Xbox Scorpio Tech Details

I’m Hank Scorpio

Eurogamer’s Richard Leadbetter has technical details of Microsoft’s goofy Project Scorpio. Unless Microsoft adds or changes something significant about the functionality of the console before it is launched, it just means a more expensive and more technically powerful Xbox console:

Combining smart design with sheer horsepower, Project Scorpio hits the six-teraflop target set for it as E3 last year, thanks to a custom GPU that has been designed from the ground up for optimal performance on today’s game engines – and that runs at an unprecedentedly high clock speed for a console. The GPU is paired with 12GB of fast GDDR5 memory and a custom eight-core CPU, and the whole thing is housed in a compact body with integrated power supply and, for a console, state-of-the-art cooling.

Performance is remarkable. We saw a Forza Motorsport demo running on the machine at native 4K and Xbox One equivalent settings, and it hit 60 frames per second with a substantial performance overhead – suggesting Scorpio will hit its native 4K target across a range of content, with power to spare to spend on other visual improvements. And while 4K is the target, Microsoft is paying attention to 1080p users, promising that all modes will be available to them.

It’s interesting to me that the upgraded hardware is so similar to the Playstation 4 Pro, although the Scorpio has bigger numbers and will perform well, this re-emphasizes a theme that Microsoft has gone with since the original Xbox of promoting the technical specifications of their hardware over the games that take advantage of that hardware.

Just like with the Playstation 4 Pro, nobody should buy an Xbox until more details of the Scorpio are available like a price, a launch date, and if a game they actually want is upgraded by this hardware revision. I bet there will be a lot of used Xbox One S’, and disappointed people who bought them last year, right before this thing launches.

What a bizarre time we are in where Microsoft pre-announced the Scorpio last year before launching their Xbox One S in order to remain competitive with Sony’s Playstation 4 Pro.

Eventually, if these upgraded consoles sell well enough, it could be that new games don’t support the original revisions of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One.

One other point in the article I wanted to quote, talking about the upclocked CPUs of the Scorpio:

On the CPU side, there’s been much conjecture that Scorpio would feature AMD’s new Ryzen technology – something we thought unlikely, owing to manufacturing timelines, not to mention Microsoft telling us last year that the new console would feature eight CPU cores. All signs point to the upclocked Jaguar cores we find in Xbox One, and Scorpio’s CPU set-up is indeed an evolution of that tech, but subject to extensive customisation and the offloading of key tasks to dedicated hardware.

“So, eight cores, organised as two clusters with a total of 4MB of L2 cache. These are unique customised CPUs for Scorpio running at 2.3GHz. Alluding back to the goals, we wanted to maintain 100 per cent backwards compatibility with Xbox One and Xbox One S while also pushing the performance envelope,” says Nick Baker.

I don’t for a second believe that Microsoft couldn’t upgrade the architecture of the Xbox and retain backwards compatibility. Even if AMD’s new Ryzen platform introduced new CPU instruction, it would still have the old ones. This isn’t like going from a Power PC to x86 processor, or even as big as the 32bit to 64bit, change.

It reminds me of the time when I was still listening to Larry Hryb’s podcast where he and his guests were talking about HDMI and saying that it wasn’t an upgrade over component cables before the 360 had HDMI connections.

In this case it isn’t clear if the idea is a miscommunication of Leadbetter’s or that Baker actually was responding to a question about Ryzen and Leadbetter should have called it out, either way it is total bullshit and stymies an otherwise fine article.

Speaking of things that should have been called out, there is also this choice quote:

During his presentation, Del Castillo literally constructed a pre-production Project Scorpio unit in front of us. Bearing in mind the advanced manufacturing techniques on show here, there’s a very simple, elegant, modular design that makes the most of the space. We saw the hard drive fit into place on dampeners designed to absorb vibration, reducing error rates in and ensuring optimal data throughput.

You know what’s really elegant? Not using a spinning-disk hard drive with fragile platters in 2017. Nobody buys a computer with those anymore. They only continue to persist in consoles. Nothing is advanced or elegant about dampening the vibrations of an old hard drive. It will be a real upgrade when we can get to solid-state drives everywhere.

Xbox Game Pass Announced

Microsoft recently announced their Xbox Game Pass subscription service.

Most people are comparing it to a Netflix for games, it’s not a bad comparison excepting that while Netflix streams, the games with Microsoft’s service will download to an Xbox One.

The selection of games available will be pretty small, “over 100” when the service becomes available later this spring for $10 a month. The games will change every month, and once the game is cycled out you lose access to it. You do get a discount for purchases of games in the Game Pass library. The Xbox Game Pass games are mostly older from the Xbox One and 360, no real newer options though there isn’t a final list of what will be available.

There’s nothing exactly comparable to this from Sony, their Playstation Now service on the PS4 and Windows is $15 a month at its cheapest (3 month subscription), only streams older Playstation 3 games. The PlayStation 4 has no backwards compatibility with the PS3 otherwise.

Both Microsoft and Sony include “free” games every month with the subscription they charge for online play. I dropped my Xbox Gold subscription because I wasn’t playing online regularly, and the games they were offering weren’t as good as the Playstation Plus games.

Nintendo is going to include free games with their online service for the Switch, but final pricing is unknown, and they’ll all be swapped out every month.

There’s nothing at all like it from Valve on Steam or Windows, though the third-party Humble Bundle has a monthly subscription for $12 that acts like a blind box. Subscribing to that only gives you access to the next month’s games.

There are a lot of questions left to be answered. Games are different from movies, you might take more than a month to play through something and even some games could stick around for multiple months you might be coming up on the end of the month wondering if the one you’re playing is going to cycle out.

Xbox One S: The Upgrade Nobody Should Buy

Daniel Perez hasn’t given a final verdict yet, but has a review in-progress of the new Xbox One S that is out today:

When the original Xbox One was revealed, there was quite the uproar as to its size and design. Microsoft didn’t change the overall shape of the Xbox One S, but what it did change makes it look less like my grandmother’s VCR. It’s smaller, white, and offers an interesting use of textures to various parts of its body. While the holes located at the front of the console appear to be for aesthetics, the holes surrounding its perimeter are obviously for venting purposes as I can spot smaller vents that aim directly into them.

It also finally did away with the infamous Xbox power brick as its power supply has been squeezed into the new console’s body. Without a power brick to weigh it down, the Xbox One S feels more portable than ever when combined with its reduction in size and weight. It also has done away with a dedicated Kinect port, which we’re sure won’t surprise many considering how Microsoft has been slowly steering away from motion-based gaming.

It also displays 4K UHD Blu-ray discs as well as upscaling games and other videos to 4K if you have the appropriate display. It sounds like a good upgrade, until you realize that the other new Xbox, codenamed Scorpio, will be out next year with a healthier tech upgrade that actually has more powerful guts than this Xbox One S.

Xbox One Backwards Compatibility

The four most interesting announcements at the Xbox E3 press conference were the Hololens demo with Minecraft, Microsoft’s new Early Access-esque program for the Xbox One called Game Preview, and Xbox 360 backwards compatibility. The fourth most interesting announcement was a lack of any Call of Duty exclusivity. That torch was passed to the Playstation this year, on a Treyarch-running-Call-of-Duty year, it’s clear that Activision knows who can butter their bread with money.

Backwards compatibility came across as an insurmountable goal that didn’t make sense anymore. Who buys a new generation of consoles to play old games? As a marketing goal it didn’t make enough sense to support the engineering effort when interest in games that are from the Xbox 360 isn’t as high as newer games and with no new 360 releases Microsoft wouldn’t generally see a dime from licensing costs. The only direct financial upside for Microsft could be from a very temporary boost in console sales and in purchases of Xbox 360 games online for download through their store.

One more knock against backwards compatibility was the high technical effort. The Xbox 360 was a powerful enough machine with a different enough processor (PowerPC on the 360, x86_64 on the One) that it would be too demanding. Even Sony didn’t attempt it as their switch in console architecture was similar and they had acquired Gaikai and OnLive’s patents so they could offload the task to server-rooms full of Playstation 3’s streaming their video signal to the Playstation 4 at a high price ($180/year for access to 350 PS3 games.)

Almost two years after the launch of the Xbox One, against all of the technical and business hurdles, Microsoft announced backwards compatibility available immediately in an invite-only beta program with a short list of games and more to be added towards the end of 2015 when the feature launches properly for everyone with an Xbox One.

How does it work, and is it any good in this early stage? Eurogamer’s John Linneman has answers.

 

Unlike the spotty backwards compatibility available on Xbox 360, which required a custom wrapper for each individual game, Microsoft has taken a more extensive approach through the use of a virtual machine that runs on the Xbox One as a game in and of itself. This virtual environment includes the Xbox 360 OS features, though they remain unavailable to the user, enabling the software to behave as if it is running on original hardware. The Xbox One then views this “Xbox 360” app as its own game allowing features such as screenshots and video sharing. The emulator supports both digital downloads and original DVDs, though discs simply act as a key, the core data downloading over the internet via Xbox Live.

Even considering its current flaws, the state of the virtual machine’s capabilities is remarkable: those precious few moments when performance actually exceeds the Xbox 360 gives us just a bit of hope that in the long run, we may actually end up with an improved experience in some games.

If I were going to purchase a console today, the backwards compatibility available on the Xbox One might be a deciding factor if it weren’t for one more thing. There was a lot of turnover towards the end of the last console generation with publishers and developers going out of business and spawning many smaller indie developers. With Microsoft putting the burden on developers to approve their games for backwards compatibility, how many are still around to do that and if they are wouldn’t they rather do a re-release to get more money instead of giving it to used-game retailers who will sell old games for pennies? We’ll find out later this year. Even Microsoft announced a Gears of War 1 remake at the same press conference.

Dongler

The Xbox One controller is getting an update. It’ll have a 3.5mm headset jack and better bumpers. More importantly, Microsoft is finally going to release the wireless dongle for computers to accept connections from XBone controllers. Previously you could connect it with a USB cable, it’ll be good to stop using the one from my Steam Controller.

I’ve got the wireless dingus for 360 controllers to connect to PC, but those adapters are not as easy to find anymore and the newer XBone controller is superior to the aging 360 pads in most ways. Hopefully this also puts an end to the days of people trying to use 360 play-n-charge kits to connect their gamepads to a computer. That never worked because the play-n-charge kit delivered power without a data signal.

There’s no release date yet for the Xbox Wireless Adapter for Windows other than “this fall.” It’ll cost $25 when it is released or $80 in a bundle with the updated controller.

The new controller will be available on it’s own much sooner, on June 16th for $60, to coincide with a new version of the Xbox One that includes a 1 terabyte hard drive at $400. That’s $50 more than the 500 gigabyte Xbox One. The hard drive will still not be user-replacable on either version of the console because Microsoft:

  1. Doesn’t trust their users to swap hard drives
  2. They don’t understand the value of designing that functionality
  3. They want to give people a reason to buy new consoles.

Pick one. Any way you look at the hard drive situation on the Xbox, it’s insulting to users.

You could take this to mean that Microsoft just wants to be ready in case Valve’s Steam Controller gains more of a foothold. You might be right, but I don’t take that this latest push from Microsoft to mean much. They’ve pretended to care about Windows gaming before.