XBF DAILY: Xbox One Upgradable?
During last weeks Xbox Spring Showcase event Xbox supremo and all round nice guy Phil Spencer dropped the bomb talking about ‘hardware innovation’ based around the unique Universal Windows OS. It seems the brilliant Backwards Compatibility feature that allows 360 games to run on the Xbox One may be key to Microsoft bringing new hardware iterations to the Xbox. Consoles have always had an extended life cycle out of sync with the PC so we’re used to seeing our beloved hardware fall behind but both the Xbox and PS4 have struggled to compete with PC. By allowing the Xbox to actually upgrade during it’s life cycle taking advantage of lower cost more powerful Hardware not only could Microsoft turn around the disastrous start but also be a compelling gaming platform again and all without a single mention of the Cloud for once. No nonsense about uber powerful Azure servers doing the leg work for your console but actual in place hardware upgrades to boost the underpowered GPU sitting in your Xbox. This approach makes sense when you consider Microsoft always planned the Xbox One to be with us for up to 10 years and how fast the PC landscape has changed in respect to value for money. PC gaming is at an all time high for accessibility that enormous price gap is no longer as large with a £600 PC easily blowing away current gen consoles and mobiles are making such drastic leaps in power.
“Consoles lock the hardware and the software platforms together at the beginning of the generation. Then you ride the generation out for seven or so years, while other ecosystems are getting better, faster, stronger. And then you wait for the next big step function”.
From the moment the hardware specifications were released the Xbox One has been widely criticised and called out for having inferior hardware to Sony and the all conquering PS4. In a complete reversal of the previous generation where the Xbox 360 utterly dominated this time around not only is the PlayStation outselling the Xbox but just as critically multi-format games are selling better and in almost every test performing better. Higher resolutions and superior frame rates seem to have convinced the game buying public that the PlayStation is the way to go despite the lack of games on the system. PC is heading towards 4k gaming at break neck pace and consoles are lagging being at 1080p or in many cases sub 1080p on the Xbox One, not to mention the enormous leap mobile gaming has taken in the past 24 months it’s not unreasonable to expect a true console beating mobile device to be just around the corner. Previous console generations never had the architecture to be upgradeable during that console cycle their biggest strength becomes their greatest weakness ironic really. This time around Microsoft have a unified software platform that has already proven it can handle 2 widely different hardware architectures and make them play nice it’s fair to predict the same can be used to power this hybrid console platform. PC’s have potentially thousands of possible hardware configurations all with different drivers that the OS needs to manage and by & large it works well the Xbox would have 1 or 2 configurations depending on costs. It makes sense and sure beats Microsoft having to replace the Xbox One mid cycle which is the other possibility.
“When you look at the console space, I believe we will see more hardware innovation in the console space than we’ve ever seen. You’ll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation allowing the same games to run backward and forward compatible because we have a Universal Windows Application running on top of the Universal Windows Platform that allows us to focus more and more on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform.”
We know the why, but how could Microsoft actually pull this off?
Firstly this isn’t anything particularly new there are several external graphics amplifiers available including one from PC master builders Alienware that enables compatible devices to gain access to any PCI-E graphics card in an external format. This has one major limitation in that the Alienware solution although impressive uses a proprietary connector that enables the transfer of data between the PC and the graphics amplifier. The only high speed ports on the Xbox one are the USB 3.0 ports which top out at around 300MB/s but high end graphics cards run up to 8GB/s. This explains why the likes of Alienware and MSI needed to create their own custom connectors and ports for their external solutions to work. The USB 3.0 ports are great for adding a faster hard drive but for connecting up to a modern GPU they simply won’t cut it so what can Microsoft do with the architecture of the Xbox One?
Opening the chassis is out of the question, an external plug in type device also seems impractical and using the Cloud is no longer in favour. Without hearing the exact details I have no idea what Microsoft can do with the Physical hardware to bridge the ever widening gap between console and PC but whatever they choose it has to be easy to use and set-up, low cost and fully support both new games and of course older titles. This could be where the backwards compatibility could be even more handy than it currently is. Bridging the gap between the 360 and the Xbox One was a massive undertaking by Microsoft and proof if ever it was needed that they have the capability to ensure future games are compatible with additional hardware configurations.
If this happens what should Microsoft be aiming for? I would love to say 4k resolution but surely that is well beyond their reach for now. Having built several uber powerful PC’s some of them 5 or 6 times the price of the Xbox One that even with 2 high end GPU’s struggle to reach 4k i can’t see how it would be a realistic target. Perhaps more realistic would be 1440p which is a very common high end PC resolution and whilst it may not be as exciting as 4k it would still represent a massive leap forward in terms of visual fidelity. To reach a smooth playable frame rate and this resolution would require some serious hardware in the realms of an GTX 970 or an R9 380. Due to the AMD internals in the Xbox One i would probably expect to see a custom version sitting alongside the current GPU set-up taking on all the hard work when required. Rumours are already circulating that AMD are designing new console hardware for 2018 making it a mid cycle hardware refresh which could even enable the Xbox to run with VR via it’s HoloLens hardware.
Phil Spencer is the man in the know when it comes to the Xbox Platform and after single handedly wrestling the brand from the post E3 reveal shit storm and refocused it on gaming i wouldn’t be surprised to see something announced at E3 this year. Microsoft need some momentum, something positive to throw back at all the detractors lining up to take a pop at it’s beleaguered console. Announcing a new hardware iteration capable of far higher resolution gaming would be a huge plus for the Xbox and a show stealing one at that. Could Sony respond with a similar device? i don’t see how they could.