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

The new Xbox will be here in time for Christmas

Update:  If you're curious about what Project Scorpio games might actually look like then a series of screenshots from a recent Microsoft tech demo might give you a better idea.

Original article continues below...

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

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

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

Check out our video below for a concise look at everything you need to know about Project Scorpio. 

Cut to the chase

  • What is it? A new 4K-equipped Xbox One
  • When is it out? Microsoft line is 'end of 2017'
  • What will it cost? Expect it to be more than the Xbox One and Xbox One S

What's powering Project Scorpio?

Although we haven't seen the console running for ourselves, Microsoft has released the full specs in an interview with Eurogamer's Digital Foundry

The headline feature of the new console is its GPU, which will pack a massive six teraflops of graphical performance. Scorpio's GPU has 40 compute units (compared to the original Xbox's 12) running at a clockspeed of 1172MHz (up from 853MHz), which is a big jump over both the original Xbox and the PS4 Pro. 

In particular its GPU is 4.6 times more powerful than the original Xbox One. 

Before you start celebrating, that's still a fair amount less than Nvidia's 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 with their first foray into virtual reality.

However, the console should be able to run very efficiently thanks to upgrades to its command processor, which has been upgraded to make use of Microsoft's new DirectX 12 graphics API, resulting in efficiency savings for the console of as much as 50% for titles running on the new API, according to Microsoft. 

Project Scorpio

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

The rest of the console's hardware has also been improved. Its AMD CPU has seen its speed increase from 1.75GHz to 2.3GHz while retaining the same number of cores (a 30% increase in horsepower), and its Memory has been boosted by 60% over the original Xbox One. 

Even the motherboard has seen improvements, and will adapt its power delivery to match the specific characteristics of the individual console's chip. 

Audio processing has also seen improvements, with Dolby Atmos being included in the console. 

The console will use a vapour chamber to dissipate heat out of the back of the console. 

These improvements have been designed by a team of Microsoft engineers after analysis of hardware bottlenecks on the existing console and its graphics engines, and prototyped using hardware emulators. 

Excitingly, it's also been revealed by Eurogamer that the console will support adaptive frame-rate technology known as FreeSync. Project Scorpio will be the first console to support this technology as it's something that's more commonly found in PCs.

When a console drops below its target frame-rate of 60fps or 30 fps a graphical glitch known as screen-tearing can sometimes occur. Traditionally consoles use something known as V-Sync to prevent this happening but this sometimes caused lag and stutter which isn't great for fast-paced games.

Having FreeSync means that Scorpio should be able to prevent any screen-tearing without that telling judder or input-lag, something that will be particularly key when playing graphically demanding 4K games. Though Microsoft has said it will be available across all of the console's games, even backwards compatible Xbox 360 titles. 

Though this is great, one downside is that many Scorpio owners won't get to take advantage of the technology right away.  This is because adaptive sync will only be available on TVs equipped with HDMI 2.1 (a display standard that hasn’t yet been ratified) or computer monitors that support FreeSync over HDMI. It's unlikely that a majority of people will have access to these kinds of displays just yet.

However, we can expect the majority of TVs in the future to adopt the HDMI 2.1 standard so sometime in the future you're probably going to end up with a TV that will support FreeSync. 

All of this means that rendering in native 4K is a real possibility for the new console, which contradicts a Microsoft whitepaper published last year which suggested that the new console would make use of upscaling techniques 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. 

While Microsoft has said that it's targeting native 4K for its first-party titles, these techniques suggest that the Project Scorpio's 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.

"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. Digital Foundry's video in particular showed off a port of Forza Motorsport running at 60Hz at 4K. 

Project Scorpio

Whose VR headset?

Xbox has recently announced that it will be bringing mixed reality headset support to Xbox One and Scorpio in 2018.

Xbox owners won't be limited to just one headset. Instead the console will support all Windows Mixed Reality headsets, which include models from Lenovo, Dell, Acer and HP.

Virtual reality is likely to also be one of the 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.

One example given by Digital Foundry was Forza Motorsport 6. They showed a screenshot of the game running in 4K while still maintaining 60fps, while still having plenty of GPU horsepower to spare. 

Most interesting was the fact that this game had been ported to Scorpio after just a couple of days of porting work. This ease suggests that we might see a lot of games being ported to the new console.

This suggests that 1080p Xbox One games should be able to run at 4K on Xbox One without too much trouble, and Microsoft has also said that it intends for games with a resolution of 900p on Xbox One to also run at 4K on Xbox One.

However, even if you're stick rocking a Full HD TV you should benefit from the Scorpio's ability to super-sample games from 4K down to 1080p, which should result in a boost to detail. 

If you're curious what games might actually end up looking like compared to their 1080p versions, then a couple of recent Microsoft tech demos might give you a better idea. 

Interestingly, despite the fact that Sony now requires that every PS4 game support the Pro in some way, this will not be the case with Project Scorpio. As revealed in a recent interview not every Xbox One game going forward will be required to support the new hardware. 

Ostensibly this is a good thing, since it will allow developers to choose how to best spend their limited resources, but it will be interesting to see whether this harms developer adoption of the new hardware.

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. 

Although Microsoft is keen to assure developers that porting to the new console will be easy, there are still questions about whether developers will want to do so. 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. 

So far we've had confirmation of a number of Scorpio games including Forza Motorsport 7, Crackdown 3, State of Decay 2, Call of Duty, FIFA, Madden, Battlefront 2, Middle Earth: Shadow of War and Red Dead Redemption 2. This is a strong opening lineup for the console's 4K abilities. 

(Image: © Xbox)

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.

There's a good chance we could find out more information about Project Scorpio even sooner than the Xbox E3 conference on June 11 too.

A recent report from Windows Central stated that "a major gaming outlet" is preparing to exclusively reveal the console's specs as soon as the second week in April. 

We're taking this window of time with a pinch of salt, but it is likely that the spec reveal will come sooner than E3 as in a recent interview with IGN, Xbox head Phil Spencer said that though the console will be at the show 'doing everything at E3 would be difficult' and as a result a separate hardware-focused event could happen beforehand, though final plans haven't been set. 

By featuring its hardware before E3, Xbox would then be able to spend more time showing exactly what it can do at the show in June.