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E3 2017: Much Ado About the Xbox One X
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E3 2017: Much Ado About the Xbox One X

As Microsoft unveiled their ‘most powerful console ever’, Herman ponders the technical aspects of this exuberant claim.

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One of the biggest events at E3 2017 was the official debut of the Xbox One X (née Project Scorpio), which Microsoft finally unveiled during their press conference in Los Angeles. You probably know this but the One X has been billed as the “most powerful console ever”, and that’s one hell of a claim to make, despite being an inter-generational upgrade from the Xbox One S.

In its livestream earlier this week, Microsoft went over some of the advanced capabilities of the Xbox One X, including height surround audio bitstreaming through Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, HDR10 color gamut, a 1TB HDD drive for storage, and of course, native 4K (3840×2160) resolution at 60 frames per second for both video and gaming. In essence, the Xbox One X will supersample to higher pixels and moderately enhance existing Xbox One games at a sharper 1080p for people without a 4K TV. Ideally, you can finally enjoy the splendor of true ultra HD console gaming, unlike the dubious shortcuts Sony took with the PS4 Pro.

On the outside, the Xbox One X is the smallest console ever made from Seattle, even trimming off some of the physical mass from the Xbox One S. to accomplish this, everything is compact but denser in weight and the first console utilizing liquid cooling and a supercharger-inspired centrifugal fan to constantly maintain a optimal temperature throughout.

Microsoft has made no qualms about the hardware specs either. The CPU is still made by AMD and has eight customs x86 cores now clocked at 2.3GHz, and the GPU now has 6 TFLOPs (trillion floating point operations per second) and computes at 1172MHz. However, the biggest technical changes involve the utilizing 12GB of GDDR5 memory at 326 GB/s, with up to 9GB dedicated for game performance and the leftover 3GB regulated to background tasks. This effectively supersedes the standard 8GB DDR3 and 32MB of ESRAM, the latter of which have been pivotal to the existing platform.

ESRAM in particular is a small, but ultra-fast array of embedded static memory (eDRAM) integral to the Xbox One and Xbox One S, working as a bandwidth solution to operate in tandem with both the CPU and GPU. It is significantly faster versus available DRAM and even GDDR memory, but is equally expensive to incorporate and limited to a meager 32MB internally. This also means that games developed for Xbox One must be compatible with existing ESRAM-equipped architecture, so you can count on the One X not having any exclusive titles at this time (or perhaps ever).

Of course, comparisons between an Xbox One X and a higher-end desktop PC are inevitable. It generally looks like the specs can easily go pound-for-pound against a passionately built rig that costs over a thousand dollars more, right?

Well, not exactly. Though you will get a lot for the money, theoretically. In the case of the One X’s CPU, the eight Jaguar CPU cores will have at least a third of the performance tested on AMD’s newest Ryzen architecture (probably akin to a Ryzen 5 1400 or Intel Core i3 processor). The GPU is clocked at 1172MHz with 12GB of GDDR5, which initially sounds like extreme GeForce territory (think TITAN X/GTX 1080 Ti/TITAN Xp).

However, the total count is divided between the system and GPU where a lot of processing magic is being put to multitasking use.

People are deducing that the Xbox One X may actually be on par with a Radeon RX 580 or GeForce GTX 1060 equivalent, and I’m inclined to agree with those predictions to a point. In a standard desktop though, an RX 580 alone would never have a chance of doing fluid 4K gaming. However, console hardware and software works very different. Because there is no PC bottleneck to worry about, everything is optimized and tightly integrated from the beginning—from the OS, media output and ultimately how developers can code their games. That how it should work as console structure traditionally favors compatibility over upgradeability.

At least that is the idea, as we brave an uncertain world of broader console refreshes and mounting demands for enhanced entertainment. Sure, a gaming PC will offer a infinitely more flexible ecosystem but the Xbox One X is an impressive small form factor console all its own. Offering reasonable compromises to bring 4K gaming down from the elite to everybody.

Now we just have to wait until November 7th to see if this tactic legitimately pays off. Keep your fingers crossed and your wallets fat for the holidays.