How PlayStation 4 Works

Game designer Mark Cerny speaking at Sony’s Playstation 4 announcement event on Feb. 20, 2013 in New York.
Game designer Mark Cerny speaking at Sony’s Playstation 4 announcement event on Feb. 20, 2013 in New York.

The much-hyped PlayStation 4 arrived on Nov. 15, 2013, bearing a heavy burden for a product that's supposedly all about levity and fun. With the gaming console industry at a crossroads and Sony's profits cratering, the PS4 is tasked with not only helping to resurrect its mother company but also reinvigorate console gaming in general. It almost sounds like a great premise for a challenging business simulation game ... only this is definitely no game.

In spite of that weary load, the PS4 is generating a lot of hullabaloo among not only gamers, but also with game developers and industry pundits. To that end, keep in mind that it's been a full six years since the introduction of the PlayStation 3. Since then, the world of gaming has flipped more times than Super Mario fighting the final boss.


Back then, smartphones were but a glimmer in Apple's eye and tablet computers were a pipedream. Now, some of the most popular games in the world appear not on consoles, but on these sleek mobile devices that can connect to the Internet anytime and anywhere.

As it approached its PS4 project, Sony decided to counter (and capitalize) on smartphone and tablet developments. It promised to adhere to five principles: be simple, be immediate, be social, be integrated and be personalized.

Here's just one example of those ideas coming to fruition. The newly designed PS4 controllers all come with a Share button. Press it, and you can immediately broadcast your in-game action to your friends on the PlayStation Network. Those friends can watch your triumphs and send you words of encouragement right on your screen. And when you bomb repeatedly at a difficult point of the game, they can even step in and play for you. What's more, you and your friends can record clips yourselves playing and then easily share your glorious successes or humiliating defeats.

That's just one flourish in what Sony hopes will be a console experience masterpiece. But as with all console systems, it all begins, of course, with hardware. And as you're about to see, the PS4 is less of a traditional gaming box and more of a personal computer.


The Console as PC

The system architecture for the PS4 is departure from the Cell architecture of the PS3.
The system architecture for the PS4 is departure from the Cell architecture of the PS3.

Much of the PS4 excitement began with an initial press conference in February 2013, in which some of the product's guts were spilled. It was immediately clear that Sony was breaking with some of its past in order to create this console of the future.

For the PS4, Sony discarded the Cell architecture of the PS3 era. Although this system provided a lot of muscle for great gameplay, software developers sometimes struggled to work within its constraints. The PS4, however, is based on the x86 architecture, which is the platform used in many contemporary PCs. Sony hopes this change will result is faster, easier development for game designers.


To that end, under the PS4's hood you'll find an 8-core AMD Jaguar X86 64-bit processor. It will also have a whole lot of RAM, in the form of 8GB (gigabytes) of GDDR5 (Graphics Double Data Rate, version 5) RAM.

Crucially, that RAM is shared between the 64-bit CPU and an AMD Radeon GPU (graphics processing unit). Although the model of the GPU hasn't been named, Sony indicated that this chip is capable of about 2 teraflops of computing performance.

All the technical talk aside, what all of this means is that with the PS4, you're getting the equivalent of a pretty powerful desktop computer -- but one that's geared towards optimizing graphics-intensive gameplay.

There's a lot more to the technical details of the PS4. On the next page, you'll see how Sony is pressing the issue when it comes to gaming innovation.


Stereo Eyes and Harder Shocks

While Sony didn’t show the console itself at its February 2013 press conference, the company did show off their new DualShock 4 controller.
While Sony didn’t show the console itself at its February 2013 press conference, the company did show off the new DualShock 4 controller.

The PS4 also ships with a Blu-ray optical drive that can read at up to 27MBps (megabytes per second), which is abound three times faster than the PS3's. Of course, there are plenty of connectivity options, from Ethernet to WiFi and Bluetooth. There will be integrated USB 3.0 ports, too, although as of March 2013, we don't know how many.

Each PS4 comes with an upgraded PlayStation Eye. The Eye (which looks a bit like a sleek Web cam that's affixed to the top of your TV) now has stereo vision via its two 1280 by 800 resolution cameras. Like the Microsoft Kinect, the Eye can track your motions and gestures for game input. It can also record video with one camera and track motion with the other.


The Eye has four built-in microphones, which you'll be able to use for voice commands. It's also tied to facial recognition software that helps you log into the system without the need for password entry.

The new controller, called the DualShock 4, connects to the console using Bluetooth, and features the same blend of a gamepad with two joysticks, just like the previous version. But the new version also has a touchpad that you can use for input, as well as a multi-colored light bar that can be programmed to player specific colors or alert you to in-game cues. You'll receive signals and updates through the integrated speaker as well.

The DualShock 4 controller has a 3.5 jack for the included headset. It's also equipped with a microUSB port.

Specs aside, the PS4 has some nifty new tricks on the software side, too. Keep reading and you'll see how Sony hopes to hook both new and veteran gamers.


Downloadable and Portable

Sony is hoping that the PS4 will successfully merge the console experience with mobile PS Vita gaming.
Sony is hoping that the PS4 will successfully merge the console experience with mobile PS Vita gaming.

These days, even non-gamers are accustomed to having several glowing devices at their immediate disposal, from laptops to tablets to smartphones. The PS4 plays directly into that phenomenon. For example, if you're in the middle of a game and you need to leave the house, you can shift your play time from your TV to your portable PlayStation Vita. Or, if you're still playing at home, you can link your smartphone or tablet to the system and use those handheld devices as so-called second-screen accessories to augment game play. Not all games will have this functionality initially, but Sony is hoping that developers will integrate the full social capabilities of the PS4 into their titles.

Even the way you buy games will change. In the past, to obtain a game for your console, you trudged to your local big box store and shelled out around $50 for a disc, or you ordered a disc online. With the PS4, every game will be downloadable, and prices will range from a few bucks to about what you expected to pay for those old-school discs.


Some of those games will likely take a long time to download due to their tremendous size. No worries, though. Sony made the system so flexible that you can actually start playing the game even as it's still downloading in the background. If you're not sure whether you want to buy a game, you can stream demos right from the Internet on a trial basis. As your PS4 learns your gaming habits, it will even pre-load demos of games that it thinks you'll enjoy.

If and when you finally tire of gaming, you can switch entertainment modes to movies or TV shows. Details are still scarce, but you should be able to stream content from Amazon Instant Video and Netflix directly within the PS4 interface. Or, you can just open a Web browser and do some surfing without having to switch to your PC.

It will probably be years before anyone knows just how Sony's PS4 gamble plays out. Perhaps this will be one of the last big console launches aimed specifically at hardcore gamers. On the flip side, maybe the PS4 will prove that these staple entertainment devices still have legs. Either way, it's a good bet that there's enough technology jammed into the PS4 to make for whole lot of tired fingers and eyes made bleary by late night gaming sessions.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How the PS4 Works

These days, you don't even need a console to play some pretty fun games, as "Angry Birds" addicts everywhere can attest. But there's still something to be said for small, powerful boxes perfected just for fast, fun gameplay. The problem is that consoles are expensive to develop and manufacture -- and company earnings can take a big hit (or large jump) depending out how well a console sells. In the days of everywhere gaming, though, I'm hopeful that sleek, home-based machines like the PS4 can prove they still outperform their up-and-coming competition.

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