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Next-Gen PlayStation Unveiled: What Does it All Mean?

This year’s GDC is over, and Sony is ready to get the ball rolling on the next generation of gaming consoles — starting with an exclusive feature in Wired discussing the in-development next-generation PlayStation console (which the company will not say will be named the PlayStation 5).

Wired’s story mentions some fairly significant information very quickly. It will be backward compatible with PS4 games (though what this means may vary). The new system will run on AMD system-on-a-chip hardware derived from the company’s next generation Ryzen 3 processor family (featuring an 8-core design, though this number should be seen as subject to an asterisk) and AMD’s as yet unreleased Navi line of graphics cards, based on a 7-nanometer manufacturing process. Cerny’s assertion that the next-generation PlayStation will include support for ray-tracing suggests that Navi includes some form of hardware-based ray tracing support — that is, if AMD’s competitor Nvidia is to be believed in its claims that for now, the only truly cost-efficient means to properly support full real-time raytracing is via specialized hardware.

Cerny also says that the new PlayStation will support 8K displays, though this seems most likely to mean something cursory, more than providing a mission statement for the hardware, given that 4K gaming at 60 frames per second is still largely elusive on all but the most powerful, power-gulping PC hardware — hardware operating at entirely different thermal and price considerations than a game console.

Of course, Cerny and Sony aren’t providing any raw numbers for the new PlayStation yet, likely for multiple reasons. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to provide hard data for its competitors, namely Microsoft and its Xbox platform, to counterprogram for (especially when Sony won’t be present at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, where Microsoft is expected to unveil its own next-generation hardware this year).

But Sony also probably hasn’t fully finalized the new PlayStation’s hardware yet. Specifications like overall teraflop performance (one measure of potential graphical output) and processor speed are in many ways determined by how aggressive Sony’s manufacturing predictions are — in order to fabricate enough CPU/GPU chips to launch a new console, elements may need to be disabled to account for processors that have defects but might still be usable. This is common practice in console technology. Both the Xbox One and PS4’s system-on-a-chip elements include disabled processor cores to account for the initial immaturity of their manufacturing process. Shipping new console hardware is like trying to land a plane on a moving target. Sometimes things change. It doesn’t make sense for Sony to make a hard commitment to things it may not be able to deliver on precisely, and more aggressive manufacturing predictions are likely to result in a more expensive manufacturing process — and, in turn, a more expensive console.

It’s extremely likely that Sony and AMD have only just finalized, or are in the process of finalizing the new PlayStation’s hardware. It was only recently surfaced on Reddit that Sony is still looking for lead graphics engineers with experience in raytracing, suggesting that there was debate until late in the process as to whether or not the technology was ready for consoles in 2020. This year’s Game Developers Conference would suggest that debate has come to a conclusion, which Sony is also indicating here.

There are more bits of hardware info in Wired’s story — the next-generation PlayStation will also introduce support for object-based positional audio like Dolby’s Atmos and DTS:X via a specialized audio processor. This fixed function hardware is good news for developers, as audio processing tends to eat up CPU resources, especially with the more computationally intense Atmos, which supports both horizontal and vertical speaker placement for a much more dynamic surround sound experience. While Microsoft added Atmos support to both the Xbox One X and S consoles in 2017 and 2018 respectively, PlayStation has so far failed to follow suit — which would appear to be changing with the newer hardware. Cerny’s statement, per Wired, that the “gold standard” for audio will be found with headphones, suggests this positional audio hardware will also be leveraged for true, dynamic binaural audio as well.

The lion’s share of Wired’s article, however, is spent discussing a new hard drive for the console, which Sony promises to offer a true generational leap over current hardware.

This is, of course, a low bar. Both the PS4 and Xbox One shipped with platter-based mechanical hard drives in 2013, a fact that has largely remained the same even now, as both platform holders’ mid-generation upgrade consoles also released with platter-based mechanical hard drives. Solid State Drives, or SSDs, have been common on PCs for almost a decade now, which offer multiple times the performance of their mechanical counterparts.

Cerny is teasing technology that he says is faster than any commercial hard drive on the market right now, though he’s coy in speaking specifically about the hard drive in the console’s development kit, not the retail unit that will be available to consumers.

While Cerny’s pitch on the new system’s hard drive is a bit magical, the technology is in all likelihood already widely available on PCs — a more recent implementation of SSD drives referring to NVME devices. The hard drives on current generation consoles connect to the system internally using a transfer standard called SATA, which offers peak information transfer rates of up to 300 MB per second. This is much faster than mechanical hard drives can offer, but this is a dramatic throttle on the peak transfer rates solid state drives offer. NVME drives instead connect directly to the motherboard on your PC via PCI-E slots, similar to the super-high throughput connection used by GPUs and video capture devices.

Top of the line NVME drives offer thousands of MB per second transfer speeds on PCs. That’s at minimum 10x the performance of current generation hard drives.

While much is rightly made about graphics and CPU performance in console gaming, every game is constantly streaming in new data from storage as you play it, and the speed at which a game can do that offers a major constraint on the kinds of games developers can make. In 2013, both Microsoft and Sony made the decision to enforce hard drive installs for all games on the Xbox One and PS4, primarily because the real-time read speeds from optical media like DVD or Blu-ray just wasn’t fast enough for the kinds of games developers wanted to build for our current nearly-six-year-old console generation. Even now, PS4 and Xbox One titles are limited by the lowest common denominator of storage speed — adding an SSD to current generation consoles can speed things up somewhat, but console games in 2019 are fundamentally built around mechanical hard drive speeds.

In all likelihood, Microsoft is in complete agreement with Sony on this point. Unconfirmed rumors have circulated for months that Microsoft’s next-generation Xbox development kits employ NAND storage (and related rumors suggest a similar inclusion of raytracing support and use of next-generation AMD hardware).

The speed of the next-generation PlayStation’s hard drive alone can’t account for the kinds of performance improvements that Cerny demonstrated to Wired at their meeting. It’s likely that the next-generation PlayStation will use the still fairly new DDR6 memory standard, which offers dramatic improvements over the original PS4. The PS4’s DDR5 memory operates at 184GBps, a major improvement back in 2013. The PS4 Pro offered a modest improvement to 218GBps. Microsoft’s Xbox One X provided a more dramatic jump to 326 GBps, and GDDR6 can easily double that — all at theoretically less power consumption.

There are still numerous questions in addition to the targeted specifications of Sony’s new console. Even as SATA-based SSD prices fall, NVME drives remain more expensive in comparison, with a 10 to 30% price premium. Also, game install sizes are unlikely to shrink next generation, even as developers experiment with more efficient ways to deliver them to players, meaning external storage will still be required in all likelihood for players with large libraries that they will apparently be able to carry over to the next PlayStation. One of the main reasons Sony is likely hesitant to talk specs is because the company is still deciding just how much the cost of entry for the next generation of consoles will be, and all this new technology will rapidly set a floor for it.

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