Next-generation PlayStation: What's Inside?

After several years of speculating on what will happen next and what Sony can do, the company finally proceeds to the next-generation PlayStation console launch cycle. In an exclusive article published on Wired, Sony’s game guru and lead system architect Marc Czerny outlined several tempting promises about a still-nameless console, offering some general information about the main system architecture, and promising that it was “not just an update.”

As the readers of AnandTech expect, the main attention in the Wired publication is paid to the chip underlying the system. Cerny and Sony (and AMD) confirmed: yes, the central processor of the console will again be from AMD. The advanced chip will be built on a nameless 7-nm process technology, will include all the latest technology from AMD. Although neither Cerny nor AMD dared to name its APU – AMD's favorite name for chips with integrated CPU and GPU cores is almost certainly a single chip, and apparently the APU is in everything except the name.

Inside the AMD chip: Zen 2, Navi and 3D Audio

The important news is that Cerny has confirmed the use of Sony's latest AMD CPU and GPU architectures for next-generation PlayStation chips. On the CPU, we will see 8 processor cores based on the AMD Zen 2 microarchitecture. This is the same CPU microarchitecture that AMD plans to release on PC in the middle of this year, with Ryzen "Matisse" and EPYC "Rome" processors of the second generation. Although we still want to see how well the Zen 2 architecture works in the real world, it surpasses the already very powerful Zen architecture (1). Does AMD meet your expectations?

As for the graphics processor, AMD will use its upcoming Navi GPU architecture. Unlike the central processor, Sony and Cherni do not report anything about the configuration of the GPU, so now little is known about the performance; everything will depend on how large the block of the GPU Navi, ordered by Sony. Navi is the codename we've seen on AMD road maps since 2016, but we still know little about architecture. Is the fact that in 2016, AMD intended to focus on scalability and on supporting the memory of the next generation (which today we understand as GDDR6). As with the Zen 2 processors, we expect this year the supply of graphics processors on the Navi platform for PC, so in the near future we will be able to better understand what Navi will bring with it.

Nevertheless, Cherni himself spoke a little about Navi – or, more precisely, about the version that will be included in the Sony chip. Next-generation PlayStation will support ray tracing, reflecting changes in the PC world over the past year, thanks to the introduction of DirectX Raytracing and hardware support in competing NVIDIA GPUs. In the past couple of years, ray tracing has increasingly been perceived as the next evolutionary step in GPU rendering technologies, since it allows the use of more realistic rendering methods, especially with regard to light. Ray tracing is an expensive technology, but when done correctly, it allows games to do things that cannot be done cheaply (or not at all).

Until now, AMD itself rarely raised the issue of ray tracing, and, although it is related to today's PlayStation announcement, I'm not sure that we should consider this as a function of the Navi family. Sony's previous custom chips in the original PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro used some of the latest hardware features not yet on the market — the most noticeable is the Rapid Packed Math for PS4 Pro. So it is quite possible that Sony once again asked for a similar service. We also do not know whether ray tracing support for the Sony chip is implemented through fixed-function hardware blocks, or through programmable shaders, which can have a significant impact on the performance of ray tracing, as well as the size of the crystal. We will learn more when AMD fully introduces Navi, which will happen a little later this year.

In any case, both from the processor and the graphics processor, we see significant progress compared to the PS4 and PS4 Pro. In particular, on the CPU side, the Zen 2 microarchitecture is two heads taller than the Jaguar CPU used in all PS4s, and includes countless changes to create a better chip with a much higher IPC speed than the Jaguar. Thus, even if AMD and Sony will work with the chip conservatively, it will leave the PS4 processor (Pro) far behind. Very rudely and offhand, we can tell (digging through the archives of our tests) that even a Zen 1 processor is 3-4 times faster than a Jaguar processor with the same number of cores; and for sure Zen 2 is capable of even more.

From the side of the GPU there is a gap in the information about the architecture and the configuration. Even with improvements, the PS4 Pro graphics processor is at best a mixture of Graphics Core Next (GCN) 2 and GCN 5 technologies, with part of the chip apparently just inheriting the design of the original PS4 GCN 2 processor. So Navi will be far beyond the capabilities of past GPUs, although to what extent it is still unknown. Sony hopes to launch 8K TVs from the next PlayStation, so I don’t expect them to save on GPU power.

One of the unresolved issues regarding the AMD chip is whether the chip will be a traditional monolithic design, or a chiplet will be used. We already know that Zen 2 processors for PCs and servers are implemented as a chiplet, and the I / O matrix is ​​connected to one (or more) processor chips. However, we also know that AMD does not use chiplets for APU Zen 2. And besides these two facts, there are good reasons both for and against their use. Chiplets are useful when connecting various processing units — a very useful feature for non-standard designs, such as a console chip, where the owner may want to use chips from other suppliers. However, this may not be as cost effective for a mainstream product as a gaming console processor.

The prototype of the chipset Zen 2 "Matisse"

Finally, having dealt with the CPU and GPU of the new AMD chip, the Wired article confirms that AMD is involved in creating an audio solution for the console. The AMD chip will include what Wired calls a “custom device for 3D sound,” and Cherni said Sony is keen to make the sound exciting. At the same time, in a sense, GPU reykasting is used to calculate sound reflections and create the most realistic sound.

No less interesting is the fact that the custom sound module is a part of the video card hardware. AMD tried it once with TrueAudio in PS4. However, in the PC world, TrueAudio appeared only in a few graphics processors, and AMD abandoned it, starting with the Polaris GPU architecture in 2016. Instead, AMD's latest sound development, such as TrueAudio Next, focused on GPU shader programs, rather than on dedicated hardware. Therefore, although the next-generation PlayStation will need some kind of hardware audio processor to perform basic tasks and PS4 support, I am very curious about how much of the AMD audio solution is implemented as a fixed-function in comparison with shaders.

SSD is here too!

AMD is not the only manufacturer that provides console chips. It is worth noting that the new console will contain a lot of silicon, including through the use of SSD as a storage device. SSD will replace hard drives used in the current generation of PS4 (referring to the results of our tests, even the slowest modern SSDs have significantly better transfer speeds and access times compared to the fastest hard drives, not to mention 2.5-inch drives with 5400 rpm). These are the hard drives that are used in the PS4.

Briefly, to convey the essence of the article Wired, the use of SSD as a basic function in the next PlayStation is an important event. On the hardware side, this means that Sony can use modern PCIe-based NVMe storage instead of SATA storage, as was the case with the PS4 family. Moreover, Cerny promises that the SSD of the upcoming console "has a basic bandwidth higher than any SSD available for PC." Presumably, this is a veiled reference to PCIe 4.0, which will support the AMD Zen 2 processor family. This would achieve a peak data transfer rate, which is about two times higher than any of the modern PCIe 3.0 drives. But we have a custom console, and proprietary solutions can also take place.

Modern M.2 NVMe SSD

Not covered in the article Wired, but, of course, critical for the final version – the economic component of the new product. The prices of solid-state drives have fallen dramatically over the past 6 months – and should be less than $ 0.10 / GB by the time the next launch of the PlayStation – but hard drives are still cheaper in terms of the cost of a gigabyte. Recently, Sony has gradually moved from 500 GB 1 TB drives as standard for most PS4 models (as Wired points out, only Red Dead Redemption 2 takes up almost 100 GB), so a similar SSD will cost more than $ 100 (this is the price of flash alone -NAND memory at today's prices). Thus, even if prices continue to fall, solid-state drives are by no means cheap. This means that we are not sure whether Sony SSD is a pure SSD solution or hybrid. Or they will do something else to balance performance and cost.

Yes, the console is backward compatible. No, this year do not wait.

Summing up Sony's next-generation PlayStation pre-announcement, the article by Cerny and Wired also confirmed what most people expect from the Sony architecture: the new console will be backward compatible with PS4 games. Of course, the devil is in the details, but the main message is that the basic architecture is compatible. The PS4 was on an x86 and AMD GPU processor, and the next console was again assembled from the same components.

I assume that on the processor side everything is trivial, since Zen 2 for all possible applications has a much superior feature set, compared to the Jaguar microarchitecture. But from the side of the graphics processor, there are a few more options, mainly due to the fact that we know little about Navi. The less Navi has in common with GCN 2, the more work is required for backward compatibility. The point is that Sony and AMD need to eliminate the hardware differences so that PS4 games that use the low-level GNM API can still work.

Finally, we remind readers that today's information on hardware is only the first step of a thoughtful and long-term plan to promote the next PlayStation console. Sony has already announced that it will miss the E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo 2019) this year, and, although the company does not report when their next console will be released, 2019 is clearly not an option. Even if it comes without additional difficulties, AMD needs some time to integrate new technologies into a single chip for a semi-custom product, and Zen 2 starts in the middle of the year, plus the release date of Navi in ​​2019 is not yet known. So the situation does not leave AMD enough time to prepare a chip for Sony this year.

Of course, for Sony it is even good; this means that the company will have enough time over the next year (or more) to ponder the difficult moments of the new console, and create a sensation in advance around the new product. And, I am sure, we will have much more opportunities to consider the hardware component of the new Sony PlayStation before its release.

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