Microsoft unveiled its Xbox Series S console last week with the aim of offering more budget-friendly next-generation games for $ 299. The console is specifically targeted at a resolution of 1440p rather than 4K, leading to some lingering questions and confusion about how well it will play next generation games. There are concerns about GPU performance, memory, and whether the Series S could hold back next-generation gaming. I got a chance to talk to Jason Ronald, Microsoft’s Director of Xbox Program Management, to dig into what’s really going on with the Xbox Series S.
The biggest difference between the larger Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, apart from size and design, is the GPU inside. The Xbox Series S has 4 teraflops with GPU performance compared to 1
Some of the changes Microsoft has made to accommodate a cheaper Series S console have sparked a lot of debate as to whether this console will hold back next-generation games in general. “Really bummed about this RAM situation on the Series S,” said Axel Gneiting, a lead engine programmer at id Software, in a now-deleted tweet. “This is not easy to compensate and drags the base specification down quite a bit for the next generation multi-platform.”
Billy Khan, a leading engine programmer at id Software, shared Gneiting’s concerns. “The memory situation is a big problem on S,” Khan said in another deleted tweet. “The much lower amount of memory and the split memory banks with drastically lower speeds will be a big problem. Aggressively lowering the rendering resolutions will marginally help, but will not completely counteract the shortcomings. ”
Sasan Sepehr, a senior technical producer at Remedy Entertainment, also shared a brief concern. “As a consumer, I love this,” Sepher said on Twitter. “As a technical manufacturer, I see problems.”
These concerns all seem reasonable. On paper, the memory and GPU differences look like big gaps, but the reality is a little more complicated when you consider that Microsoft is aiming for 1440p resolutions on the Series S, not the 4K that the Xbox Series X is designed for.
“We did a lot of analysis of what it would really mean to run a game in 4K at 60 fps and then scale it down to 1440p at 60 fps,” said Jason Ronald, Microsoft’s director of Xbox application management, in an interview with The edge. “The reality is that you do not need that much memory bandwidth because you do not load the highest level MIP levels into the memory. You also do not need the same amount of memory. ”
Microsoft believes that developers have a number of ways to build Xbox Series X games to 4K resolutions and then scale them down to 1440p for Series S. “Developers have a wide variety of techniques, whether it changes the resolution of their title, things like dynamic resolution that scales frame by frame – it’s something we’ve seen a lot of adoption of, especially at the end of this generation, ”explains Ronald. “And of course the ability to activate and display various visual effects without actually implementing the basic gameplay.”
This is all particularly relevant when both consoles share almost identical CPU and I / O performance, something that has bottlenecks on existing consoles. Microsoft focused on bumping GPU performance with its Xbox One X, even using the 6 teraflops as a marketing point compared to the PS4 Pro’s 4.2 teraflops.
Xbox One X was terrible bottleneck at both CPU and I / O level. Microsoft effectively pushed a more capable GPU inside a device that still runs a laptop-like CPU and a rotating hard drive. It was almost 4K, but the CPU really held back a lot of games from reaching 60 fps.
So how does the Xbox Series S compare to the older Xbox One X? It’s easy to look at the numbers of the raw teraflops and immediately think 6 teraflops is better than 4 teraflops, but it’s more complicated than that. The Xbox Series S runs AMD’s latest RDNA 2.0 architecture, while the Xbox One X was based on AMD’s older GCN architecture.
“With RDNA 2, we basically get a 25 percent performance level above GCN without any work at all by developers,” Ronald claims. “There is a significant efficiency we get from RDNA2 compared to GCN. Then we look at other things like using float 16 or shadow with variable rate, and we see in the order of 10-20 percent performance from there as well. ”
That should mean that raw GPU performance on the Xbox Series S is similar to the Xbox One X, but the target resolution is 1440p instead of 4K. This is why the Xbox Series S plays games designed and enhanced for the larger Xbox Series X along with Xbox One S versions of games that have not been fine-tuned in place of Xbox One X-enhanced titles.
“It’s really hard to compare crude numbers like teraflops across generations because we think of them differently,” says Ronald. In general on the GPU side, the Xbox Series S is actually the same performance as an Xbox One X GPU, but it brings all the next generation features like beam tracking, VRS, mesh shaders and of course when looking at the massive jumps. in CPU performance and I / O performance, this is why the Xbox Series S is designed to deliver the true next-generation experience that just targets a lower resolution than the Xbox Series X. ”
The CPU improvements and the addition of an SSD to the Xbox Series S will mean that games can run much smoother than they ever did on the Xbox One X. ”There are also options where we can improve the titles on the Xbox Series S yet more than we can do on Xbox One X, ”says Ronald. “If you look at the raw power of the Xbox Series S, if a title wants to go in and double its frame rates, it’s actually really easy because we’ve more than doubled the GPU performance and more than doubled the CPU performance, so it is relatively easy for a developer to go in and activate it if they choose to update their title. ”
Microsoft has certainly changed its focus for this generation of Xbox consoles to be more about frame rates and loading times, rather than just graphical enhancements alone. 4K is supported on the Xbox Series S through upscaling, and Microsoft is performing work at the display controller level to get higher image quality and improved color correction for sharper and more accurate images when upscaling games.
There’s no really big focus or warranty on 8K for the Xbox Series S or Xbox Series X, which is a good thing. Consoles have promised 1080p or 4K performance before and have not hit high frame rates for smooth gameplay. “Historically, console generations have really been defined by what games look like,” says Ronald. “This generation wants a lot of it to be, how do they feel? How do they play? When you think about these big open worlds and keep players immersed in it, I will not get in, I will not have load times. Ronald says buttery smooth gameplay will be a priority for Microsoft over the generation of both of these consoles.
Microsoft also relies on a technique called sampler feedback streaming in Xbox Series S and X to improve SSD bandwidth efficiency. Sampler feedback streaming gives developers much more control over how data is delivered to the GPU for playback, which means that only the textures that a GPU needs for a scene are loaded into memory. This should provide some significant performance improvements alone.
“When we think of the Xbox speed architecture or streaming sampler feedback, these are areas where we expect a lot of innovation over the generation,” Ronald explains. “With something like streaming sampler feedback, it can deliver performance far beyond the actual raw hardware specifications. So much of this generation is about efficiency. ”
So will this Xbox Series S actually hold back the next generation of games? Probably not. “No it is not [going to hold back next-gen], ”Says Gavin Stevens, co-owner and design manager of the indie studio Team Blur Games. “Anyone with even a little experience will tell you that as such.” The reality is that the Xbox Series S will require developers to balance and scale their games, just as many are already doing across a choice of hardware for PC games and existing Xbox and PlayStation consoles.
There is also the reality in existing consoles like the Xbox One and PS4 that can affect future games as, unlike the Xbox Series S, there are severe CPU limitations to work around. Microsoft has promised that Xbox Game Studios titles expected to be released “in the next few years” will also be available on Xbox One. Sony on the other hand seemed to be focusing on exclusive games for PS5 like Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Horizon Forbidden West, but the company is now also launching these on PS4. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is not on the list for a PS4 version and it looks like a game that really benefits from the PS5’s SSD and would be challenging to run on PS4 hardware.
Many of the hardware and efficiency improvements need developers to really take advantage of them. While there may be concerns about some of Microsoft’s choices, it will take some time before we see developers get started on hardware changes and optimize games accordingly. This is how console generations have always worked.
The difference in this generation is that if Microsoft’s promises of the Xbox Series S and X hold, we’ll look at a console period that truly favors frame rates and visual quality over pure resolution. The Xbox Series S may be the biggest representation of just that, allowing gamers to get the higher frames that many will see from the next generation of games.