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Xbox One X is Microsoft’s smallest and most powerful console yet. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Microsoft’s new Xbox One X is an incredible piece of hardware. Playing games and watching movies in 4K resolution is amazing.

But is the experience enough to justify the $499 price tag? That’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves while trying out the Xbox One X every day this week in the GeekWire offices, in advance of the console’s public launch on Tuesday, Nov. 7. We even bought a new 4K HDR TV to make sure we were giving the console a proper assessment.

Our main takeaway: If you’re an avid gamer with a 4K TV in your home, and the money to spare on a premium console, the Xbox One X is for you. But for a large portion of the gaming population, there will be better alternatives, including Microsoft’s own Xbox One S.

(GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Here’s where we’re coming from: I’m a regular gamer who plays a healthy dose of Halo and FIFA on the original Xbox One (and I’m particularly looking forward to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds). GeekWire’s Todd Bishop is still holding on to his Xbox 360, due largely to the fact that his family (and visiting friends) still love to play Kinect games on the older Microsoft console.

On specs alone, the Xbox One X would be a big upgrade for either of us. Hailed by Microsoft as the “world’s most powerful console,” the Xbox One X certainly lives up to that title. The device is faster and has more computing power than its predecessors, the original Xbox One and newer Xbox One S.

It’s the smallest Xbox console ever, without a power brick on the cord. It’s also noticeably heavier than the original Xbox One, clearly packing a lot more into the smaller package.

The original Xbox One, top, and the Xbox One X, below.
The Xbox One X, top, compared to the original Xbox One.

But the biggest selling point for the Xbox One X is that it supports crisp and vivid 4K video, with 8 million pixels and high-dynamic range (HDR). Microsoft calls it a “true 4K console,” and touts its resolution over Sony’s rival PS4 Pro console, which costs $399 and also produces 4K video.

We spent the past week playing some of our favorite games — yes, I trounced Todd in Madden and FIFA — in the process trying out the Xbox One X. It was easy to see how the 4K resolution can enhance your visual experience; FIFA and Madden looked especially clear and vibrant in 4K and HDR, unlike anything I’ve experienced before, and almost like watching a match on TV.

To fully appreciate the difference, we switched back and forth between a 1080p TV and a 4K TV several times. After playing in 4K, games seemed a bit washed out by comparison on the 1080p display.

Microsoft uses these images, below, to illustrate the difference between a game playing with HDR turned on (top) and off (bottom), and this is true to what we saw when switching back and forth.

(Microsoft Images)

Microsoft uses a technique called supersampling that it says makes games on the Xbox One X look better on 1080p displays — not just 4K screens — though this was difficult for us to notice on the games we played.

So what’s happening under the hood on the Xbox One X and S? Veteran technology reviewer Andru Edwards, co-host of our weekly Geared Up podcast and live video show, has also been testing the Xbox One X, and he gave us this explanation.

The Xbox One S technically outputs a 4K signal, but it is upscaled. So the game might be outputting 900p or 1080p, and the One S will take that and blow it up to 4K if you have a 4K TV. It also supports HDR fully, so that isn’t a differentiator from a feature perspective, but it is less taxing on the X to perform.

The One X doesn’t need to do this upscaling. The game itself is running at 4K and it will just pass that signal direct to the TV. Even better? If you have a 1080p TV then One X will STILL generate the 4K signal and then downscale it to 1080p. This is GOOD – it’s called super sampling. Think about if you take a picture at low resolution and then blow it up to be large – it looks awful the bigger you make it. But the opposite is true the SMALLER you make it. So when the X shrinks the 4K signal down to 1/4th the size, you get all of the detail that was in the 4K image. It’s not the same clarity as true 4K, but all the info is there. That is one benefit to upgrading.

If you don’t have a 4K TV, that is still a consideration for upgrading.

Then there’s the power. I was testing load times of some of my favorite games like Cuphead and NBA 2K18 – these are NOT yet optimized for Xbox One X, and yet they load much faster simply due to the raw power of the console. More RAM + faster hard drives mean you spend less time waiting for games to load. Another reason to consider upgrading.

If you have a 4K TV that supports HDR then you are getting the true, full Xbox One X experience and it would be worth looking into the upgrade. If you’re on a 1080p set, it’s a harder sell, but there are still real benefits over the One S. With a 4K HDR TV you get the full, native resolution (better looking graphics, sharper and clearer) with the HDR picture in supported titles (blacker blacks, whiter whites, and support for billions more colors – a wider dynamic range which makes everything look more vibrant and “real”)

The one software feature on the X that none of the others have is 4K Game DVR. This is the feature that lets you record your games while you play them to share later. The other consoles record at lower resolutions, and the Xbox One X records in 4K so it looks great when shared to YouTube, social media, Twitch, Mixer, etc.

Microsoft is positioning the Xbox One X as a high-end console, targeting hardcore gamers. The company said this week that demand for the Xbox One is “super high,” as CNBC reported. The tech giant, which sees its gaming business as a key growth area for the company, also sold out of pre-orders.

“Xbox One X is for the customer who’s looking for the most powerful console that’s going to run every game they’re going to play better than any other console,” Xbox leader Phil Spencer told Eurogamer.

But given Microsoft’s investment in the new product, it almost feels like a missed opportunity that the company’s new flagship console doesn’t appeal to a wider range of customers — particularly those who purchased an Xbox One more than three years ago and are ready for an upgrade, or PlayStation owners thinking about jumping to Xbox. Microsoft will also be competing with a resurgent Nintendo and its hybrid Switch console, which sells for $299.

Gearing up for a Madden battle on the new Xbox One X.

Nearly 30 percent of new TV shipments will be 4K devices in the fourth quarter, according to Statista, though the percentage of households that already have a 4K TV in their home is lower.

There are 26 “Xbox One X Enhanced Games” — Halo 5: Guardians; Gears of War 4; Titanfall 2; etc. — available initially, specifically developed to support the new console’s capabilities, with more on the way.

Perhaps Microsoft will come out with virtual or mixed reality hardware and software that integrate with the Xbox One X. But in the meantime, if you are satisfied with your Xbox One, there aren’t many killer features that make the Xbox One X live up to its price tag for casual gamers.

The Xbox software, controllers, and user experience largely haven’t changed from past consoles, nor are there any big games that really make the Xbox One X a must-have. All Xbox One accessories and games will work on Xbox One X — there won’t be “exclusive” titles made only for the Xbox One X.

Then there’s the company’s decision to phase out the Kinect sensor, which included the ability to use voice commands with the console. It’s unfortunate timing, given how accustomed we’re becoming to talking to our devices in the home nowadays. The Kinect sensor for Xbox One does work with the Xbox One X, if you buy a $40 adapter.

Bottom line: People who buy the Xbox One X won’t be disappointed by the visuals and power. But if 4K isn’t a high priority for you, then the $279 Xbox One S or $249 Xbox One are solid options if you’re looking for a new Microsoft console this holiday season.

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