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Scorpio made simple: the next Xbox's tech explained

If you don't know a teraflop from a texture filter, read this.

Last week, Digital Foundry's Rich Leadbetter travelled to the Microsoft campus in Redmond for an exclusive deep dive on the tech powering the next Xbox console, codenamed Project Scorpio. You can find his detailed report here on Eurogamer, along with his opinion on and analysis of what he saw and heard, and an additional look at how Scorpio will handle backward compatibility.

But if you're not as tech-literate as the average Digital Foundry reader, you might be wondering what this all means in layman's terms. Read on - we've got you covered.

What's it called? When's it out? What does it look like? How much will it cost?

We either weren't told, or can't tell you. Sorry. This was a tech reveal. We assume those details are being saved for E3. There's some good stuff in here though, promise.

Come on, give us a hint!

The form factor of the console will pleasantly surprise you. As for cost, Microsoft told us absolutely nothing - but looking at what's in it, it ain't going to be cheap. Our guess, and it is just a guess, is $499, the same launch price as the original Xbox One.

So, what did you find out?

Microsoft gave us the full tech specs of the machine. The central processor (CPU) has eight custom x86 cores clocked at 2.3GHz. The graphics processor (GPU) has 40 customised compute units clocked at 1172MHz - a very high clock speed for a console - and it does achieve Microsoft's stated six-teraflop performance figure. There's 12GB of GDDR5 RAM, with a memory bandwidth of 326GB/s. There's a faster 1TB 2.5-inch hard drive, and a UHD Blu-ray drive. Like Xbox One S, it has an integrated power supply, so no external power brick. In terms of input/output ports, it is identical to Xbox One S (so, no Kinect port, but HDMI in is retained).

I didn't understand any of that.

OK, so the CPU is about 30 per cent faster than the Xbox One's. The GPU is 4.6 times more powerful than Xbox One's. What matters just as much, though, is the huge amount of very fast memory available. Even with 4GB reserved for the system, games have a whole 8GB to play with, up from 5GB of much slower memory on Xbox One. That means fast streaming of very high-quality art assets, which will really help at the 4K ultra HD resolutions that Microsoft is gunning for.

So it's as powerful as they said it would be? As powerful as everyone hoped?

Pretty much, yeah. Some were hoping to see next-gen CPU technology in there, but that was never likely, given Microsoft's mandated compatibility with all existing Xbox One software. On the CPU side, what we have is a more modest evolution of the Xbox One unit. But the GPU is a beast. It's very, very fast.

More powerful than PlayStation 4 Pro?

Yes. Sony's machine is very clever and produces great results in the right hands - and as ever, the quality of the end results depends on how well the software runs, not on waving numbers around. But as far as those numbers go, Scorpio has PS4 Pro licked. It will surely be more expensive, too. It's a higher-spec machine in every sense, down to the optical drive that plays the new UHD Blu-ray format (not that anyone buys those). Microsoft uses the word "premium", and you know what that means: $$$.

Did you see it running a game?

Yes. Well, a ForzaTech demo, which is a stress test based on the Forza Motorsport 6 engine, running the maximum number of cars around a track with dynamic weather and all the bells and whistles turned on.

How did it do?

Smashed it. At the same graphics quality settings as Xbox One, the demo ran at a full 4K resolution, at a perfect 60 frames per second. For Xbox One to do this at a standard HD resolution of 1080p uses about 90 per cent of that console's power. Scorpio was only using 60-70 per cent of its resources to run this demo. The graphics settings were then ramped up to the equivalent of the ultra settings on the PC game Forza Motorsport Apex, and Scorpio still didn't break a sweat.

So that means...

Scorpio potentially has enough power not just to run Xbox One games at 4K resolution at the same frame rate - it's got power to spare on improving their looks further, with higher quality graphics settings, smoother frame rates, and more.

What's the catch?

Microsoft didn't choose the Forza engine to demo to us by accident. It's one of the best optimised, best performing game engines out there. Results on other game engines can and will vary.

I don't have a 4K TV and I doubt I'm going to get one any time soon. Why should I care?

Microsoft has made a commitment that (unlike PS4 Pro) all improved Scorpio modes for games must be available regardless of the display that's connected. So even with a regular 1080p TV, you'll be able to choose between performance modes that make the game run better, or resolution modes that will then "supersample" the 4K image down to your 1080p display, which should give you superb image quality - basically, a fantastically smooth and pretty picture. It's like having the ultimate anti-aliasing solution.

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Hmm, maybe...

OK, how about this: Scorpio will run absolutely all Xbox One games better, whether they get patched with 4K/Scorpio enhanced modes or not. Rather than running on an emulated Xbox One, they'll run with the full power of Scorpio unlocked, which in most cases should mean: more stable frame rates that hit their target more often; no screen tearing; maximum possible resolution at all times; nicer-looking textures; and faster load times, thanks to the improved hard drive and the spare 3GB of fast RAM.

Sounds good. What about backwards compatible Xbox 360 games? Any advantages there?

Yep, all the above. And it's worth pointing out that none of this has been easy for Microsoft to engineer. There's an impressive commitment to making as many Xbox games as possible run better than you've ever seen them before on Scorpio.

So, what do you think?

With the pretty huge caveat that we've only seen one demo running on the machine - and for the umpteenth time, software is everything - we're very impressed. The machine is beautifully engineered, right down to the state-of-the-art vapour cooling system that will keep that monster graphics processor cool. It's a far cry from Xbox One, Kinect and TVTVTV. It reminds us of the original Xbox and Xbox 360 - this is Microsoft throwing its considerable engineering resources at making the best possible games-playing machine. Xbox is back.

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