How Video Game Specs Work

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    Describe How Video Game Specs Work here, but in layman's terms, please (like the Guinness World Records, we're just here to head off hunting bets, not prep you for IT 101.) This isn't The Other Wiki.

    Ah, video game specs. The fanboys like to use them as the ultimate indisputable weapon in their Flame Wars. But they don't really know what they mean, for they barely look past one aspect of them.

    Take the old bit size (8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, 64-bit, etc.). Most of us know that bit size isn't a real measurement of a system's power, but few of us even know why. It's actually word size; the measurement of how large a chunk of information can be handled by the processor at once.[1] In theory, larger word size should mean faster processing, but it's not that simple--especially since computer manufacturers have figured out that people are using "word size" as a quick-and-dirty proxy for "fastness", and started playing arcane tricks designed to boost word size at the possible expense of actual improvements in the rest of the architecture (this marketing scheme began very early on, in fact; the Neo Geo was advertised as a "24-bit" system, and the Nintendo 64, while indeed capable of 64-bit calculations, ran with a 32-bit capacity most of the time for a lot of good reasons). Some people have gone so far as to call the Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, and Game Cube generation "128-bit" thanks to this misinformation to this very day (out of these, only the PlayStation 2 was capable of 128-bit anything natively, and even then, it's not for general-purpose processing).

    However, what is done with the processor can have a significant difference in performance. An instructor in a class on mainframe programming gave an example. To clear a line to blanks, such as for printing, the common practice was to put a space in the first character, then move the entire field from character 1 to character 2 for a length of 1 less than the size of the field. This moves character 1 to character 2, then to 3, and so on for 80 characters. What he pointed out that even though operations using floating point are much slower than operations of moving characters, it would have been faster to put, say 4 blanks in a floating point register and store that 20 times than moving one character 80 times.

    Or take processor speed. The Super Nintendo had a clock speed of 3.58 megahertz. The Sega Genesis had a clock speed of 7.67, well over twice the SNES. So that meant that games should only run half as fast, right? Sega did have this advertising campaign of "blast processing" and some early SNES games did have slowdown. Well when Capcom ported Street Fighter II Turbo to the SNES, it had a secret mode that was even faster than the arcade speed, but no slowdown. The mode turned out to be more gimmick than playable, but it showed that the clock speed was only part of how the processor worked, and proper use of the system was what made the game run so fast (this was also shown when the game was ported to the Genesis, and also had no slowdown in that mode). In fact, nowadays most hardware engineers have given up on bumping clock speeds and gone on to improve bus speeds, which has less to do with how fast the computer "thinks" than with how fast it "talks".

    So if you really want to know what specs actually mean for video game systems (which covers computers, set-tops, and handhelds), just take a look at the following pages.

    See Videogame Systems to see how these specs work for them.


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    Notes

    1. It can also refer to the width of the CPU's "data bus", the wires that transfer data between the CPU and main memory. A 64-bit data bus, for example, means that there are 64 data wires running from the CPU to the main memory board, each of which can carry one bit at a time, so the CPU can "read" or "write" that much data in a single system-clock tick.