Xbox One: All The Nerdy Details You Don't Know Yet

You saw the news yesterday. The Xbox One was everywhere, and everyone talked a lot about it. But when a new console hits, often we'll latch onto the biggest, shiniest new baubles. Now though, having slept on it, let's dig into the real nerd porn. It's worth a look.

Architecture and Operating System

Oh god, we're jumping right into hardware architecture and the OS? Yes, shut up. This is actually pretty cool.

At a panel about building the new hardware yesterday, about an hour after the keynote, Major Nelson spoke with four of the key decision makers involved with the Xbox One. And most of the decisions focused around speed, but not quite through sheer brute force.

The operating system is a little deceptive in its complicated simplicity. As Microsoft tells it, the normal playbook would have been to slap a dedicated gaming OS on an improved piece of hardware -- standard operating procedure since forever -- but it wasn't so simple. On one hand, Microsoft understood modern users have a lot of use for a machine that can do more than one thing at a time. But it had to chase that goal without knee-capping its gaming base.

According to Microsoft, looking at the needs of current games, and their trajectory, it could have gotten away with 5GB of RAM, or even 4GB, and run games the way they were meant to be played. So why go with 8GB? Just to keep up with Sony and the PS4? Not exactly. It has to do with the broader operating system.

So the Xbox One's OS is broken down to two virtual machines (VM), running simultaneously. One is optimised for games, and the other for apps. You know those instantaneous app switches that you saw at the keynote, going from a game to a movie and back again in a flash? That was the operating system's VM-layout at work. In simple terms, it runs and draws two apps at once, one on the game side (it seems you can run non-games on this side), and one on the app side. They're only separated by a display panel, so switching is more or less just alt-tabbing over.

This design actually solves a lot more problems than just switching between the two. Because the app side launches as soon as you turn on your console and runs the whole time, it can perform background tasks, like keeping you in a matchmaking queue, while you are playing another game or doing something else entirely.

Beyond that, the two-pronged layout fixes the main concern game developers have about consoles running apps, which is that it changes the constants that make working on consoles possible. An app-enabled system would perform differently if it's running zero apps compared to even two or three, probably. And it's already expensive enough to make a video game. If you need to create renders for a variety of available resource situations, that's just piling on in a pretty untenable way. If you're going to go to that trouble, you may as well just make PC games. But with the Xbox's split OS, it dedicates specific hardware resources to the two VM partitions, and they never share. This will probably result, occasionally, in one side (probably gaming) maxing itself out when there's enough beef in the Xbox to power through if it had full reign over the entire system. Crucially, it also means console developers (and console players!) get the standardised performance that makes console gaming what it is.

Building a Better Kinect

OK, so you know some of the impressive tech specs on the new Kinect. It's got two 1080p cameras that shoot at 60fps, and has a 60 per cent larger field of view. It also uses new tech to time how long it takes for photos to bounce off you and come back, a process that takes just 13 billionths of a second. Fine. How about few notes about the tech that doesn't get talked up as much.

Directivity is key in ways that probably aren't fully understood. That is, the Kinect's ability to listen to a sound and know exactly where it's coming from, and, more importantly, who it's coming from. In fact, the Kinect doesn't have any form of voice recognition; it's simply recognising your face/body, as all the demos show, and then pinpointing which skeleton the sound is coming from based on location. That might sound like a patchwork fix, but it's actually pretty clever, keeping Microsoft from having to master one more form of analysis, and instead cross-referencing information it's already got.

This is made possible by a few things. First is the exact placement of the microphones. Because they need to be able to pick out exactly which direction a sound is coming from, this is a big deal. So after basically building from the ground up with its partner PrimeSense for the original Kinect, Microsoft hired a lot of sound experts to tear the microphone array apart and figure out how to optimise it. And after months of research, apparently, they put it right back the way they found it. Microsoft had stumbled onto the right answer its first try. Maybe checking your work is boring, but assuring that the mics were as well-positioned as possible is key to designing the rest of the accoutrements and getting them calibrated properly. Just like game developers, the Kinect team needs a set of constants to rally around.

Speaking of developing, the other big thing is the software side of the Kinect, which doesn't get as much attention as the hardware but might actually be the coolest thing anyone at Microsoft is working on. New ways to interface with computers are the future. And the Kinect is one of the broadest attempts to bring voice and gesture into real people's homes. This time around, they focused on figuring out how to deal with problem users like soft speakers, and women and children (though we didn't quite get an explanation about why women are a broad problem). This is done through a variety of testing in mock living rooms, arranged differently to recreate typical rooms in different geographic regions, with simulated voices and ambient noise.

The Xbox's sound output isn't an issue, because the Kinect knows exactly what sound it's outputting, so it can cancel itself out as it analyses the noise, no matter how loud you have your speakers. The popular example of that is a guy playing Call of Duty loud enough to kill a horse, and casually saying commands like "Delta team, Target Alpha", and the microphone takes a mess of noise and turns it into the exact commands. This feature will also, going forward, fix the old 30 Rock joke, played out at the Xbox One keynote, where someone on screen saying Xbox Off will turn off your Xbox.

Finally, the Kinect's own chipsets were updated, and this time their architectures were built entirely in-house by Microsoft (that's a big deal; even the Xbox's SoC was designed with help from AMD). Between that and being able to utilise dedicated sound processing hardware, it should be a much cleaner experience than the original Kinect, which had to jerry rig what was shipped with the original Xbox to perform this crazy new task.

Full View of the Cloud

Everyone just sort of nods along when cloud gaming is brought up. It's not an especially captivating idea. (The only reason anyone really perked up over it with the PS4 was because of backward compatibility.) Video games are most easily understood in concrete examples, and the real work in conceptualising how to use this tech hasn't really been done yet. But man this is cool.

Essentially, Microsoft has made the Xbox modular. The background tasks that will be offloaded to the cloud will be a serious deal in a large number of cases. You know how in Skyrim sometimes you can look at a specific part of a specific wall and your framerate will randomly dip down into the afterlife? That workload (which is probably a silly mistake, but still) would probably be shifted off to some Microsoft server, and never make it to your Xbox. The decision-making process of when to do that -- it only fires on "latency insensitive" loads, not "latency sensitive" ones -- still dictates that the majority of workload will still be done locally, client side (i.e. on your Xbox). But that's not always going to be the case.

What's in the box, the hard specs, was determined by the experience team to be a big enough step forward to be a next gen console, and being that the PS4's specs are basically identical, it seems basically right. It's the step you'd take if you were just doing what you'd always done. But the ways that hardware, alongside the cloud computing, will be used have the ability to expand drastically.

The 300,000 Xbox Live servers Microsoft is bringing online this year will be a constant developers can rally around, knowing that the vast majority of users will be connected, so you can try out new ideas knowing that they'll be usable by almost everyone. (The same goes for the Kinect being included with every One.)

Hardware Nuts and Bolts

We heard, briefly, what's inside of the new Xbox yesterday. Eight 64-bit cores, 8GB of high-speed RAM, and an on-chip GPU with built-in sRAM. We already know that the 8GB of RAM was because of the OS decision, but there are some other key and esoteric points about the hardware.

Microsoft claims the caches are blazing fast, and this and the sRAM embedded right onto the new SoC will keep the GPU running at max workload instead of falling behind. Overall improvements to chip coherency should help this as well. If the Xbox One wants to stick around even half as long as the Xbox 360, it's going to need to squeeze all the performance it can out of these guts.

There's obviously a lot more to talk about down the nerd rabbit hole, but these are some of the highlights that fall away from mainstream coverage, but affect how you're going to use the new Xbox.

Republished from Gizmodo.


Comments

    it can perform background tasks, like keeping you in a matchmaking queue, while you are playing another game or doing something else entirely.

    Another amazing thing it can do that nobody cares about.

      Right!?

      That's really exciting to me.

      As well as the feedback triggers (& sticks?)

      Everyone is too pissed of that you have to occasionally connect to the internet (not sure if its even 100% confirmed) even though most of those people have their console connected 99% of the time

        Oh and the fact people have the shits about games being installed to your account and cant be shared (with out a fee etc.) and then go on to champion their PC... Umm So do they hate steam?

        It only has to connect to it once at the start and then you can pull out the Ethernet cord and play single player without internet. If the developers are using the cloud computing power to make your game better and your internet disconnects, you will not be kicked out of the game, it will still run and you will not lose your save in the single player.

    I commented on the Gizmodo version of this article as well to point out that the statement

    the PS4′s specs are basically identical

    is completely wrong. The GPU in the PS4 is 50% larger (and given it is the same architecture, 50% more powerful) than the GPU in the Xbone. (Source: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6972/xbox-one-hardware-compared-to-playstation-4/2) Saying that these consoles are identical specification wise is just misleading and poor journalism.

      Exactly right.

        Annnnd for all the "power" the ps3 had every game looked worse on it and show me a prettier game than Halo 4?

          I was dissapointed with Halo 4... I found it low poly and to have pretty bad texture filtering.

          Journey was far, far prettier.

            I hear you. It may not have been as technically impressive as say Crysis 3, but Journey's art and atmosphere make it soar. One of my favourites from this generation.

              One of my all time favourites, almost instantly. I'm fairly certain I've never played anything which has emotionally affected me as much as that game - it's basically made to put in front of people and make them say "videogames aren't ar... oh wow wtf".

          Not sure if DanielD is fanboy or just stupid...

      not to mention the ps4 uses GDDR5 while the xbone uses DDR3

        And the PS4 has more of that memory available to games - Xbone splits it 5gb for games, 3gb for OS, where the last I saw, PS4 had 7gb available to games. Given how much faster it is that will probably result in much higher resolution textures available on PS4.

          When do games every use more then 5gb of ram? Also don't forgot PS4 has all that background recording and social media features

            When have consoles ever had more than 512mb RAM?

            If it's there, then developers will use it.

        GDDR memory is not designed for general purpose use, it's too slow. There's a reason it's only in graphics cards and not system memory on PCs, even though it's been around for ages.

    How do these specs compare to high-end pc gaming rigs now?

    I think the current gen showed us shiny, but failed at immersion in terms of online environments where we were constantly gimped at 24-32 players (mag aside)... PC showed us these big world MMO's which now support FPS (planetside2 etc) which I think is the future of gaming ... sure we will get new versions of every game, but are they changing the back end ? Are we going to have 256 player battles in BF4, or let it run as a single shard universe with persistent battles?

    Not impressed with the new specs until we get a feel for how it will change gaming (if at all...)

      You'd thinkwith 10 times t he ram they'll be able to stick a few more players in the game

      The specs are definitely not in the same league as a semi decent gaming rig. IT is what they can do with what they have that is the key here though. Look at the evolution of console games through their life cycles, they find better ways of using the hardware at their disposal. But yes, a decent PC is going to trounce these consoles, just like they usually have.

        Those specs are better han my gaming rig (wich runs games maxed out 1080p @30fps) and my rig is double what steam's stats say 50% of gamers are still using. So its a big upgrade for most gamers. Secondly, Its hard to build a machine with the specs for those consoles for $600-700... So if its in that price range, its a great deal.

      You can't directly compare against a PC. Consoles are running really stripped-down software, much less stuff in the way. No need for hardware abstraction layers and so on like with a PC - you know exactly what that hardware is, exactly what it can and can't do, and code with that in mind. You design and optimize with the hardware in mind.

      I don't think your modern PC could even start up with 256mb RAM for example, let alone play games, yet that's all the PS3 has available.

    Admit it, you all know you want one.

    Also the RAM is DDR3 in the Xbox. GDDR5 in the PS4.

    The PS4 is without doubt the more powerful console on paper. That doesn't necessarily translate into sales or anything like that, but if we're talking specs, then the PS4 has a bigger gap than the PS3 theoretically had over the 360.

      See my comment above, GDDR isn't designed to be general purpose RAM. I wrote a lengthy explanation of why this is actually a really bizarre move from Sony back when it was first announced, I can try to find it in my comment history if you're interested in a technical rundown.

        Just curious but why isn't Gddr5 meant for general purpose? Can you please explain.

          Here's what I wrote when it was first announced and someone was praising GDDR5. It's an excerpt so you might lose a bit of context but I think the gist of it is there:

          GDDR5 is based on DDR3 and shares a lot in common with it. One area where it differs is channel size. DDR3 can operate on data at any whole divisor of its bus width (128 bit for dual channel, 256 bit for quad channel) but GDDR5 operates at a fixed channel width of 32-bit (or 16-bit in clamshell mode, which I doubt they'll use). That aligns questionably with the CPU's register width (which we don't know for sure yet), but that's not the main concern. GDDR5 has been tested on PCs before as main system RAM with less than stellar results. The problem is latency. Sure, GDDR5 has up to twice the bandwidth of DDR3 available to it, but it gets that bandwidth at the cost of a severe increase in latency, in the order of 4-8 times depending on the type of operations being performed. That's why it makes excellent GPU RAM, where the GPU makes a huge number of buffered calculations per second ahead of when it needs it and in parallel where it often doesn't care which calculation is completed first, but less-than-excellent CPU RAM, where the CPU makes a more moderate number of atomic calculations per second.

          Anyway, point is that GDDR5 RAM isn't automatically super-awesome, as Mike seems to be suggesting. There are reasons it's been exclusively in the domain of graphics memory until now, and it isn't a matter of cost or quality. To get efficient performance out of GDDR5 system RAM, Sony is going to need to do some pretty detailed work on the controller and bridge architecture, and no matter what it's going to change the way developers approach basically all process calculations in a way that, depending on how well designed the end hardware is, could be considerably counter-intuitive. So yes, it's a significant improvement over PS3 architecture and its horrible memory distribution, but it remains to be seen if Sony can overcome the performance issues inherent with their hardware choices, and whether developers can successfully work within the bounds of high-latency memory.

          Last edited 25/05/13 8:24 am

            Interesting. I've heard the latency isn't as much of an issue anymore. But it depends on your sources I guess.

              Latency is always an issue with RAM. The whole reason RAM exists is latency.

    "it takes for photos to bounce off you" - is there a tray on the new Kinect where you load up the photos so it can throw them at you? Wouldn't it hurt?

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