E3 2019: what we know, and don’t know about Xbox Scarlett

Microsoft finally shared the first details about its next-gen console at E3 2019, which is codenamed Project Scarlett. Just like Sony’s PlayStation 5, Scarlett will come with a fast SSD and support 8K graphics, though we probably won’t have the full list of specs for both consoles for a couple of months.

In case you missed the reveal video, Microsoft said that Project Scarlett will come with a custom-designed processor leveraging AMD’s Zen 2 architecture, high bandwidth GDDR6 RAM, and its next-gen SSD should deliver more than 40x times performance increases over the current generation.

Among other highlights, Microsoft mentioned support for up to 120FPS in games, variable refresh rate, and hardware-accelerated ray-tracing. Overall, Microsoft says that Project Scarlett should be four times more powerful than the Xbox One X and its six teraflops of computing power, and this should represent a much more significant shift compared to the transition from 7th gen to 8th gen consoles.

If Google Stadia will be the first next-gen gaming platform to launch this November, it seems that both Project Scarlett and the PlayStation 5 will surpass it in terms of pure performance. At launch, Stadia will deliver 10 teraflops of computing power and make all games playable at 60FPS in 4K (if you have a fast internet connection), but Google will certainly improve Stadia’s performance over time to catch up with next-gen consoles.

This is also something that Microsoft plans to do with its Project xCloud game streaming service, with Microsoft replacing the ageing Xbox One S consoles in server blades with the much more powerful Project Scarlett hardware. “Project Scarlett and all of its power and all of its performance is the foundation of our future in console and the formation of our future in cloud,” Xbox head Phil Spencer said earlier this week.

After Sony announced that its PlayStation 5 will be backwards compatible with all PlayStation 4 games, Microsoft announced something even better for Project Scarlett: the new hardware will be able to play games from all three past generations of Xbox consoles, it will also come with a disc drive and support existing Xbox One accessories.

“We definitely want to make sure that we were compatible across all the generations, not just with the games but with the accessories. Obviously Xbox Live will continue, and you are who you are across the whole ecosytem. It’s really us respecting the purchases that our gamers have made on our platform,” explained Xbox head Phil Spencer during yesterday’s Inside Xbox episode.

The fact that existing accessories including Xbox One controllers will work on Project Scarlett is pretty big news. As you may know, Microsoft ignored Bluetooth on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, choosing to create its own Xbox Wireless protocol instead. All controllers released after the Xbox One S also support Bluetooth in addition to the Xbox Wireless protocol, and Microsoft also added Bluetooth support to its new Xbox Wireless Elite Controller Series 2.

This new Elite controller is the first model to use an USB-C port instead of the older micro-USB port, and it also comes with a built-in battery delivering up to 40 hours of battery life. It’s still not clear if Project Scarlett will come with a brand new controller, but there’s a high probability that it will.

Around the release of the Xbox One back in 2013, we learned that Microsoft had spent over $100 million to create the Xbox One controller. During the development process, the company experimented with integrated displays and scent-emitters, features that were ultimately scrapped.

The Xbox One controller remains one of the best options on the market these days, but Microsoft may well need take some inspiration from the competition. Sony’s PS4 controller has a button dedicated to game captures and streaming, while the Google Stadia controller added another button to summon the Google Assistant during gameplay.

Can Microsoft create something better than the new Xbox Elite controller?

If an improved controller with USB-C port is highly likely, we also expect some changes on the connectivity front. We hope that the console will support Bluetooth accessories, but we’re also wondering if Microsoft will keep the HDMI in port to connect other devices, including set top boxes. Microsoft made quite a big deal of this HDMI passthrough feature ahead of the Xbox One launch, but this may no longer be seen as a killer feature for most Xbox One owners.

After Microsoft received lots of criticism for focusing too much on multimedia feature with the original Xbox One, Project Scarlett appears to be a comeback to a pure gaming console with all the bells and whistles hardcore Xbox fans expect. Previous reports suggested that Project Scarlett would be accompanied by a cheaper “Lockhart” SKU, but Microsoft didn’t mention this second console at all during E3 2019. It remains to be seen if Microsoft will reiterate the current two consoles approach with the Xbox One S and Xbox One X, but these days the company seems to be all about offering more choice to games. That’s why we now have Xbox Game Pass on PC, and why the company is also working on Project xCloud.

Project Scarlett already looks like an incredibly powerful console, but raw power may no longer be the killer feature in the console market. The underpowered Nintendo Switch has been enjoying some real momentum since launch, with many third-party developers porting their AAA games on the system. But as Xbox head Phil Spencer reiterated in a recent interview with The Verge, Microsoft is no longer obsessed about selling the most Xbox units.

“The business isn’t how many consoles you sell. The business is how many players are playing the games that they buy, how they play. So if somebody bought an original Xbox One from us on launch day, and they’re buying and playing games, I don’t need to sell them an S. I don’t need to sell them an X. If they want to stay on the Xbox One they have and stay as a great member of our community or subscribe to Game Pass, that’s a great business for us.”

This is exactly why Microsoft stopped reporting Xbox One sales years ago, choosing to focus on Xbox Live engagement instead. Microsoft certainly isn’t the only company to prefer selling services instead of making razor-thin margins on hardware, but that doesn’t mean Project Scarlett could be the last Xbox console for Microsoft. “I think for years and years the best way to play a game on a console will be to download that game and play it,” Spencer said after Microsoft announced Project xCloud last Fall.

Microsoft didn’t spend a lot of time discussing Project Scarlett and Project xCloud during its E3 press briefing this year, but there were some xCloud hands-on session ahead of the first public trials in October. Project Scarlett won’t be released until 2020, and we the Redmond giant may well reveal the final design at E3 next year ahead of an holiday 2020 launch. That should give the company plenty of time to complete work on backwards compatibility, and prepare an excellent line-up of launch titles beyond the much-anticipated Halo: Infinite.

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