Over the last several months, I've seen article after article, and forum comment after forum comment deriding Nintendo for their choice to keep costs down on their hardware, and not go for a gigantic generational leap over current hardware like the PS3 and 360. These comments claim that Microsoft and Sony will inevitably bring far superior hardware to market, quickly eclipsing the Wii U and making it obsolete for the duration of the next generation. In this post, I'd like to evaluate the real progress that has been made in the last 6-7 years in the graphics world, and dispel some of the rumors that are being spread.
What is the current generation capable of
I'd like to start this evaluation with some specs for the current generation just to give some perspective before entering the realm of pure speculation (albeit, educated speculation.) I am indebted to wikipedia for much of the follwing information.
Lets start with the PS3:
CPU: IBM Cell microprocessor made up of one 3.2GHz PowerPC-based Processor Core, and 8 Synergistic Processing Units. Only six of these units is available to devs as one is used for the OS, and the other is disabled to improve chip yields.
Memory: 256MB of general purpose memory and 256MB of dedicated video memory
GPU: nVidia RSX 'Reality Synthesizer.' (Roughly a stripped down GeForce 7800. It would roughly conform the the DirectX9.0c and OpenGL2.1 specs)
Slot Loading 2X speed Blu-Ray Disc drive.
And now for the XBOX 360:
CPU: IBM designed triple-core Xenon CPU. Each core capable of 2 simultaneous threads
Memory: 512MB of main memory and 10MB of eDRAM for the graphics chip
GPU: ATI Xenos (Roughly equivalent to the Radeon X1800 series with some upgrades. This chip supports DirectX 9.0c and OpenGL 2.0)
Dual Layer DVD Drive
Now that we've extablished where we coming from, lets start into the next generation.
The Next Generation
Lets start with the first console, the Wii U. I'll list the official specs, as well as a bit of conjecture.
CPU: IBM Power-based multi-core processor. (Some conjecture has been made as to the specs of the actual CPU being used here. Given the other Processors in the Power family, this will likely be either a 3 or 4 core chip clocked at around 2-3GHz).
Memory: 1GB of memory devoted to the OS and 1GB of main memory
GPU: AMD Radeon based High Definition GPU. (Rumors have speculated that this chip is based on an AMD 7 series GPU that supports at least DirectX 10 and Shader model 4. The chip is also rumored to support compute shaders, a Tesselation Unit, and a unified shader architecture including geometry shaders.)
4X speed High Capacity Disc drive similar to Blu-Ray that can accomodate 25GB of data.
And now to the rumors for the other two consoles. Remember, these are rumors only, but as rumors tend to err on the side of outlandishness, the comparisson should still be somewhat useful.
XBOX 720 (Durango)
CPU: 8 Core Intel CPU
Memory: Between 4GB and 6GB of memory
GPU: nVidia DirectX 11 capable
Blu-Ray disc drive
CPU: AMD based 2.9GHz quad core CPU
Memory: no solid rumors yet, but 1GB of video memory is assumed
GPU: Radeon HD 7670 DirectX 11 capable
Blu-Ray disc assumed
And now for some comparisons.
Sometimes its about price
Lets look at the price of some of these reported parts for the next gen systems first. Lets start with the XBox. I am taking these prices from newegg.com
It was difficult to find anything but a server chip from intel that supported 8 cores. The cheapest of these retailed for 1099. There are also several desktop 6 core chips but they also retail for over 1000 dollars. On the AMD side of things its relatively straightforward to find an eight core chip for relatively cheap. They offer one for around $160.
Next the graphics chip. An nVidia chip that is DirectX 11 capable can be had for around $100.
And now memory. 4GB of memory can be had for around $20.
Throw in a blu-ray drive for around $60, and a 500GB hard drive for around $100. Include with that, a controller and other components such as ethernet, wifi, and likely bluetooth and the price of the bill of materials alone would easily exceed $500. Wait, I almost forgot about Kinect, as many of the rumors have suggested that an upgraded kinect sensor will also be part of the 720. Tack on another $100 just to be safe.
For comparisson, the XBox 360 originally retailed for around $300 for the base model, $400 for the Pro. This would be a sizeable price increase from the original XBox reaching PS3 levels.
And now, lets look at the PS4.
The CPU can be had for around $95. The graphics chip can also be had for around $100. If we assume around 4GB of memory, we can add $20. Add $100 for the hard drive, and $60 for the disc drive. Add the remaining components and we're looking at over $400 for the bill of materials.
Now that we've looked at the prices, lets talk about the feasability of these reports. These price estimates were made with simple off the shelf parts, and without any consideration for R&D costs. While the XBox seems a bit lofty, the PS4 price seems downright cheap given their past penchant for power at the expense of price. The original PS3 was priced at $499 for the 20GB and $599 for the 60GB.
While it's very difficult to compare performance based solely on specs on paper, we can look at the capabilities of the hardware and see how they size up to each other. Lets focus first on the GPU. According to rumor and speculation, each of the new platforms should at least support DirectX 11 and the Wii U supports DirectX 10 with some additional features. According to Wikipedia, the only major differences between DirectX 10 and DirectX 11 are Compute Shaders, Multi-threaded improvements, and Hardware Tesselation. Two of those three features were added to the Wii U version of the hardware, making the differences nearly moot. Feature parity should not be a problem with the GPU if the rumors hold to be true.
In all honesty, even though we're jumping from DX9 capable graphics to DX11, the actual dicernable difference will likely be negligable to the layman anyway. The big thing that HD consoles added to the mix was shaders. Shaders fundamentally changed the world of Rasterized Graphics. Developers were no longer slaves to the fixed function pipeline provided by DirectX and OpenGL. Because of this, novel new techniques were used that just weren't possible on older hardware like complex bump mapping, and advanced lighting techniques like sub-surface scattering and refraction. There just hasn't been a similar technology discovered that would fundamentally change anything in newer hardware. We'll probably see a bump in framerates, and slightly more complexity, perhaps even true HD graphics rather than the silly upscaled garbage of last generation, but it will not be the generational jump in fidelity we saw when the HD consoles were first introduced.
CPU differences are far more complicated. While the number of cores on the XBox would certainly make it seem like a behemouth compared to the other two, the PS4 numbers are interesting. The clock speed of the CPU would actually be decreased from 3.2GHz to 2.9GHz. Also, the cores would also have been decreased. This actually would illustrate a point if true. Cores and clock speeds don't mean everything when it comes performance. Architecture and memory speed often have far more to do with performance than raw power. The Wii U processor is likely 3-4 cores and around the same clock speed as the supposed PS4.
Evaluating memory capacity would only end up being purely speculative since the PS4 specs in that regard have not leaked, but if assuming 4GB like the XBox, it is higher than the Wii U by about double. This may or may not increase performance. It would be highly dependent on things like architecture and bandwidth.
Thus far, the Disc speed seems roughly equivalent accross all the platforms.
If everything that is currently rumored ends up being true, we will have three consoles with roughly equivalent graphics, the XBox alone sporting more horsepower in the form of double the cores, which may or may not mean much depending on the game.
Price also must be considered. In 2005, the PS3 was considered prohibitively expensive, hindering adoption. The 360 seemed to nail the correct price-point for such a powerful machine allowing Microsoft to drive adoption by being first to market. From this analysis, it would appear that Microsoft and Sony would be trading places this generation, but I have no idea why a company like Microsoft would persue a course similar to Sony's when it knows how the previous generation turned out.
As for Nintendo, they appear to be the console that really appears to be following Microsofts lead from last generation. They are launching in the $300 - $400 price range. They are including a new network service that has a potential to change the way we interact with other gamers. They will beat their nearest competitor to market by at least a year. They've nailed down at least a few genuinely interesting exclusives in the form of Wonderful 101, ZombiU, and Bayonetta 2. And on top of all that, they're also throwing in a novel new game control method with the Gamepad. Gimick or not, nobody else has tried it. This is what makes the approach seem more like Nintendo amongst all the emulation of Microsofts original strategy.
In the end of all this it's really going to come down to one thing. Games. And with a year head start and 50 games slated for the launch window, it's tough to argue with the fact that Nintendo will have the games aspect covered until at least E3 when we'll see what they have up their sleave for the summer and beyond.
Given the fact that much of this analysis was based on rumored specs, it's hard to say what official conclusions could be drawn, but in all honesty that was entirely the point of the analysis. We simply don't have enough information to pit the next generation of consoles against one another. There's just too many unknowns. If every Apple rumor that surfaced turned out to be true, we'd likely be living on the moon by now.
I really have no idea whether or not the Wii U will beat the new XBox or Playstation this next generation and thats what makes this industry intersting. Every 6-7 years or so we all get to fantasize about the future of gaming. Nintendo has already given us a glimpse at the next 6 years, and we're only a year or so away from seeing how their competitors respond. I, for one, am excited about the possibilities, but will always reserve judgement until everybody has had a chance to lay their cards on the table.