Monday 17 June 2019

Xbox One X: The futuristic console with an eye on the past

Microsoft is working hard to welcome gamers into the Xbox family with its pitch for 'the world's most powerful console' admitting some may be better off choosing its little brother, the Xbox One S

The Xbox One X (left) alongside its little brother the Xbox One S
The Xbox One X (left) alongside its little brother the Xbox One S
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

ALBERT PENELLO doesn’t want to sell you a console. He wants to sell you a philosophy.

OK, perhaps the Xbox marketing guru wouldn’t mind if you actually bought a console. But for him and the rest of Microsoft, it doesn’t matter whether you choose the current Xbox One S – or plunk down €500 for the new turbo-charged Xbox One X, due out on November 7. It’s about compatibility across generations, you see.

The way he frames it, whichever you get, you’re buying into Microsoft’s philosophy of bringing your games to you wherever you play – console, PC or even mobile. The senior director for product management and planning at Xbox – to give Penello his full title – has seen many generations come and go in almost two decades in the business but this Xbox launch will be different, he promises.

“The idea is that your games go with you,” he says. “Xbox cares a lot about compatibility, we're investing a lot in the teams and in the hardware and that is part of our value proposition that I think is unique.” 

Albert Penello with the new Xbox One X in London earlier this month
Albert Penello with the new Xbox One X in London earlier this month

Of course, there’s a whiff of marketing hyperbole here. Microsoft is struggling in the face of Sony’s unassailable lead in the current generation with PS4 and the upgraded PS4 Pro. But Xbox has one indisputable trump card with the One X, whose ne plus ultra sales pitch simply says: “The world’s most powerful console”. Penello and the rest of the marketing crew would also like to remind you that more than 130 games will be “enhanced” for Xbox One X.

How surprising then that Microsoft continues to emphasise how the Xbox family reaches back into the past, with the X maintaining full compatibility not just with the One S before but also partly with the Xbox 360 and to a much lesser extent even the original 2002 Xbox.

Penello doesn’t see it as odd that both Sony and Microsoft have taken a similar approach lately – to opt for a mid-generation refresh that provides up to 4K resolution.

“I was interested that they kinda came to the same conclusion that we came to, that this idea of waiting 10 years for a new thing and then stopping and starting all over again is a thing of the past.

“If you look at the energy that we put into compatibility with the two systems, they're all leading to a similar desire, which is that today people care more about the content than necessarily care  about the device. It's very disruptive for developers and for customers to make them shed everything that they had before.”

That’s why he’s also keen to dismiss suggestions (mostly from me, admittedly) for X exclusives that take advantage of the phenomenal power in ways that can’t be approximated on the earlier Xbox or even the PS4 Pro.

Forza Motorsport 7 looks incredible in 4K resolution on Xbox One X
Forza Motorsport 7 looks incredible in 4K resolution on Xbox One X

“I think we would resist it as strong as we possibly could,” he says firmly. “I think it's a question that is very much of the past when you had these very distinct console generations and you want people to upgrade, you're trying to get people to move.

“When Nvidia releases their new card, there's not a bunch of new PC games that only take advantage of that new card. When a new phone comes out, there aren’t exclusive new phone apps, it's just not the way the world works. It's not what we're trying to do with this family of devices.

“I feel great about our line-up. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is huge and we're gonna have it on our console exclusively at launch. To have over 100 titles that take advantage of your new box the day you ship never happened before in the history of the industry.

“I'm not interested in convincing people to upgrade. I'm interested in choice for customers. There’s a group of those people that care about the ultimate in performance – the Xbox One X is for them.”

But if you do want to upgrade, Penello has you covered.

“One of the things you've probably experienced is that it's taking a long time to set these consoles up during the out-of-box experience,” he explains. “The team has done some really cool stuff around being able to perform a kind of system restore.

The new Xbox dashboard coming soon has been redesigned slightly but the emphasis has been on speed under the hood
The new Xbox dashboard coming soon has been redesigned slightly but the emphasis has been on speed under the hood

“We already encourage people to have their games on an external hard drive. So with one button you can move all of your games off your internal hard drive on to your external hard drive and back up all your system settings. We're even allowing people to download the 4K upgrades on the existing box if you know you’re moving to the new one.”

If an external drive doesn’t suit, the system transfer can be completed using wifi or Ethernet connections.

Around the time of the One X launch in November, the current Xbox family will also benefit from a refreshed dashboard that addresses complaints about the speed of the interface. It hasn’t quite reached the nadir of the 360 era, where the console performance could feel as if it was drowning in molasses. But Penello knows what I mean when I bring it up.

“I think we figured out that performance obviously is something that we needed to work on and the team is spending a lot of effort and energy shaving milliseconds off things,” he concedes.

“As we'd added a lot of features and functionality to the console, there had been some slowdowns, particularly getting in the Store. The focus has been re-architecting for performance and then architecting for personalisation so that users can move things around the way they want them.”

Good sport that is, he doesn’t blink when I whinge that we’re still stuck with sizeable ad on the home page every time you load it up. “Great piece of feedback!” he says with that fixed grin Microsoft execs employ to deflect questions they won’t answer.

In the face of questions about the perceived lack of must-have titles in the Xbox pipeline, Penello says consumers will make up their own mind whether the X is worthwhile. He points out the attraction of additional services such as the Netflix-like Game Pass, the Twitch-like Mixer broadcast channel and Xbox Live itself, which has a better reputation for reliability than PSN.

“We're just releasing a brand-new super-powerful high-end premium console with brand-new titles that are taking advantage of it and working with developers. We're totally committed to the console business and S and X.

“Why you pick an Xbox has more to do with the fact that your investment with us is going to last into the future.”

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