It’s been seven years since Microsoft launched the Xbox One, a console that found itself on the back foot from day one. But after a generation where Microsoft found themselves well behind their rivals only to impressively reinvent themselves as a services leader, we are finally on the doorstep of a new console generation. For Microsoft, this generation represents a chance for them to capitalise on all the great work they’ve done over the past couple years, and the vessels to lead that charge are the power-charged Xbox Series X and the value-packed Xbox Series S. I was lucky enough to have early access to the Xbox Series X for a little over a week to see if next-gen is all it’s cracked up to be and whether Xbox has what it takes to re-take the crown as the best platform to play on.
Unboxing a brand-spanking-new console is always an exciting time, with the next-generation of gaming at your fingertips. Included in the box is the following: the console, the controller (with batteries), a HDMI 2.1 cord and a power lead. If you want a different take on an unboxing video then check out the world’s first re-boxing video below.
Setting up the console was easy thanks to the new Xbox mobile app, which allowed me to either set up a new console or add an existing console to my account. From there you give your console a name, choose security preferences, connect to WiFi, install updates and all the other standard setup jazz. One neat feature is the ability to transfer your previous console settings to the Series X/S so you don’t have to re-enter a ton of settings you may have forgotten. The whole process took less than ten minutes and I was ready to go (install games).
When Microsoft revealed the design of the Xbox Series X late last year I was impressed. Instead of going with the traditional console design, Microsoft gave us something that looked like an all-black mini PC tower – it was a safe yet bold decision, and most importantly it was different, and I like different. Seeing it in the flesh further emphasised how much I liked the design, even if it is somewhat of a bulky monolith when sitting next to the Xbox One X coming in at 15.1cm x 15.1cm x 30.1cm.
As the 1998 version of Godzilla’s movie poster stated (shoutouts to Jean Reno and Matthew Broderick), size does matter, and the size of the Xbox Series X means that some people may have issues placing it on their TV stand (don’t get me started on the issues that the PS5 will cause). The Series X can either be placed vertically (the right way) or horizontally (the wrong way) and which way you place it will likely be dictated by the space available to you. I have a cubed TV stand that is a perfect fit for the Series X, the only downside is that there’s not a lot of space between the top of the cube and the console, which may not be great given the Series X can pump out a fair amount of heat.
But while it’s certainly not eye-catching like the PS5, I like that the console isn’t trying to be more than what it’s designed for, and that’s to play games. Because as they say, it’s not about what’s on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Speaking of the outside, on the front we have the Xbox logo power button, the 4K UHD Blu-ray optical drive slot alongside a single USB 3.1 port, with two more at the rear, as well as an HDMI 2.1 port, an ethernet port and the expansion card slot, and in a nice touch of accessibility Microsoft has included Braille indicators above the console’s rear ports. The top of the console is where you’ll find the console’s fans beneath a green-tinged grill that looks pretty bodacious in daylight. And in a neat touch, on the very bottom of the console you’ll find a message that says “Hello from Seattle.”
The back of the (X)box
Chill your grill
In terms of guts, the Series X packs a powerful punch thanks to an eight-core AMD Zen 2 CPU and a 12 Teraflop RDNA 2 GPU coupled with 16GB of GDDR6 memory and a high-speed 1TB NVME SSD (with 802GB of usable storage). This combination allows the Series X to deliver a native 4K resolution at up to 60 frames per second, with support for up to 120fps thanks to the tech of HDMI 2.1, although it may be a while before we see this in action.
The impressive hardware under the hood means that the Series X will have access to some truly next-gen graphical features such as DirectX Raytracing, which we’ll talk about soon. Other perks include support for up to 8K HDR, while HDMI 2.1 allows for Auto Low Latency Mode, HDMI Variable Refresh Rate and AMD FreeSync.
Not only will next-gen perform and look great, but it will also sound great thanks to the Xbox Series X audio capabilities, which include Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby TrueHD with Atmos, and support for up to 7.1 L-PCM. Disappointingly there is no optical port this time around, so if you have any audio gear that utilises optical inputs you will need to find a workaround.
I got the hots for what’s in the box
Running on my LG OLEDs (models B6 and B9) at 4K and 60fps with Raytracing, Gears 5’s campaign felt smooth to play and was bursting with impressive details – setting a good foundation for what future optimised games will run and look like
Booting up the console is much faster thanks to the NVME SSD, taking 19 seconds to boot from full off mode (the One X took one minute and seven seconds by comparison), and less than five seconds using instant on. But the boons of the SSD don’t end there, loading screens are drastically shorter – even old games like my guilty pleasure Homefront: The Revolution took a mere 15 seconds to load a save game, which is incredible compared to the one minute and two seconds on the Xbox One X and 53 seconds of the PS4 Pro (yes I own multiple copies of this game).
Another perk of the improved hardware – namely the SSD – is Quick Resume, a feature that allows you to suspend and jump between multiple games at once. The exact number will depend on what games you’re playing as each game will have different demands on the system. I managed to have three games going at once, and it was cool being able to jump back into a game even after powering the console off.
While I had access to a large number of games, very few of them were already optimised, meaning that I played a limited number of next-gen experiences. Of course it’s not the end of the world, with next-gen only just beginning, but having a few more titles to test out the bells and whistles of the Series X would have been ideal.
From what I played, Gears 5 was given the most runtime and while I’ve never been a massive Gearshead, the optimisation of Gears 5 was impressive. Running on my LG OLEDs (models B6 and B9) at 4K and 60fps with Raytracing, Gears 5’s campaign felt smooth to play and was bursting with impressive details – setting a good foundation for what future optimised games will run and look like. But it’s not only optimised games that feel improved, with older titles, including backwards compatible titles all running better thanks to the powerful hardware running the show in the background.
With all that power you’d expect this bad boy to run hot like a little volcano, and while the machine does generate a decent amount of heat, the fans work hard and, most importantly, quietly to ensure that the Series X remains cool, even when indulging in long sessions.
With a view this good why wouldn’t you sit back and admire it?
If you own an Xbox One you’ll know what to expect from the UI as the Xbox Series X/S runs the same UI. This isn’t a bad thing because Microsoft has played around with the UI throughout the generation and have finally got something that is usable without giving you a headache. The current UI is now faster and heaps easier to use and find stuff – especially in the new store layout which previously was a labyrinth of menus (although you can’t make purchases or redeem codes via the mobile app store which seems like a bizarre oversight). If the default setup isn’t to your liking, the dashboard is fully customisable, so you can play around and find something that works for you.
While I do think the Xbox still trails behind PlayStation when it comes to the UI, Xbox has made up ground in this area and keeping it familiar means that owners don’t have to learn a whole new system all over again – even if that is one of the joys of a new console experience.
Familiar, yet fresh
For the most part the Series X controller is the same as the One X, there are a couple additions and improvements though. Firstly, the micro USB port on the controller has been replaced by a USB-C port, however there’s no USB-C cable included in the box for connecting your controller to the console, which isn’t surprising given the controller comes with batteries. While I assumed that Xbox One controller rechargeable battery packs would work with the Series X/S, it was a nice little confirmation meaning I wouldn’t have to shell out $30 for another battery pack, although you will need to supply your own USB-C cable.
The other iterations on the controller come in the form of a dedicated share button, which is a godsend for reviewers and content creators. Much like the DualShock’s Share button, the Share button here allows players to either capture screenshots or footage depending on whether you press or hold the button. Once again you can either store captures on the internal drive or an external drive, with captures limited to 30 seconds for 4K footage, one minute for 1080p footage, and three minutes for 720p footage. Best of all, your captures will appear in the new Xbox App on your smartphone, making it easier to access them.
Microsoft has also tinkered with the controller’s d-pad, which now resembles something akin to the Elite controller’s d-pad. Instead of the standard plus symbol style d-pad, the Series X controller has an angled and raised d-pad. It feels much more ‘clickier’ and easy to use than the traditional style d-pad. The triggers now feature a grippier matte finish, with the back of the controller also benefiting from a grippier surface. If you want to play around with the mapping of the controller you can remap the controller should you wish in the settings.
I’ve always been a fan of Xbox’s controllers, especially when it comes to shooters, and using the Series X controller is no different, with the Series X controller a delight to use. The small improvements the team has made has elevated the controller to being Xbox’s best (standard) controller ever, in my opinion.
The Series X controller makes small but major improvements
The drawcard for Xbox’s platform is Xbox Game Pass, a service that Microsoft has invested heavily in over recent years and quite frankly is incredible value
To flog a dead horse, this has been Microsoft’s issue for several years now – Xbox simply hasn’t had enough exclusive software to make buying an Xbox a priority. They are trying to improve in this area though, with the company making constant studio acquisitions which have beefed up its first-party studio roster, most impressively being the company’s big money purchase of Zenimax Media, which includes Bethesda and its catalogue.
But compare the launch of the Series X with the launch of the Xbox One, which had Ryse: Son of Rome and Dead Rising 3 as exclusive titles, and it’s a little disappointing that Microsoft couldn’t get a first-party title out the door on launch to showcase its new hardware. Sure Ryse and Dead Rising 3 didn’t set the world on fire, but they were games that you couldn’t play anywhere else, which is exactly the reason I bought my Xbox One on launch – to play Ryse, and I don’t regret it. In an ideal world the Series X/S would have launched alongside Xbox’s poster spartan Master Chief and Halo Infinite, but unfortunately that game is still a fair way off if reported development issues are to be believed. The first Xbox console exclusive to drop on the Series X/S will be The Medium, which was recently delayed from December 10 to January 28, 2021. Basically, it’s time Xbox started to put the games where its money is, because Big Phil can’t keep writing cheques his consoles can’t cash.
However, herein lies Microsoft’s other problem, the fact that all of Microsoft’s first-party games will be playable on PC, some possibly even on rival consoles like the PS5 (I truly believe Phil ‘T-Shirts’ Spencer is about inclusivity and not exclusivity). It means that buying a Series X (or S) isn’t necessary if you already have a rig that would put Henry Cavill to shame (remember that time he built a gaming PC?). Ultimately Microsoft probably doesn’t care that much if you play on another platform, just as long as you’re subscribed to the Xbox ecosystem.
The drawcard for Xbox’s platform is Xbox Game Pass, a service that Microsoft has invested heavily in over recent years and quite frankly is incredible value. I mean a whole library of games at your disposal for $15.95 a month is impressive, especially when your main competitor doesn’t believe in a similar service. Then there’s Microsoft’s open-arms approach to backwards compatibility and suddenly you have a shit-ton of games to play. Just nothing new from Microsoft’s first-party studios.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the Series X/S will have optimised games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs: Legion (and more) available on day one, with many more to come, as well as those with free upgrades via Smart Delivery. However it is hard to ignore the glaring omission of a first-party showpiece when the PS5 has multiple. Click here for a full list of games coming during the Xbox Series X/S launch window.
Xbox Game Pass is cracking value
The launch of a new console is always hard to judge, after all, it’s merely the beginning of something new, with the full possibilities and potential not realised until years later. In saying that, large portions of the Series X experience are the same as your current Xbox One, and while there’s a ton of reasons to wax lyrical about the possibilities of next-gen, early doors Microsoft’s foray into next-gen is plagued by a tale as old as time itself – a lack of first-party software. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth upgrading because there are still games available that will give you a next-gen experience. In the end it boils down to how much $749 is worth to you. For some, $749 is a lot of money, while for others it’s a (big) night out on the frothies. If you have a PC, there’s probably little need to get a Series X, while owners of the One X will see obvious performance benefits for the same games available to them (for now). Whether you take the plunge now or later is your call, but the future of gaming is certainly packed with potential.
+ Sleek and attractive design
+ Incredibly fast loading times
+ Impressive performance and cooling
+ Controller refinements
+ Optimised games look and run amazing
Not so good
– Lacks first-party showpieces
– Can’t make purchases from the mobile app
– UI lacks innovation
Review unit supplied by the manufacturer