First things first: The Xbox One X, on average, delivers the best graphics you can get on consoles out today. It not only delivers graphics noticeably better than the Xbox One and Xbox One S, it appears to outstrip Sony’s PS4 Pro, which was previously leading the pack in graphics in consoles.
This isn’t surprising for a title like Gears of War 4, part of the blockbuster Xbox-only franchise that’s been used extensively to show off the Xbox One X’s graphical firepower in press previews. If you have an Xbox One X, Gears of War 4 will offer up two “enhanced” video settings: “performance” (rendering as many frames as possible) or “visual” (making it look as pretty as possible). Loading the game up on the original Xbox One and the Xbox One X on a 4K TV and switching back and forth using the “visual” mode, the textures were higher resolution (meaning a wall didn’t look quite as smeary), lighting effects were rendered with more delicacy, and objects in the far distance had a bit more detail. It looked better, though, in ways that were hard to point to exactly.
It was the “performance” mode that offered the biggest difference. Gears of War, which has traditionally always run at 30 frames per second on a console, feels much, much different running at 60 frames per second. It’s less blurry, more focused, and much, much smoother. (It’ll be interesting to see how this disparity in frame rate plays out in competitive online play, where Gears of War 4 also runs in 60 frames per second — will there be an Xbox One X 60-fps overclass that can easily gut 30-fps proles?)
There’s also some quality-of-life improvements in the system itself. It’s the smallest Xbox yet and comes in a subdued matte black, meaning it fits easily into my home-entertainment setup, without the Mountain Dew vibe that some previous Xbox designs had. It runs quietly — even when rendering something at 4K and in the middle of hectic action, I couldn’t hear the fans kick in (though I also didn’t subject it to a ten-hour gaming marathon, and could definitely feel the unit heating up after keeping it on for a few hours).
But to go back to Gears of War 4, there’s a trade-off you are forced to make when picking which graphical enhancement you want. When running in “performance” mode at 60 frames per second, the game drops from 4K to 1080p, and takes a noticeable graphical hit: Atmospheric effects look more washed out, textures don’t seem quite as detailed. But switching back to “visual” mode made the game feel sluggish. I found myself wanting both. I wanted to play with the more lush visuals, but also get the smooth 60 frames per second, which is basically the goal of every PC gamer out there.
This raises the key question about the Xbox One X: If you have $499 to spend, really care about graphical fidelity, and want to get the absolute best-looking graphics running as smoothly as possible, why not spend about $200 more and build a PC that will run Gears of War 4 at 60 frames per second and in 4K? You’ll pay less for games and have a wildly expanded universe of games to choose from — the Steam store alone represents a universe of delightfully bizarre games that are unlikely to make their way to console. You likely won’t miss out on any Xbox exclusives, either, because nearly every game that’s exclusive to Xbox is also going to show up on PC, thanks to Microsoft’s desire to merge the Xbox into the Windows 10 family of devices.
Building and keeping a gaming PC current represents a larger investment of time and effort than many gamers are willing to make, and that’s fair; consoles will always be there, even as the market gets murky. But the future of consoles is starting to look a lot like the future of smartphones — iterative updates every so often, major updates more rarely, with the buyer paying to buy a whole new unit for every upgrade, and the nagging feeling that you’re not quite getting the best or the newest. The console-gaming hobby that was supposed to be cheaper and simpler than PC gaming may end up being the opposite in the end.
If you’ve got or are planning to get a 4K TV with HDR, can speak about the pros and cons of a locked frame rate versus variable frame rate, are dedicated to staying in the Xbox online-gaming pool, and really don’t want to deal with the hassle of building or maintaining a PC, the Xbox One X represents the best console available. If you’ve got a hulking Xbox One that’s already starting to wheeze and can spare the cash, you should upgrade, even if you’re on a 1080p TV. You’ll get a 4K TV eventually, and the jumps in frame rate are noticeable — and, to a small degree, you’ll benefit from “supersampling” 4K textures. If you haven’t bought a console this generation and want to get one, you’ve got a more difficult decision: The PS4 has the larger player base, more exclusives (and, arguably, better ones), but the PS4 Pro is also inarguably outclassed in pure graphical performance by the Xbox One X.
But, again, if the Xbox One X is appealing to you, I would take a moment to seriously consider building a gaming PC for your living room. Building a PC means cracking open a case and jamming stuff in there, and is, I can assure you, kind of a pain in the ass. But you may as well get messy, because consoles aren’t so clean right now.