GDC 15: Microsoft Announces Wireless Xbox Dongle for PC. Controller Refresh Rumored for E3?

Subject: General Tech, Shows and Expos | March 6, 2015 - 03:57 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, xbox, microsoft, gdc 15, GDC, controller

During his keynote speech, Phil Spencer of Microsoft announced a wireless adapter for PC. It can apparently be used to connect any wireless Xbox One peripheral on Windows 10. If you watch the presentation, the statement occurred at about 36 minutes and 30 seconds in. It was just a brief acknowledgement of its existence this year.

Microsoft-Xbox_360_Wireless_Receiver.png

This is the Xbox 360 wireless accessory adapter. Image Credit: Wikipedia
Hopefully the new one will be a stick that pairs via software (vs. the cord and button).

A similar device existed for the Xbox 360, pictured above, and I used it heavily with controller-friendly games (until the adapter died abruptly). I was not a fan of the directional pad, of course, but the rest of the controller suited the games that I play without a mouse and keyboard. I also used the adapter with the Xbox 360 wireless headset, which was surprisingly good (especially at removing speaker noise).

On the same day, Neowin acquired a leak that claims the company is looking to create a new Xbox One controller. They expect that, if the project doesn't get killed internally, we will see the new controller at E3 2015 in June. The design is supposed to focus on first person shooters and driving titles, but nothing else is known about it. We'll see.

Manufacturer: Microsoft

Introducing Windows 10 (Again)

I did not exactly make too many unsafe predictions, but let's recap the Windows 10 Consumer announcement anyway. The briefing was a bit on the slow side, at least if you are used to E3 keynotes, but it contained a fair amount of useful information. Some of the things discussed are future-oriented, but some will arrive soon. So let's get right into it.

Price and Upgrade Options

Microsoft has not announced an official price for Windows 10, if the intent is to install it on a new PC. If you are attempting to upgrade a machine that currently runs Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, then that will be a free upgrade if done within the first year. Windows Phone 8.1 users are also eligible for a no-cost upgrade to Windows 10 if done in the first year.

microsoft-windows10-consumer-keynote-01.jpg

Quote Terry Myerson of Microsoft, “Once a device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will be keeping it current for the supported lifetime of the device.” This is not elaborated on, but it seems like a weird statement given what we have traditionally expected from Windows. One possible explanation is that Microsoft intends for Windows to be a subscription service going forward, which would be the most obvious extension of “Windows as a Service”. On the other hand, they could be going for the per-device revenue option with Bing, Windows Store, and other initiatives being long tail. If so, I am a bit confused about what constitutes a new device for systems that are regularly upgraded, like what our readers are typically interested in. All of that will eventually be made clear, but not yet.

A New Build for Windows 10

Late in the keynote, Microsoft announced the availability of new preview builds for Windows 10. This time, users of Windows Phone 8.1 will also be able to see the work in progress. PC “Insiders” will get access to their build “in the next week” and phones will get access “in Feburary”. Ars Technica seems to believe that this is scheduled for Sunday, February 1st, which is a really weird time to release a build but their source might be right.

microsoft-windows10-consumer-keynote-02.jpg

We don't know exactly what will be in it, though. In my predictions, I guessed that a DirectX 12 SDK might be available (or at least some demos) in the next build. That has not been mentioned, which probably would have been if it were true. I expect the next possibility (if we're not surprised in the next one-to-ten days when the build drops) is Game Developers Conference (GDC 2015), which starts on March 2nd.

The New Web Browser: Project Spartan

My guess was that Spartan would be based on DirectX 12. Joe Belfiore said that it is using a new, standards-compliant rendering engine and basically nothing more. The event focused on specific features. The first is note taking, which basically turns the web browser into a telestrator that can also accept keyboard comment blocks. The second is a reading mode that alters content into a Microsoft Word-like column. The third is “reading lists”, which is basically a “read it later” feature that does offline caching. The fourth is Adobe PDF support, which works with the other features of Spartan such as note taking and reading lists.

Which Transitions Into Cortana

The fifth feature of Spartan is Cortana integration, which will provide auto-suggestions based on the information that the assistant software has. The example they provided was auto-suggesting the website for his wife's flight. Surprisingly, when you attempt to control a Spartan, Cortana does not say “There's two of us in here now, remember?” You know, in an attempt to let you know she's service that's integrated into the browser.

microsoft-windows10-consumer-keynote-03.jpg

Otherwise, it's an interesting demo. I might even end up using it when it comes out, but these sorts of things do not really interest me too much. We have been at the point where, for my usage, the operating system is really not in the way anymore. It feels like there is very little friction between me and getting what I want done, done. Of course, people felt that way about rotary phones until touch-tone came out, and I keep an open mind to better methods. It's just hard to get me excited about voice-activated digital assistants.

Gaming Features

As I stated before, DirectX 12 was mentioned but a release date was not confirmed. What they did mention was a bit of relative performance. DirectX 12 supposedly uses about half of the power consumption of DirectX 11, which is particularly great for mobile applications. It can also handle scenes with many more objects. A FutureMark demo was displayed, with the DirectX 11 version alongside a DirectX 12 version. The models seem fairly simple, but the DirectX 12 version appears to running at over 100 FPS when the DirectX 11 version outright fails.

microsoft-windows10-consumer-keynote-04.jpg

Other gaming features were mentioned. First, Windows 10 will allow shadow recording the last 30 seconds of footage from any game. You might think that NVIDIA would be upset about that, and they might be, but that is significantly less time than ShadowPlay or other recording methods. Second, Xbox One will be able to stream gameplay to any PC in your house. I expect this is the opposite direction than what people hope for, rather wishing for high-quality PC footage to be easily streamed to TVs with a simple interface. It will probably serve a purpose for some use case, though.

In Summary

Well that was a pretty long event, clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours. The end had a surprise announcement of an augmented reality (not virtual reality) headset, called the “HoloLens”, which is developed by the Kinect team. I am deliberately not elaborating on it because I was not at the event and I have not tried it. I will say that the most interesting part about it, for me, is the Skype integration, because that probably hints at Microsoft's intentions with the product.

microsoft-windows10-consumer-keynote-05.jpg

For the rest of us, it touched on a number of interesting features but, like the Enterprise event, did not really dive in. It would have been nice to get some technical details about DirectX 12, but that obviously does not cater to the intended audience. Unless an upcoming build soft-launches a DirectX 12 preview (or Spartan) so that we can do our own discovery, we will probably need to wait until GDC and/or BUILD to find out more.

Until then, you could watch the on-demand version at Microsoft's website.

Podcast #324 - Civilization: Beyond Earth, Consoles Performance Issues, Samsung SSD updates and more

Subject: General Tech | October 30, 2014 - 02:10 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, video, steiger dynamics, ps4, podcast, nvidia, Mantle, LIVA, Intel, ECS, Broadwell-E, amd, Alienware 13

PC Perspective Podcast #324 - 10/30/2014

Join us this week as we discuss Civilization: Beyond Earth Performance, Consoles Performance Issues, Samsung SSD updates and more!

You can subscribe to us through iTunes and you can still access it directly through the RSS page HERE.

The URL for the podcast is: http://pcper.com/podcast - Share with your friends!

  • iTunes - Subscribe to the podcast directly through the iTunes Store
  • RSS - Subscribe through your regular RSS reader
  • MP3 - Direct download link to the MP3 file

Hosts: Ryan Shrout, Jeremy Hellstrom, Josh Walrath, and Allyn Malventano

Subscribe to the PC Perspective YouTube Channel for more videos, reviews and podcasts!!

Sony PS4 and Microsoft Xbox One Already Hitting a Performance Wall

Subject: General Tech, Graphics Cards | October 27, 2014 - 04:50 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, sony, ps4, playstation 4, microsoft, amd

A couple of weeks back a developer on Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity was quoted that the team had decided to run both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 variants of the game at 1600x900 resolution "to avoid all the debates and stuff." Of course, the Internet exploded in a collection of theories about why that would be the case: were they paid off by Microsoft?

For those of us that focus more on the world of PC gaming, however, the following week an email into the Giantbomb.com weekly podcast from an anonymous (but seemingly reliable) developer on the Unity team raised even more interesting material. In this email, despite addressing other issues on the value of pixel count and the stunning visuals of the game, the developer asserted that we may have already peaked on the graphical compute capability of these two new gaming consoles. Here is a portion of the information:

The PS4 couldn’t do 1080p 30fps for our game, whatever people, or Sony and Microsoft say. ...With all the concessions from Microsoft, backing out of CPU reservations not once, but twice, you’re looking at about a 1-2 FPS difference between the two consoles.

What's hard is not getting the game to render but getting everything else in the game at the same level of performance we designed from the start for the graphics. By the amount of content and NPCs in the game, from someone who witnessed a lot of optimizations for games from Ubisoft in the past, this is crazily optimized for such a young generation of consoles. This is really about to define the next-generation unlike any other game beforehand.

We are bound from the CPU because of AI. Around 50% of the CPU is used for the pre-packaged rendering parts..

unity1.jpg

So, if we take this anonymous developers information as true, and this whole story is based on that assumption, then have learned some interesting things.

  1. The PS4, the more graphically powerful of the two very similarly designed consoles, was not able to maintain a 30 FPS target when rendering at 1920x1080 resolution with Assassin's Creed Unity.
     
  2. The Xbox One (after giving developers access to more compute cycles previously reserved to Kinect) is within a 1-2 FPS mark of the PS4.
     
  3. The Ubisoft team see Unity as being "crazily optimized" for the architecture and consoles even as we just now approach the 1 year anniversary of their release.
     
  4. Half of the CPU compute time is being used to help the rendering engine by unpacking pre-baked lighting models for the global illumination implementation and thus the game is being limited by the 50% remaining performance power the AI, etc.

It would appear that just as many in the media declared when the specifications for the new consoles were announced, the hardware inside the Playstation 4 and Xbox One undershoots the needs of game developers to truly build "next-generation" games. If, as this developer states, we are less than a year into the life cycle of hardware that was planned for an 8-10 year window and we have reached performance limits, that's a bad sign for game developers that really want to create exciting gaming worlds. Keep in mind that this time around the hardware isn't custom built cores or using a Cell architecture - we are talking about very basic x86 cores and traditional GPU hardware that ALL software developers are intimately familiar with. It does not surprise me one bit that we have seen more advanced development teams hit peak performance.

unity2.jpg

If the PS4, the slightly more powerful console of the pair, is unable to render reliably at 1080p with a 30 FPS target, then unless the Ubisoft team are completely off the rocker in terms of development capability, the advancement of gaming on consoles would appear to be somewhat limited. Remember the specifications for these two consoles:

  PlayStation 4 Xbox One
Processor 8-core Jaguar APU 8-core Jaguar APU
Motherboard Custom Custom
Memory 8GB GDDR5 8GB DDR3
Graphics Card 1152 Stream Unit APU 768 Stream Unit APU
Peak Compute 1,840 GFLOPS 1,310 GFLOPS

The custom built parts from AMD both feature an 8-core Jaguar x86 architecture and either 768 or 1152 stream processors. The Jaguar CPU cores aren't high performance parts: single-threaded performance of Jaguar is less than the Intel Silvermont/Bay Trail designs by as much as 25%. Bay Trail is powering lots of super low cost tablets today and even the $179 ECS LIVA palm-sized mini-PC we reviewed this week. And the 1152/768 stream processors in the GPU portion of the AMD APU provide some punch, but a Radeon HD 7790 (now called the R7 260X), released in March of 2013, provides more performance than the PS4 and the Radeon R7 250X is faster than what resides in the Xbox One.

xboxonegpu.jpg

If you were to ask me today what kind of performance would be required from AMD's current GPU lineup for a steady 1080p gaming experience on the PC, I would probably tell you the R9 280, a card you can buy today for around $180. From NVIDIA, I would likely pick a GTX 760 (around $200).

Also note that if the developer is using 50% of the CPU resources for rendering computation and the remaining 50% isn't able to hold up its duties on AI, etc., we likely have hit performance walls on the x86 cores as well.

Even if this developer quote is 100% correct that doesn't mean that the current generation of consoles is completely doomed. Microsoft has already stated that DirectX 12, focused on performance efficiency of current generation hardware, will be coming to the Xbox One and that could mean additional performance gains for developers. The PS4 will likely have access to OpenGL Next that is due in the future. And of course, it's also possible that this developer is just wrong and there is plenty of headroom left in the hardware for games to take advantage of.

unity3.jpg

But honestly, based on my experience with these GPU and CPU cores, I don't think that's the case. If you look at screenshots of Assassin's Creed Unity and then look at the minimum and recommended specifications for the game on the PC, there is huge, enormous discrepancy. Are the developers just writing lazy code and not truly optimizing for the hardware? It seems unlikely that a company the size of Ubisoft would choose this route on purpose, creating a console game that runs in a less-than-ideal state while also struggling on the PC version. Remember, there is almost no "porting" going on here: the Xbox One and Playstation 4 share the same architecture as the PC now.

Of course, we might just be treading through known waters. I know we are a bit biased, and so is our reader base, but I am curious: do you think MS and Sony have put themselves in a hole with their shortsighted hardware selections?

UPDATE: It would appear that a lot of readers and commentors take our editorial on the state of the PS4 and XB1 as a direct attack on AMD and its APU design. That isn't really the case - regardless of what vendors' hardware is inside the consoles, had Microsoft and Sony still targeted the same performance levels, we would be in the exact same situation. An Intel + NVIDIA hardware combination could just have easily been built to the same peak theoretical compute levels and would have hit the same performance wall just as quickly. MS and Sony could have prevented this by using higher performance hardware, selling the consoles at a loss out the gate and preparing each platform for the next 7-10 years properly. And again, the console manufacturers could have done that with higher end AMD hardware, Intel hardware or NVIDIA hardware. The state of the console performance war is truly hardware agnostic.

Microsoft Announces Wired Xbox One Controller for Windows

Subject: General Tech, Cases and Cooling | September 17, 2014 - 03:55 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, xbox, xbone, xbox one, controller, gamepad

A few months ago, Microsoft released 32- and 64-bit drivers for their Xbox One controller on Windows 7 and Windows 8. This was for wireless controllers attached by micro-USB to a PC. Now, Microsoft announced a new controller for Windows: the same controller, only bundled with the required cable. In fact, it can still connect wirelessly... to an Xbox One, not a PC.

xbox-one-controller-pc.jpg

The bundle will cost $59.95 (MSRP) and be available starting in November. As far as I can tell, the PC cannot update the Xbox One Controller's firmware; for that, you apparently need an Xbox One handy. It is possible that Microsoft will implement this, or already has and no-one is talking about it, but you might want to hold off until we know for a fact. One update adjusts analog stick sensitivity; this could be important, especially if you have multiple controllers at different patch levels. Yes, some PC games allow local multiplayer.

Microsoft Allows Developer Use of Kinect-Reserved Shaders

Subject: General Tech | June 7, 2014 - 04:32 AM |
Tagged: microsoft, xbox one, xbone, gpgpu, GCN

Shortly after the Kinect deprecation, Microsoft has announced that a 10% boost in GPU performance will be coming to Xbox One. This, of course, is the platform allowing developers to avoid the typical overhead which Kinect requires for its various tasks. Updated software will allow game developers to regain some or all of that compute time back.

xbox-one-front.png

Still looks like Wall-E grew a Freddie Mercury 'stache.

While it "might" (who am I kidding?) be used to berate Microsoft for ever forcing the Kinect upon users in the first place, this functionality was planned from before launch. Pre-launch interviews stated that Microsoft was looking into scheduling their compute tasks while the game was busy, for example, hammering the ROPs and leaving the shader cores idle. This could be that, and only that, or it could be a bit more if developers are allowed to opt out of most or all Kinect computations altogether.

The theoretical maximum GPU compute and shader performance of the Xbox One GPU is still about 29% less than its competitor, the PS4. Still, 29% less is better than about 36% less. Not only that, but the final result will always come down to the amount of care and attention spent on any given title by its developers. This will give them more breathing room, though.

Then, of course, the PC has about 3x the shader performance of either of those systems in a few single-GPU products. Everything should be seen in perspective.

Source: Eurogamer

(IHS) New Consoles Not Nearly As Expensive As Last Time

Subject: General Tech, Systems | November 27, 2013 - 12:18 AM |
Tagged: xbox one, ps4, IHS

Parts and labor costs have surfaced for the Xbox One and Playstation 4. Last time around, both Microsoft and Sony were bleeding over a hundred dollars each time a console was produced and sold before you even consider research, development, support, and so forth. This time, both are fluttering around the break-even point.

Console fans commonly say, "You cannot build an equivalent gaming PC for what I can get a console for." My response has been, "Correct and neither can Sony or Microsoft; they are bleeding to gouge you later. Add up those license fees and PC gaming is often cheaper." That may change.

PS4-01.png

Easier for developers... and their CFO.

Also, check out our teardowns (and reassembly!!!) of the PS4 and the Xbox One.

While it has not changed that PC gaming can still be cheaper, because it has less middlemen demanding license fees, the consoles might not be losing as much money. Last week, IHS iSuppli inventoried the Playstation 4 and determined that it costs Sony around $381 USD for every $399 console they sell. The Xbox One has also had its turn: $471 USD for the $499 device.

Update #1 (12/4/2013): IHS Electronics 360 contacted me about their full iSuppli teardown report and video for the PS4 (also the Xbox One, but that was not mentioned in their email).

This may seem a lot, but the $499 launch PS3 (20GB) cost Sony $805.85 in parts and labor. The Xbox 360 was less devastating for Microsoft at a cost of $525 for their $399 console. None of these fees include research, development, support, store markup (if they are allowed any), etc.

The last generation of consoles, despite its length, may or may not have delivered any profit for either party. The recent several quarters of profits are easily offset by many more of losses. I expect that neither company is interested in repeating the last generation. It hurt.

But the consoles, despite being cheaper than last time, could still have a reasonable lifespan. A large chunk of the original PS3 bill of materials was the hardware "Emotion Engine" (most links are broken by now but I believe it was about as much per chip as the Cell processor). The consoles are now based upon commodity PC hardware. They can finally take advantage of the competition between other companies to focus their research and development costs on the platform itself.

Source: iSuppli

Video: How to Build a Gaming PC: OS Install, Steam Setup

Subject: General Tech, Systems | November 25, 2013 - 01:35 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, video, r9 270x, ps4, playstation 4, fx 6300, amd, 200r

Over the past week or so, we have been slowly putting together a guide to help interested readers select, build and now install everything necessary to build the perfect PC to compete against the new console generation.  

In the first part, Josh and I discussed the new console architectures and how they were similar, and different, from modern PC gaming systems.  We also discussed a couple of specific build outs that we thought were price competitive with the Xbox One and the PS4 while also offering quite a bit more performance and flexibility for the user.  

  Gaming Build PlayStation 4 Xbox One
Processor AMD FX-6300 6-core CPU - $109 8-core Jaguar APU 8-core Jaguar APU
Motherboard MSI 970A-G43 AM3+ - $59 Custom Custom
Memory Corsair Vengeance LP 8GB 1866 MHz (2 x 4GB) - $80 8GB GDDR5 8GB DDR3
Graphics Card Gigabyte Radeon R9 270X 2GB - $199 1152 Stream Unit APU 768 Stream Unit APU
Storage Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200 RPM HDD - $64 500GB 5400 RPM 500GB
Case Corsair 200R ATX Mid Tower Case - $59 Custom Custom
Power Supply Corsair CX 600 watt 80+ Bronze - $69 Internal External
Optical Drive Pioneer Blu-ray Reader - $49 Blu-ray Blu-ray
OS Windows 8.1 OEM - $98 Custom, FreeBSD Custom, Windows
Peak Compute 2,690 GFLOPS 1,840 GFLOPS 1,270 GFLOPS
Total Price $780 - Amazon $399 - Amazon $499 - Amazon

In part 2, we recorded a video of me actually assembling the parts (or nearly the same parts) in the build to show users that might be intimidated by the process exactly how easy it is to build a PC from scratch.

Today, we finalize our journey with the installation of the operating system, setup of the Steam gaming platform and even how easy it is to run the PC when attached to a TV.  

After briefly discussing the BIOS and UEFI on the motherboard, installing Windows 8.1 and then running the latest Steam client on the new PC, a brief demonstration of Metro: Last Light running in Big Picture Mode takes place.  With that we can demonstrate the power of the PC and the flexibility it truly offers over even the latest consoles.

I hope this set of videos has been useful for our readers that might have been interested in the idea of a gaming PC but were worried or unsure of their own ability to get the job done.  I think we have demonstrated that the entire process is easy, fun and rewarding - and can be done in a single afternoon as long as you order the right parts. 

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or feedback - and happy building!!

osintall.jpg

Xbox One Teardown - Microsoft still hates you

Subject: General Tech, Systems | November 22, 2013 - 08:02 PM |
Tagged: video, teardown, xbox one, APU, amd, xbox, xb1

Last week we brought a teardown of the new Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4) console and this week we do the same for Microsoft's new Xbox One console. 

In this video, which is a recording of our live stream that started last night at 12:30am EST, you'll see us unbox the Xbox One, turn it on, play with the new Kinect, take it apart and put it back together.  And this time we didn't even break anything - though removing the plastic clips on the Xbox One are particularly more annoying and time consuming than the screws on the PS4.

xboxmb.jpg

Though they are out of stock, Amazon.com appears to be getting additional Xbox One consoles in stock pretty regularly, so keep an eye out.

Video: How to Build a Gaming PC to Beat the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

Subject: General Tech, Systems | November 22, 2013 - 07:45 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, video, r9 270x, ps4, playstation 4, fx 6300, amd, 200r

After Josh and I discussed and debated which components would be best suited for a low cost gaming PC to compete with the Sony PS4 and Microsoft Xbox One, Ken and I set about to create a video to show those users nervous about the idea of building a PC how easy it can be. 

Though Josh and I built systems at $550 and $750 price tags that compare to the new gaming consoles in different ways, for this build I thought it was best to focus on the higher performance, though higher priced option, detailed below.

  Gaming Build PlayStation 4 Xbox One
Processor AMD FX-6300 6-core CPU - $109 8-core Jaguar APU 8-core Jaguar APU
Motherboard MSI 970A-G43 AM3+ - $59 Custom Custom
Memory Corsair Vengeance LP 8GB 1866 MHz (2 x 4GB) - $80 8GB GDDR5 8GB DDR3
Graphics Card AMD Radeon R9 270X 2GB - $209
(Alternate: ASUS GTX 760 - $259)
1152 Stream Unit APU 768 Stream Unit APU
Storage Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200 RPM HDD - $64 500GB 5400 RPM 500GB
Case Corsair 200R ATX Mid Tower Case - $59 Custom Custom
Power Supply Corsair CX 600 watt 80+ Bronze - $69 Internal External
Optical Drive Pioneer Blu-ray Reader - $49 Blu-ray Blu-ray
OS Windows 8.1 OEM - $98 Custom, FreeBSD Custom, Windows
Peak Compute 2,690 GFLOPS 1,840 GFLOPS 1,270 GFLOPS
Total Price $790 - Amazon Full Cart $399 - Amazon $499 - Amazon

The links above will take you to the Amazon pages if you want duplicate our setup for a system of your own. 

If you have never built a PC before, gaming or otherwise, it can be a little intimidating to see the list of parts you need to order.  But don't fear!  The build process is surprisingly easy if you pick the right parts and have the right help.  The video below will detail the exact installation process for the components listed above (or close proximity thereof) to get you up and running! 

If you happen to have missed the video where Josh and I discuss the REASONS for selecting the above hardware, I have included it below as well.  Stay tuned in the next day or so for our video that shows the operating system installation process, Steam installation, gaming and Big Picture Mode.