Behind the Scenes of Video Game Consoles: Embedded Systems

Video Console

Original Photo by Stas Knop

Video gaming has come a long way from its humble beginnings. From what was a rudimentary system with simple graphics and joystick controllers quickly became much more evolved, and now, the video games we know of today are extraordinarily advanced.

Embedded Components of a Video Game Console

Video game consoles are embedded systems, comprising of many components all serving a specific function, allowing the system to take input from the player and relay the outputs on a screen display. Present-day video game console systems generally consist of these embedded components:

  • User control interface
  • CPU
  • GPU
  • RAM
  • Operating System
  • Storage medium for games
  • Videooutput
  • Audio output

The Beginning of Home Entertainment Gaming

How do these components work together to form a video game console? Let’s get an idea of the foundation of video games to start:

Some of the first home entertainment video games were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s, but one of the most memorable video game consoles of that time, Atari Video Computer System (VCS), changed video game history with its incorporation of microprocessors within its infrastructure. Before this, video games relied on a core board with transistors and diodes.

Specifically, the Atari 2600 was accredited with popularizing the incorporation of microprocessors within consoles. For this console, the MOS 6502 microprocessor was used. The Atari 2600 also incorporated 128 bytes of RAM and 4-kilobyte ROM (read-only memory) chips loaded with software, and these ROM chips were stored in removable cartridges, allowing users to easily swap various games using the same hardware. The Atari VCS also comprised of a custom graphics chip called Stella, which allowed the system to sync with the television generating screen display and sound effects.

Game Cartridges

Photo by Kevin Bidwell

After the first Atari video game system was created, many other video game key players started being introduced into the market, including Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox. Within the last couple decades, video games have advanced exponentially, with each new release providing more power, enhanced graphics, quicker loading times, and all new ways to interact with games all because of the evolving embedded components within the system.

Video Gaming Today

While video game consoles made today all provide their unique features and vary in performance, each console comprises of a similar embedded foundation.

Each video game system incorporates a form of user control interface in order for the player to interact with the game. We’ve seen video game user control interfaces go from joysticks, to pad controllers, to wireless controllers, and we’re even beginning to be introduced to all new ways of interacting with video games, like with virtual reality headsets for example. And while the concept of pushing buttons or moving the controller to control the game may seem simple on the exterior, there is a lot happening behind the scenes.

Handheld video console for playing

Photo by Jaroslav Nymburský

Video game consoles rely on CPUs (central processing unit) to calculate various aspects of the game and control how the game responds to user input. It is essentially processing the game’s instructions and handles game logic in the form of movement or interaction with objects. The CPU is also very important as it passes information to the GPU, or graphics processing unit. The GPU is responsible for translating instructions taken by the CPU and rendering what is seen on the screen by controlling the formation of images in a frame buffer.

The GPU functions by utilizing the graphics memory or VRAM (video random access memory), which stores the video and image data, and subsequently determines how the objects within the game look to the viewer.

The RAM within the system is vital to the overall interworkings of the system because it stores the game data that the CPU uses to make its calculations.

Games within the last decade are often stored using CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, a major upgrade from the past era of replaceable cartridges. These discs, especially the DVD-ROM or Blu-ray DVD drives are able to store a higher quantity of video game software data. We also see current systems using SSD cards for saving games and personal data.

Video games consoles today also provide a video signal that allows them to be hooked up to a screen display, and depending on the type of television and HDMI cable used, the quality of the image and video from the video game can be affected.

How Does HDMI Affect Gaming?

Certain video game consoles like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are compatible with HDMI cables, where Xbox’s most recent release, the Xbox One X is compatible with the most recent HDMI specification, HDMI 2.1. This recent HDMI 2.1 spec improves on video game compatibility in terms of adding new features that enhance video quality and definition. HDMI 2.1 supports 8K resolution, and adds Variable Refresh Rate, which helps lessen lag that gamers experience with slower refresh rates. Quick Frame Transport is also incorporated to reduce latency, and the Enhanced Audio Return Channel, eARC, results in higher quality audio outputs not seen before.

Total Phase’s Advanced Cable Tester v2 provides a testing solution for all HDMI cables including HDMI 2.1 and below. This cable tester ensures quality of the cable by assessing the pin continuity for any shorts/opens/routings, DC resistance for most wires, and signal integrity testing up to 12.8 Gbps. With the Advanced Cable Tester v2, HDMI cable manufacturers can go beyond just cable certification and can now verify cable quality and HDMI lock across cables and devices in a matter of seconds.

For more information on this tool, please visit the Advanced Cable Tester v2 or contact us at sales@totalphase.com. You can also request a demo specific to your application.

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