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A closer look at the PS4’s specs, and what they mean for you

PS4 Specs: Press ConferenceEven though Sony’s PlayStation 4 conference lacked any indication of what the console might look like when it hit store shelves this holiday season, the company did, however, remove the veil from the console’s specifications. Many rumors have been confirmed and we now know some specifics about core count, RAM, and graphics horsepower.

These figures can be opaque to the average gamer, however. What do they mean, and how does the PlayStation 4 stand up to the other gaming systems?

Want to see how it directly stacks up against the current generation? Check out our PS3 vs. PS4 spec comparison.

x86 infiltrates a console

Sony will be shipping the new system with an eight-core 64-bit processor based off AMD’s “Jaguar” processor line. Don’t let the core count fool you – this is not a high-end PC part. Jaguar is built for mobile products like sleekbooks (AMD’s answer to the ultrabook), not desktops, so the raw power of the PS4’s processor will be behind the typical gaming PC.

That may sound dire, but there’s reason for optimism. Consoles have always benefited from standardization that helps developers optimize their games. Eight x86 cores – even slow ones – could be formidable if properly used. PC games have historically made disappointing use of multiple threads, but developers have been constrained by a market dominated by dual-core systems. The PS4 will banish that issue.

PS4 Specs: Press Conference 2

Building a console off the same instruction set used by PCs is a boon to game development, as well.  Programmers familiar with the PC will find transitioning to console development easier than ever before and ports between the two will take less time to optimize.

Everyone needs a companion

Though x86 cores are the brunt of the new console’s might, Sony stated at its event that another low-power core will be bundled in, as well. The additional processor exists not to help with games directly but instead to process tasks in the background.

This is a great advantage to the console experience. The PlayStation 3 is notorious for its lengthy downloads which, more often than not, can’t be completed in the background. Sony has also thrown in video recording and real-time sharing features that would certainly reduce performance if the x86 cores were left on their own. This also plays in to one of the new features that Sony announced during the unveiling event – the ability to play downloadable games almost instantly. Rather than waiting for a sizable game to download, you will be able to begin the download and begin play after only a small portion has been completed, then continue to play as the remainder of the download continues in the background.

The low-power chip could also be used to display the user interface, keeping the console cool and quiet when it’s not running a game. This is speculation on our part, however, as Sony has not specifically mentioned that the low-power core will be used for this purpose.

Radeon conquers another console

Sony states that the PS4’s graphics chip, which is derived from existing Radeon technology and integrated into the Jaguar processor die, can push 1.84 TFLOPS. That number puts the power of the GPU roughly on par with a Radeon HD 7850 video card.

That may seem disappointing because the Radeon HD 7850 is “only” a mid-range GPU. Again, careful consideration allows for more optimism. Reviews of the Radeon HD 7850 graphics card have already shown that it can handle most current PC games at 1080p with medium to high detail, which is a huge leap over current-gen consoles.

Add in optimization, along with the possibility of rendering at 720p and scaling to 1080p (as current consoles do), and you have the potential for a huge leap forward in quality. The power on tap falls short of enabling support for 4K resolution in games, however. 4K video out will be supported for photos and videos, but games will render at a lower (as yet unspecified) resolution.

Eight is great

The number eight didn’t just show up in the core count. Sony has also packed in eight gigabytes of RAM, an absolutely massive increase over the 512MB (yes, megabytes!) found in the PlayStation 3. And the RAM is high-speed GDDR5, which will let Sony maximize the system’s data pipe.

PS4 Specs: Press Conference 3

Why does this matter? More RAM (and faster RAM) will let developers create bigger textures, larger levels, more complex AI and more. The massive improvement in available memory is arguably the new console’s most impressive feature.

The memory is shared system-wide, which means that it’s not exactly equivalent to a PC with eight gigabytes of RAM. If a computer’s video card runs out of video memory the main system memory can’t pick up the slack. The PS3, which used separate main system and video memory (256MB each), also faced this issue. Unifying the memory on the PS4 will make the console easier to develop for and more flexible over time.

Wait, there’s more

There are other improved components worth mentioning. Chief among them is the new Blu-Ray drive with up to 6x speed. This upgrade will roughly triple the maximum data throughput available from a disc, significantly shortening load and install times.

Sony has also ponied up for an unknown number of high-speed USB 3.0 ports, 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth and Gigabit LAN. None of these technologies are new, of course, but they point to a well-rounded system with numerous fast connectivity options for networking and peripherals.

Hard drive speed and size is the only specification that remains unclear. This is likely because it hasn’t been finalized. Sony will almost certainly release several different bundles with drives of varying capacity, and replaceable hard drives is a definite possibility as well. 

How does it compare?

Sony’s new console absolutely demolishes the WiiU on the hardware battlefield. Sony is providing five more cores than Nintendo, a graphics solution that is two generations newer, and four times as much RAM.

Closer examination only widens the gap. The PS4’s processor architecture is more recent, the graphics chip is larger and the RAM much quicker. History is repeating itself. Nintendo’s hardware will once again be substantially behind the competition.

PS4 Specs: Press Conference 4

Microsoft hasn’t revealed its hand yet, of course, but there have been multiple leaks over the course of the last year. The information available so far indicates a system similar to Sony’s console with eight x86 cores built by AMD. They may even use the same Jaguar architecture. Leaks say the cores will run at 1.6 GHz, a clock speed that’s spot-on for Jaguar cores.

The next Xbox is likely to use an AMD Radeon derived graphics component as well, though the latest leaks say it will serve up about 1.2 TFLOPS of power, less than the 1.84 TFLOPS figure quoted by Sony.

RAM may be the main differentiator. While the next Xbox is rumored to also offer eight gigabytes of memory, leaks say it will be DDR3, which is slower. There’s reason to believe Sony has caught Microsoft a bit off-guard in this area. The GDDR5 memory found in the PS4 is unprecedented. Even Nvidia’s Titan graphics card, which retails at $999, has less.

Is this really the next gen?

Some sources have already pointed out that Sony’s new console does nothing a modern PC can’t offer – and not a particularly expensive one, at that. An enthusiast could assemble a roughly equivalent system for $600 to $700. A gaming computer with even a moderately powerful graphics component, like the Nvidia GTX 660 Ti, is far more capable than this new console. Specifications suggest the PlayStation 4 isn’t impressive when compared to a PC.

That’s true, but also ignorant of history. The PlayStation 3, for instance, uses a graphics component derived from the Nvidia G70. Graphics cards built with that technology were widely available in PCs at the time of the PS3’s release. Even so, the PS3’s visual fidelity was impressive at release. 

“Next-gen” has always been relative to previous consoles. And from that view the PlayStation 4 is a massive leap forward. The new console, compared to its predecessor, offers sixteen times more raw memory and even more bandwidth (because the memory is also quicker). The power of the PS3’s graphics solution, measured by TFLOPs, is not 100% clear – but the chip it’s derived from was quoted at 200 GFLOPS, which means the PS4 is about nine times more powerful.

We know that none of the console makers want to repeat Sony’s mistake of launching the PlayStation 3 at $599 for a well-equipped bundle. Given that limitation, Sony has pushed console hardware as far as possible. Finally, after nearly seven years, the next generation of consoles has arrived.