The ‘Xbox One X Enhanced’ program needs improvement

Matt Sayer 16 June 2017

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Microsoft needs to make big improvements to its messaging if the Xbox One X is to succeed.

$649 is a lot of money to spend on a console. Microsoft knows this, which is why it devoted so much of its E3 2017 press conference to highlighting the bleeding-edge technology crammed into the Xbox One X, its latest addition to the Xbox family. Vapour chamber cooling, custom voltage tuning, 6 teraflops of computing power--the thing sounds like something Doc Brown dreamed up after hitting his head on the bathroom sink.

When it comes down to it, though, it's not the space-age tech or the massive numbers that are going to justify the Xbox One X's $649 price tag, it's the games. Microsoft knows this, too, establishing the Xbox One X Enhanced program to show off what the console is capable of. This program is Microsoft's way of having its cake and eating it too, since it allows the company to keep its promise that all Xbox games will work on both the Xbox One and the Xbox One X while still positioning the Xbox One X as the best place to play them. Sure, you could play all the latest games on an ordinary Xbox One, but check out how much better they look on Xbox One X!

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This is a good plan in theory, but the way Microsoft is putting it into practice leaves a lot to be desired. Games built to leverage the Xbox One X's extra power are labelled with the Xbox One X Enhanced logo, much like PS4 games designed to take advantage of the PS4 Pro are marked as PS4 Pro Enhanced. The problem is, 'Enhanced' can mean a lot of different things in this context, from support for 4K resolutions and HDR colour to increased framerates and additional graphical effects. Under both Microsoft and Sony's labelling systems, though, it's often unclear which of these apply to any specific game.

To be fair, Microsoft is doing a better job with its labelling guidelines than Sony, requiring game packaging and digital store pages to display specific logos for HDR and 4K support. Still, these guidelines leave a lot of room for confusion. A game sporting a 4K logo could be rendering in native 4K, using checkerboarding to achieve a pseudo-4K, or dynamically switching between resolutions up to 4K. All of these approaches can deliver markedly different visual experiences, and without knowing which one a game uses, you can't be sure how 'Enhanced' a game really is.

To some, this may seem like splitting hairs, but the audience Microsoft is targeting with the Xbox One X is the kind that cares about such nitty gritty distinctions. They're going to want to know exactly what they're getting for their $649, and any ambiguity is only going to invite speculation that they're being short-changed on the promise of unbridled power.

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To confuse the situation even further, the 4K and HDR labels provide no indication that they apply only to Xbox One X. Just look at the Microsoft Store page for Forza Motorsport 7. There's plenty of talk about 4K, 60fps, and HDR, but nowhere does it say that these features are absent on standard Xbox One consoles. Unless you're well-versed on the ins and outs of the different tiers of Xbox One hardware, there's a good chance you'll come away thinking 4K and HDR are supported in all versions of the game, regardless of platform. Only once you've bought it and booted it up on your regular Xbox One will you see that's not the case.

Things only get murkier beyond the realm of 4K and HDR. Microsoft provides no labelling guidelines for enhancements that sit outside those categories, lumping them all together under the generic 'Xbox One X Enhanced' banner. The problem is, these improvements could be as significant as a higher framerate or as trivial as slightly improved shadows, and you'll have no way of knowing which side of the fence a particular game falls on at the point of purchase. Put simply, the 'Xbox One X Enhanced' label is far too vague to be useful.

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Microsoft has a lot of work to do to justify the Xbox One X's steep price tag. Without a clear, unambiguous way of communicating the benefits of the console's extra power, though, that's a challenge it's going to have a tough time meeting.

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