14 December 2019

Formally announced! XBOX Series X... (Updated)

Anyone who's been following my blog will know I'm a sucker for gaming and tech stuff and the late night (for me) reveal of the next Xbox, formally the Xbox Series X was a cool little Christmas present for the end of the year. However, I thought I'd do a little bit of commentary on this reveal - what I think of the name, form factor and the press release via Microsoft's blog.

Oh, what a name, what a name...

Who would have thought that a competent company like Microsoft could come up with a name THIS stupid?! Seriously, in a year where people were deriding NVidia for their "Super" branding (which I, personally, didn't have a problem with) the Series X is a terrible name from a branding perspective.

First off, it's confusing because, traditionally, we associate the word series to apply to a series of items. There's only one Series X console. Yes, there may be Lockhart in production somewhere in the bowels of Microsoft but it won't be named "Series X"... so, this word really should not have gotten past the initial roundtable where it came up.

Then, we've lost the One branding. This could have been Xbox Two X - showing that this is the next iteration in the Xbox series of consoles (see how that word works?), though I admit that Xbox Two is not a great brand name either... but then I didn't greenlight Xbox One!

Finally, we've lost clarity. My money is on Lockhart being released as Xbox Series S.... but that has a problem because any mid-gen or next gen console in either series would need to be the X2 or S2 or something like that. Microsoft have broken their prior branding, whereby the "X" meant a higher tier console in the current generation. To go to the next console in the "series" they're going to have to break their branding once more! It's a waste.

Also, on the point of clarity - this is not a snappy, to-the-point naming scheme for either consumers or the press/gaming communities. Xbox One X could be abbreviated to XBOX or the One S could be shortened to that or XBOS; Xbox One to XBO, etc. This console? The partially informed consumer is probably going to end up looking for "new xbox" in their web searches. The press and gaming communities? How do you even shorten that? "X" is already used to refer to the One X and "Series X" is an ugly kludge that no one is likely to pick up on. 

I honestly think this is a terrible name and that the press and gaming communities are likely to keep referring to the console as Scarlett. In which case, I think Microsoft would have been smart to keep the codename: Xbox Series X: Scarlett... allowing future iterations of the console to be identified as Series X: "Whatever".

But, anyway, I'm not paid to give Microsoft feedback on these sorts of things so what do I know? It's not as bad as the Wii/WiiU snafu from Nintendo but it's not that far off!

Boxy?! I hardly know her!

You'll note my highly technical analysis used linear regression methods combined with simulated three dimensional volumes... (In other words I drew lines, counted grid squares and overlaid pictures)

One cool thing about this reveal is that we can make some educated guesses as to the dimensions/volume of the SX (Yes, I know I said people wouldn't be able to shorten the name to something useable... I lied).

Since the controller looks to be very similar to the current Elite controller/Elite controller 2 I took those dimensions and then scaled up to the size of the rectangular prism of the SX to approximate the size of the new console (I also performed a separate calculation estimating the size of the drive slot with ones I have access to and the width of a blu-ray disc for a corroborating measurement):

Volume of each console in litres with width, depth & height measurements in cm. Volumes in descending order...

Given what we know (or think we know) about the performance and power profile of the CPU and GPU of the SX, we know it'll be more powerful than the XBOX. So it's not surprising that the form factor comes in at larger in volume than the original Xbox One and PS4 Pro - both of which required substantial cooling systems to deal with their waste heat. In this context, you can really see how amazing of a job the team at Microsoft did on the Xbox One X, despite it having more power than any other console at the time. The custom cooling solution combined with performance optimisation performed for each CPU allowed a very slim form factor.

However, the volume doesn't tell the whole story because the shape plays a vital role here. Remember Apple's dustbin (aka Mac Pro 2013, 2nd generation)? That had a volume of 5.56 litres in a very different style of form factor (a vertical cylinder). The SX isn't far off from that design, given the diameter of the Mac Pro was 16.8 cm and its height, 25.1 cm. This makes quite a bit of sense because the Mac Pro was designed to cool a very specific thermal system - and for that it worked really well... just not in terms of being able to accept more thermal output from the system than it was designed to.

One of the issues with having a traditional flat rectangular design is that the headroom for venting hot air is minimal and the ability to draw in cool air is also usually compromised. However, with this more square cross-section, cool air can be drawn in from one side and exited from the other relatively easily (as long as the components are distributed across the various faces of the length of the body). This is very efficient and provides a simple, clean airflow that can perform better than the Xbox One and PS4 designs. This design also allows a nice, large diameter fan to be placed at one or both ends of the console. The larger diameter fan means that you can get the same airflow at a lower rpm, meaning lower noise output when the fan(s) are working. 

In fact, you can clearly see the huge ventilation holes in the "top" side of the console in the images above. This is really a great design and Microsoft have kept the finish and design simple but elegant - I really can't fault them for that. However, this all depends on whether there are any installed dust filters and whether they can be cleaned by the user. Those huge vent holes will allow easy ingress of dust and other particulates into the case, meaning that your clean airflow is going to be reduced pretty quickly and could result in overheating in a relatively short period of time, depending on the environment the console is used in (dusty & sandy countries, rooms with carpets, places with pets and children). I really hope there are dust filters there to stop all that potential ingress...

At the end of the day, the console is stylish, practical and a nice size! At the width/depth of a controller and the height of just under three controllers stacked, it's a really nice size.

Specs and marketing speak...

An image from NVidia's explanation as to how Variable Rate Shading works...
... okay, that wasn't a sexy, fun subheading but it's 08:00 at the time of writing and my second cup of coffee is not yet finished. With that aside, lets look at what the press release says about the specifications:
From a technical standpoint, this will manifest as world-class visuals in 4K at 60FPS, with possibility of up to 120FPS, including support for Variable Refresh Rate (VRR), and 8K capability. Powered by our custom-designed processor leveraging the latest Zen 2 and next generation RDNA architecture from our partners at AMD, Xbox Series X will deliver hardware accelerated ray tracing and a new level of performance never before seen in a console.  Additionally, our patented Variable Rate Shading (VRS) technology will allow developers to get even more out of the Xbox Series X GPU and our next-generation SSD will virtually eliminate load times and bring players into their gaming worlds faster than ever before.
So, the easiest things to take away from this is that the GPU will have the power and abilities of approximately an RTX 2080 to achieve 4K60 output. The VRS will help with that performance and I suppose, though it's not mentioned here, that dynamic resolution will also be available to developers to help with that target (less than 4K but still 60 fps). Next up, is that RDNA2 (Navi 2 but seemingly on the 7nm process node!) will be used - which is not a surprise. An SSD will be used for the storage but it's not clear what, exactly, "next generation" means because there has not been any announcement from any of the major SSD makers about a new technology except for Micron with their >9GB/s read/write speeds which effectively doubles the speeds of the current NAND-based drives and that was only announced for datacentres - not to mention it is supposed to be very power-hungry.

Finally, Xbox are sticking with Zen 2 - so I guess we can say that my thoughts on how the communication over the processor were wrong! :) Thankfully, I didn't promise to eat my hat but I intend to visit the local asylum very soon. I still can't comprehend what AMD were saying with their "builds upon" statement but both the PS5 wired article and the Scarlett reveal were true to their word. Strange that the manufacturer can't say something without any ambiguity!

I still think it's weird that they're not going with Zen 3 and the 7nm+ process node given the lateness with which they were putting their SoC together and the early, robust results for the EUV-based 7nm+ process which was matching the yields of the already "mature" 7nm process... but that's just me, I guess. Further to this, it's still not clear to me whether they're using a monolithic SoC or an MCM, linked with infinity fabric - which is what has allowed Zen 2 to be so scalable.
Update(16/12/2019): It seems that the latest industry rumours are that the SoC of the Xbox SX and PS5 are that they are produced on the 7 nm+ process node. To quote the article:
"Considering RDNA2 and Zen 3 are both '7nm+' parts, it would make sense for AMD to consolidate design efforts to a single manufacturing process within the 2020 release window due to the impending launch of desktop RDNA2 GPUs and next-generation consoles of the same time period."
I mentioned last article that it's theoretically possible to have three chips on the SoC at 12 nm, 7 nm and 7 nm+ process nodes... but there were many commentators thinking that it was just one die, based on the Xbox reveal at E3 2019. This, of course, was probably a ruse because there's no way the board shown would have fitted into this enclosure. However, from a pure performance, size and efficiency perspective having all 7 nm/ 7nm+ chips on the interposer would make more sense, and it's not clear that doing so (given the increase in yields of many more smaller chips on the smaller manufacturing nodes) would be more costly. Certainly, it would reduce heat and energy to run the chip allowing concessions elsewhere in the overall design!

That's one HUGE monolithic die!! (or potentially an MCM with some sort of heat spreader...)

What does worry me, though, is that I wonder about the recording features of both next gen consoles. I know that PS4 constantly records the prior, rolling, 15 minute interval to the hard drive so that any incident can then be captured and saved retroactively. Xbox records the prior, rolling, 5 minute interval - but the length of the capture doesn't really make a difference in this particular comparison because it's the write to disk which is at issue.

This programmed behaviour is perfectly fine on the mechanical drives (though it can be limited in function by I/O and drive speed) because it doesn't really affect the reliability of the drives themselves. However, SSDs are a bit different in that they wear out on sequential writing. While 720p is well below the  current amount of data safely allowed to be written each day as part of a 5 year lifetime expectation for current SSD NAND technology (600 TBW [Terabyte writes] over a 5 year period), moving up to 1080p, 1440p and especially 4k eats up that daily data write allowance pretty significantly as you can see in the table below.

This is based on the averaged 15 minute recording file size recovered across a multitude of PS4 games in my library, covering 2D side-scrollers, racing and FPS/TPS games...

What this means is that I wonder about the feasibility of such a feature on next gen consoles and whether they will feature even 1440p recording functionality. It also makes me question the reliability of these SSD drives in that environment and, thus, the consoles. Bear in mind that, on average (according to this 2018 report) gamers game for around 6-7 hours a week across multiple countries. Personally, I think that this figure is likely under-reported somwhat, as most self-assessed studies are. Also, since this study covers all types of gaming, the numbers will be skewed lower due to casual and mobile respondees.

Anecdotally, I tallied up my playing hours (both online and offline) over a 2.5 week period when I was streaming and playing Jedi: Fallen Order and They are Billions. I racked-up an average of around 2.79 hours per day (skewed towards the weekend days) - that's about 146 GB written in only unused recording data per day. Yes, it's only 44% of the allowed (average) drive writes per day at 4k resolution but that's not the complete picture.

Depending on the size of the installed SSD - I'd be surprised if they went larger than 1 TB - and we're looking at 50-100 GB sized games, then the actual volume you're reserving for that recording feature gets pushed onto fewer and fewer "sectors" (a memory cell) on the SSD. This means that some cells will be worn out faster than others because the inherent write behaviour is not averaged across the whole disk. Bear in mind, though, that sectors on an SSD can fail without the drive failing but will be written as "bad" to the OS, as they are on mechanical drives. The difference is that mechanical drives will generally (at least in my limited experience) have a cascade of failures whereas the SSD will still be able to operate (i.e. be read) as long as one of the degraded sectors is not one with vital system information. However, in these instances, the overall drive size will be smaller.

If the SSDs are not user replaceable then we're looking at a whole console generation that will be a ticking time bomb - moreso than traditional consumer electronics. Remember that the 600 TBW figure is what the manufacturer thinks is the average value that they can safely quote and some drives will not manage to achieve this figure before they fail or start failing.

The worst case scenario here is that Sony and Microsoft do not allow long form recording or retroactive capture unless an external mechanical drive is part of the setup. If I'm honest, I think this is a good trade-off to make, if it is made. It's a little inconvenient for the users but will result in much more reliable systems. This issue would be compounded if a 500 GB SSD were used instead of a 1 TB SSD...

My original PS4 drive died before the 4 year mark and that's a relatively reliable  and inexpensive technology. Even though prices have come down a lot, a decent quality consumer 1TB drive is still over €100. We are unlikely to get such a device as even wholesale, these would be too expensive to put into a console that's aiming for (I hope)  a sub-€400 entry into the market. 

As an aside to this, the "next generation" nomenclature in Microsoft and SONY's reveals has me worried that this could be a return to the bad old days of proprietary drives. There is nothing inherently "next generation" about NVMe drives because they are current, shipping, technology... other than they are not included in the tech used in this generation of console. In that scenario, even a 7200 rpm or 10000 rpm HDD are "next generation" in comparison to the crappy 5400 rpm laptop drives they use in everyday console builds. Honestly, if these are just NVMe drives, it's simultaneously a dissapointment and a classic case of marketing-speak. If that's the case, I don't understand why they didn't just refer to everything as "next generation": featuring next generation processor, next generation GPU, next generation VRAM... etc., etc., ad nauseum...

Even if the SSD is user replaceable, if it's a custom drive then it'll be super expensive and won't come down in price over the lifespan of the consoles and may not even be available for purchase on the consumer side.

I'm not sure that the final design will be this clean. First off, there's no light to indicate operation, secondly, the cutout for the drive bay is right up against the lower frame - a mechanical weak-point if ever I saw one!

Skipping back a moment to price, I do have to worry a bit since the cost of the revealed items is way above what is usually the case for usual tech at the beginning of a console generation. Even if the consoles will be €400-500, that's actually way below the costs of a mid-range CPU, 16GB RAM and a high-end GPU. For those specs you'd be looking at €700 minimum and that doesn't cover case or optical drive...

I know there's always a bit of give-and-take at the beginning of a console generation (Nintendo excluded) but going this high-end, this early, on a "Series" of systems which will feature backwards compatibility means that, unless both Microsoft and Sony take a decent amount of financial loss on each unit sold, then the consoles will be quite expensive.

Saying that, both Sony and Microsoft have both had their share of failures at the higher price points during launch (Sony with the PS3 and Microsoft with the Xbox One). I don't think either corporation would make the same mistake a second time so soon.

Release date thoughts...

I only picked this photo because it was free (as well as attribution, but here it is, Pixabay!) and I couldn't find any game image with a "date" in it in my vast trove of screen captures... I must try harder!

This is where I go off the rails a bit into conspiracy territory.

Don't ask me why (because I'm going to explain a little below) but I've been getting a vibe that Microsoft is very well-organised and focussed this time around. This is not even due to Microsoft's actions with regards to their next gen console, per se, but to do with their actions as a businsess and the industry as a whole.

I started taking note when a few games started getting delayed into 2020... then more games and finally, suspiciously, games that were specifically under development at studios that were then procured by Microsoft. Here's a list of games slated for mid-2020 with original releases and delays:

  • Doom Eternal (Bethesda): 22/11/2019 - 20/03/2020
  • Doom 64 (Bethesda): 22/11/2019 - 20/03/2020
  • Psychonauts 2 (Microsoft): 2019 - 2020
  • Wasteland 3 (Microsoft): XX/10-12/2019 - XX/03-05/2020
  • Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines 2 (Paradox): XX/03/2020
  • Nioh 2 (SONY/KOEI TECMO): XX/03/2020
  • Final Fantasy 7 Remake (Square Enix): 03/03/2020
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Microsoft): 11/03/2020
  • Bleeding Edge (Microsoft): 24/03/2020
  • Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt): 16/04/2020
  • Dying Light 2 (Techland): XX/03-05/2020
  • Death Stranding (PC) (SONY/505 Games): XX/06/2020
  • Watch Dogs: Legion (Ubisoft): XX/04-06/2020
  • Gods and Monsters (Ubisoft): XX/04-06/2020
  • Rainbow Six: Quarantine (Ubisoft): XX/04-06/2020
  • Grounded (Obsidian Entertainment/Microsoft): 03-05-2020
  • Minecraft Dungeons (Microsoft): XX/04-06/2020
  • The Last of Us Part 2 (SONY): 29/05/2020
  • Senua's Saga (Microsoft): (Xbox Series X launch?)

That list, right there is a nightmare - purely because there are many high-profile games releasing within the same time period and for similar audiences. This is the sort of scenario where we expect good games to sell terribly because a bigger game stole all the air in the room.

I understand that some games need extra time in the oven to make them the game the developers and publishers want to release to the world but that's usually not the overriding factor in many cases. In many cases, Microsoft included (the company that shuttered practically all of their in-house studios in the 2000s) money is king. If a studio needs to get a game out without the extra finish because they're going to run out of funds? So be it. If a publisher has no more money allocated to the project and they don't forsee any point in putting "good money after bad" (i.e. the extra expenditure won't result in increased return on investment)? So be it.

This is the opposite of what's happening here. 

So, I am meant to believe that multiple publishers and developers (some common between the two) have all decided to push their games back into the same 3-4 month period instead of selling them this, 2019, Holiday season?

In years past, the press and publishers would talk about delaying games due to crowded release windows. Now we're here, on the eve of two new console launches and I'm supposed to believe that this is all a coincidence?

This is where my crazy mind goes. So, yeah. This is pure speculation and pure conjecture.... But it's weird, right?

Then there was the whole reshuffling over at SONY.

Everything is FIIIIIIIINE!
I was actually quite worried about the developments surrounding the so-called centralisation of this arm of SONY because I like both Xbox and Sony consoles and follow the respective teams actions. One of the historical reasons that XBOX has not sold well outside of America (and to a lesser extent the UK which is culturally the most similar to the USA) is that the team there and (probably to a lesser extent) their satellite teams do not understand those other markets. 

Despite SONY having a well-recognised brand in Japan and the EU, the Playstation brand was built almost independently of the main SONY machine on the strength of having those local connections and understandings of the market. Sure, SONY had TVs (which weren't the best on the market) and Walkman cassette and CD players (which probably had the highest brand recognition but were allowed to die on the vine)... but those are completely different markets and divisions of SONY. They have no interlinking structure and, quite often, have antagonistic views towards each other.

In the meantime, consumers have only seen favouritism towards the USA in terms of content and features (arguments of "it's easier to implement are useless when consumers can directly compare between what each individual consumer gets) from XBOX whereas SONY and Nintendo, while providing fewer tangible features and benefits, did not segregate their worldwide userbase as strongly as Microsoft.

Now, SONY gives all the appearances of literally tearing itself apart in an egotistical turf war right when they can least afford it. With the firing of a reportedly large proportion of the UK arm of the business and internal communication and strategic black-out to those same departments it seems that the higher ups are distracted with this crap.

I find it very strange that it's the US arm of SONY being the one that's forming the head of this centralising trend when the EU is a larger combined userbase. I've seen PS4 numbers of 41-44 million units sold in the EU and 30 million in the USA bandied about but haven't confirmed them. However, the historical numbers (from memory) reflect a split of this nature. 

Yes, individually each separate market is smaller than the USA but I did an analysis of game sales a decade ago with regards to critical and user ratings and regional success (no link because the forum I posted it to no longer functions). I found that games that sold well in America or Japan did not do well (in terms of relative [i.e. population normalised] sales numbers) in the rest of the world. Whereas games that sold well in the EU did well in the other two markets. I fear that a move to the vision and strategy of an American-centric sales and development mentality will only hurt the SONY brand and consumers in the process.

Damn right! Distracted companies perform worse than those with an aligned focus...

Further to this, I'm getting a feeling that Microsoft, seeing the flailing of SONY, are accelerating their finalisation of the Scarlett project. Some of the MGS acquisitions and subsequent delays are suspiciously looking like stealth releasing the next XBOX earlier than anticipated. History isn't always a good predictor of the future but PS3 was announced 17 months before release because MS forced their hand. The 360 released around 6 months before release. The PS4 and XBO were announced 9 and 6 months before release respectively.

Scarlett was announced (broadly) in June 2019 and PS5 was (again, broadly) announced in April 2019. Looking at historical precedent, assuming a November release being equivalent to the announced end of 2020 release dates, that's 19 months for PS5 and 17 months for Scarlett.

If history is anything to go by, Scarlett, having been "announced" both at E3 2019 and here in December 2019 could, theoretically launch in late summer 2020, not in "Holiday" 2020... speaking of which, only American companies use that language. It's really weird. Use months or quarters in future, please.

Granted I was wrong about the Zen 2/Zen 3 architecture and I'll probably be wrong about this but I suspect that Microsoft will announce the launch at E3 2020 as September/October 2020, well before the November PS5 release. I also expect more solid details from them before SONY give them as well. My feeling is that SONY is so disorganised and internally-focussed, no matter what they say to the contrary on the issue, and are not focussing on where they need to be both marketing-wise and technologically.

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