Here’s what Microsoft wants you to think about the Xbox One X: “The year’s best games are going to play best on it.”
Why? Because it’s the most powerful games console ever made. The one that’ll truly do your 4K TV justice with unrivaled HDR visuals and a speedy performance that Sony’s own Ultra High Definition PlayStation 4 Pro just can’t compete with.
As a technical accomplishment, there is simply no arguing with the One X. It is an absolute monster of a machine that largely delivers on its promise, so long as you’re OK with some games using a bit of behind-the-scenes trickery to hit that magic 4K marker. Oh, and with your choice of games not being quite so dazzling as they are on Sony’s machine.
So even with six-teraflops of graphical power, the Xbox One X is still going to force you to make a few compromises. Are they worth it? Well, in classic fashion, that depends on a couple of things. Here’s what I think having spent a week with this behemoth.
Design: A mean machine
Let’s get one thing straight from the off. If you don’t have a 4K TV and aren’t planning on getting one soon, then don’t bother with the Xbox One X. Even if you’ve got a face tattoo of the Master Chief’s helmet. Even if you can actually recall the plot of Gears of War 4. Even if you shed a tear for the Kinect’s discontinuation a fortnight ago. Just don’t do it.
The Xbox One X is a console that’s been made for 4K TVs. Yes, it will downscale its imagery for HD TVs in a decent fashion, but anyone who uses this machine with a HD TV isn’t going to see half of what it’s actually capable of.
Given the One X is so supremely super-charged, its design is an absolute marvel of engineering. Microsoft’s new console retains the stylish aesthetic of last year’s One S while squeezing its Ultra HD oomph into a smaller frame. Honestly, that’s just ridiculous. Especially when you compare the One X to the significantly bigger, half-opened pizza box that is the PlayStation 4 Pro.
Pick the One X up out of its packaging and you’ll immediately get an idea of just how much tech has been crammed into it. At 3.8kg, it’s a heavy piece of kit that’s diddy enough to tuck right under your TV without any fuss. In fact, the One X is the smallest console Microsoft has ever made and an entirely different beast from the original chunky Xbox One. You know, the console that looked like an ’80s VHS player. Only even more ugly.
Cosmetically speaking, the One X is very much a downsized One S that comes in black rather than white. You get the same connections and ports as with the One S - so an assortment of 2x HDMI, 3x USB, plus Ethernet and digital audio ports - and you’ll be using an identically specced controller too. Since the One S did such a fine job of polishing up its next-gen Xbox fundamentals, none of this is a problem.
For my money, the official Xbox controller is the best pad out there. It sits perfectly in your hands, has a really pleasant weight to it and doesn't make your fingers feel cramped after you’ve spent too long slaying Locust scum with a chainsaw. The only problem with it is that unlike Sony’s DualShock 4, it’s not rechargeable via microUSB; you’ll need to swap in a new pair of AA batteries every month or so instead.
The biggest criticism I have of the One X as a piece of kit is its paltry 1TB hard drive. Given a properly 4K game such as Forza 7 or Gears of War can demand over 100GB of storage, you’re going to struggle to fit more than 15 titles on this console at once. And no one likes agonising over whether they should ditch Halo Wars 2 or Superhot to make space for Star Wars Battlefront II.
Right now, Microsoft has two of the best-designed consoles of this generation, and one of these is also the most powerful. And that’s what you really want to know about, isn’t it?
4K Performance: beast mode
Ever since it launched at E3 this year, Microsoft has been banging on about just how monstrous its latest console is. Imagine the Death Star’s Superlaser and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s biceps were fused together in a miracle of science. That’s the kind of power we’re talking about with the Xbox One X.
How much difference can eight 2.3GHz processor cores paired with a six-teraflop graphics processor and 12GB of GDDR5 RAM actually make to your gaming? Well, it depends on what you’re actually playing.
Anyone speeding around in Forza Motorsport 7 can revel in native 4K visuals at 60 frames per second with High Dynamic Range, and the results are truly gorgeous. Like ‘most stunning game you’ve ever seen’-level gorgeous, with incredible rain-soaked tracks, amazing moving scenery and realistic vehicle models.
However, since it’s up to game developers to decide to what extent they invest in the Xbox One X, this calibre of performance isn’t consistent. Some Enhanced titles really push the boat out with their 4K razzle-dazzle, while others just replicate their performance on PS4 Pro.
At its best, you’ll notice the difference. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, for instance, is a clear step up on One X from PS4 Pro, giving players the choice of whether to prioritise native 4K resolution or a slew of other visual improvements. With other titles, though, the improvements over the PS4 Pro are far less obvious: FIFA 18 renders in 4K, HDR at 60fps on both consoles. That’s fine, but hardly makes the most of the One X’s extra power.
Then there are games such as Assassin's Creed Origins, Destiny 2 and Call of Duty: WWII that aren’t truly ‘4K’ in the way that Coke Zero isn’t the same as Coca-Cola. That’s to say they’re upscaled into 4K resolution using a technique called checkerboarding. The Xbox One X’s additional oomph over the PS4 Pro should still allow for more stable frame rates, superior draw distances and several other performance boosts but that’s again up for each game’s developer to decide.
Given many of these Enhanced patches weren’t available at the time of writing it’s impossible to say how things will shake out. Unlike a more expensive gaming PC, you can’t just tweak the One X’s visuals as you please to squeeze the most out of each game you play.
What’s for sure, though, is that there are going to be a lot of Xbox One X Enhanced titles. Right now, there are over 160 such games confirmed for the program and 70 of these will deliver the goods come launch week. From Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus to LA Noire and Star Wars Battlefront II, almost every major game released this Christmas will be Enhanced for Xbox One X.
In every one of these cases the Xbox One X’s graphical performance should be just as good as - or slightly better than - the PlayStation 4 Pro’s. And in some instances, as with Forza Motorsport 7, it’ll be on another echelon entirely.
The problem? Most of these titles are likely to be Microsoft’s own exclusives, and there aren’t a lot of these kicking around.
Games: 4K, backwards compatibility and exclusives
Just as Ed Sheeran can sell out Wembley and England are going to do sweet F.A. at next year’s World Cup, it’s a sad fact of life that Microsoft’s console-exclusive games aren’t what they once were. So, while various Halo and Gears of War games were must-plays on Xbox 360, the Xbox One era has lacked anything of the same calibre; Forza Horizon 3 and Cuphead are great, sure, but there’s no system-seller akin to Super Mario Odyssey or Uncharted 4.
Still, I wouldn’t get too hung up about that. The exclusives it does have are all an absolute blast to play and Microsoft has got more awesome stuff to come soon in the shape of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Sea of Thieves and Ori and the Will of the Wisps. That’s in addition to pretty much any third-party game you can think of. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
What you might not be so clued up on is that PlayStation also has a load of promotional deals locked down this Christmas, involving massive third-party games such as CoD: WWII, FIFA 18 and Destiny 2. Some of these don’t really amount to much, and others get you all the latest content early, which can be a pain if you absolutely can’t wait to carve a trail of destruction around that new Trials of Osiris Crucible map.
On the plus side, both the Xbox One S and One X boast a killer trick that neither the PlayStation 4 or Nintendo Switch can compete with: backwards compatibility. This means a vast and growing list of almost 400 classics from the Xbox 360 and original Xbox are available to play on the One X with no fuss at all. Fancy revisiting Red Dead Redemption, Portal 2 or Psychonauts? All you need to do is dig out that old disc from the attic or download the game from the Xbox Store.
Until the Xbox One X brought its charms to my telly, this feature was by far my favourite thing about owning a One to date. Finally, I could nod along to an office-based Half-Life 2 love-in without having the foggiest what everyone was on about.
Now though, I’m all about the Ultra HD and this is where Microsoft’s exclusives truly come into play. Forza Motorsport 7 looks spectacular on the One X, because it’s a first-party game Microsoft has funded to hit a native 4K resolution, High Dynamic Range and 60 frames per second gameplay. If you’re only guaranteed that monumental ‘wow’ moment whenever a new exclusive arrives, then it’s a problem if those games don’t come around too often.
Especially when Sony is churning them out for PlayStation at a rate of knots. Oh how the One X could do with its very own Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy or Nier: Automata.
UHD Blu-ray: blockbuster boom
Aside from being a ridiculously buff games machine, the One X is also a home cinema geek’s dream thanks to its Ultra HD Blu-ray drive and support for 4K streaming across Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Oh, and it supports Dolby Atmos for truly immersive surround sound, too.
Given Sony’s PlayStation Pro 4 skimps on both the UHD Blu-ray drive and Dolby Atmos sound, the One X is easily the superior all-rounder. Especially since its actual playback performance has stepped up a notch from the One S, where it was a glorified add-on more than anything else. With the One X you’re getting a Blu-ray player that’s pretty much on a par with a £200 standalone device.
So while it’s clearly a notch below Sony’s UBP-X800 and the Oppo UDP-203, it’s still a darn sight better than standard Blu-ray, and will give you a sharper, clearer picture whether you’re watching Ryan Gosling lark about in La La Land or a penguin doing the same in Planet Earth II. Even though it’s a little ill-defined, its Atmos sound isn’t half bad either.
On the apps side, it’s business as usual: there’s nothing here that you don’t already get on the Xbox One S or any PlayStation 4 model. But then again, it’s not like you need them much anyway: anyone with a 4K TV will already have Netflix and Amazon Video apps pre-installed on their telly, and a UHD Blu-ray disc will also beat a streamed show for detail anyway.
Interface: newly streamlined
When it comes to a console like this, its interface is pretty much the least important aspect of the machine. Even though it’s your first window into the Xbox every time you start it up. That said, using the One has become a whole lot easier than it was last year.
There’s no simple, tile-based arrangement like you get on the PS4 or Nintendo Switch but the addition of a Start Menu-like sidebar makes skipping straight into a recently played game or app a far quicker process. Honestly, it’s such an obviously Microsoft idea that I still can’t believe it took the Xbox team so long to come up with it. You just press your controller’s home button and away you go. Job done.
Admittedly, the Xbox Store is still poorly laid out, its Settings menus can often be fiddly to navigate and there’s a strong whiff of feature creep to a lot of the interface, but it fundamentally works. And at least it’s better than it was before.
Better still, this ensures that setting up your One X is no trouble. Having installed a Day One update the whole process took me about five minutes from start to finish, which isn’t bad at all.
Xbox One X vs PlayStation 4 Pro
So this is it, the real test of the One X. Is it better than Sony’s rival PlayStation 4 Pro? As someone who’s spent a year with that sort-of-4K machine, this is an easy call: yes. The Xbox One X is a superior machine thanks to all that much-touted power. As Forza Motorsport 7 attests, the One X can do things that the Pro simply isn’t capable of. It’s also a much quieter console than my PlayStation 4 Pro, which can hum like a low-flying aircraft when it’s really doing nothing more than running FIFA 18 in 4K.
If you’re already sold into the Xbox ecosystem in a major way and have a 4K TV, then you should get the One X. It’s a total no-brainer. And if you’ve already got a PS4? You’ve got quite the dilemma to mull over. Get a One X and you’ve have the superior hardware to hand. Get a Pro and you’ll get to keep all your old games and play online with all your PlayStation-owning mates. In a money-no-object world, I'd keep hold of your PS4 and get the Xbox One X as your 4K console. If you're having to trade in your PS4 to make the upgrade, I wouldn't blame you for sticking with the Pro.
Despite its tremendous power, the Xbox One X is not the best console you can buy right now. That honour belongs to the plain old PlayStation 4 Slim, because most people don’t own a 4K TV yet, are only going to want to shell out on one console and will want the best library of titles to play with it. The One X is for people who’ll proudly proclaim themselves to be gamers, not the majority of folk who have no idea what a ‘frame rate’ is and just like playing CoD at the weekend.
Xbox One X Verdict
After a generation peddling the second-best hardware and a so-so roster of games, the Xbox One X is Microsoft’s attempt to win back some gaming prestige with good old fashioned brute force. Its name is now on the most advanced games machine you can buy, and that’s the bottom line. Although the Xbox One X is the new king of consoles, its grip on this throne is a little shaky.
Beyond the dizzying delights of Forza Motorsport 7, Microsoft doesn’t boast many titles that’ll actually make the absolute most of the One X’s innards and third-party developers are by no means guaranteed to pick up the slack, unless they get a nice chunk of cash in return. That said, games on this Xbox should still run better than they do on Sony’s PS4 Pro.
All things considered, the One X is best taken on face value. It’s the ultimate games console for anyone with a 4K TV. Nothing more, nothing less.