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Thermal considerations in Microsoft’s Xbox Series X design

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By Nick Flaherty

In just shy of three years, Microsoft has sold over 51m units of its Xbox console as of February 2020. An updated version of console, the Xbox One X, was released 2017 with 40 per cent more power than any other gaming system at the time of release. Despite its popularity, the console has had its fair share of stumbling blocks, like the device suddenly shutting off.  Overheating has also been an issue that’s kept cropping up over time with the Xbox One being the main perpetrator.

In December of 2019, Microsoft announced the Xbox Series X, a console promising to be the fastest and most powerful one yet. We’ve seen evidence within the current prototype that suggests thermal engineering has played a role in the design of the console.

We’ve taken a look at recent insights provided to Eurogamer by Jim Wahl, director of mechanical engineering for Xbox Hardware and Chris Kujawski, Principal Designer at Microsoft to shape our conclusions on the thermal design of the new console.

The prototype is bulkier, and a noticeable design evolution from the Xbox One X. The shape is completely different – a horizontal, heavier, and more solid feel to previous designs. First impressions clearly show the air gets pumped into the machine through the bottom of the device, and the design is packed with components while maintaining airtight . 

The earliest requirements of the new console design needed technical aspects that parallel and improve on the existing performance of the Xbox One X, such as acoustic performance. The device also had to have twice the graphics performance, +4x the CPU and a 350w power supply. Additionally, this power supply needed to be internal to the device itself and have regulators have a power density of 100W/in2. These demanding requirements all require vast performance power, airflow, and effective cooling mechanisms. The engineers therefore must have had to split motherboard either side of its central aluminium spine so that cool air goes past both parts resulting in a better airflow.

There is a balancing act between electromagnetic radiation shielding and cooling. The radiation must be kept within the machine, but the device simultaneously must dissipate a vast amount of heat. The cooling process needs open holes, while the shielding process needs a closed metal box. Xbox 360’s design addressed this with through shielding with vents around the outside of the device.

The Series X has localised shielding around key components, which allows the Series X to have more open and larger vents. 

The Series has a huge heatsink with an integrated, with a copper vapour chamber with  aluminium heat sink fins. The use of a vapour change is new and must have been necessary to dissipate the huge amount of heat being generatedg. The heatsink component is essential for maintaining the parallel cooling system the device needs to run effectively. This parallel cooling system structure can allow air flow to dissipate throughout the device from multiple angles, maintaining the integrity of the device and halting overheating.

Other components include an SSD with a spring to push down and dissipate heat away from the device. The single internal fan is also huge at 130mm but is still effective and will work quietly within the device, a luxury that previous consoles haven’t had. These advancements will provide 70 per cent more airflow then the previous generation and 20 per cent more air flow through the heat sink itself.

Using thermal simulation is likely to have played a significant part in knowing how the final components would make a functioning prototype with effective cooling mechanisms. The geometry of the device is defined by the optical drive and heat sink width and height – which is determined by the airflow.

Simulation can factor in these complex design necessities, to meet all of the necessary cooling requirements before prototype creation, allowing engineers to create models they can have confidence in.

The next generation of Xbox console has massively high expectations so design considerations and simulation could have been a necessary factor influencing the design of the Xbox Series X.

Tom Gregory is 6SigmaET Product Manager at Future Facilities.


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