Xbox Series X
Microsoft's mighty Tower of Power.
Nov 16, 2021 7:00 pm
Nov 5, 2020 2:00 pm
The Xbox Series X sneaks up on you. It’s a minimalist block with precisely one curve on the entire thing. And when you turn it on, the dashboard looks almost identical to the one that Xbox One gamers have been using for years. Even the power button makes the same beeps, and the packed-in controller is barely changed. It’s not until you fire up a game and are launched into smooth, native 4K amazingly quickly that the Series X justifies spending $500 to upgrade. This console makes few compromises and, now that Xbox Game Studios has launched a couple of technically amazing showcase games in Microsoft Flight Simulator and Forza Horizon 5 (both of which scored 10/10 on IGN), going back to even an Xbox One X would be agonizing.
From the moment you open the Xbox Series X box, it makes a great first impression with a presentation reminiscent of an Apple product. It’s clear that every aspect of that process has been carefully considered, including the console’s central, isolated placement in the box, making it feel like you’re opening a present. It’s befitting of a premium $500 device.
That customer-first thinking continues with an easy initial setup when you plug the Series X in and turn it on. You can even use your smartphone to log into your account and toggle your settings and preferences while the box itself downloads and installs a firmware update. Once you’re up and running, you’ve got multiple options for bringing your existing library to the Series X – the best of which don’t require you to redownload anything. For instance, if your current Xbox is still hooked up to your network when you bring home the Series X, simply plug in the Series X and transfer all of your games right over the network – which, provided your network is up to snuff, is pretty quick. It’s as painless as upgrading a smartphone.
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Let’s talk about the console design itself. It’s minimalist, yes, but bold. To my eye, it’s easily the best in Xbox history – when it’s standing vertically at least. On its side, it looks like a giant misplaced LEGO piece, and you can’t remove the vertical stand on the left side, which is awkward. But when stood tall, it’s big enough to confidently tower in your entertainment center while compact and subtle enough that it doesn’t dominate it.
It’s minimalist, yes, but bold.
The top of the Series X is something of an industrial designer’s magic trick; the concave ventilation screen gives an appealing look of both depth and premium quality when viewed at eye level or higher, and the green coloring on the inside half of those ventilation holes pops with a much-needed accent that makes the inside of the Series X appear to be illuminated even when it’s turned off.
On the front you have the power button, a single USB 3.2 port, a 4K Blu-ray drive with an eject button, and a controller pairing button. On the back, there’s an HDMI 2.1 out, two more USB ports, the power plug, an ethernet port, and the internal storage expansion slot. RIP, HDMI in and optical ports. I know those weren’t the Xbox One’s most popular features, but I’ll miss them, especially since it means I can no longer use my trusty old Astro A40 headphones.
Kudos to Microsoft’s engineers for making the Series X almost inaudibly quiet.
I won’t miss fan noise, however, because there really isn’t any. Kudos to Microsoft’s engineers for making the Series X almost inaudibly quiet. Even playing games in 4K at 60 frames per second, this stoic ebony obelisk barely whispers. We measured just 40 decibels while playing Dirt 5, which sounds great next to 60db for the same game on the One X. In the thermal department, the Series X also does very well. It’s a bit cooler than the Xbox One X, registering 42.5 degrees Celsius in Dirt 5 versus 56 degrees in the same game on the One X.
OLD AND NEW
If you’ve owned an Xbox One, navigating your new Series X will be instantly familiar. I do realize that’s anticlimactic for a lot of folks; until now, when we’ve bought an expensive new-generation console we’ve gotten a totally new experience. Microsoft has not done that here, opting instead for continuity across generations and sticking with an interface that, after eight years of tweaking, works pretty well. It may not be shiny or new but it is time-tested: it has every feature and third-party media app we’ve come to expect from a current console, with no obvious gaps or downgrades like we saw when the Xbox One first launched. On the Series X it’s snappier and more responsive, and a lot of functionality is easily accessed via a press of the Guide button on the controller. Some occasionally needed settings are still cumbersome to find, but at least there’s a system-level search functionality, similar to Windows and iPhone, that lets you search for things like “HDR setting.”
When it comes to power, this generation is no repeat of the previous one, which saw the Xbox One outgunned by Sony’s PlayStation 4 on both power and price. This time, the Xbox Series X’s main selling point is that it has 12.1 teraflops of computational power on tap for games to play with. It’s not a perfect measurement of speed, but on paper that’s twice as powerful as the Xbox One X and about 20% better than the PlayStation 5 – for the same $499 price that Sony’s charging.
4K/60fps experiences are the new normal.
In practice, that means 4K/60fps experiences are the new normal, and that boost in framerate is a very noticeable upgrade from the 4K/30fps treatments common on the Xbox One X and the upscaled or checkerboarded 4K/30 we usually see on the PS4 Pro. While the PS5 hasn't exactly struggled to keep up with third-party games over the past year, this generation is still only getting started, and the Series X has greater headroom for more ambitious games to grow into a few years down the line.
If you favor frame rate over all else, some games on the Series X offer a 120fps option, though doubling the frame rate usually comes at the cost of some amount of resolution. It’s also likely to cause some setup hassle, because not every 4K TV or HDMI cable supports 120Hz (thank you for including a 120Hz cable in the box, Microsoft). That said, the difference between 60Hz and 120Hz was nice but didn’t jump out at me the way the upgrade from 30 to 60 does, and I don’t generally think it’s worth sacrificing the resolution for. But your mileage may vary, and if you’re serious about competitive gaming, you might be glad the option is there.
The Series X’s superstar feature is its 1TB NVMe SSD drive. Games played from there, new and old alike, show tremendously impressive loading time improvements. Red Dead Redemption 2, which takes 2:43 to go from Dashboard to playing on the Xbox One X, does so in just 1:05 on the Series X. Halo 5 improves from 1:07 to 0:25. Control went from 2:24 to 1:03. And State of Decay 2 took just 30 seconds on the Series X versus 1:06 on the One X. The SSD affects absolutely everything on this console in an utterly life-changing way. When you consider all the hours we’ve wasted staring at loading screens this past generation, this is arguably a bigger leap forward for console gaming than 4K.
The SSD affects absolutely everything on this console in an utterly life-changing way.
What stings a little bit, though, is thinking about how quickly that 802GB of usable space will fill up when we start installing 136GB of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, 120GB of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, 72GB of Gears 5, 72GB Cyberpunk 2077, and so on. Especially when you’re looking at $220 for a 1TB expansion card that matches the SSD’s performance, those numbers are very scary. But again, Xbox One-generation games will run in their un-enhanced form from a regular USB 3.0 drive, so you can reserve all of the internal space for games that need it.
Speaking of speed, Quick Resume is the Series X’s other nearly omnipresent feature that I now wonder how I ever lived without. Being able to almost instantly pick up where you left off in any of your several most recently played games (provided that they're Series X-native) is an absolutely fantastic quality-of-life feature. It only takes about five to 10 seconds to go from selecting a game off of your list to actually playing exactly where you left off. There’s no need to go back through the splash screens, the main menu, or even load to a recent checkpoint. Much more than any previous console, the Series X makes me feel like it’s ready to be picked up and played at a moment’s notice, and that makes me want to use it more often. That said, the past year has shown us that Quick Resume isn't as reliable as it should be – for instance, if a game requires online authentication, like FIFA 22, Quick Resume almost always fails and you have to manually quit and restart it to play online.
The Series X is ready to be picked up and played at a moment’s notice.
A hidden cost savings of the Series X is that you can expect just about any Xbox One peripherals you own that aren’t named Kinect to seamlessly pair with the Series X. The new controllers are only slightly revised and older Xbox One controllers as well as the pricey Elites are still rock solid, so if you like your existing controller, you can bring it with you.
ALL DRESSED UP AND NOWHERE TO GO
So far, the almost complete lack of any power-hungry next-gen-exclusive games to put those teraflops to a true test is the millstone around the Series X’s neck. Even with the aforementioned Forza Horizon 5 and Microsoft Flight Simulator, and Halo Infinite finally almost here, next to Sony's impressive output of first-party games Xbox still has a lot of catching up to do.
Happily, there’s no shortage of things to play thanks to full backward-compatibility out of the box. Just about everything from the Xbox One will work, and the substantial catalog of Xbox 360 games and handful from the original Xbox that were brought forward to the Xbox One carry over to the Series X, too. They also look and run better than they did on previous Xbox systems – such as enabling HDR on Halo 5 or a framerate approaching 60fps on Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s not unlike upgrading your PC. In some cases they benefit from Smart Delivery, Microsoft’s platform-level system that encourages developers to push you the best version of their game based on which Xbox it’s being played on. So if you buy Assassin’s Creed Valhalla for Xbox One now but then get a Series X as a gift in December, your progress will carry over seamlessly and your console will download any new tech or textures it needs in order to give you the optimized-for-Series-X-edition of Ubisoft’s new RPG. Compared to the PlayStation 5's sloppy handiling of some of its cross-generation upgrades, this past year has proven Smart Delivery to be very smart indeed.
In the first year of the Xbox Series X, Microsoft has struggled to capitalize on its best-in-class power with a packed lineup of exclusives, but among the games it has delivered are some real winners, including Microsoft Flight Simulator and Forza Horizon 5. No matter what current games you throw at it, your loading times will be drastically cut, your framerates will be smoother, and your resolutions will be higher. This bold and minimalistically designed box is quiet, compact for both the power it packs and especially how it compares to the PS5, capable, and loaded with convenience features like instantly resuming and cycling between any of your recently played games. Compared directly to the PlayStation 5’s specs, it flat-out gives you more power for the same price. Still, the internal SSD’s space has felt increasingly cramped, making the storage upgrades seem more essential than would be ideal. But Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility, backwards compatibility, and services like Game Pass and Cloud Gaming has paid off – and we’re only beginning to see a future where an Xbox is more than a box. Until then, the Series X is certainly a great box to have... if you can find one, as they remain a rare commodity on store shelves.
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Xbox Series X