Microsoft has been stoking a slow burn of anticipation over its upcoming Xbox Series X, which is scheduled to launch this holiday season in competition with Sony’s PlayStation 5. We know the name, we’ve seen photos, and we know it’ll be backwards compatible with Xbox One games—and now, thanks to a new blog post at Xbox Newswire, we have a deeper glimpse at the hardware inside.
Head of Xbox Phil Spencer says the Xbox Series X will have 12 teraflops of GPU power, with support for hardware-accelerated ray-tracing, variable-rate shading, and a frame rate of up to 120 frames per second. It also comes with SSD storage (of an as-yet-unknown capacity) and HDMI 2.1. All of this is new to the console world, but PC gamers have had access to all of these technologies for a few years, so we have a pretty good idea of what they’ll mean for future Xbox owners.
Xbox Console Power Levels Compared
A Custom AMD Chip Brings 12 Teraflops of GPU Power
We already knew that Microsoft was sticking with an AMD chip for its next-gen console, and that it would be based on the Zen 2 architecture with the second iteration of RDNA at the core of its graphics tech. But today we learned a bit more about what that eight-core chip can do. Spencer says the processor will “enable developers to leverage 12 TFLOPS of GPU performance—twice that of an Xbox One X and more than eight times the original Xbox One.” TFLOPS is short for teraflops, which you can read more about in our explainer, but here’s the short version: it’s a measure that distills the computing power of a chip down to a single number. That single number is a bit of an oversimplification and it doesn’t directly translate into gaming benchmark numbers like frame rate and resolution, so comparing teraflops isn’t always apples-to-apples – but it might help us put some predictions in the ballpark.
For comparison, let’s look at PC hardware. On the CPU side, the cheapest eight-core AMD Zen 2 CPU is the Ryzen 7 3700X, which costs $300 USD — so I highly doubt the Series X’s CPU is going to be equivalent to that. I’m willing to bet it’ll be more like an amped-up version of AMD’s lower-spec Ryzen 3 CPUs, custom-built for Microsoft with more cores and better on-board graphics capabilities.
How much better is tough to call, but going by teraflops alone, the RDNA-1-based Radeon RX 5700 XT is the closest comparison we can draw. That GPU clocks in around 9 teraflops and retails for around $400 USD. When we reviewed it, we thought it was an incredible value for 1440p gaming, and even held its own at 4K—especially if you turn down some of the graphics settings. But teraflops only tell one part of the story – the features at the heart of the Xbox Series X GPU are a bit more exciting.
Ray Tracing, Variable-Rate Shading, and 120fps
If you’ve been paying attention to the world of gaming tech in the past two years, you’ve probably heard more than you ever cared to know about ray tracing. But just in case you haven’t: ray tracing is a rendering technique that traces rays of light between a light source, like a lamp or the sun, and a game’s camera. This allows for far more realistic lighting, shadows, and reflections, though it comes at the cost of frame rate—tracing those rays in real-time requires a lot of GPU power. The Xbox Series X’s graphics chip will allow for hardware-accelerated ray tracing, similar to NVIDIA’s RTX series of graphics cards that came out in late 2018. AMD hasn’t released its own ray tracing-capable competitors yet, but we hope to see some in the PC space this year. Still, most ray tracing cards are pretty high-end, (Nvidia’s ~$330 GeForce RTX 2060 is the cheapest option right now) so it’s not crazy to think we’ll see a relatively toned-down version of ray tracing on consoles to balance performance with fidelity and keep costs reasonable.
That said, the Xbox Series X will also have variable-rate shading, which aims to free up some of that graphics power by lowering the fidelity of certain objects that aren’t important to any given frame. By focusing the GPU’s resources on the characters, effects, and textures that you’re more likely to be looking at, the system can trick your eyes into seeing a similar level of visual fidelity without wasting the horsepower. Digital Foundry did a fantastic explainer video on this tech using Wolfenstein: Youngblood on the PC, if you’re interested in diving deeper—suffice it to say, this is a hugely useful feature on consoles that need to keep costs down.
Still, even with variable-rate shading, I’d be shocked to see 4K, ray-traced games hit the advertised 120 frames per second on this device. High frame rates are prized among PC gamers equipped with specialized monitors that can reach 120, 144, or even 240fps, but modern console games run at either 30 or 60fps (or at least they’re supposed to). Bumping that up to 120fps would mean console gamers could finally enjoy a level of super-smooth motion you have to see to truly appreciate, provided they have a TV capable of 120Hz refresh rates. But when Microsoft says the Xbox Series X will “support” 120fps, ray tracing, and 8K, it probably doesn’t mean you’ll see that frame rate, fancy lighting, and resolution at the same time. It may just mean that it’s capable of displaying video in 8K but not gaming (similar to how the Xbox One S could output 4K video but couldn’t come close to playing games in 4K), or it could be using some upsampling tricks to technically reach those higher-tier specs. Or maybe some games will let you opt to sacrifice higher-end graphics for a faster framerate, just as many PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X games currently do with their “performance mode” settings. The more of that, the better!
An SSD Cuts Down on Loading Times (and More)
Like the base models before them, both the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X come with traditional, platter-spinning hard drives, also known as HDDs. They’re cheap for the amount of storage you get, and once you’re loaded into a game they don’t affect gaming performance as much as the CPU and GPU, so it’s easy to see why Microsoft and Sony chose to skimp here. However, if you’ve played on a PC equipped with a solid-state drive (which have been nearly ubiquitous in PCs for the past few years) it’s hard to go back after experiencing their super-quick loading times. It is easily the biggest quality-of-life improvement in gaming in the past decade. We don’t know its exact specifications yet, but the Xbox Series X’s SSD will certainly mean that launching a game or fast-traveling to a new location will be dramatically snappier than on previous consoles. And while you could buy and install an SSD on a PlayStation 4 or plug one into an Xbox One over USB 3.0 for a performance improvement, those systems aren’t able to take full advantage of the speed available. A console built around an SSD will likely leave those in the dust.
Still, there could be more to it than that. SSDs can also speed up the loading of certain assets once you’re in the game world. PC users have probably noticed how it can help alleviate “texture pop-in,” and in a demo of the PS5’s new SSD, Sony showed how the faster storage allowed for faster movement within the game world; where a normal hard drive might fall behind trying to load new buildings as fast as you speed through Spider-Man’s New York, an SSD can keep things running smooth. This allows developers a lot more room to create new experiences we haven’t seen before.
HDMI 2.1 Brings Extra Gaming Features to New TVs
Finally, Microsoft mentioned that the Series X will support HDMI 2.1. HDMI is the cable tech that sends video from your console to the TV in your living room, and the latest version, HDMI 2.1, adds support for 4K at 60 frames per second and 8K at 60 frames per second, along with better HDR. (You can read more about HDMI 2.1 in this explainer from PCMag.) But when it comes to gaming, HDMI 2.1 means two very useful things: Automatic Low Latency Mode, which automatically switches your TV into a low-input-lag Game Mode whenever you turn on your console, and Variable Refresh Rate, which cuts down on screen tearing. Granted, both of these features are already available on some current high-end HDMI 2.0 TVs and PC gaming monitors, but including them in the HDMI 2.1 spec should mean they become more common in lower-cost sets as they roll out over the next few years.
We won’t know how the Xbox One Series X truly performs until we get closer to release and eventually get our hands on one, but with each nugget of information Microsoft gives us, we get a little bit closer. The PC parts we outlined above would total about $600 to $700 once you factor in the motherboard, RAM, and other parts. That’d be considered a value-focused build in the PC space, but it’s pretty pricey for a console. Perhaps Microsoft still has some corners it can cut to keep costs down, or maybe it’ll launch a pricey Series X alongside a more budget-focused sibling that’s more like an updated Xbox One X. Either way, the Xbox Series X is sure to be a huge leap forward from the Xbox One, which is an exciting prospect.
Whitson Gordon is a writer, gamer, and tech nerd who has been building PCs for ten years. He eats potato chips with chopsticks so he doesn’t get grease on his mechanical keyboard.