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If you look at the hardware specs of the PS3 (on Wikipedia, for example), you will notice that the system has 256MB RAM and 256MB VRAM.

What is going on here? Is it the processor or is it something more that I'm missing? In my opinion, this is way too little compared with what good looking games need on PCs, for example.

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Well I've flagged it for moderator attention but I personally see no problem given it's well stated and interesting. I'll let them decide. –  Sadly Not Aug 6 '10 at 17:43
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We looked at this issue very early at Meta. The judgment was that non-gaming gaming console questions are fine, and I am content with that ruling myself. Super User would most likely close it. And thank you, @thethinman. –  Grace Note Aug 6 '10 at 17:44
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@Grace: No problem, now I know the policy :) –  Sadly Not Aug 6 '10 at 17:46
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@Kip I would consider console knowledge to be less game-dev and more universal. This kind of console hardware question is more of a "how stuff works" within the gaming world as a whole, not just dev. I see it the same as this question about gravity engines. How consoles work is actually important to gamers, since it affects how their stuff runs. It's developing against those specs or considerations in their creation which is more for Game Dev than here. –  Grace Note Aug 6 '10 at 17:55
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An important thing to note is that consoles do relatively more (graphics-wise) with less (hardware-wise) than PCs, but in the end gaming PCs have much more to work with than consoles do, so they do produce much better results than consoles. Gaming PCs can render games at higher resolutions and with more effects than consoles, who render at lower resolutions and upscale the images to fit the TV. Here's a list of actual PS3 game resolutions: haxnetwork.net/showthread.php?t=4806. For example, consoles run CoD4 at 1024x600 with 2xAA, which would be rather pathetic on a PC. –  Ian Aug 6 '10 at 18:28

7 Answers 7

up vote 26 down vote accepted

As requested, I've converted my comment to an answer, and added a few more details:

More with less, but still less
An important thing to note is that consoles do relatively more (graphics-wise) with less (hardware-wise) than PCs due to lighter OSes and (usually) thorough optimization by game devs, but in the end gaming PCs have much more to work with than consoles do, so they do produce much better results than consoles.

Low-end PCs are still better than consoles
Even if you were to define "Gaming PCs" very broadly as "any PC with a low-to-mid-range graphics card made in the last few years and at least 2GB of RAM" (which means relatively cheap PCs still qualify), such a "Gaming PC" should be able to render games at higher resolutions and with more effects than consoles.

Consoles take shortcuts
The first way game developers get around the hardware limitations imposed by consoles is they make the console render the game at a lower resolution, and then upscale the images to fit the TV. For example, consoles run CoD4 at 1024x600 pixels with 2x anti-aliasing, which would be rather pathetic on a PC.

Here are some lists of actual PS3 game resolutions:
Beyond 3D forums - this seems to be where the upscaling was first noted and documented
Even more details from Beyond 3D - this is a more complete list of actual game resolutions/effects

Furthermore, consoles generally use lower-quality textures than are available in their PC-based versions, since they lack the RAM to load more detailed textures. Here's a good comparison of the textures Dragon Age, and here's a comparison of screen shots in Fallout3, Dead Space, CoD:WAW, and GTA4.

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+1 for more with less –  Ivo Flipse Aug 12 '10 at 17:10
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@MorePopWithLessFizz ? –  DwarfSlice May 11 '11 at 15:28

Part of it is that the operating system consumes much more resources on a PC than on a PS3. Just booting into Windows 7 is going to use several hundred MB of RAM. So if a PC game requires 512MB minimum, half of that probably isn't even actually available to the game. PS3's OS will have a significantly smaller footprint.

Edit: According to this source, the PS3 OS's memory footprint was 120MB at launch, but firmware updates have trimmed it down to 50MB. XBox 360 OS, by comparison, uses 32MB. According to this source, Windows 7 will use at least 220MB, and Windows Vista 300MB, at a bare minimum. But in the real world it will use more because you will have more programs installed and possibly running.

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I also believe last last SPE is reserved for OS, good side note Kip. Do you have a link to any details on the ps3 OS? It would buff your answer. –  Sadly Not Aug 6 '10 at 17:50
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@thethinman: added one –  Kip Aug 6 '10 at 17:58
    
any PC is going to have 2GB minimum these days (usually 4GB). Heck even at 1GB a game would have 804 MB free by your calculations. –  Jeff Atwood Aug 7 '10 at 10:42

I don't have the rep required to comment, but I want to point out what I believe to be a falsehood in thethinman's answer. The Wikipedia article he linked to on SPEs states:

With the current generation of the Cell, each SPE contains a 256 KiB embedded SRAM for instruction and data, called "Local Storage" (not to be mistaken for "Local Memory" in Sony's documents that refer to the VRAM) which is visible to the PPE and can be addressed directly by software. Each SPE can support up to 4 GiB of local store memory.

(Emphasis added.) The wording is a bit confusing, but I think this means that each SPE in the PS3 only has 256 KB of memory, although 4 GB could be supported.

At any rate, I can't imagine a device that retails for $300 having 32GB of general-purpose RAM but only 256MB of VRAM. That being the case, the reason the PS3 can do what it can with so little RAM is as other posters have said... low memory usage by the OS and a high level of optimization by developers.

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might also add that the largest part of ram in PC games is used for buffering textures, but a lot of that is irrelevant because of streaming from blu-ray discs... I think –  Mechko Aug 7 '10 at 6:17
    
Maybe you're right, can you investigate more? Post edits of what you find then I'll take my answer down if it's really wrong. The more I look into it, saying that the small OS is what does it seems to make sense. –  Sadly Not Aug 9 '10 at 14:43
    
Reword your answer to explain it differently (like an explanation instead of an answer correction), I'm taking mine down now that I've looked into it more. –  Sadly Not Aug 9 '10 at 14:47
    
@Mitch: my answer's down, floor's open for you to sum everything up (Ither's looking to you for an answer now). –  Sadly Not Aug 10 '10 at 15:55
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@Mechko That is wrong -- the bluray drive is nowhere near fast enough to stream textures real-time. That's why PCs have RAM in the first place -- the HDD is too slow. –  Glen Wheeler May 15 '11 at 8:55

I disagree with the answers to this question and the question itself. The PS3 is an absolute beast. It has one 3.2Ghz processor and 8 SPE processors. According to wikipedia can process single precision floats at 230.4 GFLOPS and in parallel can be used as a cost effective supercomputer: ZDNet Geeky-gadgets Afterdawn

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Clock speed is not an indicator of performance, nor are FLOPS. FWIW, my entry-level GTS 450 does over 600GFLOPS, and my Phenom II X2 555's stock clocks are 3.2GHz, so even if they were valid measure of performance (They're not, my PII gets more done per cycle) the question would still be completely valid. –  Phoshi Jun 8 '11 at 23:10
    
@Phoshi: My apologies. The point I was trying to make is that it has a multicore architecture capable of simultaneously computing floats which is very important for ray tracing, etc in a game. –  Christopher Jun 12 '11 at 7:30
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While that's certainly true, it has been 6 years since the release of the PS3. As powerful as it was then, no 6 year old hardware can stand up to modern hardware, and thus this question is absolutely valid. –  Phoshi Jun 12 '11 at 9:54

the ps3's use of a mainly multi threaded CPU Was a smart decision as even today video games on pcs hardly ever use more than two cores. Only 5 years later are we actually seeing developers make use of the cell's full abilities (uncharted 3) But still the difficult nature of programming the cell will hold it back for at least another year for multiplatform games. The only problem I see is lazy devs and the shift to more gpu bound games. Look at amd's bulldozer platform They perform pretty sh*ty with traditional single threaded applications

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It's a pretty old thread, but it seems like most answers miss the point. I am a programmer working in the AAA industry.

Games are good looking on PS3 because game developers dedicate an insane amout of energy on optimization. It is why all AAA games are still programmed in C/C++, because it is the only way to control the memory usage.

We use special development kits during development (they usually have twice the amount of memory than the retail console), and it's usually very hard to make everything fit into memory. Any game tester will tell you how often games crash because of memory limitations during development.

Also, most AAA games are sold on both PS3, Xbox360 and PC. Most of PC versions end-up with limitations due to cross-platform code. If developers were dedicating the same efforts to make AAA PC-only games, the gap between PC and consoles would be more obvious.

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This answer will be coming from a person that knows how computers work pretty well. I know for a fact that the absolute real answer was very close to being listed on this page here, but it never went beyond that. When a developer makes a game, for example, on a Playstation 3, he is building a game that is PARTICULARLY optimized for that console that is the same across everyone that owns a PS3. So that dev can spend more time focusing on making a game that fully utilizes the hardware within that console. Also include the fact that was mentioned multiple times that a console doesn't have to do NEARLY as many tasks as a computer that has so many background tasks to go along with a game that is optimized in a general fashion, but requires particular drivers from third-party organizations (such as AMD and Nvidia) to run properly. In the end, however, the biggest difference as to how the consoles (even now in 2014) can still magically somehow boot up a game like Battlefield 4 lies within the factor that has been left out thus far... the graphics API. APIs are the programming interfaces used to allow a game to communicate with the hardware or its drivers. PCs must use high-level programming languages that are easily portable and understood by a majority of PC components and combinations. While a dev working on a console game can work with a form of "low-level" programming language that is more near the level of language that the hardware already communicates in before all the bits of binary is thrown around to produce the rate of display that we call framerate. With lower-level APIs, such a the modified DirectX9c used by the PS3, latency is drastically decreased and framerates are improved as more processes now require less processing power as opposed to trying to do the same thing on a PC with the same hardware that would be lucky to even launch the game to begin with.

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I don't know why this has downvotes, but this is the most correct answer I've read so far. –  Dudeson Sep 5 at 18:04

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