How Kinect is holding back the Xbox One’s graphics performance

As the new consoles quickly approach, individual big-budget games are receiving their customary multiplatform comparisons. A continuing trend among the few next-gen multiplatform game comparisons you may have noticed is that the Xbox One outputs natively in 720p, while the PS4 outputs in either 1080p or 900p. The reason for this may surprise you.

While it’s nice to know which game will perform and look better on next-gen consoles, consistent trends among the different comparisons reveal more than just which console runs each game best. They also reveal underlying traits of the consoles themselves.

Recently, an Internet ruckus was caused when the folks over at Digital Foundry did their usual in-depth comparison of Battlefield 4 for the PS4 and Xbox One. They found that the Xbox One version natively output at 720p and upscaled to 1080p, while the PS4 version natively output at the higher resolution of 900p and upscaled to 1080p. The result of this was that the Xbox One version was more aliased; Digital Foundry also found that, overall, the PS4 version of the game performed a little better.

Then, word broke that Call of Duty: Ghosts would also natively output at 720p on the Xbox One, while the PS4 would natively output at 1080p. Mark Rubin, Infinity Ward developer, noted that in order to get the game running at 60 fps on the Xbox One, it would have to output at the lower 720p.

This, of course, paints the Xbox One as an underpowered console, and while that may be the case (if only slightly), that doesn’t mean it’s so underpowered that it can’t handle a native output of 1080p running at 60 fps.

In response to the Internet ruckus, Digital Foundry dove back into the Xbox One and found that in actual fact, the console is powerful enough to reach that output and frames-per-second, but the Kinect is actually sapping the power the console needs in order to reach that desired output.

Around 10 per cent of the Xbox One’s GPU time is dedicated to functions on the operating system level, particularly Kinect tracking. This percentage of GPU resources is inaccessible to developers. So, it’s not that the Xbox One is significantly underpowered, it’s that developers cannot use the whole of the console’s resources because they’re reserved for functions other than games.

In modern times, we don’t really have dedicated devices anymore. We use our phones for just about everything – reading, gaming, music, TV and movies, and even (surprisingly!) making phone calls sometimes. Our PS3 and Xbox 360 are our primary Netflix machines, and even our PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS have non-gaming, media-focused apps. So, Microsoft isn’t exactly in the wrong for wanting to shore up its next-gen console’s non-gaming capabilities.

However, in the long run, when the Kinect is inevitably underused for gaming and the UI, and it’s relegated to primarily being a voice-activated power button, that reserved 10 per cent will come back and bite Microsoft in the butt. This will especially be the case when we get further into the PS4’s lifecycle, and the games begin to look much better than they did at launch. Microsoft could eventually relent on its Kinect initiative and manoeuvre those 10 per cent of resources back into the hands of game developers.

As we saw with the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation, though, even when a console is underpowered and a pain to develop for, developers eventually find their stride and the console catches up – as the PS3 did with the Xbox 360, both in terms of quality titles and overall sales. Until then, these comparisons where the PS4 performs better than the Xbox One should become the norm.

For more on the next-gen consoles, see our article about why you can expect problems from day one of the launch of the Xbox One and PS4, and also our piece about the PlayStation 4's easily replaceable hard drive, and how the Xbox One isn't playing ball with enthusiasts.