Breaking it Down: Console Evolution

I am likely somewhat biased, but I thought the E3 Xbox briefing was well done. Not only was there a nice mix of hardware and software announcements (with launch dates!), but more clarity was provided on the vision and roadmap for console hardware.

But wait, that’s been the focal point of much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing. Here’s one from Engadget, speculating that Xbox One sales will dry up, because something better will appear next year.

At the macro level, here are the critical take-aways on where the industry is headed:

  1. Expect console hardware to iterate more rapidly.
  2. Expect great developers that make great games to tune for the few “click-stops” of consoles and their respective capabilities, not unlike supporting N and N-1 console generations or cross-platforms, today.
    1. Consoles and PCs are becoming more and more alike, so assets and content should be sharable, but with an extra layer of closer-to-metal API access and specific settings to be tuned for consoles.
    2. Over time, the top-of-line AAA games will raise the min-bar, but expect studios to support N, N-1 and possibly N-2 iterations, to hit the experience-install base sweet spot.
  3. And, like nearly all other industries (TVs, phones, even your toothbrush and home furnishings), potential customers will have a cost-benefit trade-off to make. A novel concept.

For the Xbox family, specifically, the One S is the natural cost and form-factor reduction version of the original One. This time, the deal has been sweetened with additional functionality and hardware (UHD Blu-Ray). The change for next year is that both the One S and Project Scorpio will exist, side-by-side, and unlike compatibility breaks of some previous generations, there won’t be one here.

Some may postpone purchases until next year, for Scorpio, but given the S is incremental and a year earlier than the typical mid-cycle refresh, I doubt there will be significant overall sales cannibalization due to the Scorpio announcement. Instead, the S maintains the new entry-$299 price-point and entices new users with a smaller, nicer-looking console, riding the wave of 4K marketing. There isn’t remotely close to 100% TAM overlap, as some allude to, nor the even more outlandish claim that someone eying an Xbox will now suddenly buy a PS4. Because, why?

Change is challenging for most to accept. So while one might question why console gaming is the anomoly in consumer electronics (recall all those bemoaning that smartphone GPUs were more capable then previous-generation consoles), the fact that it’s about to change is the most anxiety-inducing part.

Just about two years after I joined the team and a couple public demonstrations of the device later, HoloLens is now available for pre-order! That means, in very short order, devices will begin showing up on developers’ doorsteps and the vision of a holographic future unfolds.

I’m usually pretty proud of the stuff I’ve worked on, but this one holds a special place. I joined the team without any inkling of what I’d be working on, only sold on a pitch of a complete upending of how we experience technology. But since finding out the truth, it’s consumed the vast majority of my waking moments, much to the chagrin of my friends and family, I’m certain. I’ve not only dedicated much to solving technical problems, but also to help build a team and culture that will foster many more programs of similar scope and aspiration in the future.

It’s already been a crazy journey, but this is only the first step towards a much grander vision. Off we go!

Surface Book: GPU Deep Dive

The Surface Book. It was an exciting moment to watch Panos unveil a premium laptop (finally!) and, shortly thereafter, pull the display off its keyboard base. With only a few weeks between launch and hard availability, anticipation and excitement has been maintained. I even stayed home to await delivery, the morning of October 26.

There are 3 important aspects that drew me to the Surface Book:

  • All the trappings of an excellent laptop (weight, size, battery life, display)
  • Form factor versatility
  • Discrete GPU for light-medium gaming

I have lots to say about the Surface Book, but I wanted to dwell on the last point, first. I’m not a heavy gamer, but I do enjoy some strategy games, occasionally. I’ve compromised that capability in my laptop choices, to date, as I value weight and mobility more. So, needless to say, I was eager to see how the Surface Book would handle those gaming scenarios.

Microsoft (and NVIDIA) continue to remain mum on the particulars of the discrete GPU. It was announced as a Maxwell-based part, with 1GB GDDR5. Now, this is a combination that has never been seen before and, interestingly enough, Panos spoke to its use primarily as an accelerator for professional content-creation applications, such as AutoCAD and the suite of Adobe tools. Yes, some light gaming was also mentioned, such as League of Legends, but with the Surface Book’s hardware and price points targeting prosumers and content professionals, no effort was made to match, performance-per-dollar, gaming laptops.

With Surface Books in the wild, we know that it’s a GM108-based part, with 1GB GDDR5 @ 5GT/s. The 940M-equivalent GPU disappointed some, but I also expected the GDDR5-enabled bandwidth to improve performance, not insignificantly, over the standard DDR3 configuration. Here’s a spec comparison. Note the 940M core and memory speeds vary, based on design implementation.

gpu_table

With 2.5X the memory bandwidth, we should see some substantial improvements. I’ve compared game performance, across a few titles, using an 840M (from which the 940M is rebranded), the Surface Book’s integrated Gen9 HD 520, and the discrete Surface Book GPU. Framerates are average and game settings are as follows:

  • Bioshock Infinite – 1080p, Medium setting
  • Total War: Attila – 1440×900, Performance setting, Shadows – Max Performance, Texture – Medium
  • Shadow of Mordor – Surface Book @ 1500×1000, 840M @ 1536×864, Low setting

surface_book_gpu_benchmarks

Across these three games, all of which have built-in benchmarking tools, the Surface Book dGPU is 2X faster than the integrated and anywhere between 20-33% faster than the 840M/940M, from which it is derived. It does stand that in many games, like Shadow of Mordor and Attila, in the tests, 1GB VRAM limits you to lower texture fidelity, compared to 2GB; in practice, the GM108 isn’t fast enough to drive those higher textures at sufficient framerates for a good experience, anyways.

While all of this pixel-pushing is going on, the fans (both in the clipboard and in the keyboard base) spin up to varying degrees. They make their presence known primarily by a rushing, whooshing sound, and limited amount of high-pitching whine, which makes the noise more bearable than most caused by small-diameter fans and blowers.

So, you can play some games on a Surface Book, as well as it use it as a pretty slick multi-use productivity machine, otherwise. But, I as found out over the subsequent couple weeks of use, it has its share of teething pains.

Microsoft 10 Devices Event

HoloLens

Band 2

Lumia 950/XL

Surface Pro 4

Surface Book

110 million Windows 10  devices

All that, plus swagger. For the first time, in a very long time, Microsoft showed some serious swagger, and boy, do we have a portfolio of aspirational products  to lead the way through the current and future frontiers of computing technology.

The Verge put together a great summary video of this morning’s announcement. Check it out here. If you want to experience the entire 1:47, it’s over at Microsoft.com.

There is deep, burning desire across the Internet nerdom for many of the products shown today. It’s been 3 years in the making, from the first Surface experiments to an ever-more complete portfolio of Windows devices, today. This is one critical piece of Satya’s goal to move people from using Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows. It’s the beginning of what the Xbox has, a fanbase of users, who are deeply satisfied and recommend the products, without prompting.

I have no illusions of sudden grandeur or sentiment shift. I am well aware products need to crush it, many times in a row, before that goodwill is established and users start trusting the family of products (enough to pre-order, sight unseen, like others!). We’re just about there with the Surface lineup. Lumia is taking the first step in a multi-step journey. It’s also going to take a few iterations of purposeful and flawless execution to build the same position. And HoloLens, that’s even more nascent, but we know where we want to be and will drive relentlessly to deliver the vision, in its entirety.

I am excited about the products, awfully proud to be a part of the groups delivering them, and look forward to taking all these next steps.

The 5-year Crystal

I recently passed my five (5) year employment anniversary at Microsoft, which is when one receives a crystal statue and an obligation to bring 5lbs of chocolate to share with the team. It’s also the establishment at which I’ve spent the most time, since, well, elementary school (which hardly counts, right?).

Five years is both short and long, at the same time. When turnover rates in the tech space (especially in Silicon Valley) ranges from 10-15% (annual), 5 years means I’ve likely entered the upper 50% spectrum of veteran-ness at the company. At the same time, I look at previous generations, e.g. my dad, who’s worked at the same company (albeit two very different subsidiaries) for over 25 years, and I’m still a relative pipsqueak.

Okay, so I probably have more in common with other tech-industry workers; five years is a significant period of time in one place. However, it’s hardly been monotonous. I’ve found myself on three very different teams tackling three very diverse roles. And with the gift of hindsight, it’s clear a fortunate sequence of events led me to where I am, today.

My first year, in Office, as a typical Microsoft PM,  taught me the ways of Program Management, but at the same time, was not the most satisfying experience. Perhaps more than anything, it made me accept the risk of trying a completely different type of PM work.

When the opportunity arose to work in a partner-facing role on the Windows on ARM bring-up, for Windows 8, I had no formal hardware engineering experience, nor any history of working with external partners. In short, I had no business being there, but wanted the role desperately, as it so perfectly matched my personal interests. For whatever reason, the team took a chance on me and it was in the Windows Ecosystem team that I cultivated my love for systems engineering work.

The contacts I made in that position ultimately kept me at Microsoft. After 3.5 years, I was on the cusp of leaving, having made my mind up to try something else. But too many people suggested that I look into a secretive, upstart group for me to ignore. It helped that a PM, whom I greatly respect, recently moved into the group manager role and was willing to entertain my tight timeline. The combination of superstar foot traffic to the team and a final meeting with Alex Kipman convinced me to join, even though I was never told, at the time, the project I’d be working on (a story for another time). Of course, it turned out to be HoloLens, and both the project and people I’m surrounded by, daily, have made the risk, worthwhile.

It’s hard for me not to refer to recent articles about Amazon’s work environment; you’ve doubtlessly heard or read horror stories about Microsoft, as well, but as with most organizations, things are never uniformly bad or amazing. My experience tells me that there are extraordinarily talented teams working on massively innovative projects, impacting some of the largest user bases on the planet. It’s an organization I’m proud to be a part of.