The next generation is //not// nearly upon us. It will be several years before any of the current console manufacturer's come out with new hardware, and a couple years, at the least, before such hardware is announced. Hardware progress has slowed down immensely in the past near-decade, and shows no signs of picking up. Parallelism has "taken over" the speed gauntlet from clock frequency, and it requires more raw hardware, and a different programming paradigm, for even a modest upgrade.
Compounding the issues with hardware advancement, are the facts that the "next gen" will not face the same advancement hurdles that this generation did. There will likely not be a new video standard, so a new storage medium (past Blu-Ray) will not be needed. Rising development costs further inhibit the need to fill so much disc space, and evidence goes to show that rare few HD games can justify 50 GB of space, although certainly more than 9 GB seems worthwhile. HDTV is still solidifying its place in the market, and once it does, will likely not be replaced for many years -- 1080p is the target of the next gen, and its not as big a leap from current hardware as 720p was from the last generation.
That said, rumors still abound. In this post, I'm going to take a closer look at the hardware battle each of the current-gen manufacturers have to face, in their effort to enter the "next gen". I'm a "random internet gaming hardware expert", and I'm not going to expound on the source of my knowledge on some random internet forum, so take this with a grain of salt. These aren't rumors from any sort of "official" source, they are pure speculation on my part, posted for the ponderings of the reader only. Take it or leave it, as you will, and comment freely.
For fun, I'm going to go in order that I think these platforms may come to light. Honestly I don't have a lot of honest backing for this order -- just a gut feeling. So bear with me.
Nintendo: the Wii HD
Nintendo has a sweet deal going with the Wii. Their audience consists of, largely, an entirely new crowd of casual gamers, as well as a small legion of Nintendo gaming fanatics, and of course, tons of kids. The Wii has, by a longshot, the easiest upgrade path going into the next gen, and likewise, the least barriers.
The Nintendo Wii is the "last" in a long line of consoles which adhere to the single-core, single-process paradigm. In a sense, it belongs, technologically, in about the year 2002 -- yet it still sells like hotcakes in the year 2010. When I say Nintendo has the easiest upgrade path to the next-gen, I'm thinking -- they could choose to do so, at any time.
The 360 proved that DVD-9 is plenty of space for HD gaming, and Nintendo has never liked large storage mediums. The Wii HD could have a DVD-9 drive, much like the Wii, and not really suffer any serious consequence. Likewise, the single-core paradigm has plenty of room to grow in the Wii -- the 743 MHz PowerPC inside could very easily up upgraded to a 3 GHz PowerPC, and still retain 100% backwards compatibility, which is oh-so-important for early adoption rates of any console. Improving the graphics chipset inside the current Wii architecture, to again retain BC, will be a little more difficult, if 720p HD gaming is desired, but its very doable.
Almost every aspect of the Wii is *easily upgradable* to HD standards, while still adhering to the Nintendo standard of several HW cycle backwards compatibility, and the "other" Nintendo standard -- make it cheaply, and make profits off hardware.
Nintendo has the power to upgrade when they choose, and they'll do it precisely when the market demands it -- no sooner, no later.
The Wii HD:
* 2.8 GHz, single-core PowerPC with 2 HW threads and SMT, 1M L2 cache. Will have out-of-order execution, and decent branch prediction.
* 600 MHz programmable graphics chipset, with flexible pipelines, and a pre-made API to emulate the fixed functionality of the current Wii and the GC. 16 MB eDRAM frame buffer on the chip, for full 720p gaming with goodies like AA.
* 256MB RAM, 256MB VRAM
* DVD-9 drive
* 100% BC with the Wii and GameCube
Microsoft: the "Xbox 720" (they won't call it that)
Microsoft has created a monster in the X360 -- a fantastically powerful console for its time, it will be near-impossible to emulate on any architecture of the future that will also be cheap enough to put into a console. Lucky for Microsoft, CPU power has proven itself secondary to GPU power, in the games race... although it certainly can't be discounted.
By adopting a Nintendo-like approach to the next console generation -- not increasing console power that much, and keeping the console cheap -- they stand a good chance of accomplishing all of their goals. Emerge before the competition, hit the shelves affordably, sell to the majority, namely families and kids, keep the XBox brand alive, and most importantly, keep Microsoft in the living room.
Microsoft is all about conquest, and making money, and not about giving the ultimate entertainment experience. This attitude will keep them in the living room for a long while to come, even if it upsets some of the more hardcore MS gaming crowd.
The XBox 720:
CPU: Hex-core 3.0 GHz PowerPC, with "turbo" which allows up to 3 cores to run at 3.2 GHz, and a single core to run at 3.8 GHz, when other cores are running at lower frequencies. 2 HW threads per core, 3MB L2 cache. Will have out-of-order execution, and decent branch prediction, unlike the current Xenon.
GPU: A 600 MHz "Xenos 2", with twice the flexible pipelines, and 16MB eDRAM. Enough to run 720p HD flawlessly with AA, and 1080p decently.
Memory: 1GB unified
100% BC with XBox 360, and partial XBox BC.
Sony: The PlayStation 4 (they probably will call it that)
Sony is a company which revolves around its marketshare concepts (like many companies) -- one of which is "premium user experience". Sony is a premium brand name, and they will never, ever, change that dictum, because doing so would damage their brand name, and its meaning to the consumer. Thus, the PlayStation 4's release will not come before its time... it will come when the PlayStation 3 is reaching the end of its lifespan, and no sooner. (not necessarily directly related to competition!)
Sony made a grand plan for themselves with the PS3, when it comes to hardware -- perhaps too grand. Only now are many developers finally embracing the powerful Cell architecture.. is it soon enough to have not influenced the PS4's design? I'm going to play devil's advocate and say NO. At this point, retaining the Cell would be the cheapest, most effective path to the next gen, and I actually think Sony should stick with it. Losing PS3 BC would be a nightmarish reset on the PlayStation brand, and frankly, by the time the PS4 releases, the Cell concept will be so hardened into the minds of the games industry, that a Cell 2 is certainly not an obstacle. I'm going to put a twist on this one though. Lets make it a Cell/standard CPU hybrid.
The PlayStation 4:
CPU: "Cell Hybrid", 8-core, dual-threaded PowerPC PPU with 8 SPU processors, at 2.8 GHz. "Turbo" mode allows for 1 PPU core and 7 SPUs to run at 3.2 GHz, as well as dynamic overclocking for other usage patterns. SPUs still have 256K localstore, and 1 is reserved by the system, leaving 7 available to developers (as opposed to the PS3's 6).
GPU: 600 MHz unified shader chipset, with 512 thread-warped pipes. BC with RSX, via disabling the thread warping.
Memory: 1GB XDR2 RAM, 512MB VRAM
Drive: Blu-Ray.. there won't be a new video standard to support yet, although larger-than-50GB BD formats may be supported.
Leave a message, tell me your thoughts... but explain yourself. Think through your ideas carefully. Give an educated reason as to why you think I'm wrong or right, if possible.