Xbox One X is the perfect representation of the tech industry's existential crisis


For the past week I’ve been staring at an Xbox One X and questioning existence.

OK fine, not just staring. I’ve spent a lot of time playing around with it, too. It makes things like Gears of War 4 and a 4K Blu-ray of Planet Earth II look great on my 4K UHD screen.

Fundamentally, Xbox One X is the same machine that Microsoft released in 2013. It plays the same games, runs the same apps, depends on the same operating system. You can still plug your cable box into it and watch OneGuide magically sync with your local TV listings.

Most of the things you can do look a little better and run a little faster/more efficiently, sure. The actual casing is smaller than the previous iterations, too. It’s a gorgeous $500 machine. But Xbox One X is still just an Xbox One.

That’s why I keep eyeballing it. My brain screams, “Why do you exist?” The Xbox One X does not answer. It sits silently (very silently, in fact — it’s not a noisy system), without saying a word. Maybe it doesn’t have an answer. Maybe it, too, would like to know why it exists.

Xbox One X is still just an Xbox One.

This is a familiar problem in 2017. Look around at all the tech in your life and do a quick, informal poll: How many of those items become outdated every year or every few years when a newer, shinier version of the same thing comes along?

I’m talking about your iPhone and iPad. Your Amazon Echo and Kindle. Your Pixel and Daydream VR headset. Your Apple Watch. Your Roku, your Apple TV, your Chromecast. Incremental upgrades that push features like 4K! HDR! Wireless charging! Slimmer design! No headphone jack! (Wait, no, that last one is awful.)

Breathless bullet point after breathless bullet point. Some of these additions have genuine utility and add value to the product. Many don’t, or depend on you also possessing some other piece of incrementally upgraded tech (like the kinds of fancy-shmancy TVs that play the nicest with Xbox One X).

Just look at a recent example like Apple’s new iPhones for the year. As Mashable‘s Michael Nuñez wrote not long ago:

“The issue comes down to exactly what you get when you buy an iPhone 8. The phone is practically identical to the iPhone 7 from last year, with a few upgrades. They will certainly give you better performance, but probably aren’t worth the hundreds of dollars they’ll cost you.”

Apple bragged about that performance bump when iPhone 8 was announced, too, claiming “performance cores operate about 25 percent faster” and “high-efficiency cores operate about 70 percent faster” (per Nuñez’s story).

Clearly, there’s a simple message here: It’s faster! But that revelation is wrapped in unnecessary stats and technical terms. Let’s be real. Do you know the difference between a performance core and a high-efficiency core, without looking it up? Or even after looking it up?

For comparison, look at Microsoft’s Xbox One X reveal from E3 2017.

“Let’s talk power, which starts with the specs,” Microsoft’s Kareem Choudhry said in June to kick off his presentation. “6 teraflop GPU clocked at 1.72 GHz, 12 gigabytes of DDR 5 memory, and 326 gigabytes per second of memory bandwidth.”

What? I’d wager that 90 percent of the Xbox-loving audience understands maybe one of those three hardware specs Choudhry listed. Maybe. And yet, it’s the first meaningful information about Xbox One X to be shared from the E3 stage, after the release date.

This is what existence looks like for a tech consumer in 2017.

This is what existence looks like for a tech consumer in 2017. Every few years — or every year, in lots of cases — a new hype-heavy hardware cycle rolls around with an implicit threat: Keep up, or be less cool. It’s a numbers game, where the people with the highest numbers very often win… well… nothing, really. A feeling of superiority, maybe. Some nifty, non-essential features. That’s about it.

What you see in the above video is Microsoft catching on, just like Sony did with its 2016 release of the PlayStation 4 Pro. These two machines represent a new concept in the gaming console space: An incremental upgrade with a focus on improved performance. We’ve seen mid-generation console releases come along with a smaller form factor or more storage, but PS4 Pro and Xbox One X both let you play all the same games… but better, OMG.

So with all of that said, where does Microsoft’s “most powerful video game console in the world” stand? It’s just like I said last year with the PS4 Pro: Not essential and not really worth an upgrade, but if you have a fancy TV and want to buy into the Xbox ecosystem for the first time, this is your “premium” option.

It’s an Xbox One, but better. I’m not going to compare specs and crown a “winner.” Sony’s machine is fine, and I think Xbox One X is also fine. You get the most from either one if you have a 4K HDR display, but both also deliver faster load times and slightly better graphics regardless of your TV, for less than the cost of a proper gaming PC.

Image: Adam Rosenberg / Mashable

I do think Xbox is in a better spot right now than it’s been since the start of this generation. But that’s not because of this new machine. The core operating system has improved immeasurably — it’s snappier and more responsive than ever, even on a launch year console — which elevates the entire user experience. You don’t need a new $500 purchase  to appreciate that if you already have one, though. 

Therein lies the problem. All throughout the tech industry, we see giants struggling to innovate at a regular pace. At a certain point, you have to start asking: Why? Why is there a new iPhone every year? Why did Microsoft launch the Xbox One in 2013, then the 4K video-capable Xbox One S in 2016, then the 4K gaming-capable Xbox One X in 2017?

You can buy these devices, but they’re not for you. Not really. They exist because these companies need to keep the money rolling in. And in video games especially, where software sales just aren’t cutting it anymore, Microsoft and Sony both have now taken a page from Big Tech: Deliver a shiny, new toy propelled by bigger numbers and nothing more.

The Xbox One X is a beautiful piece of kit, no question. But it’s not for you; it’s for Microsoft.

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