Sony PlayStation 4: New Liberal Approach to Development, Multi-Core x86, Massive Memory Bandwidth, Cloud Technologies, 4K Video [UPDATED]

Sony’s Next-Gen Approach to Hardcore Gaming: Here Is What We Know So Far

by Anton Shilov
02/18/2013 | 09:06 AM


UPDATE: Adding cross-platform gaming related section, comments regarding 4K video distribution.

Sony Computer Entertainment has neither won nor lost the latest round of game console wars. The company has failed to sell as many PlayStation 3 units as Nintendo or Microsoft, game developers were largely disappointed with the platform because of the Cell processor, the PS3 clearly sold fewer multi-platform titles than the X360, but Sony managed to make Blu-ray the de-facto industrial standard for years to come. In the coming months SCE will unleash its next-gen PlayStation 4 and from what we know about the product so far it looks like Sony has learnt its lessons.

Sony PlayStation 4 “Orbis”: Developed by AMD, with High-Performance in Mind

Advanced Micro Devices has scored big time as it has managed to win deals to develop custom central processing units and graphics processing units for two of the next-generation game consoles, the PlayStation 4 “Orbis” and the Xbox “Durango”. AMD’a custom GPU is also inside Nintendo’s Wii U console, but this one is considerably behind the rivals in terms of performance. Although there are some similarities between the two next-generation gaming platforms, there are just too many variances that underline vastly different approaches and ideology of Sony and Microsoft.

Just like its arch-rival, Sony PlayStation 4 will be based on multi-core system-on-chip with eight x86 code-named Jaguar cores and 4MB of L2 cache (512KB per core) running at around 1.60GHz; dedicated custom hardware blocks (e.g., HEVC video decoders for 4K video support) as well as a custom AMD Radeon HD graphics processing unit based on AMD graphics core next-architecture (GCN).

AMD’s Jaguar looks very promising on paper and has a number of advantages that may be especially valuable for game consoles, including 128-bit floating point unit (FPU) with enhancements and double-pumping to support 256-bit AVX instructions as well as an innovative integer unit with new hardware divider, larger schedulers and more out-of-order resources. Since Jaguar is a low-power/low-cost micro-architecture, it is substantially behind AMD’s high-end x86 cores when it comes to both single-thread as well as general-purpose performance and therefore some of the operations may take a long time to complete, unless some tasks rely on GPGPU [general-purpose computing using GPUs] technologies and/or cloud processing technologies.

Similar to its main competitor, the PlayStation 4 will feature graphics processing unit that derives from AMD’s Southern Island/Sea Islands families and rely on graphics core next (GCN) architecture with DirectX 11.1+ feature-set. We do not know for sure what is exactly inside the Orbis GPU, but from various leaks we understand that the graphics chip of the PlayStation has 18 GCN compute units (in AMD’s terminology, Microsoft calls them SCs/SIMD clusters) with 4 SIMDs (each of which sports 16 ALUs/stream processors, 256 vector general purpose registers (VGPRs), 512 scalar general purpose registers (SGPRs)), own L1 cache, 64KB LSM (local shared memory), and scheduler. The SIMD instruction set should be similar to GCN and support 32-bit and 64-bit integer and float data types. The graphics sub-system is projected to feature 18 highly-efficient texture units (each is supposed to have several texture address (TA) and texture filtering (TF) blocks, but the exact number has never been released).

As expected, the PS4 GPU has rather powerful general-purpose compute capabilities as well as robust caching system. In addition to dedicated 64KB LSM, 16KB L1 per CU, the chip will feature 512KB of L2as well as global data share cache (GSM), just like on any GCN graphics chip, which should be useful for GPGPU technologies.

Being clocked at around 800MHz, the Orbis GPU is expected to offer 50% higher graphics/compute horsepower compared to the Xbox Next graphics subsystem thanks to 1152 stream processors (vs. 768 SPs at the same frequency). Still, from the PC point of view, the next-gen PlayStation will hardly offer a breakthrough performance.

Memory Sub-System: Massive Bandwidth the Key to High-Performance

Exact graphics performance of the PlayStation 4 “Orbis” graphics processor, with all the secret capabilities activated, is unknown, but what we do know is that Sony wants the console to be able to render video games in 1980*1080 resolution in stereo-3D mode at the speed of at least 30 frames per second. Keeping in mind that the console is expected to have 4K video output and will probably be used by Sony to demonstrate advantages of ultra-high definition, at least some games will be made to run in 3840*2160 natively, which requires significant performance of graphics sub-system. In fact, such demands from the company has definitely affected the design of the PS4 platform more than anything else.

Rendering in high resolutions requires great memory bandwidth and rendering in stereo mode as well as with various antialiasing techniques requires even higher bandwidth. Sony has been talking about extreme memory bandwidth required for rendering of high-resolution S3D games for quite some time now. Moreover, a number of industry analysts considered that the PS4 will be based on a 2.5D-stacked chip with ultra-wide (512-bit) memory bus. According to leaks, Sony Orbis’ memory sub-system will feature peak bandwidth of 176GB/s, a little higher compared to that of the Radeon HD 7870 (153.6GB/s on 256-bit GDDR5 at 4.80GHz), and significantly higher compared to 68GB/s bandwidth offered by Xbox Next main DDR3-based memory sub-system as well as graphics-dedicated ESRAM with 102.4GB/s throughput.

Early reports have suggested that Sony PlayStation 4 “Orbis” will only feature 4GB of high-speed random access memory, two times less compared to 8GB RAM of Microsoft Xbox Next “Durango”. The recent rumours, however, point to Sony’s desire to install 8GB of memory to match the amount inside competing solution.

It is noteworthy that Sony decided not to use expensive proprietary Rambus XDR memory (made only by Samsung and Elpida) for the next-generation PlayStation, but chose to stick to industry-standard GDDR5, which it can source from Samsung, Hynix Semiconductor and Micron (the owner of Elpida, which can produce GDDR5 memory now). This is the first time in over a decade when Sony’s gaming console will not rely on memory from Rambus, in case the information about GDDR5-only memory sub-system is correct.

Operating System: Liberal Close to Metal Programming

Many – if not virtually all – game developers have criticized Sony for choosing heterogeneous multi-core Cell processor to power the PlayStation 3 as the chip was rather tough to develop for. Sony has also got a fair amount of critics for its arrogant attitude to game developers (which was conditioned by the fact that the company sold massive amount of PlayStation 2s and was significantly ahead of the original Xbox as well as Nintendo GameCube) and inefficient software development tools. This time, everything will be completely different.

Sony decided to use homogeneous multi-core chip for its next-gen PlayStation 4, which automatically makes lives of developers a whole lot easier. They will be able to use the same programming approaches for the PC, the Xbox Next as well as the PS4. Moreover, usage of AMD’s GCN graphics processor with compute capabilities allows them to also utilize GPGPU technologies for highly-parallel tasks. Thanks to the fact that even custom AMD Jaguar-based system-on-chip has the same x86 nature as the PC and Xbox, it will be even easier to utilize and adapt the new architecture for particular tasks.

Thanks to the fact that there will be eight fully-fledged cores capable of running sophisticated operating system, such as Microsoft Windows, it is logical to expect the OS which powers Orbis to feature real-time multi-task capabilities and run several applications at once.

But there are even more things that Sony has made right with the PlayStation 4 and earned an “enormous amount of goodwill among studios working with PS4 development hardware”, according the Edge magazine. The company now gives a lot more freedom to game developers compared to the PS3 days and even compared to what Microsoft allegedly gives with the Xbox Next. Sony is reportedly encouraging PS4 “Orbis” coders to “get closer to the metal” than is currently possible on Durango. The generally liberal approach will let talented game developers to create beautifully-looking games.

Storage: Blu-Ray, Hard Drive and Cloud

Just like the PlayStation 3, the PlayStation 4 will have mandatory hard disk drive (HDD) and will utilize Blu-ray discs to distribute and store games. What is new is that the new game console from Sony Computer Entertainment will rely on Gaikai’s cloud technologies to enable backwards compatibility and eliminate the market of second-hand games.

Since the company will utilize microprocessor and graphics processor developed by Advanced Micro Devices, the PS4 will be incompatible with video games for previous-gen consoles. However, Sony has found a solution that will not only solve the backwards compatibility problem, but will potentially expand the PlayStation business as well. At around the time of PlayStation 4 roll-out, Sony will launch its fully-fledged Gaikai-derived cloud-service for video games. The service is projected to stream titles developed for PlayStation, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 (select titles) to select PlayStation-branded devices (including PlayStation 4 and, potentially, PS Vita portable console as well as Sony’s own smartphones and tablets), according to media reports. Essentially, Sony should be able to sell games originally designed for previous-gen consoles to PS4 "Orbis" owners, which means greater revenue opporunities for the platform holder.

In addition, Sony will provide a digital copy of games with each PS4 title purchase in retail, which may be a good news for those, who are afraid of damaging discs. Unfortunately, this also means that the company may tie each copy of a game to individual PlayStation Network (PSN) account, meaning that it will be impossible to borrow games from friends or relatives or buy used game discs.

Media reports claim that Sony will release only one PS4 model at launch with 500GB hard disk drive, but it is also expected that over time the company intends to make a cost-efficient console with NAND flash-based storage.

Cross-Platform Gaming

Thanks to acquisition of Gaikai, the PlayStation 4 and possibly PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita should receive quite advanced cloud game streaming capabilities. But it should also be noted that even before the acquisition of Gaikai Sony introduced a number of cross-platform technologies which should work on PS3 and PS Vita.

The first cross-platform features that were in mid-2012 to the PlayStation consoles were a cross-play and cross-save, which allowed PS3 and PS Vita users to enjoy match or collaborative game play as well as managing saved data between PS Vita and PS3 [in select titles] to enable users to continue playing on the go with their PS Vita, right from where they left off on their PS3 at home.

In addition, Sony intended to add Cross-Controller technology, which allows users to control select PS3 format software by using their PS Vita as a controller (which should provide second-screen experience); Cross-Goods feature that allows users to enjoy purchased downloaded content and user-generated content on both PS3 and PS Vita by sharing between both platforms; as well as Remote Play technology which should allow PS Vita users to remotely access their PS3 to enjoy content including games and videos.

Since so far Sony has not enabled the majority of cross-platform technologies it has already announced, expect them to emerge on PlayStation 4 as well as on other game systems later this, or early next year. Sony clearly needs to boost the value of owning multiple PlayStation devices by utilizing cloud technologies as well as specific capabilities of its various gaming devices. Therefore, it is completely logical to expect the company to enable the already unveiled cross-platform features and introduce new ones for the PS4.

4K Output: World’s First Dedicated Ultra-High Definition Video Player

Just like the PlayStation 3 managed to become the world’s most popular and widely used Blu-ray disc player, the PlayStation 4 is projected to become the world’s first (and for a while the only) player capable of 4K-class video (3840*2160, 4096*2160 resolutions, etc.) playback.

The ultra-high definition video will be one of the key technologies several years down the road, when the PlayStation 4 “Orbis” will be a mainstream product and the 4K UHDTVs finally become reasonably priced. Therefore, expect Sony’s PS4 to feature faster Blu-ray disc drive capable of supporting triple-layer and quad-layer Blu-ray discs as well as possible other incarnations of the format. Besides, the PS4 will feature HDMI 1.4a output, possibly with various customizations necessary to support possible next-gen copyright protection technologies.

In case Sony fails to persuade the Blu-ray disc association to add 4K video support to the format, the company will probably have to introduce its own 4K video rental/distribution service as otherwise the 4K capabilities of the console will never be utilized, something that will not make the company and end-users happy.

It is also natural to expect graphics processor of the PlayStation 4 to support decoding of video encoded using H.265/HEVC codec, but it is also likely that Sony will attempt to integrate a customizable video engine that will support other possible formats that may arrive in the next several years as well.

Controllers: New Gamepad and Kinect-Like Sensors

With next-generation games in mind, Sony has all-new game controllers for its future PlayStation 4 game console, based on various media reports and photographs of the PS4 "Orbis" development kit.

The PlayStation 4 is presently projected to come with a brand-new Dual-Shock-like controller that will have improved functionality. The recently published photos depict a gamepad controller with PlayStation logotype with traditional face buttons, two analog sticks, D-pad shoulder triggers as well as small screen and a speaker. The “select” and “start” buttons are no longer present, which suggests that Sony decided to implement their functionality using touchscreen. The display does not seem to be big, but it will clearly add some flexibility that developers might want for their next-generation titles. In addition, the touchscreen will help Sony to provide more consistent experience with portable game console. The controller also has embedded blue light emitter, which may mean that it will have similar functionality as Sony's Move controller.

Photos by Destructoid and GameTrailers web-sites.

In fact, Sony itself may need additional functionality out of its controller. According to the latest issue of the Edge magazine, Sony PlayStation 4 will continually record the most recent 15 minutes of onscreen action (with no performance penalty) and allow users to edit the videos as well as post them to YouTube or other web-sites.

The rumours about better motion-sensing technology on the PlayStation 4 have been floating around for some time and two sensors on the PS4 devkit seem to confirm them. The alleged PlayStation 4 development kit which photo was published last week depicts a PC-like box that has two rectangular elements placed symmetrically on sides of the front panel. When magnified, the objects seem to be covered with glass or transparent plastic and feature two or three rounded components inside, which look like cameras or image sensors.

In case the rectangular elements are indeed sensors and the box is actually a PlayStation 4 “Orbis” (not Xbox Next “Durango”) development kit, then Sony may be working on a motion sensing technology similar to Microsoft’s Kinect.

The three-dimensional motion sensing capability is relatively easy to implement from hardware point of view. Kinect features two infrared depth sensors as well as a standard RGB camera. The Depth information is captured by emitting pulses of infra-red light to all objects in the scene and sensing the reflected light from the surface of each object. All objects in the scene are then arranged in layers according to the distance information sensed by the D pixels in the camera, providing the Depth information in real time as standard black and white video where the grey-level correlates to relative distance. Color data is provided using a normal color imaging sensor.

Every black rectangular object on the devkit seems to have one RGB sensor, one or two IR sensors (two would provide better depth accuracy) and/or one high-speed PlayStation Eye-like sensor. In case the objects are indeed three-dimensional motion sensors, then two of them will likely provide very high tracking precision for the new PlayStation “Orbis”.

The Ultimate Gaming Platform?

When Sony Computer Entertainment unveiled its PlayStation 3 game console in 2005-2006, it had too many ambitions with the Cell processor (which was good for high-performance computing, but was too tricky for a consumer device), Blu-ray and some other technologies implemented into the system. As a result, the company came up with relatively outdated graphics chip (which was a result of Sony’s and Toshiba’s failure to create a competitive custom GPU) and lacked advanced Internet services. In case the information about the PlayStation 4 is at least partly correct, then Sony has learnt from its mistakes.

Sony’s PlayStation 3 released in November, 2006, featured custom Nvidia RSX graphics core with GeForce 6/7 architecture that first emerged on the PC in 2004. It was able to compete with moderate success with Microsoft Xbox “Xenos” GPU, but could never surpass it in terms of image quality. The PlayStation 4 will be based on over a year-old graphics solution that will likely be faster than that of the Xbox Next “Durango”, but clearly less advanced compared to PC graphics cards due in late 2013. At least, game developers are already familiar with AMD’s GCN architecture, so expect visually-attractive PS4 video games at launch. Sony clearly wants to popularize stereo-3D technologies and in case performance of the PS4 GPU is enough, then over time there will be quite sophisticated titles running at decent speed in 1920*1080 resolution in S3D mode.

Thanks to industry-standard x86 multi-core microprocessors and efficient development tools, which allow to program the platform at low levels and therefore get maximum possible performance, game developers will quickly learn how to efficiently design titles for the Orbis. Still, keeping in mind that it is hard to expect truly high performance from Jaguar cores, Sony will probably need to use GPGPU technologies and/or cloud processing technologies for very complex computing tasks.

With more advanced gamepad controller as well as sophisticated sensors, Sony will finally be able to compete against Microsoft’s Kinect-based titles, further improving gaming abilities of the platform by addressing casual gamers. In case Sony fails to capitalize on its sensors or offer similar functionality as Kinect (or the sensors will not be present on the final PS4), then Microsoft will continue to gain customers among casual gamers with the Xbox Durango platform.

All-in-all, it looks like the PlayStation 4 “Orbis” has been developed to become an excellent gaming platform. It will hardly be significantly better for games than the Xbox 360 “Durango”, but it will clearly be a little more future-proof thanks to higher-performing GPU and faster memory sub-system.

But the PS4 “Orbis” will likely have the same Achilles’ heel as the PlayStation 3, moreover, with the emerging competition from things like Apple TV and other non-gaming platforms the things will get even worse. PSN’s capabilities are still a way behind those of Xbox Live. With the upcoming Apple TV-set, Sony’s next console may become a solution for hardcore games (especially keeping in mind cross-platform features with PS Vita), not a must-have box for every mainstream living room. Perhaps, this is exactly the thing that Sony will need to address in the coming months before its new-generation console hits the market late this year.

Sony did not comment on the news-story.