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Microsoft Xbox One X review: It's the most powerful console you can buy. But is that enough?

It's undoubtedly a powerful console, but the audience for the Xbox One X is razor thin.

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Jeff Bakalar
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Jeff Bakalar

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Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

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For the longest time, Microsoft's mystery machine codenamed Project Scorpio promised to be the most powerful gaming console around, capable of delivering native 4K gaming and support for HDR10.

The Good

The Xbox One X is a powerful step-up console that supports 4K, HDR and offers improved visuals and framerates for certain games. It can play all Xbox One games, some 360 and original Xbox games, and it ships with a 1TB drive.

The Bad

At $500, it's the most expensive game console right now. The list of console-exclusive titles generally falls short of its direct competition, the PS4 Pro. Not every game will receive 4K or HDR enhancements.

The Bottom Line

Xbox One X lays a credible claim to the title of most powerful game console ever, but it has an uphill battle for your gaming dollar, especially if you already own an original Xbox One.

But it's not just that elusive 4K promise. Microsoft says multiplatform games will look and perform the best on the Xbox One X and legacy Xbox One games will play better too. No 4K TV? No problem. Microsoft also says the Xbox One X will use supersampling to downscale a 4K signal to 1080p so those who don't yet own a 4K TV will still enjoy the benefits of improved visual fidelity.

Now that we have the Xbox One X in house and have played around with the hardware, we've seen some evidence that supports Microsoft's "most-powerful" claim, but we're still not sure it's worth the money right now.

Editor's note: At embargo time the selection of games to test remains slim, so we'll update this review with our findings -- as well as a score -- after we've had some time with more software to compare.

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Comparing the Xbox One S and X side by side.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Is it that much better than the Xbox One and One S?

On paper, the Xbox One X is lightyears ahead of the launch Xbox One in terms of processing power. The Xbox One S is slightly more advanced than the original because it can handle HDR and output a 4K signal, but that's where it ends. For all intents and purposes the One and S both trail far behind the X.

I compared an Xbox One X to an Xbox One S playing Gears of War 4 (which has been updated to take advantage of the X's hardware) side-by-side using two nearly identical 4K TVs. Right out of the gate, the difference in sharpness and detail was very apparent. In some instances comparing textures between the two consoles was night and day.

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The detail in the Xbox One X version of Gears of War 4 is vastly improved.

Sarah Tew/CNET

To me, the most striking difference is the HDR lighting improvements that really make explosions pop in Gears 4. Though when I turned HDR on with the Xbox One S, the dramatic difference between the two drew narrower.

Gears of War 4 has an enhanced video option that lets you choose between improved performance and better visuals. I think it's safe to assume Xbox One X enhanced games will give you similar menu options you can mess around with, not unlike what a lot of games that support PS4 Pro offer.

When I chose performance over visuals, there was barely a difference in graphical prowess between the two while standing still. But once the action started, the X ran the game at a silky smooth 60 frames per second compared to the comparatively choppier 30 frames the S was displaying.

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HDR makes a big impact.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Enhanced for the Xbox One X

To be clear, the Xbox One X can play any Xbox One game, but which titles get "enhanced" is another story. You can safely bet that most -- if not all -- first-party Microsoft games will get the enhanced treatment, but there's no guarantee every third party game will offer support. They don't have to. That said, a lot of the triple-A games hitting this holiday season (like Star Wars Battlefront II, Wolfenstein II, Call of Duty: WWII, etc.) will be updated. If you want to make sure your favorite game will get support, you can check Microsoft's list on its site.

Just like the situation with PS4 Pro, most games are going to benefit from one or a combination of improvements. These include higher and more stable framerates, HDR10 support, 4K (2160p) native output or generally improved textures. There don't seem to be any rules as to which games offer what, but there's a chance you'll need to choose which enhancements you want from the games' menus.

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Microsoft's site listing games with Xbox One X enhancements.

Microsoft (screengrab)

And what if you don't have a 4K TV? I tested Gears of War 4 and Quantum Break on a 1080p TV with an Xbox One X and compared them side-by-side to their originals on an Xbox One S. The difference was slight at best, and almost completely unnoticeable during actual gameplay. Do I think it's worth upgrading for? Probably not.

How does it match up against the PS4 Pro?

There's no debate, Xbox One X is a beefier console than the PS4 Pro. The proof is in the specs. But at this point it hasn't translated to a clear cut winner.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Just as this review deadline was hitting, I fired up Assassin's Creed Origins on both an Xbox One X and a PS4 Pro and invited a few coworkers in to find out if they could see something I couldn't. After about 15 minutes of scrutiny, no one was confident enough to crown either screen superior. Sure, it's one game. But it's a brand new one that Microsoft is marketing as "Xbox One X enhanced" and it was the only title that I had access to with an update ready to go for both platforms. It'll just take more time to see where the dust settles.

There are a few things Xbox One X can do that the PS4 Pro can't: Ultra HD Blu-ray playback and Dolby Atmos surround technology. Aside from that, functionality and feature wise, both Microsoft and Sony have done a thorough job of mirroring each other.

Which Xbox should I buy?

The buying advice I have for the Xbox One X is similar to the PS4 Pro. If you already own a Xbox One or S it's a real tough sell. The improvements are definitely noticeable, but it's difficult to justify spending the cash on an upgrade.

Even if you're set on buying your first Xbox, I can't really recommend the X over the S unless you already own a 4K TV and you're dead set on having the latest and greatest gaming hardware out there. At the very least it's probably a good idea to wait for this console to be bundled with a game.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Do I even buy an Xbox?

A lot of what Xbox One X offers shakes out very similarly to the PS4 Pro. And at this point it's tough to say one platform is running away as the best-looking console around. This climate makes it especially difficult to recommend getting an Xbox One X over a PS4 Pro, not only because it costs $100 more, but because pound for pound, there are still more compelling exclusives and independent titles to be played on Sony's console.

Microsoft has struggled with positioning the Xbox One platform as something more than the destination for Forza and Halo games, so the pivot to "best multiplatform experience" is understandable. There are new exclusives headed its way, like Crackdown 3 and Sea of Thieves, but the effort to brand it as a haven for unique gaming experiences is becoming increasingly futile.