What we do (and don't) know about the new Xbox

Xbox Controller

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On May 21st at 10am Pacific time, Microsoft will unveil its next-generation Xbox console. And if this article were titled "What we know for sure about the next Xbox," we could end it here. Microsoft has been very tight-lipped about the successor to the Xbox 360, but that's about to change.

Some members of the press were invited to an event on May 21, but you can watch at home on Xbox Live.

Sony revealed the Playstation 4 in Feburary, promsing more info at the E3 Expo in June. Sony set the bar, and now it's up to Microsoft to clear it. In truth, there's not a lot of really solid information about the next Xbox. Rumors have circulated online for years, and seem to change with the tide. That said, when you hear the same things repeated often enough, from generally reliable sources, you start to get a reasonable idea of what to expect. We know what we would like to see in the next Xbox, but what are we likely to see?

The name

The code name for the next Xbox is Durango, but just as the console called Xenon was formally named Xbox 360, Durango will soon shed its development name in favor of a public moniker. Some have colloquially called Microsoft's next console the Xbox 720, because that's double 360, but that can't be the name, because frankly, it's dumb.

The International Business Times in the UK claims to have sources stating the name will be Xbox Infinity, which isn't half bad. This rumor gained a lot of weight thanks to a very official-looking marketing mock-up by a Reddit user going by the name of "C-Ron." Xbox Infinity might be the name (it has a nice ring to it and is suitably broad in appeal), but a fan-made logo is in no way proof of anything.

Recently, Microsoft began snapping up domains related to the name Xbox Fusion. XboxFusion.com, XboxFusion.info, XboxFusion.biz, XboxFusion.de, XboxFusion.co.uk...all owned by Microsoft, all redirect to the official Xbox site. That's as good a clue to the name as anything we're likely to get.

Xbox Infinity image
This is not a leaked Xbox Infinity logo, just a mock-up from Reddit user C-Ron.

The specs

If there's anything video game fanboys like to argue about on the Internet, it's the relative merits of the unannounced specs of future hardware. For a few months, one set of specs for the next Xbox has been so widely circulated that it seems almost unthinkable for Microsoft to announce anything else. There's even a block diagram; because who could possibly fake one of those?

Durango Block Diagram
A popular rumored block diagram of the next-gen Xbox architecture.

The rumors specs are as follows:

  • An 8-core x86 CPU made by AMD, based on the "Jaguar" core. (very simlar to the PS4's CPU)
  • An AMD graphics processor based on the Radeon 7000 series, with 12 shader cores (similar to the PS4's GPU, only the PS4 has 16 cores)
  • 8GB of DDR3 memory (the PS4 also has 8GB of RAM, but it's faster GDDR5 memory)
  • 32MB of very fast embedded SRAM
  • A hard drive in every box (of unspecified size)
  • A fast Blu-ray drive
  • Built-in Wi-Fi
  • Dedicated hardware for encryption, audio and video compression, and processing Kinect input

This all seems perfectly reasonable and roughly in line with the Playstation 4. Calm down, Sony fan, I said "roughly." If these are Microsoft's specs, the PS4 will be a little more powerful, but not so much as to make a major difference in what you play. Consider that the PS3 is certainly more powerful than the Xbox 360, and on the whole the best games between the two platforms are roughly comparable in technival "gee whiz" factor. The original Xbox was about 3 times as powerful as the Playstation 2, and the games only marginally more impressive.

We have no reason to believe these rumored specs are correct, other than the fact that they are never really soundly refuted, and they seem very reasonable.

Kinect for everyone

For an optional add-on coming late in the hardware cycle, Kinect has been quite successful on the Xbox 360, selling over 24 million units. This time around, we don't expect Microsoft to split its market between the Kinect haves and have-nots. Every new Xbox will come with a next-generation Kinect sensor, if the rumors are right. This new Kinect is said to have two to three times the resolution of the existing model, with a wider field of view and better low-light sensitivity so it works better in more living room configurations. A more robust dedicated processor should improve accuracy and responsiveness, too.

Kinect was a hit for Microsoft, even though core gamers never fell in love with it.

This seems like a no-brainer. Kinect is a differentiator that competitors haven't been able to match, and while the hardcore gamers haven't embraced it, the best way to ensure that developers make good use of it is to guarantee that every gamer has one. Then, developers can put serious time and effort behind Kinect features without worrying that only a fraction of the players can use them.

A slightly tweaked controller

The Xbox 360 controller's shape and layout is beloved by gamers, and often imitated. Early rumors that the controller would have a touchscreen built in (not unlike the Wii U's gamepad) seem mostly to come from the fevered dreams of fans that can't stand their favorite system not having something other systems have. A controller with a screen in it would be a terrible idea. Microsoft's second-screen strategy revolves around SmartGlass, and adding a touchscreen to controllers will ramp up the cost, which is already sure to be high thanks to sophisticated hardware and built-in Kinect. Not to mention what it would do to battery life.

Gamers love the shape and layout of the Xbox 360 controller.

All Microsoft really needs to do with its controller is improve latency and bandwidth (an easy task with currently availalbe wireless technologies), fine-tune buttons and sticks, and for love of god, fix the damn horrible D-pad. We'll probably see some slight changes to the button layout, and maybe even a small touchpad, similar to what Sony did with the PS4 controller, but don't expect a revolution.

The TV angle

Every time a member of the press asks Microsoft to confirm a rumor about the new Xbox, the answer from Redmond is the same: "We’re excited to share more about the new generation of games, TV and entertainment on May 21, but have nothing further to share at this time." That Microsoft refuses to acknowledge rumors isn't especially interesting. That it deliberately includes "TV" in that statement, is very interesting.

Vizio Co-Star back
Google TV boxes, like this Vizio Co-Star, work with your existing cable or satellite box via the HDMI input. The new Xbox may do the same.

The new Xbox is said to include an HDMI input as well as output. This would let you plug your cable or satellite box into the Xbox, then your Xbox into the TV, giving the Xbox the ability to overlay graphics or info on top of whatever you're watching. It's exactly how most of the Google TV devices work.

This has far-reaching ramifications. It means not missing out on invites to play the latest game with your friends just because you're catching up on that Downton Abbey marathon, or even to build fun interative elements into the shows you're watching. The potential for evil is just as apparent. Imagine Microsoft selling ads that pop up on your screen, based on what you're watching or what your Xbox Live friends are watching or playing.

The Xbox as a go-between from your cable box to your TV leaves a ton of room for a wide variety of features, especially if cable and satellite providers play ball with Microsoft. We don't think Microsoft will go so far as to turn the Xbox into a DVR; more like a "DVR accelerator" that improves the one you already have. HDMI input seems like a likely move, given Microsoft's attempt over the last few years to brand Xbox as something that encompasses the whole world of entertainment (not just games). It would also go a long way toward making the Xbox stand apart from Sony and Nintendo's consoles.

The games

Though Microsoft will position the new Xbox as a broad entertainment device for everyone, they're not stupid; they know that it's gamers who will buy the box in its expensive early days, building momentum for broader appeal down the line. From families to the hardcore, games have to be at the heart of this thing.

Perfect Dark Zero
Could Rare be working on another Perfect Dark game?

In truth, we know next to nothing about which hot exclusive games will launch with the new console. Recent rumors suggest that a new Halo game won't launch with the system, but we could see a new Project Gotham Racing along with one or two titles from Rare, including a first-person shooter. Maybe a new entry in the Perfect Dark franchise? Lionhead is said to unveil a major new game, too. It is said that the first game from Respawn Entertainment (the studio formed by ex-Infinity Ward members) will be exclusive to Microsoft. Crytek's bloody Roman sword combat game Ryse, announced last year, is said to be the showcase for the new Kinect.

We will probably hear only a little about the launch games on Tuesday the 21st, with many more announced at E3 in June.

Next: DRM, backwards compatibility, and Xbox Live

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