We’ve now had a day to process the massive amounts of Xbox Series X technical information that Microsoft and Digital Foundry unleashed on the world yesterday. Looking past the raw numbers, which you can see summarized in the chart below, it all starts to paint a picture of how the future of console gaming could look and feel different thanks to Microsoft’s new hardware.
For sure, having enough raw power for a game’s target of a full 4K resolution at 60fps by default (with 120fps capability) is a nice touch. Hardware-accelerated ray-tracing capabilities and high-resolution HDR upgrades for older backward-compatible titles will also lead to some distinct visual improvements as well. But the things that have us most excited about the Xbox Series X all have to do with speed.
That starts with the “Xbox Velocity Architecture,” which Microsoft promises will allow “100GB of game assets to be instantly accessible by the developer” as a sort of “extended memory.” That “instant” access might be a slight exaggeration, since that expanded pool of data still seemingly has to come from the system’s NVMe storage at a 2.4GB/s transfer rate. Even expanded to 4.8GB/s thanks to a new decompression stack, that’s well below the 336 to 560GB/s access for data stored on the system’s 16GB of RAM. It’s also not clear why Microsoft specifically cites a 100GB limit for those “instant” assets amid the 1TB of internal storage built into the system.
|Xbox Series X||Xbox One X||Xbox One S|
|CPU||8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT)||8x Custom Jaguar Cores at 2.13GHz||8x Custom Jaguar Cores at 1.75GHz|
|GPU||12 TFLOPs, 52 CUs at 1.825GHz, Custom RDNA 2||6 TFLOPs, 40 CUs at 1.172GHz, Custom GCN + Polaris Features||1.4 TFLOPS, 12 CUs at 914MHz, Custom GCN GPU|
|Process||TSMC 7nm Enhanced||TSMC 16nmFF+||TSMC 16nmFF|
|Memory||16GB GDDR6||12GB GDDR5||8GB DDR3, 32MB ESRAM|
|Memory Bandwidth||10GB at 560GB/s, 6GB at 336GB/s||326GB/s||68GB/s, ESRAM at 219GB/s|
|Internal Storage||1TB Custom NVMe SSD||1TB HDD||1TB HDD|
|IO Throughput||2.4GB/s (Raw), 4.8GB/s (Compressed)||120MB/s||120MB/s|
|Expandable Storage||1TB Expansion Card||–||–|
|External Storage||USB 3.2 HDD Support||USB 3.2 HDD Support||USB 3.2 HDD Support|
|Optical Drive||4K UHD Blu-ray Drive||4K UHD Blu-ray Drive||4K UHD Blu-ray Drive|
|Performance Target||4K at 60fps – up to 120fps||4K at 30fps – up to 60fps||1080p at 30fps up to 60fps|
Still, it means the Series X can dip into long-term storage at speeds 40 times faster than the Xbox One. And the ability to access such a large pool of stored data at such high speeds is going to have a massive effect on how developers are able to design their games. Microsoft says it could be the end of “epic elevator rides or lengthy hallways” to hide loading in open-world games and will “effectively eliminate loading times between levels or create fast travel systems that are just that: fast.”
More than that, though, developers should be able to use this ability to create more detailed crowded environments with higher-resolution textures without having to worry about that content filling limited RAM or slowly streaming in from slow storage.
To understand just how much of a jump in visual quality that kind of memory access can cause, listen to Andy Gavin talk about how streaming memory technology unlocked the full power of CD-ROM storage for Crash Bandicoot on the original PlayStation. We could see some order of improvement with this new generation of memory access tech as we already saw when Sony demonstrated a similar system for Marvel’s Spider-Man running on PS5 hardware in a demo last year.
You’ll also be able to see the effects of this faster memory access at a system level, it seems. Digital Foundry showed a State of Decay 2 scene loading from scratch in just 8.5 seconds on the Xbox Series X, compared to a 35.3 second load time for the same scene on the Xbox One X. And the upcoming system’s “quick resume” feature can now store a complete RAM state for multiple games in long-term storage and reload that state to resume play at the precise point you stopped in just over six seconds (it’s unclear how much storage this quick resume feature will consume or the upper limit for how many game states can be stored, but Digital Foundry says at least three Series X titles can be “remembered” at once, with a higher limit for games from older Xbox hardware).
The other speed improvement we’re most excited about on Xbox Series X has to do with input lag. Standard Xbox One controllers sample new inputs and analog stick movements every 8ms, Microsoft says, in an effort to balance responsiveness and wireless controller battery life. For the Series X controller, Microsoft is instead using a new “Dynamic Latency Input System” that delivers “all of the button state changes that occurred since the last time they checked” as a “just in time” signal precisely when it’s requested by the game.
That should ensure the most recent available input data—limited only by the lag of Microsoft’s proprietary wireless protocol—without causing undue stress on the controller battery. It also means that developers aren’t limited by the delay inherent in multi-frame buffering when processing a new input state; those processes are now decoupled on the programming level so “the system can now know the input state that corresponds to every frame sent over HDMI,” as Microsoft puts it. And when a Series X controller is plugged in via USB-C, timestamped input signals will just be sent immediately when they are registered by the controller, rather than waiting for a set cycle or request.
Casual players may not notice the few milliseconds of improved response time to their inputs caused by these changes. But for expert-level players on twitch-heavy genres like fighting games, every little bit will help. And notably, Digital Foundry says old Xbox One controllers can be updated to make use of these Dynamic Latency Input features (when used with a Series X) via a simple firmware update. Plus, Microsoft says the Xbox Series X can automatically force 120Hz refresh rates and low-latency mode on TVs that support it, which will probably cause gaming latency improvements that some TV owners didn’t even know they had access to.
We’ll have to wait until we actually see the Xbox Series X in person to give our full thoughts on how these features really shake out in the real world. For now, though, we’re excited about the prospect of a new console generation that seems focused on reducing bottlenecks just as much as making things look better.
Listing image by Microsoft