The Xbox One X is aspirational in the purest sense of the word. It's Microsoft's direct response to people saying that the standard Xbox One wasn't powerful enough compared to Sony's PlayStation 4. With six teraflops of processing power and a raft of other specs that have already given fanboys plenty to lust over, that's no longer the case. But what's it like to actually play around with the console? I can't actually tell you. Microsoft's Xbox One X Experience at E3 this year was a hands-off theater presentation. The company had mock-up consoles outside of its demo area, but inside, everything ran on developer kits. Yes, those really cool-looking white boxes with LCD displays on the front.
While I didn't get to pick up a gamepad myself, Microsoft tried wowing the press in its hands-off demo area with Forza Motorsport 7, Gears of War 4 and Minecraft running in 4K. The most impressive of the trio wasn't car porn, however, nor did it involve chainsawing aliens in half. Forza and Gears look great, but the same can be said for their 1080p counterparts too.
Surprisingly, it was the forthcoming "Super Duper Graphics Pack" for Mojang's blocky world-building game that impressed me the most. It borrows from the high-resolution fan-made mods available on PC to make the game's official version look the best it possibly can. Things like railroad tracks now have geometric depth to them (they were previously flat), the water almost looks real enough to drink and generally speaking, the lighting is much improved. To give you one example, the sunrise in the trailer below looked absolutely gorgeous on the theater's massive HDR display. Believe me: I'm as surprised as you are that Minecraft was the most impressive-looking demo.
If you don't want to upgrade your TV, the Xbox One X uses supersampling to push more-detailed graphics to your existing HD display. Microsoft unfortunately didn't show why someone with a 1080p set should be interested in the upgraded hardware though, which makes it hard to explain why someone like me with a TV that looks markedly better than a majority of affordable 4K sets should care about the new console.
To get the most out of the One X, you need to spend even more than the $500 Microsoft is asking for it. 4K TVs have dropped in price dramatically, so taking advantage of HDR video and UHD's millions of pixels is less of a bank-breaking proposition. But if you're the type who's after pristine image quality, an entry-level Vizio isn't going to do it for you. That makes upgrading to the One X an even more expensive proposition.
To get the most out of the One X, you need to spend even more than the $500 Microsoft is asking for it.
And then there's audio. Dolby and Microsoft had their theater kitted out with a 7.4.1 Atmos setup: seven surround sound speakers, four ceiling-pointed ones and a gigantic subwoofer. Most people play games either through their TV speakers or dedicated headphones though. Atmos is something exotic and likely incredibly out of reach for most people -- even for someone like me with a dedicated 5.1 surround sound system in a modest apartment.
No matter, because whether you'll be able to use it or not, this fall, Microsoft will issue a patch for Gears of War 4 that adds native support for Dolby Atmos.
How does it sound? Based on the demo I saw (and heard), really good. At one point, a helicopter hovering behind me fired off some rockets, and hearing the sound of them overhead, from the back of the room to the front, was undeniably cool.
Sure, you could always use a pair of headphones paired with Dolby's relatively new Access app (which uses software to bring positional audio to any pair of existing cans), but it's hard to beat the spatial separation of having discrete speakers placed around a room. Specifically, it's difficult for headphones to trick your brain into thinking that dialog from the center channel is firing directly at you.
Right now, it'll cost at least $1,600 to actually use the One X to its fullest potential (read: $500 for the One X, around $700 for the speakers and receiver, and $428 for a Vizio E series display). That will sting for folks who only four years ago spent $500 for the Xbox One. For people who spent $400 on a One S about a year ago, the One X will be an even tougher sell. There's still six months before the system's Nov. 7th retail release though, so Microsoft has plenty of time to prove the One X's value proposition for everyone -- not just the well-heeled.