Inside Sony's next-generation PSP

Sony's disclosure of the engine powering the Next Generation PlayStation Portable shows that the Japanese company is deadly serious about performance.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Sony's disclosure of the internals of the Next Generation Portable (NGP) PlayStation at an event in Tokyo today reveals a game engine that might be best described as an Apple iPad on steroids. Lots of steroids.

Like the iPad (and iPhone), Sony will use an ARM processor design. Of course, Sony and Apple aren't the only high-profile device makers using ARM chips. Motorola is using an advanced ARM chip from Nvidia in its Xoom tablet, and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet will tap a powerful ARM chip from Texas Instruments. Both of those are dual-core ARM designs.

But Sony's NGP PlayStation--due this holiday season--makes the engines in those devices--even the rumored iPad 2--seem slow by comparison.

Sony's next-generation PlayStation Portable has a processor with a whopping four cores.
Sony's next-generation PlayStation Portable has a processor with a whopping four cores. Sony

Here's Sony's "Next Generation Portable Entertainment System" spec sheet in all of its tersely worded alphanumeric glory: "CPU: ARM Cortex-A9 core (4 core)...GPU: SGX543MP4+"

Translation: an advanced ARM central processing unit (CPU) with four processing cores and an equally advanced graphics processing unit (GPU) from Imagination Technologies, also with four cores.

"That's pretty leading edge," said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at the Linley Group, a chip consulting firm. "We're starting to see some other quad-core, and [Nvidia's] Tegra 3 is supposed to be quad-core," he said. Nvidia's Tegra 3 is expected to be announced at Mobile World Congress next month.

And how fast might that be? "Sony is providing consumers with a mobile device with about four times the CPU and GPU performance of an iPhone 4," said Joe Byrne, a senior analyst at the Linley Group.

All this horsepower present challenges, however, as ARM has traditionally been an extremely power-frugal architecture based on a single processing core. But now, that design is being bulked up with four cores. "There are a couple of issues. One is the heat coming out of it. And the other is battery life," Gwennap said. "Putting it in a tablet or smartphone, you might dial up a Web page, fire up the four cores, get the thing rendered, then shut them (the four cores) down again."

Gwennap continued. "In a game environment, it's going to be interesting to see how they manage that. When you're playing a game you just don't start and stop. So, they need to figure out a way to keep those four cores running without generating too much heat and without draining the battery. But you can always turn something on, turn something off. It depends on the needs of that particular game."

But a speedy main processor is only half the story. Imagination's quad-core SGX543 GPU is a radical departure from previous versions, according to Peter McGuinness, director of business environment at Imagination. "The [new] version has a wider data path so, it's got twice the shader throughput," he said. Shader refers to the software instructions used to calculate rendering effects. "The emphasis now is on the number of shader instructions you can execute per clock"--or number of instructions per each tick of the processor cycle.

McGuinness continued. "Each core has multiple shader pipelines. The 535--which Intel used originally in its Menlow [Atom processor]--that has two shader pipelines. The Samsung Galaxy S...that's an SGX540. That has four shader pipelines. The 543 has the same number of pipelines but each pipeline is twice as powerful. The [quad-core graphics chip] in the Sony machine would be roughly eight times as powerful as [the Samsung Galaxy S]," he said.

And it remains to be seen how all of this new chip technology compares with the silicon inside the current PSP. That Sony chip uses two MIPS32 R4000 CPUs with embedded graphics. But you can bet that Sony will have no qualms about leaving the current PSP in the dust.