The Xbox One X is the closest any console's come to the power and functionality of a gaming PC. It runs on a custom version of Windows, and has components that roughly compare to a $500 gaming PC, with enough GPU power and memory to run games at 4K, but a relatively weak CPU compared to a Core i5 or i7. For the past week I've been using the Xbox One X in my living room as an alternative to Steam's Big Picture mode, trying to get a feel for how this console compares to Microsoft's first stab at the Xbox One, which was big, ugly, and had a borderline-unusable OS. The Xbox One X is an impressively powerful and compact box, by comparison.
Are the Xbox One X's 4K chops and much-improved interface enough to make it a decent living room PC replacement, or the best complement for a desk-bound gaming PC? I asked my GamesRadar colleague Rachel Weber, who's also been testing out the console, to talk through the new hardware. Here's what we think.
Xbox One X vs. PC
Wes: Hey Rachel, I know you sometimes have a cable running from your gaming PC to the TV to play games in glorious 4K. How are you finding the Xbox One X as an alternative, so far?
Rachel: We're a multigamer household, so anything that reduces the number of machines in use is a gift from the electric gods. So far the X Box X (it looks like a 2001 AIM handle if you spell it that way) hasn't proven itself in that area, just because studios are still working on their 4K patches for the biggest games. I'm hugely enjoying Assassin's Creed Origins on the machine—which I've seen running in pristine Xbox One X enhanced mode at an event—but that's not getting patched until November 6. It already looks amazing on PC. Same with Destiny 2: the enhanced version will no doubt look good, but not uncapped-framerate-ultra-high-PC-settings good. So far it looks like I'll have to live with the HDMI cable Rat King that lives in our apartment.
Wes: I think that's one thing worth stressing about the hardware. Its ability to play games at 4K is a big improvement over the first iteration of the console, but for the most part games are still limited by the CPU, and that means 30 fps in some cases, and 60 fps in others. 60 fps is the minimum for me in most games, these days. I have a G-Sync monitor, and I love the smoothness that comes with higher refresh rates.
Back to the Xbox, though. It's been almost two years since I've used an Xbox One regularly, and I have to say after a bit of time with the Xbox One X I'm impressed by how much better the user interface has gotten. I wouldn't say it's great, but with a press of the Guide button I can quickly see friends, jump to the system settings, see what's downloading, and pretty much everything else important. Microsoft got rid of its horrible "snapping" system and made everything relatively easy to use. But it's still much more information-dense than the interface on the PS4 or the Switch, and I'm not sure how to feel about that.
The nerd in me enjoys being able to see the actively updating megabits per second download rate of whatever's in the queue, and I really appreciate how much detail the video settings screen gives about my TV's 4K capabilities. It feels like the Xbox One has moved more in the direction of a PC than a home console, but it doesn't quite have the power or multitasking chops to really replace a PC. The home dashboard is still a bit confusing and peppered with ads, and recording and sharing video and screenshots is just so limited compared to using a PC. Is there anything the Xbox One X really does better than a Windows machine?
Rachel: It's the same old console story. Despite a few more menus you can tinker around in this is a box that sits under your TV that is never going to shut down because your mouse drivers conflict with your printer. (This may not be a real thing.) It's not better, but it's compact, simple, and some people like never having to touch the dusty guts of their gaming machine.
Wes: Speaking of guts, this box really is tremendously impressive. It's smaller than the first Xbox One model and I really dig the design, simple as it is. It has kind of a grown-up vibe, and somehow Microsoft managed to cram more GPU power and higher-clocked CPUs onto the board. You can see all of this in a teardown video Linus Tech Tips put together.
Compared to the old days of jet engine Xbox 360s, the Xbox One X is remarkably quiet, but it's certainly not silent. I had the system sitting outside my entertainment center, and could definitely hear its 120mm fan whirring away while sitting on the dashboard. At idle it's louder than my PC, which has much more space for ventilation and more fans to keep things cool. Under a gaming load, though, my PC is definitely louder—and with the Xbox One X hidden away behind an entertainment center door, it should be quiet enough to go all but unnoticed.
So big props to Microsoft's engineers for that accomplishment. Even with a tiny mini-ITX PC case, there's no way I could build something this sleek or this quiet.
HDR and Blu-Ray
Rachel: For me, this is where the Xbox One X secured its spot in the front room. We were supplied with a 4K Blu-ray of BBC wildlife documentary Planet Earth II to show off the Blu-ray capabilities, and led to me shouting "fuck off" at a komodo dragon. It looked so good it was almost offensive. You could see every scale, every color, every viscous strand of meaty drool. The difference between the Blu-ray experience and streaming 4K was a revelation, and probably means I need to find a new spot for an Ultra HD Blu-ray collection somewhere.
Of course the Xbox One S has the same 4K Blu-ray capabilities, but if you're going to buy a new machine, you may as well stump up for the one that makes your games prettier too. I mean, Rare could still make another Viva Pinata... right?
Wes: Holy shit, did you see that iguana in the desert bit, snatching bugs out of the air? That tongue! They must've shot that at at least 100 fps. There were parts of that documentary that were so detailed, and shot so close-up, they looked like CG.
I think a lot of XBox One X coverage is going to talk about how incredible Planet Earth II looks in 4K HDR, because Microsoft packed it in with the systems they sent to reviewers. This says two things, to me.
1) I think you're right: 4K HDR Blu-rays are, so far, absolutely the reason to own the console, and its biggest strength over a PC. A 4K Blu-Ray drive for PC costs about $120, which is definitely cheaper than a $500 Xbox One X, but the system requirements for using one are actually incredibly steep. If your CPU is more than two years old, one of those drives just won't work for you, period. And there are barely any HDR computer monitors available, so it's pretty much 4K TV or nothin'.
After mostly watching movies and TV over streaming services, it's eye-opening going back to the uncompressed quality of Blu-Ray, especially in 4K and HDR. I'd watched a few things in HDR, before, like Amazon's The Man in the High Castle, but the colors in that show didn't pop. It was more subtle. I really want to get my hands on some more HDR Blu-Rays now, like Blade Runner and The Fifth Element. I'm practically drooling like that komodo dragon at the thought of it. But that brings me to…
2) I feel like Planet Earth II may actually end up upstaging most games that add HDR support. Right now, most of those Xbox One X patches are still to come, but I've yet to hear anyone really sing the praises of an HDR game on the PS4 Pro, either. If you can pick up an Xbox One S for Blu-Rays for like $200, that seems like the better buy, to me. Have any HDR games really convinced you, yet?
Rachel: If I gave a flying **** about cars then Forza would probably give me a lady twinge, but I don't. Assassin's Creed: Origins though? Now that looks pretty. That's obviously a flagship title for the system—they sold it pretty hard on stage at a recent media showcase—but everything really does look pristine. It convinced me to play it on Xbox One X instead of PS4 Pro, and I've been a Sony fangirl for a long time.
Is the Xbox One X a good PC companion?
Wes: I think this is likely the question most PC Gamer readers will have. If you already own a gaming PC, and you're going to buy a console, is this the one to get? If you could only have one in your house, which would it be? (And yeah, I think the SNES Classic is a valid option).
Rachel: This is tough. Honestly I think I'd pick PlayStation, purely on a software basis. Its exclusives just excite me more—The Last Of Us Part II, anything Uncharted, even Hideo Kojima's upcoming madness, Death Stranding. I already have a kickass PC—infused with drops of your actual blood, Wes—and I know that any big Microsoft games will make their way to Windows eventually. Naughty Dog games? I can only get those on PS4.
Wes: All of that is true, including the blood bit. I helped build that PC and cut myself on the CPU cooler.
Well, I think the good news here for PC gamers, though maybe not the best news for Xbox sales, is that Microsoft's renewed attention to the PC means you really don't need an Xbox to play most games. It seems like almost all of the console's exclusives are destined for the PC at this point. Microsoft has worked hard to justify owning both with features like game streaming. Your Xbox will automatically upload screenshots and video clips to the cloud, where you can access them on the PC Xbox app. Those are nice, but not enough to make me want to buy a console.
If you want a 4K Blu-Ray player, the Xbox is a great buy (though like I said above, I think I'd go for the more affordable Xbox One S). But if it's all about the games? The Nintendo Switch just seems like a no-brainer right now. Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 2, and Mario Odyssey are all great games, and being able to play them on the go really does feel a bit magical. Microsoft is years ahead of Nintendo in online features, but, well, they just don't have Zelda, do they?