Xbox Series X: a closer look at the technology powering the next generation

A few months ago, we
revealed Xbox Series X
, our fastest, most powerful console ever, designed
for a console generation that has you, the player, at its center. When it is released
this holiday season, Xbox Series X will set a new bar for performance, speed
and compatibility, all while allowing you to bring your gaming legacy forward
with you and play thousands of games from four generations.

Recently, along with the tech experts Austin Evans
and Digital Foundry, we
had the chance to take a closer look at some of the technologies that are powering
Xbox Series X and talk to the team about the choices they made when defining
the next generation of gaming. We spent an entire day discussing everything
from the console’s custom processor and latency solutions to backward
compatibility and visual enhancements.

(Editor’s Note: We’ll be using some acronyms and discussing
technologies in this post without always defining them. To that end, we’ve
created an Xbox
Series X glossary
that contains many of these terms and more. We’ll link
out where applicable, and you can check out the full
glossary here
, as well as our features on the new
Xbox Wireless Controller
and how the team
is reducing latency

The next generation of Xbox is defined by three primary
characteristics: Power, Speed and Compatibility. Let’s take a look at the
features and technologies of Xbox Series X delivering those three hallmarks.

The Most Powerful Xbox Ever

Early on in the design of Xbox Series X, the team was determined
to deliver the most powerful Xbox ever, which opened a series of discussions about
how to define “power” in the next generation of consoles. In past generations,
power has been defined primarily by graphics innovation: from the transition
from 8 bit to 16 bit graphics, 2D to 3D, SD to HD and finally to 4K.

Today, gamers are demanding more and more games run at 60
frames per second (fps) with high visual fidelity and precise, responsive
input. Developers have come up with creative solutions, such as dynamic
resolution scaling, to maintain high image quality while not compromising on
frame rate, but this is often done to work around the limitations and
constraints of current generation hardware. That’s all about to change with
Xbox Series X. It’s not just about making games look better, though. It’s about
making games play better too.

the Xbox Series X will deliver a massive increase in GPU performance and
continue to redefine and advance the state of art in graphics with new
capabilities such as hardware accelerated raytracing,” said Jason Ronald, Director
of Product Management on Xbox Series X, “we don’t believe this generation will
be defined by graphics or resolution alone.”

The team knew they needed to build a next generation console
that could run games in 4K at 60 fps with no compromises for developers. They
also challenged themselves to deliver a level of performance once thought
impossible on console, including support for up to 120 fps for the most
demanding and competitive games. While they believe resolution and frame rate
are creative decisions best left in the hands of title developers, the team
wanted to ensure the system was able to support the needs of the largest
blockbusters, competitive esports, and innovative independent creators.

In order to support those needs, the team strengthened their
long-term partnership with chipmaker AMD, which began working with the Xbox
team over 15 years ago on the Xbox 360. Sebastien Nussbaum, Corporate Vice
President & Senior Fellow, Semi-Custom Products and Technologies​ at AMD,
spoke a bit about what the team created to help power Xbox Series X.

Thanks to a focus on transformational design and generational performance uplift, Nussbaum said that, for developers, “the console ends up being a playground for technical innovation.” This is due in large part to the raw power of the custom designed processor, powered by an 8 core AMD Zen 2 CPU and an RDNA 2-class GPU.

These next generation architectures deliver a new level of
performance that lets developers create realistic and immersive experiences
like we’ve never seen before, while also allowing the team at AMD to seed a
next generation DirectX ecosystem that will continue to push the industry

Series X is the biggest generational leap of SOC [System on a Chip] and API
design that we’ve done with Microsoft, and it’s really an honor for AMD to be a
trusted Microsoft partner for this endeavor,” said Nussbaum. “The Xbox Series X
is going to be a beacon of technical innovation leadership for this console
generation and will propagate the innovation throughout the DirectX ecosystem
this year and into next year.”

Following the AMD presentation, Technical Fellow Andrew Goossen
took the reins to dive deep into the technological bells and whistles that will
be powering Xbox Series X. We’ve listed the full system specs below, with handy
links out to our glossary for definitions on what many of these terms mean:

CPU 8x Cores @ 3.8 GHz (3.66 GHz w/ SMT) Custom Zen 2 CPU
GPU 12 TFLOPS, 52 CUs @ 1.825 GHz Custom RDNA 2 GPU
Die Size 360.45 mm2
Process 7nm Enhanced
Memory 16 GB GDDR6 w/ 320mb bus
Memory Bandwidth 10GB @ 560 GB/s, 6GB @ 336 GB/s
Internal Storage 1 TB Custom NVME SSD
I/O Throughput 2.4 GB/s (Raw), 4.8 GB/s (Compressed, with custom hardware decompression block)
Expandable Storage 1 TB Expansion Card (matches internal storage exactly)
External Storage USB 3.2 External HDD Support
Optical Drive 4K UHD Blu-Ray Drive
Performance Target 4K @ 60 FPS, Up to 120 FPS

For more information, I encourage you to check out Digital Foundry’s deep dive to get a better sense of what all of these features mean for developers and gamers.

One of the biggest (and most noticeable to players) features in Xbox Series X will be support for hardware accelerated DirectX Raytracing, which simulates the properties of light and sound in real time more accurately than any technology before it. To give us a better idea of how this technology directly impacts games, Clayton Vaught, Technical Director for Minecraft, ran us through a technical demo of how raytracing could impact one of the world’s most popular games.

Switching back and forth between current visuals to hardware
accelerated DirectX Raytraced visuals, Vaught walked around a pre-built
Minecraft world to show off the ways realistic lighting completely changes the
game. Shadows cast from objects soften or harden depending on how far away from
the object you are, while lava gives off a warm orange glow that dissipates
over distance and reflects off of minecart rails. Even the moon casts its own
rays, streaming down through cracks in the walls and reflecting off particles
in the air. The Raytraced visuals fundamentally change the way Minecraft
feels, drawing the player in and immersing them in a much more realistic world.

The most impressive feature (at least for yours truly) was
the way light now passes through transparent objects like glass, picking up the
color on its way to your eyes. This was beautifully demonstrated while walking
through a hallway lined with a veritable rainbow of colored glass cubes, each
of which cast a different colored shadow on the floor. The big wow moment came
from the most unassuming of substances: water. With raytracing on, water was
now fully transparent and allowed light from the moon to pass through it to the
player underneath and realistically reflect off the seaweed swaying in the
current.. It was really an impressive demo that brought what hardware
accelerated DirectX Raytracing in Minecraft could deliver to life in a way I
never imagined.

To close out the segment on the power of Xbox Series X, The
Coalition’s Technical Director, Mike Rayner, came up to show us how his team is
planning to optimize Gears 5 for Xbox Series X. The team showcased a
technical demo of Gears 5, powered by Unreal Engine, for Xbox Series X
using the full PC Ultra Spec settings, which included higher resolution
textures and higher resolution volumetric fog, as well as a 50% higher particle
count than the PC Ultra Specs allowed. They also showed off the opening
cutscene, which now runs at 60 FPS in 4K (it was 30 FPS on Xbox One X), meaning
the transition from real-time cutscenes to gameplay is incredibly smooth.

There were also some noticeable improvements in a few other
areas as well. Load times were extremely fast, and the team was able to turn on
some features that, while previously implemented, had to be turned off for the
Xbox One X version. This included contact shadows (providing extra depth to
objects) and self-shadow lighting on plants and grass, making every scene feel
more realistic. Rayner also shared that the game is already running over 100
FPS and that the team is investigating implementing 120 FPS gameplay for
multiplayer modes, giving players an experience never before seen on consoles.
Most impressive of all? The fact that the team was able to get all of this up
and running in a matter of weeks.

The team also announced that they will have an Xbox Series X
Optimized version of Gears 5 available at Xbox Series X launch, which players
will get free if they own the Xbox One version of Gears 5 and will leverage
Smart Delivery depending on which console you’re using.

Improving Immersion and Embracing Speed

The next major tenet of the Xbox Series X is speed, which
can be defined in a large number of different ways. Modern devices have changed
our expectations on how quickly you can move between experiences or
applications. Most of us want to be able to instantly jump into an experience
or return right to where we left off. This influenced the team designing the
system architecture, as they wanted to ensure they enabled gamers to spend more
time playing and less time waiting.

A big part of that revolves around the addition of a solid-state
drive (SSD). We have reached the upper limits of traditional rotational drive performance,
so the team knew they needed to invest in SSD level I/O speeds to deliver the
quality of experience they aspired to with Xbox Series X. This was an area
where the team really wanted to innovate, and they knew this could be a game
changer for the new generation. But they didn’t want the I/O system to be just
about your games loading faster.

Enter Xbox Velocity Architecture, which features tight integration between hardware and software and is a revolutionary new architecture optimized for streaming of in game assets. This will unlock new capabilities that have never been seen before in console development, allowing 100 GB of game assets to be instantly accessible by the developer. The components of the Xbox Velocity Architecture all combine to create an effective multiplier on physical memory that is, quite literally, a game changer.

“The CPU is the brain of our new console and the GPU is the heart, but the Xbox Velocity Architecture is the soul,” said Andrew Goossen, Technical Fellow on Xbox Series X at Microsoft. “The Xbox Velocity Architecture is about so much more than fast last times. It’s one of the most innovative parts of our new console. It’s about revolutionizing how games can create vastly bigger, more compelling worlds.”

A big beneficiary of this technological upgrade are large
open world games where players have freedom to play and explore in their own
way and at their own pace. Titles such as Final Fantasy XV, Assassin’s
Creed Odyssey
, and Red Dead Redemption 2 have redefined expectations
of a living, dynamic world this generation.

To make these universes even more dynamic and feel like
large, high fidelity worlds requires a massive increase in processing power and
the ability to stream assets in extremely quickly to not break immersion (epic
elevator rides or lengthy hallways are good examples of how developers
creatively hide assets loading in). Developers will also be able to effectively
eliminate loading times between levels or create fast travel systems that are
just that: fast.

You also can’t talk about speed without also talking about

“Competitive gamers and the best gaming experiences demand precise, responsive controls,” said Goossen. “The Xbox team analyzed the entire end to end input pipeline, from the controller to the console and from the console to the display and we challenged ourselves to identify every opportunity to further reduce latency to provide the best experience for gamers on Xbox.”

This has included developing brand new technology such as Dynamic Latency Input (DLI) as well as helping to shape the HDMI 2.1 specification by adding new gaming-centric features such as support for 120hz, Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) and Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM). The team has also been working with the industry’s leading TV manufacturers for the past two years to ensure the display ecosystem is ready for the features coming with Xbox Series X.

While it can be difficult to
notice the improved latency from any one of these improvements alone, when they
all add up, it makes for a profoundly more responsive experience.

Finally, there are the player experiences that will be greatly improved thanks to the speed afforded by Xbox Series X. The most noticeable of these is loading times, which will be greatly decreased thanks to the processing power of Xbox Series X.

There’s also the new Quick Resume technology that we outlined in our last blog post. With current gen consoles, you can resume the last game you played. However, since most players play (on average) three to four games a month, the team wanted to give them the option to switch between them easily and quickly. With Quick Resume, you can resume multiple games with the press of a button, instantly jumping back into the action, right where you left off, for multiple titles at the same time.

Since game states will be
stored directly in the system’s SSD, they’ll even persist after you turn off
the console, unplug it entirely, or even take a system update. One of the
testers on the team unplugged his console for a week, then took an update, and
was still able to continue right where he left off without so much as a
loading screen.

Game Compatibility
Continues in the Next Generation

The third and final pillar for Xbox Series X is
compatibility. Through the Xbox One generation, the team has shown their
passion and commitment for compatibility, putting the player and their favorite
games at the center of everything they do. As gamers themselves, they understood
that we all have our favorite memories, franchises or titles that we want to
continue to play even as technology and game design continues to advance.

community’s response to Phil’s announcement of 360 backward compatibility at E3
2015 was one of the biggest career highlights for me in my time as part of Team
Xbox,” said Ronald.

For the next generation, the team knew from the outset that they
wanted to double down on compatibility. That vision helped influence the design
of the system and, through a combination of hardware and software, they
committed themselves to ensuring the thousands of games on Xbox One, including
Xbox 360 and original Xbox games, will play even better on Xbox Series X.

“The team came and told us about Xbox Series X. They said ‘What can you do with even more power?’ So, the challenge was set. They gave us the Xbox One X and it was like we got this big playground to play with,” said Peggy Lo, Principal Program Management Lead, Backward Compatibility. “Then we got the Xbox Series X and it was like we had a whole amusement park to play in.”

Players will see the benefits of the improved hardware of
Xbox Series X for backwards compatible games, including improved boot and load
times, more stable frame rates, higher resolutions and improved image quality.
The Compatibility team is also continuing to create entirely new techniques and
innovation that we can use to further enhance the existing catalog of games
when running on Xbox Series X.

The Xbox team is so committed to the concept of
compatibility and cross generation play, that not only do your games move
forward with you, but so do your Xbox One accessories, your game saves, and
progression. In fact, your entire gaming legacy moves forward with you to the
next generation.

What’s more, the team has also designed the system to enable cross generation multiplayer, as well as introduce new features such as Smart Delivery, which ensures you only have to purchase a title once, knowing you will get the best version of the title on whatever Xbox console you choose to play on. This will allow players to seamlessly move between multiple consoles and console generations as they see fit. Xbox Series X is the fastest, most powerful Xbox console ever, designed for a console generation that has you at its center. We hope this closer look at some of the design decisions and technologies powering Xbox Series X answered your questions and gave you a good idea of what to expect when the console becomes available this holiday season.

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