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

Rumors are swirling ahead of Microsoft's May 21 unveiling of the next Xbox. Here's what we know now, and what we expect to learn.

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. See also: Microsoft launches Xbox One - as it happened, details.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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 probalby 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.

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.

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

Always-on, DRM, and used games

Perhaps the most debated rumor about Microsoft's successor to the Xbox 360 is that it would require an always-on internet connection and prohibit the use of used games. It's probably not that simple, but like many rumors, there's probably a grain of truth there that has been misreported, blown out of proportion, and misunderstood.

Here's how we think this will likely work. The new Xbox will not require you to be online merely to function. You probalby have to bring it online when you first set it up to register the box and make an Xbox Live profile, but merely watching a Blu-ray movie, or a movie you previously downloaded, or playing a completely single-player game would not necessarily require you to be online. A more important question is: will all the titles be available to download at the same time they're available in stores, or are we stuck buying discs?

So, while the next Xbox will probalby not need to be online all the time, it will probalby support allowing developers to protect their games via always-online activation schemes if they want to. Publishers and devleopers are livid about losing tons of money to used game sales, os it wouldn't be a surprise for Microsoft to have something in the box to help curb it. And most of its best and most exciting features (streaming media, TV overlay stuff, new Xbox Live features) will be inehernetly Internet-based.

Backwards compatibility

Every other week the rumor mill flip-flops on whether or not the next Xbox will play Xbox 360 games. One report went so far as to suggest that the Xbox 360 hardware would be shrunk to a system-on-chip and included in the new Xbox. That costly move seems like insanity.

We think Microsoft is going to make a clean break here. In order to really move forward with its online services and focus on the future, it's going to make the new Xbox incompatible with the old. It will keep selling the Xbox 360, at a cheap price, for another year or two. Now that the Playstation 4 has been announced as not compatible with PS3 games (the company may use an online game-streaming service to fill that gap), it's even easier for Microsoft to pull the trigger.

Xbox Live

Speaking of online functions, we expect big things from the next iteration of Xbox Live. One recent report suggests that Microsoft will change friends lists to work more like Twitter, where you can follow someone without them necessarily following you back. This, together with abolishing the 100-person limit, seems like a very smart move. Sharing is sure to be a big part of the new Xbox Live. The new box may record a video buffer of your games as you play, allowing you to go back, select highlights, and post it to social media sites.

Achievements, one of the more successful innovations of this console generation, will almost certainly get an overhaul, too. Developers will probably be able to include more achievements, add them more often, tie them to real-life events or make them available for a limited time (e.g. "play this weekend for a special achievement!"), and even tie achievements together between games and between other Microsoft platforms. The cynic in me sees achievement awards on the inside of Mountain Dew caps already. (Achievement Unlocked: Do the Dew!)

Interestingly, scuttlebutt says that Microsoft intends to dump Xbox Live's own proprietary chat service in favor of Skype. This would be excellent news; not only does Skype provide dramatically better audio quality, but the prospect of cross-chatting with regular Skype users is enticing. And with a Kinect in every box, everyone could easily make Skype video calls from their living room.

Unfortunately, we still expect Microsoft to offer two tiers of Xbox Live service, free and Gold, with far too many services held back for Gold subscribers. There's no reason you should have to be a Gold subscriber to access Netflix or Hulu Plus, but Microsoft doesn't need a new console to bring that to an end. It could stop that nonsense at any time, and it hasn't yet.

Built on Windows 8 (not that it matters)

It is said that the software stack for the new Xbox will be built on the same foundation as Windows 8. Given the hardware architecture, that seems likely, but also unimportant. It's not as though it will actually run Windows 8 applications. The operating system would be highly modified, tailored for the task of running a set-top entertainment box, and controlled with game pads and Kinect.

Recall that the original Xbox ran an operating system based on Windows NT, and it's not like you could boot up Excel on it. The same situation applies here. WIth any luck, some of the core foundations and tools used by developers to make applications for Windows will carry over with little change, making developers' lives easier, but that's about all that matters. We'd be surprised if the common Windows 8 core was given more than a single brief mention on Tuesday, if it's mentioned at all.

Price and release date

Microsoft won't say; it's too early. We will certainly hear a vague release date like "in time for the Holiday season", with more specifcs about price and release date to come later. Perhaps at E3 in June, or even later. When the price is finally announced, we expect Microsoft to lessen the sticker shock by offering a subsidized pricing option: buy two years of Xbox Live Gold at a slightly inflated price, get the new Xbox for a couple hundred bucks less.

May 21 is only the beginning

Similar to the Playstation 4 event in February, Microsoft will give us the big picture, and leave out a lot of important details. It might even follow Sony's lead and refuse to show us what the actual box looks like, saving that for a later date. We'll hear more in June at E3, and even more after that.


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