It's been eight years since Microsoft and Sony announced new consoles, and tastes have changed considerably. Back then, new gaming gear was launched at E3, or using Elijah Wood-fronted MTV specials, but this time around Microsoft is pitching a tent on its Redmond campus for the world's media to huddle under. With less than 24 hours before the next Xbox is revealed, it's high time we sifted through the leaks, rumors and prognostications to see what we know, or at least, what we think we know about a little box called "Durango."
A console's codename is rarely indicative of the final project, with "Reality" (Nintendo 64), "Katana" (Dreamcast) and "Xenon" (Xbox 360) bearing no relation to the finished hardware. The next Xbox's codename, "Durango," for the curious, is both a city in Colorado and a sovereign state in Mexico -- and considering Kinect was coded after Brazilian city Natal, we think Microsoft's engineers have a thing for the warmer climes of central and southern America. There's also chatter concerning the hardware code "Kryptos," which a cursory Google search reveals is a statue sited at the CIA's Langley HQ.
What's in the box?
One rumor that's very easy to believe is that Microsoft will join Sony in ditching the PowerPC / Cell-based architectures that powered the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in favor of PC-style computing units. A console overview document in the form of a white paper, leaked to Kotaku, claimed that, like the PS4, the next Xbox would switch to x86 architecture, with Bloomberg adding that it would be a heavily customized version of AMD's "Jaguar" low-power silicon. Specifically, the console is said to be powered by an eight-core, 1.6GHz CPU with 4MB of L2 cache.
The detailed examination of Jaguar we made back in February should hold true here -- and given that Sony has apparently pushed the accompanying GPU close to 2TFLOPs, we'd expect at least similar performance from whatever Microsoft's engineers have achieved. Kotaku's white paper also suggested that we'd see multitasking, enabling users to easily flip between games and other applications in the same way we're now used to on smartphones, smart TVs and tablets.
[Image credit: Kotaku]
The switch to PC-style hardware isn't just good for performance, as it should also make game development significantly easier for the new console. Plenty of big names, including Gabe Newell, groused at the learning curve required to code for the PlayStation 3, so a switch to x86 hardware means, at least in theory, engineers should already be au-fait with how it works. While it may be too early to confidently claim we'll see higher-quality titles launch with next-gen consoles, Michael Valient, developer at the Sony-owned Guerilla Games has already let it be known that the PS4's architecture (which might be very similar to Durango's) is much easier to use. Publishers should also be able to push out cross-platform titles for Xbox, PlayStation, PCs and other devices without huge outlays of cash and time.
Of course, a console isn't just comprised of its CPU architecture, and the same leak described the next Xbox as having a 64-bit D3D11.x 800MHz GPU, 8GB DDR3 RAM, 500GB on-board storage, USB 3.0 and an optical drive for "50GB discs." That final stat, of course, hints that Microsoft has made an about-face and included a Blu-ray drive in Durango, no doubt prompted by the lukewarm (269,000 total) sales of the Xbox 360's external HD DVD drive. We should mention that while it may be using PC-style hardware -- it's highly unlikely you'll be able to build your own KIRF Xbox after a trip to NewEgg given the sheer amount of tweaks that Microsoft is likely to make.
Name and looks
As for a name, the most regularly mentioned candidates are "Loop" and "Infinity."
While there's no guarantee that Microsoft will reveal the shell of the next Xbox, Paul Thurrott has said that the company pushed back its launch event to "better position it against Sony." Given the flack the PS4-maker took for not showing any hardware images at its announcement, it'd be a surprise if we didn't see something at the show, just so that Microsoft could come off looking better by comparison. Kotaku has previously reported that current Durango test units are painted with a stripey motif, but we're skeptical that'll make it all the way to the finished version. As for a name, the most regularly mentioned candidates are "Loop" and "Infinity," both riffing on the 360's circular motif, while there's an outside chance the new unit could be called the "Fusion," or the dull, yet mathematically sound "720."
The same white paper that supplied the next Xbox's reported hardware also revealed that an updated version of Kinect, with a 1,920 x 1,080 sensor, would ship with the console. There's a slightly unwelcome rumor that the depth camera must be connected to the Xbox at all times, which might have something to do with the improved natural user interface the unit may boast. The same rumor suggests that the second (or third, if you count the Windows version) iteration of Kinect will support up to six players with better joint tracking -- assuming your TV room can hold that many flailing participants.
Rumors have circulated that the next Xbox would require an internet connection to function, but there's been plenty of confusion, and controversy, as to what that actually means. Microsoft creative director Adam Orth took to Twitter to dismiss people's concerns about a need for always-on internet, unsympathetically saying that people with non-existent and poor internet should "deal with it." After a massive public outcry, Microsoft quietly denied that his opinion was shared by the company -- or that he was making any statement regarding future hardware. Shortly afterward, Microsoft showed Orth the exit door, and a month after that, a leaked memo suggested a compromise -- with specific console functions like single-player gaming and media playback working without an internet connection, as with the current generation.
As early as 2011, there was a rumor flying around that we'd see a pair of Xboxes.
As early as 2011, there was a rumor flying around that we'd see a pair of Xboxes. One would be a fully featured games console, while the other would be a pared-down unit, more akin to a cable set-top box for casual play and TV viewing. While Microsoft seems to have axed that strategy, its push to dominate your living room continues unabated. With the sale of Mediaroom a few months ago, the company is focusing all of its attention towards turning the Xbox into a one-stop shop for all of your home entertainment needs. Thanks to Microsoft's partnerships with cable companies and pushes for original content, perhaps the console is hoping to demote your STB to second place -- which would explain why the unit is believed to have HDMI passthrough and a Google TV-style guide overlay.
Remember when we told you that Microsoft was likely to dump PowerPC in favor of going back to a PC-friendly x86 architecture? You can pretty much guess what that'll do for the console's backwards-compatibility chops. There are no rumors concerning Redmond's work on software emulation for these older titles, but we're not getting our hopes up. As such, it's probably best to concentrate on the new games that'll be coming out for the machine.
The company has let it be known that we won't learn too much on the gaming front at tomorrow's event -- with details of launch titles being held back until E3. Still, if we're to speculate a little, then we'd guess that as with any Microsoft console launch, we're likely to see first-party titles like an updated Kinect Sports and Forza, while a Halo-themed title from 343 Industries won't be far behind. Given Bungie's fruitful relationship with the company, and Activision's role as a multi-platform publisher, we'd be surprised if Destiny didn't arrive on the next Xbox with plenty of fanfare.
Then there are third-party titles like Battlefield 4, which, while unconfirmed, was developed on the next-generation Frostbite engine. So we'd expect to see that alongside other stalwart franchise entries like Call of Duty: Ghosts and Assassins Creed 4. There are also some murmurings that studios like Harmonix (Rock Band), Ubisoft (Watch Dogs) and CDProjekt Red (The Witcher 3) are preparing titles for the new platform.
Those "in the know" have tipped that the next Xbox will run a basic version of Windows 8, so don't be surprised if talented individuals get desktop software working on the machine. Since the Xbox 360 currently has SkyDrive and SmartGlass integration, we'd expect easy sharing between the console, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 gear. If the device does ship with Kinect bundled in, we'd also expect to see deep Skype integration, further reducing the need for anyone to invest in a TV webcam.
On the gaming front, as Xbox Live Arcade titles are already available on Windows 8, we'd love to see that cross-compatibility strengthened. In fact, and this is pure conjecture on our part, we'd love to be able to share titles between our PC and console, but again, we doubt Microsoft would allow it.
If the device does ship with Kinect bundled in, we'd also expect to see deep Skype integration, further reducing the need for anyone to invest in a TV webcam.
You may have seen Microsoft's IllumiRoom project and hoped that the company would whip out an accessory for the console. Unfortunately, it's not very likely to happen. When we spent some time with the Holodeck-esque hardware in January and April, bosses kept stressing that the technology isn't ready for prime time, and the company hasn't given any indication that it wants to turn the project into an actual device. Still, perhaps in time, a more mature version of the device could appeal to the enthusiast crowd -- possibly even as the midlife "kicker" that Kinect proved to be.
There's also some speculation that the company will repackage a smaller, cheaper Xbox 360 for the budget crowd. Given the prolonged success of the PS2 in a similar role, and the 360's proven track record as a big seller, we're sure this will happen. The only question is whether Microsoft will devote time and energy in tomorrow's event to talk it up.
Common sense would suggest that, in these cash-strapped times, the company would try and keep the costs close to the $299 / $399 launch prices we saw for the core and premium editions of the 360. Thurrott, however, believes that the standalone version of the next console will retail for $499, but if that's too rich for your blood, he thinks you might be able to pick up a $299 edition if you commit to a $15-per-month Xbox Live Gold subscription for two years -- pushing the price to $659, math fans.
So, what's the story? If all of this is true, then Microsoft is building a small, albeit heavily customized, low-power PC and dressing it in console clothing. Weirdly, we're not underwhelmed by this news. After all, if gaming isn't your thing, then it'll have its media center skills to fall back on, and perhaps the company's clout with the cable companies could see it offered as a sweetener the next time you consider cutting the cord. The inclusion of Blu-ray may be too late given the streaming trend, but might sway anyone who'd planned to defect to PlayStation for its high-definition player. That said, it's high time that a gadget launch provided us with a genuine surprise, so let's hope that Microsoft has what it takes to put a smile on our faces. Either way, we should know a lot more by tomorrow evening.