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The Xbox One X makes the PlayStation 4 Pro feel like a half-measure

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Sometimes power is its own selling point

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A photo of an Xbox One X console with an Xbox One controller resting on it top panel. Microsoft

The Xbox One X is designed to be the most powerful game console ever sold. At $499.99, it better be. You can discuss the technical details of a system like this endlessly, but I’m more interested in what it’s like to live with a system that puts so much faith in its own raw power.

This is what I’ve found.

What you’ll notice

Let’s clear the air a bit before we begin: Discussing both 4K televisions and high dynamic range (HDR) standards involves a good deal of subjectivity. Unlike with the move to high definition, the visual advantage of 4K isn’t immediately obvious to everybody. And HDR isn’t standardized — many 4K TVs don’t even include the feature, and there are two competing formats. The benefit you’ll see from the Xbox One X is directly tied to the quality and feature set of your display. It’s hard to separate what it’s like to use the Xbox One X from the benefits and downsides of your particular display.

For reference, I ended up purchasing a Vizio M65-E0 to test the Xbox One X that Microsoft provided me.

Xbox One X on top of Xbox One S, left front angle view Austin Pikulski/Vox Studios

As long as you take care in selecting your 4K display, you’ll see an image that looks at least as good as one from a competent gaming PC that would likely cost significantly more than $500. And that’s a pretty great thing from a console. You will notice better visuals than the stock Xbox One and even the PlayStation 4 Pro. You are paying for power, and there is no other gaming console that can beat the Xbox One X in that department.

The better your display, the more you’ll notice the difference, with the biggest leap coming from OLED sets with the brightest screens and the highest-quality HDR. But the improvement in visuals I saw when moving from my standard Xbox One on a 1080p display to a (barely) sub-$1,000 4K display with HDR was immediate and impressive.

I had played Assassin’s Creed Origins before, and it’s a beautiful game. Playing the game on the Xbox One X in 4K isn’t exactly a revelatory experience — we’re just talking about a visual upgrade, after all — but it made enough of a difference that I never want to play it another way again. I had the same experience with Call of Duty: WWII.

The screen is brighter, and the colors pop in a way that’s impossible to describe without showing you the display in person. You’ll notice more detail, especially on larger television sets, and games that run in native 4K do so with much less aliasing than we’re used to in console games. The frame rates are smoother, on the average, and the loading times are shorter on games running on the Xbox One X.

The number of improvements to the experience all work together to tickle your senses in a way that feels rare in modern gaming. Even HDR support that’s merely fine will most closely mimic reality. The light of the sun should be slightly blinding, and the extra colors provided by HDR make it easier to match realistic skin tones. But a good display will also give you options, and I tend to oversaturate the image so things look a bit more stylized. That’s a personal choice, though, and the amount of control you have over your image is either going to be overwhelming or a selling point depending on your point of view.

The resolution may be the focus for most people who haven’t done a lot of research, but it’s the use of HDR that is often the most immediately impressive upgrade from the first Xbox One. The Xbox One X further sets itself apart from the HDR-capable Xbox One S and PS4 by improving on frame rate, although what exactly you’ll get visually and at what cost can vary from game to game.

The PS4 has the exclusives, but the Xbox One X has the power. If there’s a game that’s out on Xbox One and PS4, I’m at the point where I’m much more likely to pick up the game on the Xbox One. Changing one’s default platform midway through a console generation is a big shift. The Xbox One X, with its price and power, seems to be targeting hardcore players, bringing them back to (or keeping them within) the Microsoft family.

I suspect I’m not the only one. If Microsoft can position this premium system in such a way that it is used to demo games at trade shows consistently while promoting the fact that cross-platform games will look the best on the Xbox One X, that’s a huge promotional win, even if it takes a while before it turns into an economic advantage.

The Xbox One X isn’t for everybody

Leading up to the Xbox One X launch, it’s been assumed that real-world demos will be crucial to the console’s long-term success. There’s no better way to show the hardware’s strength, because the image quality doesn’t translate well through YouTube or the phone or laptop you’re using to read this article.

And yet, even in person, the graphical excellence may be a tough sell.

Xbox One X Enhanced icons Microsoft/Polygon

What surprised me, time and again, was that family or friends who aren’t quite as plugged into the technology behind film and games thought the image looked good ... but not special. The majority of folks said that the Xbox One X looked better than its siblings, but that it didn’t blow them away. A few people could barely tell the difference between the Xbox One X running on a 4K display and the standard system on a 1080p display.

These are the same folks — and I’m not trying to be snobby — who find motion smoothing perfectly fine.

What I’m saying is: Don’t expect everyone who sees this system in action to be instantly blown away. The people who will care are the same people who obsess over video game graphics as much as they love to deconstruct black levels — the people who will know whether HDR is turned on or off. For a certain type of hardware lover, the improvements are obvious. For most other people, the upgrade falls between pleasant and invisible.

This becomes even more of a challenge if the Xbox One X is being demoed in retail locations with improperly tuned systems or televisions.

Movies on ... discs?

There have been plenty of platform-driven arguments about the value of adding a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray drive to a premium game console — Sony left it out of the PS4 Pro, while Microsoft included it as standard in both the Xbox One S and X.

The drive is more important than you may assume. The reason is geographical. I live in an area with broadband speeds that are perfectly adequate for online gaming, and for streaming TV shows and movies at 1080p resolution. My connection is simply not up to the job of handling 4K streaming with any kind of regularity. (Netflix, for instance, recommends a downstream bandwidth of at least 25 Mbps for 4K.)

Disc-based media provides a more stable and slightly clearer image than anything you’d get through a streaming service. If you own a 4K television and are thinking about an Xbox One X, you probably want to get the best image possible. The system’s 4K Blu-ray drive is a big part of making sure that happens, especially if you live in an area with data caps or poor internet options. I didn’t expect to use it, but I have already purchased a few films in the format.

This another example of how the Xbox One X is changing my behavior. I despise discs, but I also want the best visuals available. Until the U.S. has a more robust online infrastructure, I may switch to purchasing Ultra HD Blu-rays rather than streaming or renting movies digitally, which is how my family and I tend to watch movies now.

It’s about behavior as much as power, and that’s important

Microsoft wants to change your behavior with the Xbox One X, and getting players interested in disc-based media again will do that, at least in the short term, before network infrastructure improves.

These things, taken singly and together, surprised me: Microsoft has created a product that doesn’t just make games look and play better, but has changed how I interact with the entertainment I’m consuming, including giving a second look at physical media for movies. This is why it’s such a fascinating system — the tension of having to live inside a future that’s not quite here yet.

But that future can also be easy to get used to, and not in the best way. The initial “wow” factor of the image can wear off fairly quickly, even though you’ll notice a large step downward if you try to return to a 1080p display powered by an existing console. Most players will be impressed at first, and then they’ll get used to it before ultimately shifting into a situation where they might not be able to tolerate anything else. It can be eerie how quickly you get used to something that felt miraculous a few short days ago.

This doesn’t change the fact that the Xbox One X often makes the PS4 Pro seem like a half-measure. Navigating the landscape of capable 4K displays is still more complicated than it needs to be, and focusing on physical discs to get the best possible images from your films may seem like a step backward, but this is a premium product for people who are willing to sacrifice convenience for fidelity. I’ll discuss this more in a future story, but you should also prepare yourself for a surprisingly fiddly and extensive calibration process to get the best possible image ... and what looks great for games may not be the best settings for movies or streaming services.

The question is whether players are comfortable with visuals that are good enough, or are willing to pay $500 to have the best you can get in a console. I feel a bit caught by Microsoft, as the company has released a console that isn’t exactly perfect but provides enough improvement over its competitors to make the price seem worthwhile.

This is the future, and you’ll be well-rewarded for the time you’re willing to spend getting everything set up just so. But the Xbox One X often feels like a satisfying — if fiddly — luxury item, more than a necessary step up from previous consoles. I found myself smitten by a system matched to a display that showed me wondrous images, but the upfront cost in both time and money may only appeal to patient individuals with money to burn. Once everything is running exactly the way you’d like it, however, you may find it hard to settle for anything else.