Microsoft is in a weird spot. Screen technology has changed fast in the last year, and suddenly the market is flooded with 4K screens, with HDR quickly becoming the norm. But the current crop of game consoles struggle to take advantage of the improved screens they’re plugged into.
So what do you do? Do you follow your main competition and release a console that can output 4K to a reasonable extent? Do you wait and release a true next-gen console in a few years? Or do you do something in-between, releasing a gruntier machine, but one that still runs the current crop of games?
Microsoft went the latter route with the Xbox One X.
If you don’t have a 4K HDR TV, then what’s the point? And even if you do, is it worth splurging on a brand new console right now? The Xbox One X (XOX) is being released early on in the life span of its predecessor. The Xbox 360 enjoyed five years on the market before the slimmer S model was released, and it was three years beyond that before the far more powerful Xbox One debuted. The Xbox One was replaced by the Xbox One S last year, but it's already being surpassed by the XOX. If you shelled out for the One S, you can feel appropriately aggrieved.
At a recent launch event in Sydney I was able to test drive Microsoft’s newest console and see what the hype was all about. Unsurprisingly, it’s good.
“The most powerful addition to the Xbox family” is how it was described to me. It is a powerful wee beastie (and I do mean wee, it is the smallest Xbox ever released), and the games being demoed at the event all looked fantastic. But of course they did.
Everything I played from Forza to Cuphead to Tomb Raider was sharp in its details and deep in its colour range. I was interested to note where the perfect images were absent. For example: when Forza was paused the images were fantastic, but during gameplay I found the interior of the car lacked detail and the game had trouble in going from brightly lit tracks to dark tunnels. When pressed on this, the answer from Microsoft was always “these aren’t final builds”.
Of course it can’t all be graphics. Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds is monstrously popular, and will be available on the One X, but it's not a game you play for photorealism.
I sat down with Kevin Gammill, Group Program Manager with Xbox (who proudly lists the first three Encartas in his bio) to discuss how the Xbox One X works to make games better – even if they aren’t in 4K.
The One X is all about tricks and tools for developers to use. Tools like variable resolution. You don’t need the game blasting along at super high resolution all the time, so you can lower that at certain points and have the One X put more power into other things.
The trick I was most impressed with was “reverse upscaling” – a term I came up with to describe what the One X does on 1080p TVs. Instead of outputting a true 1080p image, it outputs a 4K image and then scales the image down to HD. What's that? It's called "supersampling"? Meh, I prefer my words. Either way, it's an impressive effect. Gammill showed me some comparison images pointing out the changes. The difference is as stark as seeing older standard definition games upscaled to 1080p.
Developers can also tag which elements of the game are for 4K and which aren’t, so when you download the game, it’ll only get the bits you need. This will be the case even if you’re on the “old” Xbox One.
“The One X makes the whole family better” says Gammill. But should you buy it?
The two factors in deciding whether to buy the One X are (1) do you own an Xbox One already? and (2) do you own a 4K HDR TV?
Clearly the XOX is a superior console – possibly better than anything else in the market – so if you’re looking to buy a new console then, yes, buy an Xbox One X. Whether you have the high-end TV or not, the One X will make the games look better.
If you already have an Xbox One or One S – and you don’t have a severe compulsion to go out and buy the latest shiny thing – then you have a harder decision to make. Personally, I wouldn’t upgrade. Not yet, anyway.
If you have a 4K/HDR TV, then you can make it do a lot of the heavy upscaling work. As an experiment, I plugged my old PS3 into my brand new HDR TV and played GTA V. It looked mint.
If you don’t have a 4K/HDR TV, then upgrade first. I know that there is some skepticism about the virtues of this new screen technology, but it is worth it. While the content is rare now, it’ll be as ubiquitous as HD in the near future. The issue here is a brand new TV costs a lot more than an Xbox One X.
I’m firmly in the camp of don’t upgrade unless you absolutely “need” to, but I also understand the pull of new tech. And it is a very good machine.
◆ Hadyn was flown to Sydney to see the Xbox One X courtesy of Microsoft.