The 7 Year Console Refresh
What is the right hardware choice for the money? We give you two PC builds to compete against the PS4 and Xbox One.
The consoles are coming! The consoles are coming! Ok, that is not necessarily true. One is already here and the second essentially is too. This of course brings up the great debate between PCs and consoles. The past has been interesting when it comes to console gaming, as often the consoles would be around a year ahead of PCs in terms of gaming power and prowess. This is no longer the case with this generation of consoles. Cutting edge is now considered mainstream when it comes to processing and graphics. The real incentive to buy this generation of consoles is a lot harder to pin down as compared to years past.
The PS4 retails for $399 US and the upcoming Xbox One is $499. The PS4’s price includes a single controller, while the Xbox’s package includes not just a controller, but also the next generation Kinect device. These prices would be comparable to some low end PCs which include keyboard, mouse, and a monitor that could be purchased from large brick and mortar stores like Walmart and Best Buy. Happily for most of us, we can build our machines to our own specifications and budgets.
As a directive from on high (the boss), we were given the task of building our own low-end gaming and productivity machines at a price as close to that of the consoles and explaining which solution would be superior at the price points given. The goal was to get as close to $500 as possible and still have a machine that would be able to play most recent games at reasonable resolutions and quality levels.
The Basis for Consoles
The overwhelming reaction to the latest generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft was how eerily similar they are in specifications. Yes, there are some differences between the two, but the overall specifications are lock-step with each other. The primary reason for this is that both companies tapped AMD’s custom silicon group to design the chip for each company. The design is then signed off on and Sony/Microsoft takes care of the fabrication (eg. order wafers from TSMC).
Since Sony launched the PS4, we shall take a look at them first. The heart of the console is the AMD designed APU. It features two quad-core Jaguar based processors, so it has eight cores in total. This is clocked between 1.6 and 1.7 GHz in speed, but Sony claims that it can go as high as 2.75 GHz. Obviously Sony is utilizing some of the Turbo Core functionality inherent in AMD’s CPU designs. Clockspeed will depend on load and available TDP overhead. In some situations where the GPU portion is working extra hard, the CPU will be as low as 1.6 GHz. In situations where performance is balanced, we could expect the cores to go into the 2 GHz range. Only when no graphics workload is present would we expect the 2.75 GHz number.
The graphics portion is a GCN based architecture that features 18 CUs, which make up a total of 1152 shaders. This portion is clocked around 800 MHz and in total the APU gives around 1.86 TFlops of computing power. The PS2 had around 6 GFlops of performance, and that was embargoed from certain countries because supercomputing trade rules. The compute power of this particular console is very impressive, and the GCN architecture allows for very efficient use of power and an impressive amount of flexibility in programming.
The APU’s crossbar and memory controller are not well known, but it does appear to be off-the-shelf technology from AMD. The twist here is that Sony utilized a full 256-bit GDDR5 interface running at 5.5 GHz, giving around 176 GB/sec of bandwidth. It is well known that GPUs love large amounts of bandwidth, and Sony gives it in spades. GDDR5 is more expensive than DDR3, but not excessively so. It more than makes up for the cost by providing plenty of bandwidth to run at resolutions of 1080P with varying amounts of AA as required by the game developers.
The PS4 comes standard with a 500 GB hard drive spinning at 5400 RPM. It also features a modern Blu-ray drive that can run many times faster than the BD drive of the PS3. Oddly enough, it does not play back DVDs. The interesting part here is that the hard drive is easily accessible and upgradeable by end users. Ryan wrote an article exploring the performance possibilities of such an upgrade.
The Xbox One is very similar, but slightly different in a couple of major areas. First off they do bundle the device with the latest generation Kinect. Their OS and media support is a big step above the PS4, but time will tell if that investment will pay off for the Xbox One. It is still primarily a gaming machine, no matter what other bells and whistles we see. Choices were made with the hardware that could affect performance in the long run, but we are not entirely sure what those effects will be. The APU is again designed by AMD and integrates two quad-core Jaguar based units along with 12 GCN based compute units which comes out to be 768 stream units, or the same as a Bonaire based graphics card. It is clocked at 853 MHz rather than Sony's 800 MHz, but the difference in stream units is a limiting factor against the PS4. The Xbox One also features a 256-bit memory bus connected to 8 GB of memory, but it is DDR3 based and quite a bit slower at 63 GB/sec of bandwidth. This is offset by the inclusion of 32 MB of eDRAM on the APU that services the GPU portion. We have yet to see how this hardware tradeoff affects performance and abilities overall, but most expect the PS4 to be the faster overall solution.
This console has a Blu-ray drive and a 500 GB hard drive. This drive is not user accessible, but MS does provide USB 3.0 ports that can access external hard drives. This will of course incur a performance hit, but at least hard drive space can be increased rather cheaply (we think). MS does provide a very interesting software stack, as it appears as though gaming and media features are supported by separate virtual operating systems.