Since the heyday of the Nintendo NES, most successful gaming console have basically been released twice. You’d get a big, loud, and expensive box at launch, then a few years later, a smaller, quieter, lower-cost version would show up. Recall, for a second, Sony’s svelte Slimline PS2. Nintendo’s SNES SNS-101, and the Xbox 360 S, which was ring-of-death-proof.
But things are changing. Save for the Nintendo Switch, today’s gaming consoles are nigh indistinguishable from gaming PCs. Part of that is due to Sony and Microsoft’s adoption of PC-like components like massive hard drives and AMD chipsets.
In that frame of reference, Microsoft’s new revved-up Xbox One X makes total sense. From its faster CPU to beefier graphics cores, and zippier GDDR5 memory, the X’s spec sheet reads like a gamer took the old Xbox One and modded it with a bounty of parts from Newegg. Sure it’s smaller, but it’s not a typical mid-cycle refresh after all—like the competing PS4 Pro, the Xbox One X is a faster, better version of the Xbox that already exists.
Microsoft might get grumpy if I directly equated the PS4 Pro to the Xbox One X. Admittedly, Microsoft’s boffins have earned their extra credit by making the X faster in every measurable metric while maintaining compatibility with the current Xbox ecosystem. This unit is ready to play current Xbox One games at improved, smoother framerates and more consistent resolutions. The One X will also give gamers the impressive Xbox 360 and original Xbox backwards compatibility experience rolled out over the last year or so.
Think of the Xbox One X as the PF Flyers of console gaming—it’ll let you run faster and jump higher.
Into the Black
When I finally unwrapped the Xbox One X, I wasn’t all that smitten with its build quality. Unlike the eye-catching Xbox One S, this console is deadly serious with a distinctly vacant, matte look. Gone are the signature diagonal slats and subdued two-tone design of 2013’s Xbox One. Nowhere to be found are the dimples of the texturally playful One S.
More than anything, the Xbox One X adheres to the Microsoft Surface design ethos—rather than fetishizing this powerful, dense slab, the X hardware fades into the background. Instead, the focus is what tricks software running on this hardware can pull off.
The star of the software show is greatly improved 4K HDR support for games. The One S brought HDMI 2.0 and a 4K UHD Blu-ray drive, along with the ability to stream 4K HDR content to a compatible TV. One X has 4K and improved 1080p gaming in its sights, but you’ll need to be patient for now.
It’ll take a few months for many gamers to see their favorite games get textures and enhancements that make 4K (or enhanced FullHD) play possible. Microsoft has published a growing list of first- and third-party games that’ll receive patches for the X. I was able to sample titles like Super Lucky’s Tale and Gears of War 4, each with a load of graphical upgrades to make them play and look better on the One X.
These games are admittedly stunning, but much of the difference will be imperceptible to those with an older HDTV. The secret sauce really is in the combination of 4K and HDR. On its own, I’ve never been blown away by just the resolution bump of 4K but the color and contrast from the higher dynamic range can be breathtaking. I used a Samsung curved QLED TV to do my testing of the Xbox One X, which is fully compatible with HDR and 4K and complimented this Xbox quite well.
It’s worth noting that there aren’t any Xbox One X exclusive titles yet, so if you’re on the fence about upgrading, your current Xbox will continue to play the latest and greatest. With the One X, you’ll have a better-than-ever experience with the games and media you own today. We’ll see how much Microsoft and its partners can wring from the Xbox One X in the coming years.
One thing I find perplexing is the lack of virtual reality. It might not be as important as on the desktop, but Sony’s PSVR has become an appealing gateway drug for curious gamers. Since you don’t even need a jacked up PS4 Pro to use Sony’s VR headset, the Xbox One X seems like a shoo-in for an affordable mixed-reality experience. But there’s still no official word if or when Microsoft will offer Xbox users a taste of VR. With its muscular GPU, the Xbox One X could give Sony’s VR a run for its money, but until there’s a headset and software, it’s off the table.
I’m also waiting for internet-enabled game streaming, like what Sony has in Remote Play. For now, you’ll still need to be on the same network as your Xbox One X and a Windows 10 PC in order to stream.
Don’t get me wrong—Microsoft has pulled off something impressive here. 4K gaming previously required a noisy desktop PC with a flamin’ hot graphics card, and now it’s something you can get for $500 that fits under your TV. That’s awesome, even if the benefit is small and only for a select few. For devotees who worship at the altar of Master Chief, the Xbox One X is an offering that optimizes the Xbox experience. It’s an opportunity for fans to re-up their membership and prepare for the higher-def, higher-dynamic range future.