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The Week In Tech: Consoles, Steam Boxes, AMD

Hard choices 2013

Happy new year all ye hallowed RPSers. It's time to get hardware back on track. This week, the theme is consoles. We're talking next-gen Playstation and Xbox. We're talking Steam Boxes. We're talking hope for beleaguered AMD. Just maybe.

Let's kick off with what appears to be leakage of some very detailed information regarding the specifications of the next Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox efforts.

Until the official reveal, probably in March at GDC, we can't be totally sure how those next-gen boxes will turn out. But the stories circulating on the web look highly plausible. And, though they must remain in the 'rumour' category for now, they go something like this.

The next Playstation is codenamed Orbis. The next Xbox is known as Durango. Both will pack pure AMD technology, but with a slightly different spin than expected.

A Playstation 3, yesterday

First up, CPUs. And they appear to be identical. Eight cores. 1.6GHz clocks. AMD's Jaguar architecture. Hold that thought, we'll come back to it.

On the graphics side, there's more of a delta. Sony has ponied up for a Radeon HD chip with 18 GCN units and therefore a grand total of 1,152 shaders. Microsoft has allegedly cheaped out with 12 units and thus 768 shaders.

Memory-wise, it's 4GB of nippy GDDR5 from Sony and 8GB of DDR3 supplemented by 32MB of dedicated EDRAM for the GPU from Microsoft. Controllers and various motion-detection paraphernalia aside, the hardware specs are rounded out by Blu-ray for both boxes.

What's the meaning of this?

So, what does it all mean? First and foremost, it means both consoles will have properly feeble single-thread CPU performance. OK, Jaguar is somewhat of an unknown quality currently. But it's the replacement for Bobcat, AMD's low-power, poverty-spec architecture. And even AMD is only claiming an extra 15 per cent instructions per clock with the transistion from Bobcat to Jaguar.

If AMD's full-fat FX CPUs offer minimal headroom to spare when it comes to single-thread performance in games, Jaguar will only be worse. And by worse I mean much. Factor in clocks and the result is likely to be well under half the per-core performance of AMD FX. Which in turn is well behind Intel's nest. Nasty.

Of course, you could argue that's no biggie. You've got eight cores. Simply spread the load. If it were that simple, an AMD FX eight-core chip would already have the legs on, say, a four-core Intel Core i5. But it isn't. So it doesn't.

What do we want? Core i5? When do we want it? Roughly November

Admittedly, these concerns don't translate directly over to console land. With fixed hardware specs, games devs can make better use of the chips available. No doubt we'll see better balancing of of CPU and GPU utilisation than is typical on the PC, for instance. And in general, operating system and general platform overheads are lesser on consoles.

But for me, those AMD Jaguar cores are still a worry. Getting the CPU bit of games engines to scale neaty across multiple cores has never been easy. It's funny, really. You'd think Sony would have learned its lesson from the ridiculous (in gaming terms) Cell processor and its array of futile SPEs. I'd far rather see a plain old Intel quad-core chip – or even something like a quad-core AMD Phenom – than eight Jaguar cores.

Cheaper chips

The problem, of course, is cost. AMD Jaguar cores are teeny-tiny, so a chip containing eight of them will be cheaper than a traditional quad-core PC processor.

Tiny cores make for cheaper chips

But what about the graphics? AMD GCN refers to its graphics architecture, otherwise known as Graphics Core Next or the Radeon HD 7000 series. The good news is that it's a very solid graphics architecture.

The rumoured specs puts Playstation Orbis roughly between a Radeon HD 7850 and 7870 in terms of raw rendering performance. Theoretically, Xbox Durango is off the pace and closer to the Radeon HD 7770.

In practice, there probably won't be much in it. For starters, both consoles are targeting the 1080p resolution and even the Xbox GPU should be able to cope with that. And it could well turn out that it's the CPU that most often bottlenecks performance. In which case the difference will be slim to none.

So, what does this all mean for PC gaming? Certainly, it ensures that even a mediocre PC will remain a more powerful gaming tool than either of the new consoles. That's not a huge surprise. But it is a bit of a bummer given that console specs provide a baseline for the game dev community. A bigger step forward, especially on the CPU side, would have been welcome.

That said, the big step up in system memory from the measley 512MB of current consoles will be a blessed relief. Games with massive environments will be a lot easier to achieve and hopefully therefore more common.

AMD to avoid Armageddon?

It's got to be good for AMD, too. Admittedly, the informed opinion suggests AMD won't rake in enough money to save its skin from these deals. But there's got to be an advantage to be had from every major game dev aiming its engines at the GCN graphics architecture. It might make up for all the money NVIDIA allegedly chucks at making games run faster on its graphics chips.

If that's the big ticket consoles from Sony and MS covered, how might ye olde Steam Box fit into all this? At this point I confess my comfort zone has gone walkies. Because I'm not totally convinced I see the point of the Steam Box.

Valve's Steam Box will run Linux. Really?

In fact, I'm not even sure exactly what it is. There are some funky claims involving games streaming down the line, but the immediate proposition is a small form factor PC. The version produced by Valve will be sold in three spec levels. And it will run Linux. It's at this stage I come over flummoxed.

Is Linux gaming the future? I've never seen Steam running on Linux much less tried it. But certainly, I think Gabe Newell's anti-Windows 8 rant, for those who recall it, was fairly hyperbolic. So, I can't help wondering whether Linux Steam Boxes are actually axes for the Windows 8 grind.

More to the point, if I want a simple box for no-brainer gaming, I'll have a console, thanks. What I like about the PC isn't that it's simple-to-specify toy. It's that it's infinitely configurable. It's a machine for grown ups. And I'm not majorly fussed by the form factor.

Oh, and if anyone was wondering about the hardware compo of a few weeks ago, we'll be outing the lucky winners soon. Until next time.

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