Its creators claim it is one of the most powerful gaming consoles on Earth. Now the newly launched Xbox One X from Microsoft is after a new accolade – to beat its rival Sony to dominate Christmas wishlists and the hearts of video game players.
Microsoft’s console, a substantial upgrade of the original Xbox One released in 2013, arrives almost exactly one year after Sony delivered a similar performance boost with its PlayStation 4 Pro.
Things didn’t used to be this way. Although format wars between gaming platforms have always raged – Commodore versus Spectrum, Sega versus Nintendo, Microsoft versus Sony – the hardware available in each generation would be something immutable. A new games machine would give developers a set platform to create and optimise software on, sometimes for up to a decade, while players would benefit from having a reliable device they knew they wouldn’t have to upgrade, as is common in PC gaming.
Microsoft and Sony’s move to mid-generation upgrades marks a shift away from that model, and changes how the market around them works. Merely reformatting consoles is nothing new – the practice can be traced back at least as far as Sega’s Master System II in 1990, which refashioned the angular original. Yet the trend now sees consoles within the same “family” getting revamped releases with improved specs, allowing manufacturers to cater to their most dedicated and demanding users.
The Xbox One X is Microsoft’s pitch to that exacting demographic, delivering the most significant console upgrade ever. It spikes performance by more than four times the base model’s computing power, and allows true 4K (a higher screen resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels) gaming thanks to a speedier processor, improved graphics output, and more and faster memory. It also packs in support for 4K Blu-ray, then crams it all into the smallest physical shell any Xbox has ever seen. It’s an impressive achievement.
“There’s a certain class of customer who really wants the premium experience, and that’s what Xbox One X is designed for,” says Albert Penello, senior director of Xbox console marketing. “The visual upgrade of moving from 1080 pixels to 4K is going to have a bigger impact on the overall experience than they might be expecting. Eight milllion pixels, four times the pixel count, the level of detail and crispness in these games is really remarkable.”
The push for 4K is key to understanding the appeal of Xbox One X. The home cinema market is in the midst of a revolution: according to analysis firm IHS Markit, by the end of 2017, 3.7 million UK households will own a 4K TV, rising to 12 million by 2021. This would account for almost half of all TV-owning households in the UK, yet the first Xbox One was designed only for full high definition – screens with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels.
Although last year’s Xbox One S – a slimmed-down but barely powered-up model – introduced support for 4K Blu-ray and video, it wasn’t capable of rendering games in the new standard. Xbox One X begins to correct this, with select existing games receiving updates to enable full 4K output. This means the games Xbox One owners already possess will not only run on the Xbox One X if they upgrade, but be actively improved by the new hardware. New games can be expected to offer 4K from scratch, too.
Examining the likes of Gears of War 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider on an Xbox One X reveals a noticeably better experience. Visual elements such as textures, lighting, and filtering are all enhanced, while HDR – high dynamic range, which delivers better contrast, brightness and a wider colour palette – provides an almost palpable improvement.
Even without a 4K set, Xbox One X is a worthy upgrade. Using a technique called supersampling, where additional visual information is downsized on to a lower resolution screen, players can expect to see improvements in picture quality, even on a 1080-pixel television. Increased processor power and loading times also mean you’ll be playing games rather than waiting for them to start, while 8GB of speedy flash memory reserved exclusively for the operating system makes the console more responsive overall.
If Xbox One X has a killer app at launch, it’s racing simulator Forza Motorsport 7. A hyper-realistic driving game, not only is it arguably one of Microsoft’s most accessible exclusive titles, it’s also one that best shows off the console’s power, with meticulously modelled supercars and painstakingly recreated real-world locations to race around. While the flagship title is compatible with any previous model of Xbox One, it was developed in concert with the new machine to take full advantage of its power.
“Our architect is on the same committee that’s deciding what hardware goes into something like the Xbox One X,” said Dan Greenawalt, creative director at Forza developer Turn 10. “We actually give our game engine straight over to the platform team, so they’re able to build using our engine, then test their hardware and new features.
“We wanted the game to offer the same basic gameplay on all the versions of Xbox One. But if you’re on Xbox One X, you’re going to get heat shimmer, higher-resolution textures, more advanced shaders, better lighting models – all these things that come in and give you greater immersion – without actually changing the gameplay dramatically.”
With both Microsoft and Sony opting for mid-generation console upgrades (third pillar Nintendo, as ever, is walking its own path with the tablet-like Switch and so far avoiding 4K), it begs the question of whether players can expect such trends to continue.
The answer may lie outside of gaming, where the smartphone market sees regular hardware refreshes. Indeed, Penello thinks that is a better model to follow, and offers a clue to Microsoft’s thinking with Xbox One X. “It’s consumers driving this change,” he says. “It has increased exponentially. It’s remarkable to see the level of hardware innovation over just the last two years, and consumers are used to making different decisions about technology performance today.
“With smartphones, you can get one with a faster processor or bigger screen, and customers do a pretty good job of figuring out what is important to them. Gaming consoles have existed in a very particular way for over 40 years, one fixed platform for up to 10 years. I don’t think consoles are going to go to the model that’s quite as frequent as phones but I think this is the right thing to do for gaming.”