What will power the PS4K, XboxNext and Nintendo NX?
Times have certainly changed, with digital games now being a much larger portion of game sales now. Add-ons being not only wanted but successful. But it also seems that the shift to a more stable and coherent hardware and OS platform has also brought along wide changes, with rumours of upgrades, plug-in , 4K viewing we could just be seeing one of the shortest as yet and last single (see static) generations.
First let's look at the facts for both current machines and the yet to launch Nintendo NX. To say the Wii U was a failure would be an understatement in the extreme, largely due to its lack of any real killer own brand software but even more so the absence of 3rd party houses avoiding it like the weak kid at team selection. This is an issue they desperately need to address as they are the biggest portion of any platforms success or failure. Sadly it appears this may not have fully sunk in with many developers seemingly not aware of the machine specs and even some teasing of information being made.
The initial thought was that it will have the market to itself as the only new boy on the block in 2016 when revealed at E3. But this may not be the case and added to the fact it could be only as powerful as the PS4 at best again seems that Nintendo still miss the point by a mile. I hope and pray that when it does release it has games that impress, and entices both the market and 3rd party. With all that we know at this stage the path will not be clear for the big N and it could have just become even rockier. The thought that it will also be AMD powered APU is what is expected but I would not be shocked to my core to see it built around an ARM processor and PowerVR GPU which would be both exciting to see and different enough for Nintendo to take, backwards compatibility could be easily handled within emulation.
We have had Phil Spencer himself talk about updates, evolution of the console and this all stems from the Windows 10 Eco-system it is all built around. UWA is getting a lot of flack at present and even though some of the criticism is ill placed and without fact the concerns are real across the board. But this is not for this article, suffice to say for now this is a clearly a fast plan from MS and this will all improve greatly over the next 12 months as they make the Windows store and universal apps more and more appealing. This is all due to the hardware and OS configuration allowing this kind of platform agnostic method to work like cross play of near identical code, backwards compatibility and obviously newer hardware.
The first thing is I am pretty confident we will not see a plug-in or upgrade to the XboxOne at this stage. The entire machine, structure and memory subsystem is not suited for some ad-hoc augment but the next machine may well be an option but could also use other more simple methods. What is pretty much a given is both Microsoft and Sony will still partner with AMD for whatever they have planned but it may not be an APU by default.
The thing to remember is these consoles launched in 2013 from hardware specs sealed and planned 12 months or so prior. We have moved on 4 years since then and computation has changed direction in the last 10 years. No longer is the hunt on within Moore’s law for more power but instead less power use but the same or smaller increments. This means less heat and size, even though hardware specs remain static throughout a generation the actual hardware does not and never has. But the norm of saving costs, reducing power and efficiency to make a profit on the hardware was ditched at this generations start. Instead for the first time both companies sold the machines at a profit. Previously the aim was to reduce manufacturing costs so that by mid cycle each machine was in the black rather than the red. Consistency was maintained through hardware and software to keep each machine close enough in spec to not matter for both users and developers alike. The original X360 for example was a standard CPU and dGPU across the motherboard, after updates this was reduced into a Single APU with a much smaller footprint, Thermal pattern and cost, without the reduction requirement this could have easily been a more powerful machine. The same thing happened across the PS3 losing the PS2 hardware very early on, altering and removing parts along with halving the Cell from 90nm to 45nm in addition to the Nvidia RSX reducing cost, heat and size as its intended target.
But now this is all out of the window, 4 years in both machines could be made smaller along with running with less heat and cost as per previous cycles. But equally they could also decide to use current level hardware that is of the same TDP or slightly higher in a new chassis as a premium product at a more suitable premium price and this is my thoughts entirely. But the plan may be coming from 2 separate directions just headed in the same place for each.
As I mentioned last year and we have now seen Microsoft is very focused on converging into a single unified platform with PC, Phone and console all running under the Windows 10 umbrella agnostic of chipset or badge. With AMD the given partner in all this for the internals I can easily see Microsoft franchise with IHM like MSI, Asus, Gigabyte etc and sell XboxTwo or XboxPro whatever they call it as a spectrum of products. This may not happen yet with them releasing the first new machine themselves fully compatible with Oculus and Vive ( as it stands the XboxOne cannot run a VR solution like the PC and PS4 have ) and with this year being the year of VR I expect more information at E3. I feel this is the driving force for them to not miss out on the next big ticket, and it is all possible due to the decisions made at the start. With the API and hypervisor taking care of the hardware layer it can leave developers free to use the allocation they have at their disposal. This means that whatever is coming will be fully backwards compatible with the entire current and forthcoming catalogue and this will indeed include backwards compatible Xbox360 titles that I feel is a nailed on to appear in the Windows store shortly and we could very well see frame rate and resolution enhancements when they do, dependant on your hardware of course. All current games could very easily receive updates to improve hardware profiles and may even include more visual menu options going forward with newer titles, yes just like the PC release as they will be one in the same. But this would likely only be limited titles with all future ones being supported from launch.
So the plan is clear but how this will all work is maybe not and I must stress I have no “Insider information” or close ties with Microsoft at this level, and anyone with this knowledge would not be able to publically share it anyway. These are purely my thoughts based on my knowledge of both hardware/software and corporate business (this is something many, many forget these are all business's after all). The new machines will almost certainly sport the Polaris GPU from AMD set to launch this year in 2 formats along with its brand new and much more powerful Zen CPU designed by the returning mind of Jim Kelly, known for his last game changer the Athlon 64 so the legacy is ,and expectations are, strong. The early information states a 40% increase in IPC putting the new chip in the ballpark of Intel and its Skylake architecture. Its multi-core technology is unquestioned and powered with such drastic configuration changes aided by the now Multi-core rendering improvements we have seen from these consoles and DX12/Vulcan it could be one hell of a machine with I am sure a price around the £400-£500 not out of the question. With Zen handling multiple threads simultaneously (SMT) and greatly improved memory structures meaning cache and bandwidth improvements all housed on a 3D FINfet transistor through a interposer with most likely HBM memory we are looking around 3-4 times GPU improvement and a much bigger leap in CPU.
The thing to remember here is the options available change dependant on intended price and launch aims. HBM2 is already in mass production offering up twice the bandwidth of HBM seen in its creators first card the Fury X. But with these limited to 4GB this can be doubled to 8GB with the new technology. GDDR5X is not yet in mass production and as such could be a factor if an early launch is needed. The new technology offers up great improvements over both bandwidth and power use just like HBM but in both regards not at the same levels. Peak theoretical throughput of HBM is 512GB/s with its successor achieving twice that which in reality is in excess of what both companies would need, but the huge space, power and hear reductions are not, with 8GB of HBM2 being a realistic and plentiful level, although I think too rich for the intended aims.
But GDDR5X is not without its benefits; it will be in mass production within months and could still ship on launched products in 2016 and bring many gains that include power, heat and bandwidth. With just a 128-bit wide at 224GB/s power use would only be 10W, higher BW than both console have currently. But the 4GB limit would rule this out, so the 256-bit wide solution would still only double this to 20W around 5W more than HBM but sporting a huge 448GB/s at the 8GB limit would mean that space wasted on the current chip for the Esram could now be used to increase the ALU quota as this scratch pad would no longer be needed. The best part of this is that the configuration of the memory and controllers is close to GDDR5 meaning manufacturing is much less of an issue more so for Sony. This along with its potential higher size levels for expansion, cost saving make this a real contender for both parties, it will all come down to timeframes and cost targets (as always) but both solutions offer up viable and tangible gains.
But this will be a premium product designed to play all your current games faster and more visually impressive than before. The hardware deficit to Sony has hurt MS and this is not a place it likes to be in, with a new far more high end machine it can turn the tables very quickly on that and it is a company that can easily afford it. Remember how fast it dropped the Xbox for the 360 and history states how successful that was. The change here is the XboxOne will continue to play all future titles and be the base spec of games with simple cutbacks made on resolution, frame rates and effects. All notched up to the maximum on this new machine that could be pushing a 4Tflop GPU with faster memory, much better CPU we could have Machine that would battle it out with high end i7 & Titan, Fury X machines but with the benefit of the Xbox back catalogue and 2 choice VR solutions in the mix. All of a sudden the machine would become very appealing to console and PC gamers alike, even a VR package would not be impossible as MS has already linked with OR as we saw last year.
I know many may think this is madness but not only is this more than possible on paper it looks very probable. The only issue is that an APU on the new 14nm FINfet technology may be a stretch too far if the machine needs to launch in Q4 of 2016 so it may be a bigger box but as the Fury Nano has shown the memory changes to HBM and the new manufacturing processes means it could easily come in with the ballpark of a small form factor unit that fits the console and living room space easily with the added benefit of better games, 100% compatible and VR options to boot. E3 could be a big splash as all current games will easily launch on both machines and PC to maximise ROI. I also think it will mark a shift in internal studios for MS, sadly witnessed by Lionhead and others closures I think it will keep a small pool of studios but rely heavily on 3rd party for software and as I stated above later on for the hardware to allow multiple avenues into its own Windows Eco-system without the costly hardware process now all managed within its software abstraction layers, with these savings being used for the new plan. The future is bright the future is virtual!
To re-iterate the aim is for MS to build its Xbox/Windows 10 brand and returning to a loss leader format would not be a plan I think either side will take. But the sales of higher end hardware and vocal complaints have shown that the market can not only accept a split level higher brand product it actually is crying out for it. With this addition to the family it will achieve a leap in performance with 4k being heavily advertised along with it able to run all the High End VR software with a simple plug and play solution. They can commit to 18 month supply quota which is a great deal for AMD and due to the bulk purchase a £500 level for this kind of machine could be the sweet spot (VR obviously in addition).
Which brings us to Sony and its PS4 which finds itself in an entirely different situation but with an equally challenging dilemma? As it stands MS has much more to gain from this shift, from some perspectives it really only strengthens them. But for Sony the clear winner this generation in terms of sales, focus and goodwill with a brand new and already much in demand VR solution incoming. Why on earth would they want to ruin all that, fragment the market and possibly create bad feeling?
The Answer is the same as before, competition! This time from both MS plans and the expanding PC gaming market. Sony cannot yet have the free entry into this customer base from a readymade O/S market. Instead it has the gaming centric platform crown with its console but they know all too well that the honeymoon ends at some point and sadly as we have just seen with the sad news of Driveclub developer Evolution studios closure it is still cost sensitive. So again these are just my thoughts on what is planned and what I feel are the reasons. First thing is nothing will be mentioned or happen in 2016 (dependant on PR and market pressure mind), with a new hardware launch already planned this year with PSVR it would only muddy the water. That will comfortably expand while being fully compatible with whatever they have in the pipeline for the future. But the PC market is never static and even though the hardware has delivered some truly eye watering games thus far and yet to come, the gap is only growing as each year passes by. But the MS plans add to this and Sony will not want to be that far behind the curve of the other players so really it has no other choice but to react and prepare, and this is what the PS4K or PS5 is all about. And just like MS the leap to AMD and X86-64 is done so having a longer life span that allows shared development to continue with the extra benefits of higher frame rates, effects and resolution but more importantly to keep in-line or ahead of the competition. It will also prolong and improve its VR push and keep the games in-line with the High end PC market which it simply cannot ignore.
Again this means that AMD will be the likely candidate along with its new Zen and Polaris system. Having to wait out the big winter sales period while possibly its competition leaping first may be a tough call but one I think will happen. Holding back a year means it would launch later but this would mean a slightly more powerful system and or a cheaper price. Again allowing both consoles to co-exist for a longer period as developers simply use the higher specs for PC like improvements. And by around 2018 both specifications to be the new base for developers and the older machines fall away as before and the end of the 5 year cycle. The same base hardware means it will be a total 4-6Tflop machine and will hit the 4k/30 target for modern indie games shipping over the next few years. With resource heavy games relying on the recontruction, reprojection or upscale choices to hit the 4K marketing target . The construction of the PS4 hardware, Hypervisor and API means just like MS it can easily handle this shift as it blurs the lines of generations allowing users to pick a machine that suits the tech heavy or cheaper gaming entry point with all games/discs compatible on all. Again like MS this will be a more premium product but still cheaper than a competing stand alone PC solution and this is the market it not only has to compete against but tempt over to the blue side.
Again all current titles could be updated with boosts if required and both machines would enable higher quality assets as pretty much all development pipelines now are built around minimum 4K workflows. These then are realised much closer to the native tools rather than reduced as we see in current titles and future ones that ship on the older machines and the PC spec range.
So E3 could be an exciting time for new plans and announcements to come and I am sure the picture will certainly clear more as we move through the year, but you can be sure I will keep you up to date and informed on it all.