Opinion: How a modular Xbox One "Elite" changes the game

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There's new consoles being announced this year, most likely three of them. Nintendo is quite open about the existence of their next-generation console, publications around the world have seen documents regarding Sony's work on a 4K-capable PlayStation 4, and the head of Xbox has spoke of "more hardware innovation in the console space than we've ever seen." 

Consoles are constantly striving for the best performance they can offer at sensible price points for the consumer. PCs have always offered the peak experience for those who are willing to invest in high-end hardware as they can be upgraded with individual components, whereas consoles are locked at the beginning of each generation. 

In a post earlier this week, we discussed why Sony and Microsoft are due to launch new consoles early in their cycle. To summarise, 4K and VR are the biggest reasons. There's also the lurking threat of Nintendo, whose upcoming console is rumoured to be substantially more powerful than both the current PlayStation and Xbox. 

To launch a console now and cut support for gamers who've invested their money in the current consoles would cause a major backlash. In the documents which detail Sony's next console, the company has put in strict policies that games must support the current PS4 but can offer enhanced versions for the new console similar to how PC games have a variety of graphics settings for supporting different levels of hardware. 

Microsoft knows PC 

Nobody knows the PC market like Microsoft, and the company has been pushing the idea that Xbox is essentially a Windows 10 PC and will soon be able to run applications built for it. This extends to games, particularly with DirectX 12 now offering a shared graphics API which means game developers can deploy their game across Xbox and PC with much less difficulty. 

Most games for consoles will come to PC, even Sony's console exclusives like No Man's Sky. A lot of these games will already have various graphic levels built-in, so it makes little sense not to open them up to Xbox gamers as well if the UWP (Universal Windows Platform) makes it simple.  

Consumers have the benefit of accessing their purchased games on both Windows and Xbox automatically whilst having their save files synced between platforms to continue their progress, and being able to access the advanced features of Xbox Live including dedicated servers and the new ESL eSports platform. 

With the current generation Xbox One, some PC games in the next couple of years will comparatively run in a "low" quality setting on the Xbox. With the next Xbox, most games should be comfortably on the "medium" setting. Where it gets interesting, would be the idea that gamers could upgrade their Xbox via a modular design as GPUs get cheaper and more powerful. Buying individual components would be much cheaper than buying an entire new console, and you'd only have to buy the upgraded components if you really want that extra performance. 

Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, has already hinted strongly at this: "If you look at PC specifically and see the evolution that happens there, there's no reason why console can't ride that same curve. I look at the ecosystem that a console sits in and I think that it should have the capability of more iteration on hardware capability." 

The key word to highlight there is "iteration" which, by definition, is "a sequence of operations which yields results successively closer to a desired result." In this case, it's chasing that goal of consoles which have the ability to narrow the gap between PC performance standards. 

What about PlayStation? 

Sony's new console may feature a modular design, but it's not as likely. The documents regarding the next PlayStation only speaks of the enhanced "NEO" mode and the old PS4 mode, and nothing in-between which leads me to believe the hardware will be fixed. This makes it simpler for PlayStation-only developers as they only require support for the two different quality settings, but as mentioned earlier, few are truly exclusive and have PC releases. 

For gamers, it could be a choice between 1) An upgradeable console like the Xbox team seems to be creating that will be able to support native 4K and further innovations with simple upgrades, or 2) A console with locked hardware that will meet today's standards but struggle to keep up with the upgradeable hardware of its competitor. 

Of course everything we've spoke about in this article is speculative based on industry comments and trends, but to me it seems an open target for the Xbox team. Microsoft are pushing their Windows 10 everywhere strategy and, maybe I'm wrong, but to not treat Xbox like a PC at this point would be a major oversight. 

Should the next Xbox take a PC-like approach to hardware? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. 

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13 Jun 2016, 8:10 p.m.

If Playstation Neo releases soon, and lacks a modular slot / expansion bay and/or real ssd support, those are the two key areas the new XB1 (scorpio) could burn them on. In fact if Sony does not include an expansion bay on the new systems they are conceding advantage to xbox in BC (backwards compatibility).

Think about it, instead of trying to code a semi efficient BC for the PS4 (a likely nightmare) they could just include an expansion bay and sell a card that has the needed components from the ps3 to use extremely minimal emulation on the system. They could also use the same hardware like nvidia does with physix (forgive my spelling). Or the slot on the slim could be used to jump to neo status (possibly).

I am not an engineer, but I am assuming that the cost of the pasic ps3 components is relatively low (say less than $50, $80 at retail). I am also assuming the hardware could be use to boost calculations or specific tasks. But I could be completely wrong. So take this as a humble suggestion.