What The Xbox Scorpio Could Learn from PS4 Pro’s Boost Mode
If the Scorpio can run Xbox One games in 4K, it has more than enough headroom to hit 1080p/60 in most modern games, right “out of the box.”
The 1080 Ti and RX Vega have just been announced. Prices for the Radeon Fury line are at incredible lows. The PS4 Pro’s been out on the market for months now, and 4K TVs and monitors are now the mainstream option for an upgrade. There’s never been a better time for a console like Scorpio, with an emphasis on 4K experiences. But let’s take a step back here, though. 4K’s still not quite where it’s at for mainstream gaming experiences, and the hardware requirements for a AAA 4K experience are still a bit beyond the pale for existing consoles, PS4 Pro included. 4K is a very nice to have feature (we roll with a Fury/8370 rig hooked up to a 55 in 4K TV). But it’s not need to have. If the Scorpio is to be positioned as essentially an Xbox One that runs games at 4K, this makes it a much less compelling proposition.
Arguably, it’s the performance boost at 1080p that’s more interesting to many people. Sony’s recent decision to implement a Boost Mode on the PS4 Pro makes for an interesting case study. Both the PS4 and the Xbox One were rather anaemic little boxes, even at launch. CPU power, in particular, was appallingly low. The rather weak GPUs on board meant that many AAA titles ran at 900p on the PS4, and as low as 720p on the Xbox One. This’d have been acceptable if those titles outputted acceptable framerates. But here, severe CPU bottlenecking comes into the picture. Games like Fallout 4 were built on engines that tend to favour strong single-threaded performance, a holdover from the days when CPU core count wasn’t a checklist feature for consumers.
Both the Xbox One and PS4 run low-power AMD processors that are clocked extremely low, in line with what you’d see in netbooks or tablets (if they’d ever gotten around to making those APU-powered Windows tablets). The PS4 Pro features the same Jaguar cores, but clocked higher. Games like Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Unity need every bit of processing power available, and, remarkably, sometimes show linear CPU scaling on the new hardware. This is often enough to achieve that crucial 30 FPS hurdle.
However, it could also be argued that the Pro’s Boost Mode is excessively conservative. While developers have the option to leverage additional CPU and GPU power, the problem is just that: it’s optional. Newer titles like Nioh do feature enhanced performance mode, but Pro patches for older games are far from universal.
As it stands, developers have to explicitly take advantage of the Pro’s additional resources if they’re targeting extra performance. Under Pro mode, the CPU and GPU operate at the Pro’s nominal frequencies. However, in boost mode, half the GPU’s Compute Units are unused, limiting the potential for any performance increase solely to the 31 percent increase in CPU power, and the 14 percent increase in GPU power, owing to the higher core clock. Sony’s original reasoning for not having a Boost mode (that it could result in unexpected bugs), is a bit hard to accept. Leave aside utilization on a particular GPU: in the PC space, five generations of AMD cards, all the way back to the 5870, can run plenty of modern titles without issues. It’s possible that this was done in order to avoid facing flak from original PS4 owners: after all, what’s the point in having one of those if the Pro can run some games at 45-60 FPS (for games that are unpatched and had a target fps of 60fps), right out of the box?
This sets the stage for what the Scorpio can do in terms of handling Xbox One titles. The performance gulf between the Pro and the PS4 is arguably not that significant: you’re looking at roughly twice the graphics horsepower and 33 percent additional CPU grunt. But the Scorpio and Xbox One paint a completely different picture, more in line with a generational upgrade: you’re looking at a greater than 4x increase in GPU power alone. While it’s likely that the Scorpio will be a “top-heavy” design like the PS4 and Xbox One, we’re yet to hear about the CPU it’s set to use, apart from the fact that it’s an 8-core part. There are rumblings that it’ll utilize a newer architecture, borrowing features from Ryzen. If that’s the case, the Scorpio would have the resources to run any Xbox One game at 1080/60, right out of the box.
It’s important to note here, though, that parity is extremely important, going by Microsoft’s Xbox Anywhere philosophy. The idea behind Xbox Anywhere is to offer the same Xbox experience, regardless of the platform. As with the Pro, this limits the extent to which the Scorpio experience can exceed what’s on offer with the Xbox One: at least for the time being, Microsoft requires for games to run on both Xbox consoles.
While we might not be seeing Scorpio exclusives for the time being, Microsoft has a unique opportunity to position Scorpio as a 1080p/60 machine: if it can run Xbox One games at all in 4K, it has more than enough headroom to hit 1080p/60 in most modern games, right out of the box (just like what the PS4 Pro’s boost mode does for some games that are not patched for Pro support), assuming that the processor doesn’t hold the GPU back too much. While 4K’s what the marketing push is all about, it’s 1080p/60 that’d benefit the most people: even if the Scorpio is priced at $600-plus, this makes it a viable alternative to midrange RX 480/ GTX 1060 rigs for those not willing to get into PC gaming. Xbox One developers will be working with Xbox Anywhere in mind: compatibility is important, as every platform, including PC (and maybe even mobile, someday), has to run Xbox games. PC already runs Xbox games like Quantum Break and Gears of War 4 at higher resolutions and framerates than console: it’s not hard to see Scorpio doing the same.
Scorpio’s a year late to the market, but if it can deliver a compelling experience at both 1080p and 4K, it has the potential to turn into a real challenger, not just for the Pro, but for midrange PCs. Let’s wait and see how things pan out.