Apr 7, 2017

Xbox Project Scorpio: 6 questions left to answer


Microsoft has exclusively revealed the specs for Project Scorpio in a unusual and exhaustive collaboration with Digital Foundry. The many videos and stories go into great detail about the CPU, GPU, and various other technical aspects of the upcoming console, going so far as to speculate about how drastically Project Scorpio will improve Xbox One and Xbox 360 games. But the reports — based on spec reveals and a single tech demo — raise as many questions as they answer.

Some of the questions remaining are simple (what’s the cost?), while others speak to Microsoft’s long-term ambitions (what role does Project Scorpio play in the Windows universe?). We’ve collected our six biggest questions, which we hope will be answered by the time Microsoft’s big Project Scorpio event rolls around at E3 this June.

What’s the price?

On paper, Project Scorpio will be the most powerful video game console. But power isn’t cheap. The Xbox One S is currently available for $249, and the more powerful PS4 Pro is $399. In its hardware explainer, Digital Foundry speculates that the system will sell for $499 — the launch price of the Xbox One in 2013.

Just how big will this machine be?

Much of what we learned today was about how Microsoft is balancing power with thermal capability. It’s the same problem faced by pretty much any computer hardware manufacturer, of course, but that’s exactly why it’s hard to judge Scorpio’s technical design without seeing the final machine that will be shipping to consumers. And we can’t ignore Microsoft’s history in this regard: after the chronic overheating issues suffered by the Xbox 360, the company seemed to overcompensate with the Xbox One’s roomy, bulky chassis. It was over sized next to the PlayStation 4, even though it required a large external power brick.

That said, if Digital Foundry is to be believed, Scorpio might represent a break from the past. The publication suspects “you will be pleasantly surprised” by Scorpio’s design once it’s revealed at E3 in June, and the few details we know are encouraging. Scorpio uses a regular figure-of-eight power cable, unlike the kettle leads used by the PS4 Pro and gaming PCs, and the 245W power supply is internal — that means no awkward brick to stash somewhere around your TV. Digital Foundry says that Microsoft’s thinking is that the Scorpio won’t be much more of a burden on an AV setup than the slimmed-down Xbox One S, which suggests that it should be well within our expectations for what a games console looks like.






Will the research and software designed for Scorpio help Windows 10 run Xbox games?

Microsoft has made a big deal of two initiatives: Xbox Play Anywhere and backwards compatibility.

Xbox Play Anywhere allows people to purchase select Xbox One games and play them on both console and compatible Windows 10 PCs. The feature shares game saves, achievements, and DLC, allowing for seamless swapping between console and computer. Microsoft has also worked to make over 300 Xbox 360 games backwards compatible on Xbox One.

These two goals intersect with Microsoft’s plan to make game purchases last beyond a console’s life cycle. What you buy on Xbox One will work — and in theory, run better — on Xbox One S, Project Scorpio, and whatever comes next. But as Microsoft blurs the line between console and computer, one wonders if the research Microsoft has put into backwards / forwards compatibility will at some point allow for all Xbox games to run on Windows 10 PCs. They’ve already hinted at the possibility.

We didn’t learn a lot about Microsoft’s virtual reality plans today. But last month, it said that Project Scorpio and the Xbox One would support "mixed reality content" in 2018. Microsoft is currently working with Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and 3Glasses on Windows Mixed Reality headsets. (To be clear, these are separate from HoloLens, a self-contained computing device that's geared toward professionals.) The headsets' big draw is inside-out tracking, which removes the need for external cameras or markers. But they’re still in the development kit stage, and given that Microsoft has said there's a diverse range of prices and specs, it's possible only selected ones will work on Scorpio or the Xbox One.

Meanwhile, it's looking less and less likely that Microsoft has an Oculus partnership up its sleeve. The two companies seemed close in 2015, and the Oculus Rift ships with an Xbox One gamepad. Microsoft also released an app that lets Xbox games stream to the Rift on a PC, albeit after a lengthy delay. The biggest argument for keeping the Rift off Scorpio is logistical: the Rift's external cameras require between one to three USB ports, in addition to a port for the headset. That’s inconvenient enough on a PC, let alone a console, and building something like a dedicated connector box — similar to what Sony did for PlayStation VR — would mean putting a lot of work into a third-party peripheral. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, it’s just no longer the obvious choice it seemed like before Windows Mixed Reality.

Is Project Scorpio the end of the Xbox as an all-in-one entertainment machine?

Microsoft notoriously announced the Xbox One with an exhausting presentation focused almost entirely on media partnerships and hardware features like HDMI pass-through and the Kinect 2.0. In its vision of the future, the Xbox One would be a hub for your cable box, streaming apps, interactive television, and live sports. Other than a brief glimpse of Quantum Break and Forza, an EA Sports sizzle reel, and a Call of Duty tech demonstration involving a virtual dog, games were curiously absent.

We still know very little about Microsoft’s upcoming exclusives, and we haven’t seen what a Project Scorpio experience looks like. But even this relatively dry hardware info reveals that Microsoft seems more focused on hardware that serves video games above all else. It seems to have been designed with a specific end goal: make Xbox games look better and run smoother.

There is one odd exception: Project Scorpio keeps the HDMI pass-through of previous consoles. So who knows, maybe Microsoft still holds a candle for the all-in-one entertainment machine that never came to be.






Will Scorpio games have unique graphical effects, or will they emphasize 4K resolution and frame rate?

One of Microsoft's many promises with the original Xbox One was 1080p gaming. Launch titles didn't achieve this, with the exception of Forza Motorsport 5, and even today most games struggle to hit 1080p at 60 fps. Project Scorpio's selling point is 4K gaming, but this could come at the cost of texture quality. A ForzaTech demonstration reportedly runs at native 4K and locked to 60 fps, with only 60–70 percent of GPU utilization.

That suggests Project Scorpio has power to spare, but a Microsoft tech demonstration isn't the same as a third-party game running on the console. Like the Xbox One, it will be up to developers to get used to utilizing the power of Project Scorpio and deciding on 4K resolutions and frame rates. This could be a fine balance of trading richer graphic effects for resolution, or meeting somewhere in the middle that's not quite 4K. Even high-end gaming PCs struggle with 4K gaming at 60 fps, so Scorpio might find it difficult to achieve that while trying to improve graphics over Xbox One games.

The history of failed performance promises from both Sony and Microsoft over the years suggests 4K gaming on an Xbox or PlayStation is still a ways off. Either way, we'll know a lot more when we start to see games announced for Project Scorpio, and whether those launch titles can truly deliver 4K gaming at 60 fps.

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