It's almost two years to the day since Microsoft launched the Xbox 360. So you would expect its successor to be well on its way towards fruition. But Microsoft has dropped only a few subtle hints about what form it could take, and hasn't provided any details.
The most significant statement so far has been about timeframe. Supposedly, the next generation Xbox will arrive next decade, possibly 2011 or 2012.
Microsoft wants as long as possible to recoup the $1.26 billion it spent developing the Xbox 360.
With such a long wait ahead, we've taken it upon ourselves to jump in the Tech.co.uk time machine and dialled in 2011, to give you a sneak peek of what you should expect from the next Xbox. Some have already named the 360's successor as the 'Xbox 720'. But we shall be referring to it as the 'Xbox 2011', to commemorate its likely year of arrival.
Putting the clocks back
To start off, let's take a look at how the Xbox 360 leapt ahead of its predecessor, and what that could mean for the Xbox 2011. The CPU clock speed quadrupled between the Xbox and Xbox 360, so that might imply that the 2011 CPU would be running at 12GHz.
But Intel is claiming its 32nm Sandy Bridge architecture will arrive at 4GHz in 2010, and clock speeds for the top desktop CPUs have remained steady at around 3GHz since the tail end of 2003. So we can't see a console processor hitting 12GHz, even in 2011. The core clock would well be a fairly minor leap forward - it could be running at just 5GHz.
One thing the Xbox 2011 CPU will have, however, is processing cores - lots of them. The Xbox had one core, and the 360 has three. Looking at current trends, we predict there will be at least eight processing cores in the next version, possibly as many as 16 - and there could even be up to 32. After all, desktop PC chips with eight cores are due at the end of 2008 in the shape of Intel's Nehalem architecture.
Something similar is likely to happen to the graphics acceleration. It is rumoured that AMD/ATI's forthcoming R700 architecture will offer up to eight GPU cores for the highest-end products, and that's due in 2008. Intel's Larabee graphics project also aims to be many-cored.
On the other hand, the Xbox 360's graphics run at only twice the clockspeed of the original Xbox's. So we could be seeing consoles in 2011 with lots of little graphics cores, perhaps as many as 64. But each one might only be running at a speed of 2GHz or even less.
All of these cores could well be part of one single chip, too. Both Intel and AMD are planning to integrate graphics onto their CPUs around the beginning of 2009. By 2011 this idea could be well established. There's even some talk of Microsoft designing its own chips, although there are very few details of this.
RAMming it home
Where today's premium PCs are sporting 2GB of memory, with 512MB more lined up on the graphics card, the Xbox360 only has 512MB shared across both CPU and GPU. A console needs to be much more affordable for the mass market.
Since we expect the console's operating system to be a 64-bit environment, memory in excess of 4GB would be perfectly feasible. But we suspect the amount of RAM will remain well behind desktop PCs, for cost reasons - maybe just 8GB?
The Xbox 2011 will probably continue with a shared memory architecture, particularly if the processing chip incorporates both CPU and GPU cores. So it will use GDDR graphics memory instead of desktop PC's DDR. GDDR benefits from a much more frequent update cycle than DDR - it's already on its fifth generation, where DDR is only on its third.
Power to the virtual people
The Xbox 360 has 115.2 GFLOPS floating point performance, 100 times the original Xbox, and can process 500 million polygons a second - five times its predecessor. With its plethora of cores, the Xbox 2011 could have 100 times more GLOPS again - maybe 10 TFLOPs, not far off supercomputer status. Its multiple graphics cores will allow it to process and texture many millions of polygons a second.
So what will all this processing power actually be doing? Obviously, graphics will become still closer to cinematic photorealism ( Project Gotham Racing 8 will be indistinguishable from TV race coverage; Call of Duty 8 will be shocking). But multiple cores will enable lots of other cool new capabilities too.
There is already talk of a camera with the ability to sense motion, and maybe voice activation. So you will be able to control your game character using gestures, and converse with NPCs using your own voice, giving commands or engaging in realistic dialogue.
This is just the start. Hardware physics processing is already finding its way onto the PC, either using a dedicated chip or borrowed GPU power. This will play a big part in future console games.
But the extra CPUs could also be called upon for more complex AI tasks - something the Halo series has become famous for. So Xbox 2011 games are likely to offer much more realistic NPC behaviour. The next console generation will be both a very good virtual companion, and a much more dangerous enemy.
Something that could be very different in 2011 is the mode of game delivery. Online game purchasing (like Valve's Steam) is still in its infancy, and current next-gen consoles are sticking primarily with discs for games. PlayStation 3 uses Blu-ray, and you can get an HD DVD drive for the Xbox 360, so these options are likely to remain on their successors, if only for backwards compatibility.
But the chances are that the next consoles will be very much network-connected devices, something Microsoft has pioneered with Xbox LIVE.
So the Xbox 2011 will more than likely come with a big hard disk - or even gigabytes of Flash storage - and your games will download straight onto this. It'll destroy the second-hand trade-in market, of course. But maybe we'll all be selling our electronic license keys on eBay instead!
Our prediction for the next Xbox is...
So here's the bottom line for the Xbox in 2011, based on current trends and what we know is happening over the next few years. Check back here in 2011 to see if we were right!
- CPU/GPU - Integrated chip with 16 x 5GHz processor cores, 32 x 2GHz graphics cores
- Memory - 8GB GDDR8
- Media - Dual-format HD-DVD/Blu-ray drive for backwards compatibility and movies
- Storage - 4TB hard disk for online game (and movie) delivery
- Built-in camera - for gesture-based control
- Built-in microphone - for voice-recognised control