Xbox One X Review: Real 4K HDR gaming comes to consoles

The Pros

  • Offers true 4K gaming
  • Long-term 'enhanced feature' plan is impressive
  • Most powerful video game console ever released

The Cons

  • 4K compatible launch selection could be lacklustre
  • Might be too pricey for some
  • No Dolby Vision HDR compatibility

Microsoft’s new Xbox One X — just like its main competition Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro — sits in an interesting position in the console video game industry.

It’s not quite a complete generational leap, though the system is substantially more powerful than the Xbox One, Xbox One S and arguably even Sony’s PS4 Pro.

It’s also not the Xbox One 2 either, according to Microsoft.

Instead, the X is a mid-generation upgrade to the standard Xbox One that’s compatible with previously released titles, with some new games including what Microsoft is calling ‘enhanced features’ when running on the more powerful Xbox One X. What these ‘enhanced features’ actually consist of differs depending on the game. Microsoft says that it’s also not forcing developers to include specific upgrades when it comes to Xbox One X compatible titles.

While Sony has made similar 4K claims regarding the PS4 Pro, the system’s line-up of titles that feature true 4K visuals remains miniscule. Many PS4 Pro compatible games opt for a less resource intensive rendering technique called checkerboarding (more on this later) to get 4K resolution titles running on the less powerful system.

“What these ‘enhanced features’ actually consist of differs depending on the game”

To some extent, this leaves Microsoft’s Xbox One X in a league of its own in the console space, with many past games — especially first-party titles — and upcoming games offering true 2160p (3840 x 2160 pixel) visuals. It’s hard not to be impressed with the effort Microsoft has put into ensuring that even at the console’s retail launch, there’s a relatively wide selection of games available that support legitimate 4K.

It’s also important to point out that while the disparity between standard definition and high-definition is substantial, the jump from 1080p to 2160p (in some cases with HDR) isn’t quite as noticeable.

Xbox One X

That’s not to say that the average person won’t be able to perceive the difference between the standard Xbox One running Gears of War 4 at 1080p and the same game being played on a 4K television compatible with HDR10 — the only high-end high dynamic range format the X is compatible with — but the leap in fidelity isn’t as monumental nonetheless.

In the case of HD TVs, the Xbox One X uses a technique known as “super-sampling,” which essentially scales down a 4K output to 1080p resolution to still offer improved textures (not to mention the same quicker load times). Therefore, those who currently own an HD TV — and many presumably do — can still benefit from the Xbox One X’s extra power, albeit to a much smaller degree.

What this means is that while Microsoft’s Xbox One X is an impressive, seemingly next-generation gaming offering aimed at the hardcore demographic, it won’t be a worthwhile upgrade for everyone.

In particular, I’d argue that those who don’t own a 4K television and aren’t planning to purchase one in the very near future can likely skip the Xbox One X, given that the upgrades standard 1080p television owners will experience with the X are considerably less noticeable.

The X is actually smaller than the Xbox One S

Xbox One X vs Xbox One S

By a magical feat of engineering, the Xbox One X is smaller than last year’s Xbox One S, though overall the console looks very similar to Microsoft’s previously released full redesign of the console.

The X is housed in a rectangular box about the size of a medium sized cable box and is covered with a sleek matte black coating. While I’ve always been a fan of tech devices that feature any kind of matte colour, the system is a fingerprint magnet — this doesn’t really matter, though, since it’s just going to sit under a television after you set it up anyway.

The main difference between the look of the S and the X is that Microsoft’s new offering is a deep black and the S is a bright, vibrant white. The disc tray has also been shifted from the top-right of the system to the middle-left, a subtle design change that to my surprise actually gives the console a unique look.

Xbox One X, Xbox One S, Xbox One

Just like the S, the Xbox One X is capable of playing 4K Blu-rays. Though not a common physical media format yet, Microsoft’s Xbox One X and S remain the only video game consoles capable of playing UHD 4K Blu-rays, with Sony strangely opting not to include the functionality in its PS4 Pro.

The back of the Xbox One X is nearly identical to the Xbox One S as well. Running from the left to the right of the rear of the system are HDMI out, HDMI in (despite ditching Kinect, the X maintains the system’s cable box in feature), two USB ports (the right one is for Kinect), IR out, optical out and an ethernet plug.

Even the slightly upgraded controller that came with the Xbox One S and features a 3.5mm headphone jack and additional grip on the gamepad’s arms, also comes with the Xbox One X.

Packing that power

Xbox One X

The main narrative Microsoft is pushing surrounding the Xbox One X is how much power the console packs within its comparably diminutive enclosure.

On paper, the Xbox One X rocks an octa-core CPU overclocked at 2.3Ghz, 12GB of GDDR5 memory, coupled with a high-end GPU that features 40 compute units, 6 Teraflops of power and vapour chamber cooling. To put the Xbox One X’s GPU in perspective, reports indicate that the amount of RAM featured in the X’s graphics card is comparable to Nvidia’s Titan XP, which sits in the $1,000 plus dollar range.

“Don’t mistake the X’s impressive GPU specs for being the equivalent of a powerful, multi-thousand dollar PC”

Keep in mind, though, that the Xbox One X’s memory is split between the GPU and system tasks, with developers reportedly only being able to access 9GB of the console’s GDDR5 RAM. Also, don’t mistake the X’s impressive GPU specs for being the equivalent of a powerful, multi-thousand dollar PC just because it features the same amount of memory on paper.

Those far more well-versed in the intricacies of PC hardware than myself have said that the X’s power falls somewhere between the AMD RX 580 and the GeForce GTX 1060, though these cards feature less memory than the Xbox One X’s GPU.

Xbox One X made in seattle

That said, it’s important to remember that the Xbox One X is a console and not a PC. This means that its hardware has been integrated and optimized in a variety of ways. Developers also only have one set of technical specifications to meet if they opt to support the Xbox One X, rather than a massive array of various graphics cards, CPUs and other gaming PC configurations. This is part of how Microsoft and third-party developers have been able to get true 4K visuals up and running on the console, despite the X not featuring the equivalent PC technical specs required to render the same visuals.

Throwing back to a bygone era where gaming hardware manufacturers boasted about their console’s technical prowess — remember Sega touting the Genesis’ Blast Processing, or Nintendo constantly reminding players that the N64 was built with 64-bit architecture? — Microsoft has primarily highlighted the Xbox One X’s six teraflops of power. To be fair, six teraflops does sound impressive (seriously, try saying it out loud).

If you’re like me and only care what fancy specs actually mean in practice, all you need to know is that the Xbox One X is capable of pushing true 4K visuals, often with high dynamic range (HDR) and at 60 frames per second. For a console to be able to push that level of visuals at at a $599 CAD price point is an impressive achievement on Microsoft’s part.

Xbox One X rear

It’s important to note that not every game will feature 4K visuals, with some titles opting for other visual upgrades, as well as utilizing the same 4K checker-boarding technique commonly found with the PS4 Pro’s 4K checkerboarding (for more information on checkboard 4K, check out this link).

Purely on paper, though, the Xbox One X is the most powerful console ever released and is significantly better than the original Xbox One and even Sony’s PS4 Pro.

So, what’s the point?

Xbox One X front view

This is a question I’ve been asked repeatedly by friends and family leading up to the Xbox One’s release.

Every already released Xbox One title will run on the Xbox One X and Xbox One S, creating what Microsoft is calling a unified ‘Xbox Family’ platform. This means that all titles feature the same interface — though the Xbox One X’s dashboard actually seems to run smoother — access to apps and work with the same accessories.

In a sense, this means that current Xbox owners won’t totally get left behind and also avoids fragmentation, an issue that plagues PC gaming. It is possible, though, that this could hamper the X’s ultra-powerful hardware to some extent.

Xbox One X rear grill

While developers will build their games to take advantage of the Xbox One X’s impressive internal hardware, they also need to aim for their titles to run on the standard original Xbox One.

What this means is that some games may not be as technically impressive as they could have been given that developers are still forced to support common denominator hardware version of the Xbox One.

Solid game compatibility list

Brad Shankar

Out of the gate, Microsoft benefits from having over 130 games confirmed to be part of the Xbox One X Enhanced library. In comparison, the PlayStation 4 Pro currently only has about 70 titles that take advantage of the system — even over a year after its launch in September 2016.

There is some overlap between the two — games like Titanfall 2, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard are all improved on both Xbox One X and PS4 Pro. However, it’s important to note that the updates will vary depending on the game.

The Witcher 3, for example, is getting a full-blown ‘Enhanced’ treatment, with developer CD Projekt Red saying the Xbox One X will render the game in 4K HDR, as well as offer an all-around performance boost and miscellaneous visual tweaks such as higher-quality shadows, ambient occlusion and texture filtering. On the other hand, RE7 is only slated to receive HDR support at a later date.

“Microsoft benefits from having over 130 games confirmed to be part of the Xbox One X Enhanced library.”

More importantly, though, Microsoft has clearly secured deals with multiple publishing giants, as many major third-party games are only set to receive updates on Xbox One X, not the PlayStation 4 Pro. Titles such as Wolfenstein II: The New ColossusCall of Duty WWII and Assassin’s Creed: Origins are all only confirmed to be enhanced on Xbox One X.

There’s also a disparity between some of the games that are enhanced on both consoles. For example, on PS4 Pro, Middle-earth: Shadow of War has received a free downloadable add-on to to support 4K content, but only when it comes to displaying cinematics. The Xbox One X, meanwhile, provides Shadow of War with a complete overhaul, rendering the Lord of the Rings game in true native 4K HDR and offering improved lighting and a wider colour gamut.

There may very well be some caveats, though. Not every game will run in true 4K, as Patrick mentioned earlier, instead implementing the aforementioned upscaling checkerboarding technique. In many cases, it’s also not always clear if it’s true 4K or checkerboarding that is being implemented.

As well, the Microsoft’s official table of Xbox One X Enhanced games lists many of the updates as ‘coming soon’ or ‘in development,’ which doesn’t provide very specific release timing. With PlayStation 4 Pro, some games hadn’t received enhancement updates until several months after launch, such as the The Witcher 3. Therefore, while it’s good to know updates are coming to the Xbox One X, it’s still unclear when consumers can expect to see some of the enhancements actually go live.

“Admittedly, it’s been somewhat difficult to discuss the Xbox One X Enhanced games at this stage because many of them haven’t yet received their 4K update”

Admittedly, it’s been somewhat difficult at this stage to discuss the Xbox One X Enhanced games that have been released because many of them haven’t yet received their 4K updates. So far, we’ve only been able to try a handful of titles, including Killer Instinct, FIFA 18, Titanfall 2, Super Lucky’s Tale and Gears of War 4. I didn’t see a significant difference between HD and 4K with FIFA 18 or Titanfall 2, although the games do look a bit more detailed.

Gears of War 4, no doubt by being a flagship exclusive, definitely looks and feels the best with the updates, rendering in true 4K HDR. It’s also worth noting that Gears is one of a select few older titles to offer different modes to let you choose between maintaining a high resolution or frame rate. One option lets you optimize performance, limiting the visual output to 1080p in order to maintain a consistent 60 frames-per-second. On the other hand, those wanting a top-notch visual experience can lock framerate at 30fps to have resolution set at a permanent 4K. The PlayStation 4 Pro offered a similar solution with its ‘Boost Mode’ and both consoles are better off for it. However, it remains to be seen how many developers will take advantage of these flexible gameplay and resolution offerings.

I also tried out the Xbox One X Enhanced Halo 3, Zoo Tycoon Ultimate Animal Collection, Disneyland Adventures and Rush: A Disney-Rush Adventure, which are all playable via Xbox 360 backwards compatibility. Naturally, the improvements made to older generation games are often far more pronounced, with crisper textures, lusher colours and more dynamic lighting clearly in effect. I compared footage of the Toy Story 3-inspired daycare level with that from the original Kinect game on Xbox 360 and the differences were quite impressive.

That said, these children-oriented games seem like an odd choice to render in 4K on the most premium Xbox One system, given that younger audiences aren’t really the target market for the console to begin with.

Microsoft has done a great job this generation in preserving classic titles from previous generations of Xbox — starting with Xbox 360 last year and continuing earlier this month with the original Xbox — and it’s nice to see the Xbox One X offer some improvements to these older games to boot.

For what it’s worth, I have the Xbox One X hooked up to the Samsung MU6300 — a very solid 4K HDR 10 TV.

Echoing MobileSyrup staff writer Bradly Shankar’s thoughts above, it’s difficult to judge the Xbox One X’s launch selection of content pre-release. As it stands right now, I’ve spent time playing Halo 3 — which surprisingly looks incredible in 4K — Gears of War 4, Super Lucky’s Tale and Killer Instinct. It’s important to note that Halo 3, which is included as part of Microsoft’s fan-service Xbox 360-to-Xbox One compatibility list, runs into a few performance issues, including lengthy load times and occasional bouts of strange stutter that weren’t present in the game’s original release.

All of the above games look incredible (check out the video embedded in this review to see for yourself) but it would have been great to test out more marquee Xbox One X compatible games prior to launch, including Star Wars Battlefront II, Call of Duty: WWII, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Middle-earth: Shadow of War.

Xbox One X grill

When 4K content updates are available for these titles, we’ll update this review with additional impressions.

In general, the games I was able to test looked incredible running on my Vizio M50-E1 50-inch 4K TV that supports both true wide colour gamut high dynamic range, including HDR 10 and Dolby Vision. As a side note, it would be great if the Xbox One X also supported at least Dolby Vision playback for 4K Blu-rays since its a higher fidelity HDR option, though this could come through a future software update.

Also, beware when buying a 4K HDR television as many manufacturers list high dynamic range as an included feature, when really the television does not feature wide colour gamut HDR10 or Dolby Vision. If this is the case, the television doesn’t really feature true HDR and it likely isn’t worth buying. That said, the set up process when it came to getting the Xbox up and running on my 4K television was simple: I just plugged it in and navigated to the settings menu to find a simple list of checkboxes indicating that 4K and HDR are set to on.

Some questions still remain about the Xbox One X. For instance, while game support seems impressive at launch, it’s unclear if developers will continue to include 4K feature in their titles, as well as other improvements. Also, if the X’s installed base doesn’t grow to a point where it makes financial sense to put the effort into creating these features, then it’s possible developers will begin to abandon support for the system.

It’s also unclear what Microsoft’s VR strategy is regarding the Xbox One X. While the company confirmed at last year’s E3 that the Xbox One X is capable of running high-end VR headsets, it has yet to discuss the subject since. It’s likely Microsoft could have plans to add Windows Mixed Reality headset compatibility to the device at some point in the near future.

Not the console for everyone

With Xbox One sales sitting in the 31 million region and the PlayStation 4 amounting to 60 plus million units sold, it makes sense for Microsoft to be releasing the X, especially given its mid-generation update offers a substantially better value proposition when compared to the PS4 Pro.

Still, if you don't own a 4K TV and aren't the type of person interested in visual fidelity or owning the latest, greatest hardware, the picking up the Xbox One S makes more sense. Those who care about 4K gaming also likely already own a high-end gaming PC, which makes purchasing an Xbox One X superfluous in a sense.

For the likely small demographic which I include myself in -- those that prefer console gaming of the high-end variety -- the Xbox One X is exactly what we've been waiting for.

The Xbox One X is set to release on November 7th for $599 CAD.

"For the small demographic which I include myself in - those that prefer console gaming of the high-end variety - the Xbox One X is a great system"


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