Xbox Series X SSDs may use Phison flash controllers

Reports say Microsoft's next-gen Xbox Series X could use Phison-controlled SSDs, but this doesn't tell us all that much.

Derek Strickland
Published Wed, Jan 15 2020 3:20 PM CST   |   Updated Tue, Jun 16 2020 4:29 PM CDT

A new report from DigitTimes says Phison memory controllers will power the Xbox Series X's NVMe SSD. This doesn't tell us exact info, but it does help us narrow down possible performance specs.

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Everything we've heard about next-gen consoles makes us think they'll use customized SSDs, possibly in lieu of an existing OEM solution. Specifics have been tremendously light--we've speculated on everything from ReRAM memory acceleration to software-defined flash--but now reports say Phison will supply the flash memory controllers in Microsoft's Xbox SX.

So what does this mean exactly? What kinds of speeds can we expect? It all depends on a lot of unknowns: which Phison memory controller the SSD uses, the type flash that's incorporated, and the type of DRAM that's involved. And of course how the operating system is tooled to use the storage.

First let's go over what a flash memory controller actually is so we can understand why and how it'll affect the SSD.

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Flash controllers are basically specialized CPUs made up of Arm Cortex cores that communicates directly with the flash memory and the host computer (in this case the Zen 2 CPU included in the Xbox SX's APU). Flash controllers have special firmware housed on the storage, and handle all reading and writing procedures as well as garbage collection, or the process of reallocating space once the flash memory is full.

They're vital components to any storage device, especially high-performance SSDs. The more optimized your controller is, the faster your drive can be.

Phison makes some of the best flash controllers in the industry. It's not out of the norm if Phison memory controllers are outfitted on next-gen console SSDs. Many companies like Corsair, TeamGroup, Sabrent, and Aorus use Phison memory controllers in their SSDs. Other companies like Samsung, who may be supplying the next-gen PlayStation 5's SSD, use their own custom memory controllers.

Right now their latest controller is the PS5018-E18, a 12nm chip that can deliver a blazing-fast 7GB/sec sequential reads/writes on the PCIe 4.0 interface across 4x lanes. The E18 supports up to 16TB capacities and has random read/writes of 1M IOPS.

This of course would mean the Xbox Series X uses a PCIe 4.0 SSD on the NVMe 1.4 specification, which the console's Zen 2 CPU is fully optimized to not only support, but to maximize speeds of. And of course it'd mean the memory solution is more expensive.

The E18's performance might be overkill though. Those kind of transfer rates aren't really needed for gaming, but handling of mass data.

If Phison is providing controllers for the Xbox Series X's SSD, then it's more likely they use something below the E18, possibly the E16 controller, which can deliver up to 5GB/sec reads and 4.4GB/sec writes on PCIe 4.0 4x via the NVMe 1.3 spec. The E16 hits impressive 750K IOPs random reads/writes.

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Photo: Anandtech

These are theoretical max performance thresholds so whether or not the SSD actually hits them depends on the flash used--whether it's low-cost but more spacious QLC (Quad-layer cell) or the higher-cost but faster SLC (Single-layer Cell).

We've reviewed a few SSDs using the E16 controllers including the Seagate Firecuda 520 1TB NVMe drive and TeamGroup's Cardea Zero Z440 1TB NVMe SSD.

But there's a lot we still don't know about the SSDs, and more we probably won't know until someone tears them down. Microsoft is unlikely to provide this kind of deep level of specifications for their systems. If anything we'll probably get something akin to "custom SSD with x read/write speeds". We'd also like to know what kind of DRAM the SSD uses, but it's likely DDR4 (the better the DRAM, the faster the drive. Here's how DRAM is involved with SSDs).

The storage is possibly custom-designed by Microsoft to synergize directly with the new 7nm AMD SoC and allow interesting things such as more dynamic and involved memory paging that allows the SSD storage to be used as virtual RAM.

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Here's what Microsoft's said about the solid state drive so far:

"We've created a new generation of SSD. We're actually using the SSD as virtual RAM. We're seeing more than 40x performance increases over the current generation," Microsoft said in the Project Scarlett E3 2019 reveal video.

"The combination of the SoC and the solid state drive are really what gives you a totally new experience."

"Now we can take all of that power and apply all of that back into the scene, and generate more life into that world and bring it to the gamer in a seamless way."

Whatever the SSD turns out to be, we know for sure it'll be a game-changer for the console gaming industry. Phison's E16 chip alone allows for roughly 100x the current performance of HDDs in today's consoles.

Microsoft could reveal more info on the Xbox Series X's SSD later this year, likely at E3 2020 with a big blowout event.

Xbox Series X is due out by Holiday 2020. No pricing has been announced.

Check below for confirmed specs and details, and a huge content listing of everything we've heard about Xbox Series X so far:

Xbox Series X confirmed details (Formerly Project Scarlett):

  • 8-core, 16-thread Zen 2 CPU
  • Navi GPU on RDNA architecture
  • Highly customized 7nm SoC from AMD
  • GDDR6 memory
  • 2x Xbox One X's 6TFLOPs of GPU perf
  • 4x CPU power of Xbox One generation
  • Can deliver up to 40x more performance than Xbox One in specific use cases
  • Adaptive sync supported
  • Super-fast SSD that can be used as VRAM
  • Supports 8K resolution (likely media playback)
  • 120FPS gaming
  • Variable refresh rate (adaptive sync/FreeSync)
  • Variable Rate Shading
  • Raytracing confirmed with dedicated raytracing cores
  • Backward compatible with thousands of Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games
  • New controller with a dedicated share button
  • Compatible with Xbox One accessories

Lockhart (Unconfirmed lower-end Xbox Series hardware)

  • 1440p 60FPS
  • No disc drive
  • Super-fast SSD that can be used as VRAM
  • 7nm AMD SoC w/ scaled-down 8-core, 16 thread Zen 2 CPU at 3.5GHZ and Navi GPU
  • Lower GDDR6 memory pool (Possibly 12GB)
  • ~6-8 TFLOPs of power?
  • Aims to rival PS4 Pro/Replace Xbox One S
  • Full backward compatibility with all Xbox One games
  • Cheaper MSRP

Anaconda/Xbox Series X/Project Scarlett

  • 4K 60FPS
  • Disc drive with 4K UHD playback
  • Super-fast SSD that can be used as VRAM
  • 7nm AMD SoC with 8-core, 16 thread Zen 2 CPU at 3.5GHz and Navi GPU
  • 16GB GDDR6 RAM
  • 12 TFLOPs of power
  • 2x GPU power as Xbox One X/aims to replace Xbox One X
  • Full backward compatibility with all Xbox One games
  • More expensive MSRP

Xbox Series X coverage:

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Derek is absorbed with the intersection of technology and gaming, and is always looking forward to new advancements. With over six years in games journalism under his belt, Derek aims to further engage the gaming sector while taking a peek under the tech that powers it. He hopes to one day explore the stars in No Man's Sky with the magic of VR.

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