Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PS3 - A Hardware Discussionby Anand Lal Shimpi & Derek Wilson on June 24, 2005 4:05 AM EST
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The point of a gaming console is to play games. The PC user in all of us wants to benchmark, overclock and upgrade even the unreleased game consoles that were announced at E3, but we can’t. And these sorts of limits are healthy, because it lets us have a system that we don’t tinker with, that simply performs its function and that is to play games.
The game developers are the ones that have to worry about which system is faster, whose hardware is better and what that means for the games they develop, but to us, the end users, whether the Xbox 360 has a faster GPU or the PlayStation 3’s CPU is the best thing since sliced bread doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, it is the games and the overall experience that will sell both of these consoles. You can have the best hardware in the world, but if the games and the experience aren’t there, it doesn’t really matter.
Despite what we’ve just said, there is a desire to pick these new next-generation consoles apart. Of course if the games are all that matter, why even bother comparing specs, claims or anything about these next-generation consoles other than games? Unfortunately, the majority of that analysis seems to be done by the manufacturers of the consoles, and fed to the users in an attempt to win early support, and quite a bit of it is obviously tainted.
While we would’ve liked this to be an article on all three next-generation consoles, the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Revolution, the fact of the matter is that Nintendo has not released any hardware details about their next-gen console, meaning that there’s nothing to talk about at this point in time. Leaving us with two contenders: Microsoft’s Xbox 360, due out by the end of this year, and Sony’s PlayStation 3 due out in Spring 2006.
This article isn’t here to crown a winner or to even begin to claim which platform will have better games, it is simply here to answer questions we all have had as well as discuss these new platforms in greater detail than we have before.
Before proceeding with this article, there’s a bit of required reading to really get the most out of it. We strongly suggest reading through our Cell processor article, as well as our launch coverage of the PlayStation 3. We would also suggest reading through our Xbox 360 articles for background on Microsoft’s console, as well as an earlier piece published on multi-threaded game development. Finally, be sure that you’re fully up to date on the latest GPUs, especially the recently announced NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GTX as it is very closely related to the graphics processor in the PS3.
This article isn’t a successor to any of the aforementioned pieces, it just really helps to have an understanding of everything we’ve covered before - and since we don’t want this article to be longer than it already is, we’ll just point you back there to fill in the blanks if you find that there are any.
Now, on to the show...
A Prelude on Balance
The most important goal of any platform is balance on all levels. We’ve seen numerous examples of what architectural imbalances can do to performance, having too little cache or too narrow of a FSB can starve high speed CPUs of data they need to perform. GPUs without enough memory bandwidth can’t perform anywhere near their peak fillrates, regardless of what they may be. Achieving a balanced overall platform is a very difficult thing on the PC, unless you have an unlimited budget and are able to purchase the fastest components. Skimping on your CPU while buying the most expensive graphics card may leave you with performance that’s marginally better, or worse, than someone else with a more balanced system with a faster CPU and a somewhat slower GPU.
With consoles however, the entire platform is designed to be balanced out of the box, as best as the manufacturer can get it to be, while still remaining within the realm of affordability. The manufacturer is responsible for choosing bus widths, CPU architectures, memory bandwidths, GPUs, even down to the type of media that will be used by the system - and most importantly, they make sure that all elements of the system are as balanced as can be.
The reason this article starts with a prelude on balance is because you should not expect either console maker to have put together a horribly imbalanced machine. A company who is already losing money on every console sold, will never put faster hardware in that console if it isn’t going to be utilized thanks to an imbalance in the platform. So you won’t see an overly powerful CPU paired with a fill-rate limited GPU, and you definitely won’t see a lack of bandwidth to inhibit performance. What you will see is a collection of tools that Microsoft and Sony have each, independently, put together for the game developer. Each console has its strengths and its weaknesses, but as a whole, each console is individually very well balanced. So it would be wrong to say that the PlayStation 3’s GPU is more powerful than the Xbox 360’s GPU, because you can’t isolate the two and compare them in a vacuum, how they interact with the CPU, with memory, etc... all influences the overall performance of the platform.