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Console war is no kids' game

Posted: 25 May 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Sony PS3? Nintendo Wii? Xbox 360? gaming consoles rivalry? online gaming?

Videogame systems have come a long way from the days of a paddle and a bouncing ball. Interactive games, online play and realistic graphics have moved gaming from something that only kids play to a pastime that has entered many homes. Combined with computer games, this amounted to a $7.4 billion industry in 2006, almost triple the software sales of 1996.

According to a recent Nielsen survey, 41.1 percent of U.S. homes have a gaming console. Only 66 percent of those homes have one or more children. Information from the Entertainment Software Association states that the average game player is 33 years old and has been playing for 12 years. Moreover, most of the game purchasers and players were over the age of 18. Some people may think this might be due to the higher Entertainment Software Rating Board ratings of the games, but 85 percent of the games sold were rated "T," for teen or below. Nor is it just males playing games any longer: 38 percent of all gamers are female. These stats indicate that gaming is not for the loner kid in the basement any more.

In direct contrast to that "loner" concept is online gaming. All of the next-generation gaming consoles have online capabilities right out of the box. The Xbox Live community reached 6 million users in March. Microsoft released some statistics when that milestone was reached. On average, the number of gamers on a friends' list is 22. And people have spent 2.3 billion hours playing online games since the inception of Xbox Live.

Online gaming has become, quite literally, a community where people can meet people and play games.

The two most recent gaming systems entered the market about a year after Microsoft's Xbox 360 was introduced. The Sony Playstation 3 was launched in North America last Nov. 17 and the Nintendo Wii was launched two days later. During the 2006 holiday season, 1.1 million Xbox 360s were sold, compared with 600,000 Wiis and 490,000 PS3s. A recent press release stated that as of March, twice as many Wiis have been sold in Japan as PS3s.

Not just a gaming system
Sony's marketing strategy for the Playstation 3 is to convince consumers that it is not a gaming system, but an entertainment experience. And these boxes do offer some functionality that helps support that contention. The resolution is 1,080p, which is the highest of all the systems and works well with the integrated Blu-ray player.

The PS3 uses many high-end components, including the Cell processor, created jointly by Sony, Toshiba and IBM. This device has been talked about for the past few years in great detail, so I won't rehash a lot of that content other than to mention that the Cell is designed using IBM's 90nm process and contains four segments consisting of input and output structures, power processing, eight coprocessors and a data bus.

Sony's Playstation 3

Sony PS3 features a 1,080p resolution and works well with the integrated Blu-ray player.
View PS3 teardown diagram

A bit more interesting to see is the Emotion engine and graphics synthesizer. In the PS2, Sony had two separate components for each. Combined, the two devices had a total die size of 178.58mm?. In the PS3, the designers have integrated the functionality into a single solution that is based on Nvidia's G70. This single chip has a die size of 89.6mm?which is about the same size as a single component from the PS2. It is interesting that it also uses 256Mbytes of GDDR3 graphics memory. When the PS3 was launched in Europe, Sony removed the older components that enabled backward compatibility with original Playstation and PS2 games to reduce the cost of the system.

Elpida provided the DRAM. Interestingly, I had a conversation with managers at Qimonda who told me that company is a second source for all of the gaming platforms, including the PS3. The one that we tore down just happened to have Elpida memory.

There are actually four XDR DRAM components and, given the routing between the Cell processor and the memory, strong attention was given to impedance matching and noise considerations.

The controller is wireless and motion-sensitive, so tilting the controller to the left will move the character in the game the same way. But unlike both the Wii and the Xbox 360, the controller does not have vibration feedback. An HDK three-axis acceleration sensor provides the six-axis motion-control functionality. A CSR BlueCore 4 Bluetooth chip enables connectivity with the console. This is the same device that is used in quite a number of other applications, such as the Nokia 7380 and RIM Blackberry 8700c.

'New way to play'
have to admit that when I heard about the Wii, I was not a big fan. But after having had an opportunity to play with it a bit before we tore it apart, I was convinced and ended up buying one for myself. I've been trying to get my wife to play some games with me, and she has tried, but until I got her to try the Wii, I had no success. And this ties right in with Nintendo's marketing plan. The Wii's tag line was "experience a new way to play," and I think it accomplished that goal.

The Wii is not a powerhouse. Graphically, it only displays at 480p, well below the resolution of the Xbox 360 and PS3, and it can't play DVDs. But what it can do is offer innovative, easy and intuitive game play. While all of the gaming consoles have Internet connectivity, the Wii has wireless connections out of the box.

Again, IBM has a place in the Wii, as it does with all of the other consoles. IBM and Qimonda are both positioned to do well in this market, no matter which console is the ultimate winner. Unlike the PS3, the processor in the Wii is more standard fare than a ground-up design. The Broadway is designed in 90nm lithography using IBM's silicon-on-insulator process. The chip uses both 1T-SRAM and embedded DRAM developed by NEC.

Sony's Playstation 3

Wii's tag line was "experience a new way to play," and I think it accomplished that goal.
View Wii teardown diagram

Also on board is the ATI Hollywood, a 90nm part that has 3Mbytes of memory. In the GameCube, ATI provided the Flipper, which contained 2D and 3D graphics engines, a DSP for audio and interfaces. The Hollywood is about 7mm? larger than the Flipper, but operates at twice the speed. At 243MHz, it is about as fast as the processor in the original Xbox. There are both NEC and Mosys die markings: NEC provides the memory and Mosys the intellectual-property licensing for a 1 T-SRAM cell.

The real winner
Qimonda, which only recently spun out of parent Infineon, is nabbing some design wins using its own package markings. It always takes time to migrate designs and packages over to the new organization, so we are finally seeing Qimonda designs. The 512Mbits of graphics memory in the Wii is considerably less than the 512Mbytes offered in the Xbox 360 and PS3, but then again, the Wii never claimed to have high-end graphics in the first place. All said, there is about 88Mbytes of total memory, including 1T-SRAM, in the Wii.

For Internet connectivity, the Wii is wireless straight out of the box. The intent is that the Wii will be online at all times, even if the console is turned off, to receive updates and new content. Broadcom and SiGe support that connectivity.

Broadcom's AirForce One is a low-power 802.11b/g transceiver with power management. SiGe Semiconductor's device is a power amplifier RF module that reduces the number of components required for integrating all of the functionality from the transceiver to the antenna, reducing the total number of components by 25 to 30. This is the same design that was used in other systems, such as the Asus WL500G WLAN router.

Recently announced from Microsoft is the Xbox 360 Elite. This system promises to counteract the technical advantages that the PS3 offers. For example, it has an HDMI connection, which allows 1,080p resolution, and a 120Gbyte hard drive (compared with the 20Gbyte hard drive currently available). And it comes in black. This also could have been an opportune time for Microsoft to lower the BOMs by introducing a 65nm processor, but it didn't do so.

- Gregory Quirk
Semiconductor Insights

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