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The 4K gaming-capable Xbox One X just might be the thing that lifts Microsoft out of its gaming console rut. Before the Xbox One even released there was that disastrous E3 2013, with news of an always-online console, Sony’s price coup, and Don Mattrick out there talking about people using Xbox 360s on nuclear submarines. Microsoft never really recovered, branded by fanboys as being underpowered compared to the PlayStation 4, and with each controversy over the Kinect or resolution upscaling or what have you, the Xbox's hole only got deeper.
The Xbox One X could fill in that hole a little. For the first time since 2005, Microsoft has the most powerful gaming console on the market—powerful enough that it surprised even me, a devout PC gamer.
This little box packs some power.
And the Xbox One X is little. That’s as good a place as any to start this review, because it’s a compliment I would never pay to the original Xbox One and its vintage VCR aesthetic.
A quick aside: We’ll be comparing the Xbox One X to both the original Xbox One and 2016’s Xbox One S in this review. Some of the Xbox One X’s “new” features debuted on the S last year, such as HDR support, but because that was more of a placeholder model and provided less incentive to upgrade it only makes sense to cover them again here.
The Xbox One X isn’t necessarily more eye-catching—it still has that “generic cable box” look to it in my opinion. I wish Microsoft had opted to reuse (or save) the more vibrant white-and-black color scheme from last year’s Xbox One S.
It’s compact, though. Measuring 11.8 x 9.4 x 2.4 inches, the Xbox One X is drastically smaller than the launch Xbox One (13.1 x 10.8 x 3.1 inches) and only a hair larger than the slimmer S model (11.5 x 9 x 2.5 inches). Pretty incredible, considering the X’s more powerful hardware. Even better: Like the S, the Xbox One X packs the power supply inside the case. Say goodbye to that launch Xbox One and its enormous power brick. The X has an unadorned 5-foot power cord.
Despite being shrunk down, it’s also quieter. It’s hard for me to do a 100-percent fair comparison with the original Xbox One at this point because mine is going on four years old, but I guarantee it was never this quiet. Even after hours of playing, the Xbox One X is almost whisper-silent when placed on the other side of the room—none of that jet-engine fan noise I associate with the original Xbox One. There’s plenty of ventilation on both ends and the rear of the console, and while the X gets warm to the touch it never gets hot.
Note that unlike the 2TB Xbox One S, the standard Xbox One X does not come with a stand. Microsoft does plan to sell one, but unless you shell out you’re limited to running the console horizontally. Microsoft has also made no mention of providing free Kinect adapters. The Kinect port is gone, and most of you probably won’t notice or care. But those who do will need to purchase an adapter from Microsoft for $40 this time around—a final insult to those who bought (and maybe even use!) the now officially discontinued accessory.
Anyway the best improvement—the absolute best—is the Xbox One X’s physical power button. This might sound like a minor improvement, and it is! Anyone who owns the original Xbox One has no doubt grown annoyed with its capacitive power button though, which not only boots the console at the briefest hint that something might want to touch it but also shuts it off. If you even look at it wrong you’ll hear the boo-doo-doop of the Xbox turning on or off, and heaven forbid you have a cat/dog/child/poltergeist. Though perhaps less futuristic, the S returned to the pressable power button of old and the X follows suit.
The 4K factor
Okay, but gaming. How does the Xbox One X function while gaming? After all, that’s the reason to upgrade. The Xbox One S already had size covered, as well as the physical power button, a larger hard drive, quietness, and so on. So, how does it perform?
Listen, I’m a PC guy and I’ve been a PC guy for a while now. The Xbox One X doesn’t match up to a high-end PC and the people who say it does...well, their idea of a “high-end” PC is maybe skewed a bit low. But it does come way closer than I expected, if not on paper than at least in-game—and it blows the old Xbox One (not to mention the PlayStation 4) completely out of the water.
First, for those who like specs: The original Xbox One featured a custom 8-core AMD APU clocked at 1.75GHz and 8GB of DDR3 RAM, plus 32MB of higher throughput ESRAM. To simplify this down to a single number so as to not kill you: Peak graphics throughput was marked at 1.31 TFLOPS. The Xbox One S bumped that number to about 1.4—not really a notable increase.
The Xbox One X by comparison features an 8-core APU clocked at 2.3GHz, with 12GB of GDDR5 RAM, all of it higher-throughput (326GB/s) than even the 32MB of ESRAM in the original Xbox One. By raising both the number of compute cores and the clock speed, peak throughput for the Xbox One X is estimated at 6 TFLOPS.
To put it in more accessible real-world terms, the original Xbox One was estimated to have power on a par with (being generous) AMD’s Radeon 7790—or, on Nvidia’s side, approximately a GTX 650 Ti. The Xbox One X is about equal to an AMD Radeon RX 580 or an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060.
It’s a huge increase in power.
Of course, the Xbox One X’s real-world performance will be a bit better than even those model numbers indicate, due to the differences between optimizing for consoles versus PC—especially since, as a mid-generation upgrade, developers are already mostly comfortable with the Xbox One architecture. Expect fewer launch-day woes than you’d see at the start of an entirely new generation.
Gears of War: Leading the charge
Which brings us to Gears of War 4, our main point of reference at the moment when it comes to the Xbox One X. Why? Well, this console’s coming in hot. I would’ve much rather tested the Xbox One X with Assassin’s Creed: Origins, for instance—on the PC it’s absolutely incredible looking, and the draw distance is a technological marvel. Stand on a mountain and you can see clear from one side of the map to the other, even picking out landmarks like the Lighthouse at Alexandria.
The problem? Origins won’t receive its “Xbox One Enhanced” patch until November 6, a few days from now. We plan to update this review when it does, because I’m looking forward to testing the system with a performance powerhouse.
But as of this review, only a handful of games were ready for testing—and many of them, like Super Lucky’s Tale, were too performance-light to justify any drawing of conclusions. Super Lucky’s Tale looks great as far as cartoon platformers go, but it’s not exactly a modern-day Crysis.
So, Gears of War 4 it is.
[Update, November 14: Now that the Xbox One X is officially released we've had the chance to check out a few more games. We'll keep this Gears of War analysis first because it's the most in-depth, but feel free to jump further in where I analyze Assassin's Creed: Origins and a handful of other titles.]
To be fair, Gears 4 does pull out all the stops on the Xbox One X—4K, HDR, the works. It also features two different rendering modes, one labeled “Visuals” and the other “Performance.”
Visuals mode ups the graphics of Gears 4 significantly, outputting the game at native 4K with settings reminiscent (as far as we can tell) of High/Ultra on the PC. That’s in-line with the GPU comparison above—my colleague Brad Chacos benchmarked Gears of War 4 on a variety of systems last year, and managed 32 frames per second on an AMD Radeon Fury X at 4K Ultra, a slightly better card than the 580. Dip a few settings to High and you’d see a steady 30 on the 580 too, most likely.
Performance mode is more interesting to me, though. Despite the focus on 4K in the Xbox One X marketing, I’ll take lower resolution and higher frame rate almost any day—that’s my bias as a PC gamer with a 144Hz monitor. Performance mode does just that, eschewing native 4K for upscaled 1080p Ultra, but running at a smooth 60 frames per second.
It plays like a whole different game. Everything, from sprinting to shooting to even the explosions is so much smoother. To be honest, Performance mode and its 60 frames-per-second output is more reminiscent to me of playing on the PC than the 4K Visuals mode. That goes doubly because of how far people (usually) sit from the TV. I’m not convinced 4K is really necessary. It’s a great selling point for Microsoft, but even sitting five feet from a 55-inch Samsung 4K TV, the difference 60 frames per second made was way more noteworthy than the graphics enhancements of Visuals mode. Your mileage may vary though—I know some people aren’t as sensitive to frame rate.
Either way, the game looks better than the original Xbox One. I had both consoles plugged into different HDMI ports so I could swap back and forth. Even the main menu of the original Xbox One version is uglier, with protagonist JD Fenix’s face blurry and jagged. Swap over to the Xbox One X, his face is magically crisper, the reflections better, the eyes more alive.
A/B testing the actual game is easy too. Feel free to expand the screenshots above, and you should be able to see the difference. We’ve also captured some video (embedded in the next section, since it also contains PC footage). The original Xbox One looks a full generation behind by comparison, especially when it comes to aliasing. Enemies look jagged and indistinct, even compared to the 1080p upscaled version on the X. In frantic moments the Xbox One has a tendency to stutter, where the X is smooth.
How does it fare against a PC?
Pitting the Xbox One X against its predecessor is Easy Mode though. Far more interesting (especially to us at PCWorld) is how the X stands up against a PC.
As I said earlier, Brad benched Gears 4 on a variety of setups last year. It’s pretty easy to draw some conclusions if you jump over there—just keep in mind the Xbox One X focuses on 4K native at 30 frames per second on High/Ultra or 1080p upscaled at 60 frames per second on Ultra (though in both cases there’s probably some overhead to ensure a smooth locked frame rate).
Does the Xbox One X measure up against a high-end PC? Of course not. We tested the HP Omen X we have in the office, just to see what would happen—that’s a machine with dual GTX 1080 Tis. And...well, the results are predictable. In Gears 4 the Omen averaged 70-80 frames per second in the same test sections at 4K Ultra. It was overkill obviously, the point being only that a PC can outdo the Xbox One X.
On the other hand, the Xbox One X measures up to machines the majority of enthusiast PC gamers are running. Just take a look at the Steam Hardware Survey: About 55 percent of PC gamers use GTX 1060-caliber cards and below, while the other 45 percent is a smattering of cards both higher and lower. The fact the Xbox One X matches what 55+ percent of the PC gaming audience uses day-to-day? Pretty impressive.
The video below shows our own in-office Xbox One X-tier build, courtesy of Alaina Yee and Gordon Ung (and color commentary by Brad). That machine features an 8GB RX 580.
Now that the Xbox One X has officially launched I've had time to check out a few more titles. Assassin's Creed: Origins was the one I felt would show the most obvious differences between PC and the Xbox One X, and that is indeed the case. Below, you'll see a screenshot of the Xbox One X version:
And the PC:
Unlike Gears 4, Origins only has a single mode: 4K native. It looks surprisingly good in still images, and I'd wager the game is running on the Xbox One X at 4K with High settings—some missing reflections, simpler shadows, and the distant mountains lose some finer details and appear blurrier overall.
Still, it's pretty impressive. The biggest issue is it's at 30 frames per second, and a pretty jittery 30 frames per second at that. As with Gears, I think Origins would benefit more immediately from a 1080p60 Ultra upscaled to 4K than it does from 4K native at High. Actually, I think all games on the Xbox One X would benefit more from 1080p upscaled to 4K with better frame rate/detail. 4K is a great buzzword, but in practice it's not as easily noticed as other adjustments.
Something for developers to consider moving forward, perhaps.
Alaina’s build above came in around $650-700. That’s another area where the Xbox One X has a major advantage—price. We’ve put together a few PC builds comparable to the Xbox One X, and the cheapest (sans-optical drive because Steam exists) is around $640. That’ll get you basic 4K, 30 frames-per-second gaming. Adding a 4K Blu-Ray drive tacks at least another $100 on the price, and your options are very limited.
Xbox One X
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.
- The most powerful console by a long shot
- Small, quiet, and unassuming
- Cheaper than full PC system builds with equivalent graphics cards
- 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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