Microsoft finally unveiled Project Scorpio at this years E3, and hey, whaddya know, it wasn’t called Project Scorpio.
Many of us went into the showcase so accustomed to the Scorpio codename, we felt it inevitable Microsoft would stick with the branding. Not only was it familiar, but it spoke of an almost reticent potency, and was, well, just a bit cool really.
Xbox One X it was then. A bit of a mouthful you’ll agree, which led to a series of online memes and jokes. But just what are Microsoft playing at with this new super console? Who is it for? Why is it so expensive? Can it bring back the glory days of the 360? Let’s take a look.
Into the Belly of the Beast
Before we decide whether the Xbox One X is actually worth the price, we need to take into consideration the route taken by Microsoft to differentiate this console from Sony’s ‘4K’ offering – the £100 cheaper PS4 Pro.
Sony chose an AMD Polaris-based GPU with 36 compute units – double that of the original PS4. While running games unoptimised for this new arrangement, the Pro simply switches-off half the GPU to simulate the 18 CU GPU found in the base PS4. The increased cooling from the larger chassis also enabled a boost in CPU clock-speed (2.13GHz up from 1.6) from the more power efficient 16nm Jaguar chip seen in the PS4 Slim. While memory remained at 8GB GDDR5, bandwidth received a boost from 176 GB/s to 218 GB/s.
After playing second fiddle to the PS4 in part one of this generation, Microsoft decided to wait out their answer to the PS4 Pro. The console is again sticking to what we think is the same 8-core 64-bit Jaguar-based CPU, but this time boosted to 2.3GHz. All we know about the GPU is it’s a Polaris-based AMD package with 40 compute units and a 1172MHz clock-speed. The real boost Microsoft have given developers is in memory, and in particular, memory bandwidth. With 12GB of GDDR5 running at 328 GB/s, there is real optimism the One X can deliver true native 4K gaming.
Is it a unicorn?
So how have Microsoft managed to squeeze so much performance into a chassis slightly smaller than the PS4 Pro? One key aspect is the advanced cooling solution. The bespoke vapour cooler (not to be confused with water cooling) is a very efficient way of keeping temperatures stable at higher clock-speeds. But this still doesn’t explain the dramatically increased frequencies and bandwidth. A more obvious answer is a move to a 14nm FinFET APU. This manufacturing process would enable a lower TDP, thus enabling Microsoft to boost frequencies beyond the reach of the 16nm APU in the PS4 Pro. It would make sense considering the One X is coming a year later.
What does this all mean for the Developer?
This generation we’ve seen the relatively rudimentary CPUs become the bottleneck in development, leading to far more emphasis on compute power, i.e the GPU. The One X offers only a modest 8% boost in CPU frequency (over PS4 Pro), but has stolen a march with the GPU. An extra four compute units, a 30% faster clock-speed, and increased memory bandwidth add up to a machine capable of up-to 6 teraflops of computing power – a 40% increase over the PS4 Pro’s 4.2 teraflops – (what is a teraflop?).
Raw compute aside, the key area for me is in the GDDR5 department. The PS4 Pro offers up just 5.5GB of free memory for developers, whereas Microsoft have freed up a whopping 9GB. Together with the shift to a 50% faster 384bit memory bus (vs 256bit on Pro) this allows for higher quality 4K assets, and delivers them to the frame buffer far quicker. This is essential for delivering on the true ‘native 4K’ promise.
Does it really matter?
All these specs can get a bit overwhelming, it’s easy to compare and contrast and see on paper the One X is by far the more capable console. It is, for want of a better phrase, a turbo-charged PS4 Pro. The major problem right now is 4K televisions are still in their infancy. We’ve only just reached the point where 1080p, or ‘Full-HD’ TVs are ubiquitous. The adoption rate of 4K sets is steadily growing, but we are nowhere near the stage where they are essential.
Sony released the PS4 Pro last year with hardware they knew wasn’t fully capable of delivering on the native 4K dream. The release of PlayStation VR, and its need for more powerful hardware, may have forced their hand somewhat, but I think they genuinely have a long-term plan of offering a next-generation console every six years, with an interim version every three. The PS4 Pro is well known to use a checkerboard rendering technique to essentially upscale to a 4K image; a technique which can deliver some amazing results when used correctly (Horizon Zero Dawn, Spiderman, Days Gone).
Microsoft have taken themselves somewhat out of sync with Sony, but by doing so have delivered a more future-proof 4K solution. Watch any video of Forza 7 and it’s clear this machine has some serious grunt. But you have to remember even showcase games like Anthem are still using checkerboarding to achieve 4K. So it begs the question, was this just an act of desperation from Microsoft? Did they even see the PS4 Pro coming? Was the One X just a late reaction? Judging from the E3 showcase there was little to no content to sell this console come November.
Sony are in the TV business, they know adoption rates, they know the market. By the time 4K televisions do become de facto standard, the world will be ready for a new generation of consoles. If Sony do indeed plan on releasing the PlayStation 5 in 2019, this could end up being the perfect timing.
The biggest problem facing Microsoft right now is winning back the fanbase from the Xbox 360 days. Back then the machine was the go-to for third-party titles, and the online infrastructure was miles ahead of Sony’s fledgling PSN service. Things have shifted in the four years since the new-generation landed. Sony have shipped over 60million PS4 consoles worldwide and, together with their PS subscription service, have gradually overthrown Microsoft’s online governance.
With so many PS4s in the wild, things get even tougher for Microsoft. Developers will now tailor their games to run on four consoles; the base PS4, the Pro, the Xbox One S and the One X. Third-party games will no-doubt look better on Microsoft’s new console, but will offering a more powerful machine be enough now? Architecturally the original Xbox One went down the wrong path in using ESRAM (one of the reasons early titles ran so much better on PS4), but you can’t deny the influence Sony’s first-parties had in helping them gain traction. Led by the likes of Naughty Dog, they have some of the best studios in the world in their back pocket. Microsoft, on the other hand, have been relying on stale franchises such as Halo and Gears of War for too long now.
If the Xbox One X was launching at the same price as the PS4 Pro, I could see some feathers being ruffled. But at £100 more, Microsoft are narrowing their market even further. Remember only 1 in 5 PlayStation 4’s sold today are the Pro model. That is where demand for 4K is right now. And by selling a more capable 4K console at a premium price – to a market that isn’t even there yet – Microsoft risk damaging the Xbox brand even further. It’s a massive gamble from Redmond, especially when you consider their historic use of the Xbox brand to promote Windows gaming. You have to wonder if the opposite is now true, and they need these very PC gamers to sell the One X.
While it remains to be seen how well the console sells come November, it’s clear Microsoft face an uphill struggle. At £449 all it would take is a price cut from Sony and the Xbox One X could well be more niche than a Neo Geo Pocket Color in a dark room.
So how about you let us install Windows on this thing, Microsoft? It could be the most affordable 4K PC on the planet…