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Microsoft Has Asked AMD to Boost Xbox Series S, Series X Production

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The ongoing shortage of Xbox and PlayStation consoles has been a story since these platforms launched in November. The shortage isn’t unique to console gaming — there are problems with hardware availability across both PCs and consoles as recently launched GPUs from Nvidia and AMD remain difficult to find, as do AMD’s Ryzen 5000 CPUs.

According to Xbox head Phil Spencer, the company has been fielding questions related to Xbox production for weeks.

“I get some people [asking], ‘why didn’t you build more? Why didn’t you start earlier? Why didn’t you ship them earlier?’ All of those things,” Spencer said on a Major Nelson podcast, as spotted by VGC.

“It’s really just down to physics and engineering. We’re not holding them back: we’re building them as fast as we can. We have all the assembly lines going. I was on the phone last week with Lisa Su at AMD [asking], ‘how do we get more?’ So it’s something that we’re constantly working on.”

I don’t want to say that there’s nothing AMD can do to improve the situation for Microsoft, but the company’s ability to change the situation are probably limited. AMD’s involvement with the chip is limited to designing it — the actual job of manufacturing and shipping it in sufficient volume is done by TSMC.

There may indeed be some knobs and dials that AMD has some indirect control over, or it might be able to work with TSMC to enhance yields if a certain number of Xbox Series X|S SoCs are just barely missing spec. Small tweaks to improve yield and performance are common. From the mid-aughts to the mid-2010s, it wasn’t unusual to see AMD or Intel introduce a newer variant of an older chip, but with a lower TDP compared with what they’d shipped right out the door. These improvements reflected low-end optimizations.

But, while AMD might be able to boost Xbox production by reducing orders in other 7nm product families, the company will be limited by how much 7nm capacity TSMC has. Last fall, multiple reports suggested TSMC would be able to build 140,000 7nm wafers a month by the end of 2020. In the first half of 2020, TSMC’s WPM (wafers per month) was estimated at 110K. This implies the company increased its 7nm capacity by 1.27x throughout the year.

Clearly, it hasn’t been enough, and Nvidia’s decision to build with Samsung on 8N instead of tapping TSMC’s 7nm hasn’t been enough to save Ampere’s availability, either. Nvidia is currently expected to move to TSMC 7nm for additional Ampere production in 2021, which may put even more pressure on the situation.

Relief might come in the form of drawdowns on 7nm mobile demand as companies transition to 5nm. Currently, a number of companies have told consumers to expect better product availability after the March – April 2021 timeframe, which could reflect anything from new capacity coming online, to improved yields, to decreased 7nm utilization as companies transition to 5nm. It could even be that companies are forecasting decreased shutdown levels by that point, which might lead to a slackening of demand, especially in the short term. Once people can leave the house safely again, we’ll probably see spending flow out of video games and home entertainment and back towards other types of leisure, even if the pandemic creates a long-term uptick in the number of people buying consoles, subscribing to streaming services, or working from home.

Image by VGChartz

The best data we have on the two console manufacturers’ relative performance comes from VGChartz. They’ve compiled their estimates for sales over the first six weeks since launch (the Switch data is aligned to its launch, not present-day sales). The results are not particularly great for Microsoft, though we’d caution that only a very limited amount of data can be drawn from the first six weeks, especially at a time when console sales continue to be supply limited. All indications suggest that Microsoft and Sony continue to sell every console they can make.

US sales, VGChartz

US sales are a better story for Microsoft. While the Xbox Series S|X are still lower than PlayStation 5, they’re off by roughly 30 percent, not nearly 50 percent. This is also the one region where Xbox is actually beating Switch in terms of worldwide sales. Everywhere else, Switch leads, including Japan.

For now, evidence indicates the PlayStation 5 is strongly outselling the Xbox Series (both flavors) globally, with a tighter (but still Sony-favoring) competition in the US. Whether AMD can do anything to put more console SoCs in the hands of its partners is unknown. Also, wasn’t it the PlayStation 5 that was supposed to be facing the severe supply constraints?

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PS5 Outperforms Xbox Series X in Tests as Sony Promises More Consoles

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Two pieces of news on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X today. First, ongoing performance reviews of the two consoles continue to find that the PS5 outperforms the XSX in specific game modes, and sometimes in entire titles.

As we’ve previously covered, the Xbox Series X has problems with Devil May Cry 5’s high-performance mode. It also apparently runs Assassin Creed: Valhalla more slowly than its rival, and with heavier screen tearing. In Dirt 5, the Xbox Series X runs at lower resolutions and image quality, though Codemasters has pledged to fix this in an upcoming patch. Call of Duty 5 does buck the trend of Sony winning at 60 fps play but again falling behind in 120 fps.

It is unclear why this is happening. Multiple sources I have spoken to indicate that Sony’s GPU is based on RDNA with ray tracing attached, while Microsoft waited to implement “full” RDNA2. Microsoft has asserted this, and Phil Spencer has stated that XSX production ramped later than Sony because they were waiting “for some specific AMD technology in our chip.” There does appear to be a low-level feature difference between the two consoles, which isn’t unprecedented.

I want to stress that it is currently unclear if this feature distinction will make any difference whatsoever in shipping titles, ever. But whatever it is, it clearly isn’t helping Microsoft today. The rumor mill has suggested this may be due to immature API support for Microsoft compared with Sony. It could also be that some of Microsoft’s specific studio partners or engineers were affected by COVID-19 this year in ways their counterparts at Sony weren’t, resulting in Sony having a higher overall level of polish on the product right now. It’s hard to say.

Either way, the Xbox Series X is not yet living up to its full performance potential. Given the events of the year and the circumstances of the launch, I think this is understandable, but it’s also a bit disappointing. Yes, the Xbox Series X “wins on paper,” but we have no reason to believe it shouldn’t be winning in performance in real life. The architectural differences between these systems are minimal. In the PC industry, when comparing two GPUs built from the same architecture, the GPU with more cores, higher fillrates, and more memory bandwidth will win. Everything we know says the Xbox Series X outguns the PlayStation 5 in all three categories.

I don’t think we’re seeing the results of the PS5’s faster SSD in these figures. I’d expect that sort of difference to manifest itself most clearly in load times. I suppose it is possible that when playing at 120 fps, the system needs streaming texture performance to be absolutely top-notch, and the XSX has less bandwidth to play with. The XSX’s split memory, with 10GB of 560GB/s and 6GB of 336GB/s, could also be a factor. There is no evidence, as of this writing, that either of these hardware-level differences is to blame, but they constitute a meaningful difference between the two platforms.

For now, based on what’s known, I still think we’re seeing software-level differences and that the Xbox Series X currently isn’t performing where it ought to be. We’ll see if Microsoft can fix it any time soon.

Switching topics, Sony is pledging to ship more consoles as quickly as it can. The company calls the demand spike ‘unprecedented’ and says it will work with retailers to deliver more units.

A lot of companies are blaming their problems on demand right now, and it’s still hard to tell if that’s true or not. There are a lot of moving factors in play, including yield figures for whatever part you care about (Xbox, PS5, AMD, Nvidia). There’s the inevitable impact of COVID-19 on supply lines and deliveries. And there’s the fact that a huge chunk of the world’s shopping has shifted to emphasize online orders. Any one of these factors is enough to cause a shortage — back in 2016, Nvidia and AMD couldn’t keep GPUs on store shelves due to low yields, either, and this was before the cryptocurrency boom.

Neither Sony nor Microsoft have released updates on concrete sales numbers, but Sony has said that it had more PlayStation 5’s on-hand to launch with than the previous launch of the PlayStation 4.

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With 13,349 active COVID-19 cases, Alberta imposes series of new restrictions

Alberta rolled out tough new restrictions on Tuesday that prohibit all indoor social gatherings as the province reported 16 more deaths.

Premier Jason Kenney called the new restrictions “bold and targeted” as his government tries to slow a pandemic raging on a day when the province reported 13,349 active cases of the disease, by far the highest number yet.

“I am declaring a state of public health emergency in Alberta,” Kenney said at a news conference. “We are also announcing a series of targeted measures, approved by the COVID cabinet committee, based on recommendations from the chief medical officer of health.

“These mandatory measures will place new restrictions on social gatherings, worship services, businesses, schools and all Albertans.”

The province declared an earlier public health emergency on March 17, which ended on June 15.

Kenney noted that his government brought in limited new restrictions just 11 days ago, and until Tuesday had resisted calls for a lockdown because of the “profound damage” it could cause by throwing hundreds of thousands of people out of work and deepening the mental health crisis.

“It would also be an unprecedented violation of fundamental, constitutionally protected rights and freedoms,” Kenney said of a lockdown. “Instead, we focused, as we’ve done since the beginning, on targeted measures aimed at places where the data clearly showed that COVID-19 was spreading.

“We believe these are the minimum restrictions needed right now to safeguard our health-care system while avoiding widespread damage to people’s livelihoods. We are doing everything we can to strike that balance.”

‘Heart-breaking’ letters

Kenney called the pandemic a “once-in-a-century public health challenge” and spoke about receiving “heart-breaking” letters and emails from thousands of Albertans in recent days.

He said the decision to impose new measures came after he spent much of the weekend on the phone talking to front-line health-care workers, followed by an eight-hour long cabinet committee meeting on Monday.

“I read out some of these letters to my colleagues during yesterday’s incredibly challenging eight-hour long meeting of the COVID cabinet committee,” he said. “I did so to remind myself and all of us who carry the burden of leadership at this time of the profound human impact of this crisis and of our decisions.”

Across Alberta, 348 were being treated in hospitals for the illness on Tuesday, including 66 in ICU beds.

The new measures introduced on Tuesday will be evaluated after three weeks, Kenney said.

They are:

  • Social gatherings — No indoor social gatherings allowed. Outdoor gatherings limited to 10 people. Unlike previous measures, these are mandatory and Kenney said they will be enforced with fines of $ 1,000.
  • Places of worship — Faith-based groups can operate with mandatory reduced capacity, of one-third of the building’s occupancy. Mask use is mandatory.
  • Businesses that must close include banquet halls, conference centres, trade shows, auditoriums and concert venues, community centres, children’s play places and indoor playgrounds. Sports are also included in this category.
  • Food and beverage — Restaurants, bars, pubs and lounges will be open. Tables can seat a maximum of six people from the same household, while people who live alone can meet with up to two non-household contacts who are part of their cohort. Last call will continue to be at 10 p.m. and licensed food-serving establishments must close at 11.

Businesses that can remain open with restrictions include most retail businesses, with capacity limited to 25 per cent of  fire code occupancy. That includes liquor and cannabis shops, grocery stores, pharmacies, clothing stores, computer and technology stores, hardware, automotive and approved farmers and seasonal markets. Also included are movie theatres, museums and galleries, libraries, casinos (though table games must close) and indoor entertainment centres.

Fitness and recreation centres can operate with reduced capacity, but only for individual workouts, with no group fitness, group classes, group training, team practices or games.

‘Social gatherings are the biggest problem’

“Let me just be absolutely clear about this,” Kenney said. “Social gatherings are the biggest problem. Many people may think that a family dinner or a get-together with friends is no big deal, it’s just normal. And you know, we don’t imagine when we gather with family that people are going to be transmitting a virus like this.

“But it is the key reason why COVID-19 is winning. These gatherings in the home continue to be the largest source of transmission and so they must stop now. That’s why, effective immediately, no indoor social gatherings will be permitted in any setting, and outdoor social gatherings will be limited to a maximum of 10 people. Let me repeat: no indoor social gatherings will be permitted, period.”

Kenney was joined at the news conference by Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Dr. Verna Yiu, CEO of Alberta Health Services.

Albertans have been bracing for new restrictions, as cases continue to surge rapidly.

As of Monday, the province had 13,166 active cases, more than any other province in Canada. In her briefing Monday, Hinshaw warned that cases are escalating out of control.

‘Like a snowball’

“This is like a snowball rolling down a hill, growing bigger and faster, and it will continue unless we implement strong measures to stop [it]. We must take action,” Hinshaw said Monday.

“Waiting any longer will impact our ability to care for Albertans in the weeks and months ahead.”

Hinshaw cut Monday’s briefing short to meet with Premier Jason Kenney and the priorities implementation cabinet committee to discuss recommendations to reduce the caseload.

Alberta reported 1,549 new COVID-19 cases on Monday. It was the fifth consecutive day with numbers above the 1,100 mark. There were 328 patients in hospital, 62 of them in intensive care. The death toll stood at 476.

Daily caseloads have more than doubled in recent weeks. In the first week of November, there were just under 600 new cases a day.

On Sunday, Alberta led the entire country with 1,584 new cases, despite having a fraction of the population of Ontario and Quebec. Front-line doctors and epidemiologists have called for a shutdown of businesses and activities to reverse the trend.

On Saturday, in a Zoom call with the Canada India Foundation, Kenney said new health restrictions are likely to come but he continued to reject a sweeping shutdown as intrusive and ineffective.

“We will likely have to take some more restrictive measures, given the current direction of things here. Because, ultimately, our goal is to protect the health-care system from being overwhelmed while minimizing damage to the broader social, economic, mental, emotional and physical health of society,” he said.

“We are not exclusively focused on COVID-19. We understand that for every policy in response to it, there are unintended consequences, so we’ve taken a holistic approach, and we believe that that has been effective.”

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PS5, Xbox Series X Thin on the Ground, Along with Everything Else

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It’s too early to talk about which console is selling better — Sony and Microsoft are both shipping every single console they can manufacture, and will be for weeks — but early availability numbers suggest limited supply all across the planet for both platforms.

In Japan, the PS5 moved 118,085 units against the Xbox Series X’s 20,534. Those of you who are familiar with Xbox’s long history of underperforming in Japan won’t find this surprising — Microsoft’s console has never done particularly well in Sony’s native market. What’s a bit more surprising is that Sony’s PlayStation 4 launch outsold the PlayStation 5 launch by a factor of three.

The implication of these numbers is that both Sony and Microsoft are having trouble putting hardware on store shelves. The reason you can’t tell if a console is selling well right out of the gate is that every platform, even the Wii U, has at least a few weeks of pent-up demand in which it sells quite well. Bloomberg reports that Sony’s CFO Hiroki Totoki told investors in October that supply chain bottlenecks had hampered production and that delays could persist into March of next year.

This echoes comments we’ve heard from Microsoft, where the company is also less-than bullish on its ability to push product into the market. Microsoft’s Tim Stuart recently told investors something very similar:

I think we’ll continue to see supply shortages as we head into the post-holiday quarter, so Microsoft’s Q3, calendar Q1. And then when we get to Q4, all of our supply chain continuing to go full speed heading into kind of the pre-summer months.

Stuart is predicting the Xbox shortage won’t let up until pre-summer spring, which is the same time frame predicted by Sony.

That’s not all, though. Nvidia’s CEO, Jensen Huang, predicted shortages of Nvidia Ampere cards through Q4, but the company hasn’t said anything about the expected situation through the beginning of next year. AMD’s Radeon 6800 and 6800 XT are currently out of stock everywhere. The 5000 series of CPUs has been thin on the ground as well.

So thin, you won’t even see it on store shelves! Like, at all!

In short, welcome to the ultimate example of 2020 in consumer electronics and retail hardware, where everyone launches next-generation hardware, but none of it is actually available to purchase.

It would be interesting to know where exactly these snafus and problems are occurring, and what parts of production are being repeatedly held up. Bots and scalpers are a problem, to be sure, but they aren’t the reason Sony had such a smaller number of PlayStation 5s ready to ship in Japan compared with other locations. High demand explains why you can’t find a new console on store shelves but not why the company can’t seem to ship them. TSMC’s 7nm production lines are reportedly running flat out, but not every product that’s been scarce on store shelves is built at TSMC.

Our best guess is that the situation is a perfect storm: Low yield on new parts combines with inevitable pandemic-related disruption and radical shifts in consumer entertainment habits as people put up with being mostly stuck inside for month after month. Now, on top of that lovely hellstew, ladle some bots and scalpers. The end result is a very 2020-esque outcome: There’s supposed to be lots of exciting new hardware available for sale, but it’s currently harder than it ought to be to lay hands on it.

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Xbox Series X Launch Is Microsoft’s Biggest Ever, Causes ISP Traffic Spike

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In the run-up to the Microsoft Series X launch, Microsoft made it clear that it would not be outmaneuvered two launches in a row. The Xbox Series X’s overall specs are better than the PlayStation 5 in several particulars, and it offers features like universal backward compatibility that the PlayStation 5 doesn’t have to the same degree. Microsoft also targeted a wider spread of price points than Sony did — while both companies offer a pair of consoles, Sony chose to target $ 400 and $ 500, while Microsoft went for $ 300 and $ 500. The difference between the two is that the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition ($ 400) lacks only a Blu-ray drive, while the Xbox Series S is meaningfully less powerful than the Xbox Series X and explicitly targets 1080p gaming.

Clearly, the company’s targeting paid off. Microsoft has announced its largest launch in history, with more consoles sold (no numbers yet) than in any previous generation. The Xbox Series S, in particular, seems to have drawn new gamers into the Xbox fold. Microsoft notes that more new gamers joined on this platform than in any previous launch. A total of 3,594 different games were played across 24 hours, indicating that the player base definitely took advantage of backward compatibility. The company is also touting high conversion numbers — 70 percent of Xbox Series S|X consoles are attached to new or existing Game Pass members.

Microsoft, of course, is scarcely going to tout numbers that don’t back up its argument, but there’s some independent confirmation that the launch was huge. According to UK ISP Virgin Media, it experienced record-breaking traffic on the day of launch, as gamers set up consoles, downloaded updates, and got to playing. The company served 108PB of data on Tuesday, November 10, or an average of 20GB per customer: “At the peak of recorded traffic, the equivalent of 48 Assassin’s Creed Valhalla games were being downloaded every second.”

The sizeable traffic was driven by the 60GB + 8GB update/release of Assassin Creed: Valhalla, a 30-65GB Call of Duty: Modern Warfare update, an 85-130GB preload for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, and a 65GB Destiny 2: Blue Light update. What this works out to, in aggregate, is an awful lot of data to download. Other UK ISPs like TalkTalk and OpenReach either set records or nearly set them. The upcoming launch of the Sony PlayStation 5 is also expected to set records.

The Xbox Series S has some drawbacks, but it drew more new gamers into the Xbox ecosystem than any previous launch, according to Microsoft.

The question of which console will sell better over the long run is an interesting one. Going into this generation, Sony is clearly the odds-on favorite. The PS2 utterly dominated its generation, and while the PS3 was badly hampered by its rocky start, it eventually out-shipped the Xbox 360. The PS4, of course, has decisively out-shipped the Xbox One by a more than 2:1 margin.

There are a number of early “Which is better” articles, but they mostly come down to the margins of both ecosystems. Xbox has Game Pass and Quick Resume, while Sony has a larger catalog of exclusive titles, but also less backward compatibility. It also has a better haptic controller, though we don’t know how much use players will get out of the feature long-term. Xbox Series X is faster than the PS5 on paper, but the current game available on both platforms gives the XSX a lead in only some modes. For whatever reason, the PS5, not the Xbox Series X, actually leads in the highest-performing game mode. In other modes, the XSX’s lead is 8 percent or less.

This is a pretty good result for gamers because there are no bad choices on the market right now. The XSX and PlayStation 5 are both powerful, they’re both fast, and they both have a back catalog of games you can play Day 1. We should expect both companies to report exceptional launch figures. The pandemic has driven greater interest in gaming throughout the entire year, and that’s scarcely going to end now that new platforms have debuted. With COVID-19 infections booming across the United States, indoor entertainment is at a premium relative to everything else.

More practically, consoles typically always sell well at launch. Nintendo’s Wii U is the poster child for this effect — the company launched the device on November 12, 2012, and had sold 3.06M of them worldwide by December 31, which wasn’t too shabby. Thereafter, sales fell off a cliff. Nintendo didn’t break the 6 million mark until March 2014.

Given the pandemic and the potential for limited consumer availability, it’ll be some months before we have any idea which platform is proving more popular, long-term. Both Microsoft and Sony are likely to sell every console they can ship, turning the entire affair into more of a pandemic supply chain benchmark than a referendum on console ecosystems.

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Which Is Faster, the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5? Early Data Says It’s Complicated

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One of the most interesting questions about any console launch is how the platforms compare against each other at debut and how the results of that comparison impact system uptake. In 2013, Microsoft tried to zig when Sony zagged at got shellacked by it, to the point that Microsoft considered killing Xbox altogether. The company learned from its mistake, and both the Xbox One X and the Xbox Series X pack more firepower than their equivalent PlayStation counterpart, at least on paper. The Xbox One X is a proven system and has often been at least modestly faster than the PS4 Pro in head-to-head match-ups, but we haven’t seen any data on the PlayStation 5 versus Xbox Series X, and the first game match-up is a bit stranger than we would have expected.

Eurogamer recently spent time with Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition on both platforms. Happily, the game has seemingly identical rendering modes between both platforms, allowing the publication to use it as a benchmark to compare them. The game runs with an unlocked frame rate when tested on a screen capable of 120Hz, and it offers multiple rendering modes to test.

Normal Mode: Full 3840×2160 rendering (no upscaling). Eurogamer reports the Xbox Series X is about 8 percent faster than the PS4 Pro in this mode.

High Frame Rate Mode: Retains 3840×2160 resolution, but reaches it by upscaling rather than by native rendering. Both consoles exceed 100fps on average in this mode, but Eurogamer reports that the PS5 is significantly faster and more consistent in many gameplay areas. They chalk this up to a potential API difference that’s bottlenecking the Xbox Series X, and there have been rumors that Sony’s console is easier for devs to work with at the moment than its Xbox equivalent. Both Sony and Microsoft have had poor dev tools at various points in earlier generations and things tend to improve as time goes by.

Ray Tracing Performance Mode: 1080p combined with real-time ray tracing plus frustum-aligned voxel fog. Eurogamer reports that RT Performance Mode runs roughly at the same speed as Normal mode, but at a much lower resolution. This is broadly similar to Nvidia RTX GPUs, which also typically take a resolution hit when RT is enabled. The two consoles are described as like-for-like here.

Ray Tracing Quality Mode: RT ray tracing combined with higher resolution, but, the higher resolution target is achieved through upscaling, not natively. The Xbox Series X is noted as winning this comparison, though it’s implied that the gap is small — smaller than in previous modes.

One negative factor that Eurogamer notes, however, is the way the PS5 handles 120Hz. When the PS5 detects a 120Hz panel, it insists on running at that refresh rate, even if doing so forces the panel out of 4K mode. Eurogamer writes:

[C]onsider a highly popular 4K screen – the LG OLED B8. PS5 sees that it is 120Hz-compatible, and overrides 4K resolution. All modes will run at a 120Hz refresh rate, at 1080p resolution – which is absolutely not ideal. Another popular screen is the Samsung NU8000. It’s a 4K screen but on PS5, Devil May Cry will force through the 120Hz refresh rate instead, resulting in a downscale to 1440p that the user has no control over.

Eurogamer has reported the issue to Capcom, and I seem to recall Sony having various problems with 720p back when the PS3 launched. Hopefully, this can be resolved via patch.

Overall, the Xbox Series X holds a lead in multiple game modes, but the gap between them isn’t as large as Eurogamer expected, or as the console’s on-paper specs would predict. This is one game and it’s the very first head-to-head game, so I wouldn’t draw conclusions yet in any case. For now, the Xbox Series X appears to have a modest advantage over the PS5, just as the PS4 had an advantage over the Xbox One, with the added wrinkle that the Xbox Series X can also slip badly for reasons that are not clear. We’ll see how figures look as OS support matures and developers get more experience with the new platform.

The news here is objectively pretty good for fans of both ecosystems. Even where the Xbox Series X apparently falls below the PS5, both consoles are putting up over 100fps.

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Sony May Let Users Move Games Off PS5, Xbox Series X SSD Is User-Replaceable

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As reviewers dig into the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X ahead of their respective launches, we’re seeing some console teardowns and software evaluations that touch on deeper aspects of both systems. There’s been a new discovery for each platform.

First, platform disassemblers have discovered that the Xbox Series X uses a standard (if uncommon) M.2 form factor for its SSD. The XSX has an M.2 2230 SSD. In the M.2 standard, the number gives the proportions of the standard — 2230 means the drive is 22mm wide and 30mm long. You can buy consumer drives in this size, but we more commonly see it used for Wi-Fi cards and modems.

The discovery is largely academic, since there are no >1TB SSDs in M.2 2230 on the consumer market. Even if there were, it’s not clear if there are any protections against cloning the OS off the original drive before restoring it to the replacement SSD. Microsoft, of course, doesn’t want consumers trying to upgrade their SSDs this way — that’s the entire reason the company built a user-expandable storage port — and I doubt we’ll see many people trying to upgrade the base drive if Microsoft and Seagate keep pricing competitive on their expansion drives throughout the life of the console. That’s going to mean periodically cutting price and introducing new capacities as opposed to leaving the expansion card at its current $ 220/1TB for years at a time.

It would be interesting to know if the Xbox Series X is capable of booting off expansion-card storage, or whether the OS can be cloned, though. And this does suggest that some console repairs should be faster and less expensive for end-users because swapping out an SSD is much cheaper than replacing a motherboard with soldered-on storage.

Sony Investigating External Storage Support

Meanwhile, on the Sony side of things, we’ve got a story on external storage support on the PlayStation 5. As of this writing, there is no way to copy games from the PlayStation 5 for archival purposes. This does not affect PlayStation 4 games — these can still be copied to, and played from, external storage — but it does impact all next-gen titles.

Modern game download speeds are large enough relative to storage capacities and broadband sizes that a fair number of gamers use an external HDD for backup. Sony didn’t implement support for this feature before it launched the console, but has updated its FAQ to note that “Explorations for allowing players to store (but not play) PS5 games on a USB drive in a future update are underway.” This happened shortly after Eurogamer published an article criticizing Sony’s storage policy on this issue, so the company is clearly paying attention. Given this, I’d like to point out that Sony also blocks local save game backups now, and that you can only use cloud backups if you pay for PlayStation Plus.

Forcing gamers to pay to back up saved games is profoundly anti-consumer and anti-gamer. While Sony is exploring the idea for storing PS5 games on local storage, it ought to check and see if saved games might just be possible, too. Hopefully, we’ll see more flexibility implemented in a post-launch update.

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Microsoft’s Xbox Series X Review: The Living Room Gaming PC I’ve (Mostly) Always Wanted

Last year, not long after Microsoft announced the Xbox Series X, I declared that the upcoming console would “end” — I specifically did not say “win” — the PC/console war, not by beating the PC, but by effectively becoming a PC. At the hardware level, that’s more-or-less what has happened, and it’s particularly true in Microsoft’s case because the Xbox runs an OS based on Windows 10. Does it do what an HTPC/gaming PC does in a living room? I thought it would.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to put my theory to the test by evaluating the $ 499 Xbox Series X as an HTPC and downstairs gaming system replacement for the hardware I currently use for that task. Because I’ve never reviewed a console before and don’t have a handy PlayStation 5 to compare against, I’m going to evaluate the XSX explicitly from the viewpoint of a lifetime PC gamer considering the value and utility of the system. I’ll also have more to say about the system and some more direct comparisons at a later date when I am not responsible for two completely different reviews simultaneously.

This review does not focus on absolute image quality between Xbox and PC versions of a game. This is partly because virtually all of the truly next-generation games for Xbox Series X is still locked away, and partly because I just bought a 4K OLED and have only had a week with the Xbox Series X, which isn’t enough time for comparative analysis. Rendering a verdict without proper comparison risks mistaking improvements to the display with improvements to the image quality.

Specifically, I bought this OLED. LG CX 55-inch. It’s only been a week, but we’re very happy together.

Defining ‘PC’ in This Context

Conceptually, the Xbox Series X challenges the utility of a Home Theater PC, or HTPC, as well as a living room gaming PC (these are sometimes the same thing). HTPCs are pretty common in the enthusiast community, going all the way back to ATI and the days of their All-in-Wonder video capture card. An HTPC is typically (but not always) a secondary system attached to a TV rather than someone’s primary rig. They can be optimized for low power consumption and high storage capacity or kitted out more like gaming systems for simultaneous HTPC and high-end big-screen gaming capabilities. Content playback and gaming are the two markets where an HTPC would typically compete with a console and I’m comparing them on that basis.

What I Thought of Consoles Going In

Before starting this review, I thought of game consoles as a perfectly valid method of gaming, especially if you already had a lot of cash invested in the Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo ecosystems, but certainly not a preferable one. Console developers, in my opinion, were far too willing to tolerate low frame rates. The few times I picked up an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller, I felt like I was gaming on a mid-to-low-end PC.

Unlike some PC gamers, I do not and have never hated consoles, but I’ve rarely been impressed by them.

The Hardware

My first thought, when I saw the Xbox Series X, was “Awww. It’s cute.”

The Xbox Series X is an unusually shaped small form factor PC. It uses a single 130mm ventilation fan to cool the system and it’s very quiet. I never heard the machine while gaming or watching content, even with the TV volume low. The PlayStation 5 may yet prove to be a truly chonky boy, but the XSX is smaller than I expected it to be. If you’ve spent a few decades with an ATX tower of one sort or another cluttering up the living room, the Xbox Series X is a delightful step towards smaller solutions, not larger ones.

The Xbox Series X’s ventilation diagram. The invasive pool noodles shove their way through the console until they are transformed into a cooling mint tornado. Or something. Seriously though, this thing is whisper-quiet.

As far as backward compatibility goes, the Xbox Series X had no problem identifying and enabling an Xbox One controller. The two controllers feel identical, at least to my hand, but I’m not exactly a connoisseur of the art form. My significant other, who is also a PC gamer, commented that the rumble didn’t make her rings vibrate, which she appreciated.

It’s not directly germane since I’m not comparing against a PS5, but the 3,328 RDNA2 GPU cores are worthy of a desktop PC card — and will be mounted in them soon enough.

As far as technical specs, we’ve discussed both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 on more than one occasion. Microsoft went for an AMD Zen 3-based CPU, RDNA2 GPU, and fixed clock speeds for both, in direct opposition to Sony’s emphasis on variable clocking. There’ve also been some interesting remarks recently that confirm something we’d heard privately a few months ago: The Xbox Series X supports the full RDNA2 feature set, while the PlayStation 5 is supposedly based on RDNA (but with ray tracing still enabled). We don’t know enough yet to suss out the differences here, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Services and Gaming: Microsoft Makes a Hell of a Case

The Xbox Series X cold boots from an unplugged state in 20.58 seconds on average when measured from the moment the button was pressed, not when the screen activated. The total time to load a saved game and begin playing Fallout New Vegas was 47.48 seconds when completely unplugged. When I merely turned the console off at the switch (depressing the button until the light turned off completely), the resume time was 4.5 seconds. We can’t compare the Xbox initialization process exactly to the boot time of a PC, but those figures are solidly within the range of high-end desktops, depending on how many applications you load at boot.

Setting the console up with a Microsoft account is arguably less annoying than installing Windows 10 (this is not a high bar), and once you’ve got it configured, things happen fast. I saw Fallout New Vegas available via Xbox Game Pass and was jaunting through the Mojave within 15 minutes of creating my account. I’m not going to say a high-end PC couldn’t match the same time from OS installation to game creation, but you’d need to be using the latest version of Windows 10 with pre-loaded GPU drivers or willing to run unpatched to score equivalently.

When it comes to outfitting the console with a suite of common apps like YouTube, Netflix, and such, Microsoft lands firmly in “just works” territory. Netflix image quality is much higher on the Xbox Series X, even though my HTPC streams using Microsoft Edge. An apples-to-apples comparison of the exact same stream always favors the Xbox Series X. Given a choice between streaming a service over Xbox Series X or my own HTPC, I’d take the XSX, ten times out of ten.

On the whole, the Xbox Series X is a very effective advertisement for Microsoft’s entire gaming ecosystem. Xbox Game Pass gives a new player an instant library of titles to choose from, with multiple entries in popular genres. Setting up apps like Netflix to run on the console is trivial. Game load times seem equal to or better than what we’d expect from an equivalent PC.

This is the sort of feature Microsoft promised to deliver when it began marketing the Xbox Series X. It wasn’t a feature I was certain we’d get. As I said earlier, I don’t — or at least I didn’t — associate consoles with high-end performance.

How does it feel to play the Xbox Series X? It feels like playing a game on a high-end PC, with a heavy-duty CPU core backing it up. The caveat here is that the titles we had available to play for Nov. 5 reflect current-generation titles and don’t feature capabilities like ray tracing, but then again, you can’t run DXR on any other AMD GPU currently in-market, either. As next-generation games unlock we’ll be able to compare more effectively on that front.

Every common title that I’ve played on both console and PC felt as equivalently good to play on this console as on any PC, at least as far as the underlying hardware’s performance. Microsoft is still working out the kinks in its Quick Resume feature, but it’s incredibly quick in action: tap, tap, and boom — you’re in a different game. Alt-tabbing between different games on PC is a risky proposition at best unless you already know both applications behave nicely when loaded simultaneously. The fact that you can even try alt-tabbing between games without instantly crashing the system is itself an achievement — GPUs didn’t used to tolerate being used for multiple workloads simultaneously under any circumstances.

From where I sit, this is no small thing. Unless you consider the PS5 — and I don’t have one to consider — there’s no way to get this kind of performance at the $ 500 price point in the PC universe. If you have an otherwise high-end system you could certainly upgrade your GPU to equal or better performance for less than $ 500, but the Xbox Series X is quite aggressively priced for its hardware specs.

What I Didn’t Like

There are some distinct things I do not like about the XSX. First, there’s the controller. While I have absolutely no complaint about the Xbox Series X controller as a controller, I would like to point out to whatever god or gods might be listening that using analog sticks to control a first-person shooter is like taking away a person’s hands and giving them a pair of stupid meat flippers instead. Nothing makes a sniper kill more satisfying than trying to simultaneously maneuver the world’s least-precise instrument over a head that’s four pixels wide without standing up / opening your Pip Boy / accidentally shooting Sunny Smiles in the back of the head.

Controllers vex me, is what I’m saying. They vex me enough that the learning curve, at least in some games, feels more like a learning cliff. If you’re a lifelong PC gamer like myself, you should expect some transition pains. After a week, I’m still not comfortable in a lot of titles, and full mouse and keyboard support would go a long way to making the Xbox Series S / X feel like a welcoming home for PC gamers.

Another negative? No modding support on the XSX, at least not yet. Modding on consoles is still in its infancy, so a big support boost from Microsoft would probably help the idea take off. Mods are a very important part of gaming to me and I’d always keep a foot in the PC gaming ecosystem for this reason alone, even if I switched primarily to console gaming.

The last thing about the Xbox Series X that I didn’t like is its overall network usage. While this could be the result of a disagreeable interaction between the XSX and my router, it’s a terrible bandwidth pig. Some applications “share” bandwidth more easily than others, which is to say that some of them will tank your entire internet connection as they hoover data out of the internet, while some are better behaved.

The Xbox Series X is not well-behaved. I actually had to shut the console down at multiple points during simultaneous Zen 3 / Xbox Series X testing, in order to download benchmarks at any kind of speed. Eighteen minutes on a 12MB download doesn’t cut it. I’m open to the idea that this is a conflict with my router, but the situation is untenable regardless.

There currently seems to be no method of controlling the Xbox Series X’s bandwidth usage while downloading without doing it externally at the router.

Is the Xbox Series X a Better Living Room PC Than a Typical PC?

The question of whether the Xbox Series X is a better living room PC than a regular HTPC depends, I think, on what your needs are. If you’re into video editing, content remastering, or upscaling, you know there are a lot of players and plugins you can use to improve baseline image quality in various ways. If you have content in unusual or esoteric video formats, there’s almost certainly a codec available on PC to play it. Consoles are dicier in that regard, though both Microsoft and Sony support the most common video and audio codecs.

If Microsoft supported keyboard and mouse configurations out of the box across the entire Xbox product line, I’d be 100 percent sold on the idea of the XSX as a media playback and gaming machine. Seeing as I’m still on Team Meat Flipper, I’m a little more circumspect in my evaluation. Is the Xbox Series X better than the [Insert $ 1,000+ gaming PC] you can buy at [insert OEM / boutique builder]? Very possibly not. Is it better than any $ 500 gaming PC you’re going to find in-market any time soon? I’m comfortable saying yes.

I’m not going to try to predict how the Xbox Series X will perform against the PS5 or which console players will prefer, but as far as comparisons to an equivalently-priced PC are concerned, the Xbox Series X more than holds its own. I’m downright impressed by the overall value proposition of the console and its capabilities. Obviously, you won’t be running DaVinci Studio Resolve on an Xbox any time soon, but when evaluated in terms of streaming fidelity, the Xbox Series X wins. Evaluated against the gaming capabilities of a $ 500 PC build, the Xbox Series X wins.

Gaming on the Xbox Series X may not feel much like gaming on the PC, thanks to the difference in interfaces, but it offers all of the PC’s greatest strengths in terms of load times and frame rates. The platform overperforms its price point, and it’s impressed me as far as the overall ecosystem value. There are no weak points here, and no Kinect-style screwups to muddy the value of the system. It’s a much stronger offering than Microsoft launched in 2013, and I’m really curious to see if the company will manage to convert PlayStation 4 owners to its own ecosystem, or if it’ll mostly appeal to existing Xbox, Switch, and PC gamers.

I’ll have more to say in upcoming articles. As a newcomer to the Xbox Series X ecosystem, I’m impressed by what I’ve seen thus far.

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The Dodgers won the World Series in the most 2020 way possible

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

With last night’s 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, the Los Angeles Dodgers captured their first championship in 32 years, snapping an agonizing drought that began just after Kirk Gibson’s legendary homer in the 1988 World Series.

That’s a pretty good hook. But it’s way down the list of things people are talking about from last night. That’s because the game (and the celebration that followed) were not just controversial, but controversial in ways that triggered our deepest anxieties about both baseball and life itself in this awful year we’re living through. It was all just a little too on the nose. Let’s unpack the two biggest storylines:

1. Dodgers star Justin Turner tested positive for the coronavirus during the game, was removed and told to isolate, and then did the exact opposite.

No one watching knew what to make of it when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts took his third baseman out after the seventh inning of a one-run game. The story came out later, as explained in detail by ESPN’s Jeff Passan. During the second inning, Major League Baseball got a call from the lab that handles its coronavirus tests saying that the results from Monday’s off day, which reportedly arrived late, showed an inconclusive for Turner. The decision was then made to fast-track Turner’s test from Tuesday. When it came up positive (baseball’s first in nearly two months), MLB told the Dodgers to take Turner out of the game immediately and protocol dictated that he self-isolate.

The team obeyed the first order, but the second was completely ignored — and in brazen fashion. After L.A. got the final, title-winning out, Turner was right out there on the field celebrating. There’s a picture of him hoisting the World Series trophy with a mask on, but he didn’t bother wearing it for much of the on-field party. He hugged teammates. He kissed his wife. He posed, maskless, for a team photo while sitting right next to Roberts, who’s a cancer survivor.

All of this was allowed, even encouraged, by the Dodgers. Turner is one of their best players and emotional leaders — a well-liked character who has also connected with fans with his stellar hitting and trademark bushy red beard. Star teammate Mookie Betts summarized the Dodgers’ feelings with this quote: “He’s part of the team. We’re not excluding him from anything.”

Depending on how generous you want to be, Turner and the Dodgers’ post-game celebration was either a living, breathing (on adjacent people, unfortunately) example of coronavirus fatigue or just plain recklessness. As we slog through the eighth month of this nightmare, it seems fair to ask public figures to not brazenly flout the rules on international television.

Turner, without a mask, joined his teammates for a group photo. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

2. The Rays took their starting pitcher out very early.

Unlike the Turner celebration, this is at least defensible. Yes, Blake Snell was dealing last night: 5⅓ innings, one run, two hits, no walks and nine strikeouts. And he’d thrown only 73 pitches, so fatigue wasn’t a factor. In the old days (10 years ago), no one would even be up in the bullpen.

But this is 2020, and these are the Rays. Baseball’s most analytics-savvy team didn’t get to the World Series on baseball’s third-lowest payroll by doing things the conventional way. And their analysis says that a pitcher’s effectiveness decreases dramatically on his third time through the opponent’s batting order. Better to bring in one of Tampa’s endless supply of flame-throwing relievers at that point. So after Snell gave up a one-out, bases-empty single to L.A.’s No. 9 hitter in the sixth inning, Tampa manager Kevin Cash did what he’s done all season long — he yanked his starter before he could face the leadoff man for the third time.

Unfortunately, a sound process doesn’t always translate to sound results. Reliever Nick Anderson promptly coughed up a double to Betts, then uncorked a wild pitch that scored the tying run, then allowed an infield grounder that brought in Betts with the go-ahead run.

Second-guessing managers’ decisions on whether to pull their starting pitcher is nothing new (ask Grady Little). But this one jacked up the heat on the simmering culture-war bickering between (mostly younger) stats-worshipping fans and old-school types who wish the game would go back to the way it was. On that: you can’t blame the Rays for doing what it takes to win. They are baseball’s guerrilla fighters. But it’s reasonable to miss the days when the starting-pitcher duel in a big game provided a ready-made narrative and sometimes even the air of a heavyweight title fight. Things just seemed better — and certainly simpler — back then.

It wasn’t all bad, though.

If you can get past all the things we just went over (and, yes, that’s asking a lot), some good baseball stuff happened in this series. For the Dodgers, shortstop Corey Seager won the World Series MVP award after batting .400 with two homers and five RBIs in the six games. Betts added an insurance homer in the eighth, further cementing his status as one of baseball’s biggest stars. The much — and probably unfairly — maligned Clayton Kershaw finally got a ring (and the monkey off his back) with a solid post-season that should silence those who called the three-time Cy Young winner a choker.

On the Tampa side, Randy Arozarena turned in an all-time-great post-season run that, unfortunately, will probably be lost to history because his team lost. His homer in the first inning was his third of the World Series and 10th in his last 18 games. He batted .377 in 20 playoff games. He won the ALCS MVP award and probably would have added the World Series MVP if the Rays won the title.

Arozarena is a great story — a 25-year-old Cuban defector who spent the first month of the season in isolation after contracting the coronavirus, and who no one thought much of until he suddenly became a star on the sport’s biggest stage. So maybe there’s hope for baseball. And for all of us.

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AMD’s New Radeon RX 6000 Series Is Optimized to Battle Ampere

Ever since AMD bought ATI, gamers have asked if there was an intrinsic benefit to running an AMD GPU alongside an AMD CPU. Apart from some of the HSA features baked into previous-generation AMD APUs and a brief period of dual graphics support, the answer was always “No.” From 2011-2017, AMD simply wasn’t competitive enough in gaming for the company to invest in that kind of luxury concept.

AMD’s RX 6000 GPUs will be the first cards that can specifically take advantage of platform-level features inside the 500-series chipset. We’re going to talk more about that specific feature and several others later on, but it’s one of the most interesting things AMD discussed today, and I wanted to get it on the board.

Before we go deeper on new features, let’s talk about the new cards. Click on images to enlarge them; all images below are from AMD’s launch event.

Meet the RX 6000 Series

AMD is launching three new GPUs: Radeon RX 6800, Radeon RX 6800 XT, and Radeon RX 6900 XT. Here are the relevant specs on each:

The Radeon 6800 is a 3,840-core GPU with an 1815MHz base clock and a 2.105GHz boost clock. It features 128MB of Infinity Cache (more on that shortly), 16GB of GDDR6, and 250W of total board power. Like the other two GPUs today, it uses a 256-bit memory bus (more on that shortly). Total board power is 250W, including VRAM.

AMD has positioned the 6800 well above the RTX 3070’s $ 499 launch price, so the GPU will need to demonstrate this kind of lead in our own testing to carry the price point. Features like 16GB of VRAM may help with that, though we’ll have to see if the extra RAM is useful at any practical detail levels the GPUs can reach. (It may be useful for AI GPU upscaling, where VRAM is worth its weight in gold.)

Note that this RX 6800 was tested using Smart Access Memory. This is AMD’s new technology that leverages the 500-series motherboard platform to give the CPU full access to GPU RAM, rather than limiting the window to 256MB. This supposedly improves performance somewhat, even on unoptimized titles. AMD is leveraging it to compete as well as it is against the RTX 2080 Ti. Just something to keep in mind.

Next up, the Radeon RX 6800 XT:

The RX 6800 XT offers 72 compute units (4,608 cores), a 2015MHz game clock, 2250MHz boost clock, 128MB Infinity Cache, 16GB of GDDR6, and 300W of total board power consumption. Performance-wise, it’s expected to compete against the RTX 3080. When you check these numbers, note that AMD is not using Smart Access Memory to show these results:

As for 4K, you can see those figures below:

Eyeballing the graph, the ratios are mostly the same, but Nvidia gains ground on AMD in Doom Eternal, Resident Evil 3, and Wolfenstein: Young Blood for sure. I’m less certain of the others, due to the off-angle comparison, but it’s something we’ll check on when we get cards. AMD also took some pains to point out that this GPU draws just 300W to Nvidia’s 320W. Price? $ 649.

Finally, there’s the Radeon 6900 XT:

As rumored, the 6900 XT is 80 CUs (5,120 cores), with the same 2015MHz base clock, 2.25GHz boost clock as the 6800 XT. It also packs the same 16GB of VRAM, the same 26.3B transistors (all three chips are obviously using the same chip design), and a price tag of $ 999. AMD is claiming an absolute uplift in performance per watt of 1.65x, over and above the 1.5x target it set for RDNA2. This implies AMD is binning the cards aggressively, as it did with Radeon Nano.

Note that in this set of comparison figures, AMD is explicitly activating both Smart Memory Access and a one-touch overclocking feature called Rage Mode. With Rage Mode enabled and on its preferred platform, the RX 6900 XT can pace the RTX 3090, even outperforming it in spots. If we didn’t have these features in place, the performance gaps would presumably be larger. The flip side to that, of course, is that the RTX 3090 has an MSRP of $ 1,500, where the Radeon 6900 XT has an MSRP of $ 1,000.

AMD’s Special Features

If you’re familiar with high-end GPU design, you’re probably wondering why AMD is building its highest-end chips with just 256-bit memory buses. The answer is a new feature AMD built into RDNA2 dubbed Infinity Cache. We don’t have much detail yet on how the large cache structure is allocated, but the company did show some information on how it compares with using a wider memory bus:

Evidently, it’s more efficient to deploy a large cache backed by a smaller VRAM bus than to simply deploy more GDDR6.

The company credits techniques like Infinity Cache, along with fine-grain clock gating, pipeline rebalancing, and redesigned data paths for boosting the overall performance of RDNA and delivering a total 1.54x uplift in performance-per-watt. Sustained clocks have supposedly improved ~1.3x over and above standard RDNA.

Smart Access Memory is a feature that only works with 500-series chipsets, but allows the Ryzen CPU to access all 16GB of GPU VRAM, rather than being limited to the standard 256MB aperture size. This reportedly allows for more efficient data allocation in VRAM and improves overall performance.

Rage Mode, referenced above, is a one-click overclocking option that will need to be a great deal better than any previous one-click overclocking option I’ve ever tested in order to pay dividends. Between Rage Mode and Smart Access Memory, AMD believes it can boost the baseline performance of the 6800 XT by a fair bit.

Game speed improvements range from 2 percent to 13 percent, with an average performance uplift of around 6.4 percent.

AMD is also continuing to expand its library of FidelityFX features:

Those are the major announcements from the event. Obviously, AMD has thrown down something of a gauntlet here. The RX 6900 XT and RX 6800 XT are both priced below their Nvidia counterparts, while the RX 6800 comes in somewhat above the RTX 3070. AMD clearly believes it’s got a strong position with this part.

The stage is set for two major showdowns in the next few weeks in both the CPU and GPU markets. This is going to be downright interesting. As always, take all manufacturer benchmarks with a grain of salt, though AMD’s performance claims do broadly line up with where we expected the company to fall versus Ampere. The big question, of course, is whether these cards will actually ship to consumers in significant numbers, or if they’ll all end up on eBay.

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