Breaking down the hardware in the new Xbox: Project Scorpio

Despite rumors that Microsoft was only going to tease a new release for some kind of improved Xbox One console, they surprised everyone with a full-blown announcement at the tail end of their E3 event. 

Called Project Scorpio, Microsoft is making some bold claims about what's to come when their new hardware hits the market fall of 2017. Of course, no one is talking about where exactly the newly announced specifications lie in relation to current PC GPUs, so let's look at what we know about Project Scorpio and how the current specs line up to desktop level GPUs in terms of performance.

Specs Above the Rest

In relation to current gen consoles, Project Scorpio is sitting pretty as a serious gaming powerhouse. Microsoft has revealed that Scorpio will be rocking an eight core CPU with an unknown number of threads, a system memory bandwidth of 320GB/s, and most important of all, a peak shader throughput of somewhere over 6 TFLOPs.  Microsoft hasn't given the exact specs on the Scorpio's GPU, nor the exact speed of the processor we'll see at launch to anyone, but these rough numbers are a good starting point to compare to the current gen of consoles and even a few enthusiast level GPUS.

Currently the Xbox One and the PS4 are both running a modified version of a 28nm eight core CPU, and comparatively the PS4 is clocked at 1.6GHz while the Xbox One runs at a slightly faster clock rate of 1.75GHz. Based entirely off the number of cores, Project Scorpio and the current gen of consoles are nearly identical, but it's fair to say that with AMD's ZEN CPU line soon to release, and the otherwise massive number of possible CPUs to pull from, that Microsoft is looking to run a somewhat faster CPU than the previous generation. We're guessing they'll either match the CPU to the Xbox One, or in the very least pick something that'll break the 2.0GHz mark. Intel CPUs are certainly a possibility but AMD is currently the go-to pick for this generation so we'd be surprised to see Microsoft make the flip while they're still running an AMD CPU in the Xbox One.

Of course, although CPUs have some affect on the overall performance of a PC, the bulk of gaming performance is determined by the power and quality of the GPU, which is also where Project Scorpio starts to get all hot and steamy.

The Xbox One and the PS4 both run off of a similar class of AMD GPU, with the slight distinction that the PS4 is carrying an overall beefier and more powerful GPU in comparison to the Xbox One. This difference is largely the reason that the PS4 is considered the more powerful of the two consoles, as the PS4 is rocking the equivalent to an HD 7870 that delivers a peak shader throughput of just over 1.8 TFLOPs compared to the Xbox One's HD 7790 that clocks in at just over 1.3 TFLOPs. Project Scorpio's 6 TFLOPS of compute performance therefore is over triple that of the PS4 and quadruple that of the Xbox One – all in all a heck of an upgrade.

Stacking with the Big Boys

Now let's take what we just learned and apply it to the big boys over in the vaulted hall of desktop-level GPUS and specifically take a look at how it stacks up against some of the industries finest.

Getting down to the brass tacks, 6 TFLOPs is a lot of power, even for enthusiast-level GPUs. A stock Nvidia GTX 970 comes in at about 4.2 TFLOPs, and Nvidia's powerhouse 980Ti comes in at just over 5.6 TFLOPs. On AMD's side of the fence, the highly overclocked R9 390X comes in at a solid 5.9 TFLOPs and the soon to be released RX 480 Polaris GPU is said to come in at somewhere over 5 TFLOPS. Comparing Project Scorpio to these cards, 2017 is starting to look extremely promising for the console market, and it seems that Microsoft's goal is to at least match current PC graphical standards as they stand right now.

Scorpio's compute performance is still impressive when you compare its 6 TFLOPs of performance to the latest and greatest cards from Nvidia in the form of the GTX 1080 and it's smaller, more wallet friendly brother, the GTX 1070. Although it's worth noting that the gap between Scorpio and the 1080 is large enough to remind us that Project Scorpio isn't going to be breaking any records by the time it hits the market in 2017.

The GTX 1070 comes in at a respectable 6.5 TFLOPs, just over what Microsoft has planned for Scorpio, but the GTX 1080 absolutely purrs at a staggering 9 TFLOPs of compute performance, 33% faster than Scorpio with absolutely no overclocking.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with console development cycles, time is the greatest limiting factor for how its parts rank up in the long run, and Fall 2017 is a long way down the road. By the time Scorpio sees the light of day smart money says that 6 TFLOPs will be terrifyingly average compared to the brand spanking new GPU technology we’ll see in the meantime.

Will it 4K?

At 6 TFLOPs of compute performance, odds are good that Project Scorpio will be able to handle gaming at 4K resolution, but whether it'll do so at a consistent 60FPS to match up with Microsoft's claims is another matter entirely.

Going back to the newest Nvidia GPUs for comparison, the bulk of reviewers benchmarking the GTX 1080 and the 1070  show that 4K is still a tall task to measure up to, and on high settings the 1070 averages at about 44FPS while the GTX 1080 pulls ahead at a smidgen over 54FPS. These numbers are definitely closer to the 60FPS mark than we've ever been before, but it does call into question whether Project Scorpio should really be using 4K/60Hz as a marketing point when even the most powerful GPU in the world can only shoot past the 60FPS mark in select cases.

Project Scorpio might manage to maintain consistent frames at 4K, but they'll likely have to compromise visual effects to pull it off. Medium settings aren't a terrible experience, and everyone knows that to hit the 90FPS sweet spot for VR we're going to be seeing a visual downgrade one way or another, but it seems likely that most consumers would rather have buttery smooth FPS on ultra at 1080p or 1440p over a stuttering inconsistent experience at 4K anytime the game gets exciting. Or maybe not, considering that's basically the problem the Xbox One is hitting right now and everyone seems to get outraged anytime a game drops the resolution by a tiny notch to maintain peak performance.

Ultimately, we're hoping that Project Scorpio is about to open the door to the same level of graphical control PC enjoys on nearly every title. With more than one set of hardware specs on a single platform, it seems logical for Microsoft to give players access to a bit of control over texture quality, resolution, and other visual effects so that they can balance quality over performance at their leisure. Heck, the fact that it isn't a standard on consoles already is entirely alien from a PC gamer's perspective. In the end, only time will tell, but with Microsoft leaning more and more towards a unified gaming network across PC, Xbox One, and now Project Scorpio it could very well be in the cards.

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