Ever since the days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, the world of game consoles has operated on a pretty steady rhythm. Every four to six years, a new console hits the market, and it does backflips over the previous generation. Developers find ways to milk every ounce of power out of the current systems right up until that new system is out. The systems look wildly different, and might even operate with an entirely different processor architecture inside. Backwards compatibility is a total crapshoot, so each new generation can mean starting your game collection over.
Well, no more. The PlayStation 4 Pro showed up last fall, and the Xbox One X is now in our hands, and everything is different. These new consoles aren't the revelation over their predecessors that we've seen in earlier generations, and they're only a few years newer. Every game on the system is backwards compatible, and some old games are even seeing upgrades, an idea we previously only saw through remasters and compilations. Both systems even look like their older siblings, rather than being a total redesign.
And so when we look at the Xbox One X, we're having a completely different conversation than we did when the Xbox One was originally hitting shelves back in 2013. The value in the system isn't quite as obvious as it's been with previous jumps. It's there, but you kind of have to dig for it – especially with the Xbox One X, when you factor in things like Microsoft's Xbox Play Anywhere initiative.
Let's dive in and look at what the Xbox One X offers, where it delivers, and where it stumbles.
What is this thing?
Before we figure out why someone might want to buy an Xbox One X, let's talk about what it is. With the above history of gaming consoles in mind, it's easy to get confused even if you already own an Xbox One of some kind.
The Xbox One X is part of Microsoft's growing Xbox One family. That means it plays everything an Xbox One plays, and everything that plays on an Xbox One X plays on an Xbox One. You can even have one of each on your network and move an external hard drive and game saves between the two without any extra legwork. There may come a day when Microsoft starts to build Xbox One X games that don't work with Xbox One, but if that's going to happen, it'll be when the next Xbox comes out, probably 3 or 4 years from now.
All other Xbox One accessories work, too, including controllers, headsets, that adorable Xbox One remote, and now even USB webcams.
What sets the Xbox One X apart is the engine hiding under the hood. Way back in those NES days, we measured things in bits to talk about horsepower, but these days it's floating-point operations or FLOPS. FLOPS are sort of a measure of a system's potential number of graphical computations per second. It's not a comprehensive measure of a system's power, as things like memory bandwidth can also factor in, but it's a good way to talk about these systems at a glance and to figure out where the Xbox One X sits in the lineup. With these new systems, we talk about FLOPS in the trillions, or TeraFLOPS. The last round of consoles was in the billions, or GigaFLOPS.
The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 debuted in 2013 sporting 1.3 and 1.84 TFLOPS respectively. Microsoft had gone all-in on its hope of being the center of the living room, and under-delivered on power, giving Sony an almost 50 percent lead in graphical horsepower. Last year's debut of the PlayStation 4 Pro gave us 4.2 TFLOPS of power.
The Xbox One X, on the other hand, rolls in with a whopping 6 TFLOPS whirring away under the hood. Game developers have compared the power of the system to roughly that of something like a GeForce GTX 1070, a desktop graphics card going for over $400 at the time of this writing thanks to the popularity of cryptocurrency mining.
Here's a quick look at the specs of each system:
At almost 50 percent more power than the PlayStation 4 Pro and enough horsepower to rival a much more expensive PC gaming rig, Microsoft has the numbers to back up its promise that this is the most powerful gaming console ever.
But does that actually matter?
It's still an Xbox One
The important thing to keep in mind with the One X is that it's still an Xbox One. When you turn it on for the first time, it's going to load up the same menu interface on all the other Xbox One systems out there, and that basic loading and startup is going to be roughly the same, especially when comparing to the Xbox One S.
It's not like those days of consoles past when we had a new cartridge shape, a new controller, or even a new menu interface to show us how different things were. That doesn't come in until the games this time around.
It's also still dead silent. Like the Xbox One and One S before it, the Xbox One X is a quiet system. Even when rolling with the visuals cranked up in Gears 4, it still stays out of the way. With the new black-and-grey paint job, the lit-up Xbox logo is the only sign this thing is running.
And while that drive on the front is getting less and less use as people pick up digital games more frequently, it's still there and it's the exact same drive found in the Xbox One S, with the same capabilities. It plays UHD Blu-rays exactly the same way that the Xbox One S does – if you have the display to match.
Let's talk about games
This is where things get a bit more complicated. As I said above, the difference isn't going to blow you away like it would during previous generational jumps. The feeling you get in the moment where you see the difference between The Legend of Zelda on Super Nintendo and N64 is going to be harder and harder to find. That these games have to be able to play on the older systems means that more people can play them, but it's going to hold them back, if only a little.
This stuff is somewhat difficult to capture in a static image because it's as much about movement as it is about clarity, and the two augment each other. Further complicating all of that is the jump in visual fidelity offered by HDR. While HDR-enabled televisions are exploding in popularity, HDR-enabled computer monitors are still a pretty rare beast, and a very expensive one at that. So even in motion, the full difference won't be apparent.
Gears of War 4 does offer an HDR comparison mode that enables HDR on one half of the screen and then simulates it being disabled on the other half:
Whether you'll see a difference will vary from game to game, and what the difference will be will vary, too. With Gears of War 4, for example, you can crank up the visual fidelity or the framerate in the game's campaign, putting an emphasis on gameplay or on visual performance.
Here's a pair of shots from Gears of War 4, set for performance and visuals.
The difference in a still shot isn't huge. Things get crisper when you turn on visual performance. In action, though, it's significant. If you've played the game on Xbox One and move up to Xbox One S, you'll be choosing between a jump to 60 frames per second or those boosted visuals, which come in on everything from those textures to particle effects when battles get intense.
(All footage captured using the Xbox One S and Xbox One X on-board capture software)
In games like Super Lucky's Tale, a colorful platformer with pretty simple graphics, the difference isn't that impressive at a glance. If you were to compare it between a 1080P and 4K TV of the same size, it becomes quite apparent how much more crisp the image is. A game like Quantum Break with its more complex visuals shows it off a bit better.
One of the best examples, weirdly, is Fallout 3, the Xbox 360 game. Fallout 3 is one of a few Xbox 360 games to get Xbox One X-specific enhancement, including 4K resolution and improved color range. In these shots, the improvement is clear as day. Things that are meant to be circles actually look like circles on the Xbox One X, while the 360-emulated version on Xbox One S has all the jaggies present in the original, and it actually makes it easier to play, just because it doesn't look quite so dated.
In both the video above and screenshots included, you can see sharper textures. Look out for the shopping cart in the video. In the screenshots, check out the playpen fence in the background of the shot from the game's opening scenes and the dead bush in the lower-right corner of the vista image.
Multiplatform and Microsoft-exclusive games are eventually going to be the Xbox One X's biggest strength, but right now there's a struggle.
The Xbox One X is launching with almost nothing dedicated, thanks in part to the delay of Crackdown 3 until next April. Super Lucky's Tale is about the only thing hitting the Xbox platform alongside the One X, and unless we're back in 1992 again, a mascot platformer isn't a system seller for anyone but Nintendo. So we're left with all the other games.
Right now, at this very moment, only a few games are Xbox One X Enhanced. Microsoft executives expect the number of enhanced games to approach 70 or 80 by the end of launch week, and that includes both Microsoft exclusives like Gears of War 4 and new titles like Forza Motorsport 7 and Assassin's Creed Origins. With souped-up consoles on both sides of the fence, we can expect to see just about every game that comes out from here on how to have some kind of enhancements, even if it's just running at higher resolution. Which, for many games, that's what it will be.
But this is a powerful system, and as developers get the hang of the power, games are going to look better and better on the Xbox One X.
Right now, it's hard to give an unequivocal recommendation for the system, especially for those thinking about upgrading.
There's no question, you are getting the best Xbox yet. It's a compact, dense system capable of running many games at 4K and yet others at increased resolution. There's no question that, for multiplatform games, it's going to be the best place to play them. And if you have a 4K television set, there's almost no contest. At $500, I'm not going to tell you this thing is cheap, but it is a stellar deal. It handles UHD Blu-ray discs like a champ. Seriously – check out Planet Earth II. It'll melt your brain. It plays games at high resolutions and with buttery-smooth frame rates for much cheaper than an equivalent computer. And it's a great-looking piece of hardware. It's the perfect companion to a 4K set.
(All footage captured using the Xbox One S and Xbox One X on-board capture software)
With that said, don't get a 4K set for the Xbox One X. There's still benefits to be had on a 1080p television. The supersampling effects look great in motion, even if they're tough to capture right now – though I recommend staying tuned as we look to correct that as more games with Xbox One X enhancements hit shelves in the coming weeks. It's also hard to recommend upgrading from the Xbox One S. If you don't have an Xbox and were thinking of getting one, the One X is as good as it's ever been.
Make no mistake – the Xbox One X is worth the price tag if you want to get your game on with a console, but this awkward launch timing doesn't do the system any favors. A few games that really show the system off would've been appreciated whether from Microsoft or otherwise. We're waiting to get a good look at Forza Motorsport 7 and Assassin's Creed Origins in particular as two of the lead titles that are meant to show off the system, but the Enhanced patches for those games aren't quite yet available.
If there's one thing I can say about the X, it's that it has a bright future. There's a lot of power to exploit, and developers are going to get better at using it. And if Microsoft's performance with the Xbox One has been any indication, the company will continue to optimize the software, both giving developers more room to work and better tools to work with. In other words, games are likely to look better and play better.
The Xbox One X is a great piece of hardware, and it lives up to both the promise of being the most powerful gaming console and of being the best Xbox yet.
Disclaimer: Microsoft supplied us with the standard edition Xbox One X console, a copy of Planet Earth II on UHD Blu-ray, and a variety of game codes to get the most out of the system before review.
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