Sony has delivered a console cheaper than its predecessor at launch, but expected to last for at least ten Christmases.
With the PS4 having passed two million sales worldwide at'time of writing, and not due for Japanese release until February, it seems to have plugged into gamers and consumers more generally with'that combination of traditional Sony qualities present in previous versions of Playstation.
At launch, with a pre-VAT price of '244 and '290 in the UK, the PS4 is less eye-wateringly expensive than the PS3 appeared at its launch in 2006. It is also significantly cheaper than the Xbox One, with its pre-VAT UK price of '357.
Get inside the device and that's where things get more interesting. Sony has historically sold gaming consoles at a loss. On the initial release of the PS4 it will continue to do so, but that may soon change.
According to the IHS Teardown Analysis Service, the'combined unit cost of hardware components and manufacturing for the first generation PS4 is $381 ('233). The'cost of software development, including the Orbis operating system, will undoubtedly push the averaged-out cost per unit back'above $399 ('244). Marketing will then add another chunk. Orbis is a modified version of FreeBSD 9.0. FreeBSD is a free version of BSD Unix.
However, the PS4 is likely to undergo multiple revisions, with Sony CEO Kaz Hirai talking of a target 10-year life-cycle for the product line. Each of these will slice away cost and bring the console towards profitability in its own right, rather than as a 'shop window' for the better margins available on games. For price comparison, the 2009 PS3 revision carried hardware costs of $336 ('205) against a $299 ('183) retail price.
"Sony is on a greatly shortened path to the hardware break-even point, or even profitability, with its cost-conscious PS4 design," says'Andrew Rassweiler, IHS's senior director for Cost Benchmarking Services. "The company is pulling off this feat, despite offering a brand new design that once again includes avant-garde components that yield super-fast performance.
"The PS4 keeps a lid on costs by focusing all the additional cost on the processor and memory, and reducing outlays for the optical drive, the hard disk drive and other subsystems."
Roughly 50 per cent of the device hardware cost is accounted for by just two things: the integrated CPU/GPU system-on-chip from AMD, and a shift to advanced Graphics DRAM (GDDR5), aimed at giving the console plenty of headroom for upgrades. For that last goal, Sony has also added a number of custom chips to carry some of the processing load away from the main chip.
That AMD chip also marks a shift in strategy away from the Cell Broadband Engine that Sony'developed with IBM and Toshiba for the PS3. Although it delivered a superb gaming experience for its time, Cell came'to be regarded as something of a white elephant in'the semiconductor business: it'cost so much to design that, even with PS3 sales, it needed to find other large volume markets, but didn't.
The PS4 processing engine is a masterpiece of integration. It combines an eight-core (2 x four-core), 64bit CPU based on AMD's existing Jaguar x86 family, with an 18-compute unit, 1.84TFlop AMD Radeon GPU. It is produced on a 28nm process with a die size of more than 350mm2. So, this is state-of-the-art stuff but also a modular combination of widely available technology. Cell was the very definition of 'custom'.
This main SoC is not cheap. Each probably costs around $100. But semiconductor process shrinks will bring that down significantly and quickly.
As noted, the shift to GDDR5-based memory is a headroom decision. The standard 8GB of GDDR5 is 16 times the RAM found in the PS3. However, this comes at quite a cost. According to IHS, DRAM for the PS3's fourth (and final) generation revision cost $9.80 ('6). The GDDR5 costs $88 ('54), though semiconductor economics should also see that number fall over time. But this is about the future.
"GDRAM DDR5 memory has'much higher bandwidth than'the DDR3 used in the Xbox One. It also works better with parallel computing and is designed specifically to enhance graphics performance," says Mike Howard, IHS senior principal analyst for DRAM and'memory.
Sony has had to economise elsewhere. There have been reductions in both component count and materials, despite the sleek exterior design. Alongside this, though, there have been claims that the main unit wobbles if you push down on the glossed side of its two panel-cover (though largely discounted). Further, there have been instances of the outer enclosure and the HDMI port not combining properly, preventing a working cable connection.
A reasonable response here is to assume that these are teething troubles rather than the result of cheese-paring.
More interesting is Sony's decision to go with a standard HDD. The iFixit Teardown team found a 5400RPM, 50GB SATA II drive inside the PS4 they dismantled and studied.
"Not only is this hard drive user-replaceable, but it's a standard 2.5in (laptop-sized) SATA drive, meaning you can replace or upgrade your storage with any off-the-shelf drive you like, so long as it meets these standards: no thicker than 9.5mm and no smaller than 160GB," explains iFixit's Walter Galan.
"Users rejoice," says Galan, though he did add a caveat. "But it's a bittersweet expansion win.The PS4 will not support external USB storage, drastically limiting the console's usefulness as a media centre."
And, for all its strengths, there's one other noteworthy limitation about the PS4. Sony has brought down the cost of the console's optical drive to $28 ('17) from $66 ('40), according to IHS. But, overall, the unit is not compatible out-of-the-box with pre-PS4 generation games. Sony is looking to resolve this with online cloud-based emulation through the Gaikai streaming service.
So, you can't have everything - but consumers seem to agree that at these prices and capabilities, the PS4 still has plenty to offer.