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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Introducing the Xbox 360's Xenon CPU
The Xenon processor was designed from the ground up to be a 3-core CPU, so unlike Cell, there are no disabled cores on the Xenon chip itself in order to improve yield. The reason for choosing 3 cores is because it provides a good balance between thread execution power and die size. According to Microsoft's partners, the sweet spot for this generation of consoles will be between 4 and 6 execution threads, which is where the 3-core CPU came from.
The chip is built on a 90nm process, much like Cell, and will run at 3.2GHz - also like Cell. All of the cores are identical to one another, and they are very similar to the PPE used in the Cell microprocessor, with a few modifications.
The focus of Microsoft's additions to the core has been in the expansion of the VMX instruction set. In particular, Microsoft now includes a single cycle dot-product instruction as a part of the VMX-128 ISA that is implemented on each core. Microsoft has stated that there is nothing stopping IBM from incorporating this support into other chips, but as of yet we have not seen anyone from the Cell camp claim support for single cycle dot-products on the PPE.
The three cores share a meager 1MB L2 cache, which should be fine for single threaded games but as developers migrate more to multi-threaded engines, this small cache will definitely become a performance limiter. With each core being able to execute two threads simultaneously, you effectively have a worst case scenario of 6 threads splitting a 1MB L2 cache. As a comparison, the current dual core Pentium 4s have a 1MB L2 cache per core and that number is only expected to rise in the future.
The most important selling point of the Xbox 360's Xenon core is the fact that all three cores are identical, and they are all general purpose microprocessors. The developer does not have to worry about multi-threading beyond the point of getting their code to be thread safe; once it is multi-threaded, it can easily be run on any of the cores. The other important thing to keep in mind here is that porting between multi-core PC platforms and the Xbox 360 will be fairly trivial. Anywhere any inline assembly is used there will obviously have to be changes, but with relatively minor code changes and some time optimizing, code portability between the PC and the Xbox 360 shouldn't be very difficult at all. For what it is worth, porting game code between the PC and the Xbox 360 will be a lot like Mac developers porting code between Mac OS X for Intel platforms and PowerPC platforms: there's an architecture switch, but the programming model doesn't change much.
The same cannot however be said for Cell and the PlayStation 3. The easiest way to port code from the Xbox 360 to the PS3 would be to run the code exclusively on the Cell's single PPE, which obviously wouldn't offer very good performance for heavily multi-threaded titles. But with a some effort, the PlayStation 3 does have a lot of potential.