Microprocessor engineers, analysts, and journalists gathered for an industry dinner in the US last Thursday to talk about recent triumphs and future milestones. They discussed the highly regarded Athlon chip from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Intel's groundbreaking new Itanium processor, and the impending release of 1GHz chips. But the real buzz was about something completely different: a game machine.
Specifically, the story of the day was Sony’s upcoming PlayStation2, and the Emotion Engine processor that will run it. Developed by Sony and Toshiba, experts predict the high-tech processor will offer unprecedented gaming power. More importantly, it could provide the processing power for the PlayStation2 to challenge cheap PCs as the entry-level device of choice for home access to the Web.
Powerful and traditionally inexpensive, game consoles and their processors haven't had anywhere near the power of even a low-end PC. The Emotion Engine and its accompanying processing chip change all that by excelling at a processing function called floating-point performance, which can help it handle graphics.
How adept is it? According to MicroDesign Resources, the processor can handle 6.2 gigaflops at 300MHz. A single gigaflop equals one billion floating-point operations per second. MDR says that makes the chip two times faster than a 733MHz Pentium III and 15 times faster than a 400MHz Celeron at handling tasks like full-motion video. For the statistics-minded, the processor can handle 75 million 3D transformations per second, and can render images at 2.4 billion pixels per second.
If these numbers translate into real-world performance, this should be one hot processor.
"It's nothing short of amazing," says Keith Diefendorff, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report. The new PlayStation2 will possess "extraordinary processing power in a sub-£250 game console."
Combine that with a DVD drive, and a modular design that will offer simple upgrades to Internet access via a standard modem, cable modem, or DSL (digital subscriber line), and you should have one serious machine.
In a presentation earlier in the day, Diefendorff called upcoming consoles such as the PlayStation2 a "Trojan horse." PC makers don't fear them right now, but they should because he says companies such as Sony "have something in mind other than just games."
He showed an image of the console, and noted that its sleek black design makes it look less like a game machine for kids, and more like something that would fit nicely in a home entertainment center.
At about £66 each, the Emotion Engine chips aren't cheap to make, he says, but Sony can essentially subsidize the high cost through other revenue streams, such as the games people will buy to play on the PlayStation2. Throw in some interesting applications and access to streaming video and digital audio, and the PlayStation2 could be a very attractive device for families looking to join the Web frenzy.
Stunning graphics and a low price aren't the only things the PlayStation2 has to offer, either. Ease of use will be a factor, too. Peter Glaskowsky, a senior editor for Microprocessor Report, said that a PlayStation2 will be fundamentally easier to use than a PC.
Because a PlayStation2 lacks a built-in storage device, he says new programs would likely run through the DVD drive. There are fewer ways for the average user to run into problems because read-only devices are harder to break, he says.
Sony executives say they plan to ship one million units of the new PlayStation2 in Japan on March 4. The company says that by the end of 1999, almost 72 million of the original PlayStation consoles had been sold.