The new Xbox One X ($500) is the world’s most powerful gaming console. Putting aside the fact that every next-gen console should be more powerful than its predecessor, it’s hard to dismiss the massive leap forward the One X takes. Its eight-core, 2.3GHz processor, 6-teraFLOP graphics processor and staggering 12GB of RAM place it handily above the Sony PS4 in performance. That kind of horsepower — a 40 percent bump — means the system can handle not only 4K gaming, high dynamic range (HDR) output, and 4K Blu-ray playback, but it will also play games better and faster, even if they’re not specifically engineered to produce at that enhanced level. Of course, games optimized for 4K resolution, whether natively or through updates, are available at the launch of the console next week — FIFA 18, Gears of War 4, etc. — but for the most part, 4K content will trickle out over weeks, months and years, eventually becoming the standard.
The question is, should you throw down $500 to game in 4K?
Committed gamers will, sooner or later. But the new system’s multitude of other benefits still make a pretty compelling case for buying the One X. I paired it up with a 55-inch LG C7P television ($1,800) — a fantastic UHD set with among the best 4K performance in the market — to find out what the real take-home is. After all, 1080p high-def gaming is already pretty damn good. Can our minds truly be blown any further? Turns out, perhaps predictably, of course they can — 4K games will always be better than non-4K, no? — though there are a few qualifications to this assessment.
After trolling through Microsoft’s sometimes confusing list of games that were true 4K, enhanced by the developer to take advantage of One X capability, and HDR-ready—including which titles were available now versus coming soon — I tried Zoo Tycoon, FIFA 18, Gears of War 4, and the freebie World of Tanks, settling on Gears of War 4 for most of my review. (The list of enhanced, 4K, and HDR games numbers about 10 at launch, but goes up into the twenties when you exclude HDR.) All were downloaded with relatively acceptable haste (i.e., a few hours) from the Microsoft store. Fortunately, the store itself highlights the games that are optimized for One X, which helps significantly.
For backward-compatibility situations like this, you’ll find that games run at faster frame rates and higher resolution, the texture filtering automatically comes out better, and everything will load faster thanks to a 50-percent-faster hard disk.
I’d hoped that Forza 7 would be available in 4K from the get-go, but it wasn’t. Nevertheless, I started playing that first, and still found the experience more enthralling than I had on the conventional Xbox One, thanks to the combination of the LG’s own picture enhancements and the One X’s processing boost. For backward-compatibility situations like this, you’ll find that games run at faster frame rates and higher resolution, the texture filtering automatically comes out better, and everything will load faster thanks to a 50-percent-faster hard disk. Truth be told, you’ll still spend plenty of time staring at spinning pinwheels, but it’s a bit less. The day we have instant-on, instant-play will be a magical day indeed.
But once those pinwheels disappear and you’re into a legit One X–enhanced game, the payoff is immense. GoW 4 plays brilliantly fast, with crisp, clear rendering no matter how intense the onscreen action might be. It’s got that you-are-there feel, of course, though still with the current generation of gaming’s general level of detail — that is, the characters still move with the same stiffness and overall “game-like” motion, but you can already see that as 4K becomes the new standard, we’ll very quickly reach the uncanny valley with human renderings and game environments. Everything else about GoW 4 came off exceptionally smoothly, which shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s no longer maxing out its hardware capability. Give it time.
Other enhancements in the new One X will go a long way toward creating a more engaging and fun environment. The Xbox Live setup for multiplayer online gaming remains as smooth as ever, and the Xbox Game Pass subscription service lets you explore new titles and download them at a discount. The relatively new Mixer feature, which allows players to stream their gameplay online and interact with viewers, receives multiple bumps here, including the ability to have viewers participate in the games by controlling different aspects. If the developer enables it and the player activates it, users can introduce challenges and throw players care packages. You can also just kick back and watch your favorite communities or personalities play the games. Because that’s actually kind of fun.
Xbox One X: Key Specs
CPU: custom CPU at 2.3 GHz, 8 cores
Graphics: custom GPU at 1.172 GHz, 40 CUs, Polaris features, 6.0 TFLOPS
Memory: 12GB of GDDR5 RAM at 6.8GHz w/ 326 GB/s
Storage: starting at 1TB
Preorder Now: $500
As is always the case with complex systems, there are a few “gotchas” with One X. I’m still not a fan of the current user interface (even though it’s recently been overhauled), but only in the sense that I can’t expect someone else in my circle to be able to flip it on and easily do what they want to do, whether play a game or watch Game of Thrones on Amazon Prime or Netflix; these things should be immediately intuitive no matter what the user’s experience level.
Also, the 4K Blu-ray I testd (BBC’s brilliant Planet Earth II) looked absolutely gorgeous, but there were occasional hiccups in the playback, with the picture hanging momentarily amid flurries of digital noise while the sound advanced. It probably happened five times with each disk, for a second or two with each occurrence. Not a big deal, but certainly noticeable. Owners will also have to study their console and television settings carefully to ensure that all systems are go and optimized, whether it’s HDR activation, proper picture mode, screen settings, etc. It might take several passes on either side to ensure that you’ve truly maximized the image quality. Most of this should be automatic, but it may not be, depending on your television.
In moments of uncertainty, you go to the advanced video settings menu in the Xbox and hit “4K TV details,” it’ll show you which cylinders are firing in terms of frame rate, UHD, HDR, etc. A few more tricks: You can filter your games by their One X enhancement status to verify if you’re playing the most updated version, and you can also see precisely which version you’ve downloaded by selecting the game tile and simultaneously pressing menu/page/right-bumper/left-bumper on the controller. What crops up is cryptic code-speak, but it’ll tell you what you need to know, including install date, update date and build details. (For instance: “X1XE: True” means the file is “Xbox One Enhanced.”)
Once you’ve got this all dialed in, the experience becomes brisk and effortless, and the promise of 4K gaming, tantalizing indeed. Furthermore, given that consoles come out at a relatively glacial pace compared to most other consumer electronics, it’s nice to see that Microsoft has taken steps to future-proof this one quite a bit. It will take time for game developers to be able to fully tap its capabilities in terms of true 4K gaming, but the Xbox One X will be ready for those titles for several years to come. So are we.
You can preorder the Xbox One X now. It will be available everywhere on November 7.