As Microsoft is about to announce the next-generation Xbox tomorrow, this may be the last day on which we use the term Xbox 720 (“Xbox Infinity” is rumored, but that seems like a very “final/ultimate” type of name… but why not?). Microsoft entered the console market at a time where many doubted that it could be successful as a new comer. After more than a decade, Microsoft now sits at the top of the market, with U.S console and game sales higher than both Sony and Nintendo. The company is about to introduce its next-generation game console, let’s take a look at what it’s likely going to be.
Xbox 720 Specifications
Traditionally, the specifications of a next-gen console is what “defines” it. That comes from a long legacy of gaming consoles that were ultimately limited by its hardware features. Every gamer knew that: the hardware capabilities were like the “speed of light”, and it is still somewhat true today. Most of the interesting specs always revolved around “computer graphics” (CG), so in the early days, the number of sprites were important, then the number of polygons became the primary metric.
In today’s “programmable” CG world, it’s all about raw processing power which is defined by a few key metrics: 1/ the number of stream processors that handle the pixels and vertices of any 3D scene 2/ the internal bandwidth, or amount of data that the console can move around 3/ the number and speed of the CPU cores that will handle AI, scene management etc…
CPU/GPU: since AMD is said to be the chip provider for the new Xbox (and the PS4…), it’s reasonable to assume that the platform will be PC-like, which is great going forward because a lot of R&D is done on PC architecture, and it is also nice that PlayStation and Xbox platforms may benefit from similar optimizations, for once. They sometime had radically different -if not opposite- optimization requirements, which can be a time sink for developers. Now, this may create backwards-compatibility issues, but we’ll get to that shortly.
The final specifications are still unknown, but Microsoft has been providing software development kits that would hint that Xbox-next would be equipped with an 8-core X86 AMD CPU (Jaguar core?) and the frequency that’s most talked about is 1.6GHz. Right now, it also looks like 8GB RAM will be the amount with which developers will have for this life-cycle.
In terms of graphics processor (GPU), it would make sense that it gets something just shy of the latest and great PC GPU. That’s because if Microsoft wants to hit Christmas 2013, it had to “freeze” the specs to prepare for production, so even if they shoot ahead, they can’t get the best GPU of Q4 2013, it’s that simple. It could be something between Radeon 7790 and 7870 (see comparison), both from the Series 7000.
The CPU frequency doesn’t seem like much, but if you take into account that both CPU and GPU are likely to be in the same chip (not unlike a smartphone system-on-chip or SoC), with a (relatively) copious amount of memory, you will realize that thermal management isn’t trivial for the first hardware iteration. From there, a unified chip provides ample room for continuous cost-reduction, which is critical to this business where hardware tend to be sold at cost, or at a loss early on.
DVD/Blu-Ray drive: since games are not going to get any smaller with the switch to HD and the continually richer game experiences, it would be fair to assume that a Blu-Ray player would be included. Yes, I know, Blu-Ray is backed by Sony (and many others) etc… but since it is now dirt-cheap, it seems unthinkable to not have one.
Just like the previous generation of consoles, they won’t hold the performance crown, since most “gaming” PCs already outrank them in terms of technology and speed. However, most of those PCs don’t cost $499 or whatever the console will sell for, so the end-user value is still very much there when this will come out.
Backwards Compatibility (unlikely to be 100%, if any)
Since the underlying hardware platform is going to change, this will undoubtedly create “some” backwards compatibility issues. The questions really is “how good/bad will it be”? Not having the same CPU architecture is a bad start for that, but games which bypass OS and drivers to potentially talk to the hardware directly can be using a number of hardware features like direct-memory-access (DMA) that are very difficult/expensive to emulate.
It is always possible to software-emulate everything, and there are really good emulators to prove it, but look at the performance ratio between your PC and a Gameboy or a PS1 — is that comparable to the ratio between Xbox 360 and 720? It takes a lot of power to emulate stuff like that. The only way to ensure a 100% backwards compatibility is to embed the old hardware in the new one. That’s what Sony did by embedding the PS1 into the PS2. That approach has proven to be too expensive when PS3 came along.
Conclusion: depending on how much games relied on the OS/drivers, there will be “some” compatibility, although 100% would be extremely impressive, but unlikely.
Non Gaming Features (critical)
When Microsoft entered the console business, it’s always been more than gaming. Over the years, the Xbox has evolved by offering music, then TV access, but as of today it is still considered a “gaming” device by most. If Microsoft wants to fulfill its dream of living room domination, the Xbox has to be more than a hardcore gaming device.
The non-gaming aspect of Xbox may be something that Microsoft promotes heavily tomorrow since it will have ample time to show more games at E3 in Los Angeles (we’ll be there). For example, it’s not hard to think that Microsoft may offer even more Music, Movies, Live TV, and TV shows, with possibly some exclusives. Since a lot of the services didn’t require “down to the metal” programming, I expect that Microsoft and its partners can leverage the work done with Xbox 360 and build up from there. The same may not be true for Sony, but we’ll see…
Skype should also play a role in Xbox next. Now that it is a Microsoft product, Skype will most likely appear as an embedded video chat app at a minimum, but Microsoft may Push Skype further and use it as the platform for in-game communications.
Always-on requirement: impossible
The broadband connectivity requirement was one of the most controversial rumor surrounding the next Xbox, and to me that was never true. It is unimaginable that Microsoft would require to be on the Internet in order to use its console. Sure you will have a better experience with a broadband connection, but “requiring” it would be a death sentence for this product. Maybe one day we will be able to have that requirement, but this is certainly not tomorrow.
Kinect + IllumiRoom
Since Kinect has been one of the most successful consumer electronic device of all times, it’s clear to me that Microsoft is going to continue pushing it. In fact, the word on the street is that the next Kinect should be able to track 6 players and the overall resolution of the cameras (color+depth) has been increased to 1080p and 512×424 respectively. This is a good bump in practical terms.
IllumiRoom is a very cool concept. We’ve covered it in January during CES, and it is a projection system that could be used to further immerse the gamer: for example, it could project what’s beyond the surface of the main screen onto the room. And yes, there may be clutter and things would not need to be perfectly setup, but since this is mostly in the user’s peripheral vision, the added effect could be quite remarkable. The downside is that it requires a setup and some extra rendering (possibly at a lower resolution), but having the option would be neat, and still the best reason to buy a projector, event a used or basic one. It’s rumored to be in, but the extra processing requirements, the possible need for wireless communications with the projector makes it very desirable, but also an unlikely feature.
This is probably one of the most mysterious parts, since we have very little to speculate with. Looking at the first Xbox, and at how Microsoft has improved the 360 design during the past decade, it is fair to say that Microsoft takes this very seriously, so we expect it to throw the best design it can afford in terms of cost and practicality. By now, Microsoft show have an excellent way to project the usage model, so we’re waiting to be impressed on this one, just like we were with the Surface and Surface RT designs.
Controller: for the most part, virtually everyone expects the Xbox controller to remain very similar to the existing one. Besides the fact that it was deemed “too big” at first, I haven’t heard people complain about it lately, so this seems plausible.
The final and most important point for many: the Xbox 720 is rumored to sell for $499 as a stand-alone device (base version) or $299 with an Xbox Live subscription. Given what we’ve talked about earlier, this seems plausible, but this theory has more or less be debunked so be prepared to pay “full price”. Some may think that this is expensive, but in the grand scheme of things, if it’s an 8-core, 8GB + hard-drive + good GPU system, it is worth it.
The clash of a new generation of consoles is never quite the same, and this time things will be more different than ever. In 10 years, a lot of things have changed, and it’s fun to see that the “PC Architecture” ended up winning. This is a good thing because developers will be able to spend their energy on improving the gameplay rather than trying to patch things so that they would fit into different types of systems.
From everything that has transpired here, Xbox-next and PS4 should be very close in terms of processing power and architecture, so maybe for once, we will focus on the eco-system and possibly the game exclusives to decide which one to go for. What do you think?