As product pitches go, “the world’s most powerful console” is pretty straightforward. And in the case of the Xbox One X, it’s unambiguously true. Microsoft has built a potent powerhouse of a machine that outstrips its predecessors and competitors in capability.
The Xbox One X is playable for the first time at this week’s Gamescom trade show in Cologne, Germany, and I’ve gotten to know it a little better in person. So, is the world’s most powerful console a slam dunk? Who wouldn’t want the world’s most powerful console?
The Xbox One X is nothing if not an impressive engineering achievement. While the original Xbox One saw Microsoft out-designed by Sony, which turned in a smaller and more powerful console with the first PlayStation 4, the One X flips the equation in dramatic fashion. It’s the sleekest Xbox yet, far more compact than not only the PS4 Pro but the slimmed-down regular PS4 and Xbox One S as well. The minimalist black design is perfect for slotting into the high-end AV setups that Microsoft is targeting with this console.
The problem isn’t the box, or even what’s in the box, but how what’s in the box is used. The Xbox One X is powerful, yes, but from the evidence on display at Gamescom that power is largely going toward rendering Xbox One-level graphics in 4K resolution. And to be honest, I think that’s a waste.
Gears of War 4 supposedly runs in native 4K, but the image quality was oddly soft. Super Lucky’s Tale is crisp and cartoony, but not exactly the sort of thing you’d use to show off a $499 machine. Third-party multiplatform titles like Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Assassin’s Creed Origins look good, but you have to get close to the monitor (or, in practice, own a really big one) for the difference in detail to be significant.
If I had the choice between running these games at 4K as-is or at 1080p with the power diverted to enabling higher graphical settings or performance, I would pick the latter. Some games like Rise of the Tomb Raider do offer a degree of choice in that regard, as on PS4 Pro, but the majority of “Xbox One X Enhanced” games similarly appear to be focusing on resolution.
The most impressive title I played on Xbox One X was Forza Motorsport 7, mostly because the sharp 4K lines are much more apparent in a game where you spend most of your time looking at the same thing at the same positions on the screen. It also helps that the game already looks beautiful and runs at 60 frames per second on the regular Xbox One, making for less compromise in the leap to 4K. But it’s a shame that Forza’s Xbox One X enhancements for 1080p TVs are limited to downsampling, as with many other games, which will give better anti-aliasing performance but is otherwise a wildly inefficient use of the system’s potential.
Microsoft’s admirable focus on maintaining compatibility across three generations of Xbox means its hands are tied to some extent when it comes to a more fundamental rethinking of the platform. While the CPU has seen minor improvements, the GPU and memory enhancements are more significant, allowing developers to focus on pushing pixels far more easily than they could improve the frame rate, for example. 4K support is a simpler marketing message and a simpler pitch to developers, who of course are free to use the Xbox One X’s power however they wish but are unlikely to spend too much time tuning their games to different tastes and TVs.
But these are Microsoft’s issues to solve, not consumers’, and in my estimation the product they’ve come up with is a lot more niche than it could be. The leap to 4K is a far less profound jump than 1080p and 720p before it, and the adoption of compatible sets remains slow. Even for people who are fully on board with 4K, Microsoft’s insistence that the Xbox One X’s “true 4K” represents a major shift over what Sony is offering with the PS4 Pro is likely to ring hollow.
The PS4 Pro came out a year ago at $100 less than the Xbox One X. The PS4 is a considerably more popular platform than the Xbox One, and since its release Pro sales have only made up around one in five of all PS4 consoles sold. I don’t think this is because console gamers are hung up on the difference between “true 4K” and checkerboard rendering techniques — I think it’s because these consoles don’t make sense for most people. Sony itself said those PS4 Pro figures were “way ahead” of expectations.
That puts Microsoft in an even tighter spot. With a 4K console that’s coming to market one year later than its competition, for a higher price point, and with very few compelling exclusive games on the horizon, it’s tough to see how the Xbox One X will appeal to anyone but the hardest of the hardcore. Even 4K TV owners can save $250 with the Xbox One S, which supports 4K Blu-rays, HDR in games, and 4K Netflix. You should be very sure that you can appreciate the difference of 4K resolution in games before you pay double the price.
Still, if you want an Xbox, own a big 4K TV, and have $499 to spare, I suspect you’ll enjoy the Xbox One X. It’ll also probably be a good purchase for anyone who wants the best version of multiplatform console games — until now, usually found on PS4 — and yet really doesn’t want to play on PC. But the vast, vast majority of people are going to get more out of the $249 Xbox One S.
It’s fine to put out a niche product, of course. Microsoft doesn’t have much to lose here. But with its fantastic industrial design and capable hardware, it’s frustrating that the Xbox One X isn't targeting a wider range of people. Microsoft is right to claim that it’s built the world’s most powerful console, but that doesn’t mean it’s built the best.