The next generation of video game console hardware is (almost) here. The $499 Xbox One and $399 PlayStation 4, which we’ve already examined in detail, will both be on store shelves by the end of November. These arrivals will allow console games to make a dramatic leap forward in image quality, once again allowing them to compete with a powerful gaming PC.
While the most extreme computers will remain more powerful than the next-gen consoles, gamers lacking a bottomless bank account may look at the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 with envy. The graphics fidelity generated by both is impressive for the price. A brand new, $400 or $500 computer can’t hope to keep up, and gaming rigs that are a few years old will also be behind the standard set by the newest gaming systems.
However, there are a few things that PC gamers can do to bring an older system on par with the capabilities of the new consoles, ensuring that games that are released cross-platform will play just as well (if not better) on your PC. What’s more, you can install all of the necessary upgrades for the price of a PS4.
Keeping up with the octo-core
Both new consoles use processors based on AMD architecture and sport eight cores. Both the PS4 and the Xbox One also reserve a pair of cores for the operating system, making six cores available for games to make use of. The base clock for the PS4’s processor is 1.6 GHz, while the Xbox One runs at a slightly quicker 1.75 GHz.
These specifications may sound intimidating, particularly for PC gamers with old gear. Intel’s processors, which are generally preferred for gaming, usually come with no more than four cores. Six-core CPUs are prohibitively expensive. AMD offers eight core processors, but their chips suffer from lower per-core performance than what Intel has to offer. At first glance, it may seem that the PC can’t measure up to the latest console offers from Sony and Microsoft.
Clock speed and core count don’t tell the whole story though. The architecture used by the new consoles is based off a design called Jaguar, which targets mobile devices, rather than the faster and more powerful Piledriver architecture, used in desktop computers. AMD powered laptops with Jaguar-derived processors tend to deliver benchmark scores several times slower than a modern AMD or Intel desktop CPU.
So, raw performance probably isn’t a concern; even a desktop that’s a few years old should provide adequate grunt. Core count, however, deserves more attention. With the new consoles offering six cores, and many modern gaming rigs now shipping with at least four cores, the writing is on the wall for older dual-core gaming PCs. Developers have more incentive than ever before to optimize for multi-core systems, and that will leave computers lacking at least four cores behind.
There are a few things that PC gamers can do to bring older systems on par with the new gaming consoles, all for the price of a PS4, which costs $399.
Those who have an older AMD Phenom or Athlon processor likely have an AM2/AM3 socket, which means your upgrade path will be limited to Phenom II X4 quad-core processors, which are now a bit hard to come by. However, they may still be a worthwhile upgrade if you have an AMD dual-core and can find a seller offering reasonable prices. Don’t be afraid to look for a used part, like the Phenom X4 955, which is often sold for around $100. Processors are reliable, so you can expect it to last despite its age.
Gamers with a newer (2011+) AMD system likely have an FM1 socket, which supports a variety of AMD A-Series processors. FM2 supports the latest AMD A-Series and AMD FX-Series parts, such as the $139 FX-8120, which boasts eight cores. If you can afford it, however, aim for the FX-8350, which runs at 4 GHz and sells for $199. The boost in clock speed can make a difference.
The battle of the TFLOPs
With the processor handled, gamers will next want to take a look at their graphics card. This has always been a critical component for an optimal PC gaming experience, and that won’t change anytime soon. Fortunately, there’s some good news here; the GPUs used by the PS4 and the Xbox One aren’t exactly warhorses.
Once again, both manufacturers are using a custom-tailored AMD architecture which is based off PC hardware. The Xbox One’s GPU has 768 cores running at 853 MHz, leading to peak theoretical output of 1.31 teraflops (FLOPS is short for Floating Point Operations Per Second). The PlayStation 4 has 1152 cores running at 800 MHz, generating a peak output of 1.84 TFLOPs.
These figures are a huge improvement over the PS3 and the Xbox 360, but not that impressive when compared to PC video cards. The on-paper power of the PlayStation 4 is only on par with the Radeon HD 7850, a competent but inexpensive card that usually sells for $140 to $160 and offers 1.76 TFLOPs of raw grunt.
While it’s likely that developers will eventually be able to squeeze more performance from the next-gen consoles than comparable PC hardware, cross-platform launch titles don’t seem to have an advantage on next-gen consoles. Battlefield 4, for example, can run at about 39 frames per second when powered by the Radeon HD 7850 at a resolution of 1680×1050 with maximum detail. The same game runs near or at 60 frames per second on the PlayStation 4, but only at a slightly reduced resolution of 1600×900 and with overall image quality that, according to Digital Foundry’s Thomas Morgan, comes “incloser to its [the PC’s] high setting.” Microsoft’s Xbox One, meanwhile, runs at 720p resolution.
This means you don’t have to spend all that much to shore up your PC’s graphics. A Radeon 7850 or GeForce GTX 650 Ti will do nicely, and both are available for $140 or less. Developers will likely learn to optimize for the next-gen consoles and eventually coax out far better performance, but for now, even a mid-range gaming PC can go toe-to-toe with consoles.
Gobs and gobs of RAM
Both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One have eight gigabytes of RAM. The PS4 wields quicker GDDR5 RAM, but that is a detail most users need not worry about, and which PC gamers simply can’t match; DDR3 is the only choice for a modern PC’s main system RAM; GDDR is only found on video cards in PCs.
Such a huge volume of RAM may be intimidating for those on a PC, as the price for RAM is rising. The cost of an 8GB kit consisting of two 4GB DIMMs now hovers around $65, which is about twice what it was a year ago.
However, it’s worth remembering that both the next-gen consoles reserve a substantial amount of memory for their operating system; 3.5 GB on the PlayStation 4 and 3GB for the Xbox One. It’s arguable that Windows is actually less demanding, as while it can consume a lot of memory, it often does so through the use of smart caching that can actually improve load times. Realistically, only six gigabytes of RAM is needed to be competitive with consoles at this time.
Users who have existing DDR3 RAM, and additional RAM slots available inside their PC, can upgrade by continuing to use their existing RAM and adding four gigabytes of new RAM. That reduces the cost of upgrading to about $30.
Remember, however, that you need a 64-bit version of Windows to use more than four gigabytes of memory. Most PC ship with a 64-bit version today, but only some did a few years ago. You can upgrade your system by re-installing Windows from a 64-bit install disc or install media, such as a bootable USB drive.
Going toe-to-toe with consoles
Upgrading a computer to perform on par with next-gen consoles isn’t as hard or costly as you think. The total cost of a new processor, video card and additional RAM works out to about $400, which is the price of a PlayStation 4; and that’s assuming you need all the upgrades. Better yet, your old games will still work on your upgraded gaming rig! Take that, consoles!
There may be some gamers, however, who are stuck in a dead-end because their computer is too old. Gamers still using a system with a Core 2 Duo processor, for example, have no viable quad-core upgrade because compatible quad-cores are out of production and so old they wouldn’t be worth the cost. If your computer seems to be at an upgrade dead-end, check out our $500 Steam Box build guide; which requires you to just change the processor to a Core i5-3330, the RAM to eight gigabytes, and the video card to a Radeon HD 7850.
Alternatively, you can look at pre-built options, which can be surprisingly affordable. The Alienware X51, for example, starts at $700, and entry-level tower PCs with appropriate specifications can be purchased for around $800 on Newegg.Image Credit: William Hook/Flickr