The Xbox One X is a box filled with powerful components that’s designed to do the same thing as a box with less powerful components, only a little bit better. That’s a weird place for the “world’s most powerful console” to be.

In an simpler time, the Xbox One X might have been Microsoft’s next-generation console, using its substantial memory, CPU and GPU upgrades to power games the original Xbox One and last year’s Xbox One S could only dream about. Instead its enhanced power is mainly being applied towards taking advantage of two of the hottest display technology buzzwords since 3D (R.I.P.)—high dynamic range (HDR) and 4K resolution.

4K Resolution

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Full HD, aka 1080p, displays an image that is 1,920 pixels wide and 1,080 pixels high. 4K ultra HD doubles the number of pixels in both dimensions, resulting in an image that’s 3,840 pixels across and 2,160 tall. The greater pixel density of 4K makes for less noticeable aliasing (the jaggy edges that come from rendering curved lines with tiny squares) and allows for more detailed textures. The trade-off is that a gaming console or PC needs to work much harder to render four times the pixels. A great deal of the Xbox One X’s power goes towards making that happen.

High Dynamic Range

Deeper blacks, brighter whites and more color detail in-between—that’s what HDR is all about. Standard display technology has a relatively limited contrast ratio, the difference between the brightest and darkest colors they can produce. A monitor or television that supports HDR has access to a much broader spectrum of colors to paint with. Keep an eye on Ronaldo’s shirt in the GIF below.

The Xbox One X is a console built specifically to handle the rigors of 4K gaming while supporting HDR, and in most cases it handles its task admirably.

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The rub here is that in order to fully enjoy those buzzwords, one needs a 4K television that supports HDR, specifically HDR10. Basic 4K TVs are relatively cheap these days, but HDR is another matter. A basic 50 inch 4K HDR set starts at around $500. Larger, more feature-packed displays can run a couple thousand. For the purposes of this review, the folks at TCL loaned me one of their 55 inch P-Series sets, which features everything I needed at a suggested retail price of $649.

While ideally one would want to hook a 4K, HDR-capable television to the Xbox One X, players with 1080p sets can still benefit from its beefy specs. Xbox One X enhanced games can load faster, maintain more stable framerates and pack in fancy lighting effects than they would on older Xbox One hardware. Through a technique called supersampling, the console can render in 4K but shrink the image to 1080p, which significantly reduces object aliasing.

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The Xbox One X is a grand video game console, packed with powerful components and capable of improving many aspects of the Xbox One experience. It’s also almost completely optional.

Specs

  • x86-64 2.3GHz 8-core AMD custom CPU
  • AMD Radeon-based graphics clocked at 1172MHz with 40 compute units, 6 TFLOPS
  • 12GB GDDR5 Memor
  • 1TB HDD
  • 4K UHD Blu-ray drive
  • Input/Output: Power, HDMI out, HDMI in, USB 3.0 x 3, IR out, S/PDIF, gigabit ethernet
  • Networking: IEEE 802.11ac dual band (5GHz and 2.4Ghz), 2x2 wireless Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi Direct
  • Power consumption: 245W
  • Size: 11.8" by 9.4" by 2.3"
  • Weight: 8.4 lbs/3.8 kg
  • Price: $499.99

The Hardware

Slightly smaller than the Xbox One S, yet weighing two pounds more, the Xbox One X is a dense piece of kit. It’s a black box on top of a slightly smaller black box, nearly featureless on the front save the white light of the power button. In a clever bit of design, the console’s optical drive sits under the lip of the wider top section, hiding it from view. Coupled with the lack of topside vent holes (they’re only on the sides and back now), the X has a sharp monolithic look.

The back of the unit features the exact same series of ports that are present on the Xbox One S—two USB 3.0 (with a third on the front), HDMI in and out, an IR out, optical audio and network ports. Like the S, the X’s power supply is internal, so the power cable is just a standard two-holed affair.

The controller included with the X is just a black version of last year’s redesign, nothing new there.

Inside the Xbox One X is a series of custom components adding up to the impressive numbers Microsoft’s been tossing about since the system was officially outed. Numbers are great, but what’s much more impressive is how quietly the console runs under heavy loads. I’ve been using the X for over a week now, subjecting it to games like Assassin’s Creed Origins and Call of Duty: World War II with all the 4K, HDR bells and whistles, and this thing is whisper-quiet.

Credit likely goes to the console’s vapor chamber cooling system, a very efficient means of heat management that’s seen a lot of use in video cards and some newer, ultra-slim laptops. It’s basically a heatsink comprised of two layers of metal lined with a wicking material, sandwiched together with a small amount of liquid sealed inside. When heat is applied to the liquid it turns to vapor. The vapor moves to a low pressure area of the chamber, dissipating its heat and returning to liquid form, ready to go through the process all over again.

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The Xbox One X gets hot, but never uncomfortably so, and it stays quiet. In comparison, my PlayStation 4 Pro sounds like a tiny jet engine, and that’s just sitting idle on the home screen.

The OS

Unpacking this cool new system, plugging it in and booting into the same exact interface as the console that came before it is a bit of a letdown. It’s a very “iPhone upgrade” feeling. The X does add a little 4K stinger to the front of the boot process.

But after that it’s pretty much business as usual.

The only significant difference I’ve come across is the ability to capture 30 second snippets of 4K, HDR video, or up to 60 minutes when recording to an external hard drive. The Assassin’s Creed Origins clip below was only 88 megabytes when I uploaded it to OneDrive.

The fun part? To view this in HDR, you need an HDR display. Go get one, we’ll wait.

Capturing HDR screenshots is slightly trickier. When an HDR screenshot is saved and uploaded to OneDrive it creates two files, a PNG and a JXR (Jpeg XR) file. The PNG file is super-bright.

While the JXR is dark and subdued.

To make the screenshot appear as it does on the Xbox One X where it was captured, the two composite images must be merged. I do not have access to a piece of software that will do this. I doubt many people do.

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Update 11/9/2017, 6PM: The two different images do not actually form a composite. Microsoft sent us a statement regarding the two different files being generated.

When the console is connected to an HDR-enabled TV, it captures two images – an auto tone mapped SDR image (PNG) and an HDR screenshot (JXR). You don’t combine the images. The console captures two images for different purposes. The HDR screenshot is leveraged on console in areas such as the Activity Feed for HDR users. The SDR image is primarily used for off console purposes where HDR support is less common. The team is also aware some SDR images that are being captured are oversaturated – this issue will be resolved through a system update rolling out within the coming weeks.

The Games

Great news! The Xbox One X is backwards compatible with every game for the regular Xbox One past, present or future! In many cases, it runs those games better than ever before!

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It’s difficult to muster excitement for a console’s game lineup when all of those games can be played on an older version of the console released back in 2013. There is nothing I can play on the Xbox One X that I cannot play satisfactorily on the gunked-up launch day Xbox One with the busted Blu-ray drive my kids have been torturing in my living room since I swapped it for a One S last year.

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It’s not about the games the Xbox One X can play, but rather how well it plays them. Developers hip to take advantage of the console’s increased power can make their games “Xbox One Enhanced.” That’s the designation that indicates a game has been modified in various ways that only Xbox One X owners can appreciate.

Take 2015's Halo 5: Guardians, for example. It’s recently-released Xbox One X update allows the game to run in full 4K at 60 frames per second. It doesn’t support HDR, but those larger textures really make the game’s little details pop.

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Looking for the full 4K, HDR experience? Forza Motorsports 7 is one of the console’s buzzword poster-children, covering both bases at a crisp 60 frames per second. The game is beautiful in motion. Brilliant reflections ripple off the surface of speeding vehicles as they race towards a sunny sky so bright I have to squint.

Remember the JXR/PNG file thing? I cheated and did a Print Screen of the JXR in Photo Viewer, pasted it into Photoshop over the PNG file and modded the opacity. Not quite, but pretty close.

Don’t get too used to 4K running at 60 frames per second. Most of the 4K on the Xbox One X runs closer to 30 frames per second, which I think is just fine, even if it makes many others grind their teeth.

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Some games, like Middle-earth: Shadow of War, offer players a choice between 4K resolution and overall quality. Here’s how Shadow of War splits things up, via its Xbox.com page.

Favor Resolution:

Increased texture detail and targets native 4K.

Favor quality:

Increased texture detail, increased draw distances, improved shadow and lighting quality, increased vegetation, improved ambient occlusion, higher polygon counts (keeping higher quality levels of detail on screen for longer), and texture filtering improvements.

Ark: Survival Evolved eschews 4K resolution altogether, the developers choosing to put the console’s additional power to more constructive use. The Xbox One X Enhanced version of Ark supports either 1080p at 60 frames per second or a 1440p “detail mode,” which only runs at 30 frames per second but adds improved draw distances, long-range shadows and the True Sky dynamic weather system from the PC. It looks really nice.

The Xbox One X version also supports 70 players per server and allows local co-op players to go their separate ways via split screen support. All of that, plus it loads much faster. I’ll take all of that over 4K any day.

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A lot of the Xbox One X’s appeal is going to depend on how it enhances the games players want to play. Microsoft’s got a huge list of current and upcoming enhanced games. Waiting for games to update is a pain, but the payoff can be quite nice.

Should You Upgrade?

Having upgraded from my original Xbox One to an Xbox One S and swapped my launch PlayStation 4 for a PlayStation 4 Pro, I understand the craving for the latest and greatest all too well. In terms of pure power, the Xbox One X is quite a leap over its predecessors, but that doesn’t make taking the $500 plunge a no-brainer. It all depends on the gear you’ve got.

If You Have A 4K HDR Television

If you’ve got a display capable of squeezing all of the juice out of the Xbox One X, you might as well take advantage. The original Xbox One is wasted on it, and the Xbox One S is only upscaling 1080p games to 4K resolution.

If You Have An Original Xbox One

If you’re still sporting that 2013 tech, you should definitely upgrade—just not necessarily to the Xbox One X. The One S is faster, smaller and just all-around cooler than big black box Microsoft foisted on us at launch. With the 1TB model currently selling for $250, half the price of the Xbox One X, unless you’ve got a really fancy TV or see an Xbox One X game enhancement you can’t live without, the S is the system to get.

If You Have An Xbox One S

Again with the TV caveat, probably not. Take a look at this chart, found on the official Xbox page.

The Xbox One S plays all the games, works with all the accessories, supports advanced audio technologies and plays and streams ultra HD video. It even supports HDR, which you’d think would make it on to the checklist. Unless you had your heart set on 6 teraflops or are really into relishing 40 percent more power, the Xbox One S is just fine.

A Spectacular Console In An Awkward Position

The Xbox One X is an outstanding piece of gaming hardware. It’s powerful. It’s exquisitely engineered. It not only runs games at 4K resolution, it runs them smoothly and quietly.

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It’s also an Xbox One, a console that’s been struggling to keep up with Sony’s PlayStation 4 since the two launched within a week of each other back in 2013. The Xbox One doesn’t have as many games. It certainly doesn’t have as many big exclusives. Further muddying the waters, last year Sony introduced the PlayStation 4 Pro, a new PS4 capable of running games at 4K with HDR support. The Xbox One X is a little more powerful and sports a 4K ultra HD Blu-ray drive, which the Pro lacks, but the Pro is also $100 cheaper.

Meanwhile, Nintendo is winning hearts and minds with the Switch, a hybrid handheld/console that, in handheld mode, only runs at 720p. It’s like having good games is more important than outputting at really high resolution.

The Xbox One X faces competition from all sides, including its own. Its most highly-touted features, 4K and HDR, require display technology that’s still in the early stages of adaptation.

It’s a really good console that’s also a really hard sell.