Microsoft’s new videogame console promises a generational upgrade in performance and graphical excellence. Does it deliver?
Honestly, we may need some time to fully answer that question: The Xbox Series X doesn’t have any true exclusives and never will, thanks to Microsoft’s new strategy of meeting gamers where they are. And there are currently only a few games available that are optimized for the new console, though that situation should change quickly. As is so often the case, coming game releases and updates should better reveal the true powers of the Series X over time.
But even in its current form, the Xbox Series X is impressive. Let’s dive in.
The design of the Xbox Series X has been somewhat unfairly criticized for being too large, unimaginative, and even ugly. But when you consider the even more gargantuan size and cartoonish design of the PlayStation 5, the Xbox Series X is the clear winner from a design perspective. And I think this console compares favorably to its Xbox One predecessors as well, providing an obvious visual evolution of the design language that started with the Xbox One S. It’s a modern and attractive digital device.
That said, its shape is a bit awkward and could be hard to fit into some home theater racks, especially if you need to orient it horizontally, which is of course possible. My review unit is standing vertically on the floor, but if I were going to put it out in the living room, it would look great next to the TV or, if that wasn’t desirable, even behind the TV, which is sitting on a cabinet and not wall mounted. But no matter: The Series X looks more natural alongside other devices than does the PS5 regardless.
I’m particularly happy with the green accent seen at the top of the unit, which peeks through several round ventilation holes and provides a nice break from the all-black design of the rest of the console. You won’t see it from across the room, regardless of how you orient the console. But if the Series X is positioned out in the open, the green will reveal itself as you approach. It’s a nice effect.
The Xbox Series X is a beast: It’s powered by a custom 7 nanometer (nm) AMD Zen 2 processor with 8 cores that run at 3.8 GHz—or at 3.6 GHz when all 8 are used simultaneously—a custom RDNA 2 graphics processing unit (GPU) with 52 compute units (CUs) that runs at 1.825 GHz and delivers 12 teraflops of performance, 16 GB of GDDR6 RAM, and a custom 1 TB NVME SSD. Put it all together and the Xbox Series X delivers up to 560 GB/s of RAM bandwidth and up to 4.8 GB/s of I/O throughput. This is the core of what Microsoft calls the console’s Velocity Architecture.
So what does this mean in practice? A lot.
First, the Xbox Series X should offer roughly double the performance of the console it’s replacing, the Xbox One X. “Double” is a nebulous term, of course, but in this case, it means that where the Xbox One X could generally deliver up to 1440p graphics at 60 fps or 4K graphics at 30 frames-per-second (fps), the Xbox Series X can generally deliver up to 4K graphics at 60 fps, with a peak framerate of 120 fps. That’s borne out by my early gameplay experiences, which are described below.
Second, one of those processor cores is dedicated solely to the operating system, solving one of the biggest problems with the previous two generations of Xbox consoles. So one of the best things about owning an Xbox Series X is the alacrity with which everything happens. On all three Xbox One consoles and dating back to the Xbox 360, the Xbox Dashboard was most notable for its sluggish performance, but Microsoft finally fixed this with the Series X. Screens jump into view immediately, as does activating the Guide. This is a most welcome change.
Third, the tiny 7 nm manufacturing process used by the processor, combined with an excellent internal design with a split motherboard, a nearly silent fan, and amazing thermal control, means that the Xbox Series X runs cooler and quieter than any previous Xbox console despite offering next-generation performance. The console never gets hot, ever. Even after several hours of continuous gaming, I can rest my hand on the large outtake vent on Series X’s top without worry. It’s warm, for sure, for not uncomfortably.
Folks, that’s amazing. By comparison, my Xbox One X sounds like a jet turbine after a short period of gaming, and the console gets quite hot. But you’ll never even notice the Xbox Series X running, assuming it’s properly ventilated, of course. (I’ve been using it in its default vertical orientation, just as I did with the Xbox One X.)
Ports and expansion
While some diehard fans will mourn the passing of the passthrough HDMI port and Kinect features from the Xbox One, the Xbox Series X provides what I think is the correct combination of ports and expansion capabilities. There’s a single HDMI 2.1 port, three full-sized USB 3.1 ports (one on the front, two on the back), and a storage expansion slot.
That latter item speaks to an issue that some Xbox fans are going to run into, and probably very quickly: 1 TB of internal storage almost certainly won’t be enough for hardcore gamers. The operating system alone takes up roughly 200 GB of space, leaving just 802 GB of available space for games and apps, and some next-generation titles will take up 100 to 200 GB of storage.
You can solve this problem in one of two ways, only one of which is ideal: That storage expansion slot currently accepts a 1 TB Storage Expansion Card that matches the performance of the internal custom SSD and effectively doubles the available storage. Or, you can use USB 3.0-based storage, as with Xbox One, but not for Xbox Series X-optimized games: This storage can only be used for OG Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games, or for what Microsoft calls “high-capacity storage for Xbox Series X titles,” whatever that means.
This isn’t ideal, as the only available Storage Expansion Card is expensive. But I expect prices to come down and capacity choices to go up over time.
The Xbox Series X includes dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, but not the faster and more efficient Wi-Fi 6, which is curious, plus 1 Gbps Ethernet. There’s also a dedicated dual band Xbox Wireless radio for controller connectivity.
Power management is dramatically improved over previous generation Xbox consoles.
If you own an Xbox One of any kind, you know that Microsoft introduced the concept of power modes, where you can choose between Instant On mode and Energy-saving mode. With Instant On, the Xbox remains powered on at all times so it can trickle-download and then install system and game updates in the background, remotely install games from the Xbox mobile app, and, as important, power up from sleep very quickly. Energy-saving mode, by contrast, literally powers down the console, which saves power but makes everything else happen more slowly.
Xbox Series X still supports these two power modes, and if you’ve been using Instant On mode with your Xbox One, you may be inclined to configure this new console identically to receive the obvious benefits. But here’s the thing: Xbox Series X powers up (from sleep) almost immediately while in Instant On mode, so it’s even faster now; indeed, my display takes longer to power on. But if you choose Energy-saving mode now, it works about as fast—from a boot time perspective—as did Instant On with the Xbox One X. That is truly impressive.
Audio and video
The Xbox Series X supports 720p, 1440p, 1080p, and 4K/UHD displays with HDR10, Auto HDR, and Dolby Vision capabilities, and variable refresh rates, and it can output at 24, 50, 60, or 120 Hz, the latter of which is required for game frame rates above 60 fps. As you might expect, the console will auto-detect the capabilities of your display—mine is 4K with variable refresh rates up to 60 Hz with HDR10 for gaming, but without Dolby Vision capabilities—but you can also calibrate the console to your display, HDR for games, video fidelity, and even the color space manually if you wish.
Thanks to its HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) support, you can also use the Xbox Series X to control the power and volume of a compatible 4K TV and/or receiver. That is, when you turn on your Xbox using the controller, the TV/receiver will come on automatically as well. This is a familiar feature from living room set-top boxes like Roku, Apple TV, and Fire TV, and while I don’t think an Xbox Series X is the most efficient way to watch streaming video services—the Xbox Series S is a different story—this is still a very nice capability, even for those who are simply using the console to play games.
From an audio perspective, the Series X supports uncompressed stereo, and uncompressed 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound, plus uncompressed stereo, Windows Sonic, Dolby Atmos, and DTS for headphones. My display has sad stereo speakers, so I’ve switched to using headphones with Windows Sonic; Dolby Atmos needs to be purchased separately and the immersive nature of audio in games in startlingly real. I waited too long to make this change.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the Series X—unlike the Series S—includes a 4K/UHD Blu-Ray drive for installing disc-based games and playing Blu-Ray and DVD video content. I’ve not tested this feature yet, but I’ll be looking at the Xbox Series X|S media experiences soon.
If the Xbox Series X experience suffers in any way right now, it’s from familiarity. Once you get past a streamlined new out-of-box experience, which lets you more easily configure the console using the Xbox app on your smartphone, you’re dumped into the exact same Dashboard found on Xbox One. And as you navigate around this user interface, you quickly realize that it isn’t just similar, it’s identical. That’s understandable, of course, and to be fair, it was communicated by Microsoft ahead of time. But it also removes the sense of newness that the Xbox Series X might otherwise bring.
The process of installing games is, likewise, identical to that on Xbox One, as is the act of launching and playing them. The non-optimized Xbox One games that I’ve played so far look, work, and act identically to the way they do on Xbox One X.
That said, UI performance, as noted, is a game-changer, and if you’ve suffered at the hands of the Xbox One Dashboard, this may be reason enough to upgrade.
Games—or, more accurately, the act of getting into a game—benefit hugely from the new Velocity Architecture and its performance-tuned SSD storage providing much faster load times. And then there’s Quick Resume, which lets you, yes, quickly resume recently launched games, providing even faster initial load times. The idea here is that many users will cycle between some number of games on a regular basis, and those should all start as quickly as possible. And it works: You’ll see a “Quick Resume” banner in the upper-right of the game’s splash screen when this feature is enabled for that title.
I will be writing more about the Xbox Series X gaming experience as more optimized games become available; this was a bit of a sore spot during the initial review process. But I was able to test a few optimized titles already, and while they’re not the games I’d normally seek out, they are nonetheless impressive, both graphically and from a performance perspective.
For the optimized titles, let’s consider Gears 5, the latest installment in the Gears of War series. I’m not a big fan of the most recent Gears titles, and while I had completed all of the previous games, some multiple times, I had given up on Gears 5 pretty early in the lackluster campaign last year. But on my 4K/UHD/HDR display, this newly optimized version of Gears 5 offers the high-resolution, contrasty, and performant experience that we should expect on the Xbox Series X.
How amazing is it? Digital Foundry has a nice video comparison on Gears 5 running on both an Xbox Series X and the previous-generation Xbox One X, and they note that the game utilizes dynamic resolution scaling throughout, with most action sequences working out to about 1728p, while the most intense scenes fall back to 1080p and the quieter, less busy parts of the game hit full 4K. This type of comparison is useful because I can’t play the game on both consoles side-by-side and moving from console to console on the same display, while possible, is a bit tedious.
As for non-optimized titles, well, I play a lot of Call of Duty, and so I tested both Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, the game I played most often this year, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019), the most recent COD title (until next week). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the experiences are identical to playing those titles on the Xbox One X. And though the act of launching the games happens more quickly, once you’re in the game, you need to deal with whatever slowness is built-in to each with regards to loading screens and the like. That makes sense, and the overall experience—including the graphical quality—seems identical to that on Xbox One X, at least to my eyes. That’s still a win.
I’ll have more on Xbox Series X gaming soon.
The new Xbox Wireless Controller is a subtle evolution of the previous-generation Xbox One Wireless Controller that provides a few Xbox Elite controller-like embellishments, including a refined d-pad that I really like and grippier handles. It also helps with performance thanks to its new latency-reducing technology.
And then there’s the new Share button that, when pressed, will save a screenshot without having to navigate to the Guide first. I like this addition a lot, since screenshots were a bit tedious on Xbox One. But I’ve also triggered it by mistake a few times. I mean, the button is right there in the middle of the controller.
(On a related note, I wish that Microsoft would let users take screenshots and record video clips of non-game content like the Dashboard. If you try to press Share while navigating the Dashboard, however, you get a “Screenshot failed” message with an obtuse error code.)
You can also use the Share button to “record what happened,” meaning to save a video recording of the most recent 30 seconds of gameplay: Just press and hold to do so. This happens instantly, unlike on Xbox One X, which often needs time to report back that your shot was taken.
If you’re interested in a bit more flexibility, you have some choices. You can configure the length of video clips recorded in Settings, for example. Or you can use the Xbox Accessories app to configure that button to trigger “Start/stop recording” when held down, so you can instead capture arbitrary amounts of video. That’s fantastic.
(Oddly, there’s one downside to the new Share capability: Because it will save screenshots in 4K by default, I’ve run into a problem I’ve never seen before: I’m running out of storage space in the Xbox cloud, and the console advised me to delete some of this content as a result. Huh.)
Beyond those changes, the new controller looks and works much like its predecessors. Which is great: Microsoft has had the best controller in the video game world since the S controller launched for the OG Xbox, and this is a nice refinement to a classic. It feels great in my hands, with a grippy texture than previous Xbox One controllers, and has that familiar Xbox button layout.
Pricing and configurations
There is only one Xbox Series X configuration and it costs $499 here in the United States. But good luck finding it: Preorders sold out in about 30 minutes last month, and while Microsoft promises to have additional units for sale for the launch next week, it has also warned customers that it will not be able to make enough to meet demand during the 2020 holiday season. This problem is particularly acute because Xbox fans are expected to snap up this more expensive console upfront, while the less expensive and less capable Xbox Series S will likely become the volume seller over time. Point being, if you want an Xbox Series X right now, you’re going to need to work for it. And maybe get lucky.
Recommendations and conclusions
The Xbox Series X combines the simplicity of traditional videogame consoles with the power of gaming PCs and it does so in a form factor that it utterly silent and never gets hot. That all constitutes a miracle of sorts, but I know what you’re looking for is the answer to a very important question. Should you get an Xbox Series X?
If you’re using an Xbox One X, I recommend waiting, and not just because the Series X will be in short supply for the rest of 2020. There are few optimized games available for the new console right now, and while I expect that situation to improve over time, Xbox One X owners should wait until at least early 2021 before considering the upgrade. But those with OG Xbox One or Xbox One S consoles will see immediate and dramatic improvements and should upgrade as soon as possible.
There is, of course, a new kind of Xbox gamer emerging as the cloud gaming era begins, too: Those with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate can now play games across Xbox consoles, PCs, and even Android, thanks to Cloud Gaming. And if you’ve embraced this heterogenous new world, you may have enough gaming choices now to compel you to wait on Xbox Series X. It depends on which games you play, and where: Obviously, not all Xbox One/Series X and Game Pass titles are available via Cloud Gaming.
But if you’re a diehard Xbox fan, I don’t see how you can wait, assuming you can find one. The Xbox Series X is the ultimate Xbox console. And it is highly recommended.
Looking ahead, I’ll be posting my Xbox Series S review later today and I’ll have more articles about the game play and media experiences on both, along with a set of tips for getting started on the new consoles. This is just the beginning of our Xbox Series X|S content.
- Gaming PC-class graphics, sound, and performance with console simplicity
- Runs cool and nearly silently
- Impressive power management
- Industry-best controller
- Xbox ecosystem
- A bit pricey
- Availability will be a problem for the short term
- Software experience is perhaps too familiar