Consoles are changing. Whereas once they were effectively islands, with a catalogue of games distinct from the hardware that both preceded and superseded them, this new era of hardware brings in the idea of overlapping libraries.
The Xbox One X represents this brave new world for Microsoft, and it represents a pretty significant departure from what’s come before. Put simply, there will be no Xbox One X exclusives, only Xbox One games.
This means that while developers will be free to make games that only run on the original Xbox One (more on this later), any games developed for the One X will also need to be playable on the older hardware.
Think of the One X as the iPhone 7 to the original Xbox One’s iPhone 6. It’s powerful, much more powerful, but it runs the same apps and services, and these are all also available on the older hardware.
So why make the upgrade? Because the Xbox One X offers a significant boost in power over the original console, allowing it to boost its maximum resolution to Ultra HD, four times that of the old hardware’s Full HD. It’s a big jump, and it means that for the first time console games are really able to go toe-to-toe with the PC in offering the best looking games around.
Starting with the exterior, the Xbox One X follows a very similar design blueprint to the Xbox One S. That’s no bad thing, the One S was a breath of fresh are after the hulking VHS-player inspired Xbox One, and we’re completely content for Microsoft to continue this design trend.
Size-wise the new console is a touch smaller than the old one, although you’re unlikely to notice unless you put the two next to each other.
The biggest change is the color. Whereas the One S came with a clean white color scheme by default, the new console is more of a space gray. Obviously the hardware needs to look different from its predecessor to avoid confusion, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t prefer the white that had preceded it.
One the front of the machine there’s a subtle slot-loading disc slot, a single USB port, an ‘on’ button disguised as an Xbox logo, a controller sync button and an IR receiver. It’s very similar to the Xbox One S, although the disc slot has been moved down to the dividing line between the top and bottom of the console.
Round the back the similarities to the One S continue. From left to right you’ve got a power connector, HDMI out, HDMI in, two USB ports, an IR out, an Optical Audio port and an Ethernet port.
Controller-wise the new machine is packing a new space gray themed gamepad which, for all intents and purposes is exactly the same as the one that currently ships with the Xbox One S.
So far, so standard. The real difference with the console comes when you look at what it’s packing inside.
We already knew a great deal about the Xbox One X’s specs before we came into this event.
We knew, for example, that the console would come equipped with an eight core CPU clocked at 2.3GHz, alongside 12GB of GDDR5 RAM. We knew the console would feature a GPU clocked at 1172MHz and we knew that this would leave the console with 6 teraflops of graphical computing power.
We even knew more trivial details, such as the fact that the machine would come equipped with a 1TB hard drive, and that the Ultra HD Blu-ray player found in the Xbox One S would be making a return.
On paper, then, this is a powerful machine. It doesn’t quite have the GPU horsepower of the latest high-end cards from Nvidia and AMD, but thanks to the combination of Blu-ray player and Dolby Atmos it has a breadth of capabilities that’s wider than most modern gaming PCs.
Microsoft may have taken a step back from its original ambitions for the Xbox One to be the centre of your media center, but that doesn’t mean One X isn’t a competent media player in its own right.
When it comes to consoles it’s very difficult to translate the specs on paper into what the machine will actually be capable of. We can compare two PC graphics cards because we have the ability to keep the rest of the equation, the operating system, CPU and games for instance, the same.
Comparing the PS4 and Xbox One based on raw specs, meanwhile, is almost meaningless. These are two completely separate machines, running completely different code. As such, while we know that on paper that Xbox One X is more powerful than the PS4 Pro, Sony’s own 4K competitor, its gaming performance will ultimately come down to how well its games and APIs are optamised for its hardware.
We’d been given tantalising hints as to what the hardware would be capable of, such as the Forza engine running in Ultra HD with a framerate of 60fps, but this information was the result of just two days of work by a team porting over an engine developed for what is now the last generation of Microsoft’s console hardware.
It was an impressive feat, but in the months since, Microsoft’s engineers have achieved so much more.
We were treated to live demonstrations of both Forza Motorsport 7 and Gears of War 4, which will be receiving a free One X patch later on this year.
In Forza Motorsport 7 the Xbox One X’s power was being used to add fantastic amounts of detail both in and outside of the car. Sitting in the cockpit you could make out the stitching in the steering wheel, and with a third-person camera cars retained their crisp detailing even as they disappeared into the distance.
But the really impressive work happened when the car started to hit higher speeds, and parts of the exterior started to rattle with the wind. Seeing the mirror, complete with reflection, vibrate was especially satisfying.
Switching to Gears of War 4 allowed the console to show off its HDR capabilities with sunlight that almost had us shielding our eyes with how bright it was. The One X version of the game also features much sharper shadows beneath our character’s feet.
Although all of these effects won’t be as apparent on a non-4K screen, they should still be present to a certain extent. Microsoft has said that the console will continue to render at 4K, but will supersample this content down to HD.
We haven’t had a chance to see this super sampling in action, but similar technology from Nvidia’s graphics cards produces improved, if not mind-blowing, images.
At launch, Xbox One X will support all of the Xbox One’s existing games. This sounds impressive, but it’s not entirely unprecedented.
When the PS3 was originally released it was able to play the PS2’s entire back catalogue, and the PS2 could do likewise with the PS1’s library.
On Microsoft’s side, backwards compatibility has historically been more patchy. The Xbox 360 played a large majority of the original Xbox’s games (albeit with occasional hiccups), but at launch the same could not be said of the Xbox One – though the situation has improved considerably since.
Regardless of its history, Microsoft is turning over a new leaf with Xbox One X, which at launch will not only play every Xbox One game, but will also support those 360 games that are playable on the newer hardware. If the Xbox One S is anything to go by, then even Xbox One games will see a performance boost on the new hardware.
However the really impressive feat is that new One X games will also be playable on the Xbox One. Granted, they’ll be playable without the bells and whistles of 4K, and VR titles will be excluded, but, aside from that, they’ll all be there.
This might initially sound like something that’s more of a benefit for Xbox One owners than Xbox One X owners, but it could not be further from the truth.
Normally, when a new console comes out, publishers are retiscent to spend too much money on it because the install base is so low. However, with One X that problem doesn’t happen, because games will have a guaranteed install base with all the Xbox One consoles that are currently out in the wild.
Microsoft was keen to show off the new games developed for the console which included new patches for Gears of War 4 and Minecraft, as well as all new games such as Forza Motorsport 7 and Crackdown 3.
At double the price of the Xbox One S, the Xbox One X feels like a premium piece of hardware for anyone that’s invested in a 4K TV and is just dying to find a machine to make the most out of it.
Sure, the PS4 Pro offers similar functionality, but upscaling can never beat the raw detail that native 4K on the One X offers.
This is a machine that offers best-in-class graphical performance that comes tantalisingly close to what a PC can achieve at a much lower price point.
But while it might be a lot cheaper than a similarly specced PC, there’s no escaping the fact that the One X is significantly more expensive than its two closest relatives, the Xbox One S and the PS4 Pro. Yes, its graphics do seem to have the edge based on the demos we’ve seen so far, but whether the extra eye-candy is worth the extra money is still a very subjective topic.