Heard about the Dreamcast? Think it's 128-bit? Think again...
For the past few months Sega's Dreamcast has been turning gamers' heads with stellar looking titles and the promise of a games machine to die for.
But Sega has been telling a little white lie about the Dreamcast. While the games sell the system and it really is great to look at and play with, the Dreamcast doesn't really do anything you haven't already done on your PC.
First off, the Dreamcast is not a 128-bit system, as the marketing men at Sega have been saying. The Dreamcast is a lot like a PC in that both have 32-bit main processors. On a PC there's a 32-bit Intel, AMD, Cyrix, or other chip, while the Dreamcast uses a 32-bit Hitachi SH-4... yup that's 32-bit folks.
For graphics -- on machines of about a year or so -- a 128-bit internal processing graphics chip is normal. The Dreamcast comes with a 128-bit internal processing graphics chip called the PowerVR, so no difference there then. On the PC most users run Windows 95/98 as an operating system (the latter runs partly in 16-bit and partly in 32-bit) and the Dreamcast uses Windows CE running at 32-bit. So what we have is a 32-bit OS with a 128-bit graphics capability running on a 32-bit CPU.
Even a non-techie will spot the bottlenecks.
And Sega, obviously confused with its own technical tomfoolery, has gotten itself into a bit of a tiz in its marketing shpiel. Here's a selection of claims:
[May 13, 99] Sega Dreamcast -- "the ultimate gaming machine."
[June 28, 99] Sega Dreamcast, the superconsole with a built-in 56K modem that brings the most-advanced and realistic video gameplay ever developed to consumers.
[June 29, 99] ... the much-anticipated 128-bit Sega Dreamcast videogame system...and... Sega Dreamcast's 128-bit graphics engine...
[July 6, 99] Sega Dreamcast features many hardware firsts. Its advanced built-in 56k modem and 128-bit architecture...
[August 2, 1999] Sega Dreamcast will achieve other industry firsts at launch. Its advanced 128-bit architecture makes it the first console with evolutionary capabilities, allowing it to grow and change to match advances in technology and the needs and desires of the consumer.
[August 19, 1999] Sega Dreamcast, the 128-bit superconsole with a built-in 56K modem...
But why would Sega tell you that the Dreamcast is a 128-bit system?
Sony announced a true 128-bit system with one of the first 128-bit main processors and the company is now preparing marketing propaganda to favour its forthcoming Plastation2. And rightly so. The 128-bit main processor may allow some games to hit a higher level (as high as four times) than before making PCs run like snails in comparison. Think of it this way: remember what games looked like on a 16-bit Sega Genesis and then how they improved on 32-bit machines like the PlayStation?
Instead of moving to a 64 or 96-bit machine, Sony will jump up three technology levels with its new machine. Enough to scare any competitor.
But just before you all leave with the impression that all is lost for Sega, think of the developers. The Dreamcast's relative simplicity really isn't a bad thing. Learning to program for a console can be expensive with all the competition, making a console easy to program is a big deal. The Dreamcast uses the a modified form of DirectX (a special piece of software that deals with gaming hardware on Windows machines) and any game maker who makes games for Windows machines can easily make games for the Dreamcast.
Programming for the PlayStation 2 however may be extremely difficult since no one has ever programmed a 128-bit machine before. We've already heard that at least one title is going to cost at least $4.1m (£2.5m) to develop. And if a $4.1m game doesn't sell... think Waterworld.