10 October 2020

Analyse This: The Next Gen Consoles (Part 12)...


So we've had a bit more information from both Microsoft and SONY regarding their next gen platforms and things are mostly shifting into place for the next generation of console gaming. However, things aren't looking 100% rosy, here. I still have quite a few concerns that I would like to see addressed:


"Xbox Series". Yes, it appears they're really sticking with this nomenclature. It's still stupid but, whatever... Anyway, I had tried to predict the performance of the Series S and price points for both of Microsoft's consoles. I was mostly wrong. Ah, well. It happens! :D

Series S/X are releasing at €299 and €499 respectively, with rumours that losses are being taken on each console sold. Xbox All Access is being used to get people on-board with the next gen of Microsoft's ecosystem with $25 pcm for 24 months for Series S and Gamepass Ultimate and $35 for the same but with the X. It's actually a pretty good deal if you're just looking at the pure cost of accessing a game and performance envelope because it equates to just buying a console and Gamepass Ultimate with no interest on top.

Meanwhile, the PS5 digital and PS5 disc are releasing at €399 and €499 respectively.

Now, let's be clear here - I really thought that the SX and PS5 consoles would release at a higher price point. Honestly, I think both SONY and MS would have been financially happier with €550-600 and €450... but obviously that's probably not the correct call in this current (and predicted near future) financial climate. Even in a world where everything is going well, that higher price point would be difficult to realistically achieve success with. So taking the immediate loss for potential promises of future gains is the smart move as long as both companies can finance it.

A lot was said before these reveals that it was clear that MS had the larger warchest that could enable a heavier loss to be taken and, IMO, the price points reflect that. It might be being said that MS are losing more on the SS but the SX is priced right where it needs to be, no more, no less. In contrast, the PS5 disc version is priced equivalently to the SX but without having shown any reason that it is worthy of that equal price point.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not one of these people who thinks that the PS5 will be vastly outclassed by the SX or that it will absolutely murder the SX but we've not seen anything from either console that can actually be compared - all's we have are the numbers and a couple of demo reels.
  • The SX has the larger SSD; a clear upgrade path; more TFLOPS; more CUs; higher CPU clock; more peripheral/controller support; a cheap, non-streaming access to *new* games; a new (and very expensive) commitment to first party titles and support; smaller form factor; financed access to the hardware; and clearly announced architecture and user features (e.g. quick resume, velocity architecture, 4K/60 recording and streaming).
  • The PS5 disc version has a faster SSD; higher clocked GPU; more balanced memory systems (IMO); cheaper SSD expansion; more confirmed console exclusives in the first year of release... anything else that I'm forgetting?
  • Both have very similar sounding audio features, except MS has gone all-in with Dolby as a side benefit (that I included in "peripheral support", above); ray tracing; and improved controllers.
It's so weird to me that, a month from release, we basically know nothing of SONY's software and hardware user experiences and yet they're asking people to pre-order based on exclusive titles alone. The Road to PS5 was a great starting point on general technical principles and working ideals but very thin on the implementation. The PS5 teardown was minimalistic in its presentation and raised more questions than it really answered*.  It seems to me that SONY hasn't justified the equivalent price of the console with the SX other than "they won" the current generation in terms of hardware sales.
*I'm actually a bit confused about the lateness of their teardown. I mean, it didn't show anything super secret that could have put them at a disadvantage to the competition. But, really, does knowing that they used liquid metal to interface to the cooler from the APU really affect my buying decision?
Of course, I'm under no impression that every PS5 won't sell-through to consumers in the launch period - neither company are producing enough hardware to meet pent-up demand in the userbase. I had been thinking about trying to buy one myself before Christmas! But I think we really need a proper feature presentation from both Microsoft and SONY to understand what exactly we're going to be buying into other than more of the same games - especially with game prices effectively increasing to $70+ upfront cost going into this next generation.

Credit to GamesRadar for this clear image of the Series X on its side...


Although Microsoft have shown more of the hardware, they did hold back or obfuscate some important details pertaining to specific features in the CPU and GPU. We're still missing the rest of that SRAM on the die, we are still unsure about throughput of GPU workload (though we have the general gist of it) and Microsoft never fully clarified if there are any other "server class" features apart from ECC memory support and encryption (and that may just be it!).

What we do know is that all four next gen consoles are visually divisive. I actually dislike the design of all of the consoles. I think the PS5 disc is ugly because it lacks symmetry and looks like a pokemon (sorry, Shellder!), at least the digiPS5 has symmetry going for it, but it's still huge and white and sticks out like a cheap-looking device from the mid-00s - at least it has cleanable dust filters!. The Series S looks like someone who wanted to work at Apple (but didn't manage) designed its aesthetics. Yes, I will admit that the design is bold, functional and will fit in a certain style of ultra modern IKEA-esque home. It's beautiful when taken that way - but that's not my home. 

Finally, the Series X, while being the most demure of the consoles, manages to also be the one that looks weird because they couldn't decide whether it would sit vertically or horizontally. The non-removable base stand and huge "top" venting look out of place when placed on the side and, given that I saw zero dust filters in the tear downs (these also appear to be lacking in Series S), this console is going to be full of dust quicker than my vacuum cleaner, whether it's laying on its side or standing upright. (Seriously, I live in a dusty country)

Ball soldered SSD?! HaiYAAAAAAA!

SONY has basically revealed nothing of how the PS5 works except at the most general, high level. However, there is one feature that really puts me off wanting to own this first revision of PS5 hardware and that's the motherboard-integrated ball-soldered NAND and SSD controller (with what looks like a small DRAM cache just next to it). Seriously, what is SONY thinking here? 

To put you in the picture, NAND is not like other hardware components such as the CPU/GPU/RAM - they don't really "die"* or "degrade" per se. However, with each write, NAND flash is slowly "used up" to the point at which, one day, it no longer is able to write to a given cell. The controller can also fail, or corrupt the register so that data on the drive is no longer accessible. This means that, out of all of the components of your next gen hardware (including PC) the storage is still the weakest point of failure - as it has always been - so this is the part in your system that you should never design to be either hard to replace or irreplaceable! 
*Yes, chips can and do fail with excessive heat or out of spec voltages/current draws but in normal operation you do not expect failures of these components.
SONY have made it so that whenever the controller or NAND fail, the whole motherboard must be shipped for replacement. There's no inbetween. You have a device that works or you don't. Now, saying that, it is possible that SONY have a dedicated base-OS ROM on the board and that can be used to boot to the expandable storage in the event that the primary on-board drive fails. But this just begs the question - why not have a single internal PCIe 4 device if the expandable storage will be available for it soon anyway? Maybe it was cheaper than partnering with a company like Western Digital* for their SN850 tech? Who knows...
*Western Digital's SN850 is the first PCIe Gen 4 drive "expected" to work with the PS5 - that "expected" with the asterisk...
Microsoft have dodged this bullet with their internal SSD which features a socket, screw and a standardised form factor M.2 2230 drive (at least as far as I can tell from the render), much like the Surface Pro X SSD.

In fact, in terms of complexity and repairability index, the PS5 looks like a nightmare, especially with the liquid metal cooling solution (you'll want to really ensure that the seal around the CPU is good when you put that back together). I haven't seen any teardown of the Series S yet so can't comment on that but it doesn't look too complicated - easier than the Series X.

I spent the time do go into the layout of the XSX APU and approximately draw out some of the main blocks. You'll note I differentiated what I'm calling interface CUs in green where the layout is not symmetrical to the CUs in the rest of the GPU portion...


I spoke in the comments last time about how I didn't think the Series S would have enough graphical performance to run at 1440p with only 20 CUs (which heavily influenced my opinion that it would have 26 CUs at a higher clock speed) and that even at 1080p, a 20 CU console would be weak. Well, it appears that my thoughts are looking to be correct. I noted at the time that while the One X can muster 1440p and 1600p in order to upscale to 4K, it does so on last gen games and that each pixel on a next gen high fidelity game will require much more graphical processing than last gen games. This applies doubly so to the ray tracing effects since they compete with the resources of the GPU for texture and lighting effects. In fact Microsoft have been quite clear in that it's up to developers on which features to drop in order to get their game running at their desired performance target.

This isn't surprising given that, from the point of view of PC reviewers, an RX 5600 XT, RTX 2060 or GTX 1660 Super are three of the best performers for 1080p gaming at high settings. The 5600 XT has 36 compute units @ 1375 MHz game clock (i.e. a sustainable frequency) with a memory bandwidth of 288 GB/s and, going from techpowerup's comparisons, the 2060 is 6% more powerful whilst the 1660 Super is 12% less powerful.

Looking at the 1660 Super, the RX 5500 XT is 12% less powerful than that with 22 CUs @ 1717 MHz game clock and 224 GB/s memory bandwidth. The Series S has a confirmed GPU of 20 CUs @ 1565 MHz and 224 GB/s. Just going from a pure percentage-based comparison, assuming same throughput as the current RDNA 1.0 cards, the SS is only 0.83 as powerful as the RX 5500 XT - for a card that is only running games at 1080p@60fps Ultra settings (with no ray tracing and dips to 42 fps). Moving up to 1440p, PCGamer found that it was averaging 45fps at Ultra settings (with dips to 35 fps) - not such a big difference to be sure but below a nice firm 60 fps (again, without any performance hit from ray tracing).

Now, this is where we get into speculation territory.

Some people believe there are big performance gains per clock for RDNA 2: we'll find out at the end of this month on the 28th. However, I am not expecting any huge increases and instead am expecting the performance to come from increased clocks, data management efficiency (i.e. less idle time and energy to perform an operation) and increased numbers of compute units (along with their supporting elements to provide throughput*).
*This is, I believe, where the Geforce 30 series cards fail.
Good industrial design, I just don't like industrial design...

So let's put it this way. Imagine if RDNA 2 provides 20% better performance per clock than RDNA 1. That puts the 20 CUs in the XSS at around 19% more performant than the RX 5500 XT with an average of 76 fps at 1080p Ultra settings on last gen games. That brings us to an average of 54 fps (42 fps min) at 1440p Ultra - good enough for 1440p@30fps gaming... again, without ray tracing.

Personally, I think a 20% performance gain per clock is on the high side for an evolution of the same architecture but let's press onward with this thought process: At 1440p the RTX 3080 we're looking at around a 40% performance hit when enabling ray tracing (depending on the effects used). The RTX 2080 Ti has a performance hit of around 50% (with similar hits in performance for the other 20 series cards). RDNA 2 is rumoured to be better in performance using RT than the 20 series but less than the 30 series. 

Let's be generous and assume that the rumours are regarding RDNA 2's RT performance is in relation to DLSS+RT which puts it somewhere between a 34-31% of a performance hit - let's say 33% performance cost for RDNA 2 for simplicity. That negates the 20% performance advantage per clock we assumed above, bringing the XSS to 0.86x the performance of the RX 5500 XT. If the rumoured hit to performance is in relation to native resolution then it will perform even worse - this is a best case scenario.

This is disappointing because the Series S is really gimped to my eyes. It lacks storage, it lacks appropriate horsepower and worst of all it lacks options for buying games (i.e. no disc drive).

My predicted GPU requirements over the next 5 years to run the average AAA game at 1080p60...

Ending thoughts...

I've become a bit disillusioned with the next generation of consoles. While I didn't buy into the hype and have been demonstrably quite scepitcal of the technology that was potentially coming from both Microsoft and SONY, I'm actually disappointed for different reasons for all of the console SKUs.

For the digiPS5 and PS5, I just don't like how they look or their integrated, unreplaceable SSD. Maybe that second point isn't a problem but we need more information to be able to assess that.

For the Series S, I really dislike how it looks; the lack of disc drive and expense of the external SSD which will really make it usable ($220/£220); lack of power (as per my calculations above); lack of dust filters; all combine to make it really undesirable - despite its original rumours showing it to be quite attractive to me.

For the Series X, I also dislike the design - just not as much as the other consoles, but its design also limits its integration into any sort of setup I can imagine. I don't have the space to vertically stand it next to my TV. I don't want to sit it on the dusty floor. Turning it on its side requires that I have ventillation horizontally in my TV stand (which most stands traditionally prioritise front-to-back airflow/access).... it just doesn't work! Again, I'm going to push this as far as I can - there is no way that Series X would not be filled with dust in my environment due to the design.

Plus, I just don't think that GamePass is a good thing for the games industry. It's incredible that people think that a subscription service that has the same cost to the consumer as series/movies despite the average series or movie costing less than AAA games do to make will be a) profitable/sustainable or b) bring in enough money to reinvest into studios for their next game. Microsoft can afford to bankroll this for an almost indefinite amount of time but that's not how established businesses work - yes, it works for Silicon Valley start-ups where they plan to lose X-$millions before being acquired by some rich company or VC firm but it doesn't work for businesses that need to have a return on investment.

So I can't support that. Enjoy it while you can (if you subscribe to GamePass) it's excellent value for money. However, it's the game industry equivalent of shopping at Primark. Everything has a cost, though it may not cost *you* specifically.

I've mentioned this before on Twitter but, as a result of all these factors, I'm actually being pushed away from console gaming for the next generation at this point in time. I plan to stick to upgrading my PC with a new CPU and GPU. Given the trending I've performed in the past, I plan to get a cheap Ryzen 7 3700X and an RX 6700X - which should provide around an RTX 2080 Ti level of performance.

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