Xbox One X review: A surprising amount of power in a very small box

It's as powerful as many gaming PCs, and it's only $500. Pretty impressive, for a console.

Credit: IDG / Hayden Dingman

The Xbox One X just might be the thing that lifts Microsoft out of its gaming console rut. Before the Xbox One even released there was that disastrous E3 2013, with news of an always-online console, Sony’s price coup, and Don Mattrick out there talking about people using Xbox 360s on nuclear submarines. Microsoft never really recovered, and with each controversy over the Kinect or resolution upscaling or what have you, the Xbox's hole only got deeper. 

The Xbox One X could fill in that hole a little. For the first time since 2005, Microsoft has the most powerful gaming console on the market—powerful enough that it surprised even me, a devout PC gamer

This little box packs some power.

Sizing down

And the Xbox One X is little. That’s as good a place as any to start this review, because it’s a compliment I would never pay to the original Xbox One and its vintage VCR aesthetic.

A quick aside: We’ll be comparing the Xbox One X to both the original Xbox One and 2016’s Xbox One S in this review. Some of the Xbox One X’s “new” features debuted on the S last year, such as HDR support, but because that was more of a placeholder model and provided less incentive to upgrade it only makes sense to cover them again here.

The Xbox One X isn’t necessarily more eye-catching—it still has that “generic cable box” look to it in my opinion. I wish Microsoft had opted to reuse (or save) the more vibrant white-and-black color scheme from last year’s Xbox One S.

Xbox One X comparison with original Xbox One IDG / Hayden Dingman

Comparing 2013's Xbox One to the Xbox One X.

It’s compact, though. Measuring 11.8 x 9.4 x 2.4 inches, the Xbox One X is drastically smaller than the launch Xbox One (13.1 x 10.8 x 3.1 inches) and only a hair larger than the slimmer S model (11.5 x 9 x 2.5 inches). Pretty incredible, considering the X’s more powerful hardware. Even better: Like the S, the Xbox One X packs the power supply inside the case. Say goodbye to that launch Xbox One and its enormous power brick. The X has an unadorned 3-foot power cord.

Despite being shrunk down, it’s also quieter. It’s hard for me to do a 100-percent fair comparison with the original Xbox One at this point because mine is going on four years old, but I guarantee it was never this quiet. Even after hours of playing, the Xbox One X is almost whisper-silent when placed on the other side of the room—none of that jet-engine fan noise I associate with the original Xbox One. There’s plenty of ventilation on both ends and the rear of the console, and while the X gets warm to the touch it never gets hot.

Note that unlike the 2TB Xbox One S, the standard Xbox One X does not come with a stand. Microsoft does plan to sell one, but unless you shell out you’re limited to running the console horizontally. Microsoft has also made no mention of providing free Kinect adapters. The Kinect port is gone, and most of you probably won’t notice or care. But those who do will need to purchase an adapter from Microsoft for $40 this time around—a final insult to those who bought (and maybe even use!) the now officially discontinued accessory.

xbox one x 2 Adam Patrick Murray

Anyway the best improvement—the absolute bestis the Xbox One X’s physical power button. This might sound like a minor improvement, and it is! Anyone who owns the original Xbox One has no doubt grown annoyed with its capacitive power button though, which not only boots the console at the briefest hint that something might want to touch it but also shuts it off. If you even look at it wrong you’ll hear the boo-doo-doop of the Xbox turning on or off, and heaven forbid you have a cat/dog/child/poltergeist. Though perhaps less futuristic, the S returned to the pressable power button of old and the X follows suit.

The 4K factor

Okay, but gaming. How does the Xbox One X function while gaming? After all, that’s the reason to upgrade. The Xbox One S already had size covered, as well as the physical power button, a larger hard drive, quietness, and so on. So, how does it perform?

Surprisingly well.

Listen, I’m a PC guy and I’ve been a PC guy for a while now. The Xbox One X doesn’t match up to a high-end PC and the people who say it does...well, their idea of a “high-end” PC is maybe skewed a bit low. But it does come way closer than I expected, if not on paper than at least in-game—and it blows the old Xbox One (not to mention the PlayStation 4) completely out of the water.

First, for those who like specs: The original Xbox One featured a custom 8-core AMD APU clocked at 1.75GHz and 8GB of GDDR3 RAM, plus 32MB of higher throughput ESRAM. To simplify this down to a single number so as to not kill you: Peak graphics throughput was marked at 1.31 TFLOPS. The Xbox One S bumped that number to about 1.4—not really a notable increase.

xbox one x 3 Adam Patrick Murray

The Xbox One's internals.

The Xbox One X by comparison features an 8-core APU clocked at 2.3GHz, with 12GB of GDDR5 RAM, all of it higher-throughput (326GB/s) than even the 32MB of ESRAM in the original Xbox One. By raising both the number of compute cores and the clock speed, peak throughput for the Xbox One X is estimated at 6 TFLOPS.

To put it in more accessible real-world terms, the original Xbox One was estimated to have power on a par with (being generous) AMD’s Radeon 7790—or, on Nvidia’s side, approximately a GTX 650 Ti. The Xbox One X is about equal to an AMD Radeon RX 580 or an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060.

It’s a huge increase in power.

Of course, the Xbox One X’s real-world performance will be a bit better than even those model numbers indicate, due to the differences between optimizing for consoles versus PC—especially since, as a mid-generation upgrade, developers are already mostly comfortable with the Xbox One architecture. Expect fewer launch-day woes than you’d see at the start of an entirely new generation.

Gears of War: Leading the charge

Which brings us to Gears of War 4, our main point of reference at the moment when it comes to the Xbox One X. Why? Well, this console’s coming in hot. I would’ve much rather tested the Xbox One X with Assassin’s Creed: Origins, for instance—on the PC it’s absolutely incredible looking, and the draw distance is a technological marvel. Stand on a mountain and you can see clear from one side of the map to the other, even picking out landmarks like the Lighthouse at Alexandria.

Assassin's Creed: Origins IDG / Hayden Dingman

Look at the draw distance on the PC!

The problem? Origins won’t receive its “Xbox One Enhanced” patch until November 6, a few days from now. We plan to update this review when it does, because I’m looking forward to testing the system with a performance powerhouse.

But as of this review, only a handful of games were ready for testing—and many of them, like Super Lucky’s Tale, were too performance-light to justify any drawing of  conclusions. Super Lucky’s Tale looks great as far as cartoon platformers go, but it’s not exactly a modern-day Crysis.

So, Gears of War 4 it is.

To be fair, Gears 4 does pull out all the stops on the Xbox One X—4K, HDR, the works. It also features two different rendering modes, one labeled “Visuals” and the other “Performance.”

Gears of War 4 options - Xbox One X IDG / Hayden Dingman

Toggle between "Performance" and "Visuals" modes.

Visuals mode ups the graphics of Gears 4 significantly, outputting the game at native 4K with settings reminiscent (as far as we can tell) of High/Ultra on the PC. That’s in-line with the GPU comparison above—my colleague Brad Chacos benchmarked Gears of War 4 on a variety of systems last year, and managed 32 frames per second on an AMD Radeon Fury X at 4K Ultra, a slightly better card than the 580. Dip a few settings to High and you’d see a steady 30 on the 580 too, most likely.

Performance mode is more interesting to me, though. Despite the focus on 4K in the Xbox One X marketing, I’ll take lower resolution and higher frame rate almost any day—that’s my bias as a PC gamer with a 144Hz monitor. Performance mode does just that, eschewing native 4K for upscaled 1080p Ultra, but running at a smooth 60 frames per second.

It plays like a whole different game. Everything, from sprinting to shooting to even the explosions is so much smoother. To be honest, Performance mode and its 60 frames-per-second output is more reminiscent to me of playing on the PC than the 4K Visuals mode. That goes doubly because of how far people (usually) sit from the TV. I’m not convinced 4K is really necessary. It’s a great selling point for Microsoft, but even sitting five feet from a 55-inch Samsung 4K TV, the difference 60 frames per second made was way more noteworthy than the graphics enhancements of Visuals mode. Your mileage may vary though—I know some people aren’t as sensitive to frame rate.

Either way, the game looks better than the original Xbox One. I had both consoles plugged into different HDMI ports so I could swap back and forth. Even the main menu of the original Xbox One version is uglier, with protagonist JD Fenix’s face blurry and jagged. Swap over to the Xbox One X, his face is magically crisper, the reflections better, the eyes more alive.

Gears of War 4 - Xbox One IDG / Hayden Dingman

Gears of War 4 on the original Xbox One. Note especially the aliasing on the shotgun shells, how static the smoke looks, and how indistinct/blurry the background looks.

Gears of War 4 - Xbox One X IDG / Hayden Dingman

...and a similar screenshot on the Xbox One X, in 4K-native "Visuals" mode. There's also video embedded below.

A/B testing the actual game is easy too. Feel free to expand the screenshots above, and you should be able to see the difference. We’ve also captured some video (embedded in the next section, since it also contains PC footage). The original Xbox One looks a full generation behind by comparison, especially when it comes to aliasing. Enemies look jagged and indistinct, even compared to the 1080p upscaled version on the X. In frantic moments the Xbox One has a tendency to stutter, where the X is smooth.

How does it fare against a PC?

Pitting the Xbox One X against its predecessor is Easy Mode though. Far more interesting (especially to us at PCWorld) is how the X stands up against a PC.

As I said earlier, Brad benched Gears 4 on a variety of setups last year. It’s pretty easy to draw some conclusions if you jump over there—just keep in mind the Xbox One X focuses on 4K native at 30 frames per second on High/Ultra or 1080p upscaled at 60 frames per second on Ultra (though in both cases there’s probably some overhead to ensure a smooth locked frame rate).

Does the Xbox One X measure up against a high-end PC? Of course not. We tested the HP Omen X we have in the office, just to see what would happen—that’s a machine with dual GTX 1080 Tis. And...well, the results are predictable. In Gears 4 the Omen averaged 70-80 frames per second in the same test sections at 4K Ultra. It was overkill obviously, the point being only that a PC can outdo the Xbox One X.

On the other hand, the Xbox One X measures up to machines the majority of enthusiast PC gamers are running. Just take a look at the Steam Hardware Survey: About 55 percent of PC gamers use GTX 1060-caliber cards and below, while the other 45 percent is a smattering of cards both higher and lower. The fact the Xbox One X matches what 55+ percent of the PC gaming audience uses day-to-day? Pretty impressive.

The video below shows our own in-office Xbox One X-tier build, courtesy of Alaina Yee and Gordon Ung (and color commentary by Brad). That machine features an 8GB RX 580.

Price

Alaina’s build also came in around $650-700. That’s another area where the Xbox One X has a major advantage—price. We’ve put together a few PC builds comparable to the Xbox One X, and the cheapest (sans-optical drive because Steam exists) is around $640.  That’ll get you basic 4K, 30 frames-per-second gaming. Adding a 4K Blu-Ray drive tacks at least another $100 on the price, and your options are very limited.

At $500 then, the Xbox One X is a bargain. A bit ironic, given the outcry about the original Xbox One’s $500 price tag—at the time it seemed like a ripoff. $500 for the Xbox One X seems more than reasonable though, considering it’s cheaper than even the least expensive comparable PC.

As for our supercharged HP Omen X comparison, keep in mind that just a single 1080 Ti would cost you more than this entire console. So yeah, you could absolutely build a high-end PC that blows the Xbox One X out of the water, but the Xbox One X is probably the best price/performance ratio on the market at the moment.

Xbox One X has an edge in HDR

Another area where the Xbox holds an advantage over PCs at the moment: HDR. High Dynamic Range, or HDR, actually debuted with last year’s S model so it’s not brand-new, but it’ll be new to most Xbox One X buyers, I assume. So far there are only a few tentpole Xbox titles, though luckily Gears 4 is one of them. It’s more subtle than 4K, but again is likely to be more important moving forward.

Xbox One X IDG / Hayden Dingman

I won’t go into tons of detail, but HDR or High Dynamic Range essentially increases the amount of colors your TV shows, and increases the contrasts between light and dark areas. In Gears 4 this means better-looking explosions especially—brighter and more vibrant, with a better range of oranges and reds. Gears 4 even includes a nifty mode where you can split the screen, the left showing an HDR-enhanced image and the right showing the standard version. The HDR side looks like a layer of soap scum was scrubbed away. The difference is that noticeable.

The problem: It’s hard to demo HDR. If you watch HDR-ready content on a screen that's not HDR-equipped, it will just display in the color range you’re accustomed to. Games also need to be mastered specifically for HDR, which means there aren’t a ton of games utilizing it even if you own an HDR-ready TV.

It looks great though, and is a major benefit to both the Xbox One X and S provided you have capable hardware. “Capable hardware” is also why I say it’s an advantage over PCs at the moment: While both Nvidia and AMD technically support HDR output, HDR adoption by monitors has been slow, to say the least. That’ll probably change in 2018, but then again I also thought it would change in 2017, so…

The “Exclusive” problem

Microsoft’s biggest problem, and this is important: Games. Or rather, the lack thereof. Microsoft has suffered all generation from a lack of exclusive titles, and dwindling interest in the few they do have. Halo, Gears of War, and Forza are the main three, with Cuphead, Sunset Overdrive, Quantum Break, and Rare Replay to fill out the gaps. It’s not very impressive, especially when stacked up to Sony’s onslaught of exclusives.

Hell, Crackdown 3 was supposed to launch alongside the Xbox One X and then was delayed into next year, leaving Super Lucky’s Tale as the sole “launch title.” That’s not great.

Super Lucky's Tale - Xbox One X IDG / Hayden Dingman

Here's your...much-anticipated, system-selling launch game?

Now, the Xbox One X’s situation is a bit better going forward, insofar as multiplatform titles will henceforth presumably look and play the best on it. That’s more than could be said about the original Xbox One. Microsoft claims 70 titles will be "Enhanced" for the Xbox One X launch.

Still, a console is nothing without games, and right now that’s Microsoft’s weakest point—especially this far into a console generation, when most people have already built up friend networks and trophies and a history on the PS4. The Xbox One X is an excellent value and definitely more powerful, but can that overcome four years of a Sony advantage? Especially with no Halo or other system-seller to kickstart the X out the gate? Hard to say.

The future of TV?

I’m not going to dwell much on the Xbox One X’s TV features because frankly, even Microsoft doesn’t seem to care anymore. The Xbox One X does feature a few improvements over the original Xbox One, though most of these improvements came with last year’s S redesign.

Basically the Xbox One X will double as a 4K media player, for those who still buy physical media. That’s a pretty big win for Microsoft seeing as, for whatever reason, Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro does not playback 4K media—you’d think Sony would know better, considering how pivotal Blu-Ray support was for the PS3.

4K Blu-Rays pumped through the Xbox One look phenomenal, as expected. Microsoft provided us a copy of Planet Earth 2, which is probably the best 4K/HDR showcase you could ask for. The footage is crisp, colors are vibrant, it’s beautiful.

The million-dollar question though: How many people are buying physical media? Certainly not as many people as in previous console generations, as Netflix/HBO Go/Amazon Prime/Hulu/etc. grow in popularity. And while the Xbox One X features those apps and allows for 4K streaming from many streaming services, the same can be said of most 4K smart TVs released in the last couple of years.

It’s also worth noting the HDMI-In port still exists, so if you’re one of the people using your Xbox as a media box, keep doing your thing. Microsoft’s certainly downplaying those aspects these days and has even removed features—chief among them the “Snap” feature that allowed you to game and watch something at the same time, which was removed with April’s Creator’s Update.

The little things that are good

This review’s getting lengthy, and the Xbox One X’s performance is our chief concern. That said, I do want to call out some last Pros and Cons before we wrap up.

In the good column, Microsoft’s support for backward compatibility. Obviously this feature exists on the original Xbox One also, but it’s worth noting because it didn’t exist when we reviewed that console back in 2013.

Ninja Gaiden Black - Xbox One X IDG / Hayden Dingman

Ninja Gaiden Black on an Xbox One X? Fantastic.

Not only that, but Microsoft recently added backward compatibility with a handful of original Xbox (meaning the 2001 Xbox) games too. I had a fun time digging out my copy of Ninja Gaiden Black earlier this week, popping the disc in, and seeing the old Xbox boot screen. Good on Microsoft there.

I’ve also come to love Microsoft’s “Xbox Game Pass,” its newish Netflix-for-games type offering. $10 a month gets you access to about 100 games, spanning from the 2001 Xbox to the Xbox 360 to even a handful of Xbox One games—Metal Gear Solid V, for instance. The games are cycled in and out monthly, and there are a surprising number of quality titles to choose from. Definitely worth looking into. (I grabbed Nights: Into Dreams, Ninja Gaiden Black, and Metro: Last Light Redux for testing.)

Xbox Game Pass IDG / Hayden Dingman

Halo 5, Gears of War 4, Metal Gear Solid V, and more, all for a $10 subscription? Not bad.

There are also signs Microsoft is loosening its hold on the platform—a pretty big move. First it was Bluetooth added to last year’s new controller design, now it’s peripherals that work with the Xbox One X right out of the box. Turtle Beach’s new Stealth 700 headset connects wirelessly to the Xbox One without a dongle, the first to do so and hopefully a sign of things to come.

And as much as I dislike UWP on Windows 10, I’ll admit it’s been great for the Xbox ecosystem. Many of my favorite programs have built Windows 10 UWP versions which are then easily ported over—Spotify, Netflix, and so on. Pretty seamless, and a huge advantage over the PlayStation 4 in that regard.

The little things that are bad

Now, for the not-so-good. First up, the Xbox One X’s hard drive is comically small. Microsoft saw fit to offer a 2TB version of the Xbox One S, and for good reason: With game installs topping 100GB, the Xbox One X’s measly 1TB system drive (with only 650GB of free space out of the box) means you can install approximately 6-10 games nowadays. Less perhaps, once you factor in DLC.

That’s absurd. 1TB is better than the shameful 500GB of the original Xbox One, but it’s still woefully underprepared for the realities of modern gaming. You’ll absolutely need an external USB drive or two to supplement, and I can’t fathom why Microsoft didn’t opt for a 2TB standard considering it would’ve cost them, what, an extra $10 per unit?

Xbox One X - Storage IDG / Hayden Dingman

Already a quarter full after installing Gears 4, Forza Horizon 2, Super Lucky's Tale, Metro: Last Light Redux, and half of Rare Replay.

Microsoft’s user interface also continues to disappoint. Despite multiple refreshes in 2017 alone, the system is still cluttered and clumsy to navigate. Menus and submenus are hidden all over the place, the Store is clearly built for a mouse-and-keyboard setup and translates terribly to gamepad; the push for Mixer over Twitch is bound to confuse and alienate, and so on.

It’s just a mess. Rather than reworking a UI that hasn’t worked since 2013, Microsoft desperately needs to jettison a large amount of its design language and start from scratch, like it did multiple times on the Xbox 360. The whole “Flat Arrangement of Squares Cluttered By Ads” setup is not working.

Bottom line

Forgive me for repeating myself, but this is a long review and I want to make sure you didn’t miss the most important point: The Xbox One X is the best price/performance ratio on the market at the moment. Sure, you can build a PC that outperforms it at every turn—some of you reading this probably have.

But native 4K gaming for $500? And in a form factor this small and this quiet? That’s pretty incredible, especially when you consider the jump from the original Xbox One—probably Microsoft’s low point for console engineering. There are missteps, especially that undersized hard drive and the lack of quality exclusive titles, but judged purely on a technical level? The Xbox One X is a huge step up from the original Xbox One and an impressive machine in its own right, matching what the majority of PC gamers have at home.

Consider me surprised.

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Hayden Dingman

PC World (US online)
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