Xbox Series X: At a glance
What is a teraflop?
To most, this probably means very little. As a layman’s summary, the more teraflops a GPU can process, the better the graphics will be.
To put things into context, the current consoles produce:
- Xbox One (Standard) – 1.31 TFLOPs
- Xbox One S – 1.4 TFLOPs
- PS4 (Standard) – 1.84 TFLOPs
- PS4 Pro – 4.2 TFLOPs
- Xbox One X – 6 TFLOPs
- Xbox Series X – 12 TFLOPs
And in comparison with current GPU performance:
- GeForce RTX 2080 Ti – 13.45 TFLOPs
- Radeon RX Vega 64 – 12.66 TFLOPs
- Xbox Series X – 12 TFLOPs
- GeForce RTX 2080 Super – 11.15 TFLOPs
- Radeon RX Vega 56 – 10.54 TFLOPs
- GeForce RTX 2080 – 10.07 TFLOPs
- Radeon RX 5700 XT – 9.754 TFLOPs
- GeForce RTX 2070 Super – 9.062 TFLOPs
- Radeon RX 5700 – 7.949 TFLOPs
- GeForce RTX 2070 – 7.465 TFLOPs
- GeForce RTX 2060 Super – 7.181 TFLOPs
- GeForce RTX 2060 – 6.451 TFLOPs
An RTX 2080 Ti will set you back well over £1000, while an RTX 2080 Super, even with a great deal, is over £700.
For a console that is slap bang in the middle of these two powerhouse GPUs to be arriving for an expected retail price of around £500 is ridiculous. Especially when you consider that a console incorporates a GPU, CPU, Blu-ray player, 3D capable soundcard, Wi-Fi card, Mobo, SSD – everything.
To build a PC with similar specs is conservatively going to cost in excess of £1500 or more. Heck, just the GPU, SSD and CPU is worth over a grand in comparative terms.
When it comes to gameplay we’re looking at incredible performance. Just on paper, it’s a significant advantage over today’s consoles. Factor in console-specific optimisation and the results should be breathtaking.
What is Variable Rate Shading?
For the technically minded, this is a complex explanation from Microsoft.
If you read the above, and understood it, bravo! Cool, isn’t it?
For everyone else, let us try to simplify things:
Anti-aliasing is a technique used to soften the edges of straight lines, especially when drawn in the diagonal. Older consoles and GPUs often render these diagonal straight lines as a staircase, with clearly visible steps intruding on what should be a straight, smooth line. With multi-sample anti-aliasing (MSAA) or Supersampling, these lines become smoother, straighter and much less visually obtrusive. The problem is, the anti-aliasing is applied to the entire image, regardless of the complexity of what is being rendered.
What Variable Rate Shading does, is combine MSAA with Supersampling, but allows it to be varied across the image being displayed. For example, an image may have sections with simple textures, and highly detailed textures in another part of the screen. With VRR, the sections with simple textures take less GPU processing to render, leaving more power available for where the real detail is.
In practice, developers can choose to render the parts of their games you are going to be looking at in far more detail, while saving performance on obscured or less important details, meaning the aforementioned teraflops are put to better use.
Still too complex? Boring/unimportant parts of the screen use less power. More power is left to make everything else look awesome. Winner winner chicken dinner! (N.b. We can’t guarantee PUBG will run any better.)
What is Ray-Tracing?
They say a picture speaks a thousand words, so these videos will speak billions:
This video is obviously created using the Nvidia RTX hardware, whereas the Series X will be utilising the AMD RDNA2 DRX (Direct-X Ray Tracing) hardware, but we expect the effect to be very similar, if not identical.
This video is taken to the extreme but just look at all those reflective surfaces and the incredible lighting. DXR technology will allow developers to create far more realistic interactions between light and surfaces. How many times have you looked at an in-game mirror to see a poorly rendered, low-resolution image that bears no resemblance to what it is supposedly reflecting? Well, with DXR, you can expect a totally realistic image.
This will extend to accurate simulation of light passing across the curvature of a reflective surface, more realistic representations of light bouncing off and through glass and water, and so much more. If HDR was the most significant visual improvement of the Xbox One X and PS4 era, expect ray-tracing to make far more of an impact than any increase in resolution could.
Every Millisecond Matters
Latency matters. It’s the reason why pro-gamers choose high response rate monitors, even if they end up with a sub-standard picture. With consoles, this only goes so far. You can do everything you can to reduce the latency between your display output and TV/monitor, but there’s no getting over the fact some games add excessive amounts of latency into their controls.
Chances are, you may not notice it. For the most part, games optimise their controls depending on the game type. A particular example you may have played is Red Dead Redemption 2. There’s no avoiding it, the controls in RDR2 are sluggish. Character movement, aiming, riding your horse: All of these actions are accompanied by some of the worst input lag in gaming. It’s something you adjust to and learn to play around, but it’s a constant, unavoidable annoyance.
What the new Xbox is hoping to overcome is input latency or controller lag as it is often known. Through the use of Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) and Automatic Low Latency Mode (ALLM), along with new hardware inside the console, the Series X will reduce input latency to mere milliseconds. This will make games feel more responsive, characters will respond immediately to your actions, and everything will feel snappier and more responsive.
As an aside, if you ever had any doubts, wired is better than wireless. With wireless, in order to conserve battery life, there are milliseconds of delay between each instance of your controller sending data to the console. On Series X, with a wired controller, the moment you make an input on your controller it will be transmitted straight to the console. If you are a competitive gamer looking for every advantage possible, you absolutely should be playing with a wired controller connection.
While it still has all the ports necessary to get your system up and running with the minimum of fuss, the connectivity options have actually been reduced for the Series X:
- HDMI 2.1 output – The new standard-bearer, and required for 8k on newer displays
- Three USB 3.2 ports (One on the front, two on the rear)
- Ethernet connection – Regardless of how good your Wi-Fi is, hard-wired is always the best option for competitive gaming.
- Expanded storage slot – For the proprietary NVMe SSD cards
- Power input
Gone is the HDMI passthrough. While some of you may miss it, the reality is it was underutilized and arguably unnecessary.
Also missing, and slightly more contentious, is the S/PDIF (Fibre Optic) port. I can understand their reasoning, as more ports bump the price up, and it’s true that S/PDIF can’t handle the data rates required for the higher fidelity audio formats. For many, though, it’s still a very capable method of delivering audio, and eliminates latency-introducing passthrough necessitated by HDMI audio.
There are currently (very expensive) headsets on the market, renowned for their excellent sound quality, that rely on S/PDIF, like the Astro A50s. It is understood that the USB connection usually used on the Astro’s PC mode will be functional with the Series X as an alternative, but for users who like to have both connected, it slightly devalues their product. Legacy surround sound systems will also be affected, as even today, many utilise the S/PDIF input as the preferred input of choice.
This may be more of a personal bug-bear, but out of everything that has been revealed, this is the only misstep Microsoft appears to have made.
Xbox Series X Storage (and Expansion Card)
The Xbox Series X has a 1TB NVM Express (NVMe) SSD with a raw input/output throughput of 2.4GB/s. When paired with the onboard compression/decompression block, the unit is capable of throughput as high as 4.8GB/s. During a recent demonstration, developers The Coalition showed that unaltered Xbox One code loaded four times faster than on the mechanical hard-drive of the Xbox One X. These improvements should be available to any Xbox One game played through the Series X.
What’s more impressive, is that these speeds don’t take advantage of the new DirectX storage routines, that should further increase performance. Games developed specifically for the Series X are likely to see even greater gains.
As we have seen, that mysterious additional slot on the rear of the console is for expanded storage. This proprietary external SSD storage operates at the same level as the internal drive. At the moment, only a 1Tb SSD has been announced, however, it’s likely not long before we see larger capacity drives become available.
Additional HDD storage can be added through USB connections, however, this will not benefit from the increased throughput speeds of the SSD. It would be ideal for playing your Xbox One back-catalogue from, or also as additional storage for your Series X games, so you can park them on your mechanical drive and transfer them to the SSD when needed, saving downloading large files repeatedly.
I could spend hours writing out and detailing everything involved in the hugely inventive creation of the Series X. Instead, though, I’d like to refer you to this excellent video by the very knowledgeable Rich Leadbetter of Digital Foundry.
As you can see, a healthy dose of creative genius has gone into the design and build of Series X. When you see how it works, and the rationale behind the design, it all makes perfect sense.
So there we have it. The frankly magnificent looking Xbox Series X. Are you as excited as us about the new generation? Sound off in the comments below!