Winter 2017/Spring 2018 Update

Time for another round up of recent works.

At the beginning of the year I did a recap of some interesting announcements at CES 2018. Then in the spring I did a written version of my dive into vertical mice.

I got the Xbox One X, and overall I'm really happy with it. That being said, my original unit and its replacement are really loud sometimes.

This initial video takes a look at the sounds levels.

And my follow up video collects more data in the form of power consumption.

I didn't get around to a full review in time for it to be published on Tested, but I did do a write-up for my sound and temp findings.

Xbox One X Reivew

During the previous generation of consoles the Xbox 360 was undoubtedly the market leader for the majority of its life cycle. But that all changed when the Xbox One launched in 2013. Aside from a piece of a hardware that actually worked, there was little else that could have gone wrong for the Xbox One at launch. Since then however the Xbox division, and Microsoft as a whole, has come under new leadership. The Xbox One X is the first major Xbox hardware release in this new era of Microsoft. This supercharged Xbox One plays all the games you already own, only now with enhanced visuals. I’ve been using the One X since it launched last November and have it paired with my LG 27UD58 4K monitor.

The Smallest Xbox

Only one year after the release of the Xbox One S, the previous smallest Xbox ever made, the One X now takes that crown. Comparing the size of the two current Xbox consoles isn't nearly as dramatic as the difference between the original One and the S. If put side-by-side the One X looks shorter but wider than the S console. The distinction of smallest Xbox ever is more noteworthy when considering what the One X is capable of, but more on that later.

The standard One X console is a solid matte black. Physical buttons are carried over from the S console. It’s a small change, but one that anyone will be grateful for if upgrading from the original console with the annoying capacitive buttons. This is the first Xbox with a completely flat, ventless top. I still think the One S console is better looking with the white paint job, but the combination of the darker color, smooth top, and small size has the One X looking like a very sleek console. The One X, like the S, is also able to stand vertically with a stand. The stand is different than the S stand, and is not included with the standard X console. It is however included with the limited launch version, the Project Scorpio Edition.

The One X was of course publicly known as Project Scorpio for a full year before the box was revealed and named. The Scorpio Edition doesn’t differ in any way hardware wise, but does sport a cool subtle design. Across the entire top and face of the box are small grey circles that steadily get larger from one side to the other resulting in a gradient. Also, on the front of the console and the included controller is the text “PROJECT SCORPIO” in the original Xbox green; Microsoft’s salute to long time fans.

Don’t be fooled by the size of the One X, as it’s incredibly heavy. At 8.4 pounds it’s essentially the same weight as the original Xbox. No, not the original Xbox One; the beastly “OG” Xbox from 2001. This isn’t a laptop, so at the end of the day the weight doesn’t matter much. But it goes to show how much hardware is inside this compact box. The highly customized hardware features AMD Jaguar CPU cores, a Polaris based GPU, and is paired with a 1TB HDD as well as a UHD Blu-ray drive.

With an internal power supply, the One X includes a simple figure eight power cable. It’s only 6 feet long and I think that’s going to be too short for a lot of people’s setups. Thankfully with a standard power connector it’s easy and relatively cheap to get a longer cord. The One X also includes the latest Xbox controller which launched alongside the One S. It has a texture on the rear grips built into the mold to make it easier to hold onto, as well as Bluetooth for use with computers. The One X console is a soft relaunch of the Xbox One, and I’m a bit disappointed Microsoft didn’t use it as a chance to redesign the controller. The current Xbox controller isn’t necessarily bad, but I feel like it could be ergonomically better.

It’s also worth mentioning that lack of a Kinect port. This isn’t any different than the One S. But it’s noteworthy in that Microsoft stopped manufacturing the adapter necessary for using the Kinect with an S or X console (or a PC) a couple of months before the One X launched. It was completely sold out earlier in 2017, and what was originally a $40 part now goes for hundreds on ebay. Say what you will about the hardware’s implementation, or lack thereof, the introduction of Cortana, etc. But, part of Microsoft’s pitch with the One X is that it’s part of the Xbox One family. All games and accessories are backwards and forwards compatible. While this is still technically true, I feel like them discontinuing a piece of hardware necessary for what is still a primary accessory for many goes completely against that promise.

Speaking of the Xbox One family, using an Xbox One X won’t be any different than the original or One S consoles. Aside from some flair in the boot up animation and hardware specific settings, the user interface is identical. The system’s UI even renders at 1080p. Rather than having the dashboard and guide in 4K, Microsoft opted for dropping it down to 1080p on the One X in order to allocate an additional gigabyte of RAM to developers. I’m glad Microsoft is putting games first now and the results speak for themselves.

Gaming at 4K

All the teraflops in the world won’t matter unless there’s a perceptible difference in image quality when playing games. All Xbox One games are playable on the One X, and some even might see a slight performance boost without an update. But not all are developed in specific ways to take advantage of the additional horsepower the hardware provides. For older games that were refreshed with an update or anything going forward developed with the One X in mind, Microsoft is maintaining an “Enhanced” games list. The list already includes over 150 games that are 4K, have HDR, and/or have vague One X enhancements. You’ll have to seek out developer made materials if you want more detailed information about any one game’s enhancements, but it’s nice to have an easy to find list maintained by the platform holder. Games will also feature relevant visual upgrade indications on the console’s store.

Forza Motorsport 7 is one of the best looking games released in 2017, and that’s before taking into account how it looks on the One X. As someone that puts dozens of hours into every Forza game, year after year, I can immediately tell how much better the latest game looks over the previous one. Forza 7 was interestingly released about a month before the One X, so I spent time with it on the base Xbox One before making the jump to 4K.

The latest Forza title running on the One X is nothing short of stunning. One of the biggest visual improvements in this year’s title is reflections. With water all over the track from a rainstorm, reflections in the puddles frequently catch my eye before splashing through them at 100 mph. Details in the environment, from spectator stands, buildings, and even ferris wheels, appear sharper, especially at farther distances when compared to the base Xbox One. And this is all while running at a solid 4K resolution and 60 frames per second.

Another title that looks phenomenal no matter the hardware is Rise of the Tomb Raider. Running on the Xbox One X users can actually choose between three different visual settings; High Frame Rate, Enriched Visuals, and Native 4K. Microsoft allows developers to choose how they use the power of the One X in their games. Rise is one example of the developer giving the user options for how they want to experience the game.

Playing Rise at native 4K provides a noticeably improved visual showcase. The vast amounts of foliage in the game are more detailed, with individual pieces of bushes, trees, and even grass more defined. Textures are of a higher quality, shadows appear sharper, and round edges and objects no longer look jaggy. I played through the entire game on the base Xbox One and barely noticed any frame rate issues. During my stress tests of the game at 4K I didn't see anything worse, so players might as well go with the native 4K option over the checkerboard 4K “enriched” mode.

I'm not usually one for wanting the highest visual fidelity. I'll take locked, stable frame rates over higher resolution textures any day. That being said, going back to playing these AAA games at 1080p look like a muddy mess. Objects look blurry or smeared, and jagged edges can be seen everywhere. The average person may not notice these differences most of the time, especially when one is concentrating on the action. Personally, I like to stop and take in the environment crafted by the developers. I'm addicted to taking pictures in the Forza games. It's times like these that playing a game in 4K take the visual experience to another level.

Don’t worry if you haven’t upgraded to a 4K display yet. The Xbox One X is capable of supersampling on a system level. If you have a game that is rendering at 4K, but the console is connected to a 1080p display, the system will combine those extra pixels to create a sharper image. Microsoft is also working to add native support for 1440p displays. Lastly, with that AMD Polaris power under the hood the One X supports FreeSync, a free display standard that adaptively synchronizes a display’s refreshing to a GPU’s frame rendering. Variable refresh rate was added to HDMI with the 2.1 specifications late last year, so keep an eye out for new displays with that feature.

Backwards Compatibility on Steroids

Even if a game doesn't take specific advantage of the One X hardware, they'll likely see a slight boost in performance anyway. Some games these days utilize a variable frame rate or variable resolution in order to help reach the desired performance targets of the developer. With games still needing to target the base Xbox One console, games with variable aspects are far more likely to run at their maximum resolution and/or frame rate on the One X due to the additional resources automatically made available to all games.

Magical improvements don't end there though. Xbox fans were ecstatic when Microsoft announced Xbox 360 backwards compatibility in 2015. Two years later fans’ wishes were answered with original Xbox backwards compatibility added to the Xbox One platform as well. Well, on the One X select Xbox 360 and original Xbox games get a huge bump to their visual quality.

To this day Halo 3 remains one of the greats. The game is playable in 1080p at 60 frames per second in 2014’s Master Chief Collection. But, with all of the issues of that compilation Microsoft made all Xbox 360 Halo games backward compatible in 2017. After popping in your decade old disc into the One X you may be surprised. Halo 3 originally ran at 640p, short of the Xbox 360’s maximum 720p. When played on a One X Halo 3 renders at 1920p. Again, this is short of a full 4K at 2160p, but the difference between 640p is still massive. Not only is everything much sharper, there’s also more detail in select areas, like surface textures. It still runs at 30 fps, but it’s much smoother than when we originally finished the fight.

Some original Xbox games are also seeing improvements. BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic renders at a full 4K resolution, as well as Ninja Gaiden Black. Graphical elements such as textures and lighting aren’t magically made better, and the One X definitely can’t save KOTOR’s 480p cutscenes. That being said, the sharpness that comes with rendering at 4K ensures these fan favorite titles will better stand the test of time.

The Hovis Method

Microsoft chose to implement an interesting technique during the manufacturing process of the One X. Rather than having a single power profile for all consoles, which would result in some generating excess heat by taking more power than the chip requires, each Scorpio Engine processor has a custom power profile. This process is referred to as the Hovis Method, named after Xbox engineer Bill Hovis. For Microsoft this means they are able to net better yields of chips as opposed to a standard building process. For the consumer this means that any two Xbox One X consoles quite literally aren’t the same. Yes, they will all of course hit the same clock frequencies, data speeds, and everything else needed to run games identically. Some consoles however will draw more power than others, including my own.

I put my Scorpio Edition through a battery of tests, pushing the console to its limits, and recorded its power draw as well as noise produced. First let’s talk power consumption. One of the peak power draw scenarios I observed was playing Gears of War 4 at 4K, which got as high as 189 W. This is 14 W more than what Digital Foundry recorded, and 15 W more than GameSpot when playing the same game. In fact, my power draw for Gears 4 was regularly higher than Digital Foundry’s 175 W. Running the game in 1080p mode I recorded a peak of 153 W, higher than GameSpot’s 144 W and significantly higher than the 128 W from DF. Even when idling on the dashboard my console seems to draw more power; 52 W compared to DF’s 50 W. I don’t know the specifics of Digital Foundry’s, GameSpot’s, or anyone else’s testing methods. I do know that I recorded the same 110 W power draw on the original Xbox One that is reported elsewhere.

A higher power draw means more heat is generated, and therefore requires more cooling. The One X processor is strapped with a vapor chamber cooling system; something typically reserved for high end video cards. This cooling system seems to have been designed to favor One X consoles that require less power. My console’s fan is clearly audible and regularly reaches 46 - 47 dB while playing One X Enhanced games. The fan speed is highly variable. It’s constantly changing speed and can be clearly heard, even when on the dashboard at its lowest speeds. The fan is also interesting in that it can “burst”, or spin at very high speeds for a few seconds. I’ve had this happen regularly, in multiple games; Gears of War 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Forza Motorsport 7, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. I’ve recorded bursts as high as 53 dB. In contrast, the “whisper quiet” original Xbox One was a constant 43 dB. And comparing these values to Digital Foundry, they never reported a sound level higher than 45 dB for their multiple One X consoles.

My best guess for this odd fan profile is that it’s closely tied to power draw and heat generation in order to keep the unit as quiet as possible. This works out for some units. It’s my understanding that “quiet” One X consoles can and will still experience fan bursts and happen maybe once during a play session of a couple of hours. However, they’re not nearly as audible overall compared to louder units. The noise levels also aren’t helped with the fact that the One X’s cooling system is sporting a fan that is significantly smaller than the one in the original One, and therefore spinning faster. The noise generated by the One X’s fan is at a higher pitch, so the sound is more noticeable than the low hum of a larger, slower fan. If your gaming consoles are connected to a nice sound system that you like to crank up, or if you wear headphones, the sound levels likely won’t be an issue. But if you’re like me and keep consoles on your desk, and end up with a loud One X, you’ll always be aware of the sound.

The Age Old Battle… Console VS PC

Microsoft added value to the Xbox platform at E3 2016 when they announced their Play Anywhere initiative. Buy a Play Anywhere title once and users have access to the game on both Xbox consoles and PC through the Microsoft Store. Game saves sync across devices and developers are free to enable multiplayer cross-play functionality. While select titles such as Quantum Break and Rise of the Tomb Raider released on Windows 10 prior to this announcement, it seems going forward the Xbox team is committed to releasing all first party games as Play Anywhere titles. If you’re a gamer with a PC it makes more sense to continue investing in your computer rather than buying a One X to play Xbox games. Well, at least in theory.

Some Xbox titles on PC, like Gears of War 4, run flawlessly. With a Core i5 and GTX 980 I was able to run Gears 4 flawlessly at 1080p/60fps with Ultra quality settings. The solid performance of this title is likely due to the fact that it runs on the Unreal Engine, which is well established on both consoles and PC. However, that isn’t the case for other Microsoft exclusive titles. The Forza franchise, for example, uses what’s called the Forza Engine; a highly customized game engine for Xbox console hardware.

So far there have been three Forza titles released on PC; Forza Motorsport 6: Apex, a subset of FM6 content released for the purpose of porting the Forza Engine to PC, Forza Horizon 3, a game that had issues so severe they weren’t (mostly) fixed until after six months of patches, and Forza Motorsport 7, which launched with problems identical to those that were already fixed in Horizon 3. I won’t bore you with details, but suffice it to say the problems facing the Forza Engine on PC is something experienced by a large portion of the player base. They aren’t the occasional bugs experienced by a minority of players like you see with other PC games due to hardware/software variability. In my opinion, as it currently stands, the Forza Engine is fundamentally broken on PC.

Xbox games might be hit or miss performance wise on PC right now, but it’s Microsoft, they’ll get it eventually, right? The prospect of reducing the number of boxes hooked up to screens is enticing, so you choose to continuing investing in your PC. Games there will of course also run at 4K given good enough hardware. The price of doing so however is significant. If you’re building a 4K gaming PC from scratch you’ll need to spend at least $2000. Or, let’s say all you need to do is upgrade your graphics card. The Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti is the only consumer card available right now that can reliably play games at 4K/60fps with high graphical settings. The Founders Edition straight from Nvidia has an MSRP of $700, and custom cooler designs from other OEMs cost even more. Compared to the $500 of the Xbox One X, that’s an increase of at least 40%. And this is all before even taking into consideration the RAM shortage of the past couple of years, or the current digital currency mining craze requiring PC graphics cards, both of which have inflated prices well beyond MSRP.

Yes, technically some games on PC with maxed out settings will still look better when compared side-by-side to the same game running on a One X. These differences will usually be relatively minor however, like shadow quality for example, and won’t be noticeable in motion. Let’s also not forget how small the One X is for a modern console, and is tiny compared to your average desktop PC case.

The Xbox One X is an Absurdly Good Value

Microsoft fully delivered on their promise of 4K gaming, there’s no doubt about it. Games that have been updated or developed to have Xbox One X enhancements are nothing short of stunning. Games from the Xbox 360 and even the original Xbox that have received updates to take advantage of the hardware are a real treat for longtime fans of the platform. Even games that haven’t been updated for the new hardware will run at their full resolution and framerate.

The hardware isn’t perfect unfortunately. It’s entirely possible to get a system that draws more power, runs hotter, and is significantly louder than others. While I don’t think it’s bad enough to be a deal breaker, it is certainly disappointing. Also, it’s practically impossible to use a Kinect with the One X, which is in contrast to Microsoft’s promise that all accessories would work with their new console. For the gamer that needs to live on the bleeding edge though, these drawbacks can be looked past. At $500 you’re getting a gaming console that consistently performs better than the $100 cheaper PS4 Pro, and is significantly cheaper than a 4K gaming PC.

The Xbox One X represents a sort of soft reboot of the Xbox One for the Phil Spencer led Xbox division. Microsoft has provided best in class hardware, and now they need to follow it up with more exclusive titles. If you’re like me and don’t have the time for every major release year after year, there are plenty of titles to play in 4K on Xbox right now. But even then, the Xbox One exclusive titles not from the Halo or Forza franchises have so far been few and far between compared to those on PlayStation. Coming in March is Rare’s Sea of Thieves, which has looked great in beta, and we should finally get Crackdown 3 before we hit E3 as well. After that we’ll know if 2018 will provide early Xbox One X owners with a lush library of games.

Summer/Fall 2017 Update

Things slowed down for me quite a bit in the back half of this year. I started Senior Design in school and writing 11,000 words for that ate up the vast majority of my time.

On the writing front my only published written pieces were the announcement of the Xbox One X, and Intel's crazy new CPU with graphics from AMD.

Over the summer I finally had time to edit some videos I had partially complete for some time. I made a quick little video about the latest Xbox controller. I got a fancy camera slider, and tested it out for my Phanteks PC case review. More recently, I had some strong words for Microsoft over their cancelation of Groove Music.

Finally, I made a video explaining vertical mice; a really cool alternative for anyone with joint issues.