Teardown: Microsoft Xbox Series X
Image credit: Microsoft
The Microsoft Xbox Series X: a heat sink with a gaming console attached?
Gaming reviewers praised the technology inside the Xbox Series X on its launch in November. In one way or another, most then posed this question: would consumers embrace a games console that seemed to have future-proofing as its main initial sales pitch rather than a raft of new, cutting-edge titles and services?
The answer so far appears to be: ‘Yes’. If you have managed to acquire a Series X, well done. If not, new stocks should be arriving in stores and online as you read this, but be careful that you do not pick up a nasty repetitive strain injury from hitting the ‘F5’ key.
Much of the early voracity shown for Series X consoles (and, for that matter, PlayStation 5s) can be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic. It has led to a spike in consumer spending on all forms of home entertainment. Moreover, and especially relevant for these consoles, that trend has already led to significant sales of the 4k-resolution, HDMI 2.1-compliant displays that show them off as best as currently possible.
None of this means that the technological muscle housed within the Series X can be seriously discounted. It is a heck of a machine. But the soil for its arrival has perhaps proved more fertile than it would have been in ‘normal’ times.
Whatever does ultimately emerge about consumer buying patterns for the Series X, it is, as noted earlier, a console that has been designed within its Velocity Architecture to have a longer shelf-life. It also reflects the belief in some quarters that consoles are reaching a technological limit, even as richer AR and VR possibilities are touted as well as the greater use of AI.
For the engine room, Microsoft has opted for custom CPU and GPU implementations from the resurgent engineering team at AMD. The CPU is an eight-core Zen2 x86-64 running at 3.8GHz (3.66GHz with simultaneous multi-threading on).
The GPU is a 1.825GHz RDNA 2 capable of 12 teraflops in operations (twice the previous Xbox generation) and has 52 compute units. The GPU aims to unlock the potential in emerging, high-end graphics options such as proprietary raytracing, mesh shaders, sampler feedback and variable rate shading.
There is a huge 16GB block of graphics RAM on which this powerful specification sits.
In performance terms, the Series X is, for example, not merely ready for 4k at a 120Hz refresh rate, but for the incoming 8k-resolution at 60Hz. As well as the latest games, it can therefore handle any form of packaged, streamed or downloadable media available now or in the near future, including UHD Blu-Ray Disc. It also already has Dolby Vision, a further technology aimed at enhancing image playback and fidelity.
A 1TB SSD is on board and there is an available 1TB expansion slot. These specifications would not shame a desktop PC (something the minimalist industrial design of the Series X echoes), and help to put the console’s £450 price tag into context.
Nevertheless, there are only a few launch titles, among the highest profile ones being ‘Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’ and ‘Watch Dogs: Legion’, and neither of these is platform exclusive. Instead, Microsoft is putting a good deal of marketing effort behind optimisation. Its pitch stretches from the far faster loading times for Series X to upgrades that have been made to a series of titles (including those to which users may already subscribe online).
There has always been an “if you build it, they will come” feeling to the arrival of each new generation of console, even where their parents subsidised titles and offered wide and deep developer platforms. It is hard to disagree, though, with reviewers who see the launch line-up as thinner than usual for this fourth iteration of the Xbox. Nevertheless, demand is far outstripping supply.
What does all this ambition mean for the design? The iFixit team that dug inside a Series X came away with the impression of having met a design that was “cool” in more senses than one. “This may be Microsoft’s ultimate gaming machine, but by volume it almost feels like an air conditioner with a graphics card,” they observe.
Certainly there is an awful lot of processing to keep cool – drawing on a comparatively large 315W from the primary rail and peripheral power supplies – and Microsoft has gone to great lengths to do that safely.
There is, as you would expect, a large 130mm fan, with grilles on the side and the top. The two motherboards are then housed separately and separated within an array of sinks and other features. It is easiest here to compare iFixit’s description with the image opposite of this ‘cool cookie sandwich’.
On the left: Fins pull heat from the copper vapour chamber to be wicked away by cool air, pulled in through the bottom of the console by the fan.
Next up – along with the copper plate, this metal frame acts as an EM shield. It also transfers heat away from the hot-tempered voltage regulator modules via thermal pad.
The ‘CCS’ (that’s ‘Centre Chassis’) provides rigidity, aids in shielding, sinks heat, and maximises board cooling.
Finally, on the far right, a Faraday-cage-like EM shield protects the other motherboard while allowing air to cycle through.
The resulting console has a smaller footprint than the One X, but is 60 per cent larger by volume.
At the same time, iFixit rates the Series X at 7 out of 10 for repairability, with the caveat that software features will make some fixes difficult. While much of the design is necessarily custom, there are a good number of modular parts that are susceptible to failure, such as the fan, power supply and the optical drive (the last of these being a carry-over from earlier generations of Xbox).
Basically, you want one, don’t you? Given its muscle and price, the Xbox Series X does look amortisable over a very fair time.
Key components: Xbox Series X
1. Optical drive
2. Main housing and grille
4. Heat sink (fins/thermal compound/copper vapour chamber)
5. Heat sink (centre chassis)
6. Motherboard and module
7. Antenna array
8. Heat sink (EM shield)
9. Power supply
12. Motherboard (main SoC)<''>Motherboard
13. Power phase modules, Monolithic Power Systems
14. Project Scarlett CPU/GPU SoC, AMD
15. Graphics RAM, Micron
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