We get it: videogame consoles are more confusing than ever. The name “Xbox One” was already baffling, considering it was the third Xbox, and then Microsoft had to up the ante by releasing the Xbox One S last year. Now here we are with the Xbox One X, an upgraded version of the four-year-old original. In the past hardware companies would just release an entirely new system after five or six years; after the extra-long Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 console cycle, though, they’ve embraced a series of midlife updates to try to keep pace with improvements in computers and TVs. And so, one year after Sony released the PlayStation 4 Pro, and one year after the Xbox One S, Microsoft responds with this new beast of a system.
The Xbox One X is here to keep the Xbox name humming until the next true console generation kicks off at some as-yet-undetermined future date. What does this mean for you, though? What sets the X apart from the S and the original Xbox One? If all you know are nebulous claims about it being some kind of more powerful Xbox One, and want to learn some specifics, read on to find out what’s happening with the X.
The X might be more powerful, but beneath all the improvements it’s still the same basic system as the Xbox One and Xbox One S. Your current Xbox One games will all play on it, and it features the same backwards compatibility as the other consoles in the Xbox One family. There aren’t games that are exclusive for the Xbox One X.
Although every Xbox One game will run on the X, only games that have been tweaked to take advantage of the new hardware will see the benefits. They call them Xbox One X Enhanced games, and you can find a list here. These games will render in 4K, and some will support HDR and might also see steadier frame rates and smoother all-around performance. Most Microsoft first-party games will be enhanced in some way, and some of the biggest third-party games will also be seeing similar upgrades. And it’s a safe bet that most major upcoming games will support the X’s new tech.
The main reason the X exists is to take advantage of the explosion in popularity of 4K TVs. These ultra HD TVs finally became affordable enough to really penetrate the market over the last few years, and mark the latest battlefield for the eternal videogame console graphics arms race. Last year’s Xbox One S was able to play Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and upscale games to 4K resolution, but the X renders them at 4K instead of just upscaling, which enhances that graphical fidelity. It also supports HDR, or high dynamic range color, which makes everything pop more vibrantly. It’s not as game-changing of a leap as going from SD to HD TVs was over a decade ago, but if you put a game running in 4K with HDR on an Xbox One X against a regular Xbox One running at 1080p, you can immediately tell the difference. (Halo 5: Guardians is sort of the go-to game for pointing out the improvements that the X makes possible, if you’re looking for a test case.)
Frame rates are always a concern for a certain type of videogame fan. Even if you don’t know what a frame rate is, you can probably tell when it dips or slows down. Basically it’s a measure of how many distinct images are generated per second by a game. Think of a movie: traditionally they run at 24 frames per second, and what that means is every second 24 different, individual frames of film run through the projector. There are no projectors or reels with a videogame, but it’s still pushing out a sequence of individual images that, when viewed together, create movement. The higher a game’s frame rate, the smoother that motion will be, with 60 frames per second (or FPS) standing as the ideal that most player’s look for. When a game struggles to keep a consistent frame rate, you can tell: that’s where slowdown and stuttering comes from. Screen tearing, where you can see the seams between multiple frames on the screen at the same time, is also a byproduct of frame rate issues, namely when a game system’s video output is out of sync with the TV’s refresh rate.
The Xbox One X aims to tackle these problems with its enhanced processing power. Some games optimized for the Xbox One X will see frame rates locked at a higher FPS than was capable on the Xbox One. Others will just see a steadier, more consistent frame rate. That means those games will look smoother than ever before on an Xbox.
It’ll work just fine on older HD TVs, but if you’re going to be dropping the money for a brand new piece of hardware, you should make sure you have the other piece of hardware you’ll need to really take advantage of it. If you don’t have a 4K TV yet, and aren’t planning to get one any time soon, there’s not much of a reason to buy an Xbox One X.
Xbox One X Enhanced games take up even more hard drive space than regular current-gen videogames. The X comes standard with a terabyte of storage space in its hard drive, but with those beefed-up 4K assets, games can be as big as 100 GB. You might struggle fit over a dozen big-budget, blockbuster games on the X’s hard drive at a time. It might make sense to get an external hard drive option, unless you don’t mind deleting and reinstalling games when needed.
The Kinect is basically dead at this point. Microsoft no longer makes the motion sensor, and to really hammer the fact through, they’ve stripped the Kinect jack from the back of the Xbox One X. If you want to connect your Kinect to the new console, you’ll have to buy a separate adapter that plugs into a USB port.
It comes with a new controller, a redesigned model introduced with last year’s Xbox One S that feels sturdier and less unwieldy than the original Xbox One edition, but all your old controllers will still work after you sync ‘em up. The same holds with headsets, the Elite controller and other peripherals. If it worked with your original Xbox One, it’ll work with the X, too.
At $499 (£449), the standard X model costs about twice as much as most Xbox One S bundles that you can find in stores right now. The S is the only other model currently available, although you can probably find pre-owned first-generation Xbox Ones for even less at this point.
$499 is steep, but it at least shows consistency: that’s what the Xbox One cost when it first came out. Of course that model came with a Kinect, which ran about $100 on its own. And sluggish sales of the One lead to a quick price drop in May 2014, less than six months after it launched. The X is being positioned as the premium model compared to the now-standard S, largely targeted to early adopters and the most dedicated of game fans, so perhaps $499 will work for this system in a way that it didn’t for the original One.
As for our own experiences with the X, which we’ve had running for the last ten days or so: it’s exactly what it’s billed as. It’s an Xbox One with prettier, smoother graphics and a controller that feels better in my hands. We’ll have more thoughts next week after we’ve had a chance to sample a greater variety of games on the new system.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.