The revelation of the Xenon specs will no doubt herald the beginning of the new console wars, just as the flames of the current one are beginning to fade. Sony have been brash about what we can expect about the capabilities of PlayStation 3, although some have been cautious of their “Cell” and “Blu-Ray” buzzwords after the failed promises of the PS2. Wasn’t it supposed to be your home media hub, capable of rendering Toy Story in real time? Unsurprisingly some were let down when it turned out to be more like an overclocked Dreamcast.
If these specs are to be believed, the Xenon is going to have insane amounts of processing power. A Power Mac G5 with dual 2.5GHz PowerPC processors wipes the floor with pretty much anything on x86 systems, so when the Xenon has three 3GHz ones it could be phenomenally powerful. Toss in a graphics card a whole generation ahead of the current best PC card and 256MB RAM (it doesn’t sound like a lot, but the Xbox could do a lot with 64MB) and we could seriously be approaching the level of raw power needed for photorealism. The difference between the current generation and this could be like comparing games on the PS1 to Xbox.
What I do find strange is the potential for bottlenecks. The power of those processors is immense, but it’s never even going to break into a sweat with what a next-gen X800 and 256MB shared RAM can throw at it. It might hold the advantage of being able to crunch massive numbers for things like realistic physics engines and dynamic lighting while leaving all the graphics to the GPU, but I still just can’t see that much power being utilised. It’s also going to carry the issue with multiple processors becoming exponentially more difficult for developers to take advantage of and that is, therefore, going to take even more power away from independent developers and shift it into the big boys like EA. That’s not good.
The decisions to plump for standard DVD-ROM instead of HD-DVD or Blu-Ray and to drop the standard hard drive are fairly baffling, too. DVD is going to struggle to accommodate the textures that they’re going to be pumping out for this stuff, as well as the inevitable HD video content, and loses out on an obvious selling point of being able to play those new hi-def movies. With HD-DVD using Microsoft’s own video codec it seemed like an obvious choice, but maybe not. Of course, with DVD writers being widespread it’s also going to cause piracy issues.
The hard drive was one of the most popular features in the Xbox, allowing saves without memory cards, custom soundtracks, faster load times, and content downloads, so losing it is huge. When it’s not standard it won’t be supported (look at the PS2 hard drive), and when the PS3 will almost certainly contain one they seem to be making an odd concession to Sony by giving them a nice advantage. An HD is so cheap now that it seems idiotic not to throw it in, but we’ll have to see if Microsoft has thought of an angle that is invisible to everyone else.
With the Xenon and PS3 obviously packing such power, it seems impossible for them to be able to pack them into the standard £300/$300 price bracket. Look at those dual-2.5GHz Power Macs – they cost £2,000, and there’s no way that a console can sell for that price. Anecdotal evidence holds that Microsoft lost $700 on the sale of every Xbox at launch and I seriously doubt that they can afford to do that again. I’d prefer to pay more for the console so that they can make a profit on it and sell games cheaper, but that doesn’t mean that I’d buy a £1,000 console.
I guess “wait for E3” is going to be the answer, as usual.