Sony Seems Ridiculously Proud Of The PS5's SSD

An artist’s interpretation of the PS5 dev console. (Illustration: Benjamin Currie, Gizmodo)

Wired has yet another exclusive look at the Sony PS5. This morning Wired’s Peter Rubin detailed a recent visit to Sony’s California HQ where he checked out a dev console, played a few demos, and got a few more details on the PS5 — including release date and ray tracing facts. But the bulk of the piece — and seemingly the bulk of the message Sony is trying to convey — is that solid-state drives are fucking sick.

First, let’s run down the non-SSD facts learned. Wired reports they sampled a series of demos on a dev console an awful lot like the one we reported on last week. (Wired asked Sony about the Gizmodo story, which included a tipster’s claims about CPU and GPU performance, but Sony declined to comment.)

The purpose of the demo was to showcase much improved haptic feedback in the next generation of controllers. Wired’s Rubin reported that “[s]and felt slow and sloggy; mud felt slow and soggy,” when the user moves through the various virtual materials using Sony’s latest controller.

That improved haptic feedback sounds quite similar to Nintendo’s HD Rumble feature found in Joy-Cons. Hopefully, Sony can get more adoption of the feature than Nintendo — who has struggled to get HD rumble on anything apart from first-party games.

Sony’s Mark Cerny, the lead architect on the PS4, Vita and PS5, also mentioned ray tracing and confirmed that the new console would have hardware-based ray tracing acceleration. This has been theorised for some time, and the chief benefit of hardware ray tracing acceleration versus software tricks is that you can do a whole lot more ray tracing and rely on far fewer hacks.

Typically, there are three sorts of “tiers” of raying tracing. The top tier is full reflection — rays of light are cast from a source and bounce around the digital scene similar to how real light operates. You can see your character’s reflecting, or even the glare of the sun. The computer has to monitor every individual ray of light from its source to its final point and that’s extremely processor-intensive and really only possible in real-time with hardware acceleration.

Slightly less processor-intensive is shadows. Instead of tracing each ray of light for its entire path, including off of reflective materials, this kind of ray tracing is primarily to make shadows much more realistic. Each ray of light is traced until it meets an obstruction — person, tree, car, gun, etc. The absence of rays of light then creates far more realistic shadows such as in this Nvidia demo for Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It can be done primarily through software, but it’s far easier to do with hardware.

The final, and least costly, form of ray tracing is ambient occlusion. You already often see a software-based version of this kind of ray tracing, but its theoretically easier to do with hardware. Ambient occlusion is tracing ambient light from sources to the surrounding room, usually in the form of very soft shadows around objects. Think of the way neon lights in a game might make a whole room glow until you take those lights out.

Cerny didn’t mention any of the three kinds of ray tracing, but Laure Miele, chief studio officer for EA, namechecked both ambient occlusion and shadow-based ray tracing before talking about her favourite aspect of the GPU — its AI component. “More generally, we’re seeing the GPU be able to power machine learning for all sorts of really interesting advancements in the gameplay and other tools,” she told Wired.

But for Miele, Cerny, and the handful of developers Sony authorised to speak with Wired, the biggest and coolest new feature of the PS5 is the SSD.

That is ostensibly a very silly thing to get excited about when these people are talking about a new generation of AI and graphic tools powered by AMD and Sony’s next-generation graphics. Storage drives? Really? That’s the thing EA and studios like Bluepoint Games are stoked about?

But it does kind of make sense. The console industry has been super slow to adopt fast storage. When the PS4 launched back in 2013 solid-state storage was still pretty costly. A 500GB SSD would have shot up the already high price of the original PS4. That’s why the PS4, as well as the newer PS4 Pro, have relied on traditional hard drives — specifically 5400rpm drives — some of the cheapest and slowest drives available.

Sony isn’t the only one that’s guilty of embracing slow drives to cut costs. Microsoft also packs terribly slow, but big, hard drives into its consoles. Nintendo is the outlier and uses a solid-state drive in the Switch, but the Switch also only has 32GB of onboard storage—about 6-per cent of the storage standard in Sony’s cheapest PS4.

The problem with this cost-cutting measure is that solid-state storage is typically one of the cheapest and biggest speed upgrades you can put in a laptop or desktop. And the exact same is true for consoles too. Back in 2016 I switched out the 500GB HDD in my PS4 for a smaller SSD and saw my boot times drop by two-thirds.

I have no memory of making this chart, but apparently I did! (Image: Alex Cranz, Gizmodo)

Since 2016 we’ve seen some pretty significant advances in the speed of solid-state drives. Plus the cost of solid-state drives has continued to drop. We’ve also seen AMD improve its support for the faster protocols necessary to take advantage of that speed. Newer SSDs rely on something called Non-Volatile Memory express (NVMe) which relies on the PCIe bus to move data faster than the traditional SATA connectors the PS4 and older laptops and computers rely on. PCIe matters because AMD has made a very big deal about support PCIe 4.0 a brand new version of the PCIe bus that’s so fast very few storage systems can actually take advantage of the speed.

Neither Sony or AMD has suggested that the PS5 will support the kind of speed found in PCIe 4.0. It’s more likely that it will instead rely on the very stable (and still pretty fast) PCIe 3.0 bus commonly found in modern laptops and desktops.

Either way that really is going to be a major speed boost for the PS5. Is it enough to warrant the glowing praise found in Wired’s piece? That remains to be seen. We’ll know by the holidays of 2020 though. That’s when Sony expects to launch the PS5.

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