Microsoft’s Project Scorpio is an upgrade to the Xbox One — a significant upgrade, it seems. On paper, it will be the most powerful gaming console in history when it launches this holiday season.
But the main reason I’m going to buy one has less to do with its gaming performance and much more to do with a different piece of its hardware. The best home video experience still depends on physical media, and the Xbox Scorpio is already in the running to be the best 4K Blu-ray player on the market.
Physical media isn’t dead yet
As I said in my 4K explainer last year, 4K resolution has arrived. At this point, it doesn’t make much sense to buy a 1080p television: 4K isn’t any more expensive than 1080p these days, and almost all top-of-the-line units are 4K displays.
Even so, there’s still a severe lack of native 4K content to watch on those fancy new TVs. DirecTV is currently the only company that is broadcasting in 4K, and that’s on three channels. A number of streaming services offer a selection of content in 4K, including Amazon Video and Netflix. Hollywood studios and other providers are releasing more and more content on ultra HD Blu-ray. Computers with powerful graphics cards have been able to run video games in 4K for some time. Console gaming is stepping into the 4K world with Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro last fall and, roughly a year later, Microsoft’s Project Scorpio.
That might sound like a decent array of options, but UHD Blu-ray is the only physical media format for 4K content. (Xbox One games will continue to come on standard Blu-ray Discs, since Microsoft isn’t allowing any Scorpio-exclusive titles.) Streaming services can provide a solid 4K picture — I watched Netflix’s Stranger Things in 4K last summer, and it looked great — but they can’t quite deliver the same fidelity or features as a UHD Blu-ray.
Sure, most people won’t care about the videophile’s argument citing the inferior bit rate of streaming 4K compared to UHD Blu-ray, or the audiophile’s preference for certain surround sound formats and multiple language options. UHD Blu-ray is also your best bet for high dynamic range (HDR) and wide color gamut, two features that are arguably more important than 4K resolution itself. While some nongaming apps can deliver HDR content on the Xbox One S, none of the nongaming apps on the PS4 Pro currently support HDR. (Scorpio, the Xbox One S and all PS4s support HDR for games.)
If that doesn’t persuade you, consider the following: Services like Netflix are continuing to ramp up their original content efforts in favor of maintaining a massive library of movies, TV shows, documentaries and other items. My decade-old DVDs of Arrested Development don’t look great on my 4K TV, but I sure am glad I have them, since the show’s first three (and best) seasons almost just disappeared from Netflix.
Most people will disregard discs and tell you that physical media is going the way of the dodo. Indeed, that was part of Sony’s justification for leaving a 4K Blu-ray drive out of the PS4 Pro. “Our feeling is that while physical media continues to be a big part of the games business, we see a trend on video towards streaming,” said Andrew House, head of the PlayStation division, in an interview with The Guardian for the console’s unveiling in September.
Purists and collectors don’t need to be convinced of the merits of physical media, but that doesn’t make the choice any less expensive. Most movies cost around $30 upon first release on 4K Blu-ray, the same level as Blu-rays early in that format’s history. Of course, you also need a device that can play them, and stand-alone 4K Blu-ray players aren’t cheap. Most of them cost upward of $200, and although they often include streaming apps, anybody who’s reading this article probably already owns multiple devices that offer that functionality.
That’s what makes the Xbox One S so appealing for people who want a 4K Blu-ray player and are even remotely interested in video games, but don’t already own an Xbox One. The Xbox One S is widely available for under $300, and it happens to be able to play 4K Blu-rays. While audiophiles have taken issue with the Xbox One’s lack of support for bitstream pass-through audio, Microsoft is finally delivering that feature next week. I hear the Xbox One S is a fine device for playing 4K Blu-rays, but I held off on buying one because I have a launch Xbox One and I knew that Scorpio was on the way.
I’m a weird person
Now that we know Scorpio will contain a 4K Blu-ray drive and be able to play games at native 4K resolution, even at 60 frames per second, I’m on board. I also recognize that my situation is a special case: I own a 4K HDR TV and a surround sound system, but I don’t yet have a UHD Blu-ray player. Oh, and I like video games.
In other words, I’m pretty much the target market for Scorpio.
I forgot one other element of my situation: I’m lucky enough to have enough disposable income to be able to afford a new gaming console. Scorpio’s price is likely to be high, and that’s the only thing that would give me pause about buying one. Cost was the other reason Sony gave for the lack of 4K Blu-ray support in the PS4 Pro. Sony launched the console at $399, and with the powerful technology inside Scorpio — including the cost of the UHD Blu-ray drive — there’s probably no way Microsoft could hit that price point.
Digital Foundry, the source of today’s deep dive into the Scorpio hardware, made an educated guess at the system’s launch price: $499. That’s about my upper limit; it seems reasonable if you think about the guts of the console and the retail price of a stand-alone 4K Blu-ray player. But considering that that’s $100 more than the PS4 Pro — not to mention that Sony could very well drop the price between now and Scorpio’s debut — many other people might balk at that number.
Like I said, I’m weird. I didn’t need much convincing, but Microsoft still has a lot of work to do for most other folks.
Correction (April 7): Although Netflix previously announced that the first three seasons of Arrested Development would disappear from the service as of April, they remain available for the time being.