Seriously, what the fuck, Microsoft?
I am not hostile to consoles. Does the PC offer an objectively better gaming experience? Yes – but only if you’re prepared to pay significantly for the privilege. An Xbox One X costs about $650. A GTX 1060, on its own, runs about $400 AUD. If you want a taste of gaming beyond 1080p, you’ll need a GTX 1070 – which runs about $800 on its own. Yes, prices are inflated because of cryptocurrency minding, but even with your GPU, you’ve still got the rest of the system to buy. There’s no real cost argument here – the X is just cheaper to buy into initially.
But is it any good? Does it really live up to the 4k hype? I’ve been playing with one since release, and here are my thoughts.
There’s a lot of power under the hood…
It’s surprising how good games can look on the X. I’ve tried at various times to ‘swap’ to console gaming but always inevitably fail because my PC would offer faster framerates and a better resolution. But it’s a slightly different story now with the X – depending on what compromises you want to make. I have a high end gaming laptop with a 1070 under the hood (slightly hampered by a mobile i7 6700HQ), so I can play anything I like at 1080p ultra settings, but going beyond into 4k territory is still a struggle (but it is even for a 1080).
Two titles in particular blew me away on the X – Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Far Cry 5. AC:O mostly hovers around 1800p while FC5 targets 2160p (native 4k), along with HDR. Both titles look gorgeous on my 4k TV. They also look awesome on my PC, but the capacity to run them at 4k native (or beyond 1440p, really) is somewhat limited. The HDR implementation on the X is much better (and more reliable) and probably makes more of a difference than 4k. Either way, both display a very impressive image that I sort of miss when I go back to my PC.
Most titles target a stable FPS of 30 – and the X generally manages this, with some titles going beyond (like Doom – which recently got a patch – targeting 4k native at 60 FPS, though with a visual fidelity not quite to PC standard). In AC:O and FC5 I didn’t notice any framerate issues; while 30 isn’t ‘smooth’ by my definition (60 would be better, thanks!), it’s adequate for the most part. Is it a reasonable compromise for the increased resolution and HDR? Well, maybe – 4k does look sharper with less aliasing artefacts (and less reliance on AA), but I’d still rather a faster frame rate.
Even when titles don’t target a native 4k, or use a dynamic resolution setting to maintain framerate, the difference is practically negligible. I can’t easily distinguish when the render resolution drops and upscaling kicks in while playing AC:O – it’s a far cry from the old internal upscaling nightmares that we’ve had in the past. The clever technology means that things look great pretty much all the time – a technology I’d love to see come to the PC. I have no doubt that if I could somehow manually reduce the resolution on a static scene, I’d be able to tell the difference. But that scaling tends to occur during high action scenes, when it’d be hard to tell the difference anyway. The practicalities of it mean that there’s a definitive resolution improvement regardless of whether it’s a native 4k or not – it’s good enough, which becomes a bit of a mantra for the console.\
On top of that, it does this without outputting massive amounts of heat or having obnoxious fans – at least, nothing that I really noticed. Some people do complain about the noise, but sitting away from it at a distance of about 2m I don’t really notice it over the sound of the TV (which isn’t loud either). Compare that with my laptop or previous desktop, which was easily audible under load, and it’s a fairly unobtrusive black box.
There are also little things which I found interesting coming from PC. Multiplayer games tend to live longer and remain populated beyond their life on the PC. I typically don’t play MP games on PC because they tend to only live for about 6 months before everybody stops playing them to go back to Overwatch or CS:S or LOL. I can reasonably buy an MP game on a console and still be able to find populated sessions beyond that window. Paying for the privilege isn’t fun though. I also liked that the console was entirely maintenance free, and if I got a new release I could just shove the disk in the drive, sit down and play – no drivers to update, no *.ini editing because the developers fucked up their release, no tracking down performance issues to decide if it’s my rig or a shitty port, and generally nothing to worry about except just playing the game. It runs the same on my box as it does on anyone else’s.
It’s still not a PC though
That said, it’s not a PC. While I’ve noticed load times on the X aren’t exceptionally long (despite the mechanical hard drive), it’s no SSD, and installing or updating things takes forever. I’m used to Steam, where I typically get full speeds for anything I download. On the X, it’s much slower and much more inconsistent. Installing from disks takes forever too. What’s curious is that there seems to be little impact on adding an SSD to the X – a totally different story on PC where an SSD can reduce loading times by massive amounts.
Also I hate controllers, but that’s just me. Give me a mouse and keyboard any day. While I can somewhat competently aim with a controller, I always feel handicapped. On the plus side, it was at least designed for couch gaming, something the PC still hasn’t gotten right no matter how many peripherals are thrown at it. The best compromise for a PC is a lapboard – because it’s almost inevitable that you’ll need a keyboard input on the PC at some point.
Moving from 60 FPS to 30 FPS is hard too – everything feels sluggish, which is only exacerbated by using a controller. This is one area I wish consoles would try to improve on – I don’t understand why everyone assumes 30 FPS is fine. It isn’t – it’s merely adequate, it isn’t more cinematic, it isn’t better, it’s slow.
But that said, it’s a console. It costs about as much as a upper-mid tier GPU on its own, so it’s hard to expect too much from it. You can’t expect it to match an expensive PC, so part of this is just pointless moaning. At the end of the day, it’s good enough for most people while being at a reasonable price point.
The software is garbage
The OS is actually a modified version of Windows, but despite this Microsoft have managed to make it even worse. I find general UI navigation to be a total pain in the arse, and it seems to have lots of bugs and inconsistencies that I just can’t wrap my head around. Sometimes I can pin something to the home screen, but other times I can’t, and I don’t know why. There are lots of nested menus, some things that can be accessed multiple ways, and some things that can’t. Half the time I wander around the screen, trying to find what I’m looking for.
The console is supposed to update itself and installed games automatically while in its ‘instant power on’ mode. This is a great idea and one that worked reasonably well on my PS4 – it’s good to be able to go to bed, wake up, and just keep playing your (fully patched) game. On Steam, I’d launch the game, and oh no wait, update required, you’re gonna have to wait a bit. But it seems to be broken on the X… at least for me. Sometimes it works – but a lot of the time it doesn’t. It seems to be particularly ineffective on games I haven’t launched recently. Doom for example got its 4k patch recently – I hadn’t launched it in over a week, but I assumed that because it was installed, the X would fetch the patch and install it. It didn’t, and I was stuck waiting for it to finish.
By far the worst crime is the lack of a simple ability to copy captured media from the drive to USB. You can designate an external USB device as a dedicated capture storage device, but you can’t copy anything captured to internal storage to a USB device. Why? Why the fuck wouldn’t you allow this? It makes absolutely no sense. Presumably, given that it’s basically just a modified Windows OS, it’s using a similar internal file system and I/O operations, and thus there’s no technical reason you couldn’t copy the file over. But Microsoft, for whatever reason, don’t allow this.
Instead, it can upload files to Xbox Live (if you’re a subscriber) or to OneDrive. Here in Australia, with our abysmal internet and pathetic upstream speeds, this is an exercise in frustration. It takes forever for things to be uploaded. Not only that, but there’s only a manual upload to OneDrive, and the automatic upload to Xbox Live sometimes works but usually doesn’t (in my experience). So basically it’s a useless feature for me, because the media is basically stuck on there unless I wait hours for it to upload.
Why Microsoft keep getting this wrong is a mystery. Sony got this right – it’s very easy to just copy files across to USB. Just copy Sony! It’s not hard! I had a whole review of Far Cry 5 planned out, but I can’t actually get access to my screenshots, so I guess I’m not using those images any time soon!
It’s good enough, especially for the price
Does it replace my PC? Nope – and if I had the money, I could buy a much more powerful system that would destroy the X. But I’d be looking at buying a 1080Ti, and at that point I’m basically looking to spend what I did on my 4k TV when I end up buying the rest of the rig to match the GPU. If someone wants to just sit down and play games, as well as watch 4k Blurays (even if the X isn’t the best player out there) on their 4k TV, the Xbox One X is by far the best bang for buck. It’s not native 4k for the most part, but it’s good enough – and for the vast majority of people, good enough is great. I can sit down, play AC: Origins and marvel at the scenery, the extra colours with HDR, how crisp everything looks. I know it’s in 30 FPS and it’s not native 4k, but it didn’t matter to me for the vast majority of the game. That’s what most console gamers ultimately see – it’s good enough and they’re having fun playing the game, so they don’t particularly care that the PC gamer is getting a better experience (for more money).
So I like my Xbox One X – and I like playing on it. I like sitting on the couch, dropping in a disk, and getting great visual fidelity. There are compromises, but the box provides a near high end PC experience at a much more affordable price point. For most people, that’s all they want – a box that pairs well with their 4k TV.
That said, there are issues. Microsoft’s software is fucking awful, and getting worse – I can’t find anything nice to say about it. How a company that has a core business function of making software can screw this up so badly is a total mystery. It’s just frustrating, from start to finish, and I don’t like it. Outside of that, if you don’t have a 4k TV that also supports HDR, the value of the X is somewhat diminished. A highly competent 1080p PC isn’t overly expensive if you’re careful with parts selection (although a 1060 still isn’t that cheap!) and the major benefit of the X is the higher resolution and HDR support. The price tag looks a lot less attractive if you can’t utilise all of its features.
So from a PC perspective, I guess it’s great if it’s paired with a 4k HDR TV. It’s hard to get comparable performance from a PC at the same price point, if not effectively impossible. I often see builds for “<$500 PCs” but they’re all universally trash that will only be moderately competent at 1080p, and won’t go beyond it. There’s no such thing as a competent near 4K machine for a similar price to the Xbox One X. And there’s no real match for the convenience of the X – it’s nice to be able to just play the game rather than install another driver update, and then find out NVIDIA broke something else at the same time.
If you’ve already got a powerful PC there’s no real point to buying an X, but if you do have the 4k display and were wondering how it compares, that’s basically how it is.