22 May 2013

The XBOX ONE is all about how we watch TV (Updated)

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Index

The (X)Box

While Sony has so far played coy with its PS4 design, Microsoft opened almost immediately with the Xbox One design and it certainly seems worthy of the company's pride. Xbox One was a rather wonderful X-slashed monstrosity, Xbox 360 famously adopted an inward curved, 'inhale' design - which unfortunately helped turn its insides into a chip melting inferno - while Xbox One is a stern, rectilinear machine that looks like a high-end cable box. A key feature is near-silent operation and for those not left entirely deaf by the 360's fans, this is great news.

Let's be honest, Microsoft is on a bit of a design roll with its fresh Windows 8 UI, the well engineered Surface RT and Xbox One fits right in. What isn't quite so clear is what's inside the box. While Sony's PS4 reveal took pains to get into the performance advantage of its 8Gb of high speed GDDR5 RAM, Microsoft simply mentioned 5 billion transistors, 8Gb of RAM and moved swiftly on. Both machines have an 8-core AMD Jaguar-derived CPU with integrated Radeon graphics card technology. Dev talk has fairly consistently talked to PS4 having a performance edge, but how much difference this will really make is unclear - PS3 and Xbox 360 were radically different hardware designs that developers still somehow made to run the same games at broadly similar quality.

Xbox One will ship with a 500Gb hard drive and, as long rumoured, will require mandatory installs and has a system which 'supports' reselling and trading of games but may require a fee. The lucrative second hand market has long been a pain point for publishers and Microsoft is striving to find a balance between customers desire for cheap games and publishers irritated at not getting a cut of resales. Exactly how this system will work remains to be seen, but is bound to be contentious.

Backwards compatibility with 360 games isn't supported either and there's no option to provide access to these games via a streaming service, as planned by Sony for PS3 games. The Xbox One will have a Blu-ray drive, USB 3.0, and Wi-fi built-in - at last! There is no news yet as to pricing, but a worldwide global launch later this year is promised.

As to 4K… when introducing the 360 to developers, Microsoft gave every attendee a Samsung HDTV to emphasise it being the first HD console. This obviously didn't happen this time for 4K and it looks increasingly like 4K can't be an integral part of this console generation. The target for games will be full 1080P at 60fps, a significant step up from the 720P at 30fps which is typical of this generation, but obviously not 4K. Video playback for 4K should be possible (with 24p only suppored by HDMI 1.4), but as the big news in the Blu-ray camp is 'mastered in 4K', rather than delivered in 4K, there seems little to no chance of any next gen console shipping with a 4K drive. Further down the line, there may be additions or iterations that do support 4K to some degree - as with the HD-DVD add-on drives for the 360 - but no-one is keen to follow Sony's example on PS3 where the high cost and limited availability of key Blu-ray components took a sledgehammer to pricing and profitability.

UPDATE

We now know a bit more about the Xbox One's 4K capabiltities

As to 4K… when introducing the 360 to developers, Microsoft gave every attendee a Samsung HDTV to emphasise it being the first HD console. This obviously didn't happen this time for 4K and it looks increasingly like 4K can't be an integral part of this console generation, at least for gaming. The target for games will be full 1080P at 60fps, a significant step up from the 720P at 30fps which is typical of this generation, but obviously not 4K. Video playback for 4K should be possible (with 24p only supported by HDMI 1.4), but as the big news in the Blu-ray camp is 'mastered in 4K', rather than delivered in 4K, there seems little to no chance of any next gen console shipping with a true 4K drive. In press briefings following the May 21 event, a little more information has been revealed by Microsoft. Xbox blogger Major Nelson 'AKA Larry Hryb' confirmed Xbox One 'supports BOTH 3D and 4K' in a live Yahoo chat while Microsoft's CVP of Marketing and Strategy, Yusuf Mehdi indicated, "There's no hardware restriction there at all," regarding 4K gaming. The latter is a slightly different emphasis from Sony, whose president of worldwide studios Shuhei Yoshida, clarified "PS4 supports 4K output, but does so for personal content like photos and videos, not games. PS4 games do not work in 4K." Given the similar horsepower of both machines, the distinction seems largely theoretical / marketing related. The possibility of 4K gaming is a long way from the reality of it.

A more likely application is 4K streaming video and the degree to which these machines can replicate Sony's $700 FMP-X1 4K Media Server remains to be seen. Xbox One will come with an integral, non-replaceable 500Gb drive - so there's certainly not much space to download 4K content, but USB 3 means adding terabyte storage shouldn't be an issue. The US Autumn launch of Sony's 4K media service will likely be the point at which we properly realise the potential of the games consoles as 4K media players when Sony defines its 4K message and Microsoft responds.

 




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