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E3 2005: Xbox 360 vs Playstation 3

Sam provides the commentary in this console face-off

Sony and Microsoft have both now shot their pre-E3 load, so it's a good time to sit down and have a good look at the various claims made about each machine. We’ll also delve into the plans that each company have for their consoles, or at least as well as can be judged from a distance. We’ll also consider the relative merits of the game demos that have so far been exhibited to the gaming press and enthusiasts.

First and foremost on people's minds is the relative power difference between the two consoles. On paper, Sony certainly seem to have the upper hand over Microsoft. Their Cell processor certainly wins in both the hype and innovation stakes while the Power PC chips that will drive the 360 is looking decidedly less sexy then the Cell. The problem for us gamers is that we still have very little idea what sort of performance these two chips, in conjunction with each system's memory and graphics chips, will be able to manage when running actual games. We've seen some demos of the Cell processor running video streams, and very impressive they were. But we had no idea how many Cells were used for that demo.

In a similar fashion, while the videos displayed at Sony's press conference certainly looked impressive way too little is known about their provenance to justify the exuberance witnessed on some other gaming sites. The games we have seen on the 360 appear to be actual game footage for the most part, while most of the PS3 demos seem to be pre-rendered. Even those which were reportedly running in real time will be running on development kits which have a tendency to be more powerful than what you will buy in the shop. Both companies have been pimping the numbers that there systems can handle, which while good for willy-waving contests, give us gamers little indication as to the true capabilities of each machine.

Microsoft have been very quiet about the internal architecture of the XB360's CPU, while both Nvidia and ATi are remaining exceedingly tight-lipped about how the GPUs they are providing actual function. Still, we can accurately state that the potential of the Cell architecture outstrips that of the XB360's CPU. But potential does not always equate performance and the nature of games development is sure to play a large part in how much each machine is exploited by the games developers. Microsoft have built up a good reputation for creating platforms that are relatively easy to code for, while Sony have a less envious reputation with their machines. The unified XNA coding platform which Microsoft are pushing for the development of both the XB360 and future PC games is already getting a lot of positive press while the development process for the PS3 remains shrouded in mystery.

The trend in recent years has been towards lowest common denominator development, which leads us to reason that any differences in capabilities between the two machines will be neglected by the majority of titles that eventually vie for our attention on the shelves. It will probably fall to development studios that focus on a particular platform, like Polyphony for the Playstation and Tecmo for the Xbox, to squeeze the most out of their respective machines. So while there are sure to be many games that will blow our socks off, especially a year or two after the release of each machine when coders have gotten to grips with the tools at their disposal, I fear that most games will be frankly indistinguishable regardless of which console they are running on. Kind of like the current generation.

This time around the console wars are about a lot more than just which company makes the best gaming machine. The upcoming struggle is for the entire home, not just the games room. Both Sony and Microsoft are pushing the media functionality of their respective consoles very hard. Over the last year the first Xbox has received a few upgrades that have allowed those with the right kit and enough money to further extend the media capabilities of the console. While the homebrew crowd have been hacking and modifying their Xboxes for a while now, it was only recently that Microsoft began to release products that gave a better indication of where the company was heading with the next generation. We've now seen the 360 running as a media hub and witnessed the streamlined GUI that will ease the 360 into more living rooms then its predecessor managed. Sony have been testing the waters for a while now, although they've had to use a separate piece of hardware, the PSX. Even so, the huge range of connectivity options and the amount of focus given to the PS3's capabilities as a digital media device came as a bit of a surprise. With the huge number of USB ports and three different memory card readers one really gets the impression that Sony are trying to manoeuvre the PS3 into a position where it can compete with lower end PCs and the Mac Mini as the only piece of hardware you need if you want to browse the web, look at digital photos and watch some movies.

The Xbox 360 has a much more restricted amount of connectivity. There’s no Bluetooth, a measly 3 USB ports and no card reading ability. The XB360 still seems to shuffle a lot of duties off onto the PC whereas the PS3 is attempting to do everything by itself. According to a press release today, the XB360 will only work with Media Centre editions of the XP operating system, a move which would seriously hamper the usefulness of an unmodified 360 as a media hub. And considering as that is the purpose of Media Centre editions PCs anyway this attempt by Microsoft to exert too much control is a worrying attitude.

The inevitable inclusion of Blu-Ray shows that Sony's device will be able to boast a long life span as with its HDTV outputs, the PS3 has all the hardware needed to display the next generation of entertainment images. The PS3 is well situated to take advantage of any interest people may have in the High Definition revolution that is coming. Unfortunately, no one really knows when that revolution will break out of the tiny niche market it currently inhabits and into the mainstream. Sony may be hoping to catch the same wave that they did with DVD playback and the PS2, where many people bought a PS2 as it could play back DVDs when separate DVD players were still an expensive luxury.

The only problem with Blu-Ray is that you really need to have an HDTV to appreciate the increased capacity of the disc. And the number of people who are bashing down the doors of electrical stores to get their hands on HDTV sets is marginal. Personally, I think Sony may be jumping the gun with Blu-Ray. I imagine most people who wanted to upgrade their TV to something big have already splashed out lots of cash on plasma and LCD sets, and will be hesitant to throw that investment away in favour of a HiDef set. If the sector of the market with pockets big enough to absorb the cost of expensive TVs have recently made the upgrade path then Sony may be looking at a bit of a damp squib. Then again, the same could be said of Microsoft as their console is also being heavily promoted as a HiDef device. HDTV is also moving at radically different paces depending on region. HDTV take-up is greatest in Japan, and then the US comes next with Europe just barely managing to agree on a standard and no where near ready to offer any size of market.

So how will games developers react to this? If only 1% of all customers are going to be able to take advantage and appreciate all the extra work that went into such high quality images then why bother investing the money in the first place? And if, as some have suggested, the PS3’s image quality is going to rely on HDTV sets, then how will the vast majority of consumers who don't possess such technology react?

One area where Microsoft are undoubtedly in a stronger position is in online play. Their Xbox Live service has been a revelation in the way games can be played over vast networks. The company has released some details about their plans for the next generation of Live and while for the most part the announcements are natural progressions from what we have seen before the decision to make many things available over Live for free stands a good chance of sucking even more people into subscribing to the pay service. Sony's press conference was notable for the lack of time given over to the company's plans for online gaming. While no one could seriously think that Sony will be as cavalier in their approach to online this time round I would have liked to have heard at least an indication of what they have in store. Hopefully we will learn more as the week progresses, but for the time-being Microsoft still seem to be the choice for gamers interested in online capability.

If the controller on display in LA is the same one that will ship with the finished PS3 then Microsoft may be onto another winner. While there’s little point in discussing the aesthetics of either consoles or their controllers there are a number of interesting observations that can be made about the two joypads. Sony's effort is undoubtedly the boldest and most visually arresting controller the world has ever seen. Already dubbed the batarang by some, the PS3's controller looks like it has the potential to be an ergonomic nightmare, although this is only conjecture until enough people have given their opinions on how the thing actually feels in their hands. Also of note is the lack of triggers on the PS3 pad. This is a serious omission, as anyone who has played a driving game on the Xbox can tell you. Sony's apparent determination to stick with digital buttons is surely an archaic choice given the amount of innovation that is going on with the rest of the machine. For all the praise that the PS3 is currently enjoying there does seem to be universal mockery of the controller design, so unless Sony have already built a million of the things then don't be surprised to see the style change by next year.

While both machines are still someway off, the last few days has shown that the gaming world is excited about the next-generation of consoles. Many have questioned Microsoft's wisdom in pushing the pace of evolution so hard, a sentiment I share. Yet amongst the gaming enthusiasts it seems that there’s plenty of interest in the possibilities offered up by the more powerful machines. However, one issue which has yet to be addressed by either company, and one that will be of critical importance as far as the number of initial sales are concerned, is the price at which each console will retail for. Both machines are certain to cost their makers a lot more then they will sell for to the public. Sony's currently looks like being the most expensive to build with it’s huge array of connection ports and complicated processing units, although they will probably start working in larger numbers and enjoy the economic benefits that such scales can bring. Microsoft has the potential to sell the XB360 at a huge loss. This would not only entice a lot of people to buy into their platform but it would also put a lot of pressure on Sony to lower the cost of the PS3 accordingly, which would cost them even more money. Either way you look at it, the eventual retail price of this generation of consoles is probably going to be more important than ever before.

That's enough speculation and opinion for today. There's a lot more to come in the next few days and I won’t be in the least bit surprised if I’m made to eat more than a few of the words above by the close of the show. Pop back later on when we'll have a piece that compares the Nintendo Revolution to the offerings from Sony and Microsoft.

See the next page for a handy tech comparison guide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playstation 3 Xbox 360
CPU
  • PowerPC-base Core at 3.2GHz
  • 1 VMX vector unit per core
  • 512KB L2 cache
  • 7 x SPE @3.2GHz
  • 7 x 128b 128 SIMD GPRs
  • 7 x 256KB SRAM for SPE
  • 1 of 8 SPEs reserved for redundancy
  • Total floating point performance: 218 GFLOPS
  • Custom IBM PowerPC-based CPU
    Three symmetrical cores running at 3.2 GHz each
    Two hardware threads per core; six hardware threads total
    VMX-128 vector unit per core; three total
    128 VMX-128 registers per hardware thread
    1 MB L2 cache
  • 9 billion dot product operations per second
Floating point performance
  • 2.18 teraflops
  • 1 Teraflop
GPU
  • GPU RSX 550MHz
  • 1.8 TFLOPS floating point performance
  • Full HD (up to 1080p) x 2 channels
  • Multi-way programmable parallel floating point shader pipelines
  • 50 billion shader operations per second.
  • 500MHz processor
    10 MB of embedded DRAM
    48-way parallel floating-point dynamically scheduled shader pipelines
    Unified shader architecture
  • 500 million triangles per second
  • 16 gigasamples per second fill rate using 4x MSAA
  • 48 billion shader operations per second
Memory
  • 256MB 3.2GHz XDR Main RAM
  • 256MB 700MHz GDDR3 VRAM
  • System Bandwidth Main RAM 25.6GB/s
  • VRAM 22.4GB/s
  • RSX 20GB/s (write) + 15GB/s (read)
  • SB 2.5GB/s (write) +
  • 2.5GB/s (read)
  • 512 MB of 700MHz GDDR3 RAM
    Unified memory architecture
  • 22.4 GB/s memory interface bus bandwidth
    256 GB/s memory bandwidth to EDRAM
    21.6 GB/s front-side bus
Audio
  • Sound Dolby 5.1ch, DTS, LPCM, etc. (Cell-base processing)
  • Digital audio DIGITAL OUT (OPTICAL) x 1
  • Multichannel surround sound output
    Supports 48KHz 16-bit audio
    320 independent decompression channels
    32-bit audio processing
    Over 256 audio channels
HiDef support
  • 1080p support
  • HDMI HDMI out x 2
  • AV Output Screen size 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p
  • Analog AV MULTI OUT x 1
  • All games supported at 16:9, 720p and 1080i, anti-aliasing
    Standard-definition and high-definition video output supported
Storage
  • Storage HDD Detachable 2.5" HDD slot x 1
  • Detachable and upgradeable 20GB hard drive
    12x dual-layer DVD-ROM
    Memory Unit support starting at 64 MB
Input/Output
  • I/O USB Front x 4, Rear x 2 (USB2.0)
  • Memory Stick standard/Duo, PRO x 1
  • SD standard/mini x 1
  • CompactFlash (Type I, II) x 1
  • Communication Ethernet (10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX, 1000BASE-T)
  • x 3 (input x 1 + output x 2)
  • Wi-Fi IEEE 802.11 b/g (built-in)
  • Bluetooth Bluetooth 2.0
  • Bluetooth Controllers (up to 7)
  • USB2.0 (wired)
  • Wi-Fi (PSP)
  • Network (over IP)
  • Support for up to four wireless game controllers
    Three USB 2.0 ports
    Two memory unit slots
  • Built-in Ethernet port
    Wi-Fi ready: 802.11a,b + g
  • Video camera ready
Digital Media
  • * read only PlayStation(r)2 CD-ROM
  • CD-DA CD-DA (ROM), CD-R,
  • CD-RW
  • SACD SACD Hybrid (CD layer), SACD HD
  • DualDisc DualDisc (audio side), DualDisc (DVD side)
  • DVD PlayStation(r)2 DVD-ROM
  • PLAYSTATION(r)3 DVD-ROM DVD-Video DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW
  • Blu-ray Disc PLAYSTATION(r)3 BD-ROM
  • BD-Video BD-ROM, BD-R, BD-RE
  • Support for DVD-Video, DVD-ROM, DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, CD-DA, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, WMA CD, MP3 CD, JPEG Photo CD
    Ability to stream media from portable music devices, digital cameras and Windows XP-based PCs
    Ability to rip music to the Xbox 360 hard drive Custom playlists in every game
    Built-in Media Center Extender for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005
    Interactive, full-screen 3-D visualizers
Probable launch date
  • Spring 2006 - regions unknown
  • Holidays 2005 – all regions
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