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LONG BLOG

The Top Ten Console Specs

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What is a spec? It's basically one of the ways to measure the power of a component. In other words, the Cell processor is a component. The 3.2 Ghz clock speed is a spec.

Specs tend to be overlooked a lot, especially since they are often misunderstood. Yet once in a while, a specs gets attention, either as hype by the console maker, or something the gaming press uses to question a console's power. Yet rarely are either presenting the spec in the right context.

Yet those are often the way specs get notoriety, which brings us to this list. The specs that let the gaming industry become armchair coders, and pretend we could measure any system's power.

Now you may not agree with my choices, but as Stuttering Craig and Handsome Tom say, that's what makes this a good list.

So without further ado (but with a little discussion on what some mean), here are the top 10 video game console specs (which include home consoles and handheld consoles).

10. 512MB of RAM
It's the total system memory of the PS3, and how much memory the 360 has for system memory and texture memory. And a lot of early 7th gen games on the PC have 512MB of RAM as their minimum specs. Of course the latter also require an additional 128MB of VRAM, and the recommended specs are much higher, but the point is that 512MB is apparently the minimum needed for HD gaming.

9. 222 Mhz, to 260 Mhz, to 333 Mhz
Clock speed is not the true measure of a processor's power. It's what it can do per clock cycle, multiplied by the speed of those cycles. Yet it does mean that if you reduce one of these multiples enough, the product will go down significantly.* Such was the case with the PSP. Looking at its specs, the PSP if very close to the PS2. Yet at the beginning, Sony cut the CPU speed by a third. The result was that early PSP games had reduced textures compared to the same games on the PS2 (which is even worse when you consider the PSP has texture compression, while the PS2 doesn't), and games couldn't go above 30 frames per second.

However, Sony eventually decided to give the system its full speed (my theory was worry about battery life until games were optimized), and now recent games run just as good, if not better than the PS2.

* Just in case you were wondering, the product is what you are supposed to call the total when it's a multiplication problem.

8. 4MB, 3MB, or 10MB of EDRAM
Just as speed is not the only measure of a processor's power, size is not the only measure of RAM's power. Yes, size is how much data can fit in the RAM at one time, but the data doesn't stay there (since that's ROM). How fast new data can fill the RAM is just as important.

In this regard, EDRAM is at the top of its class, trading size for the best possible bandwidth, latency, and clock speed. This is achieved by sticking the RAM right next to the processor. Anything closer and faster would be cache memory.

So effective is this, that the PS2 and GC used 4MB and 3MB respectively, for their total VRAM, and the 360 uses 10MB for its frame buffer. This doesn't make them the best overall systems of their generations, but it does mean their memory has been greatly underestimated by those who don't realize how well EDRAM works.

In fact, future applications of the Cell* call for EDRAM to be its main memory, so that their speeds compliment each other.

* The PS3 can't do that, as the games are already designed for the current memory.

7. L Button and R Button
Your thumbs can only do so much, so too many face buttons becomes redundant at best and require double-jointed thumbs at worst. Thus using the so-called shoulder buttons to take advantage of your other fingers was a smart move for Nintendo when they made the SNES. Now in the chance that some smaller company did shoulder buttons first, the fact is that the SNES made them famous, and a vital component of every gamepad, especially since the fith gen. The last successful system to not use shoulder buttons was the Gameboy Color, and it was based on the NES anyway.

6. Nintendo 64 Carts
Okay, Nintendo's past policies certainly didn't help them with third parties, nor did the capacity of the N64's carts. Yet the real last straw was likely the cost. Games like the port of Resident Evil 2 showed that even FMVs could fit on those carts.

So if Square was willing to compress the hell out of the data, they could have fit FFVII on two or three N64 carts. The problem being that one cart had to sell at $60 just to ensure a profit. There would be no way Square could sell the game at a loss, so it would either have raise the prices and cut their sales, or go with the format that cost practically pennies a disc. Naturally other developers followed suit, and Nintendo learned. The GC may have used proprietary discs, but they cost only a little more than regular DVDs, so developers at least gave the GC some kind of support.

5. Stripped-Down Carts
Now this is a wild guess on my part, but there are two facts about Gameboy carts. They cost about half as much as the carts on Nintendo's home consoles, and they don't seem to have the enhancement chips that the home carts had (or at least very little).

The guess here is that Gunpei realized those chips would suck up the battery life more than the hardware on the Gameboy itself. So he evidently left those out and just made the Gameboy strong enough by itself (the specs show the system is actually more powerful than the NES, aside from colors and resolution).

This not only helped with the system's legendary battery life, but also had the effect of, again, making the carts cost less. Hence the Gameboy Color and Advance got away with carts, even when the N64 lost support for that format.

This brings us to the DS, which may not owe its success to the inexpensive card format, but it certainly is helping developers find the system worth their while.

4. Analog Stick
Yes, Nintendo did not invent it. There were merely the first to recognize that the precision of analog controls would be ideal for 3D gameplay. Along with the keyboard and mouse showing up in PC shooters, it's clear that at least some kind of precision control is needed for any 3D system (except for the PS1, but developers avoided precision control for it; see the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid 1 compared to 2).

3. Two Vector Units
What is a vector unit? It's basically a processor with only enough power for raw math. Doesn't seem useful, but what if you want to add more raw math to your CPU, and nothing else? It would seem like a waste to spend the money for a full extra CPU core when you aren't going to use anything else.

Believe it or not, supercomputers did just that, since their main function was to make major calculations. Thus Vector units were a great way to add the needed power, without making the costs even higher.

Now what does this have to do with gaming? Well full 3D rendering is just one processing task, that is just beyond the reach of a single core CPU (at least an affordable one). Without this, 3D graphics would be stuck at DOS level. For years, the least expensive way to do fulle 3D rendering was to stick the rendering programs on the GPU, thus having it processed automatically (this is known as Hardware Rendering). So things like anti-aliasing, bump mapping, texture compression, etc. would not require a stronger, and more expensive processor (look at the Sega Saturn).

Yet when the PS2 was in development, someone had the bright idea of using vector units to handle the rendering. Sure a GPU could still do it, but those could only utilize the rendering processesbuilt into it. The PS1 had this problem. Sticking the vector units on the PS2 allowed just about any rendering process to be loaded from the game, as long as it fit in the system's memory. So rendering from the CPU (known as Software rendering) was made viable again.

It wasn't perfect. Unforeseen compatibility issues meant that the PS2's GPU would not recognize texture compression, even though the system could render it (Resident Evil 4, anyone?). Yet this was a minor inconvenience to the system's graphics, which could still pull off graphics better than a lot of us expected.

The legacy is that while Hardware Rendering is still used (for compatibility, if nothing else), Software rendering has become the norm. Just about every system uses it. Even the Wii reportedly has two integer units built into the CPU (these are just a different type of Vector unit).

2. 3Mhz and 7Mhz
Blast Processing. The Genesis/Mega Drive was supposed to be all about speed, and the specs compared to the SNES apparently proved that. However, as previously stated, speed is only one part of the equation. The Genesis was a strong system to be sure, but the overall power of its processor, and having less RAM (128KB compared to 192KB*) meant that the system could run games at a slightly smoother framerate, but almost everything else was topped by the SNES.

* Okay, the Genesis had 64KB of system memory, and the SNES had 128KB, while both had the same 64KB of VRAM. This meant that their sprite rendering powers were at least close.

1. 21Mhz and a Frame Buffer
These were the basic specs of the Super FX chip. Okay, the first version was capped at 10Mhz, but it was still more powerful than the SNES's CPU. Combined with the frame buffer, it allowed the SNES to handle true, albiet basic, 3D graphics. The chip, along with Sega's first Virtua games, gave console owners their first real taste of what was to come in the 5th gen. This is why I put it a #1 on the top ten video game console specs.
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About Lord The Night Knightone of us since 6:44 PM on 10.07.2007

I have a Wii and a DS, and my brother has a 360. I don't have anything against the PS3. We just can't afford one yet, but I do want a PSP when I can.