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In Theory: Will Apple Launch a Home Games Console?

Digital Foundry presents the evidence for a WWDC/E3 reveal

Will Nintendo's Project Cafe be the only new hardware launch we have to look forwards to during the upcoming E3 event? Conceivably, could Apple be next in line to launch a new home console?

The notion of the Cupertino-based superpower launching into direct competition with Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft may seem like a step outside of its comfort zone, but there's little doubt whatsoever that something is afoot: in the last few months, Apple has made a series of calculated moves suggesting it is planning big things for the games market.

To begin with, let's consider two important appointments that the UK arm of Apple has made in the last few weeks. Nintendo UK's head of communications Rob Saunders is set to move across to join the iOS platform holder, while Activision's erstwhile European PR director Nick Grange has also been recruited - both in yet-to-be officially confirmed roles.

To all intents and purposes then, this is a new hardware platform targeted directly at the games industry.

The recruitment of one games industry veteran with a CV like Saunders' should be considered a very serious statement of intent for the games market, but the notion of Grange being involved too suggests that this is much more than a single, high-ranking games exec looking for a new challenge. The appointment of both men looks for all the world like a new, aggressive, exciting approach to the business from Apple.

The next piece of evidence to factor in is the timing of Apple's next major conference. WWDC 2011 takes place between June 6-11 in San Francisco, clashing directly with E3. It's a turn of events that could simply be coincidence of course (last year's WWDC kicked off on June 7) but it also represents an opportunity Apple is unlikely to pass up. The event is tantalisingly described as heralding the future of both OSX and iOS and games are almost certain to be an important aspect of the mix.

These two elements in combination with a much more open approach from Apple to the games press in recent months strongly suggest that something big is happening, but making the jump to a full-blown console launch perhaps seems like a case of speculation gone mad. However, the final factor - the make-up of Apple's most recent hardware design - adds further fuel to the fire.

While most reviews of the iPad 2 conclude that it is little more than an incremental upgrade from the original device, Anand Lal Shimpi and his team over at Anandtech know the score. The latest iteration of the tablet and the make-up of its A5 SoC processor in particular, represent a gigantic leap in performance over both iPad 1 and iPhone 4, and sets new standards in graphical performance compared to just about any other mobile device out there.

A5's jump from a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 to a dual core A9 configuration is a significant upgrade in its own right, but the GPU upgrade is more important still and is the true differentiating factor between iPad 2 and its competitors, from a hardware perspective at least. The PowerVR SGX535 found in all iOS devices from the iPhone 3GS onwards is gone, replaced by a dual core SGX543 MP2, a piece of tech that manages to outperform every mainstream mobile GPU currently out there.

The Unreal Engine-powered Epic Citadel ran with an exceptionally variable frame-rate on the original iPad. On the new A5-powered successor, we see a fairly constant 35FPS in this analysis captured via the HDMI mirroring function of the new tablet. Frame-rate is almost certainly being capped in this instance.

"Our Series5XT architecture (SGX543/544/554) is a significant mid-life update to the Series5 architecture (SGX520/530/531/535/540) which was driven based on market and customer feedback," Imagination Technologies tells us.

"Key in this feedback was increased interest in compute performance both for GP-GPU via OpenCL but also for higher-quality pixels via more complex shaders as a result we doubled the floating point performance per pipeline in the newer cores while maintaining efficiency via co-issue (dual instruction) capabilities... Most of the other changes are much lower level and focused on improving the efficiency of the design including both improved performance and further reduced bandwidth usage - a specific area of focus has been anti-aliasing and polygon throughput."

With the base architecture has improved significantly, moving to a dual core configuration offers a 2x performance boost on top of that.

"Yes, graphics cores are inherently parallel processors which means that they work on data independently (one pixel does not impact the processing of another pixel)," IMG says, "which means that performance can be scaled near linear compared to CPUs where adding more cores often gives a very low return [where] data does depend on the processing of other data elements."

The proof of the pudding is in the benchmarks where anything from a 3x to 7x performance boost can be seen in like-for-like tests carried out versus the original iPad: not quite the 9x figure mooted by Apple but colossal nonetheless.

Bearing in mind Apple's dominance in the smartphone and tablet markets, a spec revision as drastic as this is extraordinary. Based on its existing business, there is no real need whatsoever for this level of GPU power: there's a strong argument that Apple already "owns" the mobile gaming space via the iTunes App Store. An incremental update to GPU power would have sufficed but the generational leap offered by A5 strongly suggests a much more aggressive approach: to all intents and purposes then, this is a new hardware platform targeted directly at the games industry.

Richard Leadbetter avatar
Richard Leadbetter: Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.