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Wait ... so what's a teraflop?

I may write and talk about video games for a living, but I'm as ignorant as one could possibly be of computer science and still be legally allowed to work on the internet. So, like many of you I'd guess, when Microsoft said its Xbox One refresh Project Scorpio would have "six teraflops of computing power" my stupid Cro-Magnon brain heard it as "very fast and good."

But what is a teraflop? Well, I had an hour to kill before the E3 show floor opened, so I decided to spend it educating myself, if only for a distraction from obsessing about the fact that Insomniac is making a Spider-Man game.

My research methods included (1) Google and (2) watching this video from the Frontier Scientists Channel:

It's worth noting that if you have somehow stumbled on this page as part of researching a term paper about flops, and you have to submit that paper to a real adult that actually understands flops, then you should probably just watch that video and move on. Mainly because it includes several insights from the man on the left and zero from the gentleman on the right.


So lets take the second part of the word first, what's a flop? Well, that's an acronym for "floating point operations per second." Now, I know what you're thinking: Wouldn't "flopops" or "flopos" have been a more fun acronym? The answer is an unqualified "Yes."

But, umm, what's a floating point operation? Well, a floating point is a number with a decimal point in it and, as you remember from middle school, they're harder to work with than integers (no decimal). So the number of those a computer can do per second is a way computer scientists can measure computing power. In terms of graphics processing, those computations are used to draw polygons and move them around on screen. More flops mean you can get more of those polygons all over the place. So, that's a flop.

A megaflop is a million of those. A gigaflop is a billion. A teraflop is a trillion. Project Scorpio has six of those. The fastest video card, the Nvidia GTX 1080, does 8.9 teraflops, just for comparison.

Here's how six teraflops stacks up to the console competition:

So, what have we learned? At the risk of being reductionist, flops are a measure of "good" and teraflops are very big units of goodness and six teraflops are six very fast things stacked on top of each other. So, in closing, when Microsoft says Project Scorpio has "six teraflops of computing power," you should hear "very fast and good."

... Well, that's an hour of my life I'm not getting back.

Xbox One S and Xbox Project Scorpio

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