It has an eight-core, x86, 64-bit Jaguar CPU with a Radeon GPU system-on-chip (SoC) from AMD with access to 8 Gbytes of RAM. It sports half a terabyte of hard-disk storage, a Blu-ray drive, and a 3D image sensor. Of course, it has Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n, USB 3.0, and HDMI output too.
So what is it?
It could be the Microsoft XBox One or the Sony PlayStation 4 (see the figure). If you stand far enough back and don’t look too closely at their specs, they look pretty much the same. Differentiating the two platforms is more difficult, but the developer’s job is significantly easier.
There are some differences. Sony uses GDDR5, while Microsoft went with DDR3. Sony’s optional 3D image sensor is a pair of cameras, while Microsoft bundles the latest version of the Kinect.
These platforms will be among the first to use AMD’s heterogeneous Uniform Memory Access (hUMA) support (see “Unified CPU/GPU Memory Architecture Raises The Performance Bar” at electronicdesign.com), which is part of AMD’s heterogeneous system architecture (HSA). This puts the GPU and CPU cores into the same memory and cache space. Code that runs on the GPU will still be distinct from the CPU, but the tighter integration means less copying and quicker dispatching. The similar SoC architectures will make a developer’s job much easier.
The software that the two vendors wrap around this hardware will be much different, though. Microsoft is using Windows as the basis for the XBox One, but don’t expect it to run Windows applications at this point. It’s a gaming system, after all.
Power management is also critical to these designs. The latest multiplayer, 3D, first-person shooter games will tax the CPU and GPU cores. Yet these cores mostly will be idle when users are streaming videos or watching a movie on Blu-ray.
Virtualization is likely to play a central role as well. HSA makes virtualization work across the CPU and GPU cores. Games will be easier to modularize, but security will be improved. The vendors may open up their systems a bit more by providing a virtual machine for developers and maybe even users so they have a bit more flexibility in how they can use the platforms.
PC gaming platforms will still be able to deliver more computing horsepower, but the average PC or even a PC designed for gaming is likely to have less performance than these platforms. Whether portability between platforms will be improved remains to be seen, but at least the hardware is there.
HSA is likely to have an impact in non-gaming applications, but it now will have a rather public pair of components.