AMD's Ray Tracing Looks Great On The Xbox Series X, But It's Based On Nvidia's Code

Xbox Series X (Image: Microsoft)

We’ve known for a while that Microsoft’s next-gen console, Xbox Series X, will include ray tracing, but we haven’t seen what it will look like until now. In a blog post today Microsoft gave the most spec-heavy details about the new system yet. However, a deep dive by Digital Foundry provides a closer look at what the AMD GPU inside the Xbox Series X, powered by next-gen RDNA 2 architecture, can do.

The closer look comes courtesy of a demo of Minecraft with DXR, Microsoft’s homegrown API for making games look better. But that closer look into Minecraft with DXR reveals a “base Nvidia code adapted and running on AMD-sourced ray tracing hardware within Series X,” as Digital Foundry points out. That sticking point makes it unclear as to what performance will look like on other ray tracing games on the Xbox Series X.

Speaking with Digital Foundry, Microsoft technical fellow and Xbox system architect Andrew Goossen said that hardware acceleration is the key to getting the performance Microsoft wants out of its next console.

“Without hardware acceleration, this work could have been done in the shaders, but would have consumed over 13 TFLOPs alone,” said Goossen. “For the Series X, this work is offloaded onto dedicated hardware and the shader can continue to run in parallel with full performance. In other words, Series X can effectively tap the equivalent of well over 25 TFLOPs of performance while ray tracing.”

In other words, AMD RDNA 2 supports the latest DXR standard and works in a similar way to Nvidia’s Turing architecture. By creating what’s called a bounding volume hierarchy (BVH) structure, these graphics cards can create lighting and reflections that look and behave in the same way they do in the real world. And when you compare the rest of the graphics card’s specs to other current-gen AMD and Nvidia graphics cards, its performance leaves most mid-range desktop graphics cards, like the Radeon RX 5600 XT and GeForce RTX 2060 Super, in the dust.

But let’s not get totally excited about AMD ray tracing.

In the same deep dive, Digital Foundry took a look at an early Xbox Series X Minecraft DXR tech demo. Looking at the screenshots of ray tracing on versus off, you’d think that those were rendered by a Nvidia RTX GPU. Well, while the demo was fully ray-traced (and looked gorgeous), it was based on Minecraft RTX code, even though the game was running on a custom AMD GPU. It’s not immediately clear how much or what from the Minecraft RTX code was altered.

Also, the demo is just that—a demo. It’s not necessarily a larger indication of what AMD ray tracing desktop GPUs could do in the future, since this is only an early look at Minecraft with DXR on an extremely custom chip.

It’s also unclear what other ray tracing compatible games like Control and Metro Exodus will look like with on the Xbox Series X. Will the DXR code for those games be sourced from Nvidia as well? Will this mean ray tracing will be available with certain games played over Microsoft’s xCloud once released—and will Microsoft go with AMD GPUs over Nvidia’s in its servers? (Ray tracing in the cloud has been a part of AMD’s vision, after all.)

If the supposed holiday 2020 release date for the Xbox Series X is any indication, we could see AMD ray tracing desktop GPUs around the same time, baring any massive supply chain delays. Having another ray tracing GPU competitor is needed in the hardware space, but it’s too early to tell what AMD is exactly bringing to the table.

Here’s a breakdown of the Xbox Series X full specs:

  • CPU8x Cores @ 3.8 GHz (3.6 GHz w/ SMT) Custom Zen 2 CPU

  • GPU12 TFLOPS, 52 CUs @ 1.825 GHz Custom RDNA 2 GPU

  • Die Size360.45 mm2

  • Process7nm Enhanced

  • Memory16 GB GDDR6 w/ 320b bus

  • Memory Bandwidth10GB @ 560 GB/s, 6GB @ 336 GB/s

  • Internal Storage1 TB Custom NVME SSD

  • I/O Throughput2.4 GB/s (Raw), 4.8 GB/s (Compressed, with custom hardware decompression block)

  • Expandable Storage1 TB Expansion Card (matches internal storage exactly)

  • External StorageUSB 3.2 External HDD Support

  • Optical Drive4K UHD Blu-Ray Drive

  • Performance Target4K @ 60 FPS, Up to 120 FPS

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