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In Theory: Nintendo DS2 vs. Sony PSP2 • Page 2

Insider info and extrapolated specifications for the next round of the handheld war.

In many ways, the new Nintendo handheld is also a continuation of the firm's long-standing philosophy of making use of existing technology that's proven, established and cheap (though the cost of the chipset will all depend on the nature of the deal agreed with NVIDIA). However, while there is a undoubted sense that the current DS is somewhat underpowered, the new machine should compete manfully with whatever form of gaming the fourth-generation iPhone will provide when it emerges sometime after Q2 2010. Projections that the machine will match the power and exceed the Wii's capabilities are not unrealistic.

From what we've learned about the in-development PSP2, the device is going to be a technological monster. Insiders in the mobile space are fully aware that a deal has been struck between Sony and IMG (creators of the PowerVR derivatives found in the iPhone) and, as previously reported by Eurogamer, a multi-core variant of the forthcoming SGX543 looks set to the GPU of choice for the new machine. A four-core version of the chip appears to be most likely, and while this sounds like overkill, at 45nm you'd be looking at die of around 20 square millimetres based on measurement derived from IMG's own whitepaper. That's significantly lower than the silicon used by the current-generation PSP's graphics unit, which should give some inkling of an idea on costs and power consumption.

The deferred rendering solution employed by the IMG/PowerVR set-up makes like-for-like comparisons against the Tegra solution difficult, but not impossible. SGX543 has four arithmetic logic units, two texture mapping units and 16 of the z-check units essential in using its preferred deferred rendering set-up. And that's per core.

So how do the potential PSP2 and DS2 architectures match up? The performance difference is potentially astonishing. While Tegra's tech demos of its first-gen chipset are clearly pretty impressive, the IMG set-up potentially has more to offer. The SGX's arithmetic logic units combined with the deferred rendering approach and its use of unified shaders are significant advantages for just the one core, and IMG can be rightly proud of the ways its architecture scales over multiple cores. Put simply, a single core SGX543 should match and potentially exceed the performance of Tegra 2 clock-for-clock. And the PSP2 will most likely have full four cores at its disposal.

The raw potential of Sony's mooted solution is seriously impressive, to the point where you really have to sit down and take a deep breath before reading the next bit: we're talking about a GPU with the potential to be a halfway house between the raw power of the original Xbox's graphics chip and the Xenos GPU found in the Xbox 360, without factoring in all the advantages of running on a much lower resolution screen.

Of course there are caveats with that. It's all going to be down to the efficiency of the implementation, and thus far IMG's final, delivered solutions haven't quite lived up to the brilliance of the potential. John Carmack notably described the iPhone's GPU power as being in excess of the original Dreamcast and head-and-shoulders above the PSP's 3D performance, but we've yet to really see any tangible evidence that really backs that up aside from a couple of promising efforts (such as Carmack's own Doom Resurrection). Additionally the SGX535 found in the iPhone 3GS has also been used by Intel in its Poulsbo GMA500 netbook chipset, which has been roundly criticised for its awful drivers and generally lacklustre performance. Even measured in netbook terms, its 3D output is pretty poor.

While Intel gets some stick for the driver situation, IMG needs to take its share of the blame too. Within the mobile industry, IMG's hardware has an excellent reputation but its software support comes in for plenty of criticism and this could be just as impactful to any Sony collaboration as it has been in the past with its previous endeavours. By contrast, while the Tegra 2 hardware may seem somewhat limited in comparison, there's no doubting NVIDIA's accomplishments in terms of its flexibility, ease-of-use and the maturity of its software. These factors are just as important as the efficiency of the hardware design.

The other potential problem facing IMG is the time it takes in getting its products to market, and for that we have a good example to hand. Texas Instruments' OMAP3 processor, as used in the Palm Pre, uses the SGX530 - just like the chip in the iPhone 3G, albeit sans one TMU. Its successor, OMAP4, is set to appear in the second half of 2010 using SGX540. Industry insiders reckon that the next-gen OMAP5 using a dual-core version of PSP2's SGX543 won't appear until sometime in 2011.

Could the PSPgo really be a stop-gap unit designed to extend the PSP lifespan until its successor is ready to launch? It's a possibility, though we suspect Sony would want to launch in the same window as its competition. A 2010 release for the new Nintendo handheld is conceivably no problem - the design of the chipset would've been complete last year and NVIDIA will be in full production of Tegra 2 in a matter of months.

Up against an annually evolving platform in the form of Apple's iPhone, it will be interesting to see how the next generation of fixed platforms compete. While the prospective chipsets for the new Nintendo and Sony consoles look positively mouth-watering, the success of the DS and iPhone in particular emphasise that superb graphical prowess counts for little in the hearts and minds of today's gamers.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry  |  digitalfoundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.


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