Thursday, 18 March 2010

Could This Be 360 Slim?

There have been rumours about an eventual slim line version of the 360 for a few years now, with various sources and unsubstantiated reports sighting plans for an all-in-one CPU, GPU and EDRAM chip, coupled together in one massive internal revision of the 360 console. That revision was allegedly known as Valhalla, which would see both the main processing components of the 360, along with the EDRAM, shrunk down into one power-efficient little chip, bringing down the cost of production, and allowing for a complete design makeover.

At the time, it was impossible to expect such a revision to appear for at least a couple of years, given the slow and struggling process of being able to shrink down the EDRAM in line with both the CPU and GPU inside Microsoft’s console. So much so, that only last year were the fabrication plants at TSMC were able to significantly reduce the size of the 360’s GPU, resulting in the much more reliable ‘Jasper’ revision of the hardware.

Yesterday however, two leaked photos seemed to show that those initial problems have in fact been alleviated, now allowing a combined CPU, GPU and EDRAM on a single chip, or at least on one single die containing all three separate chips, albeit much smaller in size than before. It also shows what looks like a complete re-engineering of the 360 motherboard into a much more compact form, at least one third smaller than the current design, and a glimpse into the potential release of a slim 360 console.

The two images in question were released on a Chinese tech forum, A9VG, and shows what looks like a genuine reworking of the 360 motherboard, while also revealing various other changes inherent in the basic design of the new console. The first photo above, shows the actual shape of the motherboard it self, demonstrating the new small size, at the same time teasing us with an image of a smaller combined chip underneath a stock Coolermaster cooling fan.

From what we can see, it’s pretty obvious to us, that use of an off the shelf cooling fan isn’t likely to be part of the final retail unit of this 360 slim. Instead all signs point to these photos being of a test unit, still under development and in the last stages of trialing, before being cleared for a final production to start. However what’s interesting is that the second photo clearly shows us a single CPU and GPU package on what could be a single chip, along with changes to the motherboard showing perhaps what kind of hard drive they will be using for the unit, in addition to changes with regards to the type of audio outputs available on the machine in this latest model.

This second shot shows us all of the motherboard and its features in clear view, most noticeably confirming that the CPU, GPU and EDRAM sits together on either a single chip, or more likely a single die, with the each of the three chips being separate entities integrated onto it. My reasoning behind this is that integration of the EDRAM and GPU into a single chip would actually require a major redesign in order to fit into the shader core, whilst also having to be produced on the same process node. Basically it would have to be fabricated at the same size as the main GPU, something that is still a problem at the TSMC from what I’ve been hearing.

Another thing, is that due to the photographer’s lack of removing the heat spreader, we don’t really know for sure just what is lurking underneath, or what process node the chip is on. I’m pretty sure it would have to be at least 45nm, but then it would mean that the CPU, GPU and EDRAM are definitely still separate chips housed in one die, rather than a single chip. It’s highly unlikely that the EDRAM could be processed at a 45nm; instead more along the lines of 55nm, making this part separate at least from the CPU and GPU.

Interestingly the motherboard looks to contain parts required for additional features to be present on the slim 360. Now, these are pretty much a reworking on the things which the current machine already has, just done in a different way. The first thing that comes to mind is the extra SATA connector available for use on the board, bringing the count up to two. On the current 360 the board only has a single connector, used for the DVD Rom drive, whereas here on the slim, an inclusion of a second seems to hint at an internal hard drive storage solution, or at least a new type of external connecting HDD.

An internal drive is unlikely, as it would prevent an upgrade path for arcade users, whilst also preventing Microsoft from selling larger hard drives later on down the line. However, they could in theory break free, and make a fresh start with the slim, whilst still producing HDDs for existing 360 owners. In fact, that is probably the most obvious choice, as a clean break is the only way for them to achieve a cost effect new hardware design.

Also there’s no sign of the mounting holes used to fix the existing DVD drive into the unit, and at any rate, it would not fit into the new slim design, leading me to believe that either MS are planning to give us a shiny slot loading type drive, or are simply moving its position around a bit. Perhaps they will use some kind of top-loading system for the slim, although more likely is another version of the current slot-loading drive found in the fat 360s.

Memory card readers have also been cut down to one unit now, and there is no sign of any inbuilt wireless adaptor, which is disappointing. I guess MS are making too much of a killing by selling the existing Wireless N adaptor at 60 quid, and would rather continue with their lucrative margin on accessories. However, they have seen fit to at last include an optical output on the back of the new unit, meaning the end of buying the overpriced audio dongle for surround sound when using a HDMI cable without an HDMI compatible amplifier.

From what we gather, the power supply seems to be another external jobbie, unlike the tightly integrated PSU of the slim PS3, which although mildly disappointing, at least allows the machine to be potentially much smaller than the current design. In that respect we expect the overall size of this new 360 to be smaller and more representative of its unofficial ‘slim’ moniker than with the latest PS3. You could say that from the motherboard photos it could well end up looking a little bit like the Dreamcast, just with a stylish slot loading drive instead of an outdated top-loader design.

That’s pretty much all we know right now, not being able to shed anymore light on that interesting single chip/die CPU, GPU and EDRAM combination, or to ascertain whether this latest revision of the 360 hardware is in fact a slim console, or just another revision, albeit a massively more drastic one.

All signs do point to something major happening though, with Microsoft advertising for a Motherboard Design Engineer for the Xbox console, who is being described as being responsible for "aggressive cost reduction of the console throughout the life of the product”, and at the same time, past candid statements from company execs, which detailed plans for a brand new version of the 360 console due to release at the same time as Natal.

As per usual Microsoft declined to talk about the matter, issuing the same “we don't comment on rumour and speculation” line heard many times before, but this isn’t the first time such unofficial leaked information has provided the solid background for hardware confirmation. PS3 slim was revealed in much the same way many months before it was announced and released.

Ultimately we don’t know whether this is going to be a 360 slim for sure, though all signs do point that way, and in any case, Microsoft like Sony, wouldn’t want to reveal anything too soon as not to disrupt current sales of the existing 360 console, especially many months before the new machine is ready to go.

Either way, it won’t be long before we find out even more details, and we're willing to bet that unofficial leaks will be the leading source of information long before any official announcement takes place.

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