The first thing that you notice when you first play on one of the current generation of gaming consoles (By which I mean Dreamcast and Playstation 2), is that they're really, seriously, fast. Games run at a constant frame rate, there's no jerkyness at all, and games rarely slow down regardless of how much stuff is on screen or however many people are playing.

By contrast, the majority of PC games can sometimes appear slow, unstable and jerky depending on your hardware, what else you've got installed, and of course what day of the week it is.

For example, compare the PS2's "Killer App", Gran Turismo 3 with a roughly-comparable PC game Porsche Unleashed. Graphically, GT3 is simply so far ahead of what's been done with PC technology that it's stunning. Porsche Unleashed is also an outstanding game, but on my 1Ghz PC with GeForce 2mx, it's nowhere near as graphically impressive as GT3 either in terms of detail or raw performance.

People quite often ask why this might be, when PCs typically have a clock speed of 5 to 10 times faster than current consoles. In a word, it comes down to one thing- Optimisation. On a console, the hardware is optimised for the absolute best compromise between price and performance at a given time. The OS and development libraries are then optimised for the specified hardware and finally the game is optimised to make the best possible use of everything below. Everything is fine-tuned to perfection with consoles.

In a PC environment, this just doesn't happen. At the hardware level, thousands of different combinations of motherboard/cpu/graphics card/sound card/network card/monitor can be connected together to make "A PC". Almost no two are exactly the same, unless they happen to have been supplied by the same large PC manufacturer during the same week.

This creates a problem for the OS developers. Whichever OS you might choose, it has to support all possible combinations of hardware, which means that it has to contain a lot of redundant code, and if we're honest, a lot of untested and unoptimised code. There's a pretty good chance that a given device driver has never even been tested on your P3/P4/Athlon/Transmeta. What's more, the operating system has to provide a common interface to all applications regardless of what hardware it's sitting on top of.

Finally, at the highest level, the game will usually have been designed to run well on "A standard PC at the target release date". Developers pick a base specification and aim to achieve reasonable performance on it. Today, this might include a PC such as my own, or perhaps slightly faster. However, this is of course a moving target. Some games over-estimate the future performance of PCs (Flight Simulator 2000) and run quite slowly even on PCs a year or more after they were released.

I think that it will be interesting to see how the Microsoft X-Box affects this situation. Here we will have a console which is essentially based around 'off the shelf' PC components. Of course, its hardware and OS will be optimised far beyond what's possible with a PC. However, when people see fast games running smoothly on a console which is widely perceived as being 'PC based' I wouldn't be surprised to see the quality of PC games rising to meet expectations. Well, we can hope, anyway...

Ok, please consider sending me constructive criticism if you're downvoting. Have I missed something? Not enough detail? Too much detail? Perhaps it's because it might seem as though I hate PC games? (Incidentally, not true...)

The Short Answer

It doesn't. The only one area where your console is the clear victor is playing games. Comparing the modern games console (Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft XBOX, Nintendo GameCube, etc.) to the modern PC is pointless. They are different machines built for different things. The overlap in functionality is nice, but comparing consoles to PCs is akin to comparing a camera to a cameraphone and asking "Why does my camera take better pictures than my cell phone that also takes pictures?".

The Longer, but More Complete, Answer

Operating System
How much of your available resource pool (RAM and the like) does a PC operating system use? Windows XP and Mac OS X both require a fair amount of resources. When you start playing a game, that game only has access to the resources that the operating system isn't currently using. In the realm of PCs, what the OS says goes, and if the OS wants to use that chunk of RAM, your game of SMAC is going to slow down. There is an advantage to this, of course. You can alt-tab away from your game while it is paused and do other things. This is not the case on a console. Pieces of the operating system are either unloaded from memory or dormant as soon as a game is started. Have you ever wondered why you can't change the XBOX system time while playing Jade Empire? Now you know. All (or the vast majority of) the system's resources are made available to the game. This allows the programmer to optimize the game code. It also allows programming for a very narrow target. BioWare knows exactly how much memory is available and what can be pushed where. It certainly doesn't hurt that the configuration of components is a constant as well. You'd be amazed what you can coax out of an old video card when you know that it's the only card that will ever be used in conjunction with your game. The constant configuration of a game console also makes it less prone to crash. Developers work with one set of drivers, and by testing a game on one piece of hardware, every hardware configuration has been tested. Such a comprehensive test is realistically impossible for PC software.

How many programs do you have running right now? I have three. Microsoft Excel, Mozilla Firefox (with seven tabs open), and Microsoft Outlook. If I fire up a game, these three programs will all be fighting with my game for the same resources. When I start Donkey Kong Jungle Beat on my GameCube, there are no AIM clients and spreadsheets with which to compete. There is only the GameCube and the game.

What Consoles Don't Have
Spyware. Adware. Malware. Viruses. These things can slow the average PC down to a crawl. Consoles don't have to deal with these problems. There are very few, if any, malicious programs written that target games consoles. Even if people were targeting consoles, it would difficult to deliver these programs. Consoles, when they do connect to the Internet, do not do so at the user's whim. They communicate very specific things, and they only send and receive very specific pieces of information. When you jump into an online bout of Halo 2, your XBOX knows what to send. It finds you some opponents, you choose a map, and off you go.

Comparing Apples to Oranges
I don't have a cutting edge computer; it is around four years old. I can, however, still play lots of fun games on it. My PC runs Roller Coaster Tycoon, Syberia, Civilization III and Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates just fine. It also runs WinAmp, Microsoft Word, Macromedia Dreamweaver, and Adobe Photoshop; often simultaneously! Yeah, my XBOX can play Doom 3, but my PC can do so much more!

In terms of variety of functionality, longevity*, and return on investment, the PC clearly outperforms any games console.



† Thanks to Matthew for reminding me of this.

* It is my opinion that the average PC has a greater logevity than the average console because of the amount of software available. It is not difficult to find software (even games) that will run on an old computer (like mine that is four years old). It is, however, exceedingly difficult to find software that will run on an old console (like my Dreamcast that is only one generation back). The simple fact that consoles are viewed by manufacturers and consumers as throw-away goods while the PC is seen as an investment ensure that this is the case. After all, there have been very few Super Nintendo games produced since Nintendo moved onto the Nintendo 64 and the GameCube, but there are commercial products available today that will run on Windows 98 even though Microsoft has since moved on to Windows 2000 and Windows XP.



belgland says I disagree. Personally I'm a PC gamer who only recently got back into console gaming with the Gamecube after skipping the previous generation. In my opinion a well-built PC with relatively recent components will almost always smoke a console. One of the other issues is that it depends on where in the life cycle you're looking. A brand-new console really needs to be compared to the best PC you can build at the same time. As a console ages, PCs will be upgraded and consequently look that much better. Resident Evil 4 looks great on my Gamecube, but Half-Life 2 or Doom 3 (which came out a bit earlier) look much, much better on my PC. The other relevant area is that people rarely play highly processing intensive games (i.e. hardcore strategy or wargames) on consoles. You just need the right mix of hardware and software that plays to the strengths of each format.

jclast replies I agree that a top of the line PC will smoke a brand-new console, but I'm comparing your average person's PC to your average person's console. Money also becomes an issue. If I can get excellent looking and performing games from a $400 XBOX 360 and a mid-range computer for $500, why would I spend $1500 - $2000 on a top of the line gaming PC? You also only spend the money on a console once. If you want to keep playing the newest PC games, you'll need to keep ahead of the technology curve which is expensive and, in my opinion, inconvenient. So on one hand, I've got a $400 game station that will be current for at least three years. On the other, I've got a new gaming rig that ran me $1500 and I'll need to upgrade it in a year to play Gears of War? I'll pass.

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