The first time I powered up the Xbox One X, I genuinely thought my house was falling down. Microsoft’s boot-up animation is bright, loud, and full of surround sound bass, perfectly epitomizing the bombastic nature of the company’s “true 4K” gaming message. Microsoft’s Xbox One X is the world’s most powerful console, and the company is beating its chest about its 4K capabilities.
Microsoft has a lot of reasons it needs to be this bold. Sony is winning this console war, backed by massive exclusive titles like The Last of Us, Uncharted 4, and Horizon Zero Dawn. The original Xbox One had a hard time competing with Sony’s PlayStation 4, thanks initially to lower specifications and a bundled Kinect that led to a $100 price gap. Microsoft is answering those old complaints with the new Xbox One X. It’s a smaller, sleeker, faster console than the original, and it’s easily more capable than the PS4 or PS4 Pro (Sony’s 4K console) in terms of raw power.
While the power inside is unquestionable, Microsoft’s focus on hardware specs isn’t matched with launch titles that really show off 4K gaming. Forza Motorsport 7 debuted last month, so the Xbox One X isn’t launching with any exclusive AAA games. At $499, you’re really paying for the pure hardware here, and you’ll need a 4K TV to get the best benefits. If you’re an original Xbox One owner, you’re going to be really pleased with the improvements. For everyone else, it’s going to depend on what games you play. Hardware only goes so far.
Let’s start with the basics. I’m really impressed and surprised at how much power Microsoft has managed to squeeze into the Xbox One X’s small case. While the original Xbox One was a big, black box about the size of an old-school VCR, the Xbox One X matches the impressive design of the Xbox One S. It’s actually smaller than the S in terms of volume, but I did notice if you stack them, then the X is larger in some dimensions. Either way, it’s small enough to fit in a backpack, but it’s rather dense so it feels heavier than the One S.
The Xbox One X has the same inputs and ports as the S. There’s HDMI-in if you want to connect up a TV set-top box, two USBs at the rear and one at the front, and an Ethernet port. Microsoft ditched the external power supply from the original Xbox One, and it’s all integrated in and dual voltage. All in all, it’s very similar to the Xbox One S from the outside and still needs a USB adaptor for the Kinect.
The real power can be found inside. Microsoft is using a 2.3GHz 8-core AMD Jaguar processor, 12GB of RAM, and a six-teraflop AMD Radeon GPU. That’s nearly two teraflops more than the PS4 Pro, a faster CPU, and 3GB more of overall RAM. The Xbox One X comfortably outperforms the PS4 Pro. On hardware alone, it’s smaller, more powerful, and even includes a 4K Blu-ray player over its PS4 Pro rival.
All of that power means you need a good cooling system and fans to match. During my own testing, I haven’t noticed any huge issues here. The fans are noticeable (like a gaming PC) at times when you’re not even pushing the console, and they’re definitely louder than the Xbox One S. The back of the One X unit does get rather hot, and I’d recommend not keeping this locked away in a cupboard. I never had issues with it stacked inside an open shelving unit, though.
The real promise of the Xbox One X is “true 4K” gaming. Most games made for the Xbox One are designed for 1080p TVs, which have a quarter of the pixels found on a new 4K TV. The Xbox One X is more than four times faster than the original Xbox One, so it’s capable of 4K gaming. While it’s not as powerful as the latest gaming PCs, the benefits are really going to depend on what game you’re playing. Microsoft is promising more than 150 “enhanced” games for the Xbox One X, but that doesn’t always mean they will be 4K. Some enhancements could include better frame rates instead of 4K resolution, or HDR capability. Other enhancements might include 4K, HDR, and better frame rates. It’s up to game developers to decide, and there’s not a clear pattern yet.
I enjoy PC games for the smooth frame rates, and I find it nauseating jumping back to the same game running at 30fps on a console. I spent some time playing Gears of War 4 with its new up-to-60fps “performance mode.” Although it’s an old game at this point, it’s a good example of how the Xbox One X can have 4K modes or performance-focused modes. The 4K mode, coupled with HDR, looks great, but the performance mode running at 60fps feels even better without the 4K resolution boost. Rise of the Tomb Raider also has similar options, and it’s a balance that game developers should really offer gamers.
Some games like Forza Motorsport 7 will offer the best of all worlds: 4K, HDR, and 60fps. This is the peak of what the Xbox One X offers, but Microsoft didn’t make the Forza 7 update available in time for review. I’ve played demo versions over the past few weeks at Xbox events and it looks beautiful, but sometimes it’s hard to really notice the difference over what I have with my Xbox One S. The S runs Forza 7 at 60fps with HDR, so you’d have to really care about the resolution upgrade and the better textures and shadows.
Other titles like Titanfall 2 also boost the resolution up to 4K, but dynamically alter it based on GPU load to keep smooth gameplay at 60fps. I could argue about all the various tricks that developers will use to hit 4K gaming, whether it’s checkerboarding or dynamic resolution, but none of this really matters unless you’re a pixel nerd. It’s the gameplay that matters, and once you’ve tried a game in 60fps it’s hard to step back to 30fps, regardless of the resolution and textures.
One of the biggest improvements I noticed when an Enhanced for Xbox One X update arrived was Assassin’s Creed Origins. It looks stunning on the Xbox One X, with a 4K resolution and HDR support. It’s way less blurry than on my Xbox One S, and I’d say it’s closer to looking like it does on my PC thanks to the obvious improvements in textures. On my LG OLED with HDR enabled it looks gorgeous and runs really well. I hope this is a shining example of what’s to come from developers on newer games.
It’s a mixture right now, and not all developers have made their enhancements available to test. I spent the beginning of the week playing Super Lucky’s Tale – a 3D platformer originally released in VR for the Oculus Rift – as no other games I owned had updates ready. It’s a good looking game, but it doesn’t really push what the Xbox One X can do.
You don’t necessarily need a 4K TV to get some of the console’s benefits. If you happen to have a 1440p gaming monitor laying around then the Xbox One X will soon support it. I wasn’t able to test this as Microsoft isn’t supporting 1440p just yet, but it won’t just be outputting like the PS4 Pro at 1080p and upscaling. Likewise, 1080p TVs will see benefits to pure performance. I played Destiny 2 on the Xbox One X and it felt a lot smoother than on my Xbox One S. It’s still locked to 30fps, but some of the frame rate dips I’d experienced during Destiny’s raid or public events were gone. Some games without One X-specific updates, like Destiny 2 at this point, will still see performance improvements and better texture filtering on the One X.
My biggest issue with the Xbox One X is a lack of stunning 4K games to really show why this is worth $499. Assassin’s Creed Origins is the best I tried, but it’s not exclusive to the Xbox One X. Microsoft doesn’t have a single launch exclusive for this console, and while enhancements to old games are great, I often found it hard to even notice big differences because I don’t think some of these games were designed with 4K textures in mind. There’s no big blockbuster game I can only play on the Xbox One X right now, and Microsoft isn’t offering up much hope for the future, either.
Crackdown 3 was supposed to launch in time for the Xbox One X, but it’s delayed until spring next year. Scalebound, Fable Legends, and Ion were outright canceled, and Microsoft has shut down Project Spark. Even PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Microsoft’s “console launch exclusive,” won’t be available until December 12th.
Sony has God of War, Spider-Man, Death Stranding, The Last of Us Part II, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Detroit all on the way. Whether these are all native 4K or not, these are huge games and they make Microsoft’s lineup look paltry by comparison.
Aside from games, the Xbox One X is also an entertainment center of sorts. The 4K Blu-ray drive will bring you crisp movies with Dolby Atmos and HDR 10 (but no Dolby Vision) support, and it’s an addition the PS4 Pro lacks. Oddly, Microsoft doesn’t offer 4K movies or TV shows in its own store. You’ll need to rely on a Netflix or Amazon Video subscription to get streaming 4K movies or TV shows, and even the YouTube app doesn’t support 4K. It’s an odd omission given Microsoft’s 4K focus.
Microsoft does have some good third-party apps for entertainment, including Plex, Spotify, Amazon Video, Netflix, HBO Go, and Hulu Plus. You can also use the HDMI-in port to connect up a Chromecast, or watch TV through your cable set-top box with the Xbox’s OneGuide. Microsoft has stepped back from some of its entertainment and TV commitments, but the Xbox One X is still a solid box to watch content alongside playing games.
One thing to note: buy an external drive for the Xbox One X. I ran out of space on the 1TB drive of the Xbox One X with around 14 games installed and 20 apps. Most Xbox One games are around 40GB or 50GB in size, but I’ve noticed the Enhanced for Xbox One X games are significantly bigger. Gears of War 4 and Halo 5 are at least 100GB, and Titanfall 2 is around 70GB. If you don’t have a particularly fast internet connection you’ll also be waiting hours to download these games.
I’ve not had enough time to test all of the enhancements to the Xbox One X games, simply because they haven’t gone live at the time of this review. That said, the ones I’ve experienced haven’t blown me away enough to warrant the upgrade over my Xbox One S. I switched back to the One S, and I did notice that certain games weren’t as smooth and certainly didn’t look as good, but I soon adjusted.
Likewise, when I returned to the Xbox One X it felt a lot like my Xbox One S. The jump from 1080p to 4K isn’t as profound as SD to HD, and I found it hard to always notice the difference at the distance from my TV. Maybe that will change once more enhanced games are available, but I don’t think most people will be able to notice a big difference just yet. Games will need to be tweaked and fully optimized for the Xbox One X hardware, and you already get the benefits of HDR on the Xbox One S.
That said, the X does offer the best graphics currently possible on a console. If you don’t care about Sony’s exclusives then the Xbox One X will be the best console to play all the cross-platform games coming out. If you already have a large stack of Xbox One games and you’re using the original console, this is going to be a nice upgrade if you own a 4K TV.
For anyone else, this probably isn’t the console for you. Sony really has some impressive exclusives on the way, and it’s hard for Microsoft to counter this despite its great job on the hardware. Microsoft promised the best hardware, and it delivered — but that’s nothing without games.