The period of time begining the release of the Sega Saturn in 1995. Right now (2000), with the release of the Sega Dreamcast and Sony PlayStation 2, the 128-bit era is dawning, and 32-bit is coming to a close. The machines of this period are the Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo64 (a 64-bit system, but put in with this time period). Consoles of this period are also referred to as "Next Generation" because of the long transition period before the 32-bit era, with people always looking towards the next big thing. This era also saw Sony emerge as a major player in the console market, having previously only played a bit part; and Sega and Nintendo, the two giants, being beaten at their own game. It is a fact that no console manufacturer has succeeded in holding a market lead from one generation to the next. Sony appears to have succeeded in breaking this trend however, as their victory in terms of sales with the PS2 seems assured. Consoles of the transition era are generally given their own classification, since they mostly did not last long past 1995, and mostly did not achieve mass market success.

Update (19-Aug-2004): I should add that this naming is really just a convention, and I'm well aware that "128-bit" doesn't accurately describe the current games consoles on sale. But it's the phraseology in common usage and that's what I'm documenting. No-one talks about the Xbox et al as 32-bit, despite the nature of their processors. It allows the distinction to be made in people's minds.

Of course, these numbers are all misleading - the above processors do floating point math in 64-bit. Also, modern consoles have extended instruction sets (or, in the case of the PS 2, extra chips) to provide vector math. But even vector math is generally not more than 32 bits of precision - it's just that more elements are processed at once (see MMX Optimization Guide for details on one vector processor instruction set). I guess the point of this is: counting bits is as foolish as counting Mhz or MIPS.

Update: ikeleib - It's 128 bit SIMD, which means up to 32 bits of precision, but 4 at a time. The following article explains more:

So, yeah, what I said above about the PS2 was an over-simplification. It's really 8-bit (yeah, you can do 16 8-bit ops in a cycle, if you really want to - it'll let you), 16-bit (it's even got a 16-bit data bus, as well as some larger data busses), 24-bit (color, Z-buffer (iirc)), 32-bit, 64-bit (although I don't know if that's really 64-bit, or just 2x32 bit SIMD), and 128-bit (although there are probably only 5 or 6 128-bit instructions: load, store, xor, and, or) - all at the same time.

The Playstation 2 does in fact use a 128 bit MIPS core. In fact, the PS2 has a 32 bit MIPS processor in addition. You can see for yourself from the MIPS press release:

Counting bits is not near as meaningless as counting Mhz or MIPS. Word width is a fundamental part of the computer architecture.

In response to novalis's response to me.. MIPS-III is a 64bit ISA. Furthermore, the article you refer to mentions that the registers of the CPU are 128 bits wide. That is the architecture width.

For the record, counting bits is deceptive. Especially when considering console video game systems, which typically employ a wide variety of specialized hardware in unusual configurations (as compared to personal or other general purpose workstation-grade computers, which typically follow a well-known set of design principles).

Of course, english is english - you say what you have to say to be understood, and etymology be damned. Just remember you're measuring your progress along the highway by counting the number of cars you've passed.

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