Sony PS4 to feature AMD X86 processor
Junko Yoshida 2/21/2013 12:25 AM EST
Sony drops the CELL processor in favor of a new AMD-developed SOC for the latest incarnation of the PlayStation gaming console. NEW YORK – Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. Wednesday (Feb. 20) dropped a bombshell at the press launch of its PlayStation 4 gaming console, revealing that the new platform will use an X86 CPU.
The Japanese consumer electronics giant, which developed its own CELL processor to power the high-performance PlayStation 2 gaming console in 2000, is now dropping CELL–and an Nvidia Corp. graphics chip used in PlayStation 3– altogether, and switching in PS4 to a new AMD accelerated processing unit (APU) that integrates an X86 CPU and GPU on the same die, according to Mark Cerny, lead system architect of PS4 at Sony.
While Sony did not disclose the SoC supplier during the press event, the company’s press release later revealed that PS4 will use a single-chip custom processor that includes an 8-core 64-bit x86 "Jaguar" CPU built by AMD, with a Radeon GPU capable of 1.84 TFLOPS operation to process graphics.
By choosing the X86 CPU for its next generation gaming platform, Sony will gain two things, said Rick Doherty, research director at Envisioneering Group. “One is time to market, which is critical, and another is supercharged PC game developers excited to use their code and graphics rendering experience on PS4,” Doherty said.
Although Sony’s move is not an endorsement of the PC as a gaming platform, the switch to the X86 CPU should also attract a large installed-base of “extreme PC gamers” to PS4, he added.
In a way, Sony might have been announcing “an ultimate PC gaming machine called PS4,” quipped Doherty. Referring to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console based on the PowerPC architecture, Doherty said, “Bill Gates must be banging his head on the wall now, saying ‘why didn’t we do this?’” Microsoft’s original Xbox was based on Intel’s X86 CPU.
According to Cerny, Sony’s PS4 development started five years ago, during the early days of the PS3 rollout.
Cerny said three principles that drove the development of the PS4 system architecture were: superior core performance whereby “nothing should come between the platform and the game play”; enhanced connectivity by building “a much more fluid, easy access among console, mobile devices and PlayStation Network”; and “what do developers want?”
Calling PS4 a gaming platform “by developers and for developers,” Cerny described its hardware system as consisting of “X86 CPU, enhanced PC GPU, 8 Gigabytes of unified memory using GDDR5 and hard disk drive.”
Brian Dipert, the founder and principal of Sierra Media, noted that the use of GDDR5 is “probably the most proprietary aspect of this otherwise very PC-reminiscent hardware design.” Although GDDR5 is already used on standalone graphics cards, he added that it probably won’t be in PCs as main memory for a while yet.
Differentiating PS4 from others
Cerny laid out five characteristics that the company hopes will differentiate PS4 from its own previous PlayStation platforms as well as those by its competitors. Namely, by making it simple, immediate, social, integrated and “personalized.”
By immediate, Cerny means not only the speed of the custom hardware but also the immediacy required for suspend/resume operation in game play. The PS4 will also come with a secondary custom chip responsible for downloading and processing games in the background.
By social, Cerny talked of PS4’s “always-on video compression and decompression hardware.”
It will make “sharing video popular” while a gamer interacts with his friends, he explained. It enables popular “spectating” function simpler and easier, since all users have to do is to push a “share” button for real-time sharing of game play on the remote, second screen, he said.
PS4 is expected to be used far beyond the living room, said Cerny, as its use will be “integrated” with other devices including smartphones, tablets, PlayStation Vita (mobile gaming platform) and the Web. The idea is to let people play PS4 games on multiple platforms even while they are away from the PS4 game console in a living room.
PS4 will also offer personalized services by predicting kinds of games a user prefers and pre-loading it for him, Cerny said.
Lessons learned from PS3
Many industry observers who attended the press conference here were generally impressed by the energy and confidence Sony and its developer partners brought to the event.
More encouraging is that Sony’s PS4 team appears to be taking to heart the lessons they learned from the PS3.
In particular, by embracing the X86-based platform, they believe that Sony could address what turned out to be fatal issues of product delay and the lack of content PS3 faced. Sierra Media’s Dipert, recalling the PS3 launch, noted that “the CELL processor ended up being a nightmare to program.”
Further, when coupled with the late-design-cycle add of a Nvidia GPU in PS3, it led to “a dearth of compelling game content not only at the introduction of PS3 but also for a long time afterward,” he said.
Then, there is also an issue of a comparative launching schedule.
The PS3 was one year later than the Wii and the Xbox 360, giving both of these other platforms a big market lead. "Consumers had already bought the big-ticket-item console," Dipert said. "They were assembling game content libraries. Therefore, they were reluctant to buy yet another hardware platform.”
This time around, though, Nintendo’s Wii U hasn’t taken off on the market, and the next generation of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is not out yet.
It remains unclear how Sony plans to proceed with the migration of native PS4 games to other platforms (when connected to smartphones, tablets or Vita), or converting currently available PS3 games to x86. One obvious way to solve this is to do software emulation. Dipert called it “a really really hard problem.”
However, with PS4, there’s a heavy reliance on ‘cloud’-delivered content. Dipert noted, “It’s conceivable that Sony could convince developers (at least its own game studio) to create x86-compiled versions of existing PS3 games, which could then be downloaded to the PS4, thereby providing a no-cost or some-cost ‘bridge’ for potential customers with lots of existing PS1, PS2 and PS3 content," he said.
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