The Xbox Series X and S Review: A Gaming PC Inside a Game Console

Yep, it’s already time for the new consoles.

Games Features Xbox Series X
The Xbox Series X and S Review: A Gaming PC Inside a Game Console

The new Xbox is here, and the first thing we have to talk about is the name. Expect to see Microsoft’s new system referred to as the Xbox Series X|S. That might be a little confusing—at this point, four major iterations into the Xbox brand, a simple number system akin to what the PlayStation uses would probably be better for marketing purposes. To make it even more confusing, the X and S designations actually refer to two different variations on the same system. One is a cutting edge home gaming system that can compete with a serious gaming PC rig, while the other is a less advanced but more affordable version that’s still more powerful than the last generation of consoles, including the Xbox One. For full disclosure, I’ve only played the Series X, but it’s important to talk about both models that’ll be available at launch next week on November 10, so let’s do it.

The Xbox Series X is the meatier of the two, both in terms of its technical specs, its physical size, and its price. The Xbox Series S is a couple hundred dollars cheaper, but it can’t match the Series X’s power, and it also lacks a disc drive. Your choice of the two won’t just come down to cost, but also to how crucial performance is for you. Want a system that runs natively in 4K, and can upscale to 8K if desired? You’ll want an Xbox Series X. Want the cheapest way to play the inevitable exclusives for the Series X|S—the games that won’t be playable on your last generation Xbox One—even if they don’t run in 4K? Then the Series S will work for you. Totally sold on this new-fangled new “ray tracing” development, which promises more realistic lighting, and thus a more realistic image all around? The Series S can do it, although some games that will support ray tracing on the Series X won’t support it on the Series S.

Like most hardware discussions, the story of the Xbos Series X|S comes down to numbers. I’m not going to pretend to know what these numbers mean, specifically, but here’s the spread in specs between the two. Their CPUs are almost exactly the same, with the S’s clock frequencies checking in very slightly behind the X’s—the X’s eight cores run at 3.8 gigahertz in comparison to the S’s 3.6 GHz. The Series X’s memory and graphics processing units are more robust, though; I’m not going to waste too much space on the actual numbers, because, again, I don’t really know what they mean, but the X’s GPU has significantly more teraflops than the S’s, and the latter’s system also can’t match the memory of the former. This is all to say that the X—which, again, costs $200 more than the S, and thus should obviously be expected to have higher performance—is the more powerful of the two.

For those of us whose eyes gloss over when we read tech specs (I never want to know what a “teraflop” actually is), the S’s most obvious difference is its lack of a physical disc drive. It’s exclusively digital, meaning not just that every game you play on it needs to be downloaded through the Xbox store or a service like Game Pass, but that it can’t play Blu-rays, either the traditional HD kind or the more advanced 4K UHDs.

That lack of a drive may not be a big issue, as one of the big initiatives with the Xbox Series line is prioritizing Xbox Game Pass. This is basically Microsoft’s gaming answer to a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu. A subscription (either monthly, annual or biannual) gets you access to over 100 games from several different publishers, providing you with an instant library of downloadable games to pick from. Expect Microsoft’s major titles—including Halo and Gears of War games—to be consistently available on Game Pass, and for major games from third party publishers to come and go from the service over time. (Yes, when a game leaves Game Pass, you can no longer play it, unless you purchase it individually.) And even with the Xbox Series X’s disc drive, when you own a physical copy of a game, you’ll still wind up having to install the whole thing onto your system, whether it’s an Xbox Series X game or a backwards compatible Xbox One or 360 title. So the Series S’s lack of a drive may not be that significant for you.

If you have a keen eye, or are already used to gaming in 4K, the S’s slightly less powerful resolution—it peaks at 1440p, although like the X it can run at up to 120 frames per second—will probably be visible. Its CPU is more powerful than the last generation Xbox One X, and games can be expected to run at more FPS on the Series S, but unlike the Xbox One X it doesn’t run in native 4K. It can upscale, but it’s not “true” 4K. Its $299 price point will make it a favorite of those on a budget—which, given the state of the world today, is probably most of us—but the Xbox Series S won’t be as obvious of a generational leap as the Xbox Series X.

And now I’m done talking about the Series S.

I’ve been playing an Xbox Series X for two weeks now. I haven’t been playing new games on it, though—so far I’ve spent hours in the new optimized version of 2019’s Gears 5, while also testing out a variety of older Xbox One and Xbox 360 games. And guess what: the Xbox Series X totally plays games. Some of them even look like a big step up from the last generation. And I am absolutely okay with having a new reason to play stone cold classics like Pac-Man Championship Edition DX and Radiant Silvergun again.

Gears 5 is the only game I’ve played so far that makes use of the Series X’s expanded power. The optimized Series X version is a noticeable improvement over how the game looks on the Xbox One X, with crisper images that more closely approach photorealism than what the Xbox One is capable of—you know, if you want a game about action figures fighting space aliens to be photorealistic.

The most impressive thing about the Xbox Series X so far isn’t the visuals. though. Yes, that’ll probably change once games that are developed specifically for this hardware are available. For now, though, what stood out the most to me are the greatly reduced load times for games. Compared to the last generation, the amount of time it takes to go from the main menu to actually playing a game has been greatly reduced.

I actually timed this stuff out. (I’m a professional.) It took exactly two minutes and 13 seconds to power on my Xbox Series X, load Gears 5 from the main menu, open up my save file, and start playing the game. Once the system is on, though, the new “quick resume” feature greatly cuts down the amount of time it takes to hop from game to game (or game to app). I tested out quick resume by exiting out of Gears 5 and opening up another game (Demon’s Tilt, it’s an awesome video pinball game that clearly loves the TurboGrafx classic Devil’s Crush as much as I do, and the very first game I installed on my Series X). To exit out of Demon’s Tilt, reopen Gears 5, and get right back to where I was before closing it took less than 20 seconds. There’s a limit to how many games or apps you can have running in quick resume at any one moment, but the time savings when I reopened Gears 5 were significant.

The Series X|S user interface will be familiar if you’ve played any iteration of the Xbox One. It’s a clean, uncluttered, easy to navigate system, with seven main sections to scroll through and the option to add more as you customize your own experience. The Home tab includes seven tiles for your most recently used programs, whether they’re games or entertainment apps. It also has a link to your main library page and a few other windows that link to various promotions. Other dedicated sections focus on the Microsoft Store, Game Pass and its numerous games, the variety of entertainment apps that will be available on the system, an “events” page that includes information on upcoming in-game events, a community page that features both upcoming release dates and all your Xbox buddy details and social options, and a pins page that lets you add specific apps to an easy-to-access list. You also have the ability to add more pages for specific games or apps; when I tested that out I wound up adding a tab about the classic Treasure shoot-’em-up Radiant Silvergun, with both a launchpad for the game itself and windows that linked to leaderboard rankings and other online features for the game. I desperately wanted to take a screencap of this accidental Radiant Silvergun tab for you, but unfortunately the system’s built-in capture feature only works within games.

In acknowledgement of how important sharing and capturing content has become with games, the controller that comes with the Xbox Series X|S has a new dedicated capture button. It’s largely the same as the Xbox One controller—two joysticks, four shoulder buttons, four face buttons, a directional pad, and both the Menu button (the one with three parallel lines that basically equates to the traditional start button) and the View button (the one with a couple of rectangles that kind of stands in for the traditional “select” button but also doesn’t always do anything and is basically just weird and confusing all around…). It also has a brand new button, though, one that’s between and below the Menu and View buttons, and that lets you easily capture video or screenshots from whatever you’re playing. In addition to this new button, the Series X|S controller also has a slightly reconfigured d-pad.

This updated controller is an improvement on the standard Xbox One one, which felt a little flimsy compared to the Xbox 360. It boasts what is hands down the best directional pad yet on an Xbox system. Instead of that weird half-measure where the d-pad was actually a circle with a raised cross on it, the new d-pad has the clear, distinct feel of a Nintendo d-pad. It’s more defined and thus more responsive. It’s good. Beyond that improvement and the new capture button, the controller is basically the same thing you’ve been used to on the Xbox for generations. That’s also a good thing—consistency is a perk, especially when it comes to something as crucial and innate as how we use a controller.

The history of new videogame consoles includes multiple examples of systems that seem to struggle under their own technological advancements. Sometimes you can hear the system churning to run a game properly, or the internal cooling fans will be working overtime to keep everything from overheating. A running joke is that consoles often sound like jets taking off when they’re running the most up-to-date software. I haven’t noticed anything like that with the Xbox Series X, but then again, all I’ve played on it are games from previous generations, only some of which have been optimized for the new one. Given the more iterative nature of videogame consoles these days, and the almost guaranteed incremental upgrades on the Xbox Series X|S that will be released before the next full-blown generation, it’s safe to assume that the specific box you’ll be able to buy next week will inevitably show signs of struggle with some games—from the loud din of a heavily taxed system, to load times that aren’t as fast as what I’ve seen so far.

Until new games that fully make use of the system’s architecture are available, the key to enjoying my Xbox Series X lies with its backwards compatibility. Microsoft has prioritized making older games easily accessible on the latest hardware. As soon as I logged into my Xbox account, I was able to see all the downloadable games I had access to, stretching back to my 360. My full library didn’t include 360 or Xbox One games that I exclusively owned on disc, but almost anything I had ever downloaded on those systems could be downloaded and played on the Xbox Series X. Before I downloaded Gears 5, or any of the other games on Game Pass or EA Play (which will be included with a Game Pass membership), or any of the newer games I had review codes for, I downloaded a handful of Xbox Live Arcade games from the 360 era: Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga, and more. (Yes, it helped that these games could be downloaded in a fraction of the time it took to download something like Gears 5 or Sea of Thieves.) Even though I’ve now played these games on at least three different generations of Xboxes, it’s still impressive that I can quickly and conveniently install them on this latest hardware.

Speaking of installations, I had to do the same with backwards compatible games that I owned on disc. I tested out physical backwards compatibility with both a 360 game and one for the Xbox One. According to Microsoft, pretty much every game for both of those consoles will be playable on the Xbox Series X|S, except for ones designed for the Kinect—yes, Microsoft’s motion controller is capital-D Dead. Don’t expect to play these games directly off the discs, though. When I slid my 360 copy of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood into the Xbox Series X, it immediately started to download the now-10-year-old game, and wouldn’t let me launch it until it was fully downloaded. The same happened with the more recent Xbox One version of Zoo Tycoon; even with the original disc, the Xbox One launch title also needed to be downloaded and installed to be playable on the Xbox Series X.

That’s not really a surprise, though. Granted my track record with backwards compatibility predictions is pretty bad—I’m the guy who said you should never expect a new console to play older games again when the Xbox One and PlayStation 3 launched without backwards compatibility seven years ago. The simple fact that the new Xbox will play most of your older Xbox games, both physical and digital, is encouraging enough that it seems a little unreasonable to get upset about having to download or install games you own on disc. Yeah, it’ll eat up valuable space in the already insufficient internal storage (a single terabyte doesn’t cut it when some games can weigh in at over 100 GB), but it’s still better than not being able to play older games at all.

As somebody who’s maybe a little too enthralled by the past, the ability to easily play older games is a clear perk with the Xbox Series X. It’s also one shared by the PlayStation 5, though. I can’t go into too much detail about Sony’s new system yet, but I can say that if you’re primarily an Xbox player, you don’t have to worry about the Xbox Series X coming up short against the competition. Microsoft’s new Xbox is a clear step above the Xbox One X, and comparable to the competition—both other consoles and PC rigs.

I wouldn’t say this is the right time to buy an Xbox Series X or S, though. Both consoles will be launching without any original or exclusive games. The biggest titles you’ll be able to play on the Xbox Series X|S this year will also be playable on the Xbox One, or other consoles. As is standard with new game console launches, the earliest lineup of games isn’t all that impressive. And with Microsoft focusing less on exclusives and more on creating a whole gaming ecosystem that encompasses both the PC and different generations of Xboxes, the software impetus for the Xbox Series X isn’t especially high at launch.

As is typical with consoles, the true test for the Xbox Series X will come over the next few years. Game Pass is a big selling point, although a subscription does come on top of the cost of a console. Although you can expect major Microsoft games to land exclusively on the Xbox Series X|S in the future—including, potentially, franchises like Fallout, The Elder Scrolls and Doom, now that the company has bought ZeniMax—there aren’t any new exclusives at launch. Early adoption is always an expensive proposition, of course, and you shouldn’t expect anything different with a new Xbox. For now it’s a perfectly acceptable device through which to play enhanced versions of recent videogames or enjoy entertainment apps like Netflix, Disney+ or Spotify. It’s not the startling advance we saw 15 years ago, when games jumped from standard def to HD, but it’s a clear step up from the last Xbox, and should only get better from here.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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