Microsoft has a new Xbox coming out this month, and it’s exactly like the old Xbox and also its mirror opposite. The Xbox One X is not a next-gen console. It is an Xbox One in terms of the games it can play, its operating system, and its controllers and peripherals. At the same time, while the Xbox One started this generation as the least powerful of the two big systems, Microsoft purposefully built the X as “the most powerful console ever.”
If that sounds like it’s straddling the line between more of the same and major advancement, you’re not wrong. I get the sense that Microsoft (and Sony with its similar but less-powerful PlayStation 4 Pro) want people to see the Xbox One X like a smartphone upgrade or one of Nintendo’s 3DS model refreshes.
But does the Xbox One X have the shiny new features to get people excited in the same way as an iPhone 7 Plus? Yes — as long as you are playing certain games.
Xbox One X launches November 7 for $500. I’ve spent time with Forza Motorsport 7, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Call of Duty: WWII, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, and more. Here are my thoughts
What you’ll like
Running games at 4K, HDR, and 60 frames per second
Microsoft is positioning the Xbox One X as the most powerful console ever, and that primarily manifests as rendering games at a 4K resolution and a higher frame rate. Like the Xbox One S, the X also supports the high-dynamic range (HDR) color gamut. This system is not about enabling developers to push more polygons — although studios can choose to adjust options like shadow quality and environmental details as well.
Playing the same Xbox One games at 4K and/or 60 frames per second with HDR is a small leap forward, but it’s still a leap forward. Gears of War 4 looks better than ever. Its sharp 4K resolution reveals details in the characters’ faces, armor, and weapons. Gears developer Coalition also spruced up the game with dynamic shadows, more realistic light shafts, more accurate reflections, and an increased draw distance for objects.
Of course, most games don’t do 4K, 60 frames per second, and HDR all at the same time. Gears of War 4 has a toggle in the options menu between performance and quality modes. In performance, it runs at 1080p without the dynamic shadows, but you get 60 frames per second in the single-player mode.
Either mode is an improvement over Gears of War 4 on an Xbox One S — although your unique results will vary depending on what kind of TV you have, how far you sit form the television, and other factors.
The most impressive example of 4K and 60fps I’ve seen so far on the Xbox One is Titanfall 2. That’s a game that I played last year on an Xbox One S, and its UHD vistas stunned me now that I’m replaying it on the X. Developer Respawn is using a dynamic scaler to turn down the resolution and other effects in certain areas to keep the frame rate locked at 60. But you don’t notice that. What you do notice is a gorgeous game that has never looked better on a console.
The best way to play Xbox and Xbox 360 games
When it comes to games that have never looked better, the Xbox One X is an incredible backward-compatibility machine. All Xbox One consoles can now play current-gen games as well as select software from the Xbox 360 and the original Xbox. But the Xbox One X actually enhances many of these games.
For example, the Xbox 360 shooter Halo 3 looks incredible on the Xbox One X. The game renders at a higher resolution with nine times as many pixels as its Xbox 360 version. The Bungie adventure also supports the more robust 10-bit color spectrum as opposed to the standard 8-bit color.
At launch, Xbox One X will enhance Assassin’s Creed, Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Halo 3. And after seeing how amazing Halo 3 looks on this system, I hope Microsoft continues this program into the future.
It’s the Xbox to get
If you already own an Xbox One and want to know if you should upgrade, I don’t know. We’re going to have to talk that out, you and I. I’ll need to ask you a lot of questions — deep, personal questions about how you live your life. Even then, I don’t know if we’ll come to a decision.
But if you don’t own an Xbox or a powerful gaming PC, and you want to hop into Microsoft’s ecosystem, I would easily recommend getting the Xbox One X. I’m sure the price of the Xbox One S is going to drop as used systems flood the market, but the X is worth the extra cash to ensure you’re ready for 4K and to have the best console version of any multiplatform game.
What you won’t like
Support for 4K, HDR, and 60 frames per second is sporadic
As I’ve already touched on, the Xbox One X is not going to bring ultra HD resolutions, 60 frames per second, and HDR coloring to every single game. But it’s sometimes difficult to tell how the X improves a game. Microsoft has an “Xbox One X Enhanced” category in its “My Games & Apps” folder, but that could mean a better resolution, faster framerate, or other general improvements.
Sometimes the upgrades were obvious — like Titanfall 2’s resolution. But then that game doesn’t support HDR. In the moments when I realized a particular game wasn’t taking full advantage of the Xbox One X hardware, it would cause me to consider the existential implications of this new system. Imagine someone spending $2,000 on a TV and $500 on an Xbox One X. They’re not going to love it when they boot up their “Enhanced” game and find out that it doesn’t take advantage of a main feature of their new gaming setup.
It’s not an alternative to a powerful PC
The problem with the spotty support for certain features is that it’s not always up to you about what the Xbox One X’s extra power goes to. Gears of War 4 has a performance-or-quality setting, but something like Dishonored 2 is going to give you 4K or 1080p depending on your television. Either way, though, you’re not going to get 60 frames per second. I would like the option to turn down the resolution and other features to get that 60fps, but that’s not possible with the Xbox One X.
It’s important to keep in mind that the X is not some kind of replacement for a 4K Windows rig. With a gaming PC, you can tweak and adjust everything to precisely your liking.
On top of that, 4K typically means a lot more on the PC than it does on a console. My consoles are down in my family room, and I sit about eight to ten feet away from the television. In my office, I sit a couple of feet from a 4K gaming monitor. That distance makes a huge difference when it comes to spotting why 4K is important. Up close, the extra pixels of an ultra HD game can cause detailed elements to pop off the screen. From a distance, however, your eyes start to lose the ability to see a difference between 1080p and 2160P (4K UHD). It all just mashes together like an impressionist painting.
That’s not to say that 4K is pointless on consoles. It’s just that the tech has a diminishing “wow” effect from your couch.
HDR is frustrating to set up
I had some problems setting up HDR on my Xbox One X and the 4K HDR QLED TV that Samsung lent me for this review. The process is frustrating because you have to get the TV and console to communicate with one another about when it’s time to engage HDR. I was hoping that plugging everything in properly would mean that HDR would just come on automatically when I booted up a game. But that’s not how it works. You still have to go dig into the settings on both system and the display.
The Xbox One also doesn’t tell you if HDR is running, so you have to rely on the television to give you the information.
I also had some problems with HDR not working consistently, but that hasn’t happened for more than a week now. I’m willing to bet that was some kind of user error, so I won’t hold that against the TV or Xbox One X except to say that turning on HDR is a process with a lot of opportunity for user error.
It’s not a major leap over Xbox One
But overall, my biggest concern is that this isn’t some mindblowing leap in power or features over the previous Xbox One models. 4K is nice, but it’s not crucial. The Xbox One S already supports HDR in all the same games as the X. And plenty of games already run at 60 frames per second near a 1080p resolution.
An increased draw distance or a few more pedestrians in a crowd are also nice, but they are subtle updates that most people won’t notice. And that’s the case with everything about the Xbox One X — at least for now — you’re going to struggle to notice what your $500 is getting you over your last Xbox One.
When the PlayStation 4 Pro debuted last November, I said that it “delivers the 4K content, but 1080p-TV owners shouldn’t upgrade yet.” In the case of the PS4 Pro, I don’t regret that recommendation. Sony has not really followed through to ensure that new releases are taking full advantage of the Pro’s extra power.
Now, with the Xbox One X, I think that advice is still true. If you don’t have a 4K TV, you should wait. And I don’t think you should act until you can find an OLED TV from a company like LG in your price range. 4K is great, and standard HDR is fine on a lot of televisions, but OLED is so much better with HDR that I think it’s probably a waste to get either an Xbox One X or a PS4 Pro if you are just going to get a standard LED set. OLEDs are finally coming down in price, so this holiday or early next year after the Consumer Electronics Show in Law Vegas is probably the time to buy.
But that recommendation is for a very narrow group. I already mentioned the other group that I would suggest an Xbox One X to: people who don’t already own an Xbox One and want to buy one.
For everyone else, I think you need to wait and see. At least let me try games like Star Wars: Battlefront II and Call of Duty: WWII with the system so I can finalize this review. But beyond that, you need to see if Microsoft or outside developers find innovative ways to use the power of the Xbox One X. Because if they don’t, your original Xbox One is fine.
Microsoft provided an Xbox One X for the purposes of this review. It is available now for $500. Microsoft also worked with Samsung to lend GamesBeat a 4K HDR television.