PS4, Xbox3, Wii2 GPUs from Intel and AMD ?



The video game console wars have been kind of boring lately, with no
hot rumors to talk about. But Charlie Demerjian of the Inquirer tech
news site has kicked off a new round of chatter about which chips are
going to be in the PlayStation 4, the Wii 2 and the Xbox3 (not the
official names).

There isn’t any official information on this yet. And it’s pretty
early for the console makers to lock down on contracts with chip
makers. But Charlie has dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the
discussion for the sake of judging the plausibility of these rumors.
My message today is, let’s not get carried away here.

Demerjian says Intel has paid to secure a place for its new graphics
chip, code-named Larrabee, in Sony’s next-generation console. He says
that Advanced Micro Devices has locked up a graphics chip deal to get
into the Xbox 360’s successor. And he thinks that, while not
confirmed, AMD will also win the graphics chip for the Wii 2.

Demerjian says these consoles are launching around 2012. That part
makes sense. In the past cycle, Microsoft waited four years to launch
its new console, the Xbox 360, in 2005, because it was losing a ton of
money on every one that it sold. Now that it has better, custom-
designed hardware that isn’t as expensive to build, it’s turning a
profit on the 360s and is in no rush to move to a new console.

About five years is the usual time frame to launch. For Microsoft, the
clock hits five years in 2010, while it’s 2011 for Sony and Nintendo.
But all three companies have said they see no need to rush out new
hardware. Nintendo is selling so many Wiis, it has no motive to move
early. Sony is in third place, but it has also said it foresees
selling the PS 3 on a “ten year life cycle.”

That makes 2012 plausible as a launch year. But let’s put this in
perspective. I know Charlie, and he has done some good investigative
work, like a piece on Nvidia’s graphics chip quality problems, which
were linked to how they were connected to computer boards. But he also
got a few things wrong, like a prediction that Google would buy Valve
and a bad rumor that Nvidia was exiting the chip set business (just as
it made a major move in mobile integrated graphics chip sets). He also
said Nvidia had lots more layoffs coming — something the company
categorically denied. (Do you see a pattern here? Charlie and Nvidia
aren’t on great terms).

Demerjian believes that Intel has won the PS 4 with Larrabee, despite
what many fear is a difficult programming model. The programming model
matters here because it has to be easy, not complicated and expensive,
for game developers to make games for a console. The PS 3’s Cell is
hard to program, so it’s no surprise it’s in third place. Demerjian
thinks Intel paid to get a leg up over AMD and Nvidia.

Meanwhile, he says Nvidia is the odd man out here because it has never
had a relationship with Nintendo and because it has pissed off both
Microsoft and Sony by charging high fees for its chips. That could be
true, but I wouldn’t count Nvidia out so early in the game. The
console makers have this sorry history of playing two sides against
each other, making some chip makers believe they’ve got a deal when
secretly they’re also talking to another player (just recall the
Gigapixel story).

On Thursday, David Shippy, co-author of The Race for a New Game
Machine, shared some interesting thoughts with me. Shippy was chief
architect of the PowerPC core used in both Sony’s Cell microprocessor
and Microsoft’s Waternoose processor in the Xbox 360. He believes the
next consoles are going to combine both the CPU and the GPU in the
same chip, right off the bat. Silicon process technology will move so
far by that time that both Sony and Microsoft will likely have moved
to combine the graphics chip and microprocessor into a single chip in
the PS 3 and the Xbox 360. To make this happen, Sony has to get IBM
and Nvidia to co-design a single chip for the PS 3, and Microsoft has
to get AMD and IBM to do the same for the Xbox 360. This is likely in
the contracts, but it’s easier said than done.

This means that the companies that are likely to win the deals are the
ones with both graphics and microprocessor technology — AMD and Intel.
By 2011, Intel will launch its 22-nanometer manufacturing process.
That means it will be able to fit about four times more transistors,
or basic electrical circuits, on a chip by that time than it can
today. Hence, it be easier to do combo chips by 2012, for sure.

It is indeed going to be a tough road for Nvidia. But for two
generations now, Nvidia has managed to get into a console. Why? One of
the reasons is that some teams — even at the giant IBM — get stretched
really thin if they try to serve all three masters at the same time,
as Shippy pointed out in his book.

Nintendo is the one company with a clear mission for its next console.
It has to develop a system that can do high-definition graphics. The
other two have to do something with a cool user interface that matches
the Wii’s motion-sensing control scheme. So the combo microprocessor-
graphics chip is going to be important, but perhaps not as much so as
in past generations. I have to thank Charlie for officially kicking
off the horse race. But I believe we have a lot of laps to go. I’ll
close with this: At the Consumer Electronics Show, an executive at one
of the companies I’ve mentioned here told me that the deals were not


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