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Microsoft’s Project Scorpio: More Hardware Details Revealed

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This news piece contains speculation, and suggests silicon implementation based on released products and roadmaps. The only elements confirmed for Project Scorpio are…
This news piece contains speculation, and suggests silicon implementation based on released products and roadmaps. The only elements confirmed for Project Scorpio are the eight x86 cores, >6 TFLOPs, 320 GB/s, it’s built by AMD , and it is coming in 2017. If anyone wants to officially correct any speculation, please get in touch.
One of the critical points of contention with consoles, especially when viewed through the lens of the PC enthusiast, is the hardware specifications. Consoles have long development processes, and are thus already behind the curve at launch – leading to a rapid expansion away from high-end components as the life-cycle of the console is anywhere from five to seven years. The trade-off is usually that the console is an optimized platform, particularly for software: performance is regular and it is much easier to optimize for.
For six months or so now, Microsoft has been teasing its next generation console. Aside from launching the Xbox One S as a minor mid-season revision to the Xbox One, the next-generation ‘Project Scorpio’ aims to be the most powerful console available. While this is a commendable aspiration (one that would look odd if it wasn’t achieved), the meat and potatoes of the hardware discussion has still been relatively unknown. Well, some of the details have come to the surface through a PR reveal with Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry.
We know the aim with Project Scorpio is to support 4K playback (4K UHD Blu-Ray), as well as a substantial part of 4K gaming. With recent introductions in the PC space of ‘VR’ capable hardware coming down in price, Microsoft is able to carefully navigate what hardware it can source. It is expected that this generation will still rely on AMD’s semi-custom foundry business, given that high-end consoles are now on x86 technologies and Intel’s custom foundry business is still in the process of being enabled (Intel’s custom foundry is also expected to be expensive). Of course, pairing an AMD CPU and AMD GPU would be the sensible choice here, with AMD launching a new GPU architecture last year in Polaris.
Here’s a table of what the reveal is:
Specifications in italics were added after the table was created.
At the high level, we have eight ‘custom’ x86 cores running at 2.3 GHz for the CPU and 40 compute units at 1172 MHz for the GPU. The GPU will be paired with 12GB of GDDR5, to give 326GB/s of bandwidth. Storage is via a 1TB HDD, and the optical drive supports 4K UHD Blu-Ray.
Let’s break this down with some explanation and predictions.
The Xbox One uses AMD’s Jaguar cores – these are low powered and simpler cores, aimed at a low-performance profile and optimized for cost and power. In non-custom designs, we saw these CPUs hit above 2 GHz, but these were limited to 1.75 GHz in the Xbox One. While not completely impossible, it would be unlikely that Jaguar cores (that were made on a 28nm process) would also be in the Scorpio.
The other cores AMD has available are Excavator based (28nm) or Zen based (14nm). The latter is a design that has returned AMD to the high-end of x86 performance computing, offering high performance for reasonable power, but a 14nm design would be relatively expensive. Eight cores would fit in with a standard Zeppelin silicon design, which AMD has been manufacturing hand-over-fist since the launch of desktop-based Zen CPUs for PCs in March. One of the detractors against Zen inside Scorpio is the fact that it was only launched recently, and arguably the desktop PC market is more financially lucrative for AMD.
Technically Microsoft could go for Zen in the Scorpio, but I suspect this would increase the base cost of the console. However, if Microsoft were going for a premium console ($700+), this might make sense.
A note on Zen power and frequency – 2.3 GHz is a low frequency for a Zen CPU based on what we have seen in desktop PCs. Some work done internally on the power consumption of Zen CPUs has shown that the design requires a lot of power to move between 3.5 GHz and 4.0 GHz, perhaps suggesting that 2.3 GHz is so far down the DVFS curve that the power consumption is relatively low. Also, we’re under the impression that getting a super high frequency on Zen is a tough restriction when it comes to binning chips – offering a low-frequency bin would mean that all the silicon that doesn’t make it to desktop retail due to an inability to go up the DVFS curve could end up in devices like the Scorpio.

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