Xbox One X review: A surprising amount of power in a very small box

It's as powerful as many gaming PCs, and it's only $500. Pretty impressive, for a console.

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At $500 then, the Xbox One X is a bargain. A bit ironic, given the outcry about the original Xbox One’s $500 price tag—at the time it seemed like a ripoff. $500 for the Xbox One X seems more than reasonable though, considering it’s cheaper than even the least expensive comparable PC.

As for our supercharged HP Omen X comparison, keep in mind that just a single 1080 Ti would cost you more than this entire console. So yeah, you could absolutely build a high-end PC that blows the Xbox One X out of the water, but the Xbox One X is probably the best price/performance ratio on the market at the moment.

Xbox One X has an edge in HDR

Another area where the Xbox holds an advantage over PCs at the moment: HDR. High Dynamic Range, or HDR, actually debuted with last year’s S model so it’s not brand-new, but it’ll be new to most Xbox One X buyers, I assume. So far there are only a few tentpole Xbox titles, though luckily Gears 4 is one of them. It’s more subtle than 4K, but again is likely to be more important moving forward.

Xbox One X IDG / Hayden Dingman

I won’t go into tons of detail, but HDR or High Dynamic Range essentially increases the amount of colors your TV shows, and increases the contrasts between light and dark areas. In Gears 4 this means better-looking explosions especially—brighter and more vibrant, with a better range of oranges and reds. Gears 4 even includes a nifty mode where you can split the screen, the left showing an HDR-enhanced image and the right showing the standard version. The HDR side looks like a layer of soap scum was scrubbed away. The difference is that noticeable.

The problem: It’s hard to demo HDR. If you watch HDR-ready content on a screen that's not HDR-equipped, it will just display in the color range you’re accustomed to. Games also need to be mastered specifically for HDR, which means there aren’t a ton of games utilizing it even if you own an HDR-ready TV.

It looks great though, and is a major benefit to both the Xbox One X and S provided you have capable hardware. “Capable hardware” is also why I say it’s an advantage over PCs at the moment: While both Nvidia and AMD technically support HDR output, HDR adoption by monitors has been slow, to say the least. That’ll probably change in 2018, but then again I also thought it would change in 2017, so…

The “Exclusive” problem

Microsoft’s biggest problem, and this is important: Games. Or rather, the lack thereof. Microsoft has suffered all generation from a lack of exclusive titles, and dwindling interest in the few they do have. Halo, Gears of War, and Forza are the main three, with Cuphead, Sunset Overdrive, Quantum Break, and Rare Replay to fill out the gaps. It’s not very impressive, especially when stacked up to Sony’s onslaught of exclusives.

Hell, Crackdown 3 was supposed to launch alongside the Xbox One X and then was delayed into next year, leaving Super Lucky’s Tale as the sole “launch title.” That’s not great.

Super Lucky's Tale - Xbox One X IDG / Hayden Dingman

Here's your...much-anticipated, system-selling launch game?

Now, the Xbox One X’s situation is a bit better going forward, insofar as multiplatform titles will henceforth presumably look and play the best on it. That’s more than could be said about the original Xbox One. Microsoft claims 70 titles will be "Enhanced" for the Xbox One X launch.

Still, a console is nothing without games, and right now that’s Microsoft’s weakest point—especially this far into a console generation, when most people have already built up friend networks and trophies and a history on the PS4. The Xbox One X is an excellent value and definitely more powerful, but can that overcome four years of a Sony advantage? Especially with no Halo or other system-seller to kickstart the X out the gate? Hard to say.

The future of TV?

I’m not going to dwell much on the Xbox One X’s TV features because frankly, even Microsoft doesn’t seem to care anymore. The Xbox One X does feature a few improvements over the original Xbox One, though most of these improvements came with last year’s S redesign.

Basically the Xbox One X will double as a 4K media player, for those who still buy physical media. That’s a pretty big win for Microsoft seeing as, for whatever reason, Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro does not playback 4K media—you’d think Sony would know better, considering how pivotal Blu-Ray support was for the PS3.

4K Blu-Rays pumped through the Xbox One look phenomenal, as expected. Microsoft provided us a copy of Planet Earth 2, which is probably the best 4K/HDR showcase you could ask for. The footage is crisp, colors are vibrant, it’s beautiful.

The million-dollar question though: How many people are buying physical media? Certainly not as many people as in previous console generations, as Netflix/HBO Go/Amazon Prime/Hulu/etc. grow in popularity. And while the Xbox One X features those apps and allows for 4K streaming from many streaming services, the same can be said of most 4K smart TVs released in the last couple of years.

It’s also worth noting the HDMI-In port still exists, so if you’re one of the people using your Xbox as a media box, keep doing your thing. Microsoft’s certainly downplaying those aspects these days and has even removed features—chief among them the “Snap” feature that allowed you to game and watch something at the same time, which was removed with April’s Creator’s Update.

The little things that are good

This review’s getting lengthy, and the Xbox One X’s performance is our chief concern. That said, I do want to call out some last Pros and Cons before we wrap up.

In the good column, Microsoft’s support for backward compatibility. Obviously this feature exists on the original Xbox One also, but it’s worth noting because it didn’t exist when we reviewed that console back in 2013.

Ninja Gaiden Black - Xbox One X IDG / Hayden Dingman

Ninja Gaiden Black on an Xbox One X? Fantastic.

Not only that, but Microsoft recently added backward compatibility with a handful of original Xbox (meaning the 2001 Xbox) games too. I had a fun time digging out my copy of Ninja Gaiden Black earlier this week, popping the disc in, and seeing the old Xbox boot screen. Good on Microsoft there.

I’ve also come to love Microsoft’s “Xbox Game Pass,” its newish Netflix-for-games type offering. $10 a month gets you access to about 100 games, spanning from the 2001 Xbox to the Xbox 360 to even a handful of Xbox One games—Metal Gear Solid V, for instance. The games are cycled in and out monthly, and there are a surprising number of quality titles to choose from. Definitely worth looking into. (I grabbed Nights: Into Dreams, Ninja Gaiden Black, and Metro: Last Light Redux for testing.)

Xbox Game Pass IDG / Hayden Dingman

Halo 5, Gears of War 4, Metal Gear Solid V, and more, all for a $10 subscription? Not bad.

There are also signs Microsoft is loosening its hold on the platform—a pretty big move. First it was Bluetooth added to last year’s new controller design, now it’s peripherals that work with the Xbox One X right out of the box. Turtle Beach’s new Stealth 700 headset connects wirelessly to the Xbox One without a dongle, the first to do so and hopefully a sign of things to come.

And as much as I dislike UWP on Windows 10, I’ll admit it’s been great for the Xbox ecosystem. Many of my favorite programs have built Windows 10 UWP versions which are then easily ported over—Spotify, Netflix, and so on. Pretty seamless, and a huge advantage over the PlayStation 4 in that regard.

The little things that are bad

Now, for the not-so-good. First up, the Xbox One X’s hard drive is comically small. Microsoft saw fit to offer a 2TB version of the Xbox One S, and for good reason: With game installs topping 100GB, the Xbox One X’s measly 1TB system drive (with only 650GB of free space out of the box) means you can install approximately 6-10 games nowadays. Less perhaps, once you factor in DLC.

That’s absurd. 1TB is better than the shameful 500GB of the original Xbox One, but it’s still woefully underprepared for the realities of modern gaming. You’ll absolutely need an external USB drive or two to supplement, and I can’t fathom why Microsoft didn’t opt for a 2TB standard considering it would’ve cost them, what, an extra $10 per unit?

Xbox One X - Storage IDG / Hayden Dingman

Already a quarter full after installing Gears 4, Forza Horizon 2, Super Lucky's Tale, Metro: Last Light Redux, and half of Rare Replay.

Microsoft’s user interface also continues to disappoint. Despite multiple refreshes in 2017 alone, the system is still cluttered and clumsy to navigate. Menus and submenus are hidden all over the place, the Store is clearly built for a mouse-and-keyboard setup and translates terribly to gamepad; the push for Mixer over Twitch is bound to confuse and alienate, and so on.

It’s just a mess. Rather than reworking a UI that hasn’t worked since 2013, Microsoft desperately needs to jettison a large amount of its design language and start from scratch, like it did multiple times on the Xbox 360. The whole “Flat Arrangement of Squares Cluttered By Ads” setup is not working.

Bottom line

Forgive me for repeating myself, but this is a long review and I want to make sure you didn’t miss the most important point: The Xbox One X is the best price/performance ratio on the market at the moment. Sure, you can build a PC that outperforms it at every turn—some of you reading this probably have.

But native 4K gaming for $500? And in a form factor this small and this quiet? That’s pretty incredible, especially when you consider the jump from the original Xbox One—probably Microsoft’s low point for console engineering. There are missteps that bring it down a notch or two, especially that undersized hard drive and the lack of quality exclusive titles, but judged purely on a technical level? The Xbox One X is a huge step up from the original Xbox One and an impressive machine in its own right, matching what the majority of PC gamers have at home.

Consider me surprised.

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At a Glance
  • $499.00 MSRP $499.99
    View

    The Xbox One X exceeds not only its predecessor, but also matches up to the majority (55 percent or more) of gaming PCs today—and for only $500. Pretty impressive, for a console.The question is whether developers take advantage of it.

    Pros

    • The most powerful console by a long shot
    • Small, quiet, and unassuming
    • Cheaper than full PC system builds with equivalent graphics cards

    Cons

    • If you've got money to spend, a decent PC will still take you further (and is upgradeable)
    • 1 TB hard drive is not prepared for the realities of modern gaming
    • User interface is still a mess
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