PlayStation 4: Why it won't be what you expect

The next gen will be born into a changing technological world. Here's what it'll do...

Henry Ford - father of the now-ubiquitous mass-produced car - once quipped that if he actually asked people what they wanted, they'd just ask for a faster horse.

Ask Dave Public down your street what he wants from the PlayStation 4 and he might well come up with a similar response: a faster PlayStation 3.

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But this is space-year 2011. Will lashing two last generation consoles together and sticking a bigger number on the side cut it for a manufacturer besieged on all sides by competitors and innovators? Worse still, is bigger actually better any more?


The rubber band-powered rise of far less-powerful gaming devices such as Nintendo's DS and Wii, and more recently Apple's iPhone and iPad, has ruined playground disputes forever. It's a brand-new phenomenon in an area traditionally powered by technical innovation. Will this generation of gamers even know how powerful their devices are, let alone care?

But for us in the business of soothsaying, power is a good place to start. The PS4 won't drop everything to focus on pure processor grunt, but it will be notably more powerful than the five year-old PlayStation 3. There are two schools of thought on how the company will achieve this extra punch.

The first is a continuation of their current efforts. The PS3 is built on the bespoke 'Cell' processor, funded by Sony at great expense - it lightened their wallet by several hundred million dollars. The factories that make the processor carve an even greater chunk out of their bank balance: in December 2010, Sony bought the majority stake in the Japanese factory for a stonking 1.1 billion dollars.

To jettison that setup would be financial insanity - especially when a future version of the Cell CPU could, according to those in the know, more than double its capability to 500 gigaflops. That's 300 more gigaflops than PS3 can manage and, as we all know, the more gigafl ops something has, the better it is. At gigaflopping, anyway.

The second option is madder, and involves Sony ignoring all that good advice. Nvidia are known to be working on a monster graphic chip codenamed 'Project Denver,' with a timing that would allow a clever console manufacturer to jump on board at an early stage. Project Denver is ARM-based. That doesn't mean you'll be wearing your PS4 - ARM is a system architecture common on mobile phones, and one Nvidia hope to scale up to very high-end machines. With smartphones becoming universal, compatibility could be as important as power.


This architecture switch would be of vital importance to developers working on PlayStation 4. The Cell chip in your PS3 is widely regarded as a devious little bastard, despite its potential. Put simply, the 512Mb of PS3's memory is rigidly halved between system RAM and video RAM, whereas the Xbox 360 allows developers to use all 512Mb for whatever they fancy.

This means PS3 devs can't just divert memory resources into, say, graphical wows when the AI needs are small. It takes more careful planning than that to get the best from it, and that takes time - and money. Hence the initial prevalence of disappointing ports.

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