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26.05.2014
The arrival of next-gen consoles could well prove to be a double-edged sword for PC owners used to enjoying the best gameplay experience.
On the flipside, PlayStation 4 in particular offers a substantial challenge to the PC as the top-end gaming platform - a state of affairs that may surprise many. A comparison of Epic's Elemental demo running on PS4 and the year-old version running on a Core i7 PC with GTX 680. It's a surprising state of affairs bearing in mind how modern games development typically works.
Linus Blomberg of Avalanche recommends 8GB of DDR3, while another of our sources believes that 12GB is a safer bet for future-proofing your PC, bearing in mind the overhead required by Windows combined with the fact that graphics data needs to spool from system RAM into the GPU's onboard memory. Crysis 3 - here benchmarked on a GeForce Titan and a GTX 680 using a six-core i7 overclocked to 4.8GHz.
The same source also sees AMD as a better long term bet than Intel:"This (Sony) approach of more cores, lower clock, but out-of-order execution will alter the game engine design to be more parallel. If you're constructing a new build PC now and you're looking for a longer term investment, graphics card choice could be crucial. While AMD's CPU design gets the nod from our experts, it's a different kettle of fish in the GPU arena where everything goes through DirectX and where the quality of the drivers is so important. If you already own a mid-range gaming PC (or better) with a good graphics card and you're happy with its performance on current-gen titles, now is probably not the time to upgrade. Similar to the CPU set-up, the graphics cores in both new consoles derive from AMD's PC tech, dubbed GCN (Graphics Core Next).
If you currently own a mid-range gaming PC and you're worried about your system becoming obsolete in the dawn of the next-gen era, don't panic. In this piece we've tried to anticipate the general levels of processing power offered by next-gen consoles - PlayStation 4 in particular - and come up with suggestions that keep the PC experience top of the pile. For example, take the GeForce GTX 650 Ti - a 1GB graphics card that is available for as little as ?99.
Also worth remembering is that developers have only received final next-gen console hardware in the last few months - games typically take over two years to develop and most of that work would have almost certainly been carried out on PC.
Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. Take on every culinary task with ease using this versatile white and green handheld food processor from cool culinary brand Prepology. Your voucher code will be sent within 24 hours of purchase, along with details of how to redeem.
On the one hand, it's extremely good news: developers no longer need to create engines for multiple hardware types with little common ground - console and PC development will all be based on x86 computer architecture. Sony's new console has often been described as a mid-range gaming PC in terms of its overall technological make-up.
If you own a PC now, what upgrade paths are available to keep your rig competitive with the next generation of consoles? This Crysis 3 frame-rate comparison gives you some idea of how CPU performance scales across generations, and how Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Quad and its AMD contemporaries are finally running out of steam after a great innings.
We should expect many of the launch next-gen titles to be PC ports, rather than games designed to get the most out of the new console architecture. In contrast, PC operates two distinct pools - system memory (DDR3) and video RAM (typically, GDDR5). Most motherboards accept four modules - our recommendation would be 2x 4GB to begin with, adding additional modules into the spare slots if RAM does prove to be an issue. V-sync is disabled here to maximise GPU output - as soon as a frame is ready it is displayed on-screen. Historically, nVidia cards have offered the best driver support and has embraced enthusiast-pleasing features like advanced anti-aliasing and adaptive v-sync, while AMD has gained many supporters for its keenly priced hardware and the introduction of multi-monitor gaming support. Enjoy what you've got and employ a wait-and-see approach to see what gains an upgrade brings you once next-gen console games are actually on sale. The new Xbox's GPU has much in common with the new Radeon HD 7790 (which we'll be reviewing soon), while the PlayStation 4's chip fits in nicely midway between the higher-end 7850 and 7870. But it's important to note that the arrival of the new Sony and Microsoft consoles isn't going to instantly make your existing system obsolete.
As you'll note from the video above, it makes a good fist of playing Crysis 3 (possibly the most "next-gen" game we currently have available for testing) at medium settings at 1080p with high quality textures and FXAA - it's obviously no Titan, but it plays the game very, very nicely on more modest settings and it's still a good experience. To get their money back on hugely expensive development costs, studios need to ensure that their titles run well on a wide range of hardware - big-name games like Battlefield 4, Destiny and Watch Dogs are designed to run on anything from PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 upwards, so mid-level enthusiast PCs should still offer an experience that compares well with the next-gen console standard.


It takes time to get the most out of console hardware, and in the meantime we fully expect enthusiast PCs to continue to deliver the goods. It lets you chop, slice and shred fruit, vegetables and meat directly into the attached bowls in seconds, taking the stress out of food prep. By extension, the need to use brute-force processing power to overcome unoptimised PC ports will hopefully become less of an issue, leaving gamers to enjoy the more positive aspects of the platform - upgrading, customising, shaping the experience towards their own requirements. Rip apart the various components and the claims have some merit, but with the benefits of a closed box design and a unified memory set-up, the new console has certain qualities that could even give high-end PC rigs a run for their money. And if you're planning to buy or build your own gaming PC, what components should you choose to ensure that your hardware provides an excellent experience in line with the capabilities of the next Xbox and PlayStation 4?
Generally speaking, CPUs tend to have more longevity than graphics cards.What is also noticeable is that even modern day dual-core Intel and quad-core AMD chips are starting to look a little weak, something we can attest to when we revisit our ?300 Digital Foundry PC, where achieving 60FPS gameplay is becoming an ever-increasing challenge (1080p30 is much, much easier to attain with good quality settings).
It's the best way to get the same code working on Xbox 360 (three cores, six hardware threads), PS3 (six SPUs, one core, two hardware threads) and PC (anything from two to eight cores). Our advice for graphics is to get a card with as much GDDR5 as you can, but system memory also has to be factored in. It's interesting to note that the fact that the Titan has 3x the RAM of the 680 doesn't seem to make any difference, even with the level of detail seen in this richest of games.
1GB cards - as good as the reviews look in the here and now - may prove to be a false economy even early on in the next-gen era.
It's at that point where we'll begin to see just how much of an impact that extra RAM in the new consoles makes. Just to match next-gen console from a core processing perspective, we're looking at investing anything between ?130 to ?180 in a graphics card.
Here's Crysis 3 running on medium settings at 1080p with high quality textures and FXAA on a modest 1GB GeForce GTX 650 Ti. However, equally it's fair to say that your current gaming computer that runs existing titles at 1080p60 or higher may well have problems equalling that level of performance once the next-gen era kicks in at full force. Now is a good time to invest in CPU technology, as performance on upcoming replacements is taking a back seat in favour of power efficiency - both AMD and Intel are only suggesting 5-15 per cent performance gains in their next line of CPUs.The Intel Core i5 3570K and the AMD FX-8350 remain the best two choices in terms of power vs. Tasks are allocated as "job queues" that are spread out over whatever processing elements are available, and they are executed in parallel. It'll take time for devs to truly make the most of the huge amount of memory next-gen consoles offer.
If you're looking to "go nuclear" and buy a top-end card like the GTX 680 or Radeon HD 7970, those are excellent choices but again, the more GDDR5 you have, the better - 2GB is the baseline here and you should be looking at 4GB or better. But even then, for those eager for 60FPS gameplay, there should still be options available - even without an expensive upgrade. But what still isn't addressed to a satisfying degree is the question of on-board video RAM.
It all comes down to marshalling the resources available and defining the experience on your own terms. The Intel chip is faster on most existing games, and it's more power-efficient - as well as being an overclocking monster. A Core i5 not only has massively superior single-thread performance, but it's also running at over twice the speed. It's a trend we're likely to see becoming more prevalent as x86 processors become the standard across all major triple-A platforms. However, the AMD chip's eight-core layout is a good match for next-gen console and its prowess in highly threaded applications is already coming to the fore in key titles whose engines are designed with next-gen console partly in mind.If you're using an older platform, consider motherboard and CPU choice carefully. The FX-8350 offers not only the same core count as PS4 but also a similarly impressive boost to clock speed. Overclocking isn't particularly daunting these days but it relies upon buying an unlocked processor, a good quality motherboard and a decent after-market heat sink and fan.Intel or AMD? So in theory, chips from both vendors should easily outperform the next-gen consoles, but AMD has the potential to offer more performance at the same price-point - as Avalanche Studios' Chief Technical Office, Linus Blomberg, tells us."I'd go for the FX-8350, for two reasons.
Power efficiency is markedly improved, you can overclock virtually any Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge chip to 4.2GHz (and perhaps beyond) very easily, plus you will get that performance boost in older games over the AMD architecture.
Since the arrival of Intel's Core 2 Duo processors, AMD has struggled to remain competitive, remaining in the game by offering its higher-tier parts at very competitive prices. Firstly, it's the same hardware vendor as PS4 and there are always some compatibility issues that devs will have to work around (particularly in SIMD coding), potentially leading to an inferior implementation on other systems - not very likely a big problem in practice though," he says.
But it's worth bearing in mind that there's no upgrade path with the current socket 1155 boards used to run mainstream Intel processors (a new 1150 standard arrives with the Haswell architecture in the summer), while it's believed that the current AMD AM3+ socket standard is good for at least one more CPU generation.For existing PC owners suddenly looking to jump ship from Intel to AMD, pause for a moment - of all the components, CPU power is probably the least of the concerns the PC platform has, compared to the PlayStation 4 at least.


After all, the AMD Jaguar cores in the next-gen consoles were designed to compete with Intel's low-power Atom architecture, created with tablets and low-power laptops in mind. In Avalanche Studios' upcoming titles we'll use a lot of tricks that take advantage of the unified memory layout. In a world where single-core performance still dominates, the Intel offering is still considered the better buy - it's certainly more power-efficient and has more overclocking potential.We approached a number of developers on and off the record - each of whom has helped to ship multi-million-selling, triple-A titles - asking them whether an Intel or AMD processor offers the best way to future-proof a games PC built in the here and now. The FX-8350 will clearly be much more powerful [than PS4] in raw processing power considering the superior clock speed, but in terms of architecture it can be a benefit to have the same number of cores so that an identical frame layout can be guaranteed."In the here and now, games that favour AMD like Crysis 3 are the exception and not the rule. Even with eight of them, today's quad-core and octo-core desktop processors outright own them in terms of processing power. But on high-end GPUs there will be ways of compensating for that, to some extent at least."Only high-end graphics cards offer the extreme levels of GDDR5 necessary to match the PlayStation 4. Bearing in mind the historical dominance Intel has enjoyed, the results are intriguing - all of them opted for the FX-8350 over the current default enthusiast's choice, the Core i5 3570K.
Intel is demonstrably the better choice for the current generation of games as pretty much every CPU review over the last several years demonstrates. Perhaps it's not entirely surprising - Crytek's Crysis 3 is a forward-looking game in many ways, and as these CPU tests by respected German site PC Games Hardware demonstrate, not only does the FX-8350 outperform the i5, it also offers up an additional, minor margin of extra performance over the much more expensive Core i7 3770K - a processor that's around ?100 more expensive than the AMD chip. However, bearing in mind how well established parallelisation is, it's surprising that AMD hasn't enjoyed more success.
The relentless progress of technology is what made the ?300 Digital Foundry PC so much more capable than current-gen console, and a great jumping on point for cheap, quality PC gaming.
One source, who chooses to remain anonymous, tells us that the disparate architectures found in the current-gen consoles are partly responsible for this."Getting a common game architecture to run across both [Xbox 360 and PS3] is no easy feat and you have to take 'lowest common denominator' sometimes. In our recent budget graphics card shoot-out, the Nvidia GTX 650 enjoyed a victory of the narrowest of margins compared to the Radeon HD 7770 but both of them effortlessly power past the Xenos chip in the 360. Unless PC games programmers get direct control of the hardware (very unlikely), you will always be fighting against this issue.
You never know where your textures are and when they will be uploaded to the GPU, which can cause stalls or micro-stutters in a frame as resources are shunted between the memory types."And again, similar to the CPU recommendations, we see consensus from all of our sources on how to best future-proof your PC in this respect - buy a graphics card "with as much memory as you can afford". In our budget GPU piece, we gave the Radeon HD 7850 1GB - often found for ?130 - an unreserved recommendation, noting no real difference in performance compared to its 2GB sibling. It's still remarkable value, but the decision not to invest the extra ?20 in the 2GB model may yet prove to be an issue in the longer term.More than that, there's the fact that there isn't really much choice in GPUs with more than 2GB of onboard memory - something we must consider if Linus Blomberg is right and that most of the PS3's RAM will be dedicated to graphics. High-end AMD and Nvidia cards are available with 6GB of GDDR5, which should have you more than covered, but they're hugely expensive. Perhaps in response to the PS4 reveal, we're now seeing some reasonably priced GPUs with beefed-up memory hit the market. The cheapest high-RAM card we could find was the Radeon HD 7950, available in a 3GB configuration for around ?220, followed closely by the ?250 GeForce GTX 660 Ti.What about the next-gen Xbox?
We've talked about what to expect from Microsoft's new console recently, in particular how the leaked specs compare to what we know about the PlayStation 4.What we can say with a fair degree of certainty is that the machine, codenamed Durango, has much in common with the PS4 in terms of its CPU architecture - it has the same eight AMD "Jaguar" cores as the Sony machine, for example. The leaks - many of which are copied and pasted from internal Microsoft whitepapers - reveal that Durango's GPU, while very similar to the PS4's, has 33 per cent fewer compute units: 12 of them in total vs.
Additionally, memory bandwidth is significantly lower than the Sony platform owing to a combination of PC-style DDR3 working in concert with 10MB of what Microsoft calls "eSRAM" - this is fast memory attached to the main processor.
While real-life performance is still to be judged, from a purely technical perspective, this clearly gives the PS4 a significant advantage. However, it also means that if developers need to accommodate a lower performing platform, owners of more modest gaming PCs can only stand to benefit.In terms of the accuracy of the available data, we know that the leaks themselves are entirely genuine and date from around one year ago.
A radical re-architecting of Durango's processor in the wake of the PS4 reveal is possible, but it's a credibility-straining proposition owing to the years of research and development poured into the existing design, not to mention the time required to physically map out and produce a new version of the chip.
In the fullness of time, doubtless there'll be new solutions or faster RAM (DDR4, most likely) but it's down to developers, GPU vendors and perhaps even Microsoft with its DirectX 11 API to optimise the flow of data if it proves to be an issue.If it doesn't happen, we're left with just one option.
While we can talk about PlayStation 4 as a mid-range PC in a miniature box, to comprehensively best the console's most powerful elements, once again it seems likely that PC owners will need to brute-force their way through to improved performance.



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