Project Scorpio: everything we know about Microsoft's 4K-ready Xbox

A new Xbox launches holiday 2017

Update: The recent discovery of a whitepaper has fuelled fears that the upcoming Project Scorpio won't be able to run games in native 4K based on a suggestion that the console will rely on a similar method to the PS4 Pro's 'checkerboarding' to achieve the appearance of 4K without needing as much graphical horsepower. However when asked directly, a senior Microsoft executive confirmed said this was not the case. We've added the information to the page below. 

Console's are weird right now aren't they? First we had the rumors, and then the announcement of the PS4 Pro, and in between we had Microsoft's announcement and release of the Xbox One S, a souped up 4K-lite version of the Xbox One.

And next year with Project Scorpio, Microsoft is bringing yet another console to the table.

The console was announced at Microsoft's E3 briefing this year, and it claims it's going to be the most powerful console ever built.

From looking at its specs compared to the PS4 Pro, it looks like Microsoft might be right about that one.

The motive for Microsoft's expediency is to attempt to keep up with the demands of gamers for emerging technologies like 4K, VR and HDR content. Another reason is that, should Microsoft wait any longer, high-end PCs that already support these technologies will only get further ahead in the race to reach that next high-fidelity visual plateau.

Cut to the chase

  • What is it? A new Xbox One equipped with 4K
  • When is it out? Holiday 2017
  • What will it cost? Expect it to be more than the Xbox One and Xbox One S

Project Scorpio

What's powering Project Scorpio?

Microsoft hasn't officially released many specifics about the hardware running inside Project Scorpio yet, but what we do know is that Project Scorpio will be mighty powerful.

To put that into perspective, that's five times more powerful than the Xbox One.

How powerful you ask? Six teraflops of graphical performance powerful. To put that into perspective, that's four and a half times more powerful than the Xbox One's GPU. 

Before you start celebrating, that's still a fair amount less than Nvidia's just-announced top of the line GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card which pumps out a whopping nine teraflops but, considering that high quality VR only requires a GTX 970 to work properly, Project Scorpio shouldn't (in theory at least) have any trouble providing Xbox gamers their first foray into virtual reality.

Now, 6 TFLOPS is a lot of graphical performance, but it might not necessarily be enough to run games natively at 4K. A Microsoft whitepaper suggests as much with its inclusion of a couple of effects called 'half-resolution' and 'sparse rendering'.

Half-resolution is a technique whereby graphically intensive effects are run at a lower resolution than the game as a whole, and are then upscaled to the full resolution. 

Meanwhile, sparse rendering is a technique that's similar to the PS4 Pro's 'checkerboarding' technique, which cleverly upscales games to 4K in a way that's almost indistinguishable from the native resolution. 

These techniques, along with the whitepaper's mention of dynamic resolutions, suggest that Project Scorpio might not be the native 4K machine that some might have thought, but there's always the chance that different games will run at different resolutions, depending on their developer's priorities. 

The other advantage Scorpio has is that, since the Xbox One runs Windows, it'll be easy for game developers to create games to work on both platforms.

Project Scorpio

Meet the Xbox One S, the other new system to join the Xbox family.

"The capability to build a game that actually takes advantage of different hardware capabilities is part of any third-party dev ecosystem, or anybody who's targeting Windows and console at the same time," said Xbox head Phil Spencer speaking to Wired.

Microsoft also promises the console will be able to render visuals at 60Hz, which means silky smooth gameplay that's synced to your TV's refresh rate. However, it's still unclear if both 4K games and VR will be able to run at 60Hz, and whether Spencer was talking about games in 1080p or 4K. It's also interesting to note that many VR headsets like the Oculus Rift operate at 90Hz to help combat motion sickness from any latency.

We also know that AMD will be powering Project Scorpio, although it's unlikely that the console will be upgraded to the newer Zen CPU cores. 

"We are proud that Microsoft has chosen to expand their Xbox One family of devices with two new consoles featuring AMD's high-performance semi-custom SoCs that support revolutionary new technologies like HDR, 4K and high fidelity VR to enable the next generation of immersive gaming experiences," reads a statement from AMD.

We also know that the console will not ship with ESRAM, the high speed RAM designed to get around the problem of the original Xbox One's slow DDR3 RAM. 

Project Scorpio

Whose VR headset?

Virtual reality will be one of the two big selling points of Project Scorpio, but Microsoft doesn't have its own VR headset and won't be developing its own for now.

Yes, it has HoloLens, but that's for augmented reality and not VR. Instead, Microsoft will use an existing VR headset like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, though Spencer doesn't name any specific headsets as being partners.

The logical choice here might be Oculus Rift, as Microsoft partnered with the Facebook-backed company earlier in the year to launch every headset with an Xbox One controller. Plus, a more unified platform between PCs and Xbox could make it easy on developers to port existing Rift games to Xbox One without any extra work.

Here's the bad news: since Project Scorpio doesn't come bundled with a VR headset – at least not one that Spencer mentioned – expect to spend an additional $600-$800 (£499-£689) for one.

An improved gaming experience

One interesting revelation from Microsoft's E3 announcement is that all consoles in the Xbox One family, including Scorpio and the One S, will be able to play from the same library of games. Scorpio will also apparently support a select number of Xbox 360 games just like the Xbox One. However, more powerful consoles like Scorpio will feature better gaming experiences due to the more powerful components.

What that means, for example, is that Halo 5 can run at 1080p at 60 frames per second on the Xbox One but the console often drops the resolution to maintain the buttery smooth framerate.

Project Scorpio won't need to drop the resolution in order to maintain that framerate.

Project Scorpio

"When a game like that runs on Scorpio it's going to run at maximum resolution the whole time," says Spencer speaking with The Verge.

But does maximum resolution always mean native 4K? Spencer has recently gone on record to say that the console will in fact be able to do native 4K, but the discovery of a whitepaper recently suggests otherwise. 

What's less clear is how much developers will embrace working with the new console. According to a survey from the Game Developer's Conference, developers are concerned the new mid-generation console upgrades will create more work for them as they struggle to build games that support both systems. 

Potentially this means that the new console won't be embraced as fully as it could do, and this has the potential to prevent it from reaching its full potential. 

How much will it cost?

Microsoft obviously hasn't nailed down a price range for the upcoming console yet, though Spencer has dropped hints about it when speaking with The Verge.

He said, "We're not ready to announce something right now, but you can imagine at the price point of Scorpio – which we haven't actually said, but think about consoles and where they live in terms of price point – having something at six teraflops that will get millions of people buying it is very attractive to some of the VR companies that are out there already, and we've architected it such that something will be able to plug right in and work."

If we take a look at what a VR-ready PC costs on the low end, about $800-$900 or about £600, I expect Project Scorpio to be around that price. That's a lot of money for a console, especially compared to the just-announced Xbox One S which costs $299 (£249) for the base model.

Project Scorpio

Why announce it so early?

It's a bit odd for Microsoft to announce a new game console so early. Even Phil Spencer admits it.

"It's crazy to announce something this early, but when I put myself in the shoes of our customer, I want to be able to make a choice on what console I want to buy with as much information as possible," he says. "We want to give you the information to make that decision. We also want to go talk to the developers that are out there today, that are building games for next holiday, and say here's what you're going to have at your disposal on the console side."

It also makes sense to announce the console early to catch up to PlayStation's VR efforts. While the PS4 does support VR, it's an unquestionably inferior experience when compared to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which require expensive computers to power them.

This is Microsoft's chance to show they're serious about VR, and hopefully that's enough to keep gamers from jumping to another platform.

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