The Polaris Connection

Meanwhile perhaps the most surprising aspect of Sony’s announcement isn’t the specifications reveal, but rather that Mark Cerny directly referenced AMD’s Polaris architecture, stating that Sony/AMD "adopted many new features from the AMD Polaris architecture." This is a statement that has a lot of ramifications, but also a statement where nuance is critical because it’s so vague.

To examine the Polaris connection, let’s take a step back in how AMD develops their GPU families. While we like to think of architectures as a monolithic thing- that every aspect of an architecture is built specifically for that given architecture – the truth is quite different. Internally, AMD’s GPUs are developed in block fashion; each major functional unit can be developed separately, and AMD can mix and match the two. Typically, but not always, a major discrete GPU generation contains the latest versions of all of these blocks. Meanwhile semi-custom wins can get a lot murkier since the business is based around AMD being able to integrate just the parts that a customer needs.

Polaris is a great example of this. Compared to Fiji (GCN 1.2), AMD revised the command processor, the display controller, the multimedia engines and the geometry processor. Meanwhile the all-important shader cores were technically revised, but in practice other than increased internal memory, they are ISA-identical to GCN 1.2. Finally, AMD did not touch the render backends, the rasterizer, or the work scheduler at all.

This means that Sony can equally pick and choose which parts of the GPU they want to update, which is important given the forward compatibility mandate of the PS4 Pro. Adopting features from Polaris does not mean that this is a full Polaris GPU.

Given the updated specifications of the console, I think it’s safe to assume that AMD has integrated their newer generation display engine and multimedia engine. The former is necessary to add support for HDMI 2.0 – critical for the console’s 4K display capabilities – while the latter is equally necessary to support 4K video decoding, including the most recent HEVC format that 4K services have been preferring.

Beyond that, however, there’s nothing that definitively points to the PS4 Pro’s SoC integrating other, newer components from Polaris. An updated memory controller would make a lot of sense if the memory clockspeeds are higher, but whether the shader cores or geometry engine have been touched are both very good questions. The PS4 has previously been described as using a GCN 1.1-era shader core, so it’s not impossible that it simply uses a larger version of such core (as opposed to Polaris’s GCN 4) to ensure compatibility. Essentially Sony & AMD’s options run the gamut from a truly updated PS4 SoC to a Polaris 10 stuffed into an SoC, and depending on Sony’s technical needs, both options would be valid.

Power Consumption, HDR, & Closing Thoughts

Finally, also on Sony’s official spec sheet is the maximum (“up to”) power consumption of the console. These values aren’t comparable to the TDPs we’re accustomed to with discrete video cards, but they’re useful for intra-PlayStation comparisons.

In this case, Sony has published that the PS4 Pro has an up to power consumption of 310W. We don’t have a similar official number for the original PS4, however its PSU is widely reported as being rated for up to 250W. Meanwhile we do have a similar number for the new slim PS4, which is 165W. So right off the bat we can see that the PS4 Pro’s maximum power consumption is significantly higher than its slim sibling, and still higher than its original 28nm generation counterpart.

Even with the move to 16nm, it’s not possible to improve an SoC in this fashion without increasing the power consumption. The GPU alone offers better than 2x the throughput of the 28nm console, and the Jaguar cores are clocked higher as well. Though it doesn’t look like we’re approaching the extreme power consumption of the likes of the original PlayStation 3, it’s clear that power consumption has gone up for the PS4 Pro, and that relative to the comparable slim PS4, there’s a significant power cost for the console’s much improved capabilities. Which is by no means unexpected, but it’s interesting to see Sony willing to build a bit bigger, bit more power hungry console than what they did with the original PS4.

Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that Sony has opted to equip the console with the same 6x BD-ROM drive as used in the other models, meaning that the PS4 Pro cannot play Ultra-HD Blu-Ray discs. Given Sony’s stake in the development of the Blu-Ray standards, this is a bit surprising. From a technical perspective I have no doubts that the SoC is capable of all of the necessary video decode and DRM responsibilities, as the requirements for streaming 4K services are similar, if not higher. So perhaps this is about licensing fees, or drive costs, or just that Sony is betting on the future of streaming over the future of optical disks.

Speaking of video, though I haven’t covered it in depth, HDR is a major focus for Sony as well. PS4 Pro obviously gets it, and thanks to the presence of HDMI 2.0, it gets the best support for it. Going by previous statements from AMD on GPU architectures, PS4 Pro should be fully capable of HDR for gaming, photos, and movies.

And in a surprise announcement, Sony also announced that they are backporting HDR support to the new slim PS4 and the original PS4. Looking again at our chart, we see how this can work: AMD’s older display controller (represented here by the Radeon 300 series) can support HDR, even over HDMI 1.4b. However there’s a bit more uncertainty in just what the older consoles can do with HDR.  In the dGPU space, the lack of HDCP 2.2 support has been cited by AMD as one of the reasons their older GPUs can’t support HDR movies. However other Sony statements have indicated that there will be HDR support for YouTube and Netflix on the older model PS4s. So just what are technical limitations and what are contract limitations is not clear. Presumably we’ll have a better answer next week whether the original PS4 has all of the Pro’s HDR capabilities (sans 4K) or if there are further limitations that just haven’t been made clear yet.

Wrapping things up then, alongside announcing the PS4 Pro console, Sony also announced a ship date and a price. A 1TB version of console will be hitting the streets on November 10th for $399, and preorders have already started. This is the same price that the original 500GB PS4 launched at nearly 3 years ago, and $100 more than the new $299 500GB slim PS4. The slim PS4 has of course already been fully disassembled, and it goes without saying that I’m looking forward to seeing what lies beneath the new PS4 Pro once it gets its own teardown treatment.

PlayStation 4 Pro: AMD’s Next Semi-Custom SoC Win
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  • goatfajitas - Friday, September 9, 2016 - link

    "Value proposition for consoles always was a standardized level of quality for a long period of time."
    - IMO that was completely broken and not only holding consoles back, but gaming as a whole... Now MS and Sony have somewhat fixed it... Or at least improved it.
  • Michael Bay - Friday, September 9, 2016 - link

    Console customers don`t see shortened upgrade cycle as an improvement, and in money terms it`s like PC market. Quite a lot to lose.
  • rarson - Friday, September 9, 2016 - link

    Console customers don`t see shortened upgrade cycle as an improvement, and in money terms it`s like PC market. Quite a lot to lose.

    It's not a shortened cycle, it's exactly the opposite. I'm not sure why this is so hard for console gamers to understand. By increasing performance of the PS4 platform with the Pro, and ensuring all games run on both consoles, the life of the PS4 gets extended by guaranteed software support for as long as the more powerful hardware remains relevant.

    I still game on my 8-year old PC. I can even run Doom on it and it's very playable. My old PC doesn't get less software support just because newer, faster hardware came out for the same platform.
  • Michael Bay - Friday, September 9, 2016 - link

    In console world, 6 years of support is a _standard_. Trying to peddle that as a feature now simply reeks.
    Plus, you have to be really gullible to believe both versions will get the same amount of testing and support. Performance creep on PC around PS2/original XBOX timeframe is exactly what gave console side a lot of new customers in the first place.
  • goatfajitas - Friday, September 9, 2016 - link

    We are talking about the same game on the same platform with (likely) higher res textures and a few other graphics settings notched up a bit. It's not like an entirely new console... I look at it this way... No-one is forcing it, if you don't like it, don't buy it. If you feel "betrayed" that somehow the PS4 Pro lessens the experience of your PS4, then sell your old PS4 and enjoy your principals. I will be enjoying my PS4 Pro and playing games on it.
  • goatfajitas - Friday, September 9, 2016 - link

    I am a console owner, a PS4 owner and I am happy to pay another $400 for a PS4 pro and extremely happy I dont have to wait until the year 2020 to do it, sooooooo......
  • Michael Bay - Sunday, September 11, 2016 - link

    So Sony is rubbing hands and counting shekels, yes.
  • rarson - Friday, September 9, 2016 - link

    Actually the hardware decisions were very smart, unless you want to run your console business into the ground by releasing another overpriced, power-hungry, failure-prone platform that you have to sell at a loss just to move.
  • Morawka - Sunday, September 11, 2016 - link

    There is nothing smart about using 5 year old CPU cores in a next gen console. There is nothing smart about omitting a 4K HDR Blu Ray player, especially when you are part owner of the Blu Ray Spec. Instead they license the 4K HDR player to their competitor Their Next Gen PS4 is less capable than a refreshed Last gen product in home theater capabilities.

    Sony was already sorely lacking in software capabilities such as Backward compatibility. Instead they offer alternatives that require you to have very fast internet with low latency by running a virtual machine in the cloud. When microsoft can do it on the console, with virtually identical hardware capabilities.
  • Drakoid - Thursday, September 8, 2016 - link

    Yes, betrayed. I played ps3 for 6 years. I would expect ps4 to stay exclusive for 6 years too...but no they had to release this "ps4 pro" after 3 years.

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