Xbox One X review: A lot of power with zero oomph

£450
Price when reviewed

The Xbox One X is touted as Microsoft’s answer to 4K console gaming. It’s designed to be the most powerful console ever, packing a staggering amount of processing power and memory into a frame that’s no bigger than the dinky Xbox One S. Unfortunately, it’s not without its problems and almost all of them can be boiled down to Microsoft’s odd communication strategy.

In much the same way that Sony’s PS4 Pro failed to initially bowl me over – until it eventually swayed me I gave it a five-star review a few months later – the Xbox One X has a slate of issues that Microsoft needs to sort out before it can justify the hefty £450 price tag it’s asking. It’s no wonder that Sony isn’t really worrying all that much about the PS4 Pro’s prospects when it’s already winning the race, and launched £100 cheaper a year ago.

But I digress. Before we wade into how Microsoft has fumbled the Xbox One X launch, let’s get to the good stuff: the Xbox One X hardware itself.

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Xbox One X review: Design

The Xbox One X is an incredible feat of design. Like the Xbox One S before it, it’s testament to just how accomplished Microsoft’s internal hardware development team is. At first glance, it’s basically just a black version of the Xbox One S. It sits at around the same size, measuring just 0.5cm wider, 1cm deeper and 0.5cm shorter than its forebear, yet somehow weighs more than even the original Xbox One.

READ NEXT: The best Xbox One X games enhanced for 4K

You’ve still got a USB 3 port situated on the front of the Xbox One X, with a further two more positioned on the back. There’s still an HDMI passthrough for your set-top box and the HDMI out port to connect to your TV – both of which are 4K, 60fps capable. It retains its optical output, too, which keeps things nice and flexible from an audio standpoint.

Microsoft has also managed to cram in a 4K UHD Blu-Ray player and hide the disc tray under the console’s front overhang so it’s basically unnoticeable.

Simply put, it’s a sublime piece of design. Like many of the best boxes you tuck under or around your TV, it sits on the side of pure modest style that it’ll just blend right in.

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Xbox One X review: Specifications

Beneath the plastic shell, Microsoft has crammed a startling amount of power. Its CPU and GPU may well be based on the same architecture as in the Xbox One and One S, but it’s a totally different machine in terms of power output. It has eight x86 cores clocking in at 2.3GHz and its GPU constitutes of 40 compute units with an output of 1.172MHz. Combine that with 12GB of blisteringly-fast GDDR5 memory, with a 326GB/sec bandwidth, and you’ve got an absolute beast on your hands. There’s also a 1TB fusion drive that has a higher RPM than the one found in the Xbox One Elite, making it just that little bit faster when handling regular applications.

To ensure compatibility with the whole Xbox One ecosystem, the Xbox One X uses the same controllers as you find on the Xbox One S and Xbox One. It must be said that, when paying £450 for the console, it would have been nice for Microsoft to have maybe included a more feature-packed controller like that of the Xbox One Elite – heck, I’d have just taken a rechargeable battery pack out of the box.

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Microsoft has continued its unification of Xbox One systems in the Xbox One X’s software too – it’s exactly the same as that of the Xbox One S’. This means it’s capable of backwards compatibility – offering up welcome performance boosts to some games – as well as streaming to and from any Windows 10 laptop or PC on the same network. You’ll also be able to utilise Microsoft’s Play Anywhere scheme.

Xbox One X review: Games

Now, onto the meat: Xbox One X games. At least, that’s probably what I would have said if Microsoft had let the Xbox One X gestate a little bit longer before whipping it out for this year’s holiday period.

One look at Microsoft’s 2017 lineup and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve given up on pushing out new titles. Forza Motorsport 7 leads the charge, and last year’s Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 back it up alongside 2015’s Halo 5: Guardians. Halo Wars 2, Minecraft and a smattering of other first-party titles are also available on launch, but beyond Forza 7 there’s nothing blisteringly new to play from Microsoft.

This means the Xbox One X is reliant, almost entirely, upon its third-party publishers. At the time of writing, this means Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Call of Duty: WWII, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and FIFA 18 are the “launch” titles for Microsoft’s console. Seeing as all of those games are also available on the £100-cheaper PS4 Pro, it’s hard to justify the expense on the list of games alone – more so when you realise the majority of multiplayer games are likely to have people playing more on PS4 than Xbox One.

Seeing as Microsoft is asking you to drop £450 to play a handful of brand-new games, it’s reasonably good that they’ve opened up enhancements for a slew of Xbox 360 games too. Those that have been labelled with “enhanced” get 4K upscaling, HDR and performance boosts that allow for smooth 60fps and faster load times. That’s great if you fancy revisiting Halo 3 or Fallout 3 for something to play on launch, but it’s unlikely to shift units.

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On launch, Microsoft is stating around 70 titles will be available to play with One X enhancements. That’s an admirable number, especially compared to the 45 Sony listed for the PS4 Pro’s launch, but when you delve into it, many aren’t what you’d deem as “system sellers”. It’s perplexing Microsoft didn’t push for Playunknown’s Battlegrounds to land on launch day, instead of in December. It’s also worth noting that one of this year’s biggest games, Destiny 2 isn’t supported.

The question is, is this enough? Microsoft states over 100 titles will be “enhanced” by early 2018, with most new releases moving forward receiving these extras. However, the main reason Microsoft didn’t claw back ground on Sony during the Xbox One and PS4 launch period wasn’t that it had fumbled its messaging, but because it just didn’t have the games.

Those wanting the absolute best there is will probably be rather content with missing out on Sony’s catalogue of interesting projects, 90s classics and interesting developers if it means 4K 60fps all the time. However, as past generations have shown, it’s never been about who has the most power, but who has the better games and bigger player base. Currently, that’s Sony, and I doubt the Xbox One X will change that.

Xbox One X review: 4K, yay or nay?

Thankfully, what the Xbox One X does do, it does very well indeed. As a 4K console, nothing else compares. Of the games available to run in 4K during our review period, many of them were sublime and the difference between an unenhanced title and an enhanced one was noticeable.

Playing Gears of War 4 is notably better than on the Xbox One S. Textures no longer seem to be smoothed – instead, they’re pin-sharp, and the addition of HDR really breathes life into The Coalition’s creation. The same can be said of FIFA 18, and Call of Duty: WWII with textures looking rich and detailed and colours really popping thanks to HDR.

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The trouble is, despite these nice upgrades, 4K isn’t something you’ll notice all that much. As intended, 4K games on a 4K TV should just look as natural as a 1080p picture on a Full HD TV. There’s more detail, but you’ll get used to it very quickly. In fact, the only way you’ll ever tell it’s a 4K image, over a well-done upscale, is when you’re sitting up close to the TV.

Playing an unenhanced build of Forza Motorsport 7 ahead of its launch-day patch it’s clear as day that the 4K upscaling isn’t the real issue. Instead, it’s the lack of high-resolution textures and smooth framerate. Having played a completely enhanced build of Forza 7 with it’s incredible in motion but it’s not the 4K resolution that makes it shine, it’s those high-res textures.

Generally speaking, Forza 7 looks perfectly good on the Xbox One S – even at 1080p upscaled across our 65in 4K Samsung UE65KS9500 TV.

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It’s also worth noting that, while the Xbox One X’s native 4K capabilities are obvious when looked at up close, sitting away from the TV at any reasonable distance renders it almost unnoticeable. Compared with the PS4 Pro’s Checkerboard technique, which upscales instead of rendering true 4K like the Xbox One X, both images look just as crisp when sitting around 2m away; anyone who believes there’s perceptible difference is in a fantasy land.

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The best feature, however, is how the Xbox One X essentially adds the same “Boost Mode” to unenhanced titles like the PS4 Pro does. This means old games generally just run and load faster, rather than look a whole lot better. For instance, the Bathurst, Australia course on Forza Motorsport 5 took nearly a minute to load (49 seconds, to be exact) on Xbox One S, compared to nearly half that on Xbox One X. A nice little bonus.

Xbox One X review: Added extras

Alongside the Xbox One X’s power output for 4K, HDR-enabled games, Microsoft has also added a few other bells and whistles to round off the package. Just like the Xbox One S, the Xbox One X contains a UHD Blu-ray drive as standard, and support for Dolby Atmos too. The Xbox One S never really touted its Atmos support, but just like with the X, all you need to do is download the Dolby Access app and purchase an Atmos licence (at a cost of £14.99). Currently a smattering of apps support it, including Netflix, but the likes of Star Wars Battlefront II and other games will support it too.

With this extra functionality, it’s clear Microsoft is aiming the Xbox One X firmly at the AV geeks in the room and Atmos is certainly a nice addition. However, for many, it’s simply just another tickbox feature rather than a system-seller.

You could pick up an Xbox One S for the same price as a standalone UHD Blu-ray player, but the Xbox One X’s added power does makes it a compelling prospect if the Blu-ray drive is one reason why you’re eyeing up the One S.

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Xbox One X review: Launch verdict

The biggest problem the Xbox One X has is that Microsoft it has to convince your average consumer that it’s worth the money. Side-by-side with the PS4 Pro running the same game, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Sony’s Checkerboarding upscaling is unnoticeable at your average distance from a TV set. Combine this with the £100 price difference and uneasy games catalogue it’s clear to see there’s a bit of a problem.

The biggest issue with the Xbox One X, however, is having to place too much faith in Microsoft itself. To make it really worth the £450 asking price, you need to believe that Microsoft will be able to make every single one of your games sing in 4K. You have to have the faith that you’re not going to miss out on some excellent games of this current generation because they’re only available on PC or PS4.

Ultimately, though, you need to ask yourself if you really need the Xbox One X. It’s a premium-grade, luxury-marketed console, but seems to lack a sell-out premium feature.

It may be easy to say it’s a must-have if you already own a 4K TV and own an Xbox One X – or don’t already own a PS4/PS4 Pro or 4K-capable PC. For those without a 4K TV, the differences at 1080p are definitely not worth the price hike compared to the Xbox One S, even the PS4 Pro is a more appealing proposition for 1080p gamers – although the former does have some future-proofing via its Blu-ray drive.

As with any games console, the final decision boils down to the games you want to play most. If you really want to play Forza, Gears of War or Halo, Microsoft is your only choice. If I were you, though, I’d abandon buying an Xbox One X and embrace a console that truly embodies pure fun – the Nintendo Switch.

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