Why Sony’s PlayStation 4 Could Change the Game

Sony PS4With Sony’s PlayStation 4 set to launch some time around “Holiday 2013,” let’s take a look at what to expect from the long-awaited console.

The PS4 is one of two, possibly three, next-generation consoles that are set to hit the market before the end of the year. By piecing together information from Sony’s various announcements, we can gain a reasonably good understanding of what Kaz Hirai and company have in store for us.

Specifications

For Sony fans, the updated specifications are both good and bad news. The good news is that the company is switching to an x86-based architecture. The bad news is that means the PS4 will be the first PlayStation that’s not backwards compatible. But while it won’t play legacy games directly, Sony has a workaround in store that should satisfy most people. More about that later.

At this stage, it’s unclear how Sony plans to deliver the approximately 2 teraFLOPs of graphical processing power (1.843 teraFLOPS at an 800Mhz clock speed, to be precise) that the PS4 is rumored to pack. The CPU is likely to be an AMD APU, which features an onboard GPU, but as at least one pundit has pointed out, AMD’s flagship APU chip only manages a ho-hum 700 GFLOPs. That means that AMD either has a monster of a chip in the works for Sony that ramps up graphics performance by nearly 300 percent, or that there will be some sort of discreet graphics processing. However, it’s worth pointing out that a major refresh of the AMD processor line is well overdue, so an all-in-one processor is definitely not out of the question.

The memory is where things really get interesting. Sony is using GDDR5 “unified memory” — 8 GB of it to be precise. While 8 GB of RAM is more or less standard for current-generation PCs, the memory itself is usually DDR3, which is quite a bit slower. One finds GDDR5 on discreet graphics cards, but most high-end cards top out at around 2 GB — a precious few go up to 3GB.

That amount of memory would be overkill for graphics alone, but the memory won’t be used for graphics alone. It will be doing everything. I’m guessing that Sony has taken this tack for practical reasons: RAM is cheaper than ever and excess memory can help with future-proofing. It also allows a certain level of multitasking. Up until now, console users haven’t really had any need to multitask. Now they might. If Sony incorporates multitasking functionality, don’t expect the laissez-faire arrangement that Windows and OSX users enjoy. It would be more about running multiple services at the same time. Think social networks, downloads, video and voice. It takes a fair bit of memory to simultaneously run those types of services and a graphically intensive game.

The Blu-ray drive is still there, which should come as no surprise considering that Blu-ray was one of Sony’s pet projects. The company has said that the drive will be approximately three times faster than the drive found on the PS3. As of yet, there’ve been no major announcements regarding on-board storage. Though Sony has said that the PS4 will ship with a large hard disk, it’s unclear what that translates to in terms of capacity.

The Controller

On the surface, the DualShock 4 looks a lot like the DualShock controllers of yore, but a closer look reveals that there are some rather big changes.

On the top of the controller, many of the changes aesthetic and/or ergonomic alterations: The analog sticks now have a slightly different surface, the D-pad has been given a PS Vita-esque makeover. The controller looks a little bit larger, a little squarer and a little easier to hold. It’s lost the familiar “Start” and “Select” buttons and gained “Share” and “Options” buttons. Losing “Select” makes sense; it was seldom used. Presumably “Options” will take the place of “Start.” More on the “Share” button later. The most significant change is a large rectangle of seemingly dead space, which is where you’ll find the touch pad.

At the back of the controller, above the Micro-USB port, is a light bar which changes color to indicate different in-game statuses. It also interacts with a 3D camera, which Sony is calling the PlayStation 4 Eye. The PS4 Eye it is able to track the controller’s motion via the light bar and sense depth, which paves the way for motion and possibly even gesture-based gaming. The controller also features a six-axis sensor, a speaker and a headphone jack, which more than likely also supports a microphone.

The controller also features a “Power” button, which is strangely absent from all of the images that Sony has released. That leads me to suspect that it could be hiding somewhere at the back of the controller. Since Sony has been sticking an extra power button at the back of its TV remotes for a while now, this wouldn’t be all that surprising. The “Power” button allows users to power down or suspend their system.

Social Gaming

The aforementioned “Share” button is used to incorporate one of the PS4′s more interesting features. The innocuous little piece of rubber involves more than just Facebook or Twitter or the PlayStation Network for that matter.

At its most basic level, “Share” will let users post screenshots and video (easy, thanks to the PS4’s always-on video compression) to their friends, more or less what one would expect. At its most complicated level, it looks a lot more like Remote Assistance. It offers a few options for struggling gamers including an over-the-shoulder mode that allows friends to watch each other’s gameplay and comment in real-time. If the backseat driver fails to get you through a level, you can actually hand over control of the game to him or her. Remember, though, that the PlayStation Network has had a few hiccups in the past, so it remains to be seen whether it will be able to handle the load of all these extra features.

For Developers

The real benefit of Sony switching to x86 is that it makes things much easier for programmers. Difficulties in programming for and porting games to the PS3 is part of what made its game library so limited. But the switch to x86 is significant for another reason: It marks a departure from older consoles, since it’s basically a PC with an operating system that is totally focused on entertainment. According to Ars Technica, the development environment will be Windows-7 based and “fully integrated with Visual Studio 2010 and 2012.”

The effect that this has on the marketplace will be interesting to watch. At this stage we can assume that Microsoft’s next-generation Xbox will have very similar architecture, so preparing a title for multiple platforms should be a whole lot easier. The simplified development process could also mean that some of the publishers who’ve shifted their focus away from PCs will become a little more PC-friendly.

Assorted Conjecture

Sony’s early showcasing of the PS4 has put it in an interesting strategic position. As Microsoft continues to keep the successor to the Xbox 360 under wraps, not-so-pleasant rumors have started to surface. At best it resembles a particularly ugly presidential campaign.

At this stage, we don’t really know whether Microsoft plans to make its games single-system only. We do know that games on the PS4 won’t be locked into a single machine. This doesn’t mean that Sony will allow games to run on multiple systems at the same time, it just means that when someone’s finished, they’ll be able to pass the game on or install it on a new system if they suffer equipment failure. Given Microsoft’s about-face to the backlash to a similar policy for Microsoft Office, its position could very well change.

Another controversial policy attached to Microsoft’s new console is that it will require a constant Internet connection. Last month, Sony unequivocally said the PS4 will be able to operate in offline mode. While the majority of console users would have an Internet connection, many still do not, and a good number of gamers live in countries with severe bandwidth restrictions. A constant connection might help to reduce piracy and prevent users rooting their hardware, but it has the potential to alienate more than a few customers. That said, gamemakers will have the option to require users to register a game online in order to play.

At this stage, Sony seems to be doing everything right in the marketing department. As long as there are no ugly surprises further down the line, the PS4 should hit the market with a lot more positive buzz than its Redmond-based competition.

Legacy Support, of Sorts

As noted, the PS4 will not support legacy games, but all is not lost. Lasy July, Sony acquired the cloud gaming service Gaikai, which will stream games from previous consoles. The service will also allow users to try before they buy. This sounds hopeful, but it might be best to temper expectations: As of this writing, Gaikai isn’t expected to be up and running when the PS4 launches — at least not fully — and the ability to stream games doesn’t really help those with existing game collections. Unless Gaikai offers some sort of title-matching service, people are going to have to re-buy old games.

A Potential Windfall for AMD

At this stage, it’s no exaggeration to say that AMD has been facing some pretty hard times — “floundering” isn’t too strong of a word. While Intel has always maintained an edge in terms of performance, AMD has always offered better value for the money. With consoles stepping into PC territory, AMD’s pricing strategy could really pay off. Consoles typically sell for less than they cost to produce so cutting the fat isn’t just important, it’s crucial.

We expect to see at least two new consoles this year in the form of the PS4 and the next incarnation of the Xbox — Valve’s Steambox could be a third. If AMD’s chips were to find their way into one or both, the impact would be huge.

Pricing and Availability

While AMD has always managed to keep its processors affordable, the level of performance Sony is trumpeting isn’t likely to come cheap. Throw the memory and on-board storage into the mix and you have the makings of a fairly pricey system. So how much can we expect to pay? All kinds of figures have been floating around. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the launch price will be around a little more than $400 in the U.S. However, though Sony has tended to launch with higher prices, the lackluster performance of the PS3 may have given it the motivation to try a different approach.

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