Can Microsoft Launch the Next Xbox in 2012?

Digital Foundry analyses the latest "Nextbox" rumours.

A new, ultra-power next-generation Xbox in 2012? Apparently so, according to a report last week by Future's Edge Online. Its story suggests that PC-based "target platforms" are with key developers now, including Assassin's Creed creator Ubisoft Montreal. Not only that, but it also suggests that Sony too is working on its next-gen hardware, with one of its major in-house studios transitioning now to the new platform and even helping with the hardware design.

There's an old saying that there's no smoke without fire - and rumour-mongering about the new Microsoft console is coming thick and fast from various sources with differing levels of credibility. A lot of stories are emanating from the MS Nerd blog, suggesting that the new machine is codenamed Xbox Loop, and features a dedicated SoC (system on chip) arrangement utilising mobile-style architecture, and bespoke cores for dealing with graphics, AI, physics, sound, networking and other elements and - most bizarrely of all - running a Windows 9 core.

Meanwhile, French site Xboxygen says that the machine features a hex core CPU, 2GB of system RAM and dual AMD graphics cards -presumably with their own dedicated RAM, with the system due to receive a public debut less than two months from now at the January CES in Las Vegas.

Console launches are phenomenally expensive. Would Microsoft really sacrifice its profit-making Xbox 360 so soon to dominate the next-gen market?

If there's any truth to this latter story, I strongly believe that this is a description of what Edge terms the "target platform" - a PC using off-the-shelf parts that bears some passing resemblance to the upcoming console spec. I would expect a next-gen console to ship with at least 4GB of RAM in total - possibly more (according to a Crytek presentation they are hoping for 8GB or more) - and bearing in mind the advantages Microsoft enjoyed with the unified memory pool in the Xbox 360 (system and graphics RAM combined), a similar arrangement will likely carry over to its next-gen successor.

As for the Xbox Loop story, it sounds very much like another project entirely - if it exists at all. The notion of combining all processing elements into a single chip is hugely compelling and has become the standard in the mobile sector, but there's a reason why the console platform holders launch with individual chips and combine them later on in a smaller hardware revision: the designs of a modern home console are simply too complex and power-hungry to integrate right from the off.

Consider the Xbox 360S "slim" revision that shipped in 2010. It took Microsoft five years to transition its current generation console using a discrete CPU and GPU onto an integrated SoC. It took that long for the 45nm fabrication process to mature, and for chip yields to reach a high enough level that a single chip could be viably deployed in a cheap, mainstream product. The notion of 360's CPU and GPU being integrated into a single chip was first revealed by tech journalist Dean Takahashi two years prior to it actually shipping - a suggestion of just how long the process of designing, taping out then manufacturing these chips takes. Nextbox will be bigger and much more complex, presumably running on the smaller 28nm fabrication process: the notion that a SoC would be ready for 2013, let alone 2012, doesn't really make sense.

Certainly, it's also highly unlikely that Windows 9 would be ready for showtime any time soon. It's far more likely that Microsoft engineers will spin out their own core OS based on an existing mature, reliable Windows kernel - which is apparently what happened with the Xbox 360. Indeed, Microsoft has already said that elements of Windows 8 will end up in an Xbox product at some point.

So what of the shocking Edge 2012 release rumour? Industry analyst Michael Pachter is unequivocal about this.

"Those rumours are silly. Microsoft is still selling a ton of Xbox 360s, and they won't replace the existing one until sales begin to slow," he told our sister site IndustryGamers.

"I think the rumours are based upon leaks about modifying the current Xbox 360 to allow it to operate Windows 8. I fully expect a new model of Xbox 360 by holiday 2012, but don't think we see a new console altogether from Microsoft until 2014."

While Pachter has garnered a reputation for forecasts of varying accuracy, it's difficult to argue with the basic logic here. While the prospect of 360 running Windows 8 is unlikely (MS makes money selling expensive operating systems, not giving them away with its consoles where profits are wafer-thin), the Xbox division is a business that has sustained enormous losses across two console launches and in the here and now, it is doing remarkably well - particularly in its native US territory.

Moving on to the next-gen within 12 months would essentially see Microsoft calling time on its own profits, and would also introduce a bunch of marketing anomalies: for example, 343 Industries' Frank O'Connor has stated unambiguously that Halo 4 is an Xbox 360 title (if the E3 release of the Halo 4 packshot didn't already convince you). It's hard to imagine that Microsoft would launch its next-gen console within a month or two of its flagship franchise game appearing on the older console.

It's also difficult to construct a compelling financial argument for a 2012 release based on the sheer cost of launching a new console. The 2005 release of the original Xbox 360 was an enormous investment for Microsoft - but one it had to make to beat Sony to the punch and to seriously challenge what was at the time the all-powerful PlayStation brand.

To that end, Microsoft really pushed the boat out in terms of its per-unit manufacturing costs. The 90nm CPU and GPU were running at what was at the time a state-of-the-art fabrication process, and yields (i.e. chips that worked off the main production run) weren't exactly wonderful, adding further to the notional cost of the console. Cost-cutting in other areas led to the RROD, overheating console debacle. Even a year later, Sony still had problems with the same 90nm fabrication process - hence the 90nm Cell processor having one SPU disabled in order to produce higher yields.

In the here and now, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) - the chip manufacturer for AMD, NVIDIA and indeed Microsoft - is transitioning to a 28nm process and we can expect to see the first graphics cards using it early next year. Any transition to a new process causes yield issues and it's really unlikely that Microsoft would want to take that kind of financial hit again, particularly if it's at the expense of its current, profitable console - and certainly in light of the current global economic turmoil. Targeting 2013 would be far more prudent in this respect, once efficiencies have improved and TSMC actually have strong capacity - there'll be a lot of competition for those fabs from AMD and NVIDIA, and potentially even Nintendo with Wii U.

The yield situation does lend some credence to another oft-repeated Nextbox rumour, however: the notion that it will feature dual graphics chips in its design. While the idea of packing two GPUs into its next console might sound crazy, it would allow Microsoft to use more chips from the production line in the same way that Cell (and indeed numerous CPUs and GPUs) had cores turned off to make chips with minor defects viable, improving percentages on chips that could be utilised.

One contact told us that two GPUs makes a lot of sense - short of adopting the fully programmable graphics chip (like Intel's abandoned Larrabee), it's almost a developer's dream feature.

There are also advantages from a development perspective too. One contact told us that two GPUs makes a lot of sense - short of adopting the fully programmable graphics chip (like Intel's abandoned Larrabee), it's almost a developer's dream feature.

Even used inefficiently, developers could tile - vutting the scene in half and sending each piece to different GPUs. Efficiency would be lost on border-overlapping geometry - just as it is with tiling on the Xbox 360 right now - but the rendering of geometry is less and less work with the slow shift from fully forward to fully deferred rendering. A deferred renderer would lose nothing in efficiency in all the lighting and shading passes.

More streamlined applications could see independent rendering operation parallelised - for example, rendering the main scene with the shadowmap, rendering the different cascades of the increasingly popular shadowmaps, rendering light buffers, rendering different portions of a complex post-processing chain - but post-processing is a good candidate for pure tiling, as well.

There would also be production advantages for Microsoft too. Two slower, narrower graphics chips should be easier and cheaper to make than one big one, and it would be less expensive to route two 128-bit memory buses instead of one 256-bit bus. It could also be cheaper to cool them separately too.

In terms of how we see the next-gen Xbox panning out based on what our own sources tell us, we understand that Kinect is set for a significant upgrade and has a very strong likelihood of ending up bundled with the machine. It is understood that Microsoft hosted a developer soiree at Disneyland just after E3 this year where the platform holder invited partners to pitch in with ideas on where they would want the technology to go, and the challenges they had with the current platform. This signifies that it was early days for the design just a few months ago, making the 2012 story seem even less likely.

It's also believed that Microsoft will continue its successful two SKU strategy, and indeed take it much further with its new platform: a pared down machine is to be released as cheaply as possible, and positioned more along the lines of a set-top box (the use of 360 as a Netflix viewing platform in the US is colossal) and perhaps as a Kinect-themed gaming portal, while a more fully-featured machine with optical drive, hard disk and backward compatibility aimed at the hardcore would be released at a higher price-point.

But beyond that we're still in the realms of conjecture - or as Microsoft would prefer to term it, "rumour and speculation". If history is any indicator, this in itself suggests that 2012 is not a likely release date - detailed Wii U specs and a hardware breakdown leaked before E3 this year, a good 18 months before the actual launch. We knew about the core make-up of PlayStation Vita over two years ago and that still hasn't been released yet. The paucity of details about Microsoft's new project and the fact that Nextbox specs remain mostly unknown suggests that we still have some way to go.

So is 2012 completely off the table? We know that Microsoft has a range of next-gen teams assembled, with core personnel like creative director Kudo Tsunoda in charge. We also know that 343 Industries has recruited some of the leading lights in graphics engineering, such as principle engine programmer Corrinne Yu, who has also participated in the development of DirectX 11 - known to be the core rendering API that powers the next-gen Xbox.

All the pieces are being moved into place, and Microsoft is the sort of company that can power through the sorts of challenges we've described in this article with sheer financial brute force - but the question is, why should the platform holder rush its new console to market?

All the indications are that Wii U is a product with a similar spec to the existing Xbox 360 with all the innovation centred on the controller. Meanwhile, Sony is still in poor financial shape - and all the indications are it's still at a very early stage in preparing its next PlayStation. Conceivably, Microsoft could dominate the next-gen console sector with an early release, but with the way things are shaping up, even a 2013 debut for the Nextbox would still give them the same advantage - and that's when we would be more likely to see the dip in 360 sales that would necessitate a next-gen successor.

All eyes are on January's CES to see if the rumours have some sort of firm basis, but I strongly suspect that E3 will be our first look at Microsoft's new hardware.

More stories

Phil Spencer "evaluating" Xbox relationship with Activision Blizzard following Kotick allegations

Microsoft's gaming leadership "disturbed and deeply troubled" by claims against Call of Duty publisher's CEO

By James Batchelor

Phil Spencer calls for industry to work on 'legal emulation'

Xbox boss says enabling people to continue playing titles they own "seems like a great North Star" for games companies

By James Batchelor

Latest comments (26)

Thomas Luecking10 years ago
Totally agree. 2013 makes sense, 2012 would not make sense at all. Developers need enough time to pull off next gen titles with reasonable level of quality (2-3 years). As mentioned in the article, businesswise it would be totally nuts to release new hardware in a period when Xbox finally turns into a cash cow. Despite the support of a lot of 1st party titles (most of them already working on a next gen launch title I would guess) network effects will keep sales at a high level throughout the next year. The interesting question is: will they teaser the NextBox at E3 2012?
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game10 years ago
Using Windows 9 seems to be nonsense, baring in mind Windows 8 is released next year, and I can't see MS giving that less than 2.5 years before succeedind it. The idea that they would release 2 major iterations of Windows within a year would be crazy.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 years ago
Sony is the least of Microsoft's worries. Nintendo seems eager enough to release in 2012. I doubt Microsoft will allow them be the firsts to advertise a console with "1080p hardcore gaming". Let alone become Nintendo the lead platform for games development in the sector Microsoft draws its main audience from.

The Xbox will not run Windows, because that is an operating system allowing you to run your own programs. But the next Xbox might run a Windows based operating system with the same user interface as Windows 8. With no customer executing its own code and an attached Apple style store, of course. Compared to what most TVs can do with the Internet, the Xbox has a lot of catching up to do with a mainstream audience.

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (26)
Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game10 years ago
"The Xbox will not run Windows, because that is an operating system allowing you to run your own programs. "

Windows 8 is designed with a touchscreen (or Kinect?) friendly Metro front end that cannot execute anything other than Metro Apps, and on PC, you can access the normal desktop that can run anything you'd expect.
Windows 8 Tablets and phones have only the Metro interface, not the desktop, so it is not out of the realms of possibility that the new Xbox has the Metro only windows 8, optimised for kinect.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jonathan Withey Producer 10 years ago
Time for a 360 / Windows 8 tablet with built in micro Kinect cam, heh.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Harrison Smith Studying Games and Graphics Programming, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology10 years ago
@ Andrew, Last I heard of windows 8 for tablets was that it run the metro and a modified version of windows (I think 1995) as well.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game10 years ago
That would be an interesting move, was that a definite, or a rumoured possibility? It wouldn't rule out the console using just Metro and Xbox specific features, having the desktop button replaced with Games library.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Terence Gage Freelance writer 10 years ago
I think the Xbox '720' won't be out next year, primarily because it will take wind out of MS's sails (& sales) at a time when the 360 is doing really well - it just makes no sense from a fiscal perspective, considering the Xbox division has only been profitable for the last two or three years. Plus, I can't see them overshadowing the release of Halo 4 with a new console launch - I'm not even sure that they will even announce the 720 next year. We know that they've got Fable: The Journey in development as well as Halo 4 for the 360, but aside from that it's reasonable to expect their in-house studios have switched their focus to next-gen hardware on the basis that we're probably looking at a good 3-4 years' development assuming they need to learn the new architecture, build new graphics engines, etc.

What I also think is that the PS4 & 720 will not be vastly more powerful than the PS3 & 360 - I think their onus will be on easy operating systems, social connectivity, online stores, ease of development, etc. Certainly Kinect will be integral to the next Microsoft console, although it remains to be seen if Sony will run with Move, and if so what role it will take (I wouldn't be at all surprised if they dropped it and said it was a 'last gen' trend, like they did initially with rumble).

It also looks like being a quiet year in 2012 for major first-party releases from both Sony and MS - there's Halo 4, Fable: TJ, The Last Guardian and probably God of War IV (rumoured but extremely likely). Unless they both want to release iterations of their major series in 2013 - i.e. very late in the consoles' lifecycle - I suspect many first party studios like Naughty Dog, Turn 10, Guerrilla etc will be shifting focus to next-gen development now.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Tony Johns10 years ago
Even though 2013 is more likely release than 2012, I am still thinking that by 2014 we would have more better idea of what the next gen XBox and PS4 are capable of.

Also there is the name, looking at the movie Real Steel it is likely that the new XBox is going to be called XBox720 or something like that, going in the way of numbers like the old Atari of the 1970's-80's.

Also the PlayStation are only going to go up in single didgets until they get to around PS9 because trying to have a PS10 will sound allot like a PSX.

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 years ago
I think it is highly likely Halo4 will be on both consoles, 360 and its successor. Remember, it is a trilogy, Halo 6 will at best be out in 2014, at worst in 2016. Nobody in his right mind would set this new series up as if it was a 360 game, because for the most part of this second trillogy's life-cycle, it will be a next-xbox franchise. Meaning, this game will either serve as a vessel to entice you about a high res Xbox Next version, or be a tool to get you into buying the new console after playing Halo4, because Halo5 will be exclusively on the new console.

So why wait 10 years again to release the same game with higher resolution textures, when you can do the same right from the start? You have a lower res version for all the 360 owners and the Microsoft's #1 franchise to leverage a new console to its fans. It is not cannibalizing your own sales, when people have the choice between low-res on a 360 and buying a new console on top of Halo4. Everybody who wants the game, will spend as much money as he/she can.

EA certainly does not need more time to make a good shooter for the next xbox. They could probably convert the PC versions of Battlefield and NfS in no time. Round it off with EA sports and Ubisoft games and you got yourself a rock solid launch lineup.

My guess, Halo4 will be on 360 AND whatever Microsoft is brewing.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game10 years ago
"Also the PlayStation are only going to go up in single didgets until they get to around PS9 because trying to have a PS10 will sound allot like a PSX. "

They've got 40 or 50 years to work that one out
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 years ago
You forgot to mention that by the time the Playstation 23 comes around, companies will legally mindwipe us in regular intervals to sell us the same stuff over and over, so there will be no need for numbers.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kevin Patterson musician 10 years ago
I'm betting that MS (and possibly Sony) don't want to release a new console 2 years after Nintendo launches the Wii-u. Releasing in 2014 would give 2 years of a headstart to Wii-u, that seems like quite a gift.
Next E3 when the Wii-u will have a major showing, MS can come out and say "yeah but wait till next year" like Sony did to Sega's Dreamcast with the PS2.
However, MS going 2GB is a big mistake, especially if Sony decides to use 4GB. Maybe we need EPIC games to go in there again and tell them to up it again :)
The Dual core GPU or Dual GPU sounds interesting though expensive, SLI in a chip maybe?
I think most devs want as much memory as you can throw at them, I would think 3GB is bare minimum, and 4GB is the default, more would be better. My fear is that MS will make it 2GB to save on the cost of bundling in Kinect. I could care less about Kinect, I want awesome graphics and super hi res textures, not motion controls.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Richard Bisso Lead Software Engineer/Lead Designer, Sony DADC10 years ago
You can bet your bottom dollar that both companies are denying anything's in the works, while working feverishly to come out first. Whoever comes out first will win, although console developers will be the ones to lose. Unless they take an entirely different tack on what it means to be a console, I'd guess that the cost of matching the quality of a frontrunner-funded game will close whatever smaller 3rd party console studios are left. The risk will just be too high.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Johnathon Swift10 years ago
"Can they?" Well yeah, the entire world knew it was at least part of the way in development back in the beginning of the year. Heck ATI/AMD even had an official (if small and little noticed) press release concerning the thing's graphics card.

But will they? 50/50. Also it seems the "false rumor" bandwagon has been going strong. There's no way the MS Nerd Blog rumor is accurate. ARM is a good choice for power for performance. But this is a console, and MS doesn't need to worry about that. x86 and risk are still better for power for $$$, which is what MS does want. Besides, the "core's dedicated to X" thing went out of vogue less than a year after it was introduced. Anyone remember the PhysX card?
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 10 years ago
...MS makes money selling expensive operating systems, not giving them away with its consoles where profits are wafer-thin...

Actually, since the marginal cost of the OS is nothing, it doesn't matter if they "give it away" on the Xbox platform, where it can't cannibalize any other sales of the OS. The real question is, what's the cheapest way to develop the software needed to run the console? If re-using code from an existing OS helps with that, then it's a smart idea.

I find it hard to credit any "bespoke cores" rumours: while there's clearly a place in the world for two processing architectures, one for complex decision making and one for numerical speed (CPU and CGPU or PPU and SPU), more specialization than that is not likely to work well. It's been tried before, and there's just not enough advantage in more specialization over the two existing ways of doing things to keep the generalized processors from rapidly outracing the specialized ones.

The general argument that the next Xbox is likely 2-3 years away makes perfect sense to me. I don't see the Wii-U having much effect here, because it's not a technological leap over the Xbox 360: it's more or less the same level. (The 360 and PS3 can already do "1080p hardcore gaming" on certain games, and, just as with those two, there will be many games for the Wii-U that will look better in 720p/30fps because there will be more CPU and GPU time for better visual effects.)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Johnathon Swift10 years ago
And competition? Pachter is a notorious loud mouth, 2013 at the latest.

Besides, Frank O'Connor declared the entire Halo 4-5-6 trilogy to be on the 360, which everyone knows isn't true. And since when has Microsoft worried about taking a hit for a long term payoff? Not for well over a decade and they've recently reported record quarters yet again. Gates likes spending that money on investments, and their gaming division is the big earner. Heck we haven't seen hide nor hair of Halo 4, there's no real way to confirm it's on the 360. MS could just as easily pull up to E3 next year and say "Psyche! it's on the 720, launching this september for $299."

The point is, there's no real way to deny that they easily could. There's not a single major game for the end of 2012 that's been confirmed to launch on the 360. That being said, there's still Doom 4 to come out and Fable - The Journey. However, the Journey could launch in the middle of the year and Carmack has stated that Doom 4 is being designed for "next generation" things like tessellation in mind.

Either way, the console WILL come out in 2013 at the latest. With Moore's law being predictable, but how companies get there not it would be sheer insanity to start physically designing the hardware almost 4 years before the thing comes out, and we know that it started very early this year.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 10 years ago
This console generation is looking very tired and Moores Law tells us that technology has moved on a long way.

Microsoft seem to be heading for an integrated policy between Xbox, PC and smartphone, with data held in the cloud. So users can move seamlessly from one platform to the next. And not just for emails.

With this in mind maybe the Nextbox will be powered by a multicore ARM processor and maybe it will dump the hard drive so it can be sold much cheaper. Also Kinect could well be built in, forcing installation up to critical mass.

At launch this could be a lot cheaper than the 360 was at the same stage in the cycle.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 10 years ago
Prediction: 2013 with Halo 4 as a launch title, which would be the best way to insure as many 360 owners jump on board without hesitation. It could be that Halo 4 isn't being made for the 360 after all, as releasing it next year THEN seeing a new console come out would be nuts. Of course, in an alternate reality, 343 has gone and created the first FORWARD compatible game with Halo 4. Pop the 360 game into the new system, tap Select on that controller and *ding!* new graphics!

(OK, it's late and I'm tired, but I DID actually hear someone say that a few days ago at a Gamestop and it made me laugh for a bit)...
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
James Boulton Owner, Retro HQ Ltd10 years ago
Mmmm, new hardware. Think of all the wonderful things we could get running at 60fps on that bit of kit...
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 10 years ago
@James: And think of what will happen if it's rushed to market too soon and all we get are crappy launch titles running at 60fps. Ha ha (but not funny, really). I'm sincerely hoping the new console cycle kicks off RIGHT for a change. There's no excuse for sorry launch software at all, but I'm going to bet we see a few losers shoved out the door before they're fully dressed...
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
So - everyone seems obsessed about specs: what about control? Will the next 360 launch with Kinect (or the next-gen version) default, or even dump the traditional controller completely?

I'm really interested to see what happens if the WiiU strategy pays off: namely, having a decent (touch)screen on your controller actually makes gaming significantly better. Will/can Sony & MS follow suit, or will they stick to the tradional ones? And what about motion controls - MS has Kinect, but what does Sony do about the Move? Try and integrate it into the next default controller, or leave it as is?
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts10 years ago
I cant see this until 2013, commecially 2012 makes no sense, unless they have been sandbagging. still who knows...
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises10 years ago
This is good stuff, more, MORE!!! GIVE ME MORE RUMORS!!!!!! :)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nick Bjhvbkjvh Studying TIGA Diploma in Games Design, Train2Game10 years ago
It would make sense for a 2012 reveal, and a 2013-2014 release. Nintendo announced the Wii U at E3 this year, and it wont be out till 2012 at least. Announcing it doesn't mean it will get released the next day.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Liam Stockley Studying Computer Science, Nottingham Trent University10 years ago
Yep, I just don't see it coming in 2012, especially if it is unveiled at E3 2012. Give it time, other wise we might get hardware faults similar to the 360's.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.