What's a teraflop? Xbox's E3 gaming buzzwords, decoded

HDR gaming. High-fidelity virtual reality. Six teraflops of power. Are these terms harbingers of a newer, brighter era in gaming graphics, or just buzzwords meant to empty our wallets?

HDR gaming. High-fidelity VR. Teraflops. Harbingers of a new era in games, or wallet-emptying jargon?

Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, discusses the newly unveiled Project Scorpio and Xbox One S at the E3 gaming conference in Los Angeles. (Casey Rodgers/Invision for Microsoft/Associated Press)

"It's a monster."

That's how one speaker described Project Scorpio, the upgraded version of Microsoft's Xbox One console, in a promotional video shown at the E3 gaming conference last week.

"Coming Holiday 2017, Project Scorpio will be the most powerful console ever created," reads a Microsoft press release, "with six teraflops of GPU enabling a premier console gaming experience including true 4K gaming and high fidelity virtual reality."

The sales pitch for its lesser-powered sibling, the Xbox One S, also touts HDR gaming, which the original Xbox One, launched in 2013, does not offer.

According to multiple reports, Sony's new version of its PlayStation 4 console will also support 4K gaming and virtual reality.

But what do those terms mean?  Are they harbingers of a newer, brighter era in gaming graphics, or just buzzwords meant to empty our wallets?

Six teraflops

"Flops" is short for "floating point operations per second." Tera is a prefix for one trillion, so a device with six teraflops can make six trillion operations per second.

The more flops your computer can process, the more polygons it can draw on the screen. More polygons allows a designer to create more complex images.

The current Xbox One has about 1.32 teraflops of power. Project Scorpio is billed at six, and current reports peg the upcoming PlayStation 4 Neo at 4.14 teraflops — which will make Project Scorpio the leader in raw graphic-processing power when it is released.

But do those numbers translate into better visuals?

"That's mostly just tech wankery that doesn't mean much as far as actual player experience is concerned," says Nels Anderson, a designer and programmer for Campo Santo, maker of Firewatch. "It's mostly just 'our numbers are bigger than your numbers!' tech marketing broadsides."

Teraflops alone don't make for a powerful system.

"Final performance of any new machines always comes down to the sum of all the parts: the CPU, the GPU, memory size, memory speeds, hard drive speeds," says Bryan McConkey, a software developer at Toronto-based Capy Games. "No single piece of info gives us the full picture."

Raising the resolution

Both Project Scorpio and the PlayStation Neo will reportedly support 4K gaming, raising the resolution of images from 1,920 by 1,080 pixels (also known as 1080p) to 3,840 by 2,160 pixels.

The greater the number of pixels, the sharper the image.

Xbox Project Scorpio and the PlayStation 4 Neo will be able to output games in 4K resolution, but you'll need a 4K-capable TV. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

Like television content, however, games have to be able to output in 4K for players to see the difference. "Having actual 4K resolution on a console game would be rad, but since that jump in resolution is huge, you'd need much beefier hardware to do it," Anderson says.

HDR gaming

Short for high-dynamic-range, HDR televisions can display more vibrant colours with a higher contrast than traditional screens.

"In lay terms, bright things can be really bright, dark things can be really dark, and the details can be seen in both," computer graphics company Nvidia explained back in a 2004 presentation.

HDR capability could be a way to make some games pop visually on the less powerful Xbox One S, without requiring users to upgrade to the Project Scorpio console.

HDR-capable TVs, such as this one displayed by Leo Hernandez in his 2001 Audio Video store, have more vibrant colours and better contrast than traditional displays. (Submitted by Leo Hernandez)

Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 will support HDR on the Xbox One S when they hit stores this fall.

But just like 4K visuals, you'll need a TV with HDR capabilities. And just like 4K, they don't come cheap: Canadians are currently looking at upward of $1,500 for a 4K TV with HDR capabilities.

Virtual reality

The promo for Project Scorpio touted its support for "high fidelity virtual reality." 

VR has been in the spotlight since headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive launched earlier this year. But it typically requires powerful devices (more powerful than the current Xbox One and PlayStation 4) to run smoothly.

Anderson says a VR game needs to render at a minimum of 90 frames per second to run well, compared to traditional games' sweet spot of 60 frames per second.

"You need to render what people are seeing at a higher frame rate, otherwise it's super likely the person playing will get really nauseous," he told CBC News. (When you're surrounded by VR, less-than-smooth images can affect your equilibrium and cause motion sickness.)

Trying out the new Sony VR headset at the E3 conference. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Consumers might not need Project Scorpio levels of power to have good gaming experiences, however. Sony says its upcoming PlayStation VR headset will work with the current PlayStation 4, for instance, and won't require the PS4 Neo.

"I think better hardware opens the possibilities in terms of what kind of visual fidelity and scene complexity that we'll be able to see in VR," says Renaud Bédard, senior programmer at Square-Enix Montréal. "But it's not impossible to do it on current consoles."


Jonathan Ore


Jonathan Ore is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He regularly covers the video games industry for CBC Radio programs across the country and has also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the games industry for CBC News.