Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Supplemental - Nerd Noise Radio weighs in on Playstation 4 vs XBox One!!!

A lot of ink is spilled over which of the two premier flagship modern consoles reigns supreme. While this blog is dedicated almost entirely to video game music  - with a STRONG emphasis on retro gaming, and/or video game sound hardware, no video game related topic is completely out of bounds, including considerations on console wars, and video game hardware at large. Remember, I have a big series coming that tackles the 16-bit console wars in as much depth as I can muster. So, I thought I'd wade in to the current gen controversy as well. 

I won't go as deep into the nuts and bolts of the hardware here as I do with old school systems....simply because I don't understand it to quite as deep a level as I understand the old gear. However, I do think I know enough to say what I want to say here. Feel free to correct me in the comments if you think I'm wrong, but know that I'm gonna be much quicker to listen to someone who has both systems over against one who only has one or the other. The urge to fanboyism (or even to simple bias) is very strong here when you've only got the one, and that's going to temper your response most likely, ergo, it's going to temper my reception.

I have both systems, but have not had either one for an incredibly long time. I got the XB1 Jan 31st or Feb 1st of this year as an early birthday present, a couple days ahead of my 35th birthday. The PS4 I got about a week and a half after that as a "tax time goodie." So that means my time spent only owning one or the other was less than two weeks long, not long enough to really develop a bias for or against the one I've had ever-so-slightly longer. 

In addition to having all the free games for both systems that PS+ and XBLG have offered since Feb, Assassin's Creed Unity and Black Flag bundled downloads on XB1, and The Last Of Us Remastered bundled download on PS4, I also have, as of this writing, four disc based games in hard copy for XB1, and five for PS4, thanks to a surprise delivery from my brother that I received about this time yesterday. I have Destiny, C.O.D. Ghosts, Drive Club, The Order 1886, and now, Final Fantasy XIV on PS4 (thanks, Jesse!), and Titanfall, Halo Master Chief Collection, Forza 5, and Sunset Overdrive on XB1. The only purchased Game downloads I've done are Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge, both on PS4 (with gift cards from my brother - thanks again, Jesse!)

I've had these systems long enough to have logged many hours on each, and have a lot of fun. But I've not had them long enough to where I have definitively come to conclusions on anything major. I mean, as it concerns my simple, subjective preferences on super-duperficial things like which console physically looks better sitting on a shelf, which gem cases look better, and which controller looks and feels better, okay, fine. I give all of those to the XB1. But like I said, these are perhaps the VERY LEAST important of all considerations, and hardly anything that settles such a contest. Still, my point in saying so is simply that these are the ONLY areas so far where I can really say "here I stand, I can do no other."

Now, I know the common wisdom says the PS4 has the more powerful graphics hardware (and ergo, better graphics), while the XB1 has the more powerful multimedia hardware (and ergo, better multimedia). Now by that, I don't just mean that the XB1 just has better multimedia services, but no, XB1 really has the better multimedia HARDWARE itself, as the foil to PS4's better graphics hardware. Or so the composite of spec sheet implications and the battle cries from each side of the aisle tells us.

I have to grant that the PS4 has been graphically outperforming the XB1. It's not a night and day difference, I'd say...but it certainly is a consistent difference. So the graphic advantage has indeed gone to the PS4....SO FAR! I also understand enough about the GPU hardware to know WHY this is. The PS4 is indeed superior at "conventional" ("load all") graphics generation, and as such, it's going to perform better in that environment. It just is.

But, a lot of noise has been made about the "tiled resources" method of graphics generation (which also goes by other names), and what kind of game changer that it could possibly be. 

As a primer, "tiled resources" are simply that instead of loading the entire area's objects and textures all at once, you load teeny, tiny portions, and tile them "Matrix" style all over the screen dynamically, theoretically reducing the need to load large bits of data all at once, or hold all of it in RAM. A practical advantage would be, say you have a texture. In either the conventional "load all" approach, or in "tiled resources", it's gonna have a lot of detail up close, and less detail far away. Well, let's say [and I'm completely pulling numbers out of the air here] that the texture that you see up close is...8MB. Well, in the load all, when it's far away and less detailed, guess what? It's still that 8MB texture, even though it doesn't look like it. In tiled resources, you can achieve the same effect with the same 8MB texture up close, but for the less detailed distance view, replace it with a lower detail, say 2MB texture, and you just swap on the fly with a new tile as the graphics call for it. Supposedly, Microsoft had a tech demo showing a moon scene that looked identical to a 3GB moon scene, running on something crazy small like 16MB. That kind of outrageous difference seems perhaps a little far fetched to me. But regardless, even if exaggerated, it DOES capture the basic benefit of the technology. Use less RAM for the same information by constantly tiling the image rather than loading it all at once. That's the ultra-basics of it. 

I know that both systems will be capable of it, but since zero latency ESRAM, lower latency DDR3 GDRAM, and higher CPU clock speeds will be a higher premium than the heavy lifting DDR5 GDRAM with T.R., then at least in abstract theory, XB1 should not only be able to hold its own with T.R. against the PS4, but actually may even be able to do it BETTER - possibly leveling the playing field...or heck, even turning the tables altogether.

Still, a lot of unanswered questions remain. 1) Will Tiled Resources really enable either system to really produce significantly better graphics than the current load-all scheme they currently employ? 2) Will Tiled Resources be so resource demanding that either one of these consoles, which are essentially mid/upper-mid level PCs be able to really take advantage of it - or is this just a super gamer PC trick? 3) Will XB1's theoretical advantage in T.R. really turn into an actual advantage, or will things like PS4's significantly better shader hardware still keep the ball in Sony's court? 4) Even assuming BOTH a) Tiled Resources really do produce better graphics than "load all", AND b) XB1 really has the advantage there, there is still the question of whether lazy programmers, and/or their profit hungry supervisors will utilize it enough to really turn the tide in the war. It seems pretty obvious to me that tiled resources will take fancier cuts in the kitchen, will "the chefs" feel like doing it? And lastly, 5) Even assuming all the above, and assuming it is used 100% of the time, and XB1 finally proves that it, not Sony is the ultimate graphics machine...will it all still be too little too late to change the tide of popular opinion that has [to wildly mix metaphors] "crowned PS4 in stone " forever ago?

Who knows? At this point, I am not sure anybody really does. But until all of this is settled, I'm maintaining a "wait-and-see"/"jury's-out" stance on graphics, except of course to concede that PS4 has the clear early lead.

As far as the multimedia is concerned, I know the spec sheet favors the XB1 clearly. And popular wisdom seems to believe that features and services bear out that hardware edge. But the jury's still out for me here as well, in this case simply because I haven't really immersed myself in the multimedia offerings of either system enough to get a sense. I get a vague impression that XB1 may have an edge, but I can't say for sure. And even if it does, let's see what Sony can cook up in the future. I think Windows 10 is probably only gonna make things worse for Sony in this regard, not better...but again, let's wait and see.

So all that to say I am agnostic when it comes to the supposedly settled matters of this current generation's console war, and unsettled on all other matters except the most supremely trivial and subjective. 

The field is wide open to me. 

The spec sheet is pretty clear, but if I've learned anything from the 4th generation, my home, and the place where I come closest to even brushing up against "expert status", it's that spec sheets can paint very misleading pictures without telling a single outright lie. The spec sheet paints the Super Nintendo as performing roughly twice as well as the Genesis and PC Engine, when in fact it was pretty neck and neck (and in several ways was actually INFERIOR). I don't doubt for a second that everything in the PS4 and XB1 spec sheets in itself is factual. What I do withhold judgment on is whether or not we fully understand all the real world implications quite yet. How are these things really going to do when they're finally firing on all cylinders? Let's wait and see.

But even if all the conventional wisdom of the supposedly settled matters all comes out to be completely right, it still doesn't answer the question of who's ultimately gonna win, even just the hardware war itself, let alone the actual console war. 

Looking back to the third generation of gaming, if we compare the hardware of the Sega Mastersystem, the NES, and the Commodore 64, the C64 had the weakest graphics hardware of the bunch by far, but it had the best sound hardware. The Mastersystem was the polar opposite, best graphics hardware, weakest sound hardware by far. NES came in a very respectable 2nd on both counts. Which one is the best piece of hardware overall is highly debatable, and perhaps a bit subjective (the imperfect analogy here would be PS4 is Mastersystem, and XB1 is NES).

Well, I suppose [assuming both conventional wisdom maxims are true] the legacy of  which system had the better hardware will ultimately come down to two questions (which are so interrelated as to almost be two sides of the same question): 1) Will this generation be more remembered for its graphical prowess, or for its multimedia feats? and 2) will there ultimately be a greater disparity between the two's graphics or between the two's multimedia. If the answer to both is multimedia, then the XB1 will win, and its slightly inferior graphics will be more or less a non-issue. If the answer to both is graphics, then the converse. If one answer is multimedia, and one answer is graphics, then I suppose it would go to whichever one the generation is best remembered for. Which one will that be? No idea. Once again, too soon to tell. And again, this is all just assuming the maxims are right. They may yet prove to not be.

I think it will be like the 5th generation. The general consensus on the 5th generation is that the Sega Saturn was by leaps and bounds the best "2D" system of the bunch, with Nintendo 64 coming in a distant last, and the PlayStation a decent 2nd. But when it came to "3D", the tables were turned entirely, with N64 on top, and Saturn at the bottom - PS1, of course, once again, in the middle. However, since 3D is what everyone focused on for 5th gen, or since "that's what 5th gen is about", if you will, the Saturn went down in history as the underdog of the pack, even though it had a dramatic lead in 2D. Well, I think that's how history will paint the 8th gen console war too - just depending on whether graphics or multimedia prevails - and, of course, what we learn about the system's final graphics and sound capabilities.

But ultimately, the quintessentially middle-of-the-road NES didn't soundly dominate the 3rd generation like it did, or the quintessentially middle-of-the-road PS1 the 5th gen on their hardware merits relative the other systems, but because of their software. And so it will be here. Which one of our current systems will be remembered as better hardware may indeed come down to graphics vs multimedia. But the one that will ultimately win the war will come down almost entirely to software. 

Right now, I hate to say...but have to say, that neither one of them are doing very well in this department. Both libraries are roughly parity in being dominated by games that not only both systems share, but are also games that are either just scaled up versions of PS3/XB360/WiiU games, or scaled down versions of PC games...or indie games - not that indie is necessarily bad in itself, in fact, some of the most interesting and wonderful games out there, and certainly the lion's share of the retro-like games are indie. I am absolutely in love with Shovel Knight, and am quickly getting there with Axiom Verge. But a system dominated by ports, and/or by indie IS a bad sign. It means the console exclusive mainstream library is weak. While certainly not devoid of some seriously good games, both platforms' proprietary marquee collections are abysmally small, with no clear winner one way or the other. I suppose just by virtue of the multiplats looking a tad better on PS4, it currently has the lead. But it's still a pretty sad state on both.

The good news is is that 2015/2016 will be a time of tremendous growth for both systems in this regard, and maybe by then, an idea of who's going to win may just begin to emerge...but for now...to repeat my now beat to death refrain...it's too soon to tell.

All I can REALLY say for now is that I'm super happy to have both, am super excited to be able to go on this journey with the systems to see who comes out on top, thrill at the fun I know I'll have on both systems regardless of who wins....oh yeah, and [in my personal opinion, at least], console physical cosmetics, gem case cosmetics, and the look and feel of the controller all go to Xbox - not to mention, the XBoxOne is by reason of "no contest" the undisputed winner of the "Saint Patrick's Day Celebration Wars"....so...umm...eat it, Sony! ;-)

What do YOU think of the burgeoning console war? What do you think of my analysis? Nothing stands between you and weighing in in the comments section! I'd love to get your feedback!


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