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The State of Xbox Scorpio

It’s almost frustrating knowing as much as we do about Microsoft’s Project Scorpio, but not quite knowing enough.

All that will go away on Sunday afternoon as Microsoft presents their annual E3 press conference a day earlier than usual, at a show most expect will be heavy with information and emphasis on the new, powerful incarnation of the almost four-year-old Xbox One. But for now, this is what we know about the new console — and what we’re waiting to find out.

How powerful is it?

In a word? Very — at least compared to any other console.

Microsoft has made “six teraflops” a mantra for the new console in a way that might seem a little silly to everyone who isn’t a nerd about hardware specifications, but this number does mean something.

The launch Xbox One has a peak graphical performance number somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.3 teraflops, while the PlayStation 4 hovers around 1.8. The PS4 Pro, launched last fall, brought with it an upgrade to approximately 4.2 teraflops of graphical performance with it. Scorpio in turn packs a custom graphics component with peak performance of six teraflops.

This is a significant, easily understood upgrade. As Verge writer Tom Warren points out, this is likely to be a big talking point in some of Microsoft’s marketing — that six is greater than four. But there’s more to Scorpio’s power advantage than a 1.8 teraflop advantage in graphical power. Its CPU component is clocked somewhat higher than the improved part in the PS4 Pro — 2.3 GHz in Scorpio (versus 1.75 on the original Xbox One), compared to 2.1 GHz on the PS4 Pro (versus 1.6 on the launch PlayStation 4) — Additional efficiency improvements are likely to widen that gap somewhat. These include modifications made to the way Scorpio’s graphics systems communicate with the primary processor, which often creates a sort of “bottleneck.”

Expect Microsoft to use this word often. Consoles and PCs are full of a collection of components that must work in concert to make a game run, and getting them to work together is complicated. Often, elements of a console aren’t fully exploited or even remain idle as they wait for other parts to finish a task. This is a bottleneck, and Microsoft has spoken at length with Eurogamer’s well-respected technology blog Digital Foundry in recent months about their efforts to aggressively identify and mitigate the bottlenecks in Scorpio’s systems.

But the unsung Scorpio enhancement that will likely allow the system to leapfrog its console competition is its RAM. The PS4 Pro offers a comparatively small upgrade over the base model with an additional 512 MB of memory, and this may be a major reason behind the platform’s inability to reach higher 4K resolutions in many games.

For PC players hoping to play games in 4K on their platform, video memory has been a major stumbling block. In my experience with 4K gaming using a Nvidia 980 with 4GB of RAM, I generally have to make a decision between 4K at 30 frames per second, or half the resolution at 60 frames per second.

The Scorpio’s System-on-a-chip
Mike Ybarra —

Scorpio, meanwhile, completely overhauls the Xbox One’s memory setup, simplifying it for developers, making it orders of magnitude faster in most use cases, and adding an additional 3GB of it for 8GB* of available memory for games. This is a 60 percent improvement over the launch console.

[*Note: on June 8, Corporate Vice President of Xbox and Windows Gaming at Microsoft announced via Twitter that Xbox engineers had made an additional 1GB of system memory available to games on Scorpio, bringing the total of available RAM to 9GB for games, with 3GB reserved for OS functions.]

These changes and improvements have, by all accounts, led to a platform that provides huge improvements across the board, a necessity for Microsoft’s spoken goal that every existing Xbox One game run at 4K on the new hardware. While Scorpio isn’t quite a generational leap like we saw from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One and the PS3 to the PS4, it’s actually fairly close.

Practically speaking, this means that Scorpio is equipped to hit 4K resolutions for many existing games and engines with headroom left over for other visual improvements. It’s a system that is more powerful and capable than the PS4 Pro in virtually every way and by a wide margin — the gap between the two systems is considerably larger than the gap was between the launch Xbox One and PS4 consoles, and in more ways.

How will Scorpio affect games — both the ones you have now and the ones coming later this year?

Simply: Games will run in much higher resolution and often with better effects, lighting, textures, and more. But it’s up to Microsoft to show what that means.

Microsoft has been clear that they expect all Xbox One games to run on day one on Scorpio with no patching on the side of developers. The company has actually gone a step further, suggesting that it will take little to no effort by developers to have their titles run at significantly higher resolutions on the system. “Any 900p or better title would be able to easily run at frame-rate at 4K on Scorpio,” said Kevin Gammill, group product director of the Xbox platform.

Elaborating on that point, Digital Foundry spent some of its time at Microsoft for the exclusive tech unveiling of Scorpio earlier this year cataloging the ways in which existing Xbox One games will look better on Scorpio out of the box, with no patches or additional support from developers or publishers. These include better texture filtering, more consistent framerates, higher resolutions in titles with dynamic resolutions, the elimination of screen tearing, and more.

2016’s Gears of War 4 in 4K

It would also be reasonable to expect 4K updates for existing Xbox One titles fairly quickly — in fact, several Xbox One releases already have 4K support, thanks to Microsoft’s Play Anywhere initiative. Titles like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 shipped with native 4K assets and support on PC last fall.

Even without a 4K television, games optimized for Scorpio will look better due to hardware-based scaling. The system’s scaling chip will take the 4K image output by the console and reduce it to 1080p, which will lead to a much smoother image than a scene natively rendered at 1080p would provide. On PC, this is referred to as supersampling, and is widely regarded as the most visually pleasing (and least practical) forms of anti-aliasing available.

What other benefits will Scorpio provide?

One of the lesser reported but interesting additions to Scorpio involves major improvements to its included game capture and streaming abilities. The launch Xbox One and PS4 systems included the ability to record and upload gameplay footage at 720p and 30 frames per second in 2013, and last year the PS4 Pro upgraded that to 1080p. A new video encoder in Scorpio, meanwhile, will make it the first console — or, for that matter, PC GPU-descended device — to offer 4K gameplay footage at 60 frames per second, and, more surprisingly, with full HDR support.

This hardware will also allow streaming at 4K/60 with HDR support, for services that support it, though currently, this includes only Microsoft’s in-house streaming service Mixer (formerly Beam). It seems like a safe assumption that 4K/60/HDR uploads to YouTube will be supported as well. Even for other services, this represents a substantial improvement over other hardware for in-console streaming options.

Scorpio will otherwise offer the same improvements last Summer’s Xbox One S provided — notably, 4K/HDR video support and an included UHD Blu-ray drive, the latter of which is absent from the PS4 Pro. Other possible improvements remain unclear. The console will almost certainly include an 802.11 AC wireless radio like the Xbox One S, but there’s been no word on whether it might support 802.11 AD, a newer, higher-bandwidth standard. We don’t know what kind of hard drive the system will support, or whether we can expect faster loading speeds, an improvement claimed by the PS4 Pro over the launch console.

We also don’t know if other improved hardware will accompany the Scorpio unveiling. Kinect could be due for an update — a microphone array that was ahead of its time in 2013 is increasingly showing its age as the space becomes more competitive with offerings from Apple and Google, and the addition of VR support to Xbox at some point in the future would benefit from a new (optional) Kinect. Elsewhere, other set top boxes have introduced voice command features via remote controls, hardware that would be welcome on Scorpio as a compliment to the slick but spartan Xbox One media remote released in 2013.

And what about the controller? Will we see additional improvements to the Xbox One controller over last year’s revision, which added Bluetooth support? And, once again, an included microphone for voice commands would be a potential boon as Microsoft continues to de-emphasize Kinect’s necessity within the Xbox ecosystem.

Oh, and Scorpio no longer has an external power brick, so there’s that.

What will it look like?

A render of the Xbox Scorpio development kit

Microsoft has avoided showing the final Scorpio design, likely in an effort to make a bigger reveal at this year’s E3, but we do have some idea of its size and overall layout.

As previously mentioned, Scorpio has moved its power supply from an external box to the chassis itself, but this likely won’t account for much of a size increase over the Xbox One S, which also has an internal power supply. In fact, based on several comments from Microsoft and views of the Scorpio development kit — which Microsoft has been less shy about showing — expect the new console to be similar in size to the Xbox One S.

And buyers upgrading from an Xbox One S to Scorpio will apparently have an easy time of setting it up; in an interview with Gamasutra, Xbox head Phil Spencer said “... I tease the hardware team about this, because I'm running takehome now, so I have Scorpio at home --- even when you set it on top of your One, it directly portmaps. Like, you literally plug power in, plug HDMI in, it's all exactly the same.”

So all of this suggests: smaller than you’d think, and likely white.

What will it be called? How much will it cost? And when is it coming out?

These are the biggest unanswered questions for Scorpio at this point. We don’t know what it will be called, though there are hints — Microsoft filed a trademark for a logo pertaining to video game devices and other purposes with a prominently featured “S” this week. Microsoft obviously can’t call the system the Xbox One S, since that system already exists, but expect some kind of prominent branding around this S mark.

Additionally, teasers for Microsoft’s Xbox press conference across various video sites this week have included imagery being pored over as some kind of potential viral project ahead of the official Scorpio unveiling.

None of the conjecture around this material has been verified or even commented on by Microsoft. Regardless, the most debated topic regarding Scorpio is how much Microsoft will charge for it, with many pundits suggesting a $499 price point is the most reasonable MSRP. However, this is the same price the Xbox One launched at in 2013 against a $399 PlayStation 4, a factor widely attributed to the now large gulf between the two consoles’ sales numbers. All of Microsoft’s messaging around the Scorpio has suggested that the company has learned from its mistakes and wants to set them right.

A $399 price point would be a smart move in that direction.

Regarding launch date, Microsoft has said only fall 2017. Earlier would likely be better for Microsoft, in order to allow more third party titles to look best on Xbox on release, rather than after.

All of these questions and more will be answered Sunday at 2 p.m. PT as Microsoft kicks off their showing at E3, which you can watch here.