PlayStation 5: when can Sony truly deliver a generational leap in power?
And what kind of spec can be realistically delivered?
Rumours and whispers are evolving into stories on major sites, website Semiaccurate is offering top-tier subscriber-level access to what it says are early specs, while unverified leaks and elaborate fakes are starting to hit game forum ResetEra. While PlayStation 5 is indeed in development, firm details on the hardware are obviously limited - we are some way off release, after all. But Sony, and indeed Microsoft, operate within a world of existing technologies available to multiple vendors, and we can offer a good idea of the challenges and possibilities available to the platform holders - not to mention when a new machine may become viable. And there's also a big question we can perhaps address - the extent to which an actual generational leap is possible.
Let's begin with timing. What we do know is that Mark Cerny has once again been hitting the road, talking to developers about their needs for the next-gen PlayStation. But in terms of when an actual retail console is likely to be delivered, there are two crucial technological hurdles that need to be cleared before production of a final unit can begin: that'll be the availability of a smaller, denser process for manufacturing the system's main processor, plus the necessity for newer, faster memory. In both cases, 2019 looks like the earliest possible time a generational leap in console power can be delivered, but other factors - system build cost, for example - may set that back further.
It starts at the transistor level. The 16nm FinFET production process from Taiwanese chip manufacturing giant TSMC is currently used by all of the console manufacturers and while competitors are available (and have been used in the last-gen era), the hot candidate for the process used by PlayStation 5 and the next-gen Xbox will be TSMC's upcoming 7nm FinFET technology. Mobile devices will likely first dibs on the process, and it seems that Huawei may have the first full production run. Typically it requires at least a year for a new process to achieve the kind of efficiency needed to make console production possible, which again makes 2019 the earliest conceivable time for a viable console theoretically capable of delivering a substantial leap in power.
Two competing memory technologies are possible for a new console - HBM and GDDR6. The former is available now, but possibly too expensive for Sony and Microsoft. The latter is a more viable candidate, with mass production due to kick off later this year, just in time for the arrival of Nvidia's new wave of graphics cards. However, again, it will take time for production to ramp up to reach the level where it can service the millions of devices Sony and Microsoft are likely to demand, again meaning that 2019 is going to be the earliest time that a generational leap can be realistically delivered.
AMD is the partner of choice - and Ryzen is potentially huge
It makes sense that Sony will once again partner with AMD for PlayStation 5, and Microsoft's clear messaging on backwards and forwards compatibility also strongly suggests that it's AMD that will provide the central processor for the next-gen Xbox. Again, it's likely that both firms will integrate both CPU and GPU components into a single chip - it keeps costs low and it makes the process of future 'slim' models easier to realise. While Mark Cerny has previously told us about how Sony believes in the console generation, suggesting a clean break between machines, the concept of the platform holder delivering an x86 machine with AMD Radeon graphics tech which doesn't support backwards compatibility seems inconceivable at this point. Cerny expressed concern about CPU compatibility - even between x86 devices - but to put it simply, the firm won't want to leave its current 70m+ userbase behind, especially in light of Microsoft's firm commitment in this area.
So the question is this: what kind of SoC (system on chip) could be delivered in the 2019/2020 timeframe? Well, we know the basic roadmap of AMD technologies that Sony and Microsoft have access to, and we've got a pretty good idea of how 7nmFF chip fabrication scales down compared to the current 16nmFF process. This allows us to fill in some of the blanks, but it's also important to stress that there are a number of huge unknowns - those roadmaps only go so far.
First of all, let's talk CPU technology, where we should expect nothing short of a revelatory boost over the existing consoles. AMD has successfully grafted its Ryzen CPU tech into a desktop 'APU', the closest equivalent in the PC space to the processors used in the consoles. And the fascinating takeaway from this is that a single Ryzen CCX (or core complex) at 7nm should occupy around the same equivalent silicon area as a Jaguar cluster in the existing consoles at 16nm. This opens the door to the inclusion of two CCXs in a prospective next-gen console, meaning that the new machines could deliver eight full cores and 16 threads. Think of this as the console equivalent to AMD's desktop Ryzen 7 line integrated into a console - though almost certainly at lower clock-speeds.
At a stroke, this rebalances the whole console proposition and will change the nature of the games we play. The current-gen machines have been found wanting by the inclusion of what were effectively repurposed x86 cores aimed at the mobile market - it was essentially the only technology available to Microsoft and Sony from the AMD labs at the time when PS4 and Xbox One were being architected. There's little doubt that the next-gen machines will offer desktop CPU-level performance via AMD's Zen core, or further refined versions of it. The potential offered by this level of power in a fixed platform is hugely compelling and could have a fundamental impact on the games we play, with far higher levels of simulation and sophistication.
AMD continues to iterate on its Ryzen technology - the closest thing we have to a dead cert for inclusion in the next-gen consoles. What isn't clear is which generation of Zen core could conceivably make it into a 2019/2020 console.