Exclusive: Potential Next-Gen Specs

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Exclusive: Potential Next-Gen Specs

Recently, N-Sider stumbled upon some very interesting information. Let's just say we know a guy who knows another... guy... in a large Japanese company. That's all you get. But we sat down and had a chat with this fellow, and walked away with what may well be the working specifications for Nintendo's next generation hardware. And we're not talkin' the DS, here. We've been told that the information in question is not final, but rather the current specs Nintendo is playing around with to show developers, for kits and early benchmarks. After ATI releases its new line of processors in the next month or so then the real development on the systems will begin.

Now don't start running up walls in excitement. We can't 100% guarantee the validity of this information. However, we aren't in the business of reporting simple rumors for the heck of it. If these benchmark specs aren't exactly accurate, they ARE at least a very good idea of what to expect. And thanks to an analysis of the potential GameCube Next specs by our own Smith Gregg, we hope to let the less tech-savvy of you in on the fun as well.

Now, through an unfortunate and as-of-yet unexplained leak, you may have heard these numbers on some other sites and forums over the past couple of days. Don't be fooled, though, we've got the real deal here. And hopefully we can make up for the leak with our renowned excess of insight. Enjoy!

Next Generation Game Boy

We dont have any specific numbers for the next Game Boy, but weve got plenty of information nonetheless. Do note, this isnt information about the DS. The next Game Boy will supposedly launch some time in 2006.

  • The working title is "Game Boy Evolution".
  • The system will have a flip-top design, similar to the GBA SP.
  • Games will come on mini-discs, as opposed to cartridges.
  • The graphics will be slightly better than those found on the Sega Dreamcast.
  • Bluetooth wireless networking will be built in.
  • The system will feature backwards compatibility, but not in the same way the GBA plays old Game Boy games. Supposedly there will be a device that will allow you to download games from their carts into a harddrive-like element of the new Game Boy. Confusing, yes, but that's all we've managed to gleam. Speculate as you like.
  • The system's screen will be lit, similar to the GBA SP.

GameCube Next

Now, a bit of clarification is necessary here. We have two sets of specs to talk about. Supposedly Nintendo has two sets of benchmark specifications they're working with, and one will be chosen when they are closer to actual development. We'll talk about both in the analysis.

System 1:

  • 2.7 Ghz PowerPC G5 Processor
  • 512 Megs total Ram (128 for video, 64 for sound)
  • 600 Mhz graphics chip

System 2:

  • Dual 1.8 Ghz IBM G5 PowerPC processors
  • 256 Megs DDR Main memory (64 dedicated to sound, using a 7.1 sound system at 196 Khz)
  • 128 Megs GDDR3 Video memory
  • 500 Mhz graphics chip (ATI developed, 16 Pixel Pipe, 220 Million transistors)

Shared Information:

  • Built in 15 Gigabyte harddrive
  • Blue-laser disk technology
  • Potential DVD playback
  • Case design philosophy more like the N64, less like the GameCube

GameCube Next Analysis:

CPU: It's been rumored for a while that an IBM CPU would grace GameCube Next, and there is no better chip coming out of that firm than the PPC 970 in this editor's humble opinion. For anyone who doesn't know - this is the core of the G5 towers from Apple. It's a sweet chip - very well designed - with efficient use of power, less heat created than a Pentium 4, 64-bit registers, and a component of one of the top 5 fastest computers in the world (the Virginia Tech G5 cluster).

Currently this chip goes as fast as 2.4Ghz (although these have yet to ship), but most of them run at 2.0Ghz - which makes the 2.7Ghz figure kind of surprising. However, Steve Jobs has promised 3Ghz from the chip by the end of this year. On this front we'll just have to see.

As for their clockspeed - please don't jump into comparisons with the Pentium 4's being at 3.4Ghz and whatnot. At 2Ghz, the G5 is about as fast as a 3.4Ghz Pentium 4 (perhaps a little slower.) At 2.7Ghz, or dual 1.8Ghz CPUs, the G5 screams.

Interesting how this article suggests they are considering a dual processor system and a single processor system. My gut says that the single chip solution would be better. After all, single threaded programming is much easier to do and 2.7Ghz of power is no slouch when it comes to the crunch. The dual 1.8Ghz setup would be a very good performer and makes a lot more sense for games on a console than dual CPUs do for PC gaming. Still: two separate CPUs presents a challenge for programmers trying to code in low level languages. The single processor setup would yield better performance for most people, and thus would be the better choice. However, the dual 1.8Ghz design would be theoretically more powerful and it would be much cheaper to make. By the time the 2.7Ghz parts come out, IBM will be on a 90nm manufacturing process, and a 1.8Ghz CPU would be easier and cheaper to produce.

Both choices are good ones and would certainly give X-Box and the PS3 a run for their money. This is probably the best chip on the market right now (maybe not the fastest, but just generally best clock for clock) - and sticking to the Power PC instruction set from the GameCube would make for a very nice transition into the next generation for current developers.

GPU: This is exciting.

First of all, ATI is just about to debut their line of chips to be for sale early this summer (perhaps slightly before.) The specs on these chips are 12 "pipes" at 500Mhz and 16 "pipes" at 600Mhz. Both of these chips are actually identical, but because of yielding issues the chips that don't work to the high-end spec can have parts disabled and slowed down to work at the slower spec so they can still be sold and not thrown away. This is what companies do when they are using a new manufacturing process (in this case, 130nm.)

These GPU's supposedly have six shader units which perform the vertex "shading" operations that we all hear so much about. Now the 600Mhz, 16 pipe part is a beast. The GameCube has a 4 pipe part at 167Mhz. Unlike regular CPUs, you can calculate very precisely the theoretical performance of GPUs using how many "pipes" they have by their clockspeed (pipes, by the way, represent the simultaneous number of pixels that can be rendered and textured in a single clock cycle of the GPU). To understand exactly how much of a leap these chips are, consider that if you go to the store right now and plop down roughly $450 for the fastest card on the market, the ATI 9800XT, you get 8 pipes at 412Mhz, giving you a fillrate of about 3.3 Giga pixels per second. The new R420, with 16 pipes and 600Mhz provides a theoretical max fillrate of 9.6 Gpixels/s. This is a fillrate jump that is leaps and bounds over just about anything before. NVidia has a similar card that was just unveiled and will hit the stores pretty soon (400Mhz and 16 pipes.) This is an incredible jump forward - in the case of ATI, literally trippling performance (imagine going from a 3Ghz to a 9Ghz Pentium - maybe not quite so drastic, but you get the picture.)

So, all that rambling was about the cards that ATI just put out this month, that have similar specs to what was posted here - with one exception (and this is what excites me.) Normally, transistor counts aren't really that important. Really it's a meaningless figure that only points to chip complexity, and when compared to previous incarnations of the same chip, can give you an idea of heat/power requirements), but in this case we have two chips which are seemingly identical except for their transistor count. The R420, the 600Mhz, 6 shader unit, 16 pipe beast mentioned above uses 160 - 180 million transistors.

This is significant. This means there's something extra aboard that chip. Given the specs (500Mhz or 600Mhz and probably 16 pipes on both counts) this could mean one of a couple things that I will speculate on. First, it could mean more shader units. This is always a plus - the more shader units, the more powerful effects that can be performed in-game. The other has to do with something similar, but relates to a slightly different element. Right now, there's somewhat of a complaint about a supposed weak point in ATI's seemingly jack-of-all-trades GPU. It is limited with 24-bit precision in pixel shading, as opposed to the 32-bit precision of the GeForce. What these extra transistors could account for is the extra 8-bits in register size.

Basically, this new GPU would be great. Going from 0.67 Gpixels/s and no vertex shading on the GameCube to a 9.6 Gpixels/s Vertex shading beast would be superb. As for the 128MB of GDDR3 RAM - this stuff is fast and essential. The upcoming R420 uses it, and it has a 1200Mhz memory bus providing something along the lines of 35-40 GB/s of bandwidth. Crazy, isn't it?

Blue laser disc format: This, too, is quite tasty news. A blue laser has a narrower wavelength than a red laser, the type used in current DVD players and a narrower wavelength allows for higher data density on the surface of an optical disc, thus providing more storage space. We know that this means well have a very large storage capacity for the next system (assuming this rumor holds true). What we dont know is exactly how large, or what format will be used. There are two major blue-laser formats being developed: the popular Blue-ray format, and HD DVD.

Both of these are propositioned as the replacement for the current DVD format, allowing high definition content to be stored, and both of them provide more storage space (Blu-ray with 27GB per layer, and HD DVD with 15GB per layer with current DVDs storing 4.7GB per layer). Due to Nintendo's relationship with Matsushita, it is my opinion that if Nintendo went with a blue laser format, it would go with the Matsushita backed Blu-ray standard. Of course, knowing Nintendo, its entirely possible they are using some other format, or even one they made up on their own (perhaps 5GB GCN sized discs?).

Another exciting aspect of this is that the Blu-ray format is inherently re-writeable, the possibilities of which are enticing. As for DVD playback this isnt exactly consistent with the blue-laser spec. Of course, there could certainly be an additional laser packed in there (lots of DVD players do this to play Audio CDs). That tidbit could, however, lead one to believe that perhaps the new Nintendo system will playback DVDs in the Blu-ray format - meaning, high definition. All of this seems a little doubtful, simply because Blu-ray wont really be accessible to the average American consumer till about 2006 when its expected the technology will be cheap enough for adoption, but if Matsushita is retained as a partner, perhaps this is more realistic than one would expect. Well just have to see.

RAM: If we presume that this article is indeed legitimate then the 512 MB configuration would be ideal. Of course, it may come down to going with 512MB of slower RAM or 256MB of the faster (Nintendo always seems very cost conscious.) I have no idea what they'd be looking at with the RAM issue, but my guess would be something along the lines of PC4200. I wonder if 1T SRAM is still on the plate?

As for those audio specs, if they are going for 196Khz, then they'll most certainly need the dedicated 64MB. This number indicates the sampling rate. The highest sampling rate for the DVD-A format is 192Khz (Dolby Digital DVD movies tap out at 96Khz.) Sample rate isn't the frequency range, but rather the frequency of samples done on the specific audio channel, comprising the resolution of the channel if you will. I'm really curious about this spec, mostly because of bandwidth issues. The DVD-A spec calls for a sample rate of 192 Khz for 2 channels (stereo), and 96Khz for 6 channels - these conditions require about 9.6Mbps of bandwidth and an entire DVD disc for about two hours of this (this is DVD Audio mind you, theres no movie on here, just music.) This means either a) this spec is wrong, b) this spec only refers to 2 channel sound, and is reduced for the proposed 7 channel operation, or c) the N5 has one huge optical media format (something like Blu-Ray.) Even taking into account compression, this is a very hefty spec and would require lots of storage and lots of RAM, which they seem to be supplying. This spec on its own could possibly make or break the validity of the entire document.

Hard Drive: I'm not really surprised. Remember the whole debacle about sports saves sucking and Nintendo execs commenting that they'd fix this problem? Hard drive is the cheapest way. 15GB is way small though - I don't see much in the way of downloaded content. 30GB, in my opinion, would have been a sweeter spot. However, it's little things like a small hard drive that might point to this document being true. The fact that not everything on the spec list is top of the line is actually a good sign, as a 300 dollar machine can not contain all top-of-the-line components.

Good times, eh? Hopefully this will give you a nice idea of what to expect from Nintendo's next-gen endeavors. And even if they aren't 100% accurate, they should at least prove that Nintendo is playing hardball. Hopefully the rumors of Nintendo releasing a system barely more powerful than the GameCube will begin to die.

We'll bring you more as we learn it.

N-Sider Staff