How PlayStation 3 Works

An animated PlayStation console
PlayStation 3 is basically a home-entertainment computer. Enis Aksoy / Getty Images

The Sony PlayStation dynasty has ruled the console market since the introduction of the original Pl­ayStation in 1994. There are 13,000 video game titles available worldwide for PlayStation products, and more are released monthly. Sony plans to continue its market dominance with the latest version of its successful console, the PlayStation 3.

In this article, we'll take an in-depth look at the PlayStation 3. We'll learn about the ground-breaking new microprocessor at the heart of the PS3, the powerful graphics processor that supports hi-def graphics at unprecedented resolutions and the console's controller makeover, among other things.


­ Sony designed the PlayStation 3 to be more than just a video game console. It supports all kinds of digital entertainment and is basically a home-entertainment computer. This computer sports a specially designed CPU called the Cell processor. Sony, Toshiba and IBM worked together to develop the Cell processor. It's their answer to the growing trend toward multi-core processing, in which manufacturers place as many processors as possible onto one chip. The Cell processor is scalable for different performance needs. The one used in the PlayStation 3 crams 234 million transistors onto a single die. For comparison, one of the most powerful desktop PC CPUs available in 2005, the $1,000, dual-core Pentium Processor Extreme Edition, just barely breaks the 200-million-transistor mark.



Playstation 3 Cell Processor

The setup of the Cell processor is like having a team of processors all working together on one chip to handle the large computational workload needed to run next-generation video games. In order to understand how the Cell processor works, it helps to look at each of the major parts that comprise this processor.

The "Processing Element" of the Cell is a 3.2-GHz PowerPC core equipped with 512 KB of L2 cache. The PowerPC core is a type of microprocessor similar to the one you would find running the Apple G5. It's a powerful processor on its own and could easily run a computer by itself; but in the Cell, the PowerPC core is not the sole processor. Instead, it's more of a "managing processor." It delegates processing to the eight other processors on the chip, the Synergistic Processing Elements.


The computational workload comes in through the PowerPC core. The core then assesses the work that needs to be done, looks at what the SPEs are currently processing and decides how to best dole out the workload to achieve maximum efficiency.

The SPEs used in the Cell processor are each SIMD (Single Instruction, Multiple Data), 128-bit vector processors. Vector processors are designed to quickly process several pieces of data at once. They were commonly used in the 1980s in large, powerful, scientific supercomputers and were created as a faster alternative to the more common scalar processor. Scalar processors can only work one data element at a time. Despite this limitation, advances in scalar design and performance have made the use of vector processors very rare these days in most computers. However, because of the vector processor's ability to handle several data elements at once, IBM resurrected this design for the Cell. There are eight SPEs on the chip, but only seven of them handle processing. The eighth SPE is built in as redundancy in case one of the other seven fails.

The SPEs each come loaded with 256 KB SRAM. This high-speed memory helps each SPE crunch numbers quickly. The SPE memory is also visible to the main Processing Element. This allows the PowerPC Core to utilize the resources of each SPE in the most efficient way possible. All of this amounts to unprecedented power for a piece of consumer electronics.


PS3 GPU: RSX "Reality Synthesizer"

The Reality Synthesizer GPU has the power to create the realistic environments of the upcoming (release date still TBA) PS3 game "The Getaway 3."
©2006 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

Because graphics are so important to computers (and especially computers designed to play video games), there are microprocessors dedicated only to creating and displaying computer graphics. This processor is called the Graphic Processing Unit (GPU). One of the most anticipated aspects of the PlayStation 3 is the new GPU that was created for it -- the RSX "Reality Synthesizer."

Sony designed the RSX with graphics-card manufacturer Nvidia. The RSX is based on Nvidia's GeForce graphics technology. It's a 550-MHz, 300-million-transistor graphics chip. To put that in perspective, according to this Nvidia press release, the number of transistors on the RSX is "more than the total number of transistors in both the central processing units and the graphics processing units of the three leading current-generation systems, combined."


Unlike the GPU in the Xbox 360, the RSX is built on the traditional independent vertex/pixel shader architecture. Shaders are computer programs that determine the final look of what you see on the screen when you're looking at computer animation. To learn about shaders, see our answer to this question, "What are Gouraud shading and texture mapping in 3-D video games?"

Real-time lighting, shadows and reflections add to the level of realism in games like "The Getaway 3."
©2006 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

All of this translates to a level of graphic detail never before seen on a video-game console. With one HDMI output, the PlayStation 3 supports 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p.


PS3 Special Features

The 20GB and 60GB PlayStation 3 models.

The PlayStation 3 has a front-loading, Blu-ray optical disc drive, and PlayStation 3 games will be distributed on Blu-ray discs. Blu-ray discs can hold up to 54 GB of content as opposed to the dual-layer DVD format currently used, which can only hold about 4.7 GB (or 8.5 GB in the DVD-9 format). Even though it has a Blu-ray disc drive, gamers can still play older PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games on the PlayStation 3. The disc drive can support:

  • CR-ROM
  • CDR+W
  • DVD
  • DVD-R
  • DVD+R
  • SACD

The PlayStation 3 comes in two configurations -- a 60GB hard drive model and a 20GB hard drive model. Both models feature:


  • One Gigabit Ethernet port
  • Four USB ports
  • One HDMI output
  • Composite video (with dedicated AV cable)
  • S-video (with dedicated AV cable)
  • Component video (with dedicated AV cable)
  • Optical audio output
  • Bluetooth 2.0 EDR

The 60GB hard drive also includes:

  • Built-in 802.11 b/g wireless connectivity
  • Flash memory slots, which accept Compact Flash, Secure Digital and Memory Stick Duo

The PS3 audio has been upgraded. The new console supports:

There's no arguing with the success of Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming service. Xbox Live has created the first cohesive online console-gaming community, boasting more than millions of subscribers. The older PlayStation 2 can take multiplayer games online, too, but users needed to buy an extra network adapter to do so. Also, Sony left it up to each game company to build and host its own online gaming community, so the PlayStation 2 never offered the online structure that Xbox does.

After the 2005 Expo, we suggested that if Sony's hoping to stave off Microsoft's advance into the console market, a cohesive online community is going to be crucial. Apparently they agreed. With the release of the PS3, Sony has also opened the PlayStation Network for "online gaming, entertainment and digital distribution" [Source: PlayStation]. Unlike Xbox Live, there's no subscription fee. While some premium (read: pay) content will be sold in the network's store, online multiplayer gaming, audio and video chat and game downloads are free.


PS3 Controller and Games

The latest controller resembles the original DualShock controller in appearance only.

PS3 Controller

The design of the PlayStation controller has remained basically the same since the release of the original console in 1994. In 2005, Sony had decided to part ways with that classic design for the PS3 and introduced the new Dual Shock 3. However, possibly in response to overwhelmingly negative feedback, Sony ditched that design and returned to something more familiar, but with a twist -- it's motion sensitive! The new controller (sans external sensor, no less) is called the "SIXAXIS" because it has "six degrees of freedom" [Source: GameSpot].

The joysticks have a broader tilting angle and the L2/R2 buttons are shaped a bit differently, but the controls are essentially the same as on a DualShock controller -- until you start using it, that is. The new motion-sensitive controller won't feel the same. The "shock" has been dumped in favor of the motion sensor, which wouldn't work properly with the vibration feature in place.


The controller can switch between wireless (up to seven can be supported via Bluetooth) and wired, and you can easily charge it by plugging in a USB cable.

PS3 Games

The PlayStation 3 will launch with the largest catalog of video game titles of any of the next-gen consoles. That's because the PlayStation 3 will be able to play any game ever made for the PlayStation or PlayStation 2. Development is already well under way for a large and impressive list of launch titles for the PS3. Below are some of the games that will be available when the PS3 launches or soon after its launch:

The Getaway 3
©2005 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

For more information on PS3 and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


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  • GameSpot News, "E3 06: PS3 launches 11/17--$499 for 20GB, $599 for 60GB"
  • IGN E3 Expo Coverage, "E3 2006: PS3 20 Gig Missing Features?"
  •, "Sony's Press Conference"
  • GameSpot News, "E3 06: PS3 specs tweaked, 20GB version stripped down"
  • Sony press release, "Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. to launch its next generation computer entertainment system, PlayStation 3."
  • GameSpot, "PlayStation 3 Inside and Out."
  •, "History of Sony PlayStation."
  • E3 ShowDaily Magazine Day 1, "Sony Raises the Curtain on PlayStation 3." May 18, 2005.
  • The Daily Stuff, "Console Warfare." LA Edition, Volume 2, Issue 2: May 19, 2005.
  • Reuters, "FACTBOX - New video game consoles." May 18, 2005.
  • US Patent 6,826,662 - System and method for data synchronization for a computer architecture for broadband networks. netahtml/search-adv.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&d=PTXT&p=1&p=1& S1=((Sony+AND+PE)+AND+APU)&OS=Sony+AND+PE+AN%20D+APU& RS=((Sony+AND+PE)+AND+APU)
  • Nvidia press release: "NVIDIA Presents Breakthrough Next-Generation Graphics At Sony Computer Entertainment's PLAYSTATION(r)3 Press Conference." May 16, 2005.