It’s that time of decade again. Time for a new Xbox. It took four years for Microsoft to go from the original Xbox to the Xbox 360. The transition from Xbox 360 to the newly announced Xbox One will take right around 8 years, and the 360 won’t be going away anytime soon either. The console business demands long upgrade cycles in order to make early investments in hardware (often sold at a loss) worthwhile. This last round was much longer that it ever should have been, so the Xbox One arrives to a very welcoming crowd.

Yesterday Microsoft finally took the covers off the new Xbox, what it hopes will last for many years to come. At a high level here’s what we’re dealing with:

- 8-core AMD Jaguar CPU
- 12 CU/768 SP AMD GCN GPU
- 8GB DDR3 system memory
- 500GB HDD
- Blu-ray drive
- 2.4/5.0GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n, multiple radios with WiFi Direct support
- 4K HDMI in/out (for cable TV passthrough)
- USB 3.0
- Available later this year

While Microsoft was light on technical details, I believe we have enough to put together some decent analysis. Let’s get to it.

Chassis

The Xbox 360 was crafted during a time that seems so long ago. Consumer electronics styled in white were all the rage, we would be a few years away from the aluminum revolution that engulfs us today. Looking at the Xbox One tells us a lot about how things have changed.

Microsoft isn’t so obsessed with size here, at least initially. Wired reports that the Xbox One is larger than the outgoing 360, although it’s not clear whether we’re talking about the new slim or the original design. Either way, given what’s under the hood - skimping on cooling and ventilation isn’t a good thing.

The squared off design and glossy black chassis scream entertainment center. Microsoft isn’t playing for a position in your games cabinet, the Xbox One is just as much about consuming media as it is about playing games.

In its presentation Microsoft kept referencing how the world has changed. Smartphones, tablets, even internet connectivity are very different today than they were when the Xbox 360 launched in 2005. It’s what Microsoft didn’t mention that really seems to have played a role in its decision making behind the One: many critics didn’t see hope for another generation of high-end game consoles.

With so much of today focused on mobile, free to play and casual gaming on smartphones and tablets - would anyone even buy a next-generation console? For much of the past couple of years I’ve been going around meetings saying that before consolidation comes great expansion. I’ve been saying this about a number of markets, but I believe the phrase is very applicable to gaming. Casual gaming, the advent of free to play and even the current mobile revolution won’t do anything to the demand for high-end consoles today or in the near term - they simply expand the market for gamers. Eventually those types of games and gaming platforms will grow to the point where they start competing with one another and then the big console players might have an issue to worry about, but I suspect that’s still some time away. The depth offered by big gaming titles remains unmatched elsewhere. You can argue that many games are priced too high, but the Halo, BioShock, Mass Effect, CoD experience still drives a considerable portion of the market.

The fact that this debate is happening however has to have impacted Microsoft. Simply building a better Xbox 360 wasn’t going to guarantee success, and I suspect there were not insignificant numbers within the company who felt that even making the Xbox One as much of a gaming machine as it is would be a mistake. What resulted was a subtle pivot in strategy.

The Battle for the TV

Last year you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a rumor of Apple getting into the TV business. As of yet those rumors haven’t gone anywhere other than to point to continued investment in the Apple TV. Go back even further and Google had its own TV aspirations, although met with far less success. More recently, Intel threw its hat into the ring. I don’t know for sure how things have changed with the new CEO, but as far as I can tell he’s a rational man and things should proceed with Intel Media’s plans for an IPTV service. All of this is a round about way of saying that TV is clearly important and viewed by many as one of the next ecosystem battles in tech.

Combine the fact that TV is important, with the fact that the Xbox 360 has evolved into a Netflix box for many, add a dash of uncertainty for the future of high end gaming consoles and you end up with the formula behind the Xbox One. If the future doesn’t look bright for high-end gaming consoles, turning the Xbox into something much more than that will hopefully guarantee its presence in the living room. At least that’s what I suspect Microsoft’s thinking was going into the Xbox One. With that in mind, everything about the One makes a lot of sense.

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  • Shinobisan - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    This may actually HELP the PC market quite a bit.

    Two things stalling PC development:
    1 No one is making an operating system that requires more power
    Win 8 has the same basic system requirements as Vista, which is 6 years old.
    At that age, compute power has doubled 3 times.
    So a PC COULD be 2x2x2 = 8 times as powerful... but no one is pushing the boundaries.
    Think about it.. some are still using Crysis to validate hardware!
    (Crysis is as old as Vista... imagine that!)

    2 Game developers design to the smallest common factor (Consoles)
    While PC compute power has doubled 3 times, Consoles have been stagnant.
    The XBox 360 is 8 years old. Again, about as old as Vista!

    We need a shake-up. We need someone to stand up and make an operating system and software that uses what we have. A PC system that is 8 times as powerful as anything on the market currently demands. Give us that... and no one will be talking about the demise of the PC anymore.
    Reply
  • xTRICKYxx - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    I've heard the complaints of how stagnated visuals have been and I'm sick of it! Sure graphics haven't advanced as much as we thought, but look how far we've come with animation and creating extremely fluid sprites on screen. I would easily take the faces and animations from Halo 4 (console game) over Metro: Last Light because of how well animated and human the characters look in Halo 4. The textures are so much more complex in Metro, but lack compelling animation of facial features.

    I believe with this new console generation we will see awesome visual increases across the board with more PC games on the way.
    Reply
  • Shinobisan - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    Games have been on an increasing visual detail trend, which I enjoy.
    But... think about the visuals in a basic PC, tablet or phone device.
    They are not just stagnated... they are trending backwards.
    (And that goes for Apple, Google, and Microsoft)

    If anyone else remembers the days of the original windows where Microsoft battled it out with Amiga and Commodore, you remember that each company had their own GUI interface. They were all blocky and 8-bit. And "metro" in Win 8 reminds me of that era. Why do I have an interface that looks like it was designed in 1983? That's 30 years old!

    When I start up my PC, I should be greeted with stunning visuals, real time updates of weather and news in novel graphic ways, and a file system that is fun and intuitive in a graphically artistic fashion.

    Yes, I know the article was about consoles... forgive me... I'm rattling on about PCs. Carry on then.
    Reply
  • bji - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    And when I turn my PC on all I really want is a bash prompt. To each their own :) Reply
  • BSMonitor - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    PC is held back because of the complexity of designing games for infinite combination of hardware platforms/OS.. Yeah, you can make a game with great visuals, but from a profitability stand point there is no way to measure what % of your gamers can actually benefit. Could put a lot of $$ into a game that only a handful of people can enjoy. Simply risky on the PC side to spend a lot of R&D/Game development dollars.

    The console provides stability and predictability on the hardware side. Day 1, you know the install base is X million of users for Xbox or PS3. And everyone has same hardware.
    Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    If it is so obvious then why isnt AMD doing it? Why would they instead opt for a PS4 style design for their own next gen APU? Either way it is still an epic fail. The'yre either throwing their competitor a huge bone, or throwing themselves on the floor. Take your pick. Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    Or they are just managing costs, since Kinect 2 will be bundled. Reply
  • WaltC - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    Well, between the two, Sony has nailed the 3d-game end of the console business this go-around, imo. Intel, of course, has nothing powerful enough in the igp department to garner this business, so it's no wonder both companies selected essentially the same architecture from AMD. The CoD snippet run at the end of yesterday's demonstration, announced as running in real-time on an xBox one, was extremely telling I thought. First, it did not appear to me to be running @1080P--but possibly @ 480P: the on-screen imagery was definitely low-res, exhibited noticeable pixel aliasing (I was surprised to see it), and seemed to generate a good deal of pixellation that was very noticeable in the scene transitions. It also looked like nobody wanted to show off XB1 rendering in longer scenes where you could really see the frame-rate and get a solid feel for the performance of the game--the whole demo for CoD consisted of one rapid scene transition after another. The rendering problems I observed could all have been caused by a streaming bottleneck--or else by the limits of the hardware (I *hope* it was the immediate streaming because if not then I think Microsoft is going to have some problems with this design.) It was easy to see why the CoD real-time demo was saved for last and was so very brief...;)

    But, now that consoles are going x86, there's no earthly reason why either Microsoft or Sony could not update the hardware every couple of years or so when new tech hits the price/performance marks they require. Since we're talking x86, there would never be a question of backwards compatibility for their games as it would always be 100%. I think the days of 8-10 year frozen console designs are over. I think that's great news for console customers.

    However, depending on whether Sony handles it correctly, the PS4 could walk away with practically everything as Microsoft is building in some fairly heavy DRM restrictions that involve the basic operation of the device--"storage in the cloud," etc. Involuntary storage, it would appear. If Sony comes out with a gaming console that is not only more capable in terms of the standard hardware, but one which is also customer-friendly in that it allows the customer to control his software environment--I think Sony will walk away with it. The people who will wind up buying the xb1 will be the people who aren't buying it as a game console. To be honest, though, set-top boxes are as common as dirt these days, etc. It should be very interesting to watch as this all shakes out...It's great, though--we've got some competition! (I'm not a console customer, but this is always fun to watch!)
    Reply
  • hemmy - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    I think most of that first paragraph seems mostly rubbish to me. Sony made a game console, Microsoft made an all-in-one media device. It was well known before the announcement that Microsoft would be showing very little in the way of games yesterday, and they were saving that for E3. 360 games already render @ higher than 480p. Reply
  • jamyryals - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    So you are saying you saw artifacts in a demo through a live stream? Tell me you are joking...

    As for Sony/Microsoft upgrading console hardware during the current generation, I mean anything's possible, but they would be leaving a lot of customers behind on older hardware. Developers would have to make sacrifices in framerate or quality to achieve compatibility. This places a lot of demands on game developers for testing more environments. Additionally, there's nothing about x86 which makes this upgrade more achievable than on PowerPC architecture. They could have released upgraded consoles if they saw a benefit.
    Reply

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