Why the Xbox One Scorpio matters (even for PC gamers)

Every once in a while, dealing with issues concerning consoles as a primarily PC gamer can be a little hard to manage. This is especially true when it comes to looking at new hardware, new systems, and new innovations that focus on a console market. Maintaining an unbiased point of view is a bit difficult while sitting at a gaming PC that you built yourself, which packs more punch than two consoles working together.

Project Scorpio is different. In fact, it's hard not to be optimistic about Microsoft's newest console because of what it means for the future of gaming as a whole.

We're not just talking about numbers, even though the Project Scorpio tech reveal has plenty of those. What we're talking about is true innovation, and the potential to extend the life of this generation of consoles exponentially.

4K, 60fps, No Sweat

First, an important note about all the performance and hardware information available regarding the Scorpio. Very few people have actually had the chance to see the console in action, and most of these numbers are based on claims from Microsoft and the impressions of Richard Leadbetter of Digital Foundry, who got the full rundown directly from the Xbox team. Until the wider world has a chance to go hands-on with a consumer-version of the Scorpio all these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt...but it's unlikely Microsoft would be making these claims if they couldn't actually back them up. 

Scorpio can apparently handle native 4K resolutions at 60fps with no strain. For a console in particular that statement is crazy, but by all accounts for Scorpio it's just a light jog through the park. Although it follows in the PS4 Pro's footsteps as far as 4K resolution goes, it's packing enough horsepower to leave the Pro in the dust in the long run.

Microsoft demoed an impressive stress test on Scorpio, showing off Forza Motorsport on a virtually raw port (meaning that little to no actual optimization for Scorpio specifically had occurred) using 4K assets, running at a native 4K resolution, and running with the max number of cars on one of the most hardware intensive tracks.

Not only did the test look great by all accounts, but it also demoed the Scorpio blasting through 4K rendering at 60fps while only utilizing about 66% of the GPU's total horsepower. This number reportedly dropped as low as 55% when only a few cars were on the screen, and as high as 70% when things got really crazy.

The important thing to remember here is not only that the Scorpio has plenty of extra overhead to work with, but this is before the system has even seen any of the optimization that a title normally goes through for a console. That means that when Scorpio launches, developers and the engineers over at Microsoft will likely be able to lower this number even more.

A Jaguar and a GPU visit a Racetrack

So how does Scorpio pull this off? Well, it could be because the GPU is rocking 6TFLOPs of horsepower compared to the PS4 Pro's 4, but it's more complicated than that, and has more to do with the deep level of optimization and customization Microsoft's been cranking into the Scorpio. They're redefining the way they handle rendering at 4K, and the payouts have been massive.

To kick things off, Microsoft focused on not just increasing the number of compute units Scorpio uses to render a scene, but massively increasing the clock rate of each unit. Compared to the original Xbox One's 12 compute units clocking in at about 850MHz, the Scorpio is packing 40 compute units clocking in at a crazy 1172MHz. That's four compute units more than the PlayStation Pro and almost 200Mhz faster per core. Not only that, but it's a clock speed that easily rivals desktop GPUs like the RX 480 carefully slotted into a console-sized package.

We also know that the Jaguar CPU we've seen as the cornerstone processor of this generation is back in action, but as you would expect it's been cranked up to a clock rate of 2.3GHz across its eight cores. What's special here is that Microsoft spent a lot of time customizing and tweaking Scorpio's Jaguar processor to reduce latency across the silicon so that the CPU is never left twiddling its thumbs waiting for something to deliver a project to its door. This translates to not only a 31% performance increase over the Xbox One, but a massive increase in efficiency in communication between the GPU and CPU as a whole.

A lot of fans have been critical of the use of a Jaguar chip for Scorpio when AMD's Ryzen is on the list of available powerhouse CPUs, so it's important to note that Microsoft went with Jaguar for two reasons: price and compatibility.

Nick Baker, one of the Scorpio's Distinguished Engineers, stated, “So, eight cores, organized as two clusters with a total of 4MB of L2 cache. These are unique customized CPUs for Scorpio running at 2.3GHz. Alluding back to the goals, we wanted to maintain 100 percent backwards compatibility with Xbox One and Xbox One S while also pushing the performance envelope."

The Jaguar CPU is going to be essential to keeping the Scorpio within a console friendly sub-$600 budget (though pricing for the Scorpio hasn't been announced yet). And because it's the primary CPU of this console generation, it'll ensure that porting games from the Xbox One, or otherwise building in performance upscaling, will be a much simpler task.

With such a powerhouse GPU, Microsoft realized they needed a massive amount of memory bandwidth to keep it from starving out entirely as it transfers the significant load of 4K textures across the system. This prompted Microsoft to boost the available memory on the Scorpio to 12GB of GDDR5, separated into 12 1GB modules and therefore 12 separate channels.

Scorpio runs these modules over a 384-bit GDDR5 interface that takes advantage of the 12 32 bit channels. Each of the memory modules clocks in at about 6.8GHz, which when taken all together allows them to max out at a transfer rate of up to 326GB/s. That is remarkably fast, and should allow Scorpio to run nearly any 4K title without getting even close to a memory bottleneck.

Heat Management on another Level

The unique level of optimization Scorpio features is of course a huge part of its performance, but at the end of the day when pixels are crashing into each other on the screen the GPU is where all the magic happens.

 A key limitation to any GPU or CPU revolves around heat, and Xbox has had a notorious issue with this in the past. So how did Microsoft manage to disperse all the heat generated by not only a boosted CPU, but a massively overhauled GPU that runs at a higher clock speed than anything else on the console market?

The answer lies in how Microsoft overhauled Scorpio's cooling system on several fundamental levels. Not only did they toss out the One's old heatsync and replace it with a tight high-end vapor-chamber cooling system like you'll find on Nvidia's 1080Ti, they also took a long hard look at where they were bleeding the most heat by overhauling their power optimization.

By using a technique Microsoft is calling the Hovis method, they were able to precisely tune each chip to the ideal voltage required to maximize efficiency for the job at hand but never supply so much voltage that it bleeds out into additional heat.

To accomplish this, every Scorpio chip is given its own unique power profile when it rolls off the production line, which is then matched to a board that is tailored to exactly fit both the chip and the power profile. It's an innovative and revolutionary technique that abandons the idea that all chips and boards are made exactly the same and recognizes that silicon and manufacturing processes can create imperfections that need to be handled.

All of this allows Scorpio to run off of a 245Watt internal PSU that's reportedly one of Microsoft's most efficient models to date, which also matches the ports and configuration of the current Xbox One S so gamers can easily swap to the Scorpio with a minimum of cable management.

Customize, Prioritize, Profile, Progress

The customization we see with each element of the Scorpio – from power management, to GPU, CPU, and Memory communication – is the theme everywhere you look on the Scorpio's hardware. Everything is precisely tuned to work in perfect concert within the Scorpio's hardware ecosystem.

It's the kind of performance optimization that can only occur via a mid-life refresh like we're seeing this generation. Microsoft hasn't exactly been treating the original Xbox One release as a beta, but that's an accurate metaphor. Since the One's release, Microsoft has been carefully monitoring the performance bottlenecks and the limitations of the console using a program they call PIX, short for Performance Investigator for Xbox.

Using PIX, they've been able to gather GPU trace captures directly from developers to watch exactly how the Xbox One's hardware handles high-end rendering tasks. Rather than just looking at the issues as a simple lack of horsepower, PIX allowed Microsoft to draw a roadmap of exactly where their tech was hitting stutters, bottlenecks, and anything else that could potentially slow the system down across various games and rendering styles.

Andrew Goossen, a Technical Fellow specializing in graphics at Microsoft, stated, "What we did was to take PIX captures from all of our top developers... By hand we went through them and then extrapolated what the work involved would be for that game to support a 4K render resolution…Now we had a model for all of our top-selling Xbox One games where we could tweak the configuration for the number of CUs, the clock, the memory bandwidth, the number of render back-ends, the number of shader engines, the cache size. We could tweak our design and figure out what was the most optimal configuration. It was incredibly valuable for us to be able to make those trade-offs, because ultimately these Xbox One titles are the ones that we...wanted to get up to 4K."

This allowed Microsoft to build in custom profiles based off of common characteristics directly into Scorpio's hardware so it can swap to the most efficient dedication of GPU, CPU, and Memory-based resources to match a game's needs. It was a design choice from the very beginning, and enabled Microsoft to built Scorpio from the ground up with old and new titles in mind.

Reportedly these profiles are so adaptive that Turn10 was able to port Forza over to the Scorpio at 4K in less than two days with very few challenges.

Turn 10 Studio Software Architect Chris Tector stated, "This is us. This is ForzaTech running 60 frames a second, 4K…We're still running with settings that we would have used in Forza 6... but this is also including 4K content...we've got authored assets for this set of the models, cars, tracks, everything. We pushed it through and made sure the 4K textures were flowing through. We've got them all there at the right resolutions and they're not giving us enough of a bandwidth hit to offset that. If we drop back to when we originally ran and we didn't have 4K assets, it was maybe one percent different. We were very much bound on a different point than memory bandwidth. It's been awesome and this is the point it's at."

The key element to remember here is that Microsoft isn't interested in offering 4K support exclusively to brand new games that have to be rebuilt to take advantage of Scorpio's hardware. They want every Xbox One game, and even some Xbox 360 games, to have the option to scale up to 4K if the developers want to slot in the proper assets. Additionally, they want to make it possible for people that own 1080p screens to still be able to take advantage of Scorpio's increased horsepower to deliver higher FPS and potentially increased visual quality if they choose to downsample the 4K feed to 1080p.

Microsoft is dead set on making something special here, and they're doing something that effectively flips the switch for many Xbox One games to shift them from 900-1080p right up to 4K with consistent framerates and plenty of room for improvement.

It's console design that doesn't just pack a punch, but that's taken the time to closely observe all of its previous punches and learned how to punch better.

Scorpio vs. PS4 Pro

So will the Scorpio be more powerful than the PS4 Pro? The short answer, based off the information we have now, is a resounding yes. The Scorpio is packing a bigger GPU in nearly every way, features an innovative new approach to heating and cooling, and they've engineered their software to apply to a much broader range of gaming titles to bring the entire Xbox ecosystem up a notch.

Scorpio isn't just about offering 4K to the select few developers and fans that want to support it, it's about giving the entire Xbox market an option to increase the quality of their gameplay experience. They deliver that by making it easier for developers and gamers to access these features when they want them at the flick of a switch.

The Scorpio represents a kind of technical innovation we rarely see in consoles. Microsoft learned from past mistakes and limitations in order to create an adaptive new console that focuses on delivering the best possible experience to developers and users alike.

It's innovation that takes rules and standards that we've coveted in the PC gaming world and applies them surgically to the console realm for high quality performance in a user-friendly package. It's fantastic, and has the potential to extend the life of the Xbox One generation for years longer than we may have expected.