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

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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