No, unplugging Kinect won't make your Xbox One 10% faster

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In yesterday's blog post I mentioned a tweet from Microsoft's Phil Spencer saying that a new Xbox One dev kit gives developers more GPU bandwidth to use in crafting their games. Obviously I wasn't the only tech blogger to notice this and there's been a lot of coverage since.

But like the old game of telephone, the message seems to have been distorted as it spread and I'm seeing headlines like Microsoft: Xbox One is 10 percent more powerful without Kinect (that one is from CNET). Since a lot of people never get past reading the headlines of a post, I'm hearing people say that unplugging Kinect will make the Xbox One 10% faster, or that the new Xbox One SKU that ships without Kinect is somehow 10% faster than the Xbox One that comes packed with Kinect.

None of this is true. What is happening is that game developers are getting a new software development kit that allows them to utilize resources that, in previous versions of the SDK, were reserved for Kinect. So it's still good news; it still means we could be getting better looking games. But it has nothing to do with whether or not a Kinect is plugged into your Xbox One.

But don't take my word for it, listen to Xbox's Larry Hryb on Twitter:

"Dear Media: The GPU change was developer facing. Unplugging Kinect does not get you more HP. Devs have to code to the new specs."

Now I'm going to dive into my own speculation as to what is going on. Put on your tin-foil hats and get comfortable.

When every Xbox One came with a Kinect, I suspect Microsoft pressured developers to take advantage of the peripheral in order to make the Xbox One version of a game unique (or just to make gamers happy to own Kinect).

Starting next week some portion, and possibly a large portion going forward, of the Xbox One install base won't have a Kinect. There's no longer a reason for Microsoft to push developers towards shoe-horning Kinect support into their games. (It seems pretty clear to me that Microsoft has all but given up on Kinect for gaming at this point. I think they'll continue to be enthusiastic about it for the Xbox One's "media box" capabilities.)

From there, it's an obvious step to tweak the SDK so that developers can now have access to the resources that were formerly dedicated to Kinect. That extra 10% of GPU power in exchange for not supporting Kinect would be extremely tempting to most developers, I think, and Microsoft wouldn't have wanted that choice on the table while they were pushing Kinect.

Recently a lot of cross-platform games have shipped running at higher resolutions or higher framerates on the Playstation 4 than on the Xbox One. This is becoming a marketing issue for Microsoft. I figure at this point they're more concerned with having games look as good on the Xbox One as they do on the PS4 than they are with having support for Kinect controls that gamers thus far haven't really warmed to anyway. So they give the developers what they want: more GPU power and the freedom to ignore Kinect.

In turn, the developers give gamers what they want: better looking games and the freedom to ignore Kinect!

That's all my speculation and I don't expect Microsoft to ever give us a straightforward reason. The closest they'll come is the quote they gave Eurogamer:

"Yes, the additional resources allow access to up to 10 per cent additional GPU performance. We're committed to giving developers new tools and flexibility to make their Xbox One games even better by giving them the option to use the GPU reserve in whatever way is best for them and their games."

So relax, you don't have to do anything. Game developers are going to do all the work and going forward we'll get (potentially anyway) better games thanks to the new SDK. You don't have to unplug your Kinect and you won't have a disadvantage in multiplayer if you have a Kinect and your opponent doesn't. (Yes I've seen that voiced as a concern in a comment somewhere.) Games will just disable (or partially disable) the Kinect when they start up, use those extra resources to bring you a better experience, then turn the Kinect back on when they shut down.

This is good news for all of us who own an Xbox One.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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