Microsoft’s Xbox One X is a beast of a console. It’s 30% faster and its graphics chip is 4.6 times more powerful than its predecessor, the original Xbox One. And Microsoft (MSFT) is also pretty keen on boasting about all of that firepower.
But what’s the point of all of it all? To push 4K, high-dynamic range-capable games at 60 frames per second. In other words, the Xbox One X is designed to make your games look and run better than the standard Xbox One.
But, and there’s a big but, you’ll only see all three of those benefits if you own a TV that’s 4K, HDR compatible. So is the Xbox One X worth buying? That depends on whether you’re willing to part with $499.
Microsoft’s original Xbox One didn’t have the best start when it launched in November 2013. Not only did it cost a pretty penny at $499 (that’s familiar), but it also had to contend with Sony’s PlayStation 4, which launched that same month for $100 less.
With those strikes against it, and Sony’s formidable first-party lineup, the Xbox One quickly fell behind the PS4 in sales.
But Microsoft is far from down and out. The company reported that its Xbox software and services revenue was up 21% in its Q1 FY2018 earnings. Hardware sales, however, took a hit due to a decrease in console pricing. The Xbox One S, a slimmer replacement for the original One, costs just $250. But the One X could help offset those losses.
A fresh face
The original Xbox One, which currently resides on the middle shelf of my entertainment center, was a huge machine. It dwarfed the PlayStation 4 and had a massive external power brick that you had to cram behind your TV stand.
Microsoft addressed the One’s size by making the One S 40% slimmer than its forebearer. But the One X is even thinner than that. How did Microsoft fit more power into a smaller box? By being engineering masters, and by crafting a more efficient cooling system.
The One X’s matte black, monolithic body fits perfectly into my entertainment center without looking obtrusive. In fact, I prefer its design to the rhomboid sandwich that is the PS4 Pro.
So what does 4K, HDR gaming at 60 frames per second get you? Well, that depends on the game you’re playing. See, the Xbox One X isn’t launching with any one marquee title. Instead, developers are updating existing and recently released games with patches that allow for 4K, HDR games played at 60 fps.
I hooked up both my original Xbox One and the One X to my 55-inch 4K, HDR-capable LG TV, switching back and forth between the consoles while playing “Gears of War 4,” and noticed both a difference in frame rates and coloring. Thanks to its HDR-compatibility, the Xbox One X pushed out a wider array of colors than the One. That made for a more visually appealing experience than the One, which produced more muted hues.
The One X’s 4K capabilities were also noticeable, especially when it came to finer details like facial hair and scarring and the characters’ uniforms. Still, I found the difference between the HDR and non-HDR versions of “Gears” to be far greater than the 4K and non-4K versions.
As for that performance boost? It’s certainly there. Properly updated games look much smoother on the One X than on the standard One. It’s almost like the difference between playing a game on a console and then playing the same game on a high-end PC. Movements are more fluid and you don’t see any choppiness.
But not all games will run at 60 frames per second, so don’t expect to get the same kinds of benefits across the board.
Microsoft worked closely with the “Gears of War 4” team on its One X improvements, which include 60fps, 4K and HDR, as well as upgraded textures, enhanced lighting effects and better shadows. Some gamers might say that those differences aren’t that important to them, which is fine. I’m firmly in the other camp, though. I update my own PC constantly to get the best possible graphics, so if I can do the same with a console, I’m in.
To tell if the game you want to buy takes advantage of the One X’s enhanced capabilities, you’ll need to check to see if it has Microsoft’s special icons. 4K Ultra HD means a game will output at 2160p. Meanwhile, HDR means it supports high-dynamic range, and Xbox One X Enhanced means the developer has done work under the hood of the game to improve its performance.
It’s important to point out that all games that run on the One X will also work with the One S and original One. The visuals will be different, but otherwise, the games will be the same.
If you don’t have a 4K TV, you’ll still see performance improvements with the One X, and Microsoft says it will use supersampling techniques, which downscale 4K images for 1080p televisions providing enhanced visuals.
The competition is fierce
The Xbox One X doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. It not only has to contend with Sony’s own 4K, HDR-capable PlayStation 4 Pro, but the standard PlayStation 4, the less expensive One S and Nintendo’s hit Switch console.
The $399 PS4 Pro, however, is its closest competitor. And while both can handle 4K, HDR gaming, the One X’s big sell is that it can do so at 60fps. But again, not every game will hit that mark. Microsoft also points out that the Xbox One is capable of “true 4K” resolutions, while the PS4 Pro isn’t. That’s true — the PS4 Pro uses technological wizardry in the background to make games appear as though they are running at 4K. But if you can’t tell, what’s the difference?
The One X isn’t even the only version of the Xbox One that offers HDR compatibility, since the $250 One S supports the feature as well.
As for the $299 Switch, well, it doesn’t have nearly the kind of power the One X does — it’s like a Lamborghini facing off against a Corolla, but Nintendo’s got Microsoft beat in portability. It doesn’t hurt that the Switch has classic first-party titles and is also getting a good number of third-party offerings (finally).
Should you get it?
Microsoft will be the first to admit the One X isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have a 4K, HDR TV, you’re going to miss out on the enhanced visuals, just as you would with e PS4 Pro. And if you’re on a budget, the $499 price tag is hard to swallow.
But for those with a compatible TV, who want the best possible gaming experience, bragging rights among friends and have the cash to spare, the One X is a heck of choice.
More from Dan:
- ‘Super Mario Odyssey’ review: Nintendo tips its cap to the past
- Samsung North America CEO believes we’ll soon talk to all of our appliances
- Amazon’s all-new Echo is a more attractive smart assistant
- Why Microsoft is playing nice with iPhones and Android
Email Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.