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Xbox One X review

4K is finally here, whether you’re ready or not

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Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

[Ed. note: This review is now final. It begins with our initial impressions from Nov. 3, and is followed by an update with our final impressions from Nov. 29.]

You might not own a 4K television just yet, but companies like Microsoft and Sony are doing their damndest to drag us all, kicking and screaming, into the 4K era.

When they launched the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, respectively, in 2013, that technology was still on the horizon. Those consoles were designed for gaming at 1080p resolution — the standard for TVs at the time — and they offered obvious, easily comprehensible improvements over their predecessors. It’s hard to imagine how we ever lived without some of those features, like built-in gameplay capture and livestreaming tools, while others, like second-screen integration, quickly fell by the wayside.

This console generation is the first time that we’ve seen true mid-cycle upgrades, with Sony and Microsoft taking a page out of the tech industry and delivering enhanced versions of existing products on a shorter-than-usual time scale. The promise — the elimination of console generations (and with it, an end to being forced to leave behind an entire library of games) — is tantalizing. But the benefits of the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X are much more difficult to demonstrate to potential customers, not least because a lot of people don’t even have screens that can show off two of the consoles’ key selling points: 4K resolution and high dynamic range (HDR) color.

I do; I’ve owned a 4K HDR TV for a year and a half. But the majority of gamers don’t, and they’re wondering what an Xbox One X would do for them on a 1080p display.

The answer, as usual, is that it depends on the game. And while Microsoft expects that approximately 70 titles will have Xbox One X enhancements “right around” the console’s launch on Nov. 7, we’ve only been able to test about one-tenth as many as of this writing. Therefore, we’re not ready to publish a final review yet. Here are my thoughts so far, after one week with the Xbox One X.

Xbox One, Xbox One S, Xbox One X stack - front right angle view

Last year’s Xbox One S was an impressively slim console that came in at a whopping 40 percent smaller than the original Xbox One. Its stark white color made it pop in an entertainment center, and it looked positively slender when stacked up against the launch model, with its military-VCR aesthetics. The design of the Xbox One X is less striking, although it’s remarkable that Microsoft has managed to cram such powerful components (including, once again, an internal power supply) into a shell that’s very close in size and form factor to the Xbox One S. While I appreciate the svelte look, and the fingerprint-resistant matte finish, I don’t need another nondescript black box in my living room.

What’s more notable is the Xbox One X’s heft. It weighs in at 8.4 pounds — a full 2 pounds more than the similarly sized Xbox One S, and more than a pound heavier than the larger PS4 Pro. As a result, the Xbox One X feels like a gravitational trick; you just don’t expect something so slim to be so heavy. The benefit of this is that I felt secure in standing the console on its side, even though I don’t have a vertical stand for it. That orientation will block half of the Xbox One X’s air intake (it has intake ports on either side, and exhaust vents on the back). But even when I was giving the system a workout with a 4K HDR game like Gears of War 4, the vents never reached an alarming temperature, and I never noticed the volume of the fans.

Xbox One X controller standing in front of vertical console

Speaking of the back, the Xbox One X’s rear port array is identical to that of the Xbox One S, although the latter’s power input is farther from the other ports. Even the power plug is the same, so if you’re upgrading from the white console to the black one, you can simply swap the boxes in your entertainment center and use the same cables. If you haven’t done the math, then yes, that means that just like the Xbox One S, the new Xbox lacks a Kinect port. You’ll need a proprietary USB adapter to hook up the voice-enabled camera — and this time, Microsoft isn’t giving it away to customers who are upgrading, which says a lot about just how dead Kinect is. (I don’t have the adapter, so I was unable to test my Kinect with the Xbox One X.)

The Xbox One X comes in a lean package: Aside from the console, the box includes a wireless controller with two Duracell AA batteries, an HDMI 2.0 cable, a power cable, a 14-day Xbox Live Gold membership and a one-month trial subscription for Xbox Game Pass. The unit contains a 1 TB hard drive, and only 780.9 GB of it is accessible to users; when I booted it up for the first time, 780.8 GB of free space was available.

For customers who already own an Xbox One, Microsoft offers two different easy ways to move existing content to the Xbox One X: You can copy your games and apps to an external hard drive and then copy them off that drive onto the new console, or you can connect both Xboxes to your home network and transfer data directly between them. Of course, if you’re going the external hard drive route, you can just leave the drive plugged into the Xbox One X as an extension of the internal storage, and run the games directly off of it. (An option in the system settings will let you pull down 4K assets to your existing Xbox One right now, so you won’t have to wait for those “Xbox One X Enhanced” updates to download on your new console.)

The transfer process isn’t speedy, although it’s certainly faster than redownloading everything. With my launch Xbox One and the Xbox One X both wired to my router, a console-to-console transfer took 115 minutes to copy 215.9 GB of data. I noticed that there seemed to be a cap on the transfer speed for apps — generally, they were copied at no faster than 57 megabits per second — while games moved at up to 300 Mbps. I later simulated a transfer by moving 215.6 GB of games and apps off the Xbox One X to an external drive and then moving it all back; that process was marginally faster, taking a total of 107 minutes.

Xbox One X, Xbox One S, Xbox One stack with white Xbox One controller in front

Count yourself lucky if you already own a large external hard drive, because it almost feels necessary. Games are massive these days, especially if they have 4K assets like many Xbox One X Enhanced titles do, and I quickly filled up the console’s internal storage. Four of my installed first-party games — Forza Motorsport 7, Gears of War 4, Halo 5: Guardians and Quantum Break — weigh in above the 80 GB mark, and three other titles are bigger than 50 GB.

This may be a sticking point for people who don’t own a 4K TV. All Xbox One X consoles will download 4K assets; users don’t have a say in the matter. This makes sense, since those assets allow the Xbox One X to run games on a 1080p TV with supersampling (rendering at a higher resolution to deliver better anti-aliasing and texture filtering at 1080p). So while those players will get some of the benefits of 4K assets even without a 4K display, they’ll have to pay the same price as all Xbox One X owners in download time and installation size.

Microsoft does a much better job than Sony of informing customers about enhanced titles, although there’s still room for improvement. A page on the Xbox website lists all the games that are getting Xbox One X updates, and each entry notes whether the title in question will support 4K and/or HDR. (Well, almost all of them: A code for Destiny 2 is included in the review kit that Microsoft sent to Polygon, which suggests it will be enhanced for the Xbox One X, but the game doesn’t currently appear on the site.) Game pages on the Xbox Store also mention this status.

Most importantly, the My Games & Apps section on the Xbox One X itself lets you filter your library to show only enhanced games. This classification isn’t entirely accurate; the 4K/HDR update for Assassin’s Creed Origins went live yesterday, but at the moment, the game doesn’t show up if you sort your collection this way. In any case, this user-friendly transparency from Microsoft is admirable.

It’s been frustrating to see so few enhanced games available so far, during the Xbox One X review period, because we were given no indication of when to expect updates to go live. Plus, unlike the PS4, the Xbox One doesn’t surface patch notes in any update history. But this won’t be a problem once the console launches next week and numerous enhanced titles are available; users will instantly know exactly which of their games have been updated.

Xbox One X - My Games & Apps screen showing Xbox One X Enhanced games Microsoft via Polygon

Microsoft’s Xbox One X review kit includes download codes for 20 games. At this time, Xbox One X updates have been released for half of them. I tried a variety of first- and third-party titles, including games that haven’t been updated for the console. After all, Microsoft has promised that everything will run better on the Xbox One X, even if the developers of a game haven’t specifically patched it with enhancements.

Gears 4 is one of Microsoft’s flagship games, and it’s a showpiece for the capabilities of the Xbox One X. The 2016 shooter is stunning in Visuals mode, which runs at native 4K with graphical bells and whistles like a higher draw distance, better “god rays” and HDR. An intense storm opens the game’s first chapter, and you feel like you’re right there in the middle of the lightning tornado. But I prefer Performance mode, which leaves the resolution at 1080p while targeting a frame rate of 60 frames per second. I’ve never played Gears on PC, so it was a revelation to see hallmarks of the series like the “roadie run” and a Lancer execution at 60 fps. Killer Instinct’s colorful shadow moves were similarly impressive at native 4K and 60 fps.

Halo 5 already runs at 60 fps on a standard Xbox One; on Xbox One X, it supports 4K but not HDR. I played it on a 1080p monitor, and while it’s not as detailed as the more recent Gears 4, I was tremendously impressed by the unwavering frame rate and incredible sharpness. Almost as notable is 2007’s Halo 3, which is one of four Xbox 360 games that are being enhanced for the Xbox One X. It certainly looks better than it would if it were being emulated on a normal Xbox One, but it even offers some features that aren’t available in Halo: The Master Chief Collection, like an enhanced color palette.

foliage and sun shining through trees in Halo 3 running on an Xbox One X
Halo 3 enhanced for the Xbox One X.
Bungie/Microsoft Game Studios

I also played Assassin’s Creed Origins at 1080p. Like Halo 5, it doesn’t offer any visual options for Xbox One X users; the game appears to run with supersampling at a smoother frame rate. It’s easy to underestimate these benefits. But at the start of the game, when Bayek and a comrade first approach Siwa, there’s a level of sharpness and detail to all the date palm trees in the distance that’s simply missing on a regular Xbox One.

For non-enhanced games, Microsoft is primarily pointing to better frame rate steadiness and shorter load times. In my experience, the loading benefits were often significant. On a launch Xbox One, Middle-earth: Shadow of War took 51 seconds to load a save from the main menu; the Xbox One X cut that almost in half, to 28 seconds. For loading into the game world, Forza Horizon 3 went from 68 seconds on an Xbox One to 45 seconds on the Xbox One X, a 33 percent improvement. (Enhanced updates are on the way for both of those games.)

The Xbox One X’s loading advantages were much more marginal for Xbox 360 games. The system shaved just two seconds off the loading times for a Battlefield: Bad Company 2 campaign mission and the open-world racer Burnout Paradise. And I couldn’t tell much of a difference in terms of performance or image quality, at least for those two titles.

While Microsoft is pitching the Xbox One X primarily as a gaming machine — “the most powerful console ever” — it does offer something on the entertainment side that the PS4 Pro doesn’t: It can play 4K Blu-rays. I have a small library of ultra HD Blu-ray Discs, and the Xbox One X review kit came with Planet Earth 2. I was excited to try my own copy of Mad Max: Fury Road on the console, but the nature documentary’s 4K HDR footage of a pygmy sloth’s quest for a mate blew it out of the water.

Xbox One X with controller in front and vertical Xbox One S to the left

A variety of services are slowly starting to offer 4K content for movies and TV shows, but support is scattershot and often limited to specific devices. For instance, the YouTube app on the Xbox One is currently limited to 1080p; on the PS4 Pro, it supports 4K but not HDR. Meanwhile, Netflix and Amazon Video both offer 4K content on the console, but only Netflix does HDR through its Xbox One app. It’s a bit surprising that Microsoft hasn’t been able to get content providers on board to tick all these boxes, considering that the company beat the PS4 Pro to the 4K entertainment market with the Xbox One S.

Still, if you’re thinking of buying an Xbox One X, you probably care more about how games will look and play on it. I’ve gotten this far without discussing the console’s $499 price, which is the primary obstacle to its mainstream success — even more so than the issue of how many potential buyers do or don’t own a 4K TV. Microsoft is certainly betting on the Xbox One X’s gaming performance; that’s why the company felt comfortable launching the console a year after the PS4 Pro. But with Sony saying that it left a 4K Blu-ray drive out of the PS4 Pro in an effort to keep the console’s price below $400, you have to wonder why Microsoft didn’t make the same cost-cutting sacrifice.

The Xbox One X is undeniably the best console to play multiplatform games; they’ll look and run better on it than on the PS4 Pro. For some people, that peace of mind — knowing that they’re guaranteed to get the highest image quality and smoothest performance — will be enough to justify the purchase price. And the ancillary benefits of Microsoft’s ecosystem, such as Xbox Play Anywhere and backward compatibility going back to the original Xbox, can’t be discounted. But I’ve been floored by plenty of games on the PS4 Pro, like Horizon Zero Dawn. For now, with the limited number of enhanced Xbox One X titles I’ve been able to test, I haven’t seen enough to be able to recommend the console in light of its high price — especially when the audience for these mid-cycle upgrades still seems so specific.

Correction (Nov. 29): The Xbox One’s My Games & Apps screen does let players refresh the Updates tab to check for patches. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.

Xbox One X - console corner with Xbox logo

Final update — November 29, 2017

Now that publishers have released “enhanced” patches for many more games than were available before the Xbox One X launched, I’ve been able to get a better sense of how developers are using the console’s increased horsepower. Just about everything I’ve seen of multiplatform games indicates that the Xbox One X is superior to the PlayStation 4 Pro, as one would expect. But in some cases, the improvement is slight, bordering on indistinguishable. I believe many people wouldn’t notice the difference without freeze-frame images in a side-by-side comparison.

When it comes to the application of the console’s power, IO Interactive’s Hitman and Crystal Dynamics’ Rise of the Tomb Raider are two games that offer something for everyone. The same three display modes are available on both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X for Lara Croft’s latest adventure (4K resolution, “high framerate” and “enriched visuals”), but the options offer much more on the latter system: native 4K resolution instead of checkerboard rendering for the 4K mode; a more reliable 60-frames-per-second performance in the high frame rate mode; and a significant resolution bump from 1080p to non-native 4K in the visuals mode. As for Hitman, it runs at 1440p on the PS4 Pro. The Xbox One X runs the game at that same resolution but with a 60 fps target — which compares very favorably to playing the PC version at 1440p — and can run it in native 4K as well.

As for games released this year, EA DICE’s Star Wars Battlefront 2 and MachineGames’ Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus also showcase the Xbox One X’s abilities admirably. Both games scale resolution on the fly to hit a 60 fps target, and they don’t surface any graphics settings to players. Performance is relatively similar across the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X in the two shooters — neither game is locked at 60 fps, but they come close, especially Battlefront 2 on a PS4 Pro. Yet texture detail and resolution are significantly higher in both games on the Xbox One X: They top out at native 4K on Microsoft’s console, whereas they’re limited to 1440p on the PS4 Pro.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus - dual-wielding weapons against oncoming flame trooper MachineGames/Bethesda Softworks

To be sure, Battlefront 2 on a PS4 Pro is no slouch, but shadows, character models, and environmental details such as foliage and rocks are all clearer and better defined on the Xbox One X. The PS4 Pro version of Wolfenstein 2 leaves out some detail on elements like B.J. Blazkowicz’s body and clothes. In essence, the Xbox One X is able to deliver an experience that’s much closer to the PC versions of these multiplatform games — on a console that costs $500.

That should also serve to remind you that Xbox One X support can and will vary widely on a game-to-game basis, as with the PS4 Pro. Last year, it seemed like Sony’s upgraded system might usher in an era of console games offering visual settings depending on your hardware and display, like PC games have done for decades. But that hasn’t turned out to be the case, which has left players with the burden of researching the PS4 Pro and/or Xbox One X features of every game they’re thinking of buying.

Again, Microsoft is beating Sony in this area because of its messaging around specific Xbox One X enhancements in the Xbox Store and on the Xbox website. And maybe this is an implicit part of Microsoft’s pitch for the Xbox One X: If you buy this system, you’re guaranteed to get the best experience on a console. It’s working for me — I plan to start buying multiplatform titles on Xbox One instead of PS4, except for online-focused games like Destiny 2 where I have a built-in group of players on my friends list.

Xbox One X, Xbox One S, Xbox One stack - vertical close-up of right front corner

The past month has also brought to light a few problems with the Xbox One X. While I didn’t personally experience this issue, many people reported that the console wasn’t properly playing 4K Blu-rays in HDR — namely, it was raising black levels for some reason, throwing contrast and overall image quality completely out of whack. Thankfully, Microsoft quickly issued a patch that fixed this problem.

I continue to have a minor issue with the new Xbox One dashboard, which Microsoft introduced in October. It’s rare, but I still see some hitches here and there when I’m scrolling through the interface — a brief delay in moving through tiles and then a hurried catch-up, like a streaming video fast-forwarding through dropped frames. It’s a nuisance in any setting, but a seemingly performance-related issue like this is baffling on a machine that’s marketed as the most powerful console ever made.

Still, my overall opinions on the Xbox One X haven’t changed drastically. This is a niche product for a small consumer base, although the potential audience — owners of 4K televisions — is growing quickly. Indeed, the Xbox One X appears well-timed to take advantage of the 4K tipping point, which may already be upon us, considering how many 4K TVs were available for well below $1,000 over the Thanksgiving weekend.

The more I’ve used the Xbox One X, the more convinced I’ve become that it doesn’t make sense to buy one unless you own a 4K HDR TV. (I mean, at this point, you shouldn’t be buying a 4K TV that doesn’t support HDR.) As I said in the initial review, there are some noticeable visual and performance upgrades that the Xbox One X will still deliver on a non-4K screen. But if you’ll forgive the cliché, pairing this powerful console with a 1080p TV is like driving a Ferrari on the gridlocked streets of Manhattan: You’re not getting your money’s worth.

The Xbox One X was reviewed using final hardware provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.