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June 14, 2017

The Xbox One X is aspirational in the purest sense of the word

by John_A

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 in comparison to Sony’s PlayStation 4. With six teraflops of processing power and a raft of other specs that have already given fanboys plenty to brag about, that’s no longer the case. But what’s it like to actually play around with the console? Well, I can’t 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 its demo area, but inside, everything ran on developer kits. Yes, those really cool looking white boxes with the LCD display on the front of them.

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 Mojang’s blocky world-builder’s “Super Duper Graphics Pack” that borrows from high-resolution total conversion mods on PC to make Minecraft look as good as 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, all around, the lighting has received a massive upgrade. 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 showwhy someone with a 1080p should really be interested in the upgraded hardware, though, which makes it hard to know why someone like me with a TV that looks markedly better than a majority of affordable 4K sets should care about the new console.

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To get the most out of the One X, you need to spend even more than the $500 Microsoft is asking for. 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 — seemingly who the target market is here — an entry-level Vizio isn’t going to do it for you. Which 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

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 whoosh overhead, from the back of the room to the front, was undeniably cool. Very subtle, yes, but still very 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 really hard to beat the spatial separation of having discrete speakers placed around a room. Specifically, it’s incredibly 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 ($500 for the One X, around $700 for the speakers and receiver and $428 for a Vizio E series display) to actually use the One X to its fullest potential — four years after spending $500 for the Xbox One, or a little over a year after spending $400 on a One S. There’s still six months before the system’s November 7th retail release, though, so we still have time for Microsoft to prove the One X’s value proposition for everyone — not just the well-heeled.

Follow all the latest news from E3 2017 here!

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