Microsoft Xbox Next: Multi-Task OS, Multi-Core x86, Large Hard Drive, But Is It Good for Games?

Microsoft Durango: Here Is What We Know So Far

by Anton Shilov
02/12/2013 | 11:54 PM

For many reasons, Microsoft Xbox Next, code-named Durango, will be vastly different from the current Xbox 360 since today’s market demands have greatly evolved from those in 2005. For example, the new Xbox will feature a true multi-task operating system, which will enable numerous new capabilities, and will come with a spacious hard drive. But after summarizing what we already know about Durango, we can come to rather interesting conclusions.

Microsoft Xbox Next: Designed by AMD

 

Microsoft Xbox Next (code-named Durango) will be based on multi-core system-on-chip designed by Advanced Micro Devices that will feature eight x86 code-named Jaguar cores running at 1.60GHz, dedicated custom hardware blocks, multi-channel DDR3 controller as well as a custom AMD Radeon HD graphics processing unit based on AMD graphics core next-architecture (GCN) and operating at around 800MHz.

The graphics chip of the Xbox Next has 12 SCs (SIMD clusters) with 4 SIMDs (each of which features 16 ALUs/stream processors as well as 256 vector general purpose registers (VGPRs), 512 scalar general purpose registers (SGPRs)), own L1 cache, LSM (local shared memory), and scheduler. The SIMD instruction set is extensive, and supports 32-bit and 64-bit integer and float data types. It is believed that the capabilities of SIMDs and ALUs are similar to those of GCN. The chip also features 48 texture modules and 4 render back ends. According to the leaked data, the GPU of the code-named Durango system will fully support modern graphics capabilities, including full-scene antialiasing with 2x, 4x and 8x levels as well as various new types of FSAA. The Xbox Next GPU is also capable of rendering in stereo-3D mode, but there may be performance-constraints.

The new GPU will also be equipped with 32MB of embedded SRAM (ESRAM) with 102.4Gb/s throughput and low-latency, which should speed up numerous memory-intensive operations as peak bandwidth of main memory is 68GB/s amid relatively high latency. The chip has special Move units that will move data between main and embedded memory.

The graphics solution for the Xbox Next has rather powerful general-purpose compute capabilities as well as robust caching system. In addition to dedicated 64KB LSM, 16KB L1 per SC, the chip will feature 512KB of L2 split into four domains, which should be useful for GPGPU technologies.

With 768 stream processors on chip, the GPU should provide peak computer performance similar to AMD Radeon HD 7770 (Pitcairn), but various “secret sauces” and tweaks should enable higher speed in games designed with particular GPU in mind.

Storage: Blu-Ray and Capacious Hard Drive

As expected, Microsoft Corp. distribute titles for the Durango system on Blu-ray discs with up to 50GB capacity. The games will ship with activation codes, and will have no value beyond the initial user. The games will automatically install on capacious 500GB hard drive automatically during gameplay, which means that either the optical media will not be required repeatedly, or the performance (loading time) of the titles will improve over time.

A good news is that with every purchase of a physical media Microsoft will activate a copy on its servers that can be downloaded at any time should the disc be damaged or destroyed. A bad news is that second-hand games will simply not work on Xbox Next as they will require a new code, which means that there will be no market of used games for Durango.

Since the hard disk drive will be installed into every new Xbox Next, it should provide a number of new capabilities previously not possible, such as downloadable content (DLC), custom applications as well as small games akin to those designed for smartphones and tablets.

Operating System: Multi-Task OS Paves Way for Improved Xbox Live

One of the most important innovations of the Xbox Next will be its operating system that will be able to perform more than one task at once. For example, it should be possible to pause a game and make a note in Twitter application.

A web-site reports that Durango game console will allow games to be put into "suspend" and "constrained" states, which seemingly allow users to pause a game, switch to a second game, then return to the first game without losing their status there. While for game consoles multi-task is less important than for PCs, smartphones and tablets, it will result into better overall experience. For example, gamers will be able to play one game or watch video while waiting for their friends to arrive to another.

Obviously, multi-tasking will also mean better communication experience as it will be possible to interact with others using Skype while exploring Facebook, Twitter and other social networks or watching a TV show. Given that Microsoft is actively working on boosting Xbox Live TV services, the multi-task OS may play a big role here.

Controllers: New Gamepad and New Kinect

Microsoft Xbox “Durango” will come bundled with improved Kinect sensor, will feature intelligent speech recognition technologies and will even feature a brand-new gamepad.

The new Kinect v2 sensor is expected to support improved depth sensor, full-HD RGB camera as well as enhanced motion-sensing technology that tracks more than 48 points of movement on the human body and/or at over 30 frames per second (which is crucial for smooth movements in action games). The new version of Kinect will track up to four gamers at once and will even feature infrared camera with 512*424 resolution.

The mandatory Kinect version 2 accessory will ship with every Microsoft Xbox code-named “Durango” game console. Moreover, it must be plugged in and calibrated for the console to even function. The new sensor will always “watch” around and recognize different users to provide them the relevant games, entertainment features and whatever else the Xbox Next will have of offer.

Microsoft is also projected to improve speech recognition of the next-generation game console. Users will be able to wake up Xbox by saying “Xbox on”, the console will understand enquiries made in natural language, much like Apple Siri does. Quite naturally, the enhanced speech recognition and better interaction with Kinect will substantially simplify interaction with services provided by Xbox Live, such as Xbox TV, as it will be easy to pause or resume playback by leaving room, returning to room, or by saying “pause” or “resume”.

In addition, the next-generation Xbox will also sport a new gamepad, which is expected to be a natural evolution of the current one, with similar layout, but with a new wireless technology. The exact difference between the existing and the future controller is unknown, but a natural evolution for the gamepad could be motion sensing, an extremely useful thing for flight-simulators, certain arcades and racing games.

Finally, Microsoft is reportedly looking to bolster support for its Xbox Companion App. The plan is to take advantage of both smartphone’s/tablet's motion sensing capabilities and displays to provide experience similar to that of Nintendo Wii U controller.

The Ultimate Entertainment Device?

The incoming Xbox Next game console will ideologically resemble the Xbox 360 launched in 2005 in a way that it is a console designed for both gaming and non-gaming entertainment. A number of things, though, clearly point to the fact that Microsoft put a great of attention to make the Durango a high-quality general-purpose device for the living room, while compromising some of the gaming-related aspects.

When Microsoft launched its Xbox 360 with a custom ATI Radeon graphics chip with 48 universal shader processors back in 2005, the GPU was more capable than anything else out there. The first GPU to feature 48 pixel shader processors only emerged three months after the Xbox 360 hit the market (ATI Radeon X1900 in late January, 2006) and the first graphics chip to have universal shader architecture was launched a year after the X360 (Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX with Tesla architecture). In case the reports about the custom AMD Radeon HD GPU inside the Durango are correct, then the next-generation console will feature over a year-old graphics solution with moderate performance. While the GPU will be rather capable, it is hard to imagine that it will run high-quality first-person shooters in stereo-3D mode at 60fps five years down the road.

The trend towards multi-core microprocessors for PCs, smartphones and tablets as well as multi-task operating system clearly made Microsoft to stick to rather odd eight-core AMD Jaguar x86 central processing unit. The multi-core x86 central processing unit is great for a machine that will do many tasks (rendering game, installing game, sending/receiving data to cloud servers, etc.) at once (or run multiple applications at once) and will have to sense the environment with multiple sensors, but high single-threaded performance would be better for sophisticated games.

The Blu-ray support (hopefully, with BD movies playback capabilities), compulsory hard drive, improved Kinect and speech recognition will clearly make the new console a lot mainstream-gamer or even non-core game friendly than the current Xbox 360, which was designed with hardcore gamers in mind. Thanks to new Xbox Live and Xbox Live TV services, the Xbox “Durango” should become a must-have machine for the living room, which will allow Microsoft to compete against existing set-top-boxes as well as incoming Apple TV initiative. That latter fact most-probably affected some of the trade-offs that the software giant made while designing its Xbox Next.

The video games for the Microsoft Xbox Next will clearly look better and feel better than titles developed for the Xbox 360 simply because of the eight-year gap in technologies under the hoods of the systems. However, only time will show how future-proof will be Microsoft’s Durango console for the core gamers who demand improvements of titles throughout the active lifetime of the console that could span for eight years, as in the case of the Xbox 360.

Note: images for the news-story come from unofficial sources and are for illustrative purposes only.