Microsoft has been pushing the Xbox into a more PC-style direction since the launch of the Xbox One. The platform felt very similar to a purpose-built PC, and with each new release since, including the One X, they have carried this concept forward. But with the release of the Xbox Series X, Microsoft has planted a flag in the ground, delivering a console that is as close as you can imagine to a gaming PC for the living room. Thanks to Game Pass, some smart design decisions, and a slate of titles spanning generations ready to play at launch, the Xbox Series X stands as a testament to what a company like Microsoft can do when laser-focused on delivering the best console experience possible — even if that promise may take a while to fully manifest.
The Xbox Series X is a powerhouse, offering features even my $2,500 purpose-built gaming PC lacks. It is a cool, silent, and blazing fast gaming monster, all wrapped in a matte black box. The SSD, processing power, and a focus on next-level fidelity and backward compatibility make the Xbox Series X feel like a truly remarkable offering, especially when you look at the ticket price of $499. Microsoft has somehow managed to make the next generation feel like a gradual transition, all while boasting a future level of potential that is only hinted at with the current slate and feature set.
While there is a great case to be made that the Series X is an evolution of the current platform rather than a revolution, what is on offer improves where it needs to while making an easy upgrade path for people that demand only the best. With a catalogue of games that will slowly improve as features are implemented, never has it felt easier and more satisfying to replace a previous console. This is as close to the feeling a console gamer can get to slotting in a new GPU and it was just as satisfying as you can imagine.
That New Xbox Design
Never has a console felt more like it borrowed from PC design concepts than Microsoft has managed with the Xbox Series X. The matte black tower is simple, yet imposing next to other consoles or entertainment hardware. It looks better standing upright and has a clean visual aesthetic that while carrying forward what we have seen with the One X, manages to feel unique next to everything else out in the market. While I feel Microsoft could have been a bit more outlandish with the look of the console, I like its simplicity and subtle visual touches.
The front of the console is unmistakable as an “Xbox”. It has the obligatory logo in the top left corner, a single USB port, a 4K Blu-ray disc drive, and the standard accessory pairing button. It does a good job of blending in under the TV, but the little visual touches ensure it never fully fades into the background. Looking to the back of the console, we find all the ports that one would come to expect from a modern gaming system, including two USB ports, the new storage expansion slot, and an Ethernet port along with an HDMI 2.1 and of course, a power connection. Microsoft has also added raised Braille bumps to make the Series X that much more accessible for people, a welcome addition, and something I want to see on more systems gaming and otherwise moving forward. Sadly, there are a few ports less than we have seen on previous Xbox incarnations. You will not have an HDMI pass-through this time around, and in an odd move, there is no USB-C or support for Wi-Fi 6. While these are notable omissions, few people will notice these in the grand scheme of things, although it would have been nice for a more future-proof console offering.
With the Series X as powerful as a modern gaming PC, cooling is a big concern, but Microsoft has managed to achieve this herculean feat and delivers an elegant solution that works. The console pulls air through the main body, all with the power of a massive fan at the top of the console. While this could have been an unsightly mess, the subtle touch of coloured plastic gives the feeling of a LED gaming PC without getting in the way of the games or good taste. Even more surprising is how quiet the full package is. While the Xbox One X could have that unmistakable fan noise during intense gaming sessions, the Series X has managed to remain almost completely silent throughout all testing we did with the system. Even better, it never felt overly hot, delivering the same level of heat you would expect from past consoles, even when pushing the console with more modern games.
I am a bit concerned with the open-air design on the top of the console. Owning PCs in a home environment means dust is an issue, and I am unsure how the Series X will fare as the dust starts collecting in the open areas of the console. Granted, this is impossible to judge without using the console for longer than the review period allows, but this is one area I will keep an eye on moving forward. Also, this is a console where airflow will be important, so while we are all used to cramming consoles into media centers, the Series X will need to breathe if you want it to last for the life of this new gaming generation.
Beyond the console, Microsoft has opted to give the controller a facelift for the Series X. The new Xbox controller feels very similar to past offerings, blending some of the design concepts seen on the Elite controller, including the D-pad design and way the grips feel, albeit less premium. The new controller also has the new share button, that works to let gamers quickly share clips and screenshots with friends, much like what we saw with the Dualshock 4 on the PS4. It should also be noted that past controllers do work with the Series X, so if you have an Elite controller you are fond of, it does not need to be put out to pasture just yet.
Welcome to the SSD Age
While there is a lot to be excited about with the Series X, the biggest improvement most players will see when they first plug the system in will be the load times. SSDs are nothing new in gaming, with most modern gamers using them in PCs for years. Even your current Xbox One X could have an SSD upgrade should you want to go down that route. But what Microsoft has done with the Series X is build a system that utilizes the new SSD and the new powerful CPU to work in tandem to deliver games fast.
From the instant you power on the Series X, and launch a game, these load time improvements can be felt. Every game we tested over the course of this review loaded notably faster when compared to a standard Xbox One X. Anyone that has never experienced the difference an SSD can make on a PC will be floored, and even PC gamers will see how much a closed ecosystem can do to make the process seem fluid. With the Xbox Series X going from rest mode to jumping into a game in often around 30 seconds, gaming has never felt easier or less frustrating.
For all the hardcore PC players out there, you may be thinking that SSDs are nothing new in the world of gaming, and you very well may be enjoying hate-reading this very review on an otherworldly RPG filled monster with an NVMe drive. And I would still break the news that, the Series X, while not as versatile, will load games faster than on your PC. Red Dead Redemption 2, for example. Loading up Steam and waiting for all the verification and update checks even with a WD Black NVMe SSD loaded, on average, around 30-40 seconds slower than it did on the Series X. Granted, this will not be every game, but it does go to show how the tight ecosystem the Xbox offers does make it ideal for gaming, especially if load times are your biggest barrier to play.
To go along with that 1TB of storage (802GB usable on first launch), the Series X also gives the option to upgrade the storage with the proprietary storage expansion slot I mentioned earlier. Sadly at the time of writing this review, we have not tested the speed or features this new slot allows. Thanks to the Series X’s new Velocity Architecture, if a game needs the speed of an SSD, you won’t be able to play it from a standard USB hard drive. While it is hard to know how backward compatible games will look as the console nears launch, older games currently do not make use of this technology. but all Series X enhanced games will, so leave room in the budget for the Seagate $219.99 1TB card, just in case.
Due to much of the speed improvements seen in current benchmarks through the use of the raw power and speed of the system, and not from the new API, it is not yet known how much faster the Series X will look in the future. This does mean that should you invest in a decent external USB SSD, you should be able to achieve results in backward compatible games similar to what we are seeing with the internal drive, making it a viable option for thrifty gamers looking to invest in the games.
Power Under the Hood
Despite it being easy to oversimplify the load times as the notable new offering with this generation, the real story with the Series X is the overall architecture and performance seen within the system. Microsoft, with the help of AMD, has built a very capable gaming machine that not only is able to offer games with faster overall performance but manages to deliver an impressive level of detail when a game is optimized for the platform.
The Xbox Series X is an absolute monster on paper, housing an eight-core AMD Zen 2 processor running at 3.8GHz, a custom RDNA 2 AMD GPU with 12 TFLOPs of processing power, and 16GB of GDDR6 memory. While for anyone that is not a PC gamer that just looks like a lot of numbers, what it means in performance is that games will look better and deliver less stuttering and a smoother experience overall.
With the slate of Series X optimized games being rather limited at present, what this could mean in the long run is hard to say. But even from the limited library of titles currently available, along with backward-compatible games, things are already looking much more impressive and more in line with what players have been experiencing on the PC with a good GPU and CPU combo. Sea of Thieves, for example, looks better overall, with the visuals looking noticeably sharper and offering more fidelity, making for a much more PC-like experience. Even games that don’t see noticeable improvements visually ran better, delivering a fluid 60FPS experience.
This increase in power also means games that struggled on the Xbox One X run like butter on the Series X. Games like Warframe, Apex Legends, and even Fortnite managed to stay steady even during visually taxing segments with no section dropping below 30fps in testing. If this holds up through the full Xbox lineup is hard to say, but from what we have seen and managed to test beyond sleeping and eating, paints an exciting picture for gamers.
As we wanted to test out the Series X 120Hz option, we hooked it up to a compatible 4K HDR TV and put it to the test with both Dirt 2 and Gears 5, two games that offer this feature at the time of writing. If there was ever a feature that will make hardcore PC lovers feel at home, it will be this. Jumping into Gears 5 and seeing it run smoothly on a console at 120fps was a bit surprising at first. If I did not know I was playing on a console, I would assume this was only possible on the biggest PC you could build, yet somehow Microsoft managed to fit this all in a 9lb box, and it works just as advertised.
Even Dirt 5 managed to impress, delivering a smooth, fast, and visually striking experience. While yes, the game does drop the visuals to push the polygons faster, when you are moving at 120fps, you honestly don’t care, especially when it is paired with a large HDR 4K TV. The Series X manages to impress across the board, making the overall gaming experience feel better. From load times to speed and fidelity, this is what many envision of the next generation, and this is before we see the full potential of the system.
One other notable feature I want to call out, and something I hope more games offer in the future, is the choice of game modes. As mentioned before with Dirt 5 and Gears, the option to select between fidelity and speed is a fantastic option; it lets gamers choose what is most important to them in the long run. While I hope developers can push the system to its limits as we move into 2021, the ability to prioritize what matters most is a great option and one I hope more games take advantage of moving forward. Even Yakuza: Like a Dragon gives the choice between normal, high resolution, and high frame rate, giving the choice to the player in clear, direct ways. And while I do love pushing my PC to the limits in the latest and greatest, I welcome not needing to deal with visual sliders when I just want to jump into the latest game.
The last performance feature I want to touch on is Quick Resume. This new feature is said to let you jump between games quickly, often in under 10 seconds. The concept behind this feature is to let you suspend your game, leave the console and jump back in without needing to deal with the annoyance of load screens or other hassles that stand between you and enjoying the experience.
This also means you can switch between different games, and jump between them as fast as many consoles load a menu. And while it may sound like a gimmick, it was impressive, especially when it worked. I found some online titles simply could not achieve this task (not that I expected them too), but for Xbox Series X games and even backward compatible titles, the process was seamless. In testing, I jumped between Gears 5 and Ori without any issues, and it was easy to jump into the dashboard to download more games for testing without the Series X even skipping a beat.
The Dashboard and Games
One area that remains largely unchanged since the most recent Xbox One X update is the Dashboard. Xbox has opted to keep the dashboard players have been using, with the notable tweaks and changes seen in more recent releases. And honestly, this was the right decision. It is so easy to push something new onto players just to make it feel exciting, but with this move, the Series X feels like an evolution of what has come before. It gives the same experience you know and love, only with the new power and features. You don’t need to take time learning what Xbox has in store, and thus will have more time enjoying the games.
Microsoft has been improving on the dashboard since the Xbox One first launched. Giving new feature updates as tweaks to the UI as time went on, and the interface they have in the most current offering manages a good balance between unique interface and usability. It works at providing enough visual flair while keeping the focus on gaming, social features, media, and streaming.
While the overall interface has not changed, the store and other aspects of the experience have been improved to make usability a major priority over recent months. The full experience feels overall more intuitive and snappy, making the day-to-day tasks less frustrating. From buying from the store to the ability to pin apps and games to the home screen, Microsoft has made some fantastic improvements, and with the power of the Series X, the interface has never felt better. I hope Microsoft continues this trend moving forward, ushering in more improvements as the Series X/S generation matures.
But one notable thing this new generation suffers from is the lack of exclusive titles to show off the new power of the system. While there are a few notable titles that have been improved with Series X features, we are a ways from experiencing a new Fable or Halo title to really show what this system can do. While Gears 5 looks absolutely stunning on the Series X, and even Gears Tactics now looks closer to the PC counterpart, these are titles we have all played before. I was happy to see Yakuza: Like a Dragon just for some variety, but it will not be until we see dedicated Series X titles that the sheer power of the system will be laid bare.
But this is true with any new console generation. Games take time, especially for a generational leap forward. Implementing features like ray tracing and higher framerates and fidelity take time to implement properly, so this is not unexpected. But what Microsoft has done with the Series X is present a system with close to 1,000 games at launch, thanks to Game Pass and a staggering level of backward compatible games. The system, while not feeling wholly new, does not feel lacking for things to play.
Microsoft has delivered a staggering value with Game Pass, and that value proposition has never been more notable than with a new console launch. Provided you have Game Pass, you can boot up the Series X, and even if this is your first Xbox based console, you will be greeted with a fantastic library of more than 100 games ready to download on day one. Thanks to a recent partnership, Xbox Ultimate members will also get access to an EA Play library of more than 60 titles, including games like FIFA 20, Star Wars Battlefront II, Titanfall 2, and Need for Speed Heat.While this is not a replacement for a launch library, it is the next best thing, and it makes it very hard to justify a launch without some sort of selection moving forward. Even features like Smart Delivery make the collection impressive, allowing players to get the best version for the console they currently have, meaning you don’t need to give up the One X to enjoy games on the Series X
It will be even more exciting as the library updates, bringing more next-gen features to the selection of games on offer. With more games delivering DirectX, ray tracing, HDR, Smart Delivery, improved fidelity, and overall pushing the system more, the Xbox Series X with a Game Pass subscription seems like an unbeatable combination and value, especially when you see the power Microsoft has packed into this big black obelisk.
With any console generation, it is hard to say if gamers should wait or dive in, but from what I have seen in the process of this review, and with the availability of Game Pass, the value improvement is notable. As I mentioned before, the Series X feels akin to buying a new GPU for your gaming rig. Your current library of games will look and play better, and you will be ready for what is coming down the pipeline. From the latest features to pushing framerates you never thought possible on your 4K TV, Microsoft with the Series X have delivered the most powerful console ever, and with Game Pass it is also potentially the best-valued option at launch to date.
While I wanted to see something that delivered on all the promise of this new gaming box, everything I have seen so far still makes a strong case for the gaming future Microsoft envisions. You won’t need to dive headfirst if you don’t have a pre-order — anyone on the fence about picking the new console up on November 11th, can rest assured that the Xbox Series X is as impressive as trailers and talking heads have made it seem. Welcome to the new, very “PC” generation, with all the perks that will offer up moving forward. I for one am excited to see what this system can really do.