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The Xbox One X Primer

by Jeff Marchiafava on Oct 27, 2017 at 03:56 PM

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Getting gamers excited for a new console less than four years into the current generation of systems is a hard sell, and so far Microsoft hasn't made the strongest sales pitch for the Xbox One X. As with its predecessor, the Xbox One X reveal was undermined by vagaries and mixed messaging, leading to confusion among consumers. Microsoft has filled in many of the gaps in the ensuing months, but one big question remains: Do you really need to upgrade?

While we won't be able to judge the merits of the Xbox One X until it's out in the wild, we can provide you with a clear picture of what the system does and doesn't do, so you can begin weighing your options. You can still expect a full hardware review in the coming days, but in the meantime, here's everything we know about the Xbox One X.

Note: This article originally appeared in the November issue of Game Informer.

Power Play
Microsoft has been lauding the Xbox One X as the world's most powerful console, and by all accounts that appears to be true. From CPU and GPU power to RAM memory bandwidth, the Xbox One has a significant advantage on both the stock PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro, as well as Microsoft's own Xbox One S.

While crunching raw specs practically requires a degree in computer science, one stat that gamers can and should understand is floating point operations per second, or FLOPS. Simply put, FLOPS is a measurement of computer performance that provides the best general idea of how each system on the market compares.

The original Xbox One had a peak performance of 1.31 TeraFLOPS, while the Xbox One S redesign edged up to 1.40 TeraFLOPS. On the Sony side, the PlayStation 4 rates in at 1.84 TeraFLOPS, which still makes it the most powerful "base" system on the market.

That dynamic flips when it comes to the mid-gen consoles, however. The PS4 Pro vastly overshadows its predecessor with a peak performance of 4.2 TeraFLOPS, but still pales in comparison to the Xbox One X, which clocks in at a flat 6 TeraFLOPS. On paper, that amounts to the Xbox One X being roughly 40-percent more powerful than the PlayStation 4 Pro. What will that look like in the real world? There are few more aspects to consider.

The Fuss About 4K
Much of the "mid-gen refresh" sales pitch has centered on 4K, which remains the bleeding edge of gaming performance. A 4K display features roughly four times the number of pixels of a 1080p display, but there are several ways a developer may choose to present a game at this resolution. As you might guess, these options all comes down to performance.

Upscaling is the most basic process, and isn't really considered "true 4K." Instead, it takes a lower resolution and blows up the image to fill in the additional pixels of a 4K display. Depending on the technique, upscaling to 4K can make a game appear sharper, but it still lacks the detail of other methods. Both the Xbox One S and PlayStation 4 Pro are capable of upscaling games to 4K.

Checkerboard Rendering is another half-step to true 4K rendering, but yields more impressive results compared to upscaling. This technique renders half of a 4K image (in a checkerboard pattern), then uses a filter to extrapolate the missing pixels. The method is generally considered indistinguishable from true 4K by the naked eye. The majority of 4K-enabled PS4 Pro games, as well as some Xbox One X games, use checkerboard rendering – though you'd be hard-pressed to tell which ones.

Native 4K is the genuine article, outputting games at the full 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. All of Microsoft's upcoming first-party games will run in native 4K, though few third-party developers thus far have claimed that distinction for their 4K-enabled titles (leaving the door open to techniques like checkerboarding). A handful of PlayStation 4 Pro games also support native 4K.

More Than Meets The Eye
4K rendering is only one potential benefit of the Xbox One X's beefed-up hardware. Developers could also use the additional horsepower to provide better framerates, longer draw distances, shorter load times, or more complex environments. These improvements will vary on a case-by-case basis, and are up to the developer.

Titles that have been optimized for the Xbox One X in one way or another will be labeled "Xbox One X Enhanced." Microsoft has announced over 150 such titles so far, including recent games like Assassin's Creed Origins and Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and upcoming releases like Star Wars Battlefront II. Older titles including Ghost Recon Wildlands, Titanfall 2, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition will also enjoy retroactive boosts.

High Dynamic Range (aka HDR) is another recent advancement in digital displays, which provides a greater range of colors in images. If your television supports HDR, you have plenty of options. Aside from the original Xbox One (which Microsoft has discontinued in favor of the Xbox One S), all other system models from Microsoft and Sony now support HDR.

Lights, Camera, Action!
Movies and television have been adopting the 4K format more quickly than the gaming industry, and Xbox One X will capitalize on their strides. Not only can the system stream 4K entertainment through services such as Netflix, it can also play Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray discs. In comparison, the Xbox One S also has streaming and 4K Blu-ray support, while the PlayStation 4 Pro supports streaming, but is not equipped with a 4K Blu-ray player. The original PS4 does not offer any 4K video support.

One Disc To Rule Them All
While some games will carry the "Xbox One X Enhanced" label, they aren't limited to the new console. The Xbox One, Xbox One S, and Xbox One X all use the exact same discs, so your game will be compatible with whatever system you own. Games will also identify what system they are running on and react accordingly, so if there are additional 4K assets or patches to install, only the Xbox One X will download them. That won't take into account what display you have, however, so if you're playing an Xbox One X on a 1080p television, you'll still need to make hard-drive space for the 4K assets.

Storage Wars
Speaking of hard-drive space: While both Microsoft and Sony opted for 500GB hard drives for their initial current-gen systems, 1TB drives have since become the standard size for the PS4 (now sold in the slim model) and most Xbox One S bundles. The Xbox One X also features a 1TB drive, which given the extra space 4K assets will require, is likely to fill up fast. However, like previous models, the Xbox One X also supports external hard drives. In fact, Seagate is making an Xbox-branded hard drive that features a whopping 8TB of space.

Veering Into VR?
Unlike Sony, Microsoft has been reluctant to embrace VR on consoles, instead focusing its mixed-reality initiatives (which include both augmented reality like the Hololens and virtual reality) on Windows 10. That apparently won't be changing anytime soon. While Xbox head Phil Spencer told The Verge last year that the Xbox One X was designed so VR "...will be able to plug right in and work," the company has not announced any official VR support, and omitted any mention of VR during its E3 press conference this year. So while the Xbox One X is capable of running VR games, Microsoft isn't ready to pull the trigger. When asked for comment, a Microsoft rep told us that the company believes "right now a Windows PC is the best platform for mixed reality," and that they have "nothing to share about mixed reality for console at this time."

The Price Of Power
As you might have guessed, the supersized horsepower of the Xbox One X comes with a supersized price tag as well. Microsoft's suggested retail price for the system is $500, which is twice what retailers are currently selling select Xbox One S bundles for. The Xbox One X's price compares more favorably to the PlayStation 4 Pro, which currently sells for $400, but either way, if you want the most powerful console on the market, you'll also be paying the most. The original Xbox One also debuted at $500, which certainly didn't help Microsoft's rocky current-gen launch.

The Virtues Of "Wait And See"
Most gamers have a closet that doubles as a graveyard for defunct consoles and peripherals, so you'd be forgiven if you approach the "mid-gen refresh" with a fair amount of skepticism. The Xbox One X's added horsepower doesn't mean anything if developers aren't willing to spend the extra time and effort to use it, and for most studios the lead development platform is the most popular system, not the most powerful.

Is "Xbox One X Enhanced" then destined to be the next "Better With Kinect"? Probably not; unlike motion-control gimmicks and technologies that disrupt traditional gameplay (we're looking at you, VR), 4K is the next logical and inevitable step for the gaming industry. 4K is now the standard-bearer for new televisions, and more broadcasting and streaming companies are making the transition as well. 4K gaming isn't a matter of "if," but "when."

Given how rapidly technology advances, however, that "when" could be a problem for the Xbox One X. Many gamers view the purchase of a pricey new console as an investment, and the value of that investment depends on the system's lifespan. While the original PS4 and Xbox One enjoyed healthy adoption rates, those sales were in part driven by last-gen expectations. Gamers may be more hesitant to buy Sony and Microsoft's expensive mid-gen upgrades if they too might be rendered outdated in a few years. If that reluctance slows down adoption rates, the Xbox One X could be facing substantially cheaper and more powerful competition when 4K gaming finally starts to hit its stride. In the meantime, it will be up to Microsoft to prove that now is the time to make the transition.