As you probably know by now, the PS4 is essentially a $ 400 PC. It has an x86 PC CPU, a standard PC GPU, and the same kind of RAM that you’d find on a PC graphics card. There are a few custom chips on the PS4′s motherboard, but for the most part it’s just a normal PC with some custom software. This led me to wonder… could you actually build a comparable PC for $ 400? More importantly, given how Sony has crippled the PS4′s home theatre functionality, is it possible to build a PC for $ 400 that is actually better for games and as a living room media box?
To answer that question, we first need to agree on the PS4′s hardware specification. It has a motherboard, an AMD APU (8-core Jaguar CPU + GPU on the same chip), 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and a PSU. The PS4 also has WiFi and Bluetooth — and we’ll also need a case, of course. I think it’ll be very hard to build a PC with the same specification for $ 400, but we’ll see.
Setting some ground rules
From the get-go, we have a problem: The APU in the PS4 is unique. It pairs an 8-core Jaguar CPU with, essentially, the Radeon HD 7850. The best AMD APU currently on the market (the Richland A10-6800K) has about one third of the processing power of the PS4′s GPU. There are no 8-core Jaguar parts on the market — only the quad-core Kabini A6-5200, which is paired with an even weaker GPU than the A10. Kaveri, when it comes to market in January 2014, will be a closer match — but the PS4 will still have around twice the graphics grunt. In short, we’re forced to use a CPU and discrete GPU. It just got a lot harder to hit our $ 400 target.
The other big problem is the 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, which has an utterly insane peak bandwidth of 176 gigabytes per second. There is no way to build a PC with such a configuration. In the PS4, the RAM is used by both the CPU and GPU in a HSA 2.0 configuration, providing a sizable speed boost – an option that isn’t available to the PC world until Kaveri launches. It’s important to note that even if we could slot some GDDR5 RAM into a PC motherboard, it would probably be much more expensive than conventional DDR3.
Can you build a PS4-alike PC for $ 400?
We’ll be using Newegg for component prices, because that’s our components supplier of choice when we build new rigs here in the ExtremeTech bunker.
- Motherboard: ASRock H61M-DGS ($ 50). A no-frills motherboard, but you get integrated Gigabit Ethernet and 6-channel audio. It only supports DDR3 1600 RAM, but that’s a compromise we’re forced to make.
- CPU: Intel Celeron G1610 ($ 50). This chip is only a dual-core, but for lightly threaded workloads it has comparable theoretical performance to the PS4′s 8-core Jaguar CPU.
- GPU: Asus HD7850-DC-1GD5 ($ 140, or $ 120 after rebate).
- RAM: Kingston HyperX Black 8GB ($ 65). This stuff is DDR3 1600 — which has a fraction of the bandwidth of the PS4′s GDDR5.
- Storage: 500GB Samsung Spinpoint M8 ($ 55). 500GB of 2.5-inch storage goodness.
- Other: USB Bluetooth + WiFi dongle ($ 11)
- Case and power supply: Apex DM-387 Micro ATX case ($ 45). This bad boy is cheap, includes a PSU, and can stand on its side — like the PS4!
Total cost: $ 416, or $ 396 after rebate
So, there you have it: It is just about possible to build a PS4-comparable PC for $ 400. You make a lot of concessions, though: We haven’t included the price of an operating system, nor a keyboard/mouse/gamepad. The DM-387 case is a lot bigger than the PS4. There’s no optical drive, so you’re forced to load games via USB or digitally download them via Steam. But everyone has an old copy of Windows XP/7 and a spare Xbox 360 or DualShock gamepad kicking around, right?
Overall, I am very surprised at how close we got to the PS4 for $ 400, especially when Sony says it’s losing $ 60 per console. If we had a budget of $ 460, we could’ve got a nicer case or a much faster CPU. There are some who will point to the drastically different RAM, but in reality, with 1GB of GDDR5 on the graphics card, the real-world difference between the PS4 and our $ 400 PC will be marginal.
For $ 400, then, you can have a PC with PS4-like performance that’s (probably) capable of playing the same games at similar resolution and detail levels. The PS4 will likely have an advantage because games can be specifically tailored towards the console’s hardware provisions, but good, high-budget PC ports should be almost comparable. For $ 400, you also get a full-fat PC that can play every file type you throw at it, either locally, via the LAN, or streaming video/music from a website.