As the new year gets underway the rumour mills have started to grind their gears and crank up the noise once again. The rumour mills attention at the moment seems to be focused on the next generation X-Box 720, code name Loop.
The latest round of rumours surrounding the X-Box 720 raise some rather interesting questions about what Microsoft has up its sleeve for its X-Box 720. Will the next gen console be using the Radeon HD 6670 graphics card, a last generation low-end graphics card?
Also tales of an X-Box Tablet seem to be rolled into this latest batch of buzz. After a heated debate here at Highpants we have concluded that there is no possible way that the next generation top-end X-Box will use a graphics processor that is no step up from the current generation. The rumour contends that the 6670 is 6 times more powerful that the current graphics processor in the X-Box 360, not even close to the truth. So where does the truth lie and what does Microsoft have install for the console world?
As far as the rumours go Semi-Accurate and IGN – see source links at the bottom – seem to have been the sources and are also the closest to the truth. Semi-Accurate point out the fact that IBM announced last month the beginning of chip production for the new hardware. These chips code named Oban will integrate the CPU – PowerPC -, eDRAM and GPU into a single chip. The graphics chip included is said to be the latest ATI GCN – the latest 7000 family using Graphics Core Next architecture – equivalent to the 6670, the as yet unreleased 7670. They also mention the fact that this very early silicon is destined for game developers. The timing and numbers of chips being produced would suggest that these early chips are indeed destined for the game developers preparing for the X-Box 720. But studying the details reveals something else is afoot at Microsoft.
Firstly let’s just clear up the rumour that the next high end console from Microsoft will use the 6670 or equivalent low end video card. Even Microsoft isn’t crazy enough to put an underpowered console up against the next PlayStation or the latest PC gaming hardware. A 720 that included even the latest version of the 6670 –7670- would be woefully underpowered.
Comparing the specifications of the X-Box 360 and 6670 might clear things up. The X-Box 360 launched in 2005 with a customized ATI graphics chip named the Xenos GPU. The chip runs at 500Mhz and is capable of 240 GFLOPS – 240 billion of floating point calculations per second -. The X-Box also assembled a triple core PowerPC CPU from IBM that runs at 3.2Ghz and 512 MB of shared system ram onto its motherboard. In order to ensure fast screen updates the 360 included 10 MB of embedded eDRAM from NEC, operating at 256GB/s bandwidth it functions as a high speed frame buffer for the display.
By comparison the 6670 is ATIs previous generation technology. The chip itself operates at 800 MHz clock speed, includes 512MB to 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. The memory delivers 64 GB/s memory bandwidth and the GPU can crunch through 768 GFLOP’s per second. As you can see this isn’t the traditional leap of performance expected from a next generation console.
So reviewing the specifications for both chips they are a lot closer than 6 times the speed difference. With wins and losses on both sides, and remembering the X-Box’s output has been designed purely for TV, they are actually quite similar final speed. While the 6670 has a higher clock speed and 3 times the pure number crunching abilities – GFLOPs – the extremely high speed of the embedded eDram from NEC offsets those advantages. The Xenos also has the advantage of not being saddled with the Windows Operating system that adds to the overhead. Being generous the 6670 could be considered twice as powerful as the 360’s Xenos GPU.
Traditionally when Sony or Microsoft deliver next generation hardware to game developers it is basically the spec of the final chips, there may be bugs to fix and slight revisions. Not getting this hardware to developers on time can cause serious issues during with the release of a new console. If you don’t get working silicon to developers early enough there won’t be games at the consoles release. But the silicon needs to be as final as possible for developers to get to work. Delivering buggy and problematic chips is more frustrating than having no chips at all.
So if this tradition were to be followed it would indeed mean the 720 will have the 6670 as its GPU, a chip barely twice as fast as the current 360 Xenos GPU. Unless there is one more twist that the rumour mill has completely missed. Windows and more importantly the Direct X libraries are that twist and they’re coming to an X-Box console near you.
By applying the Direct X technology to the console world Microsoft could easily produce developer silicon now with easy to use parts like the 6670 then continue development of the high powered chip while developers get busy.
Microsoft is about to change the console golden rule and the living room landscape completely. The golden rule for any family of consoles is that unlike the PC world the chipset – specifically the CPU and GPU – must stay the same through-out the life of the console.
Every console since the start of home gaming has stuck steadfastly to this rule. The rule aims to maintain complete compatibility with all games over the life of the console. Especially important to game developers that program the GPU directly and don’t work through an abstraction layer such as Direct X on Windows. Change the hardware and games written in this old school way will break.
Also highlighting this possibility is the fact that the Oban chipsets are fully compatible with Windows 9 and Direct X 11. This is a radical departure for a console. Consoles have traditionally run a very light operating system that is designed to give games the maximum frame rate possible. Windows has always been seen as having too many unnecessary features that require too much overhead, until now.
Is Direct X 11 coming to the X-Box ? To make all of this happen Microsoft already has very capable software that has been in use on the PC for years now, Direct X 11. Aside from all of the marketing surrounding Direct X 11 it performs a very important role in allowing games to run on any PC, no matter what make and model, as long as the hardware is capable. All combinations of PC hardware will work with any game. DX11 sits in-between the various hardware possibilities and the games software, making the magic work all the time.
This could also explain the strange and rumour mill encouraging statements from Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer before CES. He has stated a number of times that all of Microsoft’s devices will run from a single code base. This doesn’t mean the same windows will run on a Phone as well as Xbox and PC. Instead it relates to the act that the use of Windows standards like Direct X will soon operate across multiple platforms. In this way, by using the same libraries when writing software you will be able to use the same development tools, and with minimal modification you will be able to cross compile to multiple platforms, write you game once and have the developer tools create a version for Windows Phone, or X-Box, or PC.
So once all of these standard libraries are in place what difference will it make for the consoles like the X-Box 720? This may be the first generation of console able to use different chipsets across a single family of consoles. The 6670 video card makes sense if Microsoft isn’t just releasing one X-Box 720, it is the perfect card to battle low end consoles like the Nintendo Wii. Cheap low power and reasonable fast. Not the chip you would use in the competitor to a new PlayStation.
The other interesting by-product of Direct X 11 coming to consoles is the ability to have a number of models that use different chipsets. So the chip being talked about in the current round of rumours could actually turn out to be the low end cheap 720 or even an X-Box tablet which has also been mentioned in various rumours. While a high end Elite edition X-Box 720 might use the far more powerful 7970 core, have a faster CPU and more memory. Instead of the fairly lame attempt to have multiple models that is the Elite edition X-Box 360. Trying to create model differentiation using the hard drive size and controllers – things we can generally upgrade ourselves anyway – is simply dancing around the edges.
Microsoft’s timing on bringing Windows and Direct X to the console looks to be spot on. With the latest CPU+GPU combination providing ample power for even 1080p gaming there is plenty of spare CPU time to deal with the extra Windows overhead. Also all of the extra functionality promised for the next generation console, namely PVR –Personal Video Recorder-, TV and Media Centre functions are all easily achieved using Windows but require extremely large programming teams to achieve in a custom operating system such as used by today’s consoles.
Bringing the Windows libraries – abstraction layers -, including Direct X 11 to the world of the console is an incredible change behind the scenes. While most people won’t notice while they’re engrossed in the latest Gears of War on the 720, they will notice the cheaper high volume sales console that’s available at the same time as the high end elite edition.
If Microsoft had all of this technology in place when the Nintendo Wii took over the world they would have had a low end console able to compete with the Wii, instead of having to wait for the manufacturing costs of the X-Box to drop enough to allow them to compete on price.
Here at Highpants all we know for sure is that Microsoft is out to change the face of gaming completely and we will have many rumours, twists and turns to get through before the final hardware is released into a feverishly curious world. The final release of the X-Box 720 isn’t due until the middle of 2013, with working consoles and games due to be demonstrated at CES January 2013. Microsoft is about to challenge the golden rule for consoles, no longer will there be one chipset to rule them all but instead a model for every market from the start.