It hasn't been an easy generation for the Xbox.
Microsoft has been playing catch-up with the PlayStation 4 ever since their ill-fated decision to center the Xbox One around the Kinect and always-online connectivity. That, combined with their inability to drum up high-quality exclusives, has had them behind the eight ball this cycle.
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But give them credit: They've been trying to get better. The Xbox One X is the culmination of the process that began with Microsoft decoupling the Kinect from their console, repositioning it as a more traditional system rather than an all-powerful media center.
The inclusion of a UHD Blu-ray Player aside, there's no question what the Xbox One X wants to be the best and most powerful game console around.
Now let's talk about whether they're able to pull it off.
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The Xbox One X's Specs, Performance, and What's in the Box
Upon first glance, the Xbox One X manages to refine the original Xbox One's design without losing any of its key features. It looks like someone removed all the empty space within the original console and shrunk it down considerably, making it a small but dense little machine. It retains the HDMI In port, but the Kinect now requires an adapter (sold separately). One big change: the main USB port can now be found on the front of the system, making it somewhat more accessible depending on your entertainment center.
Here's what's in the box:
- Xbox One X Console
- Updated Xbox One X Controller
- Two Double-A Batteries
- HDMI Cable
- Power Cable
- One Month Xbox Game Pass Trial
You'll notice the difference between the power brick and the new power cable pretty much immediately.
The Xbox One X's controller features the same matte black finish as the console, and it's as solid and comfortable as ever. It also includes Bluetooth radio compatibility and a 3.5mm headphone jack—a blessing in an era where proper headphone jacks are increasingly falling by the wayside.
Another Xbox One X feature that is a welcome addition despite falling out of fashion elsewhere is its 4K UHD Blu-ray Player. This alone may make the Xbox One X a worthwile purchase for some; though, in a weird quirk, it's only accessible once you download the Blu-ray app (hopefully you have access to an Internet connection). If you want to show off your 4K TV to your friends, consider picking up a copy of Planet Earth II and really knocking their socks off with super high-definition footage of cheetahs and penguins. If you're still the type who buys disc media, it's a great way to watch 4K UHD films.
Ultimately, though, that's probably not why you're investing an Xbox One X. Unlike the launch Xbox One, the Xbox One X has no pretensions about dominating your living room: It's a gaming console to its core. Since its announcement, Microsoft has positioned the Xbox One X as a powerhouse console—a true beast of a machine capable of outputting games in native 4K with nary a framerate hitch to be found.
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Here are the specs:
- CPU: Eight custom x86 cores clocked at 2.3GHz
- GPU: Integrated AMD graphics with six teraflops of performance
- RAM: 12 gigabyte GDDR5
- Storage: 1 terabyte
- Assassin's Creed Origins (reports vary on whether or not it will be native 4K)
- Call of Duty: WW2
- Crackdown 3
- FIFA 18
- Madden 18
- F1 2017
- Forza Horizon 3
- Forza 7
- Gears of War 4
- Halo Wars 2
- L.A. Noire
- Mafia 3
- Middle-earth: Shadow War
- NBA 2K18
- Quantum Break
- Rise of the Tomb Raider
- Sea of Thieves
- Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind
- World of Tanks
- Zoo Tycoon
Much has been made of the Xbox One X's teraflop count—a technical buzzword that indicates how many calculations it's capable of performing. Basically, the fact that it has more of them than the PS4 Pro means that it has more processing power, which is obviously important when trying to run games in 4K.
While only a tiny handful of games currently take advantage of its capabilities—with more due at launch—the ones that do are very impressive. Foremost among them is Gears of War 4, which includes 4K, HDR, Dolby ATMOS support, and a 60fps Performance Mode. To the untrained eye, the difference compared to the base system might be a bit subtle, but the difference is definitely there: the textures stand out more, the colors are more nuanced and everything looks just a bit sharper.
It's certainly an upgrade over the original Xbox One and the Xbox One S, especially if you have a TV to support it. It's a bit harder to parse the differences between Xbox One X and its nearest competition—the PS4 Pro—with the naked eye, though those differences also exist. The biggest difference is in the fact that the Xbox One X supports "native 4K." The PS4 Pro is ostensibly capable of running games in 4K, but its games tend to resort to technological tricks like checkerboarding to produce an upscaled effect. It also frequently suffers slowdown in the areas outside of gameplay—for instance, when a pitcher is walking around the mound in MLB The Show. This has led some PS4 Pro owners to choose performance options over pure visual fidelity.
Correction: The initial review incorrectly asserted that the PS4 Pro is incapable of outputting in native 4K. In fact, while its relatively rare owing to its less powerful processor, some games like Skyrim Enhanced Edition do indeed run in native 4K on the PS4 Pro. Unfortunately, as Digital Foundry points out, doing so often means sacrificing a smooth framerate. We regret the error.
This is not an issue with the Xbox One X. While enhanced games like Gears of War 4 have a desirable Performance Mode that will push the framerate to 60fps, it feels just as nice with all the visual bells and whistles turned on.
These differences aside, the Xbox One X's specs translate into slightly faster load times and smoother scene transitions in general. Playing Madden 18, for example, you'll notice that the intro is just a bit silkier than the PS4. It's a very small difference, but these differences add up.
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Another advantage that the Xbox One X has over its competition: Its full support for high-end Dolby ATMOS sound output, which should make home theater owners very happy. It can also output into headphones, but you'll sadly have to pay $14.99 for that privilege.
Let me just say, though, that it's worth it. Playing Gears of War 4 with a nice pair of Sennheiser headphones, I was really struck by the superiority of the audio quality. The little details are evident when you have ATMOS going: distant gunfire, the shouts of your teammates, loudspeaker announcements. In effect, I had a surround sound system in my head.
Taken together, it's evident to me that the Xbox One X keeps its promises. At its very best, it is clearly an upgrade over the base versions of the Xbox One, and even the roughly comparable PlayStation 4 Pro.
But, of course, there are other factors involved.
What Native 4K and HDR Actually Means
So the Xbox One X can output in native 4K and HDR. What does that actually mean?
The difference is there, but it can be subtle at times. Mostly, it's evident to me in the way that the colors pop. Different colors contrast more vibrantly; the blacks are deeper, and the reds and oranges almost burst out of the screen. The subtlety of the lighting is much more apparent when playing with HDR turned on.
That said, it's not always desirable. Getting the most out of HDR can require a lot of tuning to get right; and even then, it can seem a bit dim at times. Room lighting is hugely important: If your living room has a bright light source, you may not want to bother because the subtlety gets lost.
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Some of the onus is also on the developers to optimize for the tech. Getting the most out of HDR requires good lighting and a keen understanding of how the colors contrast. Forza 7 and Forza Horizon 3 both nail this aspect even without the Xbox One X's enhancements: both feature some astonishingly beautiful HDR-enhanced graphics. FIFA 18, by contrast, is much less impressive. I spent ages fiddling with the settings, and I never really got it to the point where I was happy. The contrast between sun and shadow was way too distracting.
With some games it simply doesn't matter that much. Super Lucky's Tale is touted as an Xbox One X enhanced game with 4K graphics, but it looks like it can run comfortably on the Wii U. Indeed, if the Switch has proven anything, it's that we live in a post-graphics world. Golf Story can absolutely compete on the same level as Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
But when developers really get 4K and HDR, it can be downright beautiful. So if you really want to show off the Xbox One X's power on your 4K TV, the best games for doing so are likely to be Gears of War 4 and Forza 7—the latter of which will have full enhanced support on November 7th.
Here are some of the other notable games slated to get full 4K and HDR support for the Xbox One X (Bolded confirmed to be available at launch on November 7).
There are many other enhanced games in Microsoft's full list, but few support both HDR and native 4K.
It's a decent if somewhat limited list, and Microsoft is topping it off with additional enhancements for four Xbox 360 games: Halo 3, Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Assassin's Creed. Some of these will be getting enhanced 10-bit color depth as opposed to the 8-bit offered by the Xbox 360, and some will see enhanced resolution.
But the amount of support can vary wildly from game to game, which is indicative of how new 4K still is. Some will support native 4K; some will only support HDR, and some will focus on a 60fps framerate. That makes the graphics quality pretty variable, especially among third-party releases. While FIFA and Madden are getting both 4K and HDR, for example, NHL 18 will only be supporting 4K. Final Fantasy XV is being touted as a 4K release, but it won't be in native 4K. It can be pretty bewildering, with publishers all operating on their own timetables.
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The best support will go to first-party releases Microsoft, which is to be expected. But, of course, that's a whole other problem for the Xbox One X, and perhaps its greatest weakness overall.
The Verdict: Is the Xbox One X Worth Buying?
The Xbox One X is presented as a premium console. It's there to push your expensive home theater system and your fancy 4K television to their respective limits. And that's exactly what it does.
Still, it has to be said: $500 is a pretty steep asking price for what the Xbox One X has to offer. Moreover, Microsoft's first-party selection isn't that great, leaning heavily on merely decent refreshes of last generation's hits. Both Gears of War and Halo have long since lost their luster, and Quantum Break is middling, which leaves Forza to carry the bulk of the load (and even Forza 7 has its issues).
In terms of service, Xbox's main advantage is its selection of Xbox 360 and classic Xbox games; its compatibility with Windows 10 games via Xbox Play Anywhere; and Xbox Game Pass—a monthly subscription service that currently offers access to more than 100 games.
If you already own a PS4, the exclusives don't offer much incentive to double dip. If you're an existing Xbox One owner, the upgrades are very nice, but not such a leap that they demand a massive outlay of cash. That leaves the existing sliver of people who have yet to adopt into the current generation, and the ultra high-end console games who for some reason aren't already playing on a gaming PC.
Put simply: The Xbox One X is a pretty niche offering. It's nice that it exists, but it's hard to recommend without reservation, and support for its full feature set is currently extremely variable. That said, the ability to run a game natively in 4K at a solid framerate is nothing to sneeze at—it's something that even strong gaming PCs still struggle with. In that light, you might say that $500 is a bargain given that Microsoft is also tossing in a 4K UHD Blu-ray player.
The best recommendation I can give is that I will be requesting review copies for the Xbox One from now on. After all, now that I actually have an Xbox One X in my house, I'm inclined to put my expensive 4K TV to good use.
But if you're still undecided on which premium console to choose, just know that I would personally choose the console with the widest selection of exclusives. All those teraflops are impressive; but in the end, it's still all about the games.