When Microsoft unveiled the Xbox Series X, it was obvious that the console was going to have some serious heat to dissipate. Its components — an eight-core Ryzen CPU, powerful SSD, and 52-CU RDNA2 GPU running at over 1.8GHz — were all guaranteed to be power-hungry parts. The Xbox Series X was accordingly large (though not as large as the PlayStation 5), and mounted a 130mm fan to vent heat from the entire console.
There are reports that the console, while quiet, runs quite warm. It sounds as though it’s hovering around the point where touching certain parts of it, like the expansion card for SSDs, can be uncomfortable while the console is in operation.
Our sister site PCMag quotes multiple individuals who have tested the console remarking on just how hot it is, with Jeux Video’s Ken Bogard saying in a no-longer-available video that: “The Series X is hot, like really hot! It doesn’t make any noise, but damn it’s hot! The console is emitting heat like crazy. It’s almost like a fireplace shaft. You can heat up your flat with it.”
PCMag does make one statement I want to unpack a little bit. It writes: “More worryingly, the games being played and producing so much heat are backward-compatible games. No next-gen titles have been played yet, which will surely push the Series X harder.”
This is not automatically true.
Turning on the ray-tracing capabilities of the RDNA2 GPU could add additional power consumption, but it will also lower the frame rate, partly offsetting the increase. We also don’t know what the penalty for enabling RT on RDNA2 will be, or how much additional power it consumes. The frame rate penalty could completely offset the heat increase if enabling RT leads to other parts of the GPU idling more often. We also cannot assume that AMD and Nvidia will pay the exact same penalty for enabling ray tracing — in the past, when AMD and Nvidia have implemented a feature in different ways, like tessellation in the days of the Fermi architecture, the power consumption of these features differed as well. AMD has not yet revealed if they dedicated specific parts of the chip to these workloads the way Nvidia did, or if they opted for a different strategy.
Games running in backward-compatibility mode could actually be drawing more power than a modern title will, not less. This might seem counterintuitive — but imagine that a game which previously ran relatively inefficiently on the Xbox 360 or even Xbox One now runs remarkably better on the Xbox Series X, thanks to increased L2, higher cache bandwidth, a higher efficiency architecture, and a faster memory bus. The Ryzen CPU core is also better at feeding the GPU than the older Jaguar core was. In these cases, the game would execute far more efficiently on the new console than the old one — and could burn more power in the process.
The game that causes the highest power consumption isn’t necessarily the title with the biggest visual effects or fastest frame rates. I used to use Left 4 Dead 2 for GPU power consumption testing long after it was outdated visually because it was extraordinarily good at pushing GPUs to use high amounts of power. It is entirely possible that playing last-generation games at top speed represents a worst-case scenario for the Xbox Series X, thermally speaking, compared with playing modern titles at slower frame rates. I’m not saying this is the case, but we don’t know enough either way to rule it out.
The final reason I suspect that the console’s ambient temperature is unlikely to change is this: If it’s uncomfortably hot to the touch now, it doesn’t have a whole lot more headroom before “uncomfortably hot” becomes “first-degree burn.” Microsoft has little interest in boosting sales of Neosporin and certainly not at the expense of its gaming division.
Note: Microsoft doesn’t seem to be using Dynamic Resolution Scaling this time around, but there’s no reason the company couldn’t use frame rate locking to maintain appropriate thermals if required. Clamping a game to 60fps or 30fps for a short period of time during a peak scene would reduce power consumption and thermals dramatically. The difference between unlocked >60fps and a static 60fps is fairly small, and even a rock-steady locked 30fps is acceptable (if less desirable). I’ll take a solid, consistent 30fps over an inconsistent 45-60fps with 15-20fps dips at random intervals any day of the week, even if I prefer higher in general.
It’s entirely possible that Microsoft needs to increase its fan speeds a bit, but I wouldn’t assume that the platform will automatically heat up even further during regular play. That could go either way.
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