Analysis: What Xbox One Scorpio means for the future of the console wars

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Enlarge / The exploded innards on what will surely be the most powerful game console in existence… until the next one.

the Scorpio specifications Microsoft put out today through Eurogamer suggest the system should easily outclass the current top-of-the-line PS4 Pro. Between the faster CPU, improved GPU, and extra RAM and bus bandwidth, it’s not hard to believe Microsoft’s next console will be able to deliver games that can run at a fully native 4K resolution with solid, high frame rates.

This improvement will come at a price, of course, and that exact price is one of Scorpio’s biggest remaining unknowns. Eurogamer’s Richard Leadbetter guesses that Scorpio will cost $500 when it launches later this year, significantly higher than the PS4 Pro’s $400 asking price (it would also precisely mirror the price difference between the original PS4 and the Xbox One when they launched in 2013). The PS4 Pro also has a year’s head start on Microsoft’s mid-generation upgrade, meaning any Sony price drop could come sooner.

Xbox Scorpio Xbox One S Xbox One PS4 Pro PS4
CPU 8 “custom” X86 cores @ 2.3GHz 8 Jaguar cores @ 1.75GHz 8 Jaguar cores @ 1.75GHz 8 Jaguar cores @ 2.1GHz 8 Jaguar cores @ 1.6GHz
GPU 40 “customised” compute units @ 1172MHz 12 GCN compute units @ 914MHz 12 GCN compute units @ 853MHz 36 AMD Radeon GCN compute units @ 911Mhz 18 AMD Radeon GCN compute units @ 800Mhz
Memory 12GB GDDR5 8GB DDR3/32MB ESRAM 8GB DDR3, 32MB ESRAM 8GB GDDR5 (plus 1GB DDR3) 8GB GDDR5
Memory Bandwidth 326GB/s 68GB/s, 219GB/s 68GB/s, 204GB/s 218GB/s 176GB/s
Hard Drive 1TB 2.5-inch 1TB/500GB 2.5-inch 1TB/500GB 2.5-inch 1TB 2.5-inch 500GB 2.5-inch
Optical Drive 4K UHD Blu-ray 4K UHD Blu-ray Blu-ray Blu-ray Blu-ray

There’s also the open question of diminishing returns when it comes to Microsoft’s extra horsepower. While very few PS4 Pro games are able to hit a native 4K resolution, Leadbetter notes that Sony’s system “has proved… that checkerboarding, advanced anti-aliasing techniques, temporal super-sampling, and dynamic resolution go a long way in closing the gap between sub-native ultra HD resolutions and the true 4K experience Microsoft is aiming for.”

In other words, PS4 Pro titles can still look pretty amazing on a 4K display, even if the system isn’t technically powerful enough to make full use of all those pixels much of the time. Leadbetter came away duly impressed by some eyes-on time with a Scorpio Forza demo running at 4K resolution, but we’re going to have to wait for side-by-side comparisons with the PS4 Pro to know just how useful that extra horsepower is. In the end, the difference between the two systems might be easy to see on the spec sheet but hard to make out with the naked eye.

On the other hand, Eurogamer’s write-up suggests Scorpio should lead to great improvements even for older Xbox One games that aren’t patched to take advantage of the new hardware. Eurogamer lays out a number of ways that Scorpio can improve on existing Xbox One games’ resolution, frame rate, texture filtering, and load time in a way that even PS4 Pro’s boost mode can’t match.

That performance improvement to the entirety of the existing game library could be a major selling point for Xbox owners looking for an excuse to make the mid-generation leap. Microsoft is also making sure that Scorpio’s visual improvements apply to games running on older HDTVs, unlike PS4 Pro games that sometimes save their most significant improvements for when a 4K screen is plugged in.

The future of the console wars

If Microsoft had marketed Scorpio as the Xbox Two—as a completely new, fully 4K console that happens to be fully backward-compatible with the Xbox One—I don’t think anyone would have been overly surprised. Instead, Microsoft is taking pains to ensure that the existing Xbox One won’t be abandoned any time soon. All Xbox One software will run on both systems for the foreseeable future, and Eurogamer says Microsoft expects to sell more Xbox One units than Scorpio units in the near future.

The question, as always, is what comes next. The release of the Scorpio will put the bouncing “world’s most powerful console” ball firmly back in Sony’s court. Right now, it’s unclear if that response will come as a hard break PlayStation 5—complete with new software that no longer works on the older PS4 line—or yet another Pro-style upgrade that continues to grow and build on the core PS4 ecosystem.

On Microsoft’s end, the future upgrade cycle might be a bit clearer. After Scorpio, we wouldn’t be shocked if we see a new, even higher-end Xbox One every three or four years, with older Xbox One systems cycling down the price/value ladder in turn. As Microsoft’s Mike Ybarra put it to Eurogamer (emphasis added):

“When you think about phones, for example, consumers are buying phones more frequently than we’ve ever seen. Their expectation of technology is they no longer need to wait for it, it’s immediately there in front of them and they expect all of their content to flow across those devices, too.

“And so when you see people buy phones, their apps just download and they just keep going and it works seamlessly for them. … When we see consumers tell us they want ‘the latest technology, the latest experience, the best experience more frequently’ to our traditional console business that doesn’t really align with that, you have to pause, you have to take some pretty big risks.”

So what does the Xbox One hardware ecosystem look like in 2021 when “Scorpio 2” starts to make Scorpio look outdated? At that point, I doubt Microsoft will still require developers to release games that work seamlessly on the Xbox One’s relatively ancient 2013 technology.

But I also wouldn’t be shocked if the Microsoft of 2021 continues to support the original Xbox One as an ultra-low-end option—one that can still technically run many of the simpler games being newly released in the Xbox ecosystem. For gaming, then, the Xbox brand would become akin to a Windows-style operating system. Just like PC gamers, Xbox users would be able to choose how much they want to spend on hardware power with full knowledge that older/cheaper hardware will have a limited ability to run the latest software going forward.

That’s a pretty bold change for a console ecosystem where big upgrades in hardware power have often meant leaving behind the architecture and software that came before. Right now, Scorpio seems like the first step into a much more stable and more PC-like take on how console hardware platforms evolve over time.

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