The Xbox One X joins the Playstation 4 Pro in video games' confusing new future.
This weekend at the start of the Electronics Entertainment Expo—better known as E3—where the games industry shows off its biggest and buzziest wares in the hopes of getting you so hyped you finally stop putting off buying a new console. Especially if, like Microsoft over the weekend, your buzziest product was in fact a new console. A new Xbox, to be specific.
The Xbox One X—previously announced under the far more memorable working title Project Scorpio—isn't the sort of full-blown video game leap forward we've been accustomed to, one that leaves brings with it a new generation of games that exhibit how far technology has come. Instead, it's Microsoft's answer to the PS4 Pro, an incremental upgrade akin to an iPhone with an "S" in its name, albeit one Microsoft bills as even more powerful than anything else on the market. (This is, as the folks at The Verge illustrate, objectively true. Whether or not games take advantage of that extra power remains to be seen.) It won't play games exclusive to it; instead, it will play current and upcoming Xbox One games at the highest possible performance levels, should their developers choose to embrace the Xbox One X.
The Xbox One has long been trailing the Playstation 4 in sales in spite of a stream of steady, interesting decisions that have turned the console into what's possibly the most interesting games machine this side of the Nintendo Switch. Just this month, Xbox has added Xbox Games Pass, a Netflix-style subscription service that allows you to fully download and play games from a rotating library of over 100 titles for $10 a month. It's a pretty incredible service that doesn't rely on a stable internet connection, and a tremendous value if the library is continually updated with interesting games (I played Halo 5 using it, and there are no complicated hurdles to jump. Just download and it's yours for as long as you're a subscriber.) There's also Mixer, a collaborative livestreaming service that, if embraced, could lead to some fun-as-hell group livestreams that are easy to make and enjoy. And Xbox has long placed a priority on other forms of entertainment, integrating Soundcloud and just about every TV app out there if all you want is a single box to handle all your entertainment needs.
But you don't need an Xbox One X to do any of this. A vanilla Xbox One, or the smaller Xbox One S will do just fine.
There's no way of telling how great a thing the Xbox One X could be until it's actually in our hands, but there are a few problems that are readily apparent once you think about the thing for a minute. First: The Xbox One X is expensive. At $499, it'll be the priciest console currently on the market. (Its direct competitor, the PS4 Pro, currently sells for $399, echoing the price differential that distinguished the vanilla versions of each console when they launched in 2013.) It's also steeped in hidden costs—or at least, it assumes that you have spent or can and will spend a small fortune on your entertainment setup. Many of its marquee features are geared towards performance on high-end televisions and speakers that cost thousands of dollars—4K resolution on games and movies, wide color gamut, HDR and Dolby Atmos support. (As video game publication Kotaku points out, some of these features, like Atmos, are also already supported by the Xbox One S.) Of course, the One X will bestow some benefits to those who aren't rocking the latest in living room hardware—faster load times (a welcome feature as someone who's dealt with the sometimes-sluggish OG Xbox One for some time now) smoother framerates, and "better textures." But these feel slight in comparison, especially when you can get an Xbox One S for a little over half the price of the Xbox One X. (And man, can you imagine the confusion that will be caused by how similar "S" and "X" sound? Have pity on your retailers.)
Granted, these are all the same cautions we levied at the Playstation 4 Pro when it launched last fall. The two biggest competitors in games are both betting big on incremental console upgrades in lieu of generational ones. But if you look at the way the PS4 Pro has been received—Sony says one out of every five PS4 purchasers gets a Pro version—the incremental iPhone-esque upgrade scheme looks more like a modest success than the next big thing in gaming. So perhaps the takeaway is this: Nothing sells a game console better than games. Not prettier versions of existing games, but new games that can only be played on more powerful, and maybe even innovative, new hardware.