Next-Gen Console Hardware – Just Exactly What is Inside the Playstation 4 and Xbox One

With E3 behind us, and all the major new console and game announcements done, many of you already have chosen a side, and preordered either a Playstation 4 or an X-box One.  But did you know these two consoles are more similar than you would think?  For the first time, we have two major consoles designed by the same hardware manufacturer.  So yes, both machines have almost the exact same hardware internals, with a few key differences.



When talking about their next-generation consoles, Microsoft and Sony have made much that their new machines feature an “eight-core” processor.  In a sense this is true, but in another it’s just marketing making the machines sound much more powerful than they really are.

Both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 are based on AMD’s “Jaguar” processor technology.  The successor to AMD’s previous “Bobcat” chip, “Jaguar” was made to compete with Intel’s Atom processors, and is an Intel-compatible x86 part.  This means it runs the same instruction set as the processors inside PCs and Macs. Given some creative hacking, Windows, OS X or Linux could be installed in these consoles.

The “Jaguar” technology is based on “modules”.  Each “Jaguar” module contains four (4) “Jaguar” cores, an AMD Radeon GPU and the required hardware for interfacing with memory and devices.  The new consoles have the equivalent of two (2) of these “Jaguar” modules packaged in the same die.    The “Jaguar” CPU cores are about as powerful as an Intel Core i3 when running non-intensive programs, which means they’re not really all that powerful.  Some journalists at E3 remarked that the games did not look as good, or run as smoothly on the show floor as what was show by Sony and Microsoft at their respective press conferences.  As it turns out, those press conference demos were running on HP Windows 7 PCs with high-end Nvidia graphics boards, which were much more powerful than the actual console hardware, which was designed for low-cost tablets and notebooks.  It’s worrying that the weak CPU cores may cause frame-rate drops and hiccups in the final retail versions of games, but we’ll have to wait and see.  There’s still almost six (6) months until the Xbox One and Playstation 4 launch, which gives developers plenty of time to optimize their code.


GCN Compute Unit

The GPU in the Xbox One and Playstation 4 is integrated into the same die as the CPU, and is based on AMD’s GCN (Graphics Core Next) architecture.  It’s the same technology powering AMD’s lates Radeon 8XXX series of graphics cards.  How powerful the GPU is depends on the number of “Compute Units” it has.  Both consoles have the same GPU, in essence, the equivalent of a mid-rance PC graphics card, such as a Geforce 660 or Radeon 7850, but the Playstation 4 trumps the Xbox One in sheer power, since it has eighteen (18) of these unites, as compared to the Xbox One’s twelve (12).  The Playstation 4 also has twice the number of Render Output units (ROP), thirty-two (32) to the Xbox One’s sixteen (16).  Quite simply, this means that games have the potential to look better and play smoother on the Playstation 4, especially when considering the nest part of the equation.

The Memory

Both the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One will have 8GB of RAM, set up in a Unified Memory Architechture.  But the Playstation 4’s memory will be GDDR5, the same memory used in the fastest graphics cards, whereas the Xbox One will use DDR3 memory, the same type that current PCs use, which is cheaper but considerably slower.  The end result is that the Playstation 4 has 1.84 Teraflops, while the Xbox One has 1.23 Teraflops.  In order to compensate for the slower RAM in the Xbox One, Microsoft also included 32MB of super-fast ESRAM, which can be accessed by the CPU and GPU at once.  Apparently Microsoft’s dev software automatically optimizes code to use this superfast memory cache to speed up operations.  However, even this cannot boost performance to Playstation 4 levels.

In any case, the biggest innovation introduced with these consoles is Heterogeneous Memory Architecture (HMA).  Contrary to current PC hardware designs, programs made for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One will benefit from both the CPU and the GPU being able to access the same memory pool.  This eliminates the overhead involved in copying data from one set of memory to another in code execution, and pretty much what Mark Cerny meant that the Playstation 4 has a “supercharged PC architecture”.  This memory architecture will makes its way to PCs and Macs, eventually.

What this all means

As I stated before, never have a pair of gaming consoles been more alike.  Since both the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One are based on the same AMD hardware architecture, you can expect games to look virtually identical on both machines, except maybe for the odd first-party game (Halo, Uncharted series), in which developers will take the time to really push the hardware of their particular target console.  The fact that both machines are x86-based is a big win for developers, who’ll be working with a familiar, easy to use architecture, and for PC gamers, who’ll benefit from easier porting of console games to their platform.  As a result, PC gamers will see games not sually develop for their platform, such as Final Fantasy, Metal Gear and other Japanese, console-only franchises.

It also means that the technology inside these boxes is nowhere near as powerful as a current gaming PC, and comparatively much cheaper.  Neither Microsoft or Sony are losing any money on console sales this time around.

The odd man out is Nintendo, whose Wii U still uses a PowerPC-based architecture… but that’s a story for another time.


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