I still don’t know how I turned-on 4K mode with my Xbox One X. I mean, I can tell you what I did to make it magically start working, but with a gun to my head I could not tell you why it worked, or why making 4K work at all frequently involves some of the most arcane technomancy I’ve performed since making boot disks in DOS twenty-five years ago.
It works now, and while that’s mostly the important thing, there are a lot of ways in which the Xbox One X is a revelation and a few in which it is the kind of expensive marginal progress that typifies our technological moment in games. But the biggest problem I’ve had with it isn’t really about the Xbox One X, but the 4K revolution it is meant to herald and support.
If you have bought a 1080p TV anytime in the past several years, it’s about as plug-and-play as you can get. You might still have to disable annoying post-processing effects like the loathsome “edge-enhancement,” but in general, a 1080p TV will just work perfectly the moment you plug an HDMI cable into it. It doesn’t matter if it’s OLED, LED, or LCD. The format is largely agnostic about all that, and you don’t have to do anything except connect it to your source.
I thought 4K would be the same, just with more pixels. But the morning I plugged in my Xbox One X, I noticed that it wasn’t displaying anything in 4K. When I went to the settings tab and found the video settings, my Xbox had a surprising message about my 4K TV: it didn’t think I had one.
The auto-detection screen above shows what I was looking at, but by this point, the issues have resolved themselves. When I first started the One X, however, most of these features had red warning indicators next to them. My TV, so Xbox informed me, was not capable of 4K output under any circumstances, nor was it capable of high dynamic range (HDR).
A quick word on my TV: it’s the TCL 55p605, which is the 4K TV presently recommended by The Wirecutter as the best all-around TV display, especially when you consider you can snag it for $600 from Best Buy. It’s a great screen, but the place where corners were cut is with its interface: it is bound and determined to be a Roku TV and offloads a lot of its interface and settings management to that app. If you compare it to the interfaces that, say, LG TVs ship with, the TCL screen tends to hide a lot of key functionality and settings in different places within its menus, as well as the Roku app. It’s also being run through a Denon 930 receiver, so there is some mediation happening between the Xbox and the TV screen. But somewhere in those layers of firmware, the Xbox decided there was no 4K TV to talk to.
This didn’t happen when I was running a 1080p TV off that same receiver, and if you look at what else the Xbox is screening for, it’s also trying to pin-down in much greater detail exactly what kind of 4K TV you are running. What color-depth does it offer? What refresh rates can it handle? Does the refresh rate depend on the resolution? Can your TV do 24 Hz playback for movies? Oh, and if you have problems, you might consider changing your encoding setting to YCC 4:2:2!
There are a lot of these details to consider as you set up an Xbox One X to a 4K TV. Worse, unless you’re an A/V professional, a lot of these terms won’t have a clear meaning to you.
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Worse still, if you look at the specs for my TV, notice it doesn't say y 10-bit color depth. It says 1.07 billion colors, which is a more impressive way of saying it’s a 10-bit TV. When you buy a 4K TV, its documentation speaks the language of marketing, but the Xbox One X speaks the dry technical language of engineering and calibration. And right now, to navigate the 4K landscape, you need to know way more about your TV than you ever did about your 1080p display.
The Xbox One X did eventually help me sort out these issues, but only after I decided to force the issue by launching an Ultra HD Blu-ray. (Alongside the consoles and games Microsoft sent to press, they included the lavishly-shot Planet Earth 2 documentary by the BBC.) The moment a 4K source with HDR started to play, my TV shifted into 4K HDR mode and suddenly the Xbox started letting me check those boxes.
Once I did, and my TV was receiving its 4K signal, then I started having those breath-stealing moments. Planet Earth 2 is an Ultra-HD show-pony, with lot of lingering pictures of sunlight filtering through jungle canopy, or glinting off an azure ocean against a white beach. Even allowing for the fact it’s a practically a demo reel for new display tech, the HDR effects were intense enough to trick my eyes into forgetting they were watching a screen. Used to its fullest effect, HDR can trigger my squint reflex for a moment, before my brain catches up and realizes nothing is being exposed to direct sunlight.
Fewer games seem to know quite what to do with the feature, even those that make a point of promising HDR support. With Forza 7, for instance, HDR support often seems to mean starker contrast between brilliant light and dark shadow, which seems to more realistically reproduce the murky effect of driving at twilight, but doesn’t exactly make models or textures look amazing.
On the other hand, Assassin’s Creed: Origins takes full advantage of the feature and almost single-handedly justifies a lot of the hype around the Xbox One X. Wandering that world, catching the sun breaking over the rooftops, or trying to pierce the wispy edges of an onrushing sandstorm, I’ve encountered so many moments that illustrate how technology can make room for the sublime.
Less immediately noticeable is the added resolution. The jump from 1080p to 4K is just not as dramatic as standard-definition to HD. You might notice how brilliantly clear and crisp the images of Planet Earth 2 are, but then you watch Logan or John Wick and the slightly softer focus and duskier lighting dissipate that effect a little bit. Everything still looks great, but not in a way that will have you telling your friends that they have to get rid of their 1080p TVs.
That’s especially due to the fact that HDR and 4K are only part of the display revolution in TVs right now. My other TV set is a 1080p OLED from LG. It doesn’t have HDR, but it does have the ability to completely turn-off each individual pixel. In many ways its richer black levels and terrific, natural contrast still make it look better than my 4K TV, even at one quarter the number of pixels. A 4K OLED with HDR would probably look best—but for quite a bit more money. (That said, the LG B7A just had some major price drops, bringing a 4K HDR OLED TV within reach of a lot more people.)
Still, as a 4K source, a media player, and a gaming device, the Xbox One X is probably the most all-around useful piece of hardware I have, and that includes my PC. It plays much more nicely with my 4K TV and AV receiver than does my gaming PC, especially when HDR is involved. In terms of performance, it’s not quite as nimble as my PC (load times for Forza 7 on PC are annoying, but on Xbox One X they’re downright upsetting), but once a game is up-and-running, it’s a very close match against my GeForce 1070-powered gaming PC. The PlayStation 4’s visuals and performance aren’t even part of this conversation anymore, and the Xbox One makes an eventual upgrade to a PS4 Pro a much more difficult argument to make.
There are moments where it really does feel like Microsoft accomplished something qualitatively different with the Xbox One X, where the One X is not just offering a series of minor improvements and conveniences, but a qualitative leap over what else is available short of the high-end PC market.
But the things that set the Xbox One X apart are dependent on a hardware ecosystem that is still coming into maturity. As my odd experiences setting up the One X show, the interaction between HDMI standards, different TV specs, AV receivers, and AV sources has become distressingly complicated, the kind of compatibility roulette that people have historically gravitated toward consoles to avoid. The One X can mitigate the worst of it, but it won’t eliminate it to the point where everything is plug-and-play.
However, If you have already bought into that ecosystem, as I have, the One X will quickly prove itself indispensable. It didn’t just end up working well with my 4K TV, but actually justified buying it in the first place. It’s the single piece of electronics that shows what all the others can actually do.