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Microsoft claims Xbox One Scorpio will deliver ‘native’ 4K

Well, that didn’t take long. When Sony unveiled the new PS4 Pro, we spent some time talking about 4K, the difference between native and upscaled content, and what Sony can and can’t deliver as far as 4K is concerned with a GPU based on the RX 480. Now, we’ve got Microsoft weighing in on the capabilities of Project Scorpio.

While the bulk of this USA Today article concerns the recent launch of ReCore, the interview includes this quote from Shannon Loftis, the general manager of Microsoft Studios Publishing. “Any games we’re making that we’re launching in the Scorpio time frame, we’re making sure they can natively render at 4K.”

Now we know what Microsoft and Sony are going to fight about for the next year, and it’s not going to be particularly pretty. The argument over resolution and which is better is ultimately more of a fanboy-fueled rantfest than a practical distinction. The Xbox One often renders at a lower resolution than the PS4, but the biggest difference between the two consoles as far as I’ve seen isn’t their final resolutions — it’s their color. Microsoft’s internal rescaler has a tendency to produce crushed blacks where Sony’s color balance is distinctly different.

We already know that the PS4 is targeting a rescaled 4K rather than native resolution. While the console is technically capable of 4K output, it doesn’t make much sense to burn that much performance in resolution alone. Metrics like TFLOPS are often trotted out to make comparisons between GPUs, but this is at best an indirect comparison method. More important than TFLOPS, for our purposes, are render outputs (ROPS) and total memory bandwidth.

Stepping up to 4K from 1080p quadruples the number of pixels that need to be lit, shaded, and drawn every single frame. This, in turn, means you need substantially more GPU horsepower to drive an acceptable frame rate. As those of you who follow the PC market are probably aware, one of the key differences between AMD’s GCN architecture and Nvidia’s Maxwell and Pascal architectures is that GCN scales better as the resolution rises. GCN takes a smaller performance hit from moving from 1080p to 4K in most cases, and therefore compares better against Nvidia cards as a result. This holds true across both Maxwell and Pascal — but not for the RX 480. The RX 480 doesn’t improve as resolution increases and sometimes even scores worse relative to Team Green at 4K than it did at 1080p. Compare Polaris against the older R9 390, which does follow expected GCN scaling, and you can see why. Polaris is a 2304:144:32 design, meaning it has 2,304 cores, 144 texture units, and 32 ROPS. This translates to 35.8 Gigapixels/s worth of fill rate, 161 Gigatexels/s, and 256GB/s of memory bandwidth. The R9 390, in contrast, is a 2560:160:64 design, with 64 Gigapixels/s of fill rate, 160 Gigatexels/s of texturing, and 384GB/s worth of memory bandwidth.

I can’t tell you whether any given title is held back by pixel fillrate or memory bandwidth, but we can look to the different performance of the RX 480 versus the R9 390 in 4K and conclude that one or both of these factors is responsible for the significant difference in performance scaling. Neither of these factors is captured by a reliance on TFLOPS as a metric for GPU performance.

Can Microsoft build a GPU that achieves the listed 6TFLOPS but drives 4K? Probably. It would be a GPU with fewer cores compared to GCN, at least 64 ROPS, and a great deal of memory bandwidth — the “over 320GB/s” quoted in the official Scorpio data seems on the low side, honestly. And that’s before we even talk about power consumption; 4K requires significantly more power thanks to the need to drive all those pixels.

But the larger question here is “Why should people care?” And I don’t think this is something to be ignored. Driving native 4K resolution is great if you sit within three feet of your TV, or if you game on a 72-inch behemoth. Most people do neither of those things. Features like VR, HDR, and fast frame rates at lower resolutions would do a good deal more to improve console gaming than just hurling more pixels at a given target.

We’ve already hit the point of diminishing marginal return when it comes to 4K. Microsoft may want to make a marketing point with this, and it’s true that based on its raw specs, Scorpio will deliver more firepower than the PlayStation 4 Pro. But I honestly think we’re reaching a point where features besides raw resolution are going to drive gaming experiences.

Now read: The best free games on the Xbox One

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