Next Generation PlayStation: What's Inside?

Original author: Ryan Smith
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After several years of speculation on “what will happen next” and “what Sony can do,” the company is finally moving on to the next generation PlayStation console launch cycle. In an exclusive article posted on Wired, Sony game guru and lead systems architect Mark Czerni made some tempting promises about the still unnamed console, offering some general information about the basic architecture of the system, and promising that it was "not just an update."

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

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

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

As for the GPU, AMD will use its upcoming Navi GPU architecture. Unlike the central processor, Sony and Czerny do not report anything about the configuration of the GPU, so little is known about the performance now; it will all depend on how big the Navi GPU unit ordered by Sony is. Navi is the code name that we've seen on AMD roadmaps since 2016, but we still don't know much about architecture. Is it the fact that in 2016 AMD intended to focus on scalability and support for next-generation memory (which today we understand as GDDR6). As with the Zen 2 processors, we expect this year to ship GPUs on the Navi platform for the PC, so in the near future we will be able to better understand what Navi will bring with it.

Nevertheless, Czerny himself spoke a little about Navi - or, more precisely, about the version that will be included in the Sony chip. The 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 last couple of years, ray tracing has been increasingly perceived as the next evolutionary step in GPU rendering technologies, as it allows the use of more realistic rendering methods, especially with respect to light. Ray tracing is an expensive technology, but done right, it allows games to do what cannot be done cheaply (or cannot be done at all).

Until now, AMD itself has 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 notable is the Rapid Packed Math for the 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 hardware fixed-function blocks, or through programmable shaders, which can have a significant impact on the ray tracing performance, as well as the crystal size. We will learn more when AMD fully unveils Navi, which will happen a bit later this year.

In any case, both from the processor and the GPU, 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 CPUs used on all PS4s and includes countless changes to create a better chip with a much higher IPC speed than Jaguar. Thus, even if AMD and Sony work conservatively with the chip, it will leave the PS4 (Pro) processor processor far behind. We can report very rudely and offhand (digging through the archives of our tests) that even the Zen 1 processor is 3-4 times faster than the Jaguar processor with the same number of cores; and certainly Zen 2 is capable of even more.

On the GPU side, there is a gap in architecture and configuration information. Even with the improvements, the PS4 Pro GPU at best is a mixture of Graphics Core Next (GCN) 2 and GCN 5 technologies, while part of the chip seems to simply inherit the GCN 2 design of the original PS4 processor. So Navi will be far beyond the capabilities of past GPUs, although to what extent is still unknown. Sony hopes to launch 8K TVs with the next PlayStation, so I by no means 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 whether the chiplet will be used. We already know that Zen 2 processors for PCs and servers are implemented as a chipset, and the I / O matrix is ​​connected to one (or more) processor crystals. However, we also know that AMD does not use chiplets for the Zen 2 APU. 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 custom 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 mass product as a game console processor.

The prototype chipset Zen 2 "Matisse"

Finally, after understanding the CPU and GPU of the new AMD chip, Wired's article confirms that AMD is involved in creating an audio solution for the console. AMD’s chip will include what Wired calls “a custom 3D sound device,” and Czerny said Sony aims to make the sound exciting. At the same time, in a sense, GPU re-casting is used to calculate sound reflections and create the most realistic sound.

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

SSD is here too!

AMD is not the only manufacturer providing chips for the console. It is worth noting that the new console will contain a lot of silicon, including due to the use of SSD as a storage device. SSDs will replace the hard drives used in the current generation 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 the 2.5-inch drives with 5400 rpm). These are just the hard drives that are used in the PS4.

Briefly summarizing 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 a modern PCIe-based NVMe drive to replace 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 to the PC." Presumably, this is a veiled referral to PCIe 4.0, which will support the AMD Zen 2 processor family. This would allow for a peak data transfer rate, which is approximately two times higher than that of 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 topic in the Wired article, but, of course, critical for the final version - the economic component of the new product. Prices for SSDs have fallen dramatically over the past 6 months - and should be less than $ 0.10 / GB by the time the PlayStation is launched the next time - however, hard drives are still cheaper in terms of gigabyte cost. Recently, Sony has gradually switched from 500 GB to 1 TB drives as a standard for most PS4 models (as Wired notes, only Red Dead Redemption 2 takes up almost 100 GB), so a similar SSD will cost more than $ 100 (this is the price of a flash alone) -NAND memory at today's prices). Thus, even if prices continue to fall, SSDs are by no means cheap. This means that we are not sure Is Sony SSD a pure SSD solution or hybrid. Or they will do something else to balance performance and cost.

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

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

I assume that everything is trivial here on the processor side, since Zen 2 has a much superior set of functions for all possible applications compared to the Jaguar microarchitecture. But from the side of the GPU there are a bit 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 to ensure backward compatibility. The fact is that Sony and AMD need to eliminate hardware differences so that PS4 games using the low-level graphical interface of the GNM API can still work.

In the end, let’s remind readers that today's hardware information is just the first step in a thoughtful and long-term plan for promoting the next PlayStation. Sony has already announced that it will miss the E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo 2019) this year, and although the company has not announced when their next console will be released, 2019 is clearly not an option. Even if there are no additional difficulties, AMD takes some time to integrate new technologies into a single chip for a semi-custom product, and Zen 2 launches in the middle of the year, plus the release date of Navi in ​​2019 is still not known. So the situation does not leave AMD enough time to prepare a chip for Sony this year.

Of course, this is even good for Sony; 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 hype in advance around the new product. And, I'm sure, we will have much more opportunities to consider the hardware component of the new Sony PlayStation before its release.

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