What Xbox ‘Project Scorpio’ means for PC gaming

Microsoft has dished the deets on its upcoming ‘Scorpio’ hardware update for the Xbox console, and in what amounts to uncharacteristic detail and candour given the ruddy thing isn’t going on sale until the end of 2017. But what are we poor PC peasants to make of the Beast of Redmond’s latest game box and its towering on-paper capabilities? In short, what influence will Project Scorpio’s trick new hardware have on future PC games?

As ever with such developments, there is no single and simple answer. Scorpio’s hardware is at the very least a tale of two halves even if they are crammed into a single computer chip or SoC. I speak, of course, of the critical CPU and graphics elements.

The media razzmatazz has largely centred on the graphics half of the equation and there’s no denying Scorpio packs some serious pixel-pumping power for a grotty little games console. The headline figures for the GPU rock in at 40 so-called compute units running at 1,172MHz. That compares with ye olde Xbox One’s 12 units at 853MHz and the One S with the same number again, albeit running at 914MHz.

It’s AMD, of course, who supplies both the graphics and the CPU designs for the Xbox and, in the Red Team’s standard parlance, a compute unit packs 64 of those, er, shader thingies that make the pixels look so very pretty. We’re talking 768 shaders in the Xbox One and 2,560 of the bump-mapping blighters in Scorpio.

If that sounds impressive, AMD’s current fastest GPU, the elderly Radeon R9 Fury X packs 4,096 shaders. And lest you forget, the Fury X is a generation behind and not nearly as fast as Nvidia’s best GPU du jour, the preposterous Titan Xp.

On the CPU side of the Scorpio equation, Microsoft has stuck with eight low-power AMD Jaguar-derived cores, albeit running upclocked from 1.75GHz to 2.3Ghz and benefiting from several detail tweaks. The other major part of the package involves the memory and bandwidth combo, which in these consoles is a little more complex given the single-chip architecture means shared memory for GPU and CPU. Anyway, there’s a healthy uptick here too, from 218GB/s and 8GB to 326GB/s and 12GB.

The very first observation to make is that while Scorpio moves the game on massively for consoles, it is not exactly frightening today’s high-end PC hardware, much less what will be available when Scorpio actually arrives and, in turn, the PC hardware that will appear over Scorpio’s lifetime.

For some perspective, consider that main Scorpio CPU-GPU-SoC thing as a whole clocks in at seven billion transistors. That’s for everything – the CPU, the graphics, the other SoC gubbins, the lot. Nvidia’s biggest GPU, as found in the silly new Titan Xp and indeed the slightly more sensible 1080Ti, packs no fewer than 12 billion transistors. Add billions more for Intel’s finest CPU and a bleeding edge PC’s CPU and GPU alone are more than twice as complex.

Even the next tier down in Nvidia’s GPU range, the GTX 1070 and the vanilla GTX 1080 are alone about on a par for complexity with the unified Scorpio chip. So while consoles tend to do more with less, there’s a limit to that philosophy. The PC’s performance and fidelity advantage isn’t being challenged.

That’s especially true when it comes to the CPU side of things. Put simply, Scorpio’s CPU cores continue to suck. A fair bit of Microsoft guff has been regurgitated by the tame media regarding Scorpio’s modified cores, the reduced internal latency, 31 per cent faster core clocks, how the new SoC is more customised than before. But I’m not terribly impressed. Clearly, they’re still mostly the the same crappy low-power cores as before, not proper desktop cores.

Ermegerd, is that a magnetic hard drive?

Put another way, remember what a kicking AMD got for the poor performance of its outgoing FX PC processor? Well, it’s a hell of a lot better than the CPU in any Xbox, including Scorpio. Even AMD’s new Ryzen CPU has been taking a bit of a beating for supposed iffy gaming performance. It would completely obliterate the feeble cores in Scorpio.

That’s the disappointing bit, then: That the initial development target for a lot of games for several years to come will still be a system with pretty pathetic CPU cores. The rub here is that while it’s relatively straightforward to add at least some graphical detail to a game when porting for the PC (just chucking in some high res textures can do a power of good for the look of a game), taking advantage of additional PC processor power tends to require a more fundamental rethink of the game engine and indeed the game itself. Which, let’s be honest, isn’t usually going to happen.

The exception to all this and what might – just might – prove a saving grace, is the new so-called GPU Command Processor in Scorpio. It’s basically a section of dedicated circuitry on the main SoC design to run DirectX 12 API invocations. In English? Think of it as a DX12 hardware accelerator for some of the more CPU-intensive bits of the game engine like draw calls. It could be a game changer by freeing up even Scorpio’s weak CPU cores to do interesting and innovative things. But it’s far too early to say for sure.

If that’s the bad and yet-to-be-proven news, the good is that Scorpio’s focus on pukka 4K capability means that developers will put a lot of effort into making games look great at high resolutions. To pinch a quote from Kevin Gammill, Group Program Director of the Xbox Core platform, “it’s about delivering those pixels with 4K assets, so they look great. It’s about delivering those pixels with HDR and wide colour gamut fidelity. It’s about delivering those pixels with no loss of frame-rate compared to the 1080p version of that title – that’s super-important to us.”

In other words, proper high-res textures, geometry and effects that on the one hand really make the most of the detail 4K can deliver and on the other are optimised to reduce performance overheads. And, of course, Scorpio should accelerate the development of games with proper HDR support, which is just another string in developer’s bows when it comes to making games look awesome.

Of course, you very likely don’t have a 4K PC screen and you almost certainly don’t have an HDR monitor. But all that should still benefit PC-relevant resolutions like 2,560 by 1,440, otherwise known as 1440p, that sit in between full 4K and 1080p.

One part of the Scorpio graphical package for which the benefits to the PC remain to be seen involves tweaks to the graphics engine that go beyond simply adding more functional units. Apparently, Microsoft and presumably AMD took a good look at how developers actually make game engines and then tweaked detailed aspects of the graphics architecture to suit.

That’s not going to help existing PC graphics cards. But will we see any of those same hardware tweaks in AMD’s new Vega GPUs, due later this year? My guess is that we may see some similar elements, but probably not everything. So the benefit-cost calculation for the PC in that regard remains to be seen.

Overall, Scorpio looks like it’ll be a great thing for PC gaming in terms of plain old eye candy. Whether it will enable more innovation and complexity at the core of game engines is a tougher question and will likely depend on how that funky hardware DX12 setup engine in the Scorpio SoC pans out. Watch this space.

29 Comments

  1. Hedgeclipper says:

    “how developers actually make game engines and then tweaked detailed aspects of the graphics architecture” In a world where we’ve been getting game specific driver updates for several years (which would suggest the gfx companies already have a pretty good idea of how ‘developers actually make game engines’ already) that sounds like marketing fluff.

  2. MooseMuffin says:

    The RX480 was a fully enabled Polaris 10 design with 36 CUs. Scorpio has 40, with its devbox version apparently having 44. Any chance this is a hint at what the highend 5xx card will be?

    • lemonhug says:

      This is just a modified RX 480, not anything of the 5xx line up. The 5xx line up has already been leaked online in terms of the specs – just expect more of what the 4xx line up gave but tweaked. It’s a re-release rather than a brand new card. Vega is where the big change will be in a month or two.

  3. Czrly says:

    Sigh. Eye Candy is just about the last thing I think we need more of. What we REALLY need is better AI. Opponents, NPC team members, hive-minds, wotever.

    • Sakkura says:

      It’ll be useful for VR, or “mixed reality” as Microsoft is pushing.

      • TormDK says:

        It is very important to understand, that mixed reality is *not* what you call VR, but rather augmented reality.

        Augmented reality has alot of useful elements that could be adopted mass scale faster by regular people once the technology matures. VR will continue to be clunky at best for a forseeable future.

        • Flopdong says:

          Actually, Mixed Reality is a combination of both Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. For example, if a VR headset used built in cameras to map your surroundings in real time and render them in the headset it would be mixed reality. The environment you see in the headset isn’t entirely virtual, but isn’t simply augmented reality either, because everything you see is rendered by the headset. (As opposed to augmented reality allowing you to see the real world but with cgi drawn on top of it)

          Microsoft is making the Hololens for augmented reality, and has announced partnerships with a couple manufacturers to make a range of VR headsets. I assume they are trying to standardize VR, so that any game should work with any headset, similar to how you can play a game on any monitor because they have standardized inputs.

  4. awesomejt says:

    I’m not an AMD shill but Ryzen is actually doing fine for gaming performance. There are still better Intel chips (usually for more money) but with R5, Ryzen looks to be at LEAST comparable price/performance wise. It’s a shame that Scorpio doesn’t seem to be enjoying the Ryzen improvements.

  5. geldonyetich says:

    They would be wise to develop consoles that people have compelling reasons to own. When all you can do is slightly upgrade the power and add useless features like social media, you prove there is no next gen.

  6. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    They’re supposedly also stuffing all the Freesync 2 stuff into the thinger, which should mean low-faff HDR/high-bpp/wide-gamut capabilities will (hopefully) catch on sooner than if it were just AMD pleading with display companies to make things lovelier for us. It’ll spread the joy of non-proprietary variable refresh rate around a bit more, too, although I haven’t myself found that to be the revelatory feature some profess it to be.

    On the minus side, that’ll all supposedly be implemented exclusively via HDMI, so they’re missing the opportunity to encourage display manufacturers to bung our lovely royalty-free display port into their super-sized photon launchers. Not that it makes a ton of difference in practice, but HDMI is the only display interface which has ever caused me problems, and it did so for a while in various ways, so I tend to be a jerk to it when the opportunity presents itself.

    So basically, I’d love to someday see a 50″+ screen with Display Port, high (120Hz+) refresh rates which aren’t just marketing “features”, and user-friendly HDR/bpp/gamutStuff; and this newfangled thinger looks to be encouraging much of that. Hooray!

  7. Premium User Badge

    The Almighty Moo says:

    Any thoughts on it’s out of he box support for the new FreeSync and HDMI standards Jeremy? I know you covered the standards themselves in a previous article, but I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the effects of this support on the PC / Monitor market.

    • Jeremy Laird says:

      Good question. First part of the answer would involve the extent to which games use monitors on consoles. I don’t know the answer to that, but my hunch is the heavy majority of consoles are hooked up to TVs.

      That said, I happen to know from some corporate work I did recently that at least some monitor makers are very keen to sell screens to console gamers. So, I’d expect at least some to try to crack the market by offering a ‘full’ console experience.

      Whether TVs will fully support it all is a separate question. Do TV makers engineer for console specifically? Honestly, I don’t know. My knowledge of that aspect of the TV market is pretty thin. That said, HDR is quickly becoming the norm as is HDMI 2.0. My experience recently with an HDR TV is that everything works much more seamlessly than before. Hooking a modern PC up to a 4K TV is a non issue in terms of the res, if not perhaps HDR functionality, for now.

      That said, I think that most of the features of Freesync 2 if not necessarily Freesync 2 itself along with higher bandwidth interfaces are going to become pretty common. Things have been developing pretty fast in the last couple of years and I don’t see that stopping. Displays just keep getting better.

      • funkstar says:

        Don’t TVs have to support variable refresh rate if they want to be HDMI 2.1 compliant? According to DigitalFoundry, Scorpio supports *both* Freesync AND the new HDMI VRR standard, so TV manufacturers should be covered

  8. SquarePeg says:

    The reason for Jaguar cores in the Xbox Scorpio is backward compatibility. All Xbox and PS4 games till now are built from the ground up for the Jaguar CPU architecture. They wouldn’t run on Ryzen’s “Zen” architecture without an update for every current gen game ever made.

  9. Jeremy Laird says:

    Jaguar is x86. Ryzen is x86. They are cross compatible except where Ryzen has additional extensions. Ryzen is in effect a superset of Jaguar in terms of the instruction set. So basically, no.

    • Sakkura says:

      There could perhaps be some very low-level optimizations, like accounting for the timing of how many cycles the architecture will spend on different instructions and structuring the code to take optimal advantage of that… but who would even give a crap about losing such optimization advantages if you were moving from Jaguar to Zen? The latter can easily overcome that deficit, and more to boot.

      So you’re right.

      It’s about cost and cooling. Zen is still new stuff, and AMD knows it’s finally got a CPU architecture people will actually pay for. So the price tag would be higher. And while Zen is surprisingly efficient, it’s still a high-power/high-performance architecture optimized for running at higher clocks.

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    Don Reba says:

    “it’s about delivering those pixels with 4K assets, so they look great. It’s about delivering those pixels with HDR and wide colour gamut fidelity. It’s about delivering those pixels with no loss of frame-rate compared to the 1080p version of that title – that’s super-important to us.”

    It’s odd, how they expect to get more than 4 times more work out of less than 4 times the computational power.

    • Asurmen says:

      Well, Scorpio does have more than four times the power? Also capability is more than just tflops.

      • Premium User Badge

        Don Reba says:

        Ah, yes, you’re right, I did the math and it is indeed a bit more than 4x rendering power. And when you increase the number of pixels by 4, you pretty much just need 4 times the rendering power. Geometry and fragment shaders don’t take up a large proportion of the computation budget.

        • Sakkura says:

          On the other hand, the Xbox One usually doesn’t render at 1080p anyway. It’s typically 1600×900 or 1280×720 that then gets upscaled to 1080p.

          So if we say the Xbox One is capable of 1600×900, and Scorpio is capable of 5 times that much, that’s still a little short of 3840×2160.

          I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of games rendering at 2560×1440 and upscaling to 4K. Maybe even 1080p upscaled as well. That will still look very nice on a TV, much better than 720p or 900p upscaled to 1080p.

          • funkstar says:

            According to DF (going by MS reports) performance testing indicates that all 900p and above titles should hit 4k at the same framerates

          • Kinsky says:

            The Xbox One is barely capable of 1080p and forces developers to employ shortcuts galore to achieve even 900p in some cases, such as using uncompressed video/audio files to reduce CPU load, lower texture resolution, lower poly models, and noisy postprocessing effects like bloom and motion blur to cover up the ugly. Scorpio is setting 4K as its target, but seems barely capable of that as well. This likely means we can continue to expect multi-platform releases and ports (i.e. Battlefield) to have ridiculously bloated installation sizes, poor texture resolution, an over-reliance on postprocessing effects, all that sort of thing. But hey, at least they can put a cool-looking bullet point on the console’s features page.

      • fish99 says:

        Given that most xbone games are 30 fps and Microsoft have said they’re targetting 4K 60fps for the Scorpio, they need more than 4x the performance. And as pointed out above a lot of xbone games don’t even run 1080p.

        Of course the reality is Microsoft can’t force developers to target 60fps, and most of them would prefer to make the game look better at 30fps since they think it sells better in console land (i.e. the bulk of console games want shiny over smooth).

  11. ElementalAlchemist says:

    Anyone expecting Scorpio to suddenly change things for PC needs to reign in their expectations. This is not a new generation of consoles, it’s not an Xbox 4, in the same way a PS4 Pro is not a PS5. The baseline/lowest common denominator for game development (excluding the Switch) is still the original Xbone. Games are still going to be developed first and foremost to run on that and the original PS4. All Scorpio will do is (notionally) provide some higher framerates and resolutions (and the jury is out on just how well it will actually perform in practice). So nothing will change for PC going forward in the short to medium turn. We’ll still get the same poorly optimised ports that, on a design basis, are hamstrung by the hardware limitations of the Xbone.

  12. scritty says:

    While games still have to work on the Xbone, all the extra graphical fluff in the world is not going to make these new iterations world beaters. Also CPU speed is vital for many genres of games. Not FPS and 3rd person action games so much, but games where many AI agents are used (like RTS games, 4X games and most strategy games) being hamstrung with an old – if up clocked Jaguar CPU means these consoles will lag a long way behind even a low end PC in all those genres. But all I see on consoles is one 1st person shooter and 3rd person action game and the odd annual updated sports franchise after another, and I guess if that’s all you ever want to play… more power to you. They offer good value. I don’t play games like those though so consoles offer no value for me at all. The day Dwarf Fortress comes out on console and allows me to have over 2000 dorfs and other AI entities in play at one time with no lag? Is the day I consider buying one.

  13. goodpoints says:

    ” It’s about delivering those pixels with HDR and wide colour gamut fidelity. It’s about delivering those pixels with no loss of frame-rate compared to the 1080p version of that title”

    “no loss of frame-rate” heh heh…tricksy. Can’t wait to see all that International Klein Blue and non-banding black coming at me at that good ol’ 25 frames per second!

  14. CloneWarrior85 says:

    How to put power, without power 101: Xbox Scorpio

  15. kevmscotland says:

    This stuff annoys me mostly because Consoles have been promising a consistent 1080p at 60fps since the launch of the last generation (PS3/X360) and give or take the odd title they still haven’t achieved it with the current gen.
    But screw that: let’s go ahead and over promise on the next lot.

    Result? This’ll be another load of lower resolution upscaled titles at 30fps.

  16. misterbung says:

    Great!

    When are the games coming along that make such an expensive purchase worthwhile?