Why AMD's next-gen console victories are a big win for PC gamers

Let the light shine on the next generation of consoles. Let Microsoft and Sony slug it out in an epic battle for the eyeballs of living-room gamers everywhere. Let the headlines sing about slightly tweaked gamepads and bundled Kinect sensors. Why? Because these consoles harbor a portentous secret: Beneath all the drama about online DRM and executive shuffling, AMD hardware sits at the heart of every single next-gen game console. Every. Single. One. (Yes, even the Wii U.)

And because of this, the future has never looked brighter for PC gaming.

Let me explain.

Jaguar roars

Microsoft’s Xbox One console, like Sony’s PlayStation 4, carries a semicustom x86-based AMD APU.

Before we talk benefits, we have to talk hardware, briefly.

When you get down to brass tacks and silicon, the underlying hardware for both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 amounts to that of a midrange gaming PC: Each console rocks a semicustom AMD APU consisting of eight “Jaguar” x86 CPU cores sharing the same die as a next-gen Radeon graphics processor.

But enough tech talk! For details, check out our more in-depth comparison of PS4 vs. PC graphics. This article is about the benefits we PC types might gain from the x86 architecture that PCs and the next-gen consoles share.

And benefits we shall see. In fact, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 aren’t even out yet, and PC gamers are already starting to reap tangible benefits from those consoles’ computerized cores.

Ports aplenty

EA
Among the flood of top-tier games shown at E3, many titles, such as Battlefield 4, are coming to PCs and consoles alike.

PC gamers are used to being second-class citizens. Sure, we get our share of MMOs (such as World of Warplanes and Star Wars: The Old Republic) and complex real-time strategy games (like Company of Heroes 2) and the occasional gloriously detailed first-person shooter (hello, Crysis 3!). But in general, most big-name games have bypassed the PC to land on consoles and consoles alone.

“In the past, consoles have had very unique architectures compared to the PC,” says David Nalasco, a technical marketing manager with Radeon’s GPU business. This situation has made cross-platform development more difficult, and making a game for a single platform already takes a ton of time, effort, and moolah. And with all that said, Nalasco notes that the very nature of consoles makes them appealing to developers.

“If you’re a game developer trying to get the most out of your platform, you’re going to work on the one that’s most straightforward—the one you’ve worked on for years and hasn’t changed, and has a huge install base,” he says.

Hence, the PC’s aura of neglect. But with x86 blood now coursing through every platform’s virtual veins, those days may be ending.

As I said, it costs a lot of money to make a top-notch video game, so developers have a strong incentive to get those games in front of as many potential buyers as possible. The shared x86 architecture makes it easier to port games from consoles to PCs.

And at this June’s E3 conference—the annual blockbuster gaming-industry convention where the best and brightest games are trotted out—most of the triple-A titles announced for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were announced for PCs, too. We saw The Crew and Titanfall, as well as PC bastions like The Witcher 3. Thanks, x86!

“I think we’ll see much easier leveraging of work between consoles and PCs,” says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.

That work isn’t limited to hardware, either.

“One very important statement that Microsoft made last week [at Build] was when indie developers asked, ‘What do I have to do to develop Xbox One games?’” Moorhead says. “Microsoft’s response was, ‘Learn how to code for Windows 8.’ That says everything right there.”

Ports aplenty, part deux

Crytek
Thanks to the x86 APU in consoles, Moorhead says, the future of PC games is more Crysis 3 than *shudder* Crysis 2.

Okay, the future of PC gaming looks bright—but don’t console ports suck? They’re always buggy, and they never look as good as good as native PC games, right? So is a flood of ports really worth getting excited about?

In this case, yes. We’re starting to get theoretical here, but the presence of a Radeon CPU and GPU in each and every console promises to make it easier for developers to optimize their games for the PC. Better optimization means better graphics and performance.

Nalasco points to the performance of the latest console games as testament to what extreme optimization can provide. The current console designs are seven years old and have a fraction of the power of modern-day gaming PCs, yet still pump out fairly impressive graphics.

“The opportunity that we see is to get that fit and level of optimization, or something close to it, in PC games,” Nalasco says. “If you’re developing a game or a game engine and want to port it over to the PC, you don’t have to start over from scratch with your optimization. You’re starting from a base that has CPU cores that are much more similar, GPU cores that are much more similar, and other feature sets that are much more comparable.”

AMD representatives stress that the company will continue pushing the envelope on PC hardware, but say that games created for the x86-based consoles will hold up well years down the line thanks to their optimizations.

Of course, you’d expect an AMD representative to say that—but Nvidia SVP Tony Tamasi said something very similar at his company’s E3 press conference.

“The PC will keep growing, but the consoles will give us that next bump,” Tamasi said. “Developers can now build really awesome content that can then scale to the PC.”

If it’s weird hearing Nvidia saying somewhat positive things about consoles powered by its rival, consider that AMD’s inclusion in consoles can benefit the general PC-gaming industry, not just AMD. Both Microsoft and Sony have announced that their consoles will support the industry-standard DirectX 11 programming language.

“If you’re truly writing Xbox One games to DirectX, I don’t know why AMD would necessarily gain an advantage over Nvidia, and I don’t know why developers would write anything [AMD] proprietary to their console games,” Moorhead says.

In other words: Yay for everybody. And Moorhead, who was a longtime PC-industry executive before founding his analytical firm, agrees with the optimistic optimization assessment that both AMD and Nvidia tossed out.

“You’ll see a lot more games that have been optimized better,” he says. “You’ll be less likely to see a console port with crummy graphics,” even though the next-gen consoles already lag behind truly top-end gaming rigs in graphics performance.

I can dig it.

Multiple threads

But with all that said about DirectX and Nvidia, AMD’s newfound home among the consoles has the potential to give AMD some big advantages when it comes to PC hardware.

First, there’s the simple fact that the consoles will be running on an octacore AMD Jaguar processor. While Intel chips have held the upper hand in raw computing power in recent memory, AMD’s PC chips compete well with Intel’s processors on multithreaded applications.

Coding multithreaded games is difficult, and in the past that has prompted game developers to create titles optimized for single threads. But with AMD’s fairly weak Jaguar cores in the heart of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, multithreaded games could—could—gain traction as developers optimize their games to best take advantage of the hardware at hand. If that happens, AMD’s computer processors could—could—become more competitive options for gamers, especially given their traditionally lower price tag.

Single memory pools

But beyond that, the unique structure of the semicustom APUs at the heart of the new game consoles could tip the scales in AMD’s favor farther down the line, as they’re designed under “heterogeneous system architecture” principles.

Wired
The interior of the Xbox One console. (Click to enlarge.)

What’s heterogeneous computing? Chip makers have found it difficult to keep pace with Moore’s infamous Law as transistors have become smaller and smaller. Hardware designed according to heterogeneous computing principles splits up the computing workload among CPUs and GPUs, opening the door for far greater performance than is possible when computing and graphics processors are solitary islands.

This computational teamwork may prove key to blowing past Moore’s Law if the technique is adopted en masse. As part of the HSA Foundation, AMD is at the forefront of promoting HSA technology—and the APUs in the next-gen consoles sport a unique HSA feature that could give AMD’s computer APUs a leg up later on.

Rather than having components with separate memory, as is the usual case with PC hardware, the CPU and GPU in the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 each tap into a shared 8GB pool of memory. Having a heterogenous Unified Memory Architecture (hUMA), as the pool of memory is called, allows the two processors to communicate and divvy up tasks much more efficiently. However, the software needs to be specifically written to take advantage of the unified architecture.

AMD
A diagram of an APU designed to HSA principles.

Implementing hUMA in the big gaming consoles could help to drive developers into the HSA Foundation’s eager arms. (Again: Anything to eke out a bit more power!) The Foundation already includes big-name chip makers such as ARM, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Texas Instruments, but Intel—the only manufacturer besides AMD making x86 PC processors—is notably absent from the list of supporters.

AMD’s Kaveri APUs, slated to land later this year, will also rock a unified memory pool. Future APUs will toe the HSA line as well, and AMD has said that it hopes to introduce HSA-compatible discrete GPUs in 2014.

That could be huge: EA Sports honcho Andrew Wilson has gone on the record as saying that the company’s next-gen Ignite engine isn’t coming to PCs specifically because the CPU, GPU, and memory in today’s PCs don’t work in concert the way the components do on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

EA’s next-gen Ignite engine isn’t coming to PCs—yet.

“We see [the inclusion of HSA principles in game consoles] as the next step, and really one of the best entry points for making HSA relevant and having it stick, especially with enthusiast users,” says Marc Diana, a senior CPU/APU product marketing manager for AMD. “You’re going to start hearing us talk a lot more about hUMA and HSA towards the end of the year, particularly around the Kaveri launch.”

Fragging into the future

So there you have it. Today, we’re already starting to see more titles pop up on the PC that would have been console exclusives in the past. Tomorrow, those games will likely be optimized to run on PCs far better than they do now. And in the years to come, the inclusion of AMD silicon in next-gen consoles could help the company regain ground on the PC CPU front—and possibly even help to push computing into the future by encouraging the adoption of heterogeneous computing.

Not bad for a couple of boxes running some fairly lowly Jaguar APUs. So, PC gamers: Have you ever been so excited for the launch of new home consoles?

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