Why Microsoft's Next XBox Will Be More like a Gaming PC

By Daniel Falconer

The new Xbox console won't be available until Holiday of this year, but Microsoft is already detailing some of the hardware specs for Project Scorpio.

Last year when Sony launched the PlayStation 4 Pro, a new console with full backwards compatibility and providing upgraded visuals to those with 4K/HDR screens, Microsoft also announced a new console, codenamed Project Scorpio, with similar goals in mind. But unlike Sony, Microsoft didn't release their new console last year. Instead they only touted what Scorpio would deliver with native 4K visuals and high fidelity VR among them. This new Xbox One console won't be available until Holiday of this year, but Microsoft is already detailing some of the hardware specs for Project Scorpio.

The Scorpio Engine

For any system to push a game out with native 4K resolution assets at a steady framerate requires serious hardware. This only just became possible with desktop computers within the last year or two, and the components required there aren't exactly cheap. For Microsoft to do the same on a console and not run the cost of the device so high no one will buy it requires low level customization of every component.

The System on a Chip in Project Scorpio utilizing AMD architecture is what Microsoft refers to as the Scorpio Engine. This 16nm FinFET chip produced by TSMC features an eight core CPU (two clusters of four) clocked at 2.3GHz with 4MB of L2 cache. Even though the CPU (likely) stems from the same Jaguar cores found in both PlayStation and Xbox, Microsoft's customization has resulted in a 31% faster processor over the original Xbox One hardware. This is also clocked 200MHz higher than the PS4 Pro's CPU.

But of course, the real horsepower is coming from the GPU. The custom Radeon silicon has 40 compute units clocked at 1172MHz. That blows right past the Xbox One's 12 CU at 853MHz (or 914MHz for the S), and is a leg up over the PS4 Pro's 36 CU at 911MHz. This even rivals the latest graphics card from AMD, the RX 480, which has 36 CU and a maximum boost clock a mere 94MHz higher.

In order to hit Microsoft's target of 6 teraflops of performance they can't just slap down more silicon on a board with higher frequencies and call it a day. All of this 4K data has to be moved around quickly, and efficiently. Project Scorpio will run with 12GB of GDDR5 memory, whereas both the original Xbox One and PS4 Pro only have 8GB of DDR3 and GDDR5 respectively. Games on Scorpio will have access to 8 of the 12GB, a 3GB increase over the Xbox One. The rest will be reserved for the OS in order for the dashboard to be rendered at a native 4K. With increases in bit sizes, number of channels, and frequencies, the memory bandwidth of Project Scorpio is at 326GB/s. The Xbox One's lowly DDR3 only allowed for 68GB/s, but that was partially offset by Microsoft's odd ESRAM that could operate at 204GB/s (or 219GB/s in the S). The PS4 Pro's memory bandwidth comes in at 218GB/s. The included 1TB hard drive in Scorpio will also be 50% faster.

There are a lot of other additions as well to squeeze the most out of the hardware that you wouldn't normally see. The GPU command processor (think of it as a co-processor that receives instructions from the CPU for the GPU to draw) has DirectX 12 built in for the highest possible levels of efficiency. This addition drastically changes the number of instructions needed between the CPU and GPU from hundreds of thousands down to only 11.

Games will run faster, better

All of the fancy specs in the world will mean nothing if the games don't take advantage of it in meaningful, perceptible ways. Digital Foundry's Richard Leadbetter was shown a Forza demo running on Scorpio hardware. The team at Turn 10 was able to port the ForzaTech engine to Scorpio in only two days. With the demo running at a native 4K, 60 frames per second, Xbox One level of details, a full grid of AI cars, and weather effects on, GPU utilization was never higher than 70%. With the visual settings cranked up to the equivalent of Forza Apex's PC ultra settings, GPU utilization was at 88%.

Yes, this was only one game, and one demo. The Forza engine is heavily optimized for the Xbox hardware. But even with this being the ideal scenario, a straight port of Forza without any optimizations for the Scorpio hardware left plenty of headroom to play with.

This is possible, ironically, because this is a mid-generation refresh and not a new console that completely cuts ties with what came before it. One of Microsoft's development tools called Performance Investigator for Xbox, or PIX, allows them to analyze games performance on their systems. By taking a deep dive on a wide variety of titles, the team working on Scorpio were able to test out what hardware would be required for them to run at 4K. These tests went a long way in determining every little number in the specifications of Scorpio.

Games made and updated to take advantage of Scorpio's hardware will have various quality settings available to the user, similar to PS4 Pro titles. However, unlike Sony's platform, Microsoft will be handling (at least some of) these settings on a system level. Games that are able to run at higher resolution will super sample down to 1080p. Any and all other resolution and performance settings a developer wants to put into their game will be supported on any and all display types. Up until now this is something that has been very confusing on PS4 Pro titles. Developers will also be able to utilize advanced techniques such as checkerboarding if they wish to target a resolution between 1080p and 4K.

All of this hardware won't be utilized by titles only with higher resolution assets though. Every game running on Project Scorpio, older Xbox One titles with no specific updates for the hardware and even backwards compatible Xbox 360 games, should see a bump in performance. The PS4 Pro's new Boost Mode feature attempts to do something similar. Normally the PS4 Pro turns off half of its GPU for non-Pro supporting titles, essentially emulating the original PS4 hardware. Then in Boost Mode it most likely is only increasing the clock speed on the half of the GPU being used. However, all titles on Project Scorpio will have access to the entirety of its hardware.

What this means is that all titles with dynamic resolution scaling should run at their maximum render resolution at all times. Games that target a specific frame rate, typically either 30 or 60 fps, are much more likely to stay locked on Scorpio. Microsoft wants screen tearing to be a thing of the past. They've "dialled up the anisotropic all the way up to max" to provide much higher quality texture filtering, for both Xbox One and 360 games. And of course, load times should be improved for many titles. The most interesting way this will happen is by the system utilizing the extra 3GB of RAM available to games as a type of additional system cache.

Now, there is a catch with this approach. It's possible these enhancements could cause compatibility issues with a small number of games. In those cases Microsoft will tune the Scorpio enhancements for those games on a case by case basis, not unlike what is does with 360 games right now.

Closing Thoughts

There's a lot to take in here. In many ways it'd be easier to understand a new console that is the start of a new generation, like it has always been. Here are the specs, and this is how much better the games look. However, that seems to be a way of the past. Microsoft has certainly brought a lot of technology to bear in order to deliver on native 4K gaming. While on paper Scorpio's GPU sounds like a slightly better RX 480, Richard Leadbetter from Digital Foundry guesstimates that with all of its customizations and tuning the next Xbox may have graphical performance similar to that of a GTX 1070. Microsoft fully believes all Xbox One titles that currently run at 1080p will run natively at 4K on Scorpio, and the ones that run at 900p should as well, though they may need more work.

Microsoft didn't speak at all about VR. They did say that the rear ports on Scorpio are the same as those on the Xbox One S; the Kinect port is still gone and HDMI passthrough remains. If it ends up supporting the Oculus Rift (it's more likely for Microsoft to partner with Facebook than Valve, among other reasons) and Microsoft wants to avoid the need for a breakout box (purely for video reasons, Scorpio shouldn't need additional hardware unlike PS4) it'll be interesting to see if the secondary HDMI port on the back will pull double duty, or if a third one will be added to the front.

It may also be much smaller than anyone is anticipating. Microsoft is using a vapour chamber heat sink to keep Scorpio cool, which is typically only seen on high end graphics cards. And don't forget that Panos Panay took over all hardware devices two years ago. The Surface team are masters at cooling hardware in limited spaces. Even with an internal PSU, it's rumored Scorpio will be smaller than the Xbox One S, the smallest Xbox console to date.

Project Scorpio will in all likelihood be called Xbox One "something". Microsoft has referred to this device as part of the "Xbox One family" since day one. If it wasn't for a weird bundle a couple of years ago with a hybrid drive my money would have been on Elite. Xbox One X maybe? Then they could call the slim version Xbox One XS. After that, X2: Xbox United? Anyway, the elephant still in the room is the price. Microsoft has made sure in their messaging that this is going to be a premium product. In my mind that means $500, but that's already a $100 difference with the PS4 Pro, assuming Sony doesn't do a price drop at the same time. That much of a difference definitely didn't help Microsoft last time out.

Microsoft's expectations are set, and have said that they don't intend for Scorpio to outsell the One S. That being said, we'll see if native 4K gaming and high fidelity VR is enough to sway gamers away from the PS4 Pro, yet still not opt for a PC. The latest we'll hear more on Scorpio is at E3. Microsoft's press conference this year has moved to the Sunday before the expo, June 11th at 5PM Eastern. It's also possible for it to show up at the long rumored Spring 2017 device event for Microsoft, or even their annual BUILD conference which starts May 10th. In any case, be sure to stay tuned for the latest.