Microsoft calls Project Scorpio -- the company's edgy codename for its revamped, boutique Xbox One due by holiday 2017 -- the "most powerful console ever." And on paper it certainly looks to be. Since it's not a new console but a refresh of an existing one, designed to live squarely in the Xbox One-verse of current-gen content, it's raison d'être can be summed as follows: graphics, graphics, graphics.
Project Scorpio is about delivering native or near-native 4K visuals, in other words, as well as the raw crunch power for whatever angle on virtual reality Microsoft's got cooking. With a zippier central processor and buckets of pixel-chewing horsepower, it's a gaming behemoth, in theory outclassing Sony's own 4K-angled PlayStation 4 Pro by sizable margins. (Read more: PlayStation 4 Pro offers breathtaking graphics, so long as you have a 4K TV.)
Here's everything we know about the new console so far.
Project Scorpio really will be the most powerful console ever
Inside Microsoft's boutique Xbox One lies a custom 8-core "system on a chip," with each core clocked at 2.3 GHz (contrast with PS4 Pro's eight Jaguar cores clocked at 2.1 GHz); 12GB of GDDR5 memory with 320 gigabytes per second of bandwidth, a measure of how fast data can be moved around (contrast with the PS4 Pro's 218 gigabytes per second); a graphics processor capable of hitting 6 teraflops of performance (contrast with the PS4 Pro's respectable but notably lower 4.2 teraflops); and "the whole thing is housed in a compact body with integrated power supply and, for a console, state-of-the-art cooling," reports Digital Foundry.
A quick word about graphical performance in view of PC gaming's ongoing roost-ruling. Yes, Nvidia's flagship GTX 1080 graphics cards range from 9 teraflops to 11 teraflops of graphical compute, but consoles by design are generally able to do more with less than PCs. And even the basic 9 teraflops version of the GTX 1080 starts in the $550-$650 range -- higher, I'd wager, than Project Scorpio's eventual tag. Assuming that's right, 6 teraflops in a set-top console in 2017 is a big deal, at least to the extent buyers care about native (or nearly so) 4K graphics, as well as support for a compelling higher-end virtual reality part.
It's designed to appeal to 1080p and 4K TV owners alike
If you're an existing Xbox One user with no plans to buy a 4K television, but eyeing Scorpio as a way to play existing games with visual and performance perks, the new system appears to check that box, too. Microsoft says Scorpio will, for starters, eliminate frame tearing -- a glitch that can distort a moving image when confronted with underpowered hardware. For older games that support dynamic resolution scaling, Scorpio's raw horsepower should propel them to their maximum resolutions as well, bringing older Xbox One games that had suffered in head-to-head comparisons with the PlayStation 4 up to Sony par, or past it.
Another improvement involves Scorpio's use of hardware-level overrides to make the textures in existing games look better. In short, Scorpio will intercept an older game's lower-fidelity filtering calls, then insert much higher-fidelity ones, improving the overall look of a scene without developers having to lift a finger. What's more, this trick reportedly extends to Xbox 360 games, too.
Load times are also much improved, thanks to the convergence of Scorpio's faster CPU, zippier hard drive and option to access all of the box's 8GB of system memory. (The latter isn't possible in the base Xbox One, which draws the line at 5GB.) And if video streaming's your thing, Microsoft is reportedly aiming to support up to 4K, 60 frames per second capture without performance penalties.
You can buy Project Scorpio by "holiday 2017"
The Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One all launched in November. I assume we'll see either a Microsoft one-off event or June E3 games show unveiling, preorders at that time or shortly thereafter, then an early November launch window. Earlier wouldn't be worse, but the Xbox One S is just out of the cradle, and I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft wants to give its slimline model plenty of 2017 breathing room.
In any event, the official word for now remains "holiday 2017."
Project Scorpio won't be cheap
In a manner of speaking, of course. What's "pricey" or "cheap" or "just right" in a world where many of us happily sign years of our lives away to payments that fund $700-plus smartphones?
You can have an Xbox One S, the revamped slimline model Microsoft released last August, for $299. Microsoft says Project Scorpio will naturally cost more, though it hasn't said by how much. Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro goes for $399, while a standard PlayStation 4 runs $299, so that's the market narrative heading into 2017.
Digital Foundry speculates the price for Microsoft's new Xbox could be $499. If correct, it'll be no instant threat to Sony's PS4 Pro, to say nothing of Nintendo's Switch. Instead, it would perch atop a new boutique tier for a relatively small if passionate subset of console gamers...or, alternatively, crossover PC gamers looking for a budget, all-in-one path to 4K gaming.
If it works with Xbox One, it works with Project Scorpio
This ostensibly includes both games and peripherals, aping Sony's commitment to seamless interoperability of all PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro content and accessories.
That said, two caveats. One, it's not safe to assume a virtual reality headset won't require Project Scorpio, since VR support has been part of the company's public rationale for boosting the Xbox One's performance footprint this substantially. And two, we've seen mixed messaging from Microsoft so far on whether Project Scorpio game (or peripheral) exclusivity is truly verboten.
It's entirely possible, in other words, that Microsoft and/or developers will opt to cordon off certain peripherals and games as "Project Scorpio only." But it's also safe to assume that everything that works with Xbox One will be forward-compatible with Project Scorpio, meaning you'll leave nothing behind if you opt to upgrade.
Project Scorpio's virtual reality solution probably involves third-parties
Microsoft has HoloLens, a prototype for an augmented reality headset that's still in development, but Xbox boss Phil Spencer calls HoloLens an "untethered" experience, telling TIME last summer that "it’s a standalone device that all of the computing power is in the head-mounted display."
Spencer has also said of virtual reality that he sees Scorpio's performance as "very attractive to some of the VR companies that are out there already," adding that Microsoft has "architected it such that something will be able to plug right in and work."
Oculus Rift? HTC Vive? Both? Neither? Whatever the case, talking about "some of the VR companies" isn't the sort of statement you make if you're planning to roll your own solution a la Sony's PlayStation VR. We'll see, but at this point, it sounds like Scorpio may be capable of working much as Windows 10 PCs do with products from VR pioneers like Oculus or HTC/Valve.
Whether that happens in 2017, or 2018, or 2019, if ever, is of course purely speculative.
Update: Coincidentally, just as this piece was going up, Microsoft removed virtual reality from its official Project Scorpio page's list of features. The page, archived here, had previously included the line "The first and only console to enable true 4K gaming and hi-fidelity VR." Its removal doesn't mean VR is off the table, but suggests Microsoft may be hedging against support versus lack thereof at launch.
It's for gamers who don't already have a high-end Windows 10 PC
Here's the theory: Microsoft's first party Xbox games are now being designed to work on both Xbox and Windows 10 platforms. If you already have a Windows 10 PC capable of crunching 4K or VR headset visuals, therefore, Project Scorpio loses much of its allure. If you can play franchises like Forza and Gears of War and Halo at 4K on the computer you already own, why add a second box to the equation, especially if you're looking to broaden your horizons with another console's exclusives, be it a PlayStation 4 or Nintendo Switch?
According to this theory, Project Scorpio is after the sort of gamer looking to get into 4K without spending $1,000 or more on a high-end computer. And remember that 4K televisions, though they've come down a bit in price lately, are still pretty pricey. Even were Project Scorpio to hit the PS4 Pro's $400 price point, the price of a decent sized, decently outfitted 4K TV can still easily be upwards of $1,000.
It's an interesting conundrum that's arguably a perk, because Microsoft gets a piece of your wallet (Xbox games and services) either way.
Project Scorpio is in production now
Phil Spencer confirmed as much on Twitter last August:
Project Scorpio is another vote for the end of console generations
You could argue Sony voted first with PS4 Pro last year, even if PlayStation 4 architect Marc Cerny said (during PS4 Pro's public unveiling) that it's neither the start of a new generation nor a blurring of the current one.
But Microsoft Xbox marketing honcho Aaron Greenberg added this to the conversation with unalloyed candor: "We think the future is without console generations," he told Engadget in August last year.
How companies vote matters, but how we vote matters more, so it's best to view all of this as an experiment in both predicting and shifting consumer behavior.