Editor’s Note: I’ve been debating making these tech posts into a blog of their own to keep an MMO space and a tech space for those that like one or the other, but I haven’t pulled the trigger short of claiming a new site and doing some basic setup. Let me know in the comments if you like/dislike that idea, because I am probably going to be writing more of these than usual with all the new tech stuff coming this fall!
This week, Microsoft finally confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in the world – they have a smaller, less powerful next-gen Xbox, codenamed Lockhart, now called Series S, which offers a cut-down hardware spec and target render resolution in exchange for a lower price. The tradeoffs made are actually pretty smart, in a way – the CPU remains fully intact, but the GPU loses 32 compute units and 2/3rds of its power, going from a 52 CU, 12 teraflop beast to a 20 CU, 4 teraflop model. This cuts the size, power requirements, and heat output of the system-on-chip drastically, resulting in a much smaller die. Instead of 16 GB of GDDR6 memory, it ships with 10 GB, designed in a similar split to the Series X with 8 GB at a faster bandwidth and the remaining 2 GB much slower. However, in the Series S, both RAM pools are drastically slower than even the slow pool on the Series X (336 GB/s compared to 224 GB/s fast and 56 GB/s slow in the S). The cutdowns continue by using a 512 GB NVME SSD at the same bandwidth as the big brother console, and then the optical drive is removed.
This system gets a bevy of cost reductions outside of those base hardware changes as a result – a smaller chassis, much smaller cooling solution, and a smaller power supply, which translates to a cost of $299 at launch.
When I first heard the Lockhart rumors, to be honest, I thought it was stupid. It wasn’t for me, in my opinion, and I failed to see what the audience potential was for the system. However, after the announcement, I thought about what Microsoft had done, and I thought this is a gamechanger.
Right now, the narrative among most gamers I follow and most of my friends is excitement about the PS5. I have exactly one friend who is looking forward to the Xbox Series X, and then my brother-in-law who was an Xbox gamer even in this generation with the original Xbox One (yikes!). No one seems to really care that much about the Xbox Series X, and I think that is because of platform lock-in. If you have friends lists, game libraries, and the like built on Playstation, the Xbox isn’t going to win you back unless the difference is pretty sharp between the two platforms, and on the base specs both systems announced, there just isn’t a huge difference, and certainly none of the glaring tactical errors that led to Microsoft being routed through most of the first leg of the Xbone/PS4 era. That is, in and of itself, a problem for Microsoft – if I want a next-gen console and neither one impresses me on specs or platform more than the other, then I’m getting the one that has my friends list cultivated and grown, support for the titles I currently own, and there’s not much more to the decision than that.
The rumored prices I’d been hearing suggested that the PS5 without disc drive was going to be the cheapest of the 3 options we knew for sure about (PS5 discless/full PS5/XSX) and so it would win the pricing war in addition to being the low-friction choice. However, the Series S pricing at $299 is $100 lower than what I’d heard for the discless PS5, and that alone is appealing, but what about the specs?
The thing about where I am as a gamer and hardware enthusiast is that I tend towards a very narrow perception of what makes hardware good – fast is good, faster is better, and fastest wins unless it is egregiously overpriced, although even then I’m willing to make exceptions (I will have an RTX 3090 if I have a say!). Microsoft’s core news with the Series S announcement, besides pricing, was to beat me over the head with this point – Series X is 4k native and 120 frames per second rendering target, while Series S is 1440p native and 120 FPS with scaling logic to allow for 4k output all the same. Developing on the platform sees software devs make their games for the Series X hardware with that 4k/120FPS target, and the hardware’s innate differences make the scaling relatively easy – if you render a Series X game at 1440p natively with no other changes, it should perfectly fit the hardware specs of the Series S without other changes.
And then I started to think about 4k TV adoption rates and the ways in which the PS3/Xbox 360 era played out. The historical precedent is pretty simple – in the Xbox 360 vs. PS3 fight, Microsoft made things really simple on everyone – the Xbox 360 did one resolution for native rendering, 720p, and then the ANA (later the HANA for the HDMI models) scaler chip dialed the resolution up or down. Could the 360’s GPU have handled 1080p native rendering? Yes. Did it need to to match and exceed the graphical fidelity of the PS3? No. This method led to some teething problems (if you had a standard-def TV like I did at the start of my 360 ownership, text in some games was really hard to read due to letterboxing the HD image and keeping text at native scale for 720p), but it was easy for developers and didn’t cause too many issues with consumers. Sony had proper rendering of resolutions in the PS3, with native 1080p support, but it’s GPU was weaker and it had two pools of memory – the faster GDDR3 GPU RAM and the much slower XDR CPU memory, which it could steal from – which led to it having problems as texture memory and frame buffer size ballooned for the higher HD resolutions. A developer could build scaling logic into their engine to make things work like the Xbox 360, but without dedicated scaler logic like the 360 had, even that came at a cost.
Why do I bring this up? Well, Microsoft’s bet in the 360 era was that most people didn’t own 1080p HDTVs (and, to be fair, they didn’t – HDTV resolutions at rollout were a mess and it took until the 2010s before most sets were 1080p panels!) and that those who did wouldn’t notice a difference with a scaled image, while the 720p native render resolution would match perfectly with most panels in the market. They were right, and 720p render resolution became the standard for the generation, with most third-party games on both systems supporting only up to 720p on PS3, being developed with the 360 as the lead platform.
This current generation, with Xbox One and PS4, the bet at launch was that a 10 year lifecycle would be attainable for both platforms and they both targeted native 1080p as the benchmark. Even the refresh systems in the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro only kinda support 4k as their big upgrade – the Xbox One X can do 4k natively but the PS4 Pro does scaling via temporal and spatial anti-aliasing to get to 4k, rendering at lower resolutions internallya, which ends up being what most third-party titles supporting both platforms do.
So with this generation targeting 4k support at high frame rates, why would Microsoft move to a lower-end spec without native 4k?
Well, one word – adoption. 4k TV adoption rates are anemic and remain fairly low. They’ve grown and grown a lot from a few years ago, but even as a techie, I don’t own a single 4k display of any sort. My PC monitors are 1440p with one ultrawide 1440p, my wife’s PC uses my hand-me-down 1440p monitors, our TV is 1080p, and the highest resolution displays of note besides those in our house are our Samsung Galaxy Note 9 phones and 2018 iPad Pros. Even among my friends, only 1 that I know of owns a 4k TV and a different one owns a single 4k PC monitor. Research I could find online suggests between 31-35% of US households own a 4k television at all, and my suspicion is that an almost margin-of-error number of those sets would even support high refresh rate HDMI input to allow 120 FPS gameplay.
In that light, the Series S is ingenious on Microsoft’s part. Sony seems committed to offering just the PS5 as it is, with no cut-down version short of the discless model. This simplifies manufacturing and might get them a cost reduction due to volume, but for Microsoft, they’ve engineered a well-built Series X with multiple PCBs and a tight integration of components, while Series S can be a much-simpler single PCB design with almost no need for overengineered solutions. The 1440p native rendering with 4k upscaling at 120 FPS is something that few people will even be able to notice, particularly if the scaling leans on the GPU in a way similar to Nvidia’s DLSS. Finally, there are tons of other hardware-level features that Microsoft has in the RDNA 2 GPU solution on both platforms (which Sony also has and will be using) that can maintain smooth framerates with minimal visual hitches – there is hardware support for dynamic resolution scaling to maintain framerates through high-intensity scenes, and variable rate shading (think of it like dynamic level of detail for geometry, but for shading effects – if something is far away, it doesn’t need full computational horsepower to shade it when the output result is going to be a couple of dozen pixels in the background). Both system designers will be able to keep framerates moving fluidly by leveraging these features, and that means that the allure of “all 4k, all the time” from the Series X and PS5 is a little less innately appealing, since even those platforms will have dynamic reductions to render resolution to maintain performance.
From a business angle, it actually makes tons of sense – Microsoft sells into more households, has a low-cost option for price-conscious gamers that can break through any platform attachments, and the ecosystem around the hardware is otherwise the same – the back IO is unchanged between the two systems so it supports the 1TB storage expansion cards from Seagate and supports both Xbox One and Xbox Series controllers all the same. For those concerned about the size and mass of the new-generation consoles, the Series S is an appealing, small form-factor box that is far more suitable in the standard entertainment center and TV console nooks many of us already have in our homes. The compromises made are those that would be least impactful to an end-user, and the development changes that might theoretically be needed to ensure support of two systems are minimized so as to be non-existent, at least if Microsoft and the Gears 5 team is to be believed.
Do I think the Xbox Series platform is going to be the winner of the generation? It’s hard to say right now, as much of what I think about the next-gen depends on pricing news from Sony. If Sony launches the digital edition PS5 at $400, I think they’ll maintain their lead because of platform lock-in. If that system is more? I think Microsoft stands a chance at peeling away some install base from Sony.
Either way, the next-generation looks a lot more interesting, and I am curious to see just what happens.