Feature: Console Wars Episode II - Attack of the Specs

This is the second article is a series comparing the next generation of home consoles

Episode I - The Used Game Menace

It is the newest and latest model so it should be faster, more powerful, and overall better than the previous one, otherwise what is the point of making it?  When it comes to electronics and computers most of us immediately start searching the literature for those all important numbers that tell us exactly how much better it is.  It is no different with home consoles.  We may not know exactly why, but the enjoyment level of the game is somehow linked to the number of polygons that can be rendered on the screen in a given amount of time.  So it only stands to reason that computer power and storage size of the latest models would not only dwarf their predecessor, but each company hopes the current competition as well.

Let's start with processing power.  Both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 have build their system around an AMD 8-core x86 chip while the Wii U relies on a paltry 3-core IBM.  The resulting processing for the Xbox One and Playstation 4 is an estimated 1.23 TFLOPS and 1.84 TFLOPS respectively.  The Wii U brings up the rear being able to perform 352 GFLOPS.  Just to compare everything in the same unit, that would be equivalent to 0.352 TFLOPS.  So the Wii U has roughly 1/4 the processing power of its competition.  Just as a side note, the Xbox 360 operated at 0.24 TFLOPS.

Add to that the RAM that is included in each system.  8GB of DDR3 in the Xbox One and 8GB of GDDR5 in the PS4.  If you are interested, the GDDR5 is better suited for graphics and large amounts of data than the standard DDR3.  The Wii U system memory weighs in at 2GB of DDR3.  It is almost comical that the basic Wii U system has the same amount of storage memory (8GB) as its rivals use for system RAM.

So focusing strictly on raw processing power there is really no comparison.  The Xbox One and Playstation 4 are simply far more powerful than the Wii U.  Does that translate to a better overall gaming experience?  Much of that lies in how important these features are in the mind of the user.  Some have questioned whether or not the boost in graphics will provide a noticeably better experience.  The graphical leaps forward from one generation to the next are not providing massive results.  At some point the improved displays, while provable from a measuring standpoint, become difficult to discern by the human eye. 

There is also the Placebo effect that has to be considered.  The idea that our eye sees a sharper image because our mind is expecting it to be a sharper image.  After reading the processing power above, one would expect a large difference between the Xbox One/Playstation 4 and the Wii U, but would it be discernible if the images were not side by side and you weren't told which was which?

Two psychologists from Victoria University in New Zealand conducted a study in 2003 in which 148 students were divided into 2 groups.  Half were given vodka to drink and the other half tonic water with lime.  Afterwards the groups were subjected to a battery of memory tests and it was no surprise that those in the first group performed substantially worse than the second.  What was interesting is that in reality both groups were drinking tonic water.  The minds of those that believed they were were drinking alcohol reacted as though they were.  We could therefore expect that if someone believes they are playing on a superior machine, it is likely their minds would be convinced they were seeing superior images.

Let's move onto the matter of storage.  The Xbox One ships with a non-replaceable 500GB hard drive.  That initially sounded massive, especially since the original Xbox 360 had a 20 GB.  Then we learned it was mandatory that all games must be placed on this hard drive.  Suddenly not as large is it?  However, Microsoft might have seen that being a problem and thus has designed the Xbox One to connect to an external hard drive through its 3.0 USB port.  So $70 or $80 can easily triple the storage capacity.

The Wii U has two flavors (8GB and 32GB) of flash memory. Again, these are ridiculously low numbers compared to the competition.  Even though the Wii U does not require games to be installed to the memory, game data, users profiles, operating system, and a couple trips to the eShop will make even the 32GB Deluxe model feel a little tight.  Nintendo went the same route as Microsoft by allowing users to connect an external hard drive through its 2.0 USB port (another step behind).  I found a good deal on a 1 TB Western Digital HD, so I now have over 32 times the storage that I started with.

Much like the issue with used games, Sony has not revealed what will be under the hood of the PS4.  We don't know if that capacity will be expandable through off the shelf external hard drives or if proprietary hardware would be required.  We also don't know if game installs are mandatory on the PS4.  If games must be installed to the hard drive as with the Xbox One, Sony will need to provide hardware to support that requirement.

Another clear dividing line between the Xbox One/Playstation 4 and the Wii U is the disk drive itself.  Both Microsoft and Sony have included a Blu-Ray player in their console while the Wii U is a proprietary drive that only plays Wii U and Wii game disks.  No music or movie playing capability for Wii U owners.  It stands to reason that many that have a Playstation 3 that also featured the ability to play Blu-Ray movies end up having a Blu-Ray player for that purpose, so having it on the game console was a nice feature but not one that most used.  Remember way back when the Playstation 2 had DVD playing ability?  Did you use it or did you have a DVD player that you put the disc in?

Some features such as wireless connectivity, motion controls, and HD graphics are offered on all three systems, but in this day and age that shouldn't really be a question.  Given that fact that Nintendo is now offer HD gaming on its latest system is probably the clearest line of evidence that this is now what can be considered as industry standard.

So with this said it would appear we are looking at a two horse race.  The Wii U is simply out classed in terms of power.  But what about performance?  The most powerful computers in the world run Word and Excel just as easily as the desktop I am typing this article on.  Some developers are quick to say the Wii U doesn't have the power to run their engines or software, while others have no problems doing so.  Is the lack of ability on the part of the system or of the programmer?  One of my favorite lines from the first Iron Man movie is when the R&D staff can't replicate the arc reactor used to power the armored suit, Obadiah screams "Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave with a box of scraps!"  The technician replied, "I'm sorry, but I'm not Tony Stark."  Perhaps we simply need more Tony Starks developing games.

From the looks of it there are two paths being taken.  Microsoft and Sony are building super powerful systems and quickly implementing some of the latest hardware while Nintendo is gambling that they can offer a gaming experience just as good but at an assumed lower price point.  Sort of accomplishing the same thing but with less.  If Nintendo can provide the games to support the machine and convince third parties to do the same it would be a huge win.  Many subscribe to the philosophy that better graphics does not mean a better game.

One thing is for certain, the next year or so will give a good indication of how the machine compare when it comes down to the finished product.  There will be more than a few games that will see a release on all 3 systems even if they are originally announced as an exclusive for one (I'm looking at you Ubisoft) so we will get to see if any improvement in presentation is worth any additional cost.  If Microsoft or Sony is able to price their new machines close to Nintendo's then the Wii U may become one of the horses that also ran in the Kentucky Derby with Secretariat and Sham. 

Up Next - Episode III - Revenge of the Digital Download...

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