Sunday, 20 June 2010

Tech Report: Inside The Xbox 360 Slim

Earlier on in the week at E3 in Los Angeles Microsoft unveiled the brand new slim version of the Xbox 360, finally ending rumours of a new outer casing design and internal component revisions. We first reported on the 360 slim way back in march when photos of its motherboard were leaked onto the internet, showcasing what looked like a combined CPU/GPU on a single chip or die, and boasting a more efficient single fan cooling system. Now, with the console starting to filter into homes and into the hands of various tech-savvy enthusiasts, we can finally take a look under the hood of the machine and its internals.

Those of you expecting any last minute revelations are likely to be disappointed, as much of what we said back in our original 360 slim report was pretty much 100% correct. The use of a combined CPU/GPU and EDRAM, internal fitting hard drive, optical output, and external power supply are all correct and present, as is too the lack of any memory card slots or ability to use the old 360 hard drives on the new unit.

Looking at the final retail console’s motherboard (pics of which are quickly circulating around online) we can see that this latest revision of the 360 console uses the long-time rumoured Valhalla chipset, which consists of a CPU, GPU, and EDRAM all on one package. I say package as each of the chips are single entities housed all on one die, with the CPU and GPU produced on a 45nm process node.

As for the EDRAM, well it looks like that might also be produced at 45nm like the other two chips, although this isn’t confirmed. Last we heard TSMC were having trouble shrinking down the EDRAM on a 45nm process so we surmised that it might have to be done on something like 55nm. This now doesn’t seem to be the case, with sources pointing to the chip being finally fabbed at 45nm, which also goes hand in hand with reports that the Valhalla chipset as a whole is being manufactured at the Global Foundries owned Chartered Semiconductor.

Anyhow, the brand new single die design means that the chip runs a lot cooler than previous versions, which are larger and more power hungry. The advantage is that the new slim can be cooled with just one fan, and an efficient heat dissipation system build around that design. To that end the fan covering the CPU/GPU/EDRAM package is housed directly below the vents situated on the top of the outer casing, along with the actual chip package itself. The fan draws in cool air from the top of the console and then blows out heated air through the sides, dissipating the heat far more efficiently than previous models were able to do.

Other than the brand new combo chip package, the motherboard has also seen a complete re-design looking a lot more streamlined than before. Much of the excess fat has been cut, and components that were no longer needed have been cut away leaving a less cluttered design behind. Again, less stuff needed to be powered equals less overall heat, so there are less likely to be any issues of additional components creating heating issues in such an enclosed pace.

One thing that does appear to be the same as in the previous Jasper model 360, is the use of those 1 Gbit Samsung DDR3 RAM chips for the system’s unified memory. With a complete revision to the CPU and GPU, along with a streamlined motherboard, one might have also expected some kind of revised memory system as well. That doesn’t appear to be the case, and although two GDDR5 sticks would be preferable, Microsoft would then have needed to replace the existing memory controller as well. Plus at this point the use of GDDR5 isn’t at all feasible with low production numbers, and the actual cost saving using the new chips might not actually be that much cheaper, if at all at present.

Perhaps just a little too much work for minimal results, especially when it really isn’t needed as the new unit already draws far less power than before. Plus, it’s likely that MS will be making a large cost saving once these fabs ramp up production of the new components found inside the console.

Moving on, unlike previously speculated the 360 slim doesn’t have a built-in internal hard drive. Instead the HDD whilst technically being internal, is also completely removable and is housed inside a custom casing created by MS, which then lives inside the back of the machine. The new HDD being used is a Hitachi HTS545025B9SA00 1.5Gbps SATA hard drive, running at a speed of 5400RPM with an 8MB buffer.

Seeing as the new HDD connects via a standard SATA port it might be possible to hook up larger capacity drives to the console, either by swapping out the hard drive from inside the MS casing, or by simply connecting one externally via the SATA port. So far no one has tried this just yet, but the modding potential is definitely there for those of you out there who are skilled enough to do so.

Once again the system’s power supply is external. As we found no evidence of it being internal in our report on the motherboard back in march, that isn’t really so surprising, and given the cooling problems of previous units probably for the best. Thankfully though the PSU is much smaller than before, and is more stylish looking too – smooth curves and all. Well, it is as stylish as a PSU can be.

Lastly, and we though this was worth a recap over our initial reveal of the unit, is the inclusion of an input for connectivity with Kinect situated above the Ethernet port. This port both powers the Kinect device along with interfacing it with the 360 console for data transfer, and processing on the 360’s end. Users of any older model 360 will have run two separate cables in order to use the Kinect; One which plugs into a USB port on the 360 to interface with the unit, and another from the Kinect going into the plug socket in order to power the device.

Clear signs point to a 360 + Kinect bundle at some point, and the motherboard and overall design for the slim console shows that this was factored into it.

Overall, Microsoft has done well in creating a streamlined and power efficient revision of the 360 console. What we have here is a rather good combination of chip/die shrinks with improved cooling and heat dissipation, meaning we should see far less in the way of hardware failures, and of course high-levels of operating noise. It’s a nicely engineered piece of kit, both internally and externally, that finally presents the format as a premium product very much in same vein as the PS3.

The brand new 360 Slim hits retailers on July 16th in the UK, with most retailers now taking preorders for the console. It is priced at £199.99, the same as the current Elite model it replaces, which along with the Arcade SKU will see a price drop the same day the slim is released.

IQGamer will of course be bringing you our hands-on with the new unit as soon as possible, hopefully right around the time of launch, or very soon after.

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