Xbox One X Review: Microsoft Delivers on Its Promise

Is the Xbox One X worth the price?

The Xbox One X is an easier sell, or at least an easier pitch, than 2016's Xbox One S.

The Xbox One S was a slightly improved Xbox One that supported UHD Blu-ray playback and HDR support for games but was more or less the same experience as the Xbox One that launched in 2013. It was pretty, sure, but unremarkable, a nicer, "Slim" style release.

The Xbox One X is not that. Instead, with the Xbox One X Microsoft has aggressively leaned into the idea of "true 4K" with a console that is closer to a generational leap in power than not. Microsoft has promised a system more powerful in every way than the competition. And not to ruin the suspense, it's succeeded. The Xbox One X is a more capable piece of hardware than Sony's premium alternative, the PlayStation 4 Pro, in every regard.

The price is, well, the price. At a suggested retail price of $499.99, the Xbox One X is an expensive piece of hardware. The Xbox One X is new hardware, but it's not a new platform. It's getting and playing the same games that the Xbox One is. It's not offering you more experiences than its cheaper predecessors. Instead, it's offering improved ones. But in the process, Microsoft has also laid the groundwork for a truly exciting, legacy driven vision for their platform — and some of the biggest surprises of the Xbox One X launch are in experiences that are well-worn memories.

The question then is whether that's worth the price. Hopefully, we can help you figure that out.

The Hardware
Aesthetically, the Xbox One X straddles a line between stylish and minimalist. It bears a fair bit of resemblance to the Xbox One S, save that it's a carbon black, rather than "Robot White." Their size footprint is roughly the same, and their cable layout is basically mirrored, meaning you can disconnect an Xbox One S and connect an Xbox One X in its place quickly.

Microsoft has stated the Xbox One X is the smallest console they've ever produced, which is technically true, though I really have to squint to see how it takes up less space than the One S model. On the other hand, the Xbox One X is remarkably heavy, coming in at around 8 pounds. I don't have acoustic measurements for the system, though I found it quiet enough in a living room environment (and absent the mild rattle of the Xbox One S's internal fan). Other users have reported increased volume playing Xbox One X enhanced titles.

Xbox One X straddles a line between stylish and minimalist

On the back of the console, you'll find a gigabit ethernet port, an optical audio jack, an IR blaster extension port, two USB ports, an HDMI in for Oneguide TV playback and an HDMI out — all of which are, as mentioned before, in the same location as they were on the Xbox One S. There's also a USB port on the front of the console at near the power supply, ostensibly for connecting and/or charging controllers. The Xbox One X can rest either horizontally or vertically, like the Xbox One S, and Microsoft sells a stand for the latter, should you be so inclined.

In the box, you'll find one of the modern generation Xbox One gamepads, which now include a headphone jack built into the unit and a textured grip on the back of the controller. Each console comes with a certified, Microsoft-manufactured HDMI cable. This might sound like a bizarre disclosure, but 4K/HDR video actually pushes HDMI cable transmission rates much harder than 1080p, and a number of cables, even those marketed as 4K compliant, are not reliable (so buyer beware).

Setting up the Xbox One X is relatively painless, especially if you have an Xbox One already, along with an external hard drive. The most recent Xbox One system update added a network data transfer option from the settings menu, which allows you to pick and choose what games you'd like to copy to the new system. You can also back up your profile and settings on an external hard drive, and the new system will automatically detect this backup when booted for the first time.

If you're planning on purchasing an Xbox One X, I would strongly advise you to begin transferring your games to an external hard drive as soon as possible, as it's the fastest way I've found to transfer them from one console to another.

It's a reasonably attractive console, with a lot of complicated engineering inside, including a custom cooling system using something called a vapor chamber. But the Xbox One X is appealing because of what it can do, not what it looks like.

Microsoft's marketing for the Xbox One X has leaned heavily on "Six Teraflops," which sounds a little goofy. There is a method to it — namely that this number is much higher than the competition.

The biggest improvement in the Xbox One X other than its raw graphical horsepower

Teraflops are a measure of graphical processing capability. More is better here. The Xbox One launched in 2013 with a performance number around 1.3 TF, while the PS4 hovered around 1.8 TF. This difference was big enough to ensure that the Xbox One versions of games routinely ran at lower resolutions and PS4 versions of the same games, sometimes with worse framerates. 2016's PS4 Pro provided a major bump over the launch consoles, with graphics hardware capable of 4.2 TF. So you probably see where this is going. The Xbox One X's custom graphics chipset hits that 6 TF number that Microsoft has been bludgeoning everyone over the head with.

This is not the only way that the Xbox One X is an improvement over not only the Xbox One but, most importantly to Microsoft and its marketing, the PlayStation 4 Pro. The Xbox One's CPU ran at 1.75GHz, the PS4 at 1.6 (which very occasionally yielded benefits to Xbox One titles over their counterparts), and the PS4 Pro is clocked at 2.1 GHz. Xbox One X runs at 2.3.

The biggest improvement in the Xbox One X other than its raw graphical horsepower, however, is its system memory. Both the Xbox One and the PS4 launched in 2013 with 8GB of onboard RAM, each with 5GB of that available to games (each system's respective operating systems needed around 3GB to work with at all times). However, the PS4's memory was nearly three times as fast as the kind found in the Xbox One, offering it additional advantages in graphics processing over Microsoft's system. The PS4 Pro increased its memory speed from the original system's 176GB/s to 218GB/s (more here is better), but only provided 512MB of additional memory to developers on the console.

Xbox One X has 12GB of 326GB/s RAM, with 9GB available to developers for games. This is extremely important.

What 6TF gets you
The PlayStation 4 Pro has consistently provided a better experience for PS4 games, often at much higher resolutions than the base model of the system. But developers have so far struggled to reach resolutions near 4K on the system, particularly with graphically intense titles from third-party developers. For PC games, video memory has a dramatic effect on performance at resolutions above 1080p, and the same seems to be true for consoles as well.

The practical result of this power differential so far seems to be that developers are capable of getting much higher resolutions on Xbox One X with good performance and improved visual quality over the PlayStation 4 Pro. You can see one particularly stark example in video game tech-oriented site Digital Foundry's coverage of September's Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. The pre-release Xbox One X version ran at much higher resolution, with better textures and better effects quality, than it did on the PS4 Pro.

More bluntly: The Xbox One X appears to be much more clearly suited to approaching 4K resolutions in games than the PS4 Pro, with enough room to spare to offer additional visual improvements.

The Xbox One X appears to be much more clearly suited to approaching 4K resolutions in games than the PS4 Pro

Not everyone has a 4K television, of course. In fact, most players don't. 1080p television owners will not get native 4K presentation on games that support those higher resolutions, though it's incorrect to say there's no benefit there. Games with a higher resolution will have their picture shrunk down by the Xbox One X's scaling hardware to 1080p, which loses fine detail but adds incredible anti-aliasing. In layman's terms, the jagged edges on diagonal and curved surfaces in computer-generated imagery are referred to as aliasing, and the Xbox One X removes much of that distortion through brute force when reducing higher resolution imagery to lower resolutions.

Some of this is also offered by the PlayStation 4 Pro. But the execution on Xbox One X is more elegant, with less micromanagement of settings. The downsampling of the 4K signal to 1080p is handled automatically by the console.

HDR is another oft-touted feature of recent console upgrades, and the Xbox One X also supports this feature. HDR is a feature that remaps the idea of bright lights and deep shadows in a game and can lead to startling improvements in perceived picture quality, adding a brilliant improvement to contrast and image vibrance. This requires compatible televisions, and not even every 4K television supports the standard. However, thus far, while it does offer quite a lot of visual oomph in the titles that take advantage of it, it's still fairly uncommon in games even on Microsoft's new hardware.

Meanwhile, every display connected to an Xbox One X will benefit from the visual enhancements some games offer, like better, more realistic shadows, more complicated scenery, more elaborate special effects, and the like, regardless of resolution. And some titles offer players a choice between modes favoring resolution, overall image and effects quality, or framerate.

The best example of this currently is Rise of the Tomb Raider, which offers three image quality settings: Native 4K, which offers a full 4K presentation as well as some minor graphical improvements at 30 frames per second, an image quality mode that runs close to 4K with a number of significant visual improvements at 30FPS, and a framerate priority mode, which targets 60 frames per second at 1080p. This is more complicated than many console players are accustomed to, but it feels like a good middle ground that allows players to leverage the Xbox One X's massive power increase per their preference. Gears of War 4 offers the option to play through its campaign at a dynamic 4K resolution at 30FPS or 1080p at 60FPS … ish. Both modes feature improved image quality.

I find myself selecting the middle ground when given the option. I want higher resolution and more effects, and I'm willing to trade a native 4K presentation and/or 60FPS to get it.

The Games
As of publish, I have spent time with the following Xbox One X updated titles: Dishonored 2, Gears of War 4, Halo 5, Assassin's Creed Origins, and Titanfall 2 (along with a few others that I'll get to in a few minutes). Each of these titles showed significant improvements on the Xbox One X after receiving their patches.

Dishonored 2 launched at 900p on Xbox One in November of 2016; on Xbox One X, it's difficult to tell if the resolution is 4K, whether native or using rendering tricks like checkerboarding, but the end result is much, much clearer and sharper, with a consistent, impressive level of performance. Titanfall 2 uses a variable resolution that can apparently go as high as 6K (which is then scaled down to the Xbox One X's native 4K output). Again, the clarity and level of detail are much higher, and the result is a much cleaner, much better picture. Gears of War 4 is gorgeous at 4K, though this resolution scales to retain performance.

Assassin's Creed Origins is a nearly night and day difference between the visual presentation on Xbox One S and Xbox One X. It's unclear if Ubisoft Montreal is using checkerboard rendering to achieve a 4K resolution or not, but the end results are stunning. Aliasing on my 4K display was almost impossible to find. Meanwhile, Halo 5 looks stunning running at resolutions up to 4k, with improved texture filtering, though there remain some instances of scenery pop-in and enemies far off in the distance noticeably refresh at 30FPS or less.

It's worth being clear here: the Xbox One X is, thus far, largely delivering on the promises Microsoft is making with regards to power and 4K games, something many believed to be nothing but hype, and it's happening in a small, $500 console. 4K gaming on PC is not cheap, and to see it so effectively approximated or achieved here is really impressive.

Games need to be developed to take advantage of much of the Xbox One X's power, however. Due to its design, games made before this fall require an update to leverage the Xbox One's full 6TF of graphical capability.

At launch, Microsoft expects 50-70 titles to directly support Xbox One X via patches, including almost every major Fall release. Per Microsoft, there are over 170 games currently in development specifically taking advantage of the Xbox One X.

However, games that are not patched receive a minimum level of benefits over the base Xbox One hardware. These titles have all of Xbox One X's CPU improvements at their disposal, as well as some of the systems, increased GPU capabilities, which can greatly improve performance for older Xbox One games. I went back to 2014's Thief, which had severe performance problems during some points on Xbox One, and was happy to find a newly smooth experience. Similarly, I booted into one of Battlefield 1's 64 player operations and found no framerate issues, combined with what appeared to be no drops to the game's dynamic resolution.

That last part is important, as several titles in the last few years have elected to employ adaptive resolution strategies on console games, reducing resolution in-game to maintain framerate performance. With Xbox One X, these games, even unpatched, will maintain their maximum resolutions more often, if not always.

Microsoft has also tweaked the Xbox One's operating system in such a way that the Xbox One X can enforce strict, 16x anisotropic filtering on all titles. This is a bigger deal than you might think. Anisotropic filtering, or AF, is the means through which a game substitutes higher resolution assets closer to the player in a game world. Many Xbox One and PS4 titles employ 4x or lower AF — which means (reductively) 4 or fewer degrees of scaling detail radiating outward from the player — which leads to ugly, blurry areas within the game world. In this case, the bigger number is better. The Xbox One also enforces vertical sync on all titles, which prevents "torn frames" — instances where the image produces an ugly split at some point in the image.

Building on Legacy
It's great that Microsoft is in effect providing this kind of meat and potatoes visual improvement to all Xbox One games, but these changes also carry over to the large and growing Xbox 360 backward compatibility library. Each of these gets the same improvements Xbox One titles receive, with 16x AF and v-sync, as well as improved performance on titles that need it.

In a more surprising twist, Microsoft has worked with third parties to introduce Xbox One X enhancement patches to Xbox 360 titles. Right now, that list is limited to four games: Halo 3, Assassin's Creed (soon), Fallout 3, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Each of these games runs in 4K (or very close to it). For Halo 3, there's also a degree of sort-of HDR — it's not quite the real thing with regards to HDR's contrast ratio, but the improved color is noticeable.

Put all together, the Xbox One X as a strategy feels more clear.

Put all together, the Xbox One X as a strategy feels more clear. It's a remarkable combination of bridge to the future and the past — new games will be better, current games will be better, and old games will also be better. Cynically, this also allows third parties to continue to sell and market older titles longer, but in a digitally distributed era, the Xbox platform has become a forward-looking stake in the ground, a tacit guarantee that Microsoft will support the Xbox ecosystem you've bought into moving forward.

It's a smart moving of goalposts on Microsoft's part, attempting to resituate a conversation about current and upcoming exclusives somewhat. It's not just about what games you'll be able to buy in the future. Microsoft wants you to ask yourself how many Xbox 360 games you own, how many of them you'd like to play again without rebuying them and to imagine how much better they'll look and run on this shiny upgrade hardware. Fallout 3 runs perfectly, like it never has on a console. I could see forever, far into a distance like I had never seen in the game.

I was not expecting to be as taken aback as I was by these games running at or near 4K, with perfect frame rates, and improved texture filtering. "Breathed new life" is a cliche, but the improvements are really very impressive. And this sits alongside Microsoft's new original Xbox backward compatibility initiative, which has yielded its own impressive improvements to original software.

It's a very large check to write, and time will tell if Microsoft can cash it. But they're certainly flashing a lot of cash amidst this particularly stretched metaphor.

The problems
There's one primary drawback to games targeting these significantly higher resolutions: file size, or, more specifically, the size of your hard drive and the speed of your internet connection.

Many of the higher profile Xbox One X enhanced titles have download sizes near 100 GB, and even if you already have these games installed, the enhancement updates might be as large as an additional 50 GB. Hard examples include Quantum Break, which doubled to around 100 GB (without the optional TV show episode downloads, which balloon the game's footprint to almost 150 GB). Forza Motorsport 7 is almost 100 GB, as is Gears of War 4.

The Xbox One X is launching with a 1TB hard drive, which is double the size the original Xbox One and PS4 launched with, but after just 4 days or so with an Xbox One X, even more so than with the PlayStation 4 Pro, that just doesn't feel like enough. I'd guess that 1TB drive will hold around 15 games at a time, if that.

You can always redownload games of course, but this presents its own challenges. Even with a gigabit internet connection, it took me around 45 minutes to an hour to download full-size games from Microsoft's servers. And more frustratingly, many internet providers, including Comcast/Xfinity (my provider), are introducing bandwidth caps, with heavy fees for overages.

None of this is Microsoft's fault, and the PlayStation 4 Pro faces similar challenges. Regardless, this has been an annoyance in the past. Now, it's a concern.

One of my biggest frustrations with the Xbox One X mirrors one of my issues with the One S — its half-assed Kinect support.

The Xbox One X system and software itself support Kinect the same as every other Xbox One, and Kinect functions as it always has (even after the official end of production for the hardware announced in October 2017). But the Xbox One S, and now the Xbox One X, eliminated the proprietary Kinect port from the original Xbox One that provided both power and signal to the peripheral. If you want to use a Kinect with the One X, you'll need to buy a separate piece of hardware, the "Kinect Adapter for Xbox One S and Windows PC," which retails for $40.

The Xbox One X isn't cheap at $500

The Xbox One X isn't cheap at $500, and between a larger, external hard drive, which will likely prove mandatory, and a Kinect adapter, the price really only increases from there. Oh, also, you have to pay Netflix an additional fee for 4K streams.

The 4K future, it turns out, is expensive.

Other complaints range from substantive-but-understandable to nitpicky. Dolby Vision, the other, superior HDR format — albeit the one that seems to be floundering somewhat with regards to adoption — is not supported, and it's doubtful it ever will be (though at least the Xbox One X seems to have potential to be upgraded to the HDR10+ standard). There's still no support for Youtube playback in 4K. Strangely, the front USB port on my review unit seems incapable of powering an external USB hard drive, whereas my Xbox One S didn't have this problem. These aren't deal-breaking, but they are annoying.  

Those are ultimately minor issues that only stand out at all because of my annoyance at the Xbox One X's price tag. It doesn't cost too much, mind — just more than I want it to.

It's not so much that I'm not going to pay it. Microsoft articulated a vision for the Xbox One X that it wasn't clear it could achieve, but even now, a week prior to release, it appears to have been successful.

For now, it's unclear if Microsoft's pivot to power and to legacy will be a turning point in this console generation

Microsoft has been cagey about what the Xbox One X means for the traditional console generation, whether it signifies an iPhone style model moving forward, of iterative hardware in a more static ecosystem, or if this is just a half-step toward another, more traditional console generation. Neither would especially surprise me at this point, and neither would make me angry — as long as Microsoft keeps the promise that the Xbox One X seems to be making.

For now, it's unclear if Microsoft's pivot to power and to legacy will be a turning point in this console generation, or if it's just a cool way for Xbox owners to experience their collection and the games to come. For players with 4K televisions, or who want the best possible console experience for third-party games, Microsoft has created the hardware to find it — assuming you're willing to pay the price.