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. 

The Consoles and their CPUs
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  • LanceVance - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    Excellent article. Definitely the most thorough, informative, well researched article on the PS3/Xbox360.

    And most importantly, unlike every other article on the subject, it's not strongly biased toward one camp while making comments of substance.
    Reply
  • yacoub - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    I bet the PS3 debuts at a higher price.

    Also regarding statements made on the Conclusionary page:

    --"That being said, it won’t be impossible to get the same level of performance out of the PS3, it will just take more work. In fact, specialized hardware can be significantly faster than general purpose hardware at certain tasks, giving the PS3 the potential to outperform the Xbox 360 in CPU tasks. It has yet to be seen how much work is required to truly exploit that potential however, and it will definitely be a while before we can truly answer that question."--

    I find it funny that once again the PlayStation will be the harder system to code games for that take full advantage of its abilities. If trends mimic the past (as they often do) this will lead to a large amount of mediocre games by companies too small to afford the dev time necessary to take real advantage of the PS3's advantages or on deadlines too tight to spend the time doing more.
    Reply
  • Furen - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    It does sound pretty low but (I'm guessing) it's more than enough, I dont think they would have separated the dies unless it didnt lead to a big performance penalty. also, I'm guessing that the 256MB/sec bandwidth between the eDRAM and its processing hardware is 256GB/sec? Microsoft was using that number to inflate their "system bandwidth" total. Reply
  • Woodchuck2000 - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    And for that matter, 32Mb/s inter-die communications in the Xenos GPU seems low to me
    :p
    Good article though guys!
    Reply
  • Furen - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    Is there any word on the media center extender capabilities on the xbox 360? I think Microsoft mentioned something about that but I'm not sure if that was oficial or not. Just hope they allow us to plug in some video capture device and use it as a dvr eventually.

    As much as I like sony's playstation, I find it quite boring on the technical side. It seems like they're just throwing everything they can into it but nothing is really that exciting, or useful. Come on, dual-HDMI. I dont see myself having two HDTVs in such close proximity to each other. Gigabit router? Seems like they're desperate to use the extra cpu muscle. I wonder how heavy ethernet traffic will affect cpu usage.
    Reply
  • Woodchuck2000 - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    Surely porting between multi-core PC software and Xenon should be fairly trivial, not fairly Non-trivial as stated in the article...? Reply
  • jotch - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    I stands for interlaced whilst the P stands for progressive scan. Check out the difference at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/720p

    or

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1080i

    This should resolve this issue.
    Reply
  • AnnihilatorX - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    1080i = 720p doesn't it? 1080p is the one Xbox 360 doesn't support.

    These "i"s and "p"s are confusing me
    Reply
  • sprockkets - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    How is 1080i on your tv's? On my 1 year old Mitsubishi native 1080i tv using dvi from the computer at 1080i is basically useless since the text is too small and the image looks like the refresh rate is below 60hz, whereas HDTV broadcasts look fine. Using the other mode of 720x480 looked great.

    Will HD output from a console be any better than a video card in a computer? Is it just my tv?

    Cmon, did you really think nVidia would release something far more advanced for a console than for a video card, or perhaps, more specifically, having it way outperform 6800 ultras in sli?

    If you need around a 400w power supply for even non sli setup, what kind of heat and power will these new consoles need anyhow???

    Of course I am more interested in how the PS3 will work with Linux more than games hahahahaha, since Sony officially mentioned it.
    Reply
  • emmap - Sunday, December 4, 2005 - link

    And that's this article, Sony and M$ have missed:

    it's not the number of megapixels, shader pipelines, CPU / GPU bandwidth, multithreaded or single threaded code which do a great game. It's imagination put in the game, gameplay, artistic art quality, human feeling we get looking at the characters, fun and so on. It's not only mathematics and physics: we don't love a game because it has X millions polygons or run at Y fps, no it's totally different. Just see all the mame fans out there, you'll see that they don't care about the obsolete hardware the game they are playing on, they care about the most important thing about game: ENTERTAINMENT!
    Reply

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