The launch of the Xbox One X is just a few days away — November 7th for North America, to be exact. The questions on a lot of people’s minds ahead of launch is what this the new hardware can bring to the table, and whether it’s worth upgrading for people who already own an Xbox One or Xbox One S. To get to the answer of that question, I dug into the guts of this new console and attempt to explain, in layman terms, what each of these hardware improvements means for gamers. I also wanted to see if Microsoft could back up their assertion that the Xbox One X is “The Most Powerful Console Ever Made”, or if that’s just marketing fluff.
Keeping up with the neighbors
Before we look at how the hardware will affect games, let’s dig into the inevitable word-salad of jargon that always comes with the spec sheet. I’ll do my best to draw parallels whenever possible, especially between the original Xbox One and the upcoming Xbox One X, though more of something, memory for example, is not always a linear translation to more performance.
The heart of the Xbox One X is the GPU, or graphical processing unit. Most would point to the processor, but more games are bound by the GPU than the central processing unit, or CPU. As you can see in the chart below, the Xbox One X’s assertion that it is the most powerful console on the market can be backed up in a number of ways. In fact…all ways.
As stated earlier, more of something doesn’t directly translate to greater performance, but doing a cross-comparison between all current consoles on the market, there isn’t a single area that the Xbox One X doesn’t trounce the competition soundly. Let’s get into the specifics and talk about what each of these areas is, and how it might influence what appears on your screen.
Processors, Threads, and Clock Speed
It would be unfair to compare the Nintendo Switch to the other consoles in the current console list as it was purpose built to be a handheld, so we will not be doing so moving forward — it’s simply here as a reference and to satisfy curiosity.
As you can see, in terms of processor cores, all of the other systems contain eight processing cores. In theory, this allows eight separate activities to occur and be processed discreetly. This manifests in a number of ways on the Xbox One family of consoles, first and foremost being that the operating system runs separately from the game you are playing. This ensures that, if there is a hiccup in the game that would otherwise lock up the system, the game can gracefully exit while not breaking the OS. A quick tap of the Xbox button in the top center of the controller allows, to use PC lingo, “Alt-tabbing” away from the crashed game, so you can close it gracefully and restart it.
In terms of speed, while we have desktop processors at or near the 4GHz mark, the arms race that was processor speed has slowed dramatically. Instead, better use of what is already there, as well as pushing most of the heavy lifting to the GPU, has become the norm.
While the CPU speed is fairly straightforward (faster is better), the CU count is less obvious. CUs, or Control Units, act as the routing control for the processor. It interconnects all of the various hardware components in a system, allowing the discrete processing of complex instructions and programs. It ensures that the data is processed in the correct portion of memory, at the right time, and that the data gets routed back to the executable (read: program), and then takes that transformed data and routes it to the next piece of hardware in the chain. This nuanced high-speed handshaking and routing of data makes the processor extremely flexible, fast, and efficient. The 40 CUs in the Xbox One X is double that of the PlayStation 4 Pro, and more than triple that of the Xbox One S. With proper timings in place, this advantage will manifest in more things being processed simultaneously, and likely without your knowledge.
Shader Throughput and Memory Speeds
First off, a shader is most often a GPU-facing rendering pipeline, allowing the GPU to produce shadow, geometry transformation, shading, volumetric lighting and fog, bloom, blur, and pretty much every graphics card buzzword you’ve ever heard. The GPU’s ability to handle these instructions is commonly called the Shader throughput. Referencing the chart above once again, we can see that there is a dramatic increase from the previous iteration of Xbox One to the Xbox One X – a staggering 361% increase in power. It’s also has 43% more throughput than the PlayStation 4 Pro.
In terms of memory speed, the frequency is not the only factor. There are generational differences between the DDR3 of the Xbox One, and the GDDR5 of the Xbox One X. Without teaching a class on CAS, RAS, latencies, timing, and the other components of memory, suffice it to say that GDDR5 is far faster, with better timings, and more efficient than its predecessors.
For reference, the LPDDR used in the Nintendo Switch is “low power” – a power efficient memory module tailored for portable use, as one might expect.
It’s easier to say “more is better”, and it is a fact that the PlayStation 4 Pro has 8GB of RAM, and the Xbox One X has 12. Doing a bit of digging, I’ve found that, in fact, the PlayStation 4 Pro only has an average of around 5GB available for developer use, the rest being used by the operating system. Xbox One X, on the other hand, hands over 3GB for the Xbox OS, leaving 9GB for developers to play with. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that nearly double the amount of RAM can only be a good thing.
Before we depart the land of memory, I want to note that the Xbox One X has taken a rather large departure in this area with 384-bit memory bus instead of the standard of 256-bit. This change opens a third memory pathway to larger instructions, which is the likely cause of the staggering increase in overall memory bandwidth. The theoretical maximum amount of memory bandwidth in the Xbox One was 68GB/s, with the Xbox One S pushing that up to 204GB/s. Sony followed suit, jumping from 176GB/s to 218GB/s in their move from standard to Pro. That said, the Xbox One X has a blistering 326GB/s memory throughput, offering a substantial speed increase over the Xbox One X and the PlayStation 4 Pro.
Secondary Features and the importance of 4K
If you were unaware, Sony was one of the primary drivers in building the Blu-Ray format. Working with a consortium of manufacturers, they helped deliver the player, as well as the medium that would enable 1080p video, and now 4K Ultra HD. You can imagine my surprise that neither the Playstation 4, nor the freshly-released PlayStation 4 Pro have a 4K UHD player. Microsoft, likely seeing the early success of the PlayStation 3 and its consumer use as a Blu-Ray player, has been shipping a 4K UHD player in their Xbox One S since August 2nd, 2016. Continuing in that vein, the Xbox One X will ship with a 4K UHD optical disc reader, allowing movies to be played in 4K from disc, instead of being restricted to just streaming as Sony’s Pro console has been. Where the Xbox One S didn’t quite come up to scratch is when you tried to run games in 4K resolution.
One of the largest lures of both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One X is that they can both play games natively in 4K resolution, as well as upscale non-native games from 1080p to the vaunted higher resolution. Real talk – Microsoft has been taking it in the teeth on almost every multiplatform release in this area. If Sony was running it in 1080p, Microsoft was limping along at 960p and then uprezzing it to 1080p with a weak smile. The extensive amount of power in the Xbox One X should be able to pump out not only 4K (which is 3840 × 2160 resolution, by the way), but with enough tuning could even do so at 60fps. Obviously we’ll have to see how well games are tuned for the new hardware, but it’s fairly promising. Launch title Forza Motorsport 7 manages to hit both marks, launching at 4K native resolution, at a rock-solid 60fps.
Anecdotal Evidence – what can your eye see?
I doubt I’m the only one who passed by the Xbox One S while I waited for the Xbox One X, so I would inevitably see the largest differences between my launch console and what is ostensibly a new benchmark for the console world. I’m certain sites like Digital Foundry will do extensive framerate and visual quality testing and comparison (they really are the best in the business at it – I will link to their hard work when they inevitably unveil it), so I’ll constrain my impressions to two different perspectives — mine as a lifetime hardcore gamer, and that of my casual gaming wife who has frequently said “I can’t see any difference” in the past.
The first thing I wanted to measure with all of this power under the hood was something indisputable – load times. These tests are measured from launch to the “Press A to start” portion of the loading sequences, passing all of the logos and initial loading process. While it’s not comprehensive, it does give a good cross-section of current and older games for comparision. To ensure a stock-vs-stock comparison, I used the internal SATA II-based hard 500GB drive of the launch Xbox One versus the SATA III-based 1TB drive of the Xbox One X.
As you can see, in most cases, there is a marked difference between the two consoles. Much of this comes from the aforementioned hard drive controller, but the raw horsepower under the hood of the new console shaves precious seconds off as well. It’s also worth noting that the hard drive on the original Xbox One had just 43 GB of space left once I had installed these six games, and only 19 GB once I’d pulled my songs across. The 1TB drive in the Xbox One X is a welcome site, but external storage is likely still needed if you are the type that keeps several games installed at once.
The next test would be the most anecdotal, but possibly the largest improvement – moving from a gorgeous 1080p Panasonic plasma TV to a eye-popping 4K Samsung QLED. Firing up some of this holiday’s hottest games, my “there’s hardly a difference” wife, Laura, had to admit that there was, to use her words, a “massive difference” in visual quality. It’s hard to argue with that!
If you are still on the fence about a 4K TV, or if you don’t know the difference other than resolution, 4K.com did a fantastic job of demystifying all of the terms and tech by showcasing how it manifests in real-world performance. While they have a vested interest in 4K TVs, they are also dead on with their analysis.
The last test before we talk about sound was…well, actually still related to sound. The launch Xbox One can’t be described as “quiet” under load. While it does have better thermal cycling than its Xbox 360 predecessor, as well as throttling to prevent damage, a single oversized fan was charged with carrying heat away from the components. The Xbox One X takes this one very large step further, moving away from a barrage of fans to a supercharger-style centrifugal fan and a vapor chamber cooling system to keep things not only cool, but quiet. Even during the most frantic polygon-pushing session, I never heard the console break a sweat.
Spatial sound – welcome to Dolby Atmos
The Xbox One X brings some amazing visuals, but Microsoft has not neglected the audio side. The Xbox One X supports both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, as well as the entire suite of previously-supported tech like DTS and Dolby 5.1, True HD, and PCM in 2.0, 5.1, and 7.1 setups.
Carting my far-less-shiny (the Xbox One X is a flat matte black instead of the scratch-attracting shiny surface of the original Xbox One) new console to my neighbor’s house, I wired it up to his ear-blasting overhead speaker-enabled 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos theater room. While I have a nice 7.1 room setup, I wanted to hear just what Atmos could bring to gaming in a small professionally-curated setting. Like Saving Private Ryan for Blu-Ray, I couldn’t think of a better game to check out sound than Gears of War 4. I couldn’t have been more right in that selection.
Before we get into the amazing difference Atmos can make, I do have to disclose that Dolby will ask a one-time contribution at their altar. To enable Dolby Atmos, you’ll have to pay a one-time $14.99 licensing fee to allow the technology’s use on your new console. That said, if you are planning on using Atmos with a high-end pair of headphones (a nice pair of Sony MDR-HW700DS 9.1 channel cans, for instance) you can skip the fee entirely. Before you dismiss positional immersive audio, find a high end audio shop to try it for yourself.
With the Dolby Atmos license fee paid, and the Xbox One X wired into the new system, I fired up Gears of War 4 and jumped to the fifth act of the game. Knowing that there was a lot of vertical sound, including a helicopter fly-over and hover section, it was the perfect example of positional audio I could find. Though the list of games that support Dolby Atmos is still short, the effect is immediate. Being able to accurately hear enemy position opens an entirely new dynamic, and it’s hard to convey just how much more immersive this seemingly-small change really makes. If you have the means to add Atmos to your 4K / Xbox One X setup, it’s the audio cherry on top of an amazing visual sundae.
Bringing it together – gaming
The launch window list for the Xbox One X is a little thinner than one would like for a console, but there is a very large list of games that will carry Xbox One X-specific updates on launch. Forza Motorsport 7 (review), Middle-earth: Shadow of War (review), and Assassin’s Creed Origins (review) will carry upgrades immediately, but there’s actually a very long list of games that will support the new platform at launch. Disneyland Adventures, Halo 3, Halo 5: Guardians (review), Halo Wars 2 (review), Killer Instinct, Minecraft, Rush: A Disney-Pixar Adventure, Quantum Break (review), ReCore Definitive Edition (non-definitive edition review), Super Lucky’s Tale, and Zoo Tycoon Ultimate Animal Collection, Rise of the Tomb Raider (review), Titanfall 2 (review), Agents of Mayhem (review), The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (review), and World of Tanks is just a fraction of the games getting some level of enhancement on the platform. Just beyond the holiday season, there’s also Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3, State of Decay 2 in the Spring of 2018, and notable undated titles like Metro Exodus waiting in the wings. In fact, there are over 100 titles with enhancements coming.
Since this review is primarily focused on the system at launch, we’ll be supplementing this review with title-specific and rolling updates showcasing just what Xbox One X owners can expect in terms of enhancements as they are released.
So…is it worth it?
That’s the million dollar question (or more accurately, the $499 question), isn’t it? Microsoft’s own Phil Spencer has been quoted as saying that the Xbox One X is “not for everyone”, looking at the Xbox One S as their market-aimed more affordable console. That said, the console will support supersampling (taking a 4K image and scaling it down to a 1080p screen, granting much of the texture and image quality improvements, but at the lower resolution) on non-4K screens, which would be a marked improvement regardless of whether you are running a launch system or an Xbox One S. As you can see, it even helps with non-optimized games like Rock Band 4. While it won’t become a showcase of visuals, you won’t be waiting as long to get into the game. To answer the question on whether it’s worth it, I reach into my lifelong PC gaming experience and say absolutely. Future-proofing by buying the most powerful rig to last the remainder of the generation isn’t going to steer you wrong, and it’ll improve every game you already have. The Xbox One X is essentially the Tesla Motors of consoles – other cars might get you there, but they won’t look nearly as gorgeous, or be anywhere near as quiet.
Xbox One X
Powerful in every way you can measure, the Xbox One X is a masterclass in engineering that delivers on Microsoft’s 4K promises. Albeit at a steeper price, the X represents the next evolution in the Xbox One family, and a chance for developers to finally deliver PC quality on a home console. Bravo.