Is this the first attempt to comprehensively answer the big question? Fundamentally, what is next-gen? In Xbox chief Phil Spencer's latest blog for Xbox Wire, we get a smattering of tech specs for the new Series X, reaffirmation of a frictionless future for gaming thanks to solid-state storage and a reminder that as powerful as raw power is, technological innovation is just as important.
However, despite that focus on new ideas, there is still room for Microsoft to clarify and indeed emphasise the extent of the processing power crammed into the Xbox Series X GPU. In a GameSpot story at the tail end of 2019, Spencer invited us to 'do the math' based on the notion that the new console had twice the graphics power of Xbox One X and over 8x that of Xbox One. The implication was that the console packs a 12 teraflop GPU - but muddying the waters somewhat is the fact that innovations in GPU architecture meant that Microsoft wouldn't need 12TF to deliver 2x Xbox One X performance - our tests showed that a ballpark 9-10TF could conceivably get the job done.
The new blog clarifies the situation and it's only good news. With 12TF unambiguously confirmed, Microsoft may well have twice the basic level of GPU compute on tap, but actual gaming performance should exceed that handily. However, the firm goes further in explicitly stating that AMD's latest RDNA 2 architecture is at the heart of Series X, meaning that there may well be some further optimisations in the upcoming AMD Navi design implemented in the console that we are not yet aware of, simply because PC parts based on the latest architecture are not yet available for us to experiment with.
RDNA 2 does include variable rate shading - a feature highlighted by Spencer - which prioritises rendering precision to the areas of the screen that matter, reducing the work done on pixels that don't need it (low contrast or high motion areas, for example). The revised Navi design also includes hardware accelerated ray tracing - and we now know that Series X uses the same DXR API as the majority of PC titles supporting RT. Again, this is good news - it's been a fairly lengthy process for developers to get to grips with ray tracing on PC and much of that work should translate to Series X.
However, there's still plenty we don't know about RDNA 2 though. In parallel with ray tracing, Microsoft has been working on hardware-accelerated machine learning via DirectML. Nvidia has its tensor cores for these workloads but does RDNA 2 have some kind of AMD or custom Microsoft equivalent? Also curious is that according to AMD's roadmaps, the latest RDNA uses a refined version of the 7nm chip manufacturing process used in its existing Ryzen 3000 CPUs and Navi GPUs. Does Series X also use the updated process? This would be an unusual move for console, but not unprecedented. The bottom line is that in the here and now at least, not only does Microsoft's new console feature a larger GPU than anything AMD has in the PC market, it's also based on the very latest technology.
Microsoft's messaging is so confident that there's almost the sense that the firm is throwing down the gauntlet to its main rival, Sony. I didn't anticipate that Microsoft or indeed Sony would resuscitate the teraflop as a measure of a console's power - principally because it's not an especially accurate way of expressing what a GPU is really capable of, especially when comparing architectures from two very different generations. I can only imagine that Microsoft is comfortable enough with a comparison with the last-gen enhanced machine that possibly under-sells its new machine, while at the same time challenging Sony to follow suit with its latest offering.
Name-checking RDNA 2 is also quite a specific move from Microsoft. It rules out any possibility that the console is using older graphics tech with selected, later features from AMD's roadmap back-ported into the design - something that both Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro did back in the day, principally for easier compatibility with the existing library of games. I wouldn't be surprised if RDNA had some level of inherent backwards compatibility built in, if only for AMD to more easily retain two crucial partners in its semi-custom business, but regardless, the new blog also contains a number of interesting snippets of information on how old games will run on the new machine. There's also the slightest of hints for a genuine game-changer in how back-compat may be handled.
Similar to much of the blog's content, the back-compat section retreads a lot of old ground. Series X allows users to play titles from four generations of Xbox gaming and there's talk of steadier frame-rates and faster loading times - point for point what we experienced with Xbox One X when running older titles. However, it's the mention of 'increased resolution and visual fidelity' that I find most intriguing. On the one hand, we saw elements of this in Xbox One X, where system-level anisotropic filtering was ramped up to 16x in combination with extra GPU horsepower pushing dynamic resolution titles to maximum pixel output. Microsoft could be describing this in the new blog, except that there's no mention of DRS being involved at all.
And this leads me to the one big question I have about today's announcement. Could we be looking at Microsoft itself forcing higher resolutions through on existing Xbox One games, even if they don't use dynamic resolution scaling? In the past, I've described the 'buried treasure' that Phil Spencer occasionally embeds into his messaging. In general, it's safe to say that he likes to drop hints on future plans while being fully aware of how important it is to deliver or even over-deliver. Meanwhile, the back-compat team has already offered up higher resolution versions of older generation games with innovative emulation solutions: OG Xbox titles run at 4x the resolution on Xbox One and 8x the resolution on Xbox One X. Meanwhile, select Xbox 360 games run at 9x resolution if they've been X-enhanced - a process that sees native 720p games almost magically present at native 4K.
Could we see higher resolution Xbox One games on Series X? Well, if you're a firm that has a reputation for excellent fan service in this area, where do you go next? More to the point, if your main competitor in the console space announces backwards compatibility for their own system, how do you take things to the next level?
The suggestion of something big here is mouthwatering. If, for example, Microsoft were to deliver twice the resolution on both axes, Xbox One S titles running at 1080p would render at full 4K. The vast array of 900p games on the system would present very nicely at 1800p, while 720p would multiply to 1440p. Series X has over eight times the compute power of Xbox One and likely much more than that where it matters - in gaming performance. Conceivably, the resolution multiplier could be higher. It's only a theory, of course, but going back to Spencer's blog, the words used seem almost deliberately ambiguous. Resolution increases are promised without any kind of qualifier, and knowing exactly how corporate PR works, I find the choice of wording here fascinating.
There's a lot more to discuss in this announcement but ultimately what I think most people are excited about beyond what Series X does is how Xbox itself is evolving as a platform. In the past, Phil Spencer has been passionate about the concept of taking your library of games with you from generation to generation - and I think that the most profound message in today's PR is the idea that when you buy a game, you won't have to buy it again to enjoy everything it has to offer on a next generation machine. This is the PS4 Pro/Xbox One X patch strategy ramped up to the next level.
There is actually a technical foundation to this in terms of the way Xbox games are authored going forward (you may have heard leaks about GameCore) but the takeaway from the consumer side is that we finally have an elegant solution to the often awkward cross-gen period. Buy Halo Infinite for Xbox One and you'll automatically get the Series X version, a state of affairs that applies equally to Cyberpunk 2077 based on today's announcement from CD Projekt RED.
Microsoft is using a system dubbed Smart Delivery to ensure that the right data is delivered to the right hardware - seemingly an evolution of Intelligent Delivery from the Project Scorpio era, a system designed to give users the freedom to download the parts of a game that they actually need - most often used to ensure that Xbox One S users aren't needlessly downloading the texture data that only Xbox One X users would need for any given game. Smart Delivery seems to be taking this concept to its ultimate degree.
In effect, today's announcement sees Microsoft laying down the ground rules for what is likely to be a fairly prolonged cross-generational period. The idea of effectively abolishing the next-gen 'tax' can only be a good thing and from what I've heard from sources, my understanding is that Microsoft is communicating its desire for third party publishers to buy into the scheme. It's important to the Xbox team. It's seen as a signature feature of the new Xbox platform.
However, the fact that there is an opt-out for publishers means that things could get messy for those who don't play ball. I'm also curious about the logistics of how Smart Delivery will play out and I'm looking forward to more clarity. For example, will Series X users actually be able to buy a physical disc version of a game that doesn't require additional data downloads? Xbox One S and Xbox One X should in theory support the 100GB Blu-ray game discs we desperately need for next-gen titles, but original Xbox One hardware likely won't - so does the need to support all Xbox One models rule out games delivered on 100GB discs? For collectors of physical games such as our very own John Linneman, this is something of a concern.
While reiterating quite a lot of established information, today's Xbox Series X announcement still manages to make an impact, beyond hammering home the console's technical credentials still further. In effect, Microsoft has taken point in revealing a strategy for handling a tricky transition period - and its decisions seem to have gone down well with users. All of which shifts the focus to Sony, which has gone remarkably quiet after delivering some fascinating information in its two Wired articles.
All we've really had from Sony since the last October 2019 Wired piece has been a logo and what amounts to a placeholder website. Hopefully we'll see something more soon but I'll close by saying that while there are obvious technological similarities, I do expect to see a very different vision from Sony - and possibly a different emphasis in terms of hardware design. If the AMD testing leaks are accurate, the horsepower war is over, but as Phil Spencer himself says, raw power is just part of the story.