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Making sense of the rampant Xbox Series X rumour mill

Few things excite gamers like the beginning of a new generation of consoles. In December, Microsoft confirmed its next gaming system is coming in 2020 and will be called the Xbox Series X – and that it's a large, monolithic box that's already splitting opinions.

Naturally, the internet is flooded with leaks, speculation and misinformation about how powerful it will be and how much it will cost, so here we unpack the burning questions and cut through the noise with some sensible, straightforward answers. Starting with the biggest question of them all.

It looks kind of weird. Just how big is it?

It's certainly different, but in a good way (we think). While Microsoft's confirmed it will work horizontally if needed, the Series X is primarily designed to sit upright like a small desktop computer. It hasn't released official dimensions, but internet sleuths reckon it's about as tall as the current Xbox One X and twice as wide as the original Xbox One, give or take a few centimetres. At least it doesn't look like the terrifying offspring of your first VHS player and a cheap library computer (like the original Xbox One).

No doubt the size is due to the difficulty of squeezing a very powerful PC into a small box. Assuming the PS5 is using similar components (scuttlebutt and recent history suggests so), it'll be interesting to see how Sony tackles the same problem. And, yes, if you're wondering how it'll fit into your existing home-cinema shelving, join the millions of gaming fans making the same calculation. "With difficulty" is the answer.

What's up with the confusing name?

Most believe this is the first in a series of consoles – a full-fat, next-generation console with all the trimmings – which will be joined by different models in the future. So, for example, there could be a smaller, low-power Xbox Series S just for streaming games over the internet, or a miniature version that's cheaper but less powerful.

Throw in Project xCloud, Microsoft's take on Google Stadia that's currently in closed beta, and it's clear the idea of a singular 'Xbox' is outdated. Come 2021, "playing Xbox" could mean you're at home on a powerful console, streaming to your laptop or even streaming directly to your TV via an app.

Does this make it a good name for a console? Not especially (seriously, not everything has to have 'X' in the name), but it makes sense. Xbox is the brand across consoles, phones and everything in-between, and as there may well be a series of consoles, the 'X' will be the first.

What are the specs?

Shall we dispense with the usual "most powerful game console ever made" theatre? Good.

Currently, details amount to a shopping list of aspirations and some basic details about Microsoft's manufacturing partners. As with the Xbox One, AMD is providing the processor and graphics chip for the Series X, reportedly custom chips based on AMD's most recent Zen 2 processors first released for PC users in July and its RDNA graphics architecture.

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But without actual numbers and details, it's all moot at this stage. We do know the Series X will use ultra-fast GDDR6 memory, but there's no reliable intel on how much.

Slightly more revealing (only slightly) is Microsoft's claims the Series X will support 8K gaming, up to 120 frames per second in games, variable refresh rates, use a built-in solid state drive (this is very good news) and support for (drum roll, please!) ray tracing.

Ray tracing? Sounds fancy

It is quite fancy, yes. In a nutshell, ray tracing is a very realistic way to simulate lighting that creates stunning, true-to-life environments – more so than traditional techniques.

It's been used in computer animation (i.e. movie visual effects) for years, but not in games because it was too taxing to be done in real time. Movies can spend hours rendering scenes using massive servers; games don't have that luxury. That's beginning to change with the advent of Nvidia's RTX graphics cards, which introduced ray tracing to PCs for the first time, and now the upcoming consoles – Sony says the PS5 will support ray tracing, too.

The early response to ray tracing in PC games has been mixed, but this is largely down to the small selection of supported games and initially severe performance issues for early adopters. Once console games start using it, we'll quickly see how this technique will bring a new level of realism to games.

Why is a solid-state drive such "good news"?

Up to now, game consoles have relied on old-school hard drives for storage. They were big and cheap to use, but also rather slow by modern standards. When you're waiting nearly a minute for your game to load you can bet it's because your console's hard drive is dragging its heels. Solid-state drives, or SSDs for short, should all but eliminate loading times.

To give you an idea, Sony recently revealed its plans to use an SSD in the PS5 as well, and that eliminating loading times is its primary goal. In its demo, it showed Spider-Man running on the PS4 Pro and compared it to its 'next generation' console. Where the PS4 Pro took eight seconds to load a scene, the PS5 would take less than one second.

No doubt Microsoft will aim for something similar, but it's hinted at other benefits. In an interview with German publication PC Games Hardware, Xbox boss Phil Spencer suggested developers could treat the SSD like 'Virtual RAM' and as an extension of the console's GDDR6 memory thanks to its high speed.

Will games really run at 8K?

This should be taken with a large pinch of salt. In theory, they could, but it's unlikely they will. Even current consoles run games at 4K in name only – normally they render at a slightly lower resolution and then apply clever resampling algorithms to fake the rest. It's more likely games will run natively at 4K with an option to upgrade them to 8K in a similar manner.

What else is new?

Microsoft has tweaked the controller for its new console, though the changes are small. The new controller has the hybrid d-pad from Xbox Elite controller, adds a dedicated share button like on the PS4 and is apparently slightly smaller than the current controller to aid comfort.

Will the Xbox Series X be more powerful than the PS5?

The internet is abuzz with various leaks and counter claims suggesting one console will be more powerful than the other, but it's a waste of time right now. The most recent example are some leaked benchmarks suggesting the Series X will be a "12 teraflop" system (a teraflop being a measure of total theoretical performance) compared to just nine teraflops for the PS5, but the leaks require so many caveats it's impossible to say what's true or not.

Ultimately, until both brands release actual specs, it's all wild speculation – and even if there is a difference, both companies are working with the same vendor (AMD) so they're bound to be slight. New consoles bring out the worst of gaming cheerleaders, and it's best ignored.

Will my Xbox One games work on the Series X?

Yes. For the first time we can recall, the Series X will support all the games launched on the previous generation console, the Xbox One. Not only that, Microsoft has spent the last few years making many of its back catalogue of Xbox 360 and original Xbox games work on the current Xbox One, and all those games will also run on the Series X. It's not just games, though. Microsoft says old controllers will work, too.

What about launch games?

Halo Infinite isn't officially confirmed as a launch title, but it is in development and it would be surprising if it didn't launch alongside the console. Another likely launch title is Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, which was announced at The Game Awards 2019 with a flashy 'in-engine' trailer that gives us a flavour of what Series X games might look like.

Any word on VR?

Xbox boss Phil Spencer has gone on record saying VR isn't a focus for Microsoft's next-generation console, so it sounds like you can stick a pin in that indefinitely.

How much will the Xbox Series X cost?

We're entering the realms of speculation here again, but history suggests a price around £400 to £500. The Xbox One famously struggled due to its £499 launch price, compared to the £399 PlayStation 4, so it seems unlikely that Microsoft would make that mistake again. Our bet is on £449, which is what the Xbox One X – the upgrade Xbox released in June 2018 – launched at.

And when is it coming out?

Microsoft says "Holiday 2020", which means somewhere around November and December.

This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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