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PlayStation 4 whips the PC

As the wars between console manufacturers begins to heat up, GEOFFREY TIM, speaks to the Sony PlayStation 4 lead architect, Mark Cerny, to find out how they have improved the next generation console.

The next generation wars are heating up. Microsoft has announced that they’ll be ready to show the world the next Xbox on May 21 and we’ve heard a fair deal about Sony’s PlayStation 4, including details of its architecture.

Speaking to technology magazine, Gamasutra, Sony’s PlayStation 4 lead architect, Mark Cerny, has gone in to a little more depth about the design choices that were made in designing the system’s innards, which they’re calling ‚”Supercharged PC architecture.‚”

What the heck do they mean by supercharged? Well, it’s all a little technical and complicated but Cerny and Sony’s other hardware engineers have spent long hours trying to come up with a system that isn’t held back by the sort of bottlenecks you get on PCs.

“A typical PC GPU has two buses,”” said Cerny. “”There’s a bus the GPU uses to access VRAM, and there is a second bus that goes over the PCI Express that the GPU uses to access system memory. But whichever bus is used, the internal caches of the GPU become a significant barrier to CPU/GPU communication ‚Äî any time the GPU wants to read information the CPU wrote, or the GPU wants to write information so that the CPU can see it, time-consuming flushes of the GPU internal caches are required.‚””

So how does one get around that sort of thing? According to Cerny, they’ve made three fundamental changes to the architecture, to make it more efficient.

¬∑ “”Firstly, we added another bus to the GPU that allows it to read directly from system memory or write directly to system memory, bypassing its own L1 and L2 caches. As a result, if the data that’s being passed back and forth between CPU and GPU is small, you don’t have issues with synchronization between them anymore. And by small, I just mean small in next-gen terms. We can pass almost 20 gigabytes a second down that bus. That’s not very small in today’s terms ‚Äî it’s larger than the PCI express on most PCs!

¬∑ “”Next, to support the case where you want to use the GPU L2 cache simultaneously for both graphics processing and asynchronous compute, we have added a bit in the tags of the cache lines, we call it the ‚’volatile’ bit. You can then selectively mark all accesses by compute as ‚’volatile,’ and when it’s time for compute to read from system memory, it can invalidate, selectively, the lines it uses in the L2. When it comes time to write back the results, it can write back selectively the lines that it uses. This innovation allows compute to use the GPU L2 cache and perform the required operations without significantly impacting the graphics operations going on at the same time. In other words, it radically reduces the overhead of running compute and graphics together on the GPU.””

¬∑ Thirdly, said Cerny, “”The original AMD GCN architecture allowed for one source of graphics commands, and two sources of compute commands. For PS4, we’ve worked with AMD to increase the limit to 64 sources of compute commands ‚Äî the idea is if you have some asynchronous compute you want to perform, you put commands in one of these 64 queues, and then there are multiple levels of arbitration in the hardware to determine what runs, how it runs, and when it runs, alongside the graphics that’s in the system.””

You can quite plainly see that Sony’s hardware architects have put a heck of a lot of thought (of the forward-thinking variety) in to the system, and have learned from their past mistakes. The PS4 is going to be a beast, utilising a custom designed, more efficient take on existing PC hardware that should be an absolute dream for game developers.

There’s a lot more to it in Gamasutra’s 3-page in-depth look at what the PS4 offers and it’s well worth a look if you’re even remotely interested in the PS4’s hardware.

* Article courtesy of Lazygamer.net. Follow Geoffrey Tim on Twitter on @WobblyOnion

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Race to 8K TV is on

TV brands are all rolling-out 8K displays. Even if you don’t want it, the race is real, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

It’s the most near-perfect technology ever for watching TV, but there is almost no reason for the average consumer to invest in it. It’s called 8K, and it offers double the resolution of the current high-end, known as 4K, which itself offers twice the resolution of regular high-definition TV.

It sounds incredible, and it is. One has to step right up to an 8K screen, with ones nose almost to the glass, before one can see the tiny grid that makes up the display pattern.  Where HD has 1920 horizontal lines down the TV screen, 4K has 3840, and 8K 7680 lines. When multiplied by vertical lines – HD at 1080, 4k at 2160 and 8K at 4320 – one sees an exponential increase in the number of pixels. These light elements that make up the picture leap from 2-million in HD to 33-million in 8K.

There is one fundamental problem with this dramatic leap in display technology: the world of content has yet to catch up with it. So, unless one has money to burn and an appetite for showing off, there is little point in buying an 8K set – for now.

What it really represents is the TV manufacturing industry demonstrating both its readiness for the content revolution, and its ability to lead in technology. This means that, because a Samsung or LG unveils an 8K unit,  consumers will have their perception of that company’s technology leadership reinforced, and feel more compelled to buy one of their lower-end TVs.

The further reality is that the new cutting edge technology that gets announced today is the mainstream technology three years from now and the entry-level in five to ten years. When the first OLED display was unveiled by Sony at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a decade ago, a tablet-sized screen would have cost $20 000, or nearly R300 000 in today’s money. Yet, the same technology is now available in large-screen TVs for less than R10,000. A few years on, Samsung and LG unveiled the next big thing, Quantum Dot TV screens, at well over R50,000. Now Samsung’s version, called QLED, and HiSense, with ULED, are available for under R10 000.

In other words, the price of the cutting edge keeps coming down, and each new cutting edge drops in price faster than the one before.

So, when Samsung announced recently that it’s new QLED 4K and 8K TV models will be available at select retailers in South Africa from this month, it wasn’t mere hype.

Samsung argued that the 2019 editions of the Q80 and Q90 feature “Ultra Viewing Angle technology, which restructures the TV’s panels so the backlight passes through the panel with lights evenly onto the screen”.

The Q70, Q80, and Q90 models offer “Direct Full Array technology that uses a panel featuring concentrated zones of precision-controlled LEDs”. These adjust automatically to display deeper blacks and purer whites, delivering dramatically improved contrast.

Users of the Q900 model series won’t have to wait for content to be made in 8K format either. It uses the company’s Quantum Processor 8K to “up-scale” lower resolution content to 8K and optimises audio and video to the specific content on the screen.

In the same way, the QLED 4K models feature Quantum Processor 4K, which up-scales HD to improve brightness, picture quality and sound, based on each individual scene.

Meanwhile, at a Global Press Conference in Andalusia, Spain, last month, the organisers of the annual IFA tech fest in Berlin gave the media a sneak preview of what to expect at the event in September. Top of the list was 8K TV.

Hisense and Skyworth both signalled their intentions to join the 8K TV technology race, but at a far more affordable level than the industry leaders.

Hisense showcased the 74U9E 8K TV, a 75-inch monster that is due to be launched in China this year, and is likely to come to South Africa early next year.

It offers improved contrast and more vivid colours over the previous Hisense U range TV, while sound is integrated, with a subwoofer embedded into the stand of the TV. Like the Samsung 8K machines, the display dynamically upscales 4K content in real time.

At the IFA press conference, Skyworth showcased its 8K TVs via German TV brand Metz, which it acquired last year. The company offers a “premium-affordable” sub-brand called Metz Blue and, startlingly, this low-cost brand was chosen to showcase 8K TV, meaning it will reach the mass market even more quickly than previous high-end technologies.

With Skyworth having brought the first Android-based TV to South Africa last year, it came as no surprise that its new S9A 8K OLED is an Android TV, combining vivid picture colour with Android TV functionality. As Gadget’s Bryan Turner, who attended the event, put it: “Witnessing the 8K and OLED combination was incredible and felt like getting a new set of glasses.”

It supports the latest streaming apps, and can be controlled via the voice-controlled Google Assistant, which is available on most Android phones. 

In short, 8K is on a fast-track to our living rooms, at a speed never seen before in cutting edge TV.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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5G is a great enabler, but beware of its challenges

By JACQUES VISSER, head of wireless at Vox

Digital transformation is rapidly changing the way in which we live, work, and play, and upcoming 5G technology will be crucial in providing the level of connectivity that will improve user experiences and expand broadband wireless services beyond mobile internet.

5G will stand on three primary pillars namely massive type communication, enhanced mobile broadband and ultra-reliable low latency communications. The biggest challenge is whether we will succeed in providing it at an affordable price to a broad base and beyond the already well-serviced metro areas. 

With its very low latency communication, the technology enables business use cases such as remote access for high availability sites, and mission-critical applications like medical equipment, augmented reality, Internet Protocol TV, and even connected self-driving cars. For the consumer market, this benefit will be especially appealing to gamers.

In addition, 5G is being seen as a true enabler of the Internet of Things, with applications in healthcare, retail, energy and utilities, industrial automation, intelligent buildings and infrastructure, and public safety and surveillance. 

We are optimistic that fixed-wireless “5G” services will be launched by late 2019, enabling operators to provide broadband services with the use of radio spectrum. With its high throughput, businesses – especially smaller ones that are more nimble – are likely to be the first adopters, with fixed-wireless 5G being used to link their internal corporate networks using solutions such as Software Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN).

However, home users with dozens of connected devices – with family members surfing the web, streaming HD videos, playing online games, and making online voice and video calls – are unlikely to shift away from their existing fibre connections any time soon. As such, 5G is not going to replace fibre, but rather complement it, by giving users a high-speed, low-latency broadband connection even when they are on the move. In addition, business users can make use of multiple connection types – and even service providers – to ensure redundancy.

Getting from concept to mainstream

The industry is still waiting on a decision from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) on what spectrum will be allocated for the use of 5G, but we are hoping that a decision will be made by the end of the year. 

While the 5G standards have yet to be finalised, there are only a limited number of bands which can be used, and a number of operators around the globe – and in SA – are already running trials. The most prominent band options currently under consideration are so-called low band below 2GHz, middle band 2GHz to 6Ghz and high band above 6 GHz.

Comsol Networks performed a proof of concept in Soweto on their 5G deployment in 2018, and achieved more than 1GBps throughput speed using the 28GHz spectrum, while Rain has recently announced at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona that they would roll out their 5G network in mid-2019. As a reseller of wireless connectivity services, Vox is monitoring these developments closely, and will seek to be involved once commercial services are launched.

It is expected that the Minister of Communications will provide the government’s policy guidelines with regard to the allocation of spectrum soon. This is a critical requirement to plan Mobile Network Operator (MNO) networks for 5G and to expand broadband services on 3G in rural areas. It is well known that some of the state-owned enterprises like Eskom and Transnet are in possession of fibre infrastructure running through rural areas, and there is an expectation from service providers in South Africa that the government will make this unproductive fibre available to provide broadband services in those areas. 

The required end-user devices will start appearing before long too; at the MWC, several manufacturers unveiled their 5G compatible smartphones and consumer premises equipment, which will become available in the market later in the year.

What can hold back widespread deployment?

There are still some major hurdles to the widespread deployment of 5G in South Africa, the biggest of which is the coverage area. Due to the frequencies being used, each base station can only cover a small area as compared to existing cellular technologies, meaning that there has to be a considerable investment in the rollout of additional base stations.

In addition, having a higher throughput needs to be matched with a backhaul link of similar capacity; with each 5G base station requiring up to a 10GBps connection, coverage will be restricted to areas with the fibre connectivity required to receive and transmit such large volumes of data.

It is likely that 5G coverage will initially be limited to areas where there is both a concentration of users, and the availability of fibre networks for backhaul – meaning city centres and other dense urban areas. Currently, it is not financially feasible for this technology to be deployed to smaller towns or rural areas.

Despite these challenges, there is a reason to be optimistic: South Africa ranks among the top 25 countries in the world in terms of quality of GSM networks, primarily as a result of having multinational telecommunications providers investing substantially in the country. Similarly, one can expect that the local commercial 5G networks, once up and running, will be of a world class standard too, ensuring that local users get to benefit from high-bandwidth, low latency connectivity that will fuel South Africa’s growth in the digital age.

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