The Scorpio is not an an uber-powerful 4K/60/Ultra monster but it’s not so anaemic as to be incapable of 4K gaming.
The not-quite-ninth-gen console arms race has heated up: Microsoft unveiled preliminary specifications for Project Scorpio. With just months to go before Scorpio’s release, important questions remain unanswered.
The PS4 Pro proved that consoles could deliver a better-than-1080p experience on 4KTVs, albeit at sub-native resolutions. The Pro featured graphics hardware that was along the lines of the R9 380 in terms of horsepower–a definite step forward for consoles, but not enough to cut the cake at 4K. Unsurprisingly, few titles apart from indies (and those titles that don’t push the system) and last-gen remasters like The Last of Us, ran at anything approach native 4k resolution, with most instead opting for a non-native framebuffer, augmented by frame reconstruction tech such as checkerboarding. The relatively meagre gains in CPU power put a hard limit on the Pro’s capabilities–it was meant to and is a box that runs PS4 games at higher resolutions and more consistent (but not necessarily higher) framerates.
With Scorpio, Microsoft’s marketing pitch bears a superficial resemblance to the Pro’s positioning: we’re talking about a (relatively) affordable box that can run Xbox One titles at 4K, with broadly equivalent visuals and performance. The key difference here is that Microsoft’s intending to deliver a native 4K experience, without halfway-house frame reconstruction techniques. This requires significantly more powerful hardware than the Pro.
"Scorpio’s mildly augmented 2.3 GHz processor cores will ensure a better lock on existing framerate targets."
Microsoft’s been throwing the “6 Teraflop” figure around for quite sometime, but it’s just now that we’re coming to understand what that entails. The PS4 Pro’s GPU wasn’t too different from an off-the-shelf Polaris 10 running at conservative clockspeeds. With Scorpio, we’re looking at something else entirely. Scorpio’s GPU is a 40 CU part that essentially sits in between Vega and Polaris in terms of features. At present, there is no other 40 CU Polaris part: Scorpio’s graphics core was built from scratch specifically for the console. Interestingly, Microsoft’s managed to get the Scorpio’s GPU running at a remarkably high clockspeed for console, at 1176 MHz. This is within spitting distance of the RX 480’s typical boost clocks. Console GPUs are typically clocked low to account for power and thermals–this speaks volumes about the efficiency of the 14nm process.
The increase in VRAM to 12 GB of (with 8 GB available to games) is essential. I run a Fury–a 4 GB card–in my personal system. It stutters and runs out of VRAM at 1080p in some games. Whether or not that’s due to an appalling lack of optimization effort (The Witcher 3, in contrast, features fantastic texture work and utilizes only around 1.5 GB of VRAM), the reality is that games increasingly use up a lot of VRAM, and that amount skyrockets when you crank up the resolution. 8 GB is the present sweet spot. Due to this being a shared pool for both VRAM and system RAM, actual VRAM usage is likely to be a bit lower on Scorpio. Still, this is a much-needed step up. In addition, the increase in memory bandwidth to 326GB/S will help Scorpio cope with the massive increase in in-game resolution.
I was disappointed but not entirely surprised with Microsoft’s decision not to move to a Ryzen-based CPU for Scorpio. As with the PS4 Pro, the bump in processor speed won’t necessarily enable title to hit 60 FPS, in tandem with the more powerful GPU. Rather, the bump in power will help with minimum framerates that tank in CPU-intensive locations. Scorpio’s mildly augmented 2.3 GHz processor cores will ensure a better lock on existing framerate targets.
"Considering that software’s already been available, the data on how to get it running at 4K is already available. With that in mind, the Scorpio makes a much better case for itself than the PS4 Pro."
At the end of the day, however, regardless of the figures, the question doesn’t change much: Can the Xbox Scorpio deliver a playable, native 4K experience? From long experience with AMD parts in and around the Scorpio’s performance profile–parts like the RX 480, R9 390X, and R9 Fury, I’d hesitate to claim that the Scorpio’s capable of offering a truly “uncompromised (with every graphical parameter notched upto Ultra setting)” 4K experience: At this point, I am just about fed up trying to get my R9 Fury to perform acceptably at 4K on multiplats–30 FPS is attainable, but just barely, and with a bit of settings tinkering on every game. Keep in mind that the Fury’s substantially more powerful than the Scorpio’s GPU, and I am using an overclocked Fury at that.
On the flip side, console games rarely run at anything approached maxed out visual settings on PC–there is a surprisingly large amount of leeway for performance optimizations to scale eye-candy without fundamentally altering the game’s visual make up. Modern engines like Frostbite are built with scalability in mind. What’s remarkable is that Microsoft themselves have developed an inhouse tool called PIX (Performance Investigator for Xbox), to essentially work backwards: Microsoft engineers built Scorpio with the assumption that games would run primarily at 4K.
PIX enabled Microsoft to build Scorpio to meet the performance requirements of existing titles, to identify stress points and opportunities for asset scaling. Historically, console games have been built with console hardware in mind. This creates trouble at both the beginning and end of the console’s life cycle, with early titles failing to fully utilize available resources, and later titles forced to cut corners just to work. In Scorpio’s case, the hardware was built with a particular set of software in mind: AAA titles from the past four years or so on the Xbox One. Considering that software’s already been available, the data on how to get it running at 4K is already available. With that in mind, the Scorpio makes a much better case for itself than the PS4 Pro.
"Unlike the PS4 Pro, the Scorpio’s built with that specific objective in mind–it’s not an uber-powerful 4K/60/Ultra monster. At the same time, it’s not so anaemic as to be incapable of 4K gaming."
The Pro (which is still the most powerful console on the market, by the way), is in a sense, a victim of inaccurate marketing. It doesn’t feature hardware that’s truly 4K-capable in games. Despite this, it’s positioned as a “4K console,” an upgrade for owners of 4KTVs. Hardware at the Pro’s level of performance positively sings at 1080p, allowing for scaled-up visuals and more consistent framerates. Unfortunately, the Pro’s essentially typecast as a “4K console,” meaning that games on the Pro end up running at uncomfortably high resolutions. As owners of GTX 960 and R9 380-class hardware know, it’s quite possible to run games at resolutions higher than 1080p–they just don’t run very well. The Pro often ends up performing worse than the PS4 at 1080p. At the end of the day, a sub-native presentation and janky framerate just don’t add up to a meaningful 4K experience.
The Scorpio is significantly more powerful than the PS4 Pro, and Microsoft’s not afraid to say it. Unlike the PS4 Pro, the Scorpio’s built with that specific objective in mind–it’s not an uber-powerful 4K/60/Ultra monster. At the same time, it’s not so anaemic as to be incapable of 4K gaming. The Scorpio’s all about taking an existing experience and elevating that to 4K, as is, no trickery involved. The specs Microsoft talked about certainly point in that direction.