AMD hints at faster, more power-efficient Xbox, PS4 chips

Industry observers estimate the new chips could be ready for the Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4 in about two years

Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4 are due for release next month, but chip supplier Advanced Micro Devices is already teasing chip upgrades that could make the game consoles faster and more power-efficient.

The game consoles will run on chips from AMD, which is already considering manufacturing advances for the chips, said Lisa Su, senior vice president and general manager of the company's global business units.

Chip makers like AMD are consistently looking to make chips smaller, faster and more power-efficient through new designs and manufacturing advances. Su didn't name Sony or Microsoft specifically, but said game consoles and related chips have a life span of five to seven years, and there will be chances to upgrade components while cutting manufacturing costs.

"Certainly, when we look at cost reduction opportunities, one of the important ones is to move technology nodes," Su said this week during AMD's quarterly earnings call. "And the reason to do that is both for pure die cost savings, as well as all the power savings that our customer benefits from."

The PS4 will ship on Nov. 15, and the Xbox One will become available a week later. The consoles have custom chips with eight CPU cores code-named Jaguar and Radeon graphics cores. The PS4 can deliver an estimated 1.84 teraflops of performance, Sony has said. Microsoft has not talked about performance delivered by the Xbox One chip.

The first Xbox and PS4 chips are being made on the 28-nm process by TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.). TSMC is already making chips using the 20-nanometer process, and in 2015 it will start making chips using 3D transistors -- also called FinFET technology -- using the 16-nm process. 3D transistors will bring power savings and performance boosts to chips, and Intel is already making chips with FinFET technology.

An AMD spokesman declined to comment on the possibility of upgrading console chips or when they would be produced. But Su said AMD is working on chip designs with its manufacturing partners.

"We are fully, top-to-bottom in 28-nanometer now across all of our products, and we are transitioning to both 20-nanometer and to FinFET over the next couple of quarters, in terms of designs. So we'll continue to do that across our foundry partners," Su said.

The console chips will likely be upgraded every two to three years, much like in past consoles, analysts said. The chip in the Xbox 360 was upgraded three times over its lifetime.

The console chip upgrades are more about shrinking the chip's size and cutting costs than improving performance, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"As they evolve the platform, they use newer chips that lower costs, and allows them to put [the chips] into a smaller and thinner package," Brookwood said.

Console makers are resistant to change in chip design, Brookwood said. Rewiring of circuits could mean rewriting some code in games, which Microsoft and Sony may want to avoid, he said. That could happen if there is a move to 3D transistors on TSMC's 16-nm process.

The chips will likely stick to the similar Jaguar CPU and Radeon GPU cores over the lifetime of the game consoles, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

AMD has the option to move directly from 28-nm chips to 16-nm, but it will likely jump to 20-nm with TSMC in two years, McGregor said.

The current Xbox One and PS4 chips already deliver tremendous performance and are good enough for gamers, McGregor said. Gamers won't wait for two years to buy a new box with a new chip just for a small performance gain.

"I'm looking at [the consoles] and I'm thinking overkill," McGregor said. "Most of this stuff is going to the cloud."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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