Out of nowhere, Sony sat their lead console architect Mark Cerny down in a room with a journalist and had him demo and show off their next generation of PlayStation console. From what he described for yesterday’s next-gen PlayStation reveal, it’s practically just a dream wish-list of components and system capabilities. It’s got a powerful modern CPU, a next generation GPU, ray tracing technology, a ludicrously fast SSD to eliminate loading screens, and backward compatibility. While I’ll be very happy to be proven wrong, this also doesn’t sound like it’ll be a £349/$399 console.
From what Mark Cerny described, nothing in the next PlayStation is actually available to buy by the public yet, and in some ways it will be right at the cutting edge of modern computer technology. By contrast, there was an air of familiarity to the technology unveiled at the PS4’s PlayStation meeting; an element of playing it safe. The bootstrapped eight core CPU design from AMD was novel and practically unique, but was based of lower powered, cheaper upcoming parts, while the GPU had a lot in common with the year old Radeon 7850. The standout part of the announcement, the 8GB of GDDR5, was a real luxury and added to the cost of each console’s manufacture significantly, but again, it was a standard part of all contemporary GPUs.
Remember this slide from 2013’s PlayStation Meeting? This was Sony saying this was a familiar, PC-like design.
Looking at the next PlayStation, and there’s a hint of exoticism, with a CPU and GPU that, while they’ve been teased and demoed by AMD, are all major unknowns. A third generation Ryzen “Zen 2” CPU with eight cores, the codenamed Navi GPU, AMD ray tracing technology and “faster than anything you can get in a PC” SSD could be taken from any fanboy’s wishlist for a 2020 games console. Of course, that also means it sounds damn expensive, with our poor wallets’ saving grace being that it won’t be out in 2019 and so they’ve got 12-18 months for these technologies to mature and the prices to come down.
Even so, let’s unpack what all of this means, starting with the CPU. This is one of the biggest and simplest steps forward that the next PlayStation can take, with the CPU in the PlayStation 4 anaemic even by 2013 standards. What AMD had to offer back in the early 2010s was frankly not all that great, lagging well behind Intel in terms of both power and efficiency, but they had a significant lead in being able to construct Accelerated Processing Units (APU) that combined low powered CPUs with well powered GPUs. Now in 2019, AMD are able to do the same tricks, but with much more powerful parts.
AMD CEO Lisa Su holding up a third generation AMD Ryzen processor at CES 2019.
The company’s CPU fortunes have turned around dramatically since the introduction of the first generation Ryzen in 2017, finally able to challenge Intel with single CPU core performance at comparable efficiency, but then weaving it into products with many more cores and at lower prices. Zen 2, the third generation Ryzen that Cerny mentioned, is set to push that even further. Demoed earlier this year at CES 2019, a directly comparable eight core Zen 2 CPU put Intel’s fastest consumer 8 core CPU to the sword, but is expected to be much cheaper. In fact, all of the rumours suggest that 8 cores will be AMD’s new mid-range CPU, costing less than £200. That’s still a significant cost, but should reduce further by 2020 and when taking into account that Sony won’t be paying anything like retail price.
Either way, it will likely be worth the cost. It quickly became clear that the CPU was a real bottleneck for the PS4 and Xbox One, as ambitious games at the start of the generation struggled to keep up – Assassin’s Creed Unity’s rendition of Paris and large crowds of NPCs suffered for this, and saw Ubisoft changing direction for later games, while the Just Cause 3’s extensive use of physics really punished consoles. A more powerful CPU ought to help significantly in the quest for stable 60fps gaming in a lot of cases.
Turning to the GPU, and the PS4 and PS4 Pro were both built around mid-range GPUs – the Radeon 7850 and then a souped up 7850 with some elements of the RX 480, such as Rapid Packed math. Unfortunately AMD have really stagnated over the last half decade, promising a lot, but coming off worse against Nvidia both in terms of performance and power efficiency. Navi is their opportunity to address that, presumably taking the current top tier and bringing it into the mainstream. That means Vega56 levels of performance around £200 to let them compete with the mid-range GTX 1660 Ti card from Nvidia around the £200 mark.
It’s not yet known if Navi will sport any ray tracing technology this year, but come the launch of the next PlayStation, it will in a semi-custom design at least. This follows in the footsteps of Nvidia and Microsoft, with the former adding dedicated hardware to process ray tracing in their RTX 20 series cards, and the latter adding support for the technology in Windows 10. This is a fundamental shift in how lighting is calculated in the game engine, but its costly. The implementation here has been done to augment the techniques currently used to generate lighting, as opposed to replace them, giving some of the benefits without the same performance costs. As Cerny pointed out, it’s not necessarily just visuals that can be calculated by ray casting, but sound as well.
For PC builders, such a CPU and a GPU would already surpass the £349 launch price of the PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 4 Pro, but you have to factor in that Sony will be getting these at cost as part of a combined APU. AMD’s own processes have improved and become much more modular over the last few years, using an Infinity Fabric technology to let them bind together individual chiplets, cutting the costs of manufacturing errors.
Still, there’s a lot of other costs to consider, such as whether Sony will use GDDR6, the successor to the GDDR5 memory used in the PS4, or the more power efficient and higher bandwidth HBM2, which is more expensive and more difficult to implement, but could see greater cost reductions over the lifespan of the next generation. Given the rest of what’s in the machine, going for lower costs on day one may be more prudent.
That’s because of the SSD, and not just any SSD, but a “higher bandwidth than any SSD available for PCs” SSD. Games are huge these days, especially since they’ve been patched and expanded well past the 50GB limit of regular Blu-ray discs. For the promised ability to slash loading screens in a well-optimised open world game like Spider-Man from fifteen seconds to under one, that data needs to be stored on the SSD, and it needs to be a fast SSD.
Samsung’s 970 SSDs are some of the fastest available on the market, with raw read speeds in excess of 3000MB/s, over 30x faster than a spinning HDD. They’re also hella expensive.
A regular SATA SSD that you can put in your PS4 can have five to six times the raw throughput of the old spinning drive you have, while also speeding up the ability to serve up smaller files by many times more than that – sadly the PS4’s architecture can’t actually make the best use of this. But Cerny said faster, so how about newer NVME drives that are another five to six times faster? That sounds a bit more like it, and while I hate to break it to you, those are bloody expensive. You can get a 1TB SATA SSD for close to £100 these days, but for the super fast NVME drives that’s £200. Given the size of modern games and backward compatibility to at least Spider-Man, even 1TB is going to be filled as fast as your internet can handle.
Another possibility is some kind of hybrid system, using a smaller SSD in tandem with a spinning disk HDD and intelligent caching so that relevant files are stored on the SSD for when they’re needed. AMD have a solution in their current PC platform, but it would need to be heavily tailored or simply be engineered from scratch by Sony to provide the best experience for games. That kind of solution would strike a good balance between cost and performance, potentially still offering the ability for end users to replace the internal HDD, as has been a staple of both PS3 and PS4.
All of this would add up to a weighty bill of materials for Sony to accommodate in the PlayStation 5’s price, potentially significantly more than they had for the PlayStation 4 at launch and PlayStation 4 Pro. There’s time for it all to come down in price, however. The 7nm process is maturing through 2019 and into 2020, AMD’s designs will be better accustomed to it, and there’s currently a serious downward pressure on prices for SSD NAND chips. So again, while I’ll be pleasantly surprised by a £349/$399 price point, don’t be too surprised that a return to more modern, cutting edge technologies will cost us.