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Microsoft chooses AMD Fusion II for XBox 720

OK, the chances of the next XBox being called 720 are 50:50 at best but, for now, at least you all know what we're talking about. While the name and final design for the box and packaging might still be up in the air, the internals appear to have been locked down. KitGuru investigates.

Microsoft launched its original little black XBox in 2001. Famously, the press sheets on the chairs at the seats in the announcement hall had AMD specifications the evening before, but Intel ones the morning of the actual launch. nVidia was always a lock on the graphics etc, but last minute dealing had meant the CPU was a Pentium surprise for most people.

Golden oldie - still useful as a media node

Also famous was Intel's complaining that no money could be made from the CPUs being sold to Microsoft and that it was having to mark the whole project as a marketing and brand awareness exercise. Bear in mind that, in most years, Intel can sell almost everything it makes – so having production lines running to make ‘chips without profit' is frowned upon.

There were some heated debates between Microsoft and nVidia during the project. Probably the most famous is when, near the end of the project, Microsoft asked for the list of issues raised and fixed with the hardware and nVidia refused to release it, reportedly saying that it was ‘nVidia's intellectual property and not to be shared with outsiders'.

Against that background, Microsoft ignored Intel and went with an IBM designed, triple-core Xenon CPU that is actually manufactured by Global Foundries. Originally a 90nm part, it is now only 45nm. More on this in a second.

Intel must love IBM - official. It's the one shadow that Intel can't seem to escape from. In terms of relationships, we're thinking Charlie and Martin Sheen.

Graphically, both Sony and Microsoft raised the bar significantly from previous generations. While nVidia provided Sony with a chip similar to the DX9 7600GT card (which today would have graphics performance similar to a GT220 for £30), Microsoft went with an R600 derivative from ATI called the Xenos. Performance is close to a Radeon HD 1900, but with DX10 features from the R600. Both choices have worked out well and game sales for both consoles are good.

Xenos chip provided the graphics processing for the 360

For our story, the kicker is the summer release of the XBox 360 ‘s'. From the outside, everything looks the same. However, the CPU and GPU have now been integrated onto a single chip from Global Foundries. Sound familiar?

One last strike against Intel in the decision to go with AMD on the new console would be a ‘control' issue between Microsoft and Intel. Once dubbed WinTel, there are now some pretty clear divides between the two companies.

For Intel and Microsoft, DirectX is the San Andreas Fault Line. No doubt that Microsoft's use of an API like DirectX to sit between complex hardware and the operating system itself, has meant stability for everyone. It's also generated tons of fun with driver writers around the world. But do you still need DirectX?  It's possible to conceive of a world where Intel offers TeraScale computing to the masses at low, low prices and all programs are written, and executed, in pure x86. Ex-Intel VP Pat ‘Kicking' Gelsinger said as much when interviewed in 2007. “All your computer are belong to me” is what we heard.

The biggest ‘win' that Radeon and GeForce will ever have over Intel's Larrabee is the driver. The best graphics driver teams already work for AMD and nVidia, so Intel is playing catch-up, which it does not like. The ‘power model' for business gives you another option. Radically change the environment. That's what getting rid of DirectX would do. We're not sure that Microsoft wants to give up that wonderful middleware which allows its operating systems to remain essential for all the best games.

So, choosing Intel is unlikely for CPUs and Microsoft's experience of working with nVidia was less than stellar. At the same time, Microsoft now has a single chip, Fusion processor (version 0.9 ?) in the XBox from Global Foundries and it's shipping by the million.

Having agreed to the Global Foundries' single-chip XCGPU, AMD Fusion was a done deal.

Initial AMD Fusion designs will work, but the full potential won't be realised until the end of next year. Based on comments by people like Chekib Akrout, of all the likely designs to be targeted at the XBox 720 product, we think there's a good chance that it will be the AMD Krishna product. This will be produced on Global Foundries' 28nm ‘high-k gate first' process (originally introduced in 2007 by co-inventors IBM, Toshiba and, ironically, Sony). The only real technical challenge for the first XBox 360 consoles was heat/noise, for which the AMD Krishna product could be the answer.

If it is AMD's Krishna product, then that brings another tantalising possibility to the table. More on that later.

What will XBox 720 look like (or be called!)

Given how slowly things move in the world of console gaming, we'd expect a new XBox 720 product (assuming no major issues with Global Foundries) to be launched in 2012.

KitGuru says: There have been a TON of speculative designs for the XBox 720. Drop yours into the forum over the next couple of weeks – we'll pick a winner by Xmas and send you a little something in the post. If you drop in a pic from another site, then it would be nice to link back to them. PLEASE feel free to speculate as to whether Kinect etc will be integrated into the same unit and what colours will be most popular.

Comments below, ‘What will it look like' competition entries in the KitGuru Forums.

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