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Next Generation Consoles
So what exactly is a ‘next-gen’ console? What the hell does ‘next-gen’ mean? Simply put, its tech-geek slang for ‘next generation’ and what that means is the console in question is a completely new version of either an established console or a completely new console that is on more powerful in what it can do when compared with current consoles on the market.
A good example is the Sony and their Playstation consoles. The original Playstation. (PS), is a fairly flat, grey box with a raised circular section in the middle where the CD goes. When it was released it was pretty powerful compared with what could be achieved on a PC. The ‘next gen’ for Sony was the Playstation 2, (PS2), which was a leap forward in terms of computing power and graphics abilities compared with the PS. Simply put, the PS2 could have more detailed and complex games running faster than the PS would be able to.
At this time Microsoft stepped into the console market too so although the Xbox was their first console, it was also regarded as being next-gen because if its processing and graphics power. Of course, we mustn’t forget the original console guys, Nintendo, who have been doing consoles for years, and their next step over the N64 console is the Gamecube.
So next-gen is distinct from versions of consoles because it invariably means a new console design in terms of looks, but more importantly, it’s the hardware inside that makes the difference. Minor alterations and upgrades are not classed as next-gen, just version changes. So Microsoft with the various types of DVD drives and hard drives mounted inside an Xbox doesn’t count as next-gen, nor does Sony’s Slimline PS2 which, even though it’s a fairly major aesthetic change from the original PS2, it’s still just PS2 bits and bobs inside. Of course console officianados will claim that a particular version of one console is better than another, but to anyone but a real console addict, these differences hardly impact upon the playing experience.
But now we’re starting to see and hear about the real ‘next-gen’ consoles on the way from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. These are all completely new designs and technology and are being touted as bringing new levels of graphics, power and gameplay into the home.
The first to be released will be the Xbox 360 from Microsoft that is geared both towards the avid and casual gamer alike. The technical data sheets can provide useful reading for those who get off on clock speeds and memory bandwidth figures but will mean next to nothing to the layperson. The most important feature in the Xbox 360’s hardware is its Graphical Processing Unit, (GPU), which has been designed to be able to switch its processing power to various different types of graphics processing without needing extra transistors on the chip. This means that instead of having parts of the GPU sitting around waiting until the game needs them, they whole chip is working all the time giving faster, more detailed graphics than before.
Sony’s next-gen console the Playstation 3, (PS3), also uses some new hardware to bring greatly improved graphics and speed into the home. Sony have designed a new chip called the CELL chip, which combines several processors on one chip, much like AMD and Intel have done with their dual-core processors. Sony’s CELL chip differs from these in that it has been custom designed for gaming and the different cores have been integrated to work closely with each other when powering your games. Details on the PS3 and the CELL chip are still sketchy though as the PS3 isn’t due for release until March 2006, and that’s the Japan launch date!
Nintendo also have a next-gen console on the way with the Revolution. Details on this are very scarce indeed with even a release date of 2006 being a ‘best guess’ but Nintendo have confirmed that the Revolution will take standard DVD sized disks rather than the mini-cds the Gamecube uses. They have also said that all of the Nintendo back catalogue will be available for download through the Revolution so you’ll still be able to play your favourite older games even though you have a new console.
Backward compatibility is a big sticking point for all the consoles as they’ve been established for at least 3 or 4 years, meaning owners will have a fairly large collection of games they would want to be able to play. Not many people have the space, or the connection options, for more than one or two consoles, so being able to play your old games on the new consoles is an important point.
Microsoft, with the Xbox 360 launching in December 2006 in the UK, have confirmed that the Xbox 360 will be backward compatible with the majority of Xbox games. Though the console is as yet unreleased in the UK, developers and publishers are starting to confirm which games will play on the Xbox 360. Interestingly, the Xbox 360, with it’s new GPU, does appear to improve the appearance of older games without any need for patching or upgrading from the developers. Most notably Bungie, the makers of the Halo series, have recently shown Halo and Halo 2 running at higher resolutions with increased framerates and not noticeable glitches on the Xbox 360.
Sony have yet to confirm if the PS3 will be able to do the same and as said earlier, Nintendo have said that their entire back catalogue will be downloadable, though whether there will be any increase in performance or graphics for the older games has not been confirmed.
At this stage, with none of the consoles released and only the
Xbox 360 having any concrete details, it’s impossible to say
which console would suit the average gamer the best. The Xbox 360
is the only console that has any firm information available for
it and keen gamers have already pre-ordered so many of them that
stocks are likely to be scarce right up to and beyond Christmas
2006. So if you’re looking for a new console, you might be
better off waiting until next year when the Xbox 360 will be easily
available and more details on the PS3 will be released, then you
can make a better decision… you never know, Nintendo might
surprise everyone again too!