With the E3 conferences out of the way, Sean Knight looks over the next-gen of console hardware and wonders who has the lead
With E3 behind us, players now have a better sense of what the next generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft are capable of. In the run-up to the LA convention, the big question had been what the two companies would do in regards to DRM and the used-game market. Now that consumers have their answers, the next thing to ask is which system will be more suitable for gaming? And, technically, will one system be better than the other?
By comparing the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 hardware specifications one can see that, for the most part, the two consoles are on par; although, Microsoft hasn’t fully revealed its specs. What we do know is that both devices will feature eight-core processors (AMD Jaguar processor for PS4 and a Microsoft custom CPU for XB1), an AMD graphics card, 8GB of Ram (DDR3 for XB1 and GDDR5 for PS4), a 500GB hard drive, and a blu-ray drive.
However, there are some differences that will impact consumers and their games. For example, gamers will be able to swap out the PS4’s 500GB drive and replace it with a larger unit but that won’t be possible on the XB1. At first glance that might seem trivial but when one considers that consumers will be downloading and installing all their games plus other media to their hard drive while potentially also recording video, that space could soon be filled up. In addition, the XB1 will be region-locked while PS4 won’t, which is another plus for gamers who want to import games that might not be available in their region.
These are factors that gamers should worry about but what about developers?
Spec-wise both consoles are very similar with one major exception: the Ram. Yes, both consoles will come with 8GB of Ram but two different types: DDR3 (on XB1) and GDDR5 (on PS4) and this is what could set one console apart from the other.
Ram, which stands for random access memory, is what allows hardware to store data in a random fashion unlike regular memory storage devices, like hard drives and CDs, that store data in a predetermined order. For games, this is where audio files are accessed to make the sounds of footsteps when your character moves, opens doors, or even attacks. Other things that use up Ram are hotkeys, effects, and even what happens to items when you interact with them.
A perfect example of how Ram can influence the solid running of a game can be seen in the fiasco surrounding the PS3 version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The way the system’s Ram was allocated meant that developer Bethesda had less memory to use on the Sony system compared with the 360, which caused gamers to experience lag problems as their save file grew larger and asked more of the Ram. The result left PS3 players disillusioned and saw the developer reduced to throwing around embarrassing suggestions such as advising gamers to do simple little things like close doors (that is, return them to their default state).
By using GDDR5 Ram, Sony is making sure that such a situation will never happen again. Sony PlayStation 4 lead system architect Mark Cerney told TechOn, “The reason why SCE employed the GDDR5 interface instead of the DDR3 interface, which is commonly used for the main memories of personal computers, was to solve the problem of memory bandwidth, which had been the biggest bottleneck.”
Cerney continued, “[Though it is a challenge in terms of cost and procurement] we decided to offer a memory capacity of 8GB because of strong demand from developers. We put priority on making a configuration that makes it easy for developers to create games so that many games will be made.”
Compared to DDR3, GDDR5 Ram is faster and can handle a larger volume of information. If the difference in Ram weren’t enough, Microsoft has put itself at a further disadvantage. As shown at the XB1’s unveiling, Microsoft demonstrated the console’s flawless transition between games, TV, movies, voice commands, Kinect 2.0, and other applications. It all looked very slick but all of those processes use up Ram.
While it’s impossible to know the specific numbers, it seems likely that the PS4 will have an even larger advantage in offering developers the opportunity to do more with their games on Sony’s console thanks to both PS4’s Ram upgrade and the XB1’s intensive features.
To put this in another perspective, the recommended settings for Skyrim and Battlefield 3 on the PC require 4GB of Ram to get the best out of the two games. And that is current gen. This means that the XB1 and PS4 will have the capability to make those same two games look as good as the PC on their respective platforms.
But what about future games when developers decide to really push both consoles to their limits?
Microsoft’s decision to create an all-in-one entertainment system that does many different things will hinder what it can do when it comes to games. In this area, Sony has a huge advantage not only in the early stages of this next-gen cycle but also later on as games continue to expand and demand more resources.
Even if factors such as DRM, online authentication, and the used-game market were not issues, it still doesn’t negate the fact that Microsoft, by trying to reach a broad audience, has put itself in a limited space. Meanwhile, Sony will be able to develop and publish games that will look better, run faster, and will soon outstrip the XB1’s capabilities.