The last major console to feature an x86 processor was the original Xbox, which came out all the way back in 2001. Since then, RISC processors have been the norm, both in set-top systems and in handhelds. So, why did Sony resurrect x86 in the console world by choosing an AMD APU to power the PlayStation 4?
Simple: it's what game developers wanted.
So says Michael Denny, the VP of Sony's Worldwide Studios, who spoke to the UK edition of the Official PlayStation Magazine this week. Here's a snippet from the interview:
The answer came when I asked if the choice to go with ‘off the shelf’ PC components, rather than another custom PlayStation chip, was a matter of economy as much as strategy? “I think the main reason behind it is that’s what the development community wanted,” Denny replied. “That’s what the development community want in terms of ease of development and making the best games they possibly can.”
That's quite a turnaround for Sony, given the steep learning curve it imposed with the PS3's Cell processor. Negative developer feedback about that decision apparently impacted Sony's decision-making this time around. Denny told the PlayStation mag, "That's certainly one of the points of feedback that developers had in when we were discussing in the early days of what PlayStation 4 architecture should be."
You might recall the concerns developers voiced around the time the PS3 came out. Speaking to G4 in May 2006, John Carmack said bluntly that Sony had made a mistake in choosing the Cell chip. He explained, "Microsoft chose to have symmetrical CPUs, have less of them, but you can program them all the same. . . . [The Cell] is asymmetric, where you have one processor with dual threads that are symmetric on there where you do most of you work—but then anything you want to spin off to the cells, you have to break up into these small nuggets of work, and use a different compiler, a different tool chain for it."
Epic's Tim Sweeney chimed in a few months later. According to GamaSutra, he told an audience at the Tokyo Game Show that taking full advantage of the Cell "required about 5 times as much cost and development time than single-core [processor]."
Hopefully, tapping into the PlayStation 4's custom AMD APU will be more straightforward. We learned last month that the chip will have eight identical x86 cores based on AMD's Jaguar architecture. Heavy multithreading will still be required, though. Jaguar is a low-power design, so the individual cores will be less powerful than those in a modern gaming PC.