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Spec Analysis: Sony's surprise PlayStation 5 tech reveal

Cerny Computer Entertainment.

Sony has revealed the first specs for what system architect Mark Cerny refers to as its 'next-gen console' in a fascinating interview piece for Wired. It confirms the key technologies in place for the new hardware, the exciting news that solid-state storage will take centre-stage in the new machine and - perhaps best of all - the fact that the next Sony platform will feature backwards compatibility with current market leader, PS4. Will it be called PlayStation 5? Sony isn't saying, but it does seem like the obvious choice.

A lot of the information revealed today serves as confirmation to long-existing rumours and speculation, specifically that Sony has adopted the latest technologies available from hardware partner AMD. That begins with the processor architecture - cited as third generation Ryzen cores designed for the 7nm fabrication process, based on the upcoming Zen 2 design set to be revealed for the PC desktop market later in the year. What is exciting here is that as per our thoughts last year, the small area occupied by the Zen core means that Sony can deliver a full eight cores, presumably supplemented by hyper-threading, for a 16 thread total. This ensures a massive generational leap over the lacklustre Jaguar technology found in the current generation of console hardware, allowing for higher frame-rates, more complex world simulation and more detail.

On the GPU side of the equation, a custom variant of AMD's upcoming Navi architecture is also confirmed, but this is where details are very thin on the ground. The understanding we have is that on the one hand, Navi is a new iteration of the existing AMD Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture, which suggests a structural limit of 64 compute units or 4096 shaders. But on the other, certain leaks have suggested that Navi is geared more towards pixel-pushing as opposed to its immediate predecessor, the more compute-orientated Vega. I wouldn't underestimate the 'custom' side of the equation either: Sony has spent years on this project and with PS4 Pro, the firm has shown how it's prepared to innovate in areas that PC gaming is only now starting to get to grips with. Secret sauce? Quite possibly.

Related to that, there's also discussion in the Wired piece on real-time ray tracing as a component in next-gen PlayStation gaming. It's here where the lack of detail is somewhat disappointing in that while the silicon will support ray tracing, there is no confirmation on the extent that it is accelerated via bespoke hardware, as opposed to running in 'software' via compute shaders - as we've seen recently with Windows DXR titles running on older Nvidia 10-series graphics cards. For our part, we hope that the fact it's mentioned at all confirms that there is some hardware assisted RT baked into the design.

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The Digital Foundry team convene to discuss the PlayStation 5 'reveal' and the specs shared by Mark Cerny.

We've already seen software ray traced implementations - in CryEngine's recent Neon Noir demo, for example - so it'll interesting to hear further details from Sony on this one. Mark Cerny talks about applications for ray tracing that go beyond the usual shiny stuff, pointing out implementations in the audio space - but the details are light here and this example gives us no real indication of how capable the new PlayStation will be in handling RT. Audio RT along these lines would require only a tiny fraction of the kind of power used in today's DXR-enabled PC games.

Cerny also talks in depth about a new 3D audio processor, capable of delivering what Wired describes as "sounds [that] come at you from above, from behind, and from the side". The set-up here sounds similar to the advanced audio Sony pioneered in select titles when combined with the Platinum headset, the difference here being the use of hardware acceleration which should presumably allow for far richer, more nuanced audio.

But there's always one genuine surprise when it comes to a next-gen console specs reveal and in the case of the Sony next-gen console reveal, that's the nature of the storage solution the platform holder is employing. We had heard a while back that PlayStation 5 was developed around a state-of-the-art solid-state storage solution (1TB of capacity was the rumour) but the gossip was easy to discount, because even though solid-state memory modules have reduced substantially in price recently, SSDs are still a lot more expensive than mechanical drives. In a world where consoles are built to rigid build costs, upgrading storage to solid-state seemed impossible.

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This is the key barrier that Sony has broken through for its new hardware. The demos sound astonishing, using a combination of hardware and software to accelerate Marvel's Spider-Man loading times by a factor of 19x compared to the standard PS4 code. The chances are that CPU has its own part to play here - data is usually compressed, then decompressed on the fly when it's needed. With Ryzen cores on board, decompression speeds will skyrocket, but it wouldn't achieve these speeds without a true generational leap in storage bandwidth. And that brings us on to the second demo, highlighting the vast increase to streaming performance. The speed at which the player can move through the city in Spider-Man is primarily defined by the PS4's storage limitations. Using the SSD, we're told that the player can move through New York with the speed of a jetfighter. It's said that the new PlayStation's SSD has bandwidth that exceeds the best that the PC has to offer. To put that into perspective, a top-tier NVMe drive like the Samsung 970 Pro achieves sustained sequential read/writes of 3.5GB/s and 2.5GB/s respectively. To better that in a console would be a revelation.

Whichever way you slice it though, the inclusion of a proper next-gen storage solution is great news, and its inclusion also solves a fundamental problem in moving to a new console with - presumably - a lot more memory than its predecessor. Even a 2x increase in memory allocation over PS4's current 8GB practically demands a vastly improved storage solution. Loading times are already too long on too many current-gen titles, to the point where - as Cerny points out - quite a lot of effort is put into creating content to disguise them. In the process, there's definitely the sense that consoles are losing their 'plug and play' appeal - and anything that can be done to reduce the increasing friction in console gaming is welcome.

The final key point of the Wired piece concerns a feature that many believe Sony simply couldn't launch without: backwards compatibility. Architectural commonalities allow this to happen and there's also talk about a late-gen PS4 game such as Death Stranding also appearing on PlayStation 5. This is an area where I'd quite like to see clarification: will the same purchase work on both machines, or are they entirely separate? If it's the latter, Microsoft could gain some ground here - Play Anywhere sees MS first-party titles run on Xbox and PC and I'd expect to see cross-gen console titles included too.

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The fact that back-compat is supported on the next-gen PlayStation is great news, as is the fact that the system will support physical media, meaning that your existing discs should work. However, it's how Sony will implement this that fascinates me. Compatibility with the PS4 library is a topic I discussed with Mark Cerny when we met to talk about the hardware make-up of the PS4 Pro. Cerny pointed out that the Pro needed to stay with Jaguar to maintain compatibility with the existing catalogue of PS4 games - and even Boost Mode didn't make it for launch.

The reasoning put forward was that in a console with low-level access, even replacing one x86-based processor for another more powerful one can cause potential issues. For example, a multi-threaded workload may see work on one core finish and purge memory before another core has finished working on tasks requiring the same data. Recently unearthed patents by a certain Mark Evan Cerny seem to suggest that this issue has been overcome, though details on how are light. Our understanding is that moving from Jaguar to Zen won't present too many 'out of the box' problems on most games but there is still a sizeable minority of titles that may need extra attention.

Hopefully we'll learn more details from Sony on how it has chosen to handle backwards compatibility, but getting this right is key to the success of the console and by looking at the competition, we know that this isn't a walk in the park. Microsoft's back-compat programme is a massive engineering effort, with a team of over 100 testers playing every title through and even carrying out DF-style performance analysis to ensure that games play just as well - if not better - than they did on original hardware. The team doesn't just handle Xbox 360 back-compat either, it tested all Xbox One titles on both Xbox One S and Xbox One X consoles to ensure compatibility, even though all machines run on a similar architecture. The talk of back-compat for the next-gen PlayStation extends to peripherals too, including PSVR. There have been rumours circulating of a PSVR2 headset in development for quite some time, something that does seem to be hinted at in the Wired piece.

AMD documents its tech innovations in regular roadmap updates like this one, but information on the make-up of the Navi graphics architecture is virtually non-existent.

And hints are all we're getting beyond that. 8K display support is mentioned, which would suggest an HDMI 2.1 display controller - and by extension, I'd hope that PlayStation 5 will support variable refresh rate technology, also baked into the new HDMI standard. The system allows for 8K to be displayed at 60Hz, while 4K can also hit 120Hz. Microsoft has been outspoken about 120Hz support (to the point where it is even implemented in current-gen machines) but based on the specs revealed today, there's no reason that Sony can't follow suit.

Today's announcement covers off a number of crucial hardware details: we're getting Zen 2 on a 7nm process, custom Navi graphics, state of the art SSD storage and back-compat support - so what don't we know? Pointedly, Sony has steered well clear of offering any details of note in terms of CPU and GPU compute power, and the firm has not announced how much memory the next-gen PlayStation will ship with. Some might say that these kind of details aren't required for the story Wired delivered today and it's still early enough in the game that this kind of information would be of huge strategic value to the competition.

What's also quite ironic is that while Sony has confirmed that it's using the best processing components partner AMD has to offer, we have no real idea right now of what kind of performance they're capable of delivering as no desktop PC parts are available using them right now. Some details on the Zen 2 core have emerged, but firm information on Navi is thin on the ground to the point of non-existence. We also don't know any kind of release date, aside from the fact that it won't ship this year - 2020 does look like a reasonable bet.

But it's the cost of the next generation PlayStation that may be concerning. We now know that the new console uses a state of the art silicon production process and an extremely fast solid-state storage solution. Memory remains a pricey commodity, to the point where the cheapest 16GB graphics card with 7nm technology costs $699 right now. Sony hit the right note by pricing the launch PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro at $399 - but can it repeat the trick for its next-gen machine, or has the Xbox One X demonstrated that early adopters would be willing to pay a $100 price premium for the right spec?