (although it has been delayed somewhat, along with Nvidia’s own GTX7XX series). The problem is that at one point or another, Sony and Micrsoft had to say “this will be the technology that we go with”. It isn’t that simple of course – but ultimately, that’s really what it came down to. They found a technology that would be able to give them the jump in performance that they need – and more over, for the cost that they could pay, and they went with it.
Cost is the big white elephant in the room. We know that the original Xbox ended up costing Microsoft money. The system wasn’t cheap to produce. And, that’s true of a lot of systems. Sony and Microsoft don’t usually make much from the console sale. Nintendo with the Wii (and Wii U) are a different story. Their hardware is so cheap to produce – because the technology is so bloody old, that they make cash on each system that is bought off the shelf. For Sony and MS, this isn’t the case.
So when Sony were choosing the parts for the Playstation 4, they waited for a technological leap that would be impressive enough, and went ‘shopping’. That is, went and figured out what they wanted (as in, costs, performance and so on) and then started to talk to different hardware producers to see which of them could do something at a particular price point. However, if 6 months after the design is locked down a new chip is developed, they cannot just keep pushing back the release and design of the system. The Southern Island GPU was taped out in early 2011 (along with AMD’s other fusion plans) and so that was likely the time that Sony went for that type of spec for their Playstation 4. It was also the time that Microsoft’s rumoured specs were leaked from (although they’ve only recently came into light). Note, taped out doesn’t mean planned – CPU and GPU producers have several revisions of their hardware planned out ahead of what’s released.
So we know why they can’t have the ‘latest’ stuff – but why can’t they have the most powerful stuff?
If you take a look at the article I made comparing the GPU from the PS4 you’ll instantly be able to see the massive disparity between the ‘full’ Radeon HD 7970 for the your desktop, and the GPU that will be making it into the playstation 4. Yields, price and thermal performance are three of the big reasons. Yields is a fairly simple one – the more complicated the silicon (remember, this is even more tricky as it’ll be an APU!) the more likely that you’ll have faulty chips. Quite simply, if 25 percent of them (as an exaggerated example) are faulty, that’s bad for how many can actually make it into the PS4 / Xbox 720. This affects price – and so does the level of complexity of the process. The more complicated the chip is to produce – the more costly that the chip is. One of the reasons new console revisions (for example, the XBox 360 s) becomes cheaper is because the cost of producing the hardware goes down as time goes on. The process for fabricating the silicon in the chips gradually becomes more refined.
So that leaves us with thermal performance being the last. Quite simply put, the part needs to perform effective 0 as in be able to produce great graphics, but without needing a small power station to run it. Consider the Wattage requirements of a modern gaming PC. The Southern Islands are pretty power efficient, the desktop models however still require a 500Watt PSU. Imagine the extra clunky weight if you needed that in the shell of the console. And then, the extra cooling needed to stop the thing from overheating. They might as well use the shell of a PC for the Playstation 4 or Xbox 720. They went with the AMD Jaguar to lower the heat output, solve cooling and lower the power requirements. They would then select it to run at 1.6GHZ (that’s 400MHZ below the max current speed that the Jaguar can run at) to ensure good yields, and to make it even more power efficient. They would select the mobile version of the 7970, which has 20 cores instead of the 32 GCN cores of the desktop, and then for the PS4 further remove another 2 cores (leaving 18 for those keeping count) and lower the clock speed to just 800MHZ. This still leaves about 1.84GLOPS of power, but isn’t much compared to the 3.79GFLOPS of the ‘full’ Radeon HD 7970.
The thing is though – the system will still be very impressive, and anyone keeping track of the stats will tell you that the Playstation 4 and Xbox 720 are going to be huge leaps over the current PS3 and 360. Depending on what parts you’re looking at, the RAM alone is x16 times the amount (8gb vs 512MB), and other parts depends who’s calculating and vs what. But figures of the Playstation 4 range from between 5.5x to 10x the performance of the PS3. It’ll be more than enough to push us into a new age of gaming, especially when you consider they’re closed systems. Developers won’t need to worry about different hardware configurations and will be able to push the hardware to the max. Think of how God of War Ascension or Last of Us looks on the PS3, or how Gears of War Judgement on the XBox 360 look. Would you have imagined those systems being capable of performing that well on launch? Most wouldn’t.