Xbox One News and Announcements

Microsoft, in a what was likely to be a response to Sony’s PS4 introduction that revealed everything but the PS4 itself, unveiled its own hardware within ten minutes of the Xbox One event.  Surprise – it’s a black box!

The conference focused less on hardware than Sony’s did, but the rumors we’d been hearing were largely confirmed, and the new console’s design provides hints about its priorities. The reveal also laid a layer of software intrigue over the hardware itself.  Let’s see what all of this will mean for you when the Xbox One launches this winter.

x86 comes to the living room, again.

Microsoft did not go into detail about the processor inside the Xbox One, but they didn’t need to. The reveal simply stated the architecture is based on an 8-core, 64-bit x86 CPU. Additional information released outside the official reveal indicate the CPU and GPU are on a single package and will be made on a 40nm process.

All of these hints quickly narrow down what the part could be; its AMD hardware, and most likely a custom version of the Jaguar architecture that will also be found in the PlayStation 4. Microsoft stated that the Xbox One will include eight gigabytes of RAM, also similar to the PS4, but unlike Sony, which boasted about its high-speed (and expensive) GDDR5 memory, Microsoft will rely on slower, more common and less expensive DDR3.

There was one hardware specification touted at the Xbox conference that Sony has yet to announce for its own console: storage space. The Xbox One will offer a 500GB hard drive (other bundles may offer different sizes, but Microsoft confirmed the 500GB is standard), while Sony’s drive is unknown. This large drive will be necessary because the new console’s Blu-Ray drive will be used only to install games, which then play from the hard drive. External storage can be added via the system’s USB 3.0 ports if the internal drive fills up.

Versatility trumps performance

Directly comparing the raw power of two consoles before release is always tricky business, but the Xbox One reveal did provide plenty of reason to think that Microsoft’s console will come in behind the PS4.

The limitations of DDR3 make it certain that bandwidth will be a fraction of what Sony’s console can handle. This may be the Xbox One’s greatest long-term weakness.

First, there’s the memory. The GDDR5 in the PS4 is very, very quick, providing up to 176GB/s of bandwidth. While we don’t know exactly what figures the Xbox One will pump out, the limitations of DDR3 make it certain that bandwidth will be a fraction of what Sony’s console can handle. This may be the Xbox One’s greatest long-term weakness.

While Microsoft did not specifically provide figures about the capabilities of the graphics hardware, all reports currently indicate it will be derived from the same AMD architecture used in Sony’s console, but marginally less powerful (and customized for Microsoft’s needs, of course). Subjectively, we thought that the games at Sony’s reveal did look a bit more detailed than those at Microsoft’s, but some titles (particularly Forza 5) certainly live up to next-gen expectations.

The Xbox One’s hardware disadvantage may be made up for by the new console’s versatility, however. Even the name itself – “Xbox One” – makes clear that this new console is about an integrated experience. To accomplish that goal, the console offers USB 3.0, 802.11 Wi-Fi, a Blu-Ray drive and support for HDMI in and out (presumably, the “in” will come from a cable box) which includes 4K and 3D technology.

Microsoft also boasted that the new Xbox will offer silent operation, a nod to the noise and heat issues faced by the Xbox 360. Though this may seem a minor point, silent operation will be important if this system is to thrive as not just a game console but also an all-in-one media center. The focus on thermals can be seen in the design of the enclosure, which dedicates significant surface area to ventilation.

Kinect has been upgraded to 1080p with a capture speed of 30 frames per second, a huge improvement over the current Kinect’s 640×480/30fps camera. The new version enables Skype calls and vastly increases the amount of data Kinect can collect for processing motion, which should translate to more accurate and responsive control. Check out our hands on (or hands off as the case may be) with the new Kinect, and the redesigned controller.

Beyond the hardware

Sony has yet to show any hardware or software that could enable the multi-tasking experience Microsoft plans to deliver with the Xbox One.

Not one but three operating systems are present: an exclusive partition for games, a shared partition running a Windows kernel for apps, and a “Host OS” that serves as the glue between the other two. This software architecture lets users instantly switch between movies and games and even multi-task with “Snap Mode,” which is similar to snap multi-tasking in Windows 8. All of this is enabled by high-speed cache and specialized sub-processors that can move small amounts of data quickly.

The software functionality is important because it won’t be easy for Sony to counter. Microsoft’s hardware is clearly designed from the ground up to enable an all-in-one experience. The PS4 will have more raw power, but Sony has yet to show any hardware or software that could enable the multi-tasking experience Microsoft plans to deliver with the Xbox One.

And then there’s the wild card: cloud computing. Xbox Live currently runs on approximately 15,000 servers, a number that will rise to a jaw-dropping 300,000 servers by the end of this year. Those servers will offer developers the opportunity to off-load computation tasks, which literally makes the Xbox One more powerful than what is in the box. Depending on its implementation, we could see titles on the One offer features (particularly in multi-player) that aren’t possible on other consoles.

Different paths

Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles appear similar at first glance. The hardware in each, though customized, is based on x86 APUs from AMD. Both consoles offer similar connectivity, a Blu-Ray drive, and rely on mechanical long-term storage. The PS4 will be the more powerful system, but the fundamentals for both consoles are more alike than ever before.

Yet, at the same time, the two couldn’t be more different. Microsoft is clearly leveraging its experience in software and cloud services to provide a console that is more like a specialized media PC than a traditional console.  The One’s tagline is “the all-in-one entertainment system” – not “game system.”

Sony, on the other hand, is sticking with a traditional hardware platform that seeks to give game developers access to as much raw power as possible. In exchange, it loses ground in the multimedia arena. And don’t forget Nintendo’s Wii U, the only next-gen console not built on an x86 architecture and the only one to offer a touchscreen controller.

We can only wait to see how the Xbox One and PS4 shape up for release, but this may be the most diverse console generation yet. Each company has laid out a unique vision of what the gaming experience should be. Let the next battle in the console wars begin!