What exactly is a teraflop anyway?

The eve of the ninth generation of consoles has been dominated by a strange and previously scarcely heard word. It’s time to end the madness

I can’t remember a week as mental as this one has been in the entire history of video games. At the end of it we now essentially know the plans of Microsoft and Sony as the two gaming giants gear up for the incoming ninth generation of consoles. It’s all very exciting. A little confusing. But mostly exciting.

Here’s a recap: with an ever-growing streaming library and a price point that won’t break the bank, Microsoft – the perennial whipping boys within the eighth generation of consoles – finally looks like it knows what it’s doing with the Xbox Series X. Maybe it’s just because I like Spider-Man a whole lot, but Sony – which dominated the current-gen with souped-up specs and a host of essential exclusives – looks set to do it all again, even if the PlayStation 5 is a machine that looks as aesthetically pleasing as roadkill.

PS5
PlayStation 5. Credit: Sony

And yet, among all this madness, there’s something that has baffled me even more than the last hour of Portal 2. It’s rare as a journalist, especially one with knees that ache as much as mine, to hear a word you’ve never heard before. A word I doubted was even a real one until I typed it into Google. Even then, like a mollusc trying to make sense of string theory, I have no idea what it means. Please tell me, what exactly is a teraflop?

Teraflop is undoubtedly the buzzword of next-gen consoles. Each console manufacturer is obsessed with telling us just how many teraflops its system has, but nobody is really telling us why this matters. I think it has something to do with how powerful the machines are, but really, these companies could be talking about a newly discovered species of dinosaur, or a new breakfast cereal or a quirky name for their pet rabbit. I mean, it could literally be anything under the sun.

When I was a kid, it was all about bits. We went to school and argued about whether the machine you played games on was 8-bit (the Sega Master System, the NES), 16-bit (the Sega Megadrive, the SNES) or 32-bits (the PlayStation, the Sega Saturn). None of us knew what this actually meant, but it still mattered.

The Nintendo SNES Classic Edition 2017
The Nintendo SNES Classic Edition 2017. Credit: Nintendo

Of course, all this talk of teraflops completely misses the only thing that should matter in any discourse about video games: are the games any good? Let’s start getting excited about the new Assassin’s Creed (vikings!), the new Yakuza (crime!) and the new Resident Evil (werewolves!). We’re about to enter a generation of gaming unlike any we’ve known before, with more choice, more variety and more players.

These are incredible times for anyone who wants to get lost in virtual worlds, in mass online competition, in a hobby that now holds more mass interest and acceptance than ever. It’s not about how many teraflops you have. It’s what you do with them.

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