WACKY STUFF THAT HAPPENS DURING A CONSOLE TRANSITION

We are currently in the middle of a console generation transition.  In less than two months Sony will launch the Playstation 4 and Microsoft will launch the Xbox One.  Nintendo’s Wii U, the first next-generation console to come out of the gate, has failed to gain traction with gamers and consumers, and Nintendo is attempting a “soft-relaunch” of sorts, by lowering the price to $299 and bundling the console with Wiimotes and its best available game, “The Legend of Zelda:  The Windwaker HD”.  The gaming madia’s attention is focused on these things.  But there’s always lesser-known stuff that happens during console transitions… other players that move their pieces around on the proverbial chessboard, trying to get a piece of the console gaming market/  Case in point…

STEAM MACHINES

As the creator of the Half Life series of games and of the Steam online games service, Valve Corporation is probably the largest player in the PC Gaming realm.  However, the company is pretty much an unknown when it comes to the average consumer, console gaming and the living room., much to company founder and CEO Gabe Newell’s chagrin.  Clearly, Valve would like to change all that.  For over a year, gamers have been reading/hearing rumors about Valve entering the gaming hardware market, with a “Steam Box”, a low-cost, small form-factor PC that would connect to an HDTV.  Steam certainly took the first steps in that direction with its “Big Picture” mode, which optimized the Steam client app for viewing on an HDTV’s 1080p screen and for use with a control pad instead of a mouse and keyboard.  The feature was welcomed by enthusiasts, who happily used it to build and connect HTPCs to their televisions, but nothing else happened (unless you count the sad, sad Piston fiasco… but I digress) until now.

Since last week, Steam has been teasing gamers, the media, and the industry that it would be making three (3) separate announcements this week.  The first announcement was regarding Steam OS, a full-fledged, gaming-focused computer operating system based on Linux.  Valve developed Steam OS in partnership with Nvidia, to optimize graphics performance for the user interface and for gaming.  Nvidia provided its streaming technology, to allow users to stream non-Steam OS games with zero latency or lag.  This is pretty much the solution Sony is using to allow Playstation 4 gamers to play Playstation 3 games.    And the whole thing will be free.

The second announcement had to do with “Steam Machines” (the official name, so Steam Box is no more).  Essentially, Valve has partnered with several hardware makers to create new computers specially made to run Steam OS.  Valve has given manufacturers spec guidelines for these machines, which it did not disclose in the announcement, but we can guess a few obvious things.  Since Nvidia was a major partner in developing Steam OS, expect an Nvidia GPU for sure.  No AMD or Intel GPUs need apply.  And since Nvidia doesn’t play all that well with AMD processors, expect at least an Intel Core i5 “Haswell” in there.

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But that’s not all… Valve revealed that it has had a secret beta program running for some time now.  As part of the now expanded beta, it has built three hundred (300) Steam Machines of its own, which it will send to 300 lucky new beta testers, free of charge.  The requirements for the beta are posted on Steam’s website.

The third announcemet was the controller, which can be used for both the Steam client and Steam OS, and looks like nothing we’ve seen before… unless you want to count the old Mattel Intellivision console.

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The Steam Controller has no thumbsticks.  Instead, it has dual clickable touchpads, with a high-resolution touchscreen in the middle.  The controller featured advanced haptic feedback.  Steam promises gamers will be able to “feel” speed, textures, action confirmations, etc. though their fingertips.  Also, when users touch the controllers screen, whatever is being displayed there will be overlaid on top of what is being displayed on their TV screen, so as to not distract from the gameplay.  The controller will be provided to beta testers, along with the Steam Machines and Steam OS.

The implications of valve’s moves this week are pretty big.  They are directly challenging Microsoft’s PC gaming dominance, since they’re seeking to eliminate the need to run Microsoft Windows to play PC games.  Valve’s streaming on non-Steam OS-compatible games is a stopgap solution while they distribute Steam OS and drum up game developer support for native Steam OS games.  They are also challenging Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo in the gaming console arena, by eliminating or automating the need for things like graphics driver and OS updates and game patches, and providing the Steam social gaming and multiplayer features we all know and love.  Time will tell if Steam will be successful at this.  We have to see how the Xbox One and Playstation 4 fare in the market.  If the new consoles face the same difficulties as the Wii U, Steam may have an opening… or it could mean they have no chance at all, and that gaming consoles are dying out.  We’ll know for sure next year.

ONE OTHER THING YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED

AMD

AMD held a special event this week to announce their new line of gaming GPUs, the Hawaii, or “GPU14”.  They intended to livestream the event, but they had to desist from doing so, do to technical problems (and apparently copyright issues with the music they were using).

Their new GPUs will be divided into two series, the R9 and the R7.  The R7 cards’s prices will start at under $100, while the top-of-the-line R9 cards, the R9 280X  and 290X will be priced at $299 and above.  The 280X will have 3GB RAM, and the 290X will have 4GB RAM.

AMD described the R9 as an enhancement to the current GCN architecture, which is used in the Radeon 7xxx and Radeon 8xxx (mobile) series of cards.  They will have a 512 bit memory interface, over 300 GB/s of bandwith, 4 billion triables per second and over 6 billion transistors.  The card and its Eyefinity technology is compatible with 4K displays.

The new cards also feature AMD’s new TrueAudio programmable sound technology, which AMD says will enable game makers to use hundreds of voices and sound channels over what can be used with just a CPU today.  Eidos reps at the event praised the effects the technology allowed them to use in the new Thief game.  Xaviant showed their new game, LIichdom, which uses CryEngine 3, and looks particularly impressive when running on the new cards.

The cards are the first graphics hardware to be compatible with DirectX 11.2, Oh, and Saints Row IV also got added to the free games bundle you get with the purchase of an AMD graphics card.

AMD also announced that they partnered with Raptr to create a new, joint PC gaming app, the AMD Gaming Evolved App, powered by Raptr.  It will optimize GPU settings for your games automatically, and do all the game tracking and social and video streaming the Raptr app is famous for.

Finally, AMD announced Mantle, a low-level API to give direct GPU access to programmers.  They stated that their goal is to offload most of the game code from the CPU to the GPU.  After realizing how slow the AMD Jaguar CPU core in the Xbox One and PS4 really is, I can understand why this is AMD’s preferred coding model.  Lucky for them this is the industry trend overall right now.

THE GAME OF THE WEEK

The Game of the Week is Grand Theft Auto V…. ‘cause of Trevor an’ stuff. It helps that I’m binge-viewing all the seasons of “Breaking Bad” right now. 😛

THE MMO OF THE WEEK

The MMO of the week is still Final Fantasy XIV:  A Realm Reborn, though honorable mentions go to Star Wars:  The Old Republic, DC Universe Online and Tera, which I’m playing on-and-off on the side.

THE TV SHOW OF THE WEEK

It’s a tie between MARVEL’s AGENTS OF SHIELD on ABC and Revolution, on NBC.  The latter has been improved so much that it’s an antirely new show (my thanks to new showrunner Rockne S. O’banon, of Alien Nation and Farscape fame.

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WHAT’S REALLY INSIDE THE APPLE iPHONE 5s?

If you asked anyone what the biggest change in technology in the last ten (10) years, most people would probably answer that it’s the rise of mobile computing technology.  Few would argue that the shift to mobile devices is inevitable, and that mobile tech is the most important and fastest growing sector in the tech industry right now.  The spotlight, from both the industry’s and the consumer’s standpoint, has shifted from desktop computers, to laptop/notebook computers, and now to tablets and smartphones.

The big players in mobile computing are Apple and Google (no, Microsoft is not there yet, much to their endless frustration.)  While Google’s Android OS is used by numerous companies in their devices, which has led to the rapid evolution of Android smartphones and tablets, Apple’s iOS only sees one hardware/software iteration per year.  So it’s September 2013, and we have a new iteration of Apple’s iPhone, the iPhone 5s (note:  I’m not talking about the iPhone 5c, since it brings nothing new to the table from a technological and gaming standpoint.)

A new iPhone usually means a new SoC (System-on-a-Chip) powering it, and the iPhone 5s is no exception.  While from the outside the device looks identical to its predecessor, the iPhone 5, the internals are all new, from the Apple A7 SoC to an additional M7 motion processor to help with the fingerprint id feature and functions such as navigation and motion detection.  This is normally the extent of Apple’s revelations concerning the hardware powering its devices.  Thankfully, the excellent hardware review site Anandtech performed its usual deep testing and sleuthing, and has managed to provide us with answers as to what exactly is under Apple A7’s hood.

At Apple’s iPhone Event last week all that Apple revealed about its new A7 chip is that it contained a 64-bit processor, and that it was twice as fast as the A6 chip used in the original iPhone 5.  It brought members from Chair, the developers of the Infinity Blade and Shadow Complex games, to show off their newest creation, Infinity Blade 3.  They showed a very impressive trailer for their game, and seemed to imply that the iPhone 5s might be competitive with even the next-generation Xbox One and Playstation 4 from a gaming standpoint.

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The reveal by Apple that the iPhone 5s contained a 64-bit CPU initially led me to believe that the A7 chip contained a Cortex A53 or A57 series processor, which are ARM’s v8, 64-bit designs.  I should have known better than to think Apple would have gone in that direction, since both of those designs draw way too much power and are not quite ready for tablets, much less smartphones, yet.  This is why the latest Android designs, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the Nvidia Shield all use Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (based on a custom Krait 400 CPU core which is something between an ARM Cortex A9 and a Cortex A15) or a Cortex A15-based Tegra 4.  In any case, Anandtech’s benchmarking and digging led to the revelation that the iPhone 5s  is powered by a dual-core CPU.  Apple’s internal designation for these CPU cores is Cyclone, and they are a re-worked implementation of Apple’s Swift custom CPU core, which was used in the iPhone 5.  Apple has added a lot to the revised CPU design, including support for the 64-bit ARM v8 instructions, and optimized memory bandwith.  Benchmarks reveal that the Cyclone cores are indeed twice as fast as the Swift cores they replace.

But the CPU is only part of the equation.  Apple was silent about the GPU they used in the A7 chip, only stating that it supported OpenGL ES 3.0.  The GPU is crucial to gaming, as games are more GPU-dependent than CPU dependent these days.  The reason smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One are such speed demons in games and graphically-intensive applications is their Adreno 320 GPU.  Traditionally, Apple has used Imagination Technologies PowerVR GPUs in their iPhones and iPads.  Last year’s iPhone 5 used the PowerVR SGX 543 MP3, a slightly less powerful version of the GPU that powers Sony’s awesome Playstation Vita.  Power VR chips are the best available, and have made the iPhone and iPad game developer darlings.  Thus, it’s no surprise to learn that the iPhone 5s runs on a PowerVR 6 “Rogue”GPU, the first device on the market to do so.  The Power VR 6 is the first mobile GPU on the market to support OpenGL ES 3.0.

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The specific PowerVR 6 confirguration inside the Apple A7 chip is the PowerVR 6 “Rogue” G6430, which contains four (4) clusters.  It’s a fully-scalar, unified archiotecture, similar to Nvidia’s and AMD’s newest desktop GPUs.  The graphical performance should be similar to that of the iPad 4’s PowerVR SGX 554MP$ GPU, except that in the A7 it’s tied to the new and much more powerful Cyclone CPU cores.  The result:  the ultimate and most powerful mobile gaming device currently available, with performance superior to that of the Tegra 4-based Nvidia Shield.  When you start thinking about what developers could do with this hardware, coupled with streaming gameplay to an HDTV through Apple TV, and a Bluetooth game controller, you’ve just can’t help but be excited.  Oc course, developers also have to support older Apple hardware, like the iPhone 5, 5c, 4s their corresponding iPod touch siblings, so don’t expect games to use all that power just yet.  Android suffers from the same issue, as not everyone owns the latest and greatest Android phone or tablet, and devs have to support multiple hardware types, from Nvidia Tegra 3 and 4 to Snapdragon 600 and 800, to Samsung Exynos 4 and 5 “Octa”.  Still, these are exciting and awesome times to be a gamer in. 😉

GAME OF THE WEEK

 

The Game of the Week is Grand Theft Auto V.  Currently, I spend my nights doing anything from driving around Los Santos, listening to cool music on the various radio stations, to … but that would be telling. 😉

Just remember, if you get the Xbox 360 version, don’t install the “Play” disc, otherwise you’ll experience graphical glitches.

MMO OF THE WEEK

 

There’s no MMO of the week, as I’ve rediscovered the joys of single-player gaming. 😛

MEANWHILE, THE OTHER GUYS…

A lot has happened in the world of gaming since my last post, so I’m hitting the ground running, so to speak.

Who are “the other guys?”  As we rush headlong into the release of the Playstation 4 (November 14th) and the Xbox One (November 22nd), the other relevant actors in the gaming stage are not standing still.  Some of them are just following their business model, which just happens to affect gaming, while others are clearly reacting to the incoming Sony and Microsoft hardware.

In the latter camp is Nintendo.  With its Wii U just sitting in stores, and stagnating Nintendo 3DS sales in the U.S., it clearly needed to do something before Sony and Microsoft stole Christmas 2012 from under them.  With this in mind, about a week ago, the company announced a price cut for the Wii U… it’s phasing out the $299 white Wii U, and moving the black Wii U Dekuxe bundle to that price point.  While the Wii U has drawn a lot of undeserved hatred (mostly from Xbox 360 and PS3 fans who don’t like Nintendo franchises anyway.  It has been my experience that the Wii U naysayers have never actually used one)  it’s a truly next-generation console with a lot of compelling features.  Its Netflix and Hulu Plus apps are the best of any platform, and let you stream content to the tablet controller with just a touch of the gamepad, and it’s powerful enough to run Bayonetta 2 at 1080p and 60 fps.  However, with the PS4 and Xbox One looming ever closer, only time will tell if sales will pick up at that price point.  As an additional incentive, Nintendo is releasing a Legend of Zelda:  The Windwaker HD Wii U Special Edition bundle at the same $299 price point.

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Nintendo also announced a new version of their handheld, the Nintendo 2DS.  Its basically a Nintendo 3DS, but in a non-clamshell form-factor and with the Sharp 3D screen removed, which allows Nintendo to sell it at a lower price point of $129.  It also allays the fears of parents who have held off on buying a 3DS for their kids 5 yrs old and younger because ophtalmologists and neurologists have said that the 3D effect is bad for their eyes and brains.  It also means 3D is basically dead, and 3DS owners won’t get any more 3D games.  Whether that matters to you is something you have to decide for yourself.

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Sony also had some Tokyo Game Show announcements, and more than a couple of surprises up its sleeve.  Apart from announcing that the PS4 would launch in Japan on February 2014, three months after its North American debut, the company also announced a new, cost-reduced PS Vita (unofficially called the PS Vita Slim).  Sony has streamlined the Vita’s chip internals, and removed its AMOLED screen and replaced it with an LCD one, at the same $199 price point.  The new version of the handheld will be available in a variety of new colors.

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But Sony’s big surprise was the announcement of the PS Vita TV, a micro-console to compete with Apple TV and Roku, as well as the inexpensive Android-based consoles like the Ouya, at a $99 price point.  It’s compatible with PS1, PSP and PS Vita games (except the ones that require the handheld’s touchscreen or touchpads), and will support the usual TV streaming apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus and others.  The PS Vita TV is Japan-only for now, but it’s pretty clear that it’s part of Sony’s world-wide media strategy.  It’s also a terrific PS4 accessory, since it lets you stream PS4 games to TVs in other rooms of your house.

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Finally, Apple held its long-awaited iPhone Event this week.  The company announced two new models, as expected:  the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 5c.  The current iPhone 5 has been discontinued, though the Apple 4s will live on as a carrier giveaway with 2yr contract.  The iPhone 5c is a plastic, cost-reduced redesign of the current iPhone 5 aimed at China and emerging markets.  Since it contains essentially the same Apple A6 processor as the current iPhone 5 it’s of limited interest from a gaming perspective.  The iPhone 5s it’s a different matter, though.  The new device, though sporting the same screen resolution and an almost-identical form-factor to the current iPhone 5, will be based on Apple’s new A7 64-bit processor, couple with a more advanced GPU.  The end result is the most advanced portable gaming machine on the planet, as verified by Chair, makers of the new Infinity Blade 3, which will be released alongside the iPhone 5s and iOS7, the new version of Apple’s mobile device OS.

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The developers at chair have hinted that the iPhone 5s’ graphics and gameplay capabilities might rival even the Xbox One and PS4 (which, as I have discussed in previous posts, are actually not all that powerful, due to the weak AMD Jaguar CPU).  Though we don’t know exactly what the A7 chip is packing under the hood, outfits like Chipworks and Digital Foundry will undoubtedly tear the chip apart after launch and let us know its findings.  My guess would be an ARM Cortex A53 or A57 based CPU coupled with a PowerVR 6 GPU, but we’ll see.

OTHER STUFF

It seems that Xbox One and PS4 pre-orders are still open, and have yet to run out, contrary to what retailers had said before.  Microsoft has even stated that it expects to have units available for walk-in customers, not just pre-orders, which to me sounds like weaker demand than expected.  It till be interesting to see if Xbox One and PS4 sales match expectations, or if they will stall soon after launch, just like what happened with the Nintendo Wii U.  I have Google Plus friends who fully expect this to happen, saying that the game console is dead, killed by the PS/Steam, smartphones and tablets.  I like game consoles, but I’m sort of an old-fogie gamer… my 12 year-old son is more excited about his gaming PC w/ Steam and his iPad than his PS Vita these days, so it will be interesting to see what happens in that regard.  Disclaimer:  personally, I want the PS4, the Xbox One and the Wii U to succeed, but that’s just personal preference.

THE GAME OF THE WEEK

The game of the week is The Walking Dead on PS Vita.  It’s an old game available for almost every platform, but it’s awesome for playing on the Vita in a dark room, and it offers the choice of console or touch controls, which I love.

THE MMO OF THE WEEK

The MMO of the week is still Final Fantasy XIV:  A Realm Reborn.  A few of my Google Plus buddies have given up on the game due to the login issues, but they have finally been addressed.  Square Enix finally added more servers, and even a much needed AFK-player-kick function that logs them out after thirty minutes.

Honorable mention goes to World of Warcraft, which has been packed since the last patch.