Let’s talk about the Xbox One X for a bit

By now, you’ve probably heard about the new Xbox One X, the console that was previously known as “Project Scorpio”. This is Microsoft’s latest console in the Xbox One family, and it’s their most powerful to date. While its specifications have been known for a while, we hadn’t seen the console itself before, or known about the price. At $499, the hardware on offer is quite a steal. Let’s delve into it in more detail, as well as discuss the same Achilles heel it shares with Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro.

I said the Xbox One X (or XBOX, as I’d like to call it temporarily) is Microsoft’s fastest console to date, and I’m not lying. Based on the same AMD APU architecture as the Xbox One and the One S, XBOX has eight AMD Jaguar-based cores clocked up to 2.3GHz, as well as a total of 2560 Graphics Core Next shaders that form the heart of its built-in GPU. Like the PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One S, the GPU in these newer consoles is a bit of a mish-mash between the architecture that started life out as Pitcairn with the Radeon HD 7000 series on the desktop, along with a little bit of AMD’s Polaris and Vega architectures thrown in to spice things up. While Microsoft hasn’t officially talked about the XBOX’s capabilities, there’s almost certainly AMD’s latest memory compression technology on there, as well as smarter shaders, better tessellation performance, and higher throughput clock-for-clock.

Those GCN shaders are all running at a baseline clock speed of 1172MHz, which puts the XBOX in the range of AMD’s Radeon R9 390, and is actually slightly faster than that. There’s 12GB of GDDR5 memory on board, with bandwidth at 326GB/s spread across a 384-bit memory interface. AMD isn’t selling this kind of product to consumers on the desktop, so both AMD and Microsoft can rightly claim that this is the world’s fastest APU.

Ticking the checkboxes, Microsoft also throws in UHD 4K Blu-Ray playback, using the same drive found in the Xbox One S, while also includes a 1TB hard drive as standard.

For $499, or roughly R6500 in local currency (before import fees and shipping costs from distributors), this isn’t a bad deal. Microsoft is offering a much higher tier of performance against computers with a similar price point, and they’re not reneging on clock speeds either. By using a ridiculously expensive vapour chamber cooler made out of copper in addition to active cooling from a fan, Microsoft is able to keep heat at manageable levels and still keep the console slim.

Exotic cooling solutions isn’t typically Microsoft’s thing for consoles, so this is both a clever workaround to the thermal issues present in a tiny chassis, as well as a direct response to the heat they’re feeling from the PlayStation 4 Pro. Microsoft wasn’t content to be equal to the PS4 Pro, and in fact is being as aggressive as possible in their pursuit of the performance throne.

In their promos for the console, Microsoft’s demos showed off all the advanced lighting and texturing now possible for their first-party and partner titles, including great visuals for titles like Metro Exodus and Forza Motorsport 7. With all the extra horsepower, the console is set to be a stunning platform for really good-looking games. The fact that a new Metro is already running on it is impressive, because 4A Games is usually on the cutting edge of hardware punishment with their engines.

But it is the pursuit of performance at all costs that, I feel, may take its toll on the brand despite the engineering efforts required to make this possible. The pricing is one pain point. While XBOX is going to sell relatively well among its existing fans from the Xbox 360 and Xbox One pools (One S owners probably aren’t digging into their pockets for yet another console), the PlayStation 4 Pro is getting many of the same games and “timed exclusives” that Microsoft trotted out during its conference, and is already $100 cheaper.

There will probably be people decrying the existence of an external power brick (how else are you going to power 150W worth of GPU horsepower quietly?), but I think that Microsoft would have a better chance against Sony’s platform this year if it was $50 cheaper. It’s possible to nab a PS4 Pro, a one-year PSN subscription, and an additional controller for less than the price of an XBOX, a product which only ships on 7 November 2017.

The other thing that’s going to be a pain to the Xbox One X’s adoption is that it fits into Microsoft’s ecosystem, but like the Xbox One S it ignores the excellent Cortana integration and Kinect capability altogether. To use the former, you need a microphone attached to the controller. To use the latter, you have to separately purchase the Kinect camera at $82 along with a USB adapter priced at $39. It’s designed to take over the duty of an older Xbox One or a One S, and the ports are even arranged similarly to make it easier to swap over, but it’s not a straight swap for day one Xbox One adopters.

Looking at the port selection, HDMI Pass-thru is still preserved, and the unit has optical out, HDMI 2.o capability with AMD FreeSync capability (Microsoft didn’t say anything about the feature in their show), as well as USB 3.0 all-round. It’s a solid fit for a media centre, just like the Xbox One was.

Microsoft’s other issue is how they’ll market this console. 4K gaming is super nice, but not everyone can afford, or owns, a 4K TV yet. XBOX supports HDCP 2.2 content protection, but anyone who bought a first-generation 4K TV has to upgrade if they want to play 4K Blu-Ray content. Gaming at 4K isn’t enough of a draw on its own to make people want to buy into the platform, which is why PS4 Pro is priced at $399 to encourage launch PS4 owners to upgrade to fill in the market for developers. At least gamers on a 1080p display can enjoy supersampling to produce a cleaner, sharper image, and there’s HDR capability as well.

VR, of course, would have been a big draw for the platform if it was already baked in for launch, but it currently isn’t. Microsoft’s VR platform in Windows 10 sets them up perfectly to get people to develop VR and AR applications on Windows 10 and demo or sell them for Xbox One, One S, or One X owners, and Xbox One X is extremely capable of running those kinds of workloads for fast-paced VR environments. Since it isn’t there yet, I expect that we’re going to see a lot of people use PSVR as a talking point about why Sony’s offering is stronger.

Overall, Xbox One X is a powerhouse in a very small package, and I’m interested to see what Microsoft has in store for VR capability in the future. For now, the console only really appeals to ardent fans of the platform and the Xbox ecosystem, and I think that’s ultimately going to be a much smaller number than the 20 million-plus Xbox One owners out there already.