Review: Xbox One X

The traditional lifecycle of gaming consoles is suddenly and rapidly changing. Until fairly recently, a new console signaled an entirely new ecosystem. A gamer reflecting on their time with the PS1 vs PS2 or the SNES vs N64 will bring about entirely different feelings from the hardware to the games to the general vibe of the console. As the line begun to blur between films and games and technology rapidly advanced, however, the changes between console generations has continually decreased. Even the PS4/Xbox One, which were released around seven years after their predecessor, weren’t a revolutionary leap. With the Xbox One/PS4 generation, we’ve begun to reach a point where consoles are simply delivery systems for games, controllers have been near perfected and visuals are getting increasingly lifelike. Much like the jump to UHD from Blu-ray, the gap is simply not as prominent. With all that taken into account, what’s to become of gaming hardware? Sony and Microsoft have made that clear: it’s to be treated like any other technology and continually be relatively marginally — but crucially — updated.

Outside of fringe devices like the 32X or TurboGrafx-CD, this is the first time in the history of gaming consoles that the leading generation of consoles received successors that were basically identical to their predecessors, but simply beefed up their power and refined the hardware. And it makes perfect sense for this to happen when it did. As proven by the aforementioned latest minor jump in the home video department, the Blu-ray format is here to stay whether that be in its standard flavor or UHD. If there is to be another physical format, it will likely just be another iteration of Blu-ray. Full 1080p HD is firmly established and will forever be perfectly acceptable with technology simply increasing the pixels and adding fun tools like HDR. Much like Apple has hit a wall with designs and predominately just keeps upgrading the innards, the gaming sector has hit the same limitations. Some may complain that their four-year-old hardware is no longer top dog, but this seems like a great compromise: make the option to jump to the latest technology be possible for those who elect to while still maintaining the last-gen technology for those who find it to be perfectly acceptable. The big question is if there’s simply enough of a jump yet to warrant this mid-quel to the Xbox One X, so let’s break down what Microsoft has dubbed “The World’s Most Powerful Console” and find out once and for all.

As with everything in life, first thing’s first: the aesthetics. We recently posted an unboxing article showing HD pictures of the entire process of opening the thing up (you have no idea how hard it was not to just tear into the console like an otter opening a clam and have the restraint to pose and photograph an HDMI cable instead, so you’re welcome for that) so we won’t go too in-depth here, but suffice it to say, this is one sexy console. The best way it can be described to the unfaithful is as a playable version of the 2001: A Space Odyssey Monolith (who got totally robbed of an Oscar, but that’s a story for another time). That’s a total compliment: this baby is sleek, compact and absolutely minimalist. There’s some who might find its design uninspired, but while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s this author’s opinion that a console should be as unassuming as possible. No matter how high end a home theater set up might be, having an Xbox 360 sitting on your TV stand with a Full Auto faceplate on top doesn’t exactly scream class. While there’s been intriguing console designs throughout the medium’s history, most of them look decidedly like a plaything. Xbox One X, one the other hand, could be mistaken for a high-end Blu-ray player like something from Oppo or Pioneer and that’s exactly what the reaction should be: it should fit into a hardware rack without sticking out like a sore thumb. It also looks more visually pleasing than the strange casing of the PS4 Pro, which although serviceable, looks like Sony simply stacked another layer of trapezoid on top of the PS4.

Another win in the design department for the console is the fact that it no longer has a unwieldy power brick that must be plugged into it. To make up for it, the console is surprisingly heavy — it feels like a solid steel brick when carrying it around — but it’s well worth it not to have that horrid thing. This was something first remedied by the Xbox One S, a console that Xbox One X shares much DNA with. Microsoft has cited X as being their smallest console ever, but we found it to be slightly bigger overall, even though its height makes it look slimmer at first glance. The Xbox One X and S also share a controller which slightly refined the controller from the original Xbox One by removing the unnecessary gloss and adding textured rubber among other small tweaks. Of course those with original Xbox One controllers can still use them with X — in fact, all Xbox One games, apps and accessories are compatible with X. Xbox One X can be placed either horizontally or vertically (with an optional stand sold separately) giving more versatility for its install. The combination of its heft and stand make it hard to tip over, but you’ll want to make sure all valuables are not stored directly underneath it because it falling would cause quite a force. Showing similarities with its brother, the X cables are interchangeable with S, making swapping out the two consoles a breeze for those who upgrade (though most people will be upgrading from an original Xbox One where the power cable must be replaced and possibly the HDMI cable depending on its vintage). Another nice touch is the phrase “Hello from Seattle – Xbox One X” embossed on its side that goes perfectly with the little Master Chief riding a scorpion printed on the circuit board that we wanted to see so much that we had to be physically restrained from opening up the console.

The Xbox One X looks the part, but considering this isn’t a review of an art piece, the million dollar question is how it performs, so let’s turn it on (which is done with an actual button and not a cat-brushable sensor as with the original Xbox One). Before getting started, Xbox One owners will want to transfer their data from their legacy console to the Xbox One X. This can be done with an external hard drive (we recommend the Seagate Game Drive for Xbox SSD). After plugging in and formatting the drive, simply highlight a game or app on the Xbox Dahsboard, press the menu button on the controller and select “Manage game” and then either “Move” or “Copy.” After copying every app or game desired (which can take a while for those who’ve amassed sizeable collections), simply unplug the drive from the Xbox One X and plug it into the Xbox One and get playing. It’s a painless process that gives new Xbox One X owners an immediate library of games (some of which have been enhanced for Xbox One X, but more on that later). Game licenses and game saves travel automatically with gamers’ profile through the cloud and previously purchased games can be downloaded at any time without transferring via an external drive. Settings can also easily be backed up and transferred, making the upgrade feel a bit like getting a new phone (in a refreshing way).

After the high-tech looking intro video, for those who didn’t grab the October 16 update across all Xbox One platforms, the dashboard will immediately look different. The interface has been retooled to put a emphasis on users customizing the layout for themselves. The home screen can be personalized by adding the games, apps, memberships and even friends that are most interacted with so they’re immediately front and center for easy access. Up to forty pins can be added, so while there will likely be constant shuffling, it’ll be rare to need to actually remove anything. All of the tabs are now oriented horizontally instead of vertically which makes it easy to navigate between them by tapping the left and right controller bumpers. It admittedly takes getting used to — and putting such a big emphasis on Mixer in its growing stage is unnecessary — but it’s a clear upgrade after getting used to it and fits the functionality of Xbox One X well.

Microsoft has touted Xbox One X as “The World’s Most Powerful Console” (an admittedly strange slogan for hardware that is universal through the world) and it’s quickly apparent that it indeed is. The Xbox One X (based primarily on GPU) has around forty percent more power than what will next week become “The World’s Second Most Powerful Console,” the PS4 Pro. Xbox One X boasts 6 teraflops of graphical processing power, 12GB of GDDR5 memory at 326 GB/sec memory bandwidth and a custom 8-core CPU clocked at 2.3GHz. The system-on-chip that powers the Xbox One X is called the Scorpio Engine (like the pre-order only Scorpio Edition of the console, a nice nod to the platform’s original name) developed by AMD that boasts 7 billion transistors, TSMC 16FF+ technology, 359 mm2 die. That’s impressive engineering and some serious power under the hood and helping it all function as it should are cooling technology and power management features generally reserved for high-end gaming PCs. In fact, the Xbox One X as it stands now feels like a blend between a theatrical gaming experience and one had on such a PC.

For all the myriad features Xbox One X brings to the table, the one of most importance is 4K and it brings it in spades. Playing an advanced Xbox One X Enhanced game in 4K on a large, properly-calibrated 4K HDR TV is a revelation. Games like Assassin’s Creed Origins and Quantum Break (which carries with it a shockingly large update that includes 50GB for the 4K attributes alone) look beautiful on the console no matter the distance from the screen and boast realistic textures and environments all whilst maintaining a high frame rate. While we tested multiple games (although it should be noted only a handful of enhanced games were ready to go at the time of review) including Super Lucky’s Tale, Killer Instinct and Halo 5: Guardians, the game we kept coming back to most was Gears of War 4. Although a year old, Gears 4 already was a technical powerhouse upon its original release and looks and plays noticeably better here. Gears 4 boasts practically all the bells and whistles — 4K visuals, HDR with a wide color gamut, up to 60fps gameplay in 1080p for the first time ever or 30fps in 4K for campaign and horde, 60fps 4K versus mode, dynamic shadows, enhanced Light Shafts, increased draw distances, enhanced character textures and Dolby Atmos support (including spatial audio via Dolby Atmos for headphones). We could go on, but suffice it to say this is the game day one Xbox One X owners should first dig through as it’s a beautiful representation of the console’s power.

Unfortunately, not every game is getting the spare-no-expense Gears treatment. While Halo 5 supports 60fps 4K, for instance, it skimps on HDR. Developers will have the option to create or update their games how they see fit to take advantage of the Xbox One for better or worse, but thankfully it’ll be easy to immediately know what these Xbox One games will support. Carrying a “Enhanced for Xbox One X” logo, the games will also show on the package (or on the Xbox Store page) if they support 4K HDR or HDR via logos on the cover. Over 130 current Xbox One games have been announced to be Xbox One X Enhanced titles and that number will only grow. More still, all Xbox One and backwards compatible games will look better and load faster on Xbox One X due to a 50% improvement in HDD speed. Texture filtering quality is automatically improved on nearly every title and dynamic framerates will run at their highest resolution. Even original Xbox games like Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge will load quicker and play smoother. It’s also worth noticing that every title we tested loaded faster on Xbox One X versus Xbox One. Even the advanced aforementioned Gears 4 loaded significantly faster than on a standard Xbox One — with boot time nearly 30% quicker.

Those without 4K displays may be feeling left out by this point in the review, but fear not, as the Xbox One X will also have many of its benefits on a standard 1080p monitor. Games that render at 4K are automatically supersampled to 1080p which means prettier environments, upgraded textures, better antialiasing and improved framerates. Supersampling basically works by scaling down 4K information to fit 1080p resolution and Xbox One X is the only console that does it at the system level. While not the jump playing Xbox One X on a 4K display is, it’s still a marked improvement that makes games look smoother and curbs pixelated edges.

One feature that makes the Xbox One X a better value for those looking to upgrade their physical media than the PS4 Pro is its built in 4K UHD drive. At the time of writing, the cheapest 4K UHD player is around $200, bringing that Xbox One X at just over double of what a player would cost alone. This makes it a bit of a no-brainer for those who are wanting such a player and have balanced routine of gaming and movie/TV watching. UHD playback was great on the several discs we tested — including Deadpool, The Revenant, Baby Driver and Starship Troopers — but admittedly with no frills. One of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of Dolby Vision — a codec that is superior to the open source HDR10 Xbox One X utilizes. Only a handful of UHD discs support Dolby Vision at the moment (although streaming services like Vudu increasingly are adding movies with the codec) and just a fraction of televisions (but with Apple TV support that soon might change), but it’s likely the format will grow in popularity. Considering that many have been holding off on buying UHD titles since it seems plausible studios could double dip their HDR10 UHDs later down the line, not having this support is a unfortunate. Considering the power of the Xbox One X, it seems like it’d be easy to add in a future update, however, and hopefully is. If the 4K UHD drive is the main lure for to purchase an Xbox One X, the $500 would be better spent towards the $549 Oppo UPD-203 that easily outpaces the Xbox One X in UHD playback (including Dolby Vision support) with its myriad of features for A/V home theater enthusiasts. Everybody else, however, should get along just fine with Xbox One X’s UHD playback.

Closing Comments:

For dedicated console gamers, Xbox One X is practically essential for 4K TVs. Those already with high-end gaming PCs and 4K monitors won’t be as fascinated, but anybody who has been gaming in 1080p will be blown away by the enhanced detail, power and functionality the Xbox One X brings to the table. Going back to 1080p gaming proved harder to do than expected after a week in 4K. Thankfully those that don’t have 4K displays yet will also see noticeable improvement thanks to the console’s impressive utilization of supersampling. The hardware is decidedly minimalist but its nondescript monolith design make it perfect for the discerning gaming enthusiast. Thankfully it has 4K UHD playback unlike its competitor, but unfortunately it’s fairly barebones and lacks Dolby Vision. It’ll be tough to dissuade anybody with a 4K TV, but without a UHD player, to shill out the $500 for Xbox One X. It’s a beast of a machine that looks the part and is a blast to put through the paces. PC may always remain the ultimate gaming experience, but there’s simply no better way to play games with this magnitude of quality at the same ease or price point.