From Microsoft’s perspective, the Xbox One X, the new console built to take advantage of the rapid growth of 4K televisions, is a luxury item. Its diminutive shell contains an abundance of RAM, teraflops, and other expensive bits. For that reason, $499 is a logical price for Microsoft to go with, but it isn’t a competitive one.
As my colleague Tom Warren noted in our original story, the Xbox One will cost $100 more than its direct 4K console competitor, the PlayStation 4 Pro. Technically, the Xbox One X delivers native 4K, while the Pro mostly offers something approaching that resolution. But in both cases, it depends on the game. And some PS4 Pro games are in native 4K, though they tend to be smaller indie titles and see what I mean! “Technically” is a messy word — and that spells trouble when it comes to clear, concise marketing.
Microsoft has to explain why its 4K is the best 4K
Ironically, Sony spent the past year learning the problem with “technically.” Technically, its PS4 Pro is superior to the more affordable PS4 Slim, but that depends on the game you’re playing, whether its developer has provided additional patches and optimization, and if that patch is even available at the time you play that game. And though each PS4 Pro-optimized game is technically better than the same experience on PS4 Slim, the improvements are unique from game to game: some upgrade resolution and increase frame rate, others add additional post-processing. PSVR games benefit, in some vague capacity, from the added PS4 Pro power. But Sony has yet to find a compelling way to explain or showcase how and why any of this works in a 30-second hype reel that airs in the middle of a playoff game or ahead of a blockbuster movie.
Sony hasn’t revealed specific sales numbers for PS4 Pro (though we know, vaguely, that one in five PlayStation 4s sold since November have been a Pro). The company has, however, provided some comment on the people who made the upgrade. It’s helpful in understanding who Sony and now Microsoft are targeting with the pricey machines.
"People just want the best," PlayStation Europe boss Jim Ryan told Glixel. "Maybe they just want to future-proof? I think we see the same thing from Apple customers too — there are people that want the best that you can buy."
“People just want the best”
Microsoft is angling into this concept of people who want the best, simply because it is the best. At its press event, Microsoft employees wore shirts that read “I witnessed the most powerful console ever.” But how will the company show the average fan or newcomer — the person who doesn’t watch side-by-side graphical comparison videos at Digital Foundry, the YouTube channel Microsoft partnered with for the reveal of the system’s specs — that the One X is better and more powerful than the PS4 Pro?
Microsoft has a handful of advantages. Unlike the PS4 Pro, which uses a trick called checkerboarding to create 4K-like resolutions, Microsoft can confidently say that many games will run in native 4K resolution on the Xbox One X. It also has a UHD Blu-ray drive, a point of pride for the company since Xbox One S. And it promises the hardware will provide a performance boost to all games, though it hasn’t provided specifics.
But these improvements largely hinge on the ability of consumers to notice the difference between ultra-high resolutions and merely very high resolutions. And it assumes they care. Worse, most gamers still don’t have 4K TVs, and most commercials on television and the web aren’t shown in 4K, making differentiating one 4K game from another an even more absurd task. Even for those that do have a 4K set, HDR often makes a bigger difference than 4K resolution itself — and Microsoft’s $249 Xbox One S already supports it with HD games, 4K streaming apps like Netflix, and UHD Blu-ray discs.
The “most powerful console” sounds good, but when it’s hard to provide a concise explanation of its superiority — let alone demonstrate that superiority — the majority of marketing will fall on something else entirely: the games. Whether or not Microsoft has enough games for the Xbox One X to best PS4 Pro amongst casual gamers... I’ll leave that for you to consider.
Does Microsoft really want to start a resolution war?
Ultimately, if Microsoft wants to leverage the Xbox One X to not just live alongside PS4 Pro, but challenge it, the company needs to find a way to get customers to care about the nitty gritty of resolution and graphics.
And is that really the direction Microsoft and Sony want to go? Encouraging their player-base to obsess over graphical minutiae? If so, I suspect Microsoft and Sony may find themselves fighting not against each other but the rise of PC gaming. The companies already offer excellent, comparably affordable consoles. But if they perceive luxury to mean the best graphics, they’ll find themselves competing with computers that not only offer better resolutions, but more graphical customization options, cheaper storefronts, and freedom to upgrade.
If players want the best possible graphics, they have PCs. And if they want all the features of the Xbox One X without the promise of 4K gaming, they can buy an Xbox One S at half the price. It’s the most powerful console ever; but is it the right console for you?