Brief Histories of Consoles

The year 1967 saw the first video game console. It was called a "Brown Box". I had two controllers and you could play a total of 6 games. Back in 1972, Magnavox released the first home video game console – the Magnavox Odyssey. Back then, it must have been the most sophisticated piece of gaming merchandise, although I bet contemporary players will consider the lack of sound plain ridiculous.

Components of Modern Day Consoles

Both the PS4 and the XBox One are built around the same type of processor as your desktop PC. Both systems use CPUs built by AMD, which are built around their Jaguar microarchitecture. These SoCs (System on a Chip) are x86 processors, but are heavily customized for Sony and Microsoft by AMD. The Sony version runs at 1.9GHz, while the Microsoft version runs at 1.75GHz. Both have eight cores, double the number present on most desktop PCs. Both companies have made much of the graphics capabilities of their consoles, and the graphics processing unit (GPU) that does this magic has been the focus of much of their development effort. Again, the two consoles are more similar than they are different, both using a GPU designed by AMD that is built into the processor. These use a new architecture from AMD that goes under the rather Apple-eseque name of Graphics Core Next, which is also being used on some of the companies high-end graphics cards for desktop PCs. But Sony has put more into their system, with a GPU that runs faster and has more processing power than the XBox One. The power of these GPUs is measured in what is called Compute Units, which are the basic elements of the processor. The more of these, the more graphics processing can be done, and the PS4 has 18, while the XBox One has 12.

The Future of Consoles

Sony revealed that its next-gen console -- almost certainly called the PlayStation 5 but unnamed for now -- would be AMD-based, support high-end graphics features like ray tracing and 8K output, and switch to high-speed SSD storage. Microsoft followed with the announcement of the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition, a late-in-life addition to the Xbox One line that finally ditches the optical drive. The next PlayStation and the next Xbox (the future model beyond the One S) are both expected next year. One reading of the tea leaves is that one or both may drop the long-standing optical disc drives and traditional platter hard drives for some combination of cloud-streaming and download-only games. As of right now, Sony's Mark Cerny tells Wired that the next-gen PlayStation will still be able to use physical media. That might mean optical discs, but could also be some kind of removable flash drive (or maybe optical discs only for playing older, backward-compatible game discs). But there's a long time between now and the 2020 holiday season. If all this sounds familiar, there are a couple of reasons. Nearly every other consumer entertainment device long ago ditched optical drives and non-SSD storage, and cloud-based gaming is finally having its moment in the sun, after years of false starts, thanks to Google's Stadia project, Microsoft's Project xCloud, Nvidia's GeForce Now and other streaming options.