The Xbox Series X doesn't feel like a machine we usually get at the start of a new generation when we're used to cleaning up breaks with radically new hardware that basically made our time with a PlayStation, or Xbox Nintendo device starts.
Instead, the Series X feels like a different take on Microsoft's last console, the Xbox One. It feels like a much more powerful Xbox One with a striking new look, lightning-fast load times, and an extra button on the controller. It's the best Xbox One for many reasons.
The Xbox Series X is the most box-like Xbox Microsoft has ever made. It's a cuboid: 12 inches tall, 6 inches deep, and 6 inches wide, all right angles, and fine matte black plastic. I adore its simplicity. It's a box with a modest, circular X logo button in the top left or top right corner, depending on whether you place it horizontally or vertically. Pressing this button makes the system emit the same beep it does when you press the circular X logo button on Xbox One.
From there the system starts its start screen (see below).
Wait, this is not the correct screenshot.
This is a screen from my Xbox One X. Here is my Xbox Series X home screen …
Every game on my Xbox One runs on my Xbox Series X. That includes almost every backward compatible game for the Xbox 360 and original Xbox. The only games that don't work are those that require Kinect, Microsoft's fancy spy camera accessory. How does the Xbox Series X achieve such impressive backward compatibility? Easy. It's an Xbox One with stronger guts.
In 2017, I said that the Xbox One X, Microsoft's incremental upgrade to the Xbox One, "is a box of powerful components that works just like a box of less powerful components, just a little better." Replace "a little" with "a lot" and you have the Xbox Series X. It offers 4K resolution faster than the Xbox One X. At higher resolutions, it hits 60 frames per second faster. That extra graphics performance means the Xbox Series X can reach up to 120 frames per second at lower resolutions. It can even output graphics at 8K, which is still some kind of mythical beast for many entertainment consumers. (Note: In addition to the X, Microsoft is launching a second, cheaper new console called the Xbox Series S. More on this at the end of this review.)
By using a faster processor, doubling the graphics performance, installing more, faster memory, and including a solid-state storage drive set at ridiculous speeds, Microsoft has created the ultimate Xbox One. It makes sense. These are the components that I would update in my PC if I wanted the games I have there to perform better.
My current desktop setup.
The Xbox Series X heat dissipation issue was raised during an early Microsoft preview program last month. After holding the system in my hands, I am pleased to announce that, although it is quite warm, my hands have not burned off my wrists. There is a lot of heat coming out of the system's vents, but nothing to consider as worrying. With my current setup, it works as a handy finger warmer, which is nice when winter hits. It is important that the fan is very quiet, that the steam chamber is cooled and that the console has not yet exploded.
The Xbox Series X is easier to use. And faster too.
Taking advantage of this extra power, Microsoft has implemented a number of improvements and features that would not be possible on older Xbox One consoles. The legendary "Quick Resume" function, which allows players to quickly switch between games by creating memory states that persist even when the system is completely disconnected from the mains, is literally and figuratively a game changer. The ease with which you can switch between games utilizing this feature is unparalleled in a game console. I can just play Ori and the Will of the Wisps, hit the home button on the Xbox Series X controller, start Dirt 5, find that I don't like Dirt 5, and quickly switch back to Ori and pick up exactly where I left off . I brought Lego Worlds, Forza Horizon 4, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Bright Memory and Ori and the Will of the Wisps under one roof. That's pretty great.
The incredible loading times made possible by the Xbox Series X's "Velocity Architecture" are even cooler. The Velocity Architecture is more than just a fast custom SSD drive. It's a combination of hardware and software innovation that is changing the way Xbox Series X accesses and decompresses information. In principle, the system's data output is fast, the channels wide and the delivery methods so adaptable that developers can load games very quickly.
The back of the X Series with a fancy SSD expansion port for upgrading storage.
Forza Horizon 4's extended version X / S of the Xbox series is the perfect example of the benefits of the Velocity architecture. On the Xbox One X, on which I invested dozens of hours exploring the game's vast open world, it takes 83 seconds to get to the start according to the menu screens and the game to begin. On Xbox Series X, it only takes 27 seconds. That's a huge difference. In addition, traveling fast in the game takes just a few seconds, and switching between expansions, usually a matter of 30 to 40 seconds, takes only 15. Every aspect of the game that loads data into memory, from rendering the terrain Exchanging cars up to and including cars is greatly accelerated.
The same goes for Yakuza: The turn-based RPG spin-off starts like a dragon with the Xbox Series X console. It takes 30 seconds from selecting a saved game to starting the game on Xbox One X. On the Xbox Series X? Five seconds.
How does that compare to the PlayStation 5, which also has spectacularly fast SSD drives? Here's a quick test, but you know that both systems load next-gen games at ridiculous speeds while older games get a little boost.
Small changes to the controller, major changes to old games
Speed is the biggest and most noticeable improvement in the Xbox Series X over the previous generation of Xbox consoles. Not everyone cares about the more accurate shadows, reflections, and lighting that come with ray tracing support. Not everyone can tell the difference between 4K and 1080p resolution. 3D surround sound is great, but not a feature that will break or break a console. No, the Xbox Series X is all about that speed.
When I try to play a game on Xbox One X after playing the upgraded Xbox Series X counterpart, I get irritated and upset. If you put a controller in my hands without showing me which console I'm playing, the load times and the smoothness of the menus are my main means of determining which is the Series X.
It certainly wouldn't be the controller. Although the Xbox Series X controller has a new design at the top, a flush Home button, the new Share button, and a new disc-shaped D-pad, it works and feels like a standard Xbox One controller. There are no fancy haptics like in the PlayStation 5's DualSense controller. There is no built-in microphone. It has the same expansion port on the bottom in case someone wants to connect an accessory. Playing with the Xbox Series X controller doesn't feel any different than playing with my older Xbox One. In fact, I can sync my Xbox One controller with the X Series and play that way.
Between the similar controllers and the two consoles using the exact same dashboard, I've spent a lot of time over the past week and a half trying to figure out which Xbox I used which controller. I look forward to bringing my Xbox One X into the nursery or bedroom and ending this confusion once and for all. This happens as soon as I stop making comparisons between the two consoles. The Series X is clearly the superior machine, and on the Xbox One I don't want to do anything (fuck it, Kinect games) that I can't do on the newer console.
The familiarity of the Xbox Series X is really a comfort. I miss the feeling of adventure and discovery that comes with exploring completely new hardware and software, but it's cool to step into a new technology with working knowledge. It's the same feeling when I get a new iPhone. I know my way around, so let's see what it can do.
As it turns out, the Xbox Series X can only make a lot of the games I already like faster and nicer. Of the roughly 31 games that were optimized for Xbox Series X / S at launch, at least 20 are games that I've already played and enjoyed on Xbox One. They are now optimized to load faster, use higher resolution textures, or implement new graphical flourishes that take advantage of the increased performance of the system. What better way to demonstrate the capabilities of the hardware than with games that gamers are already familiar with?
The downside of the Xbox Series X / S expanded program is similar to what Xbox One X users had to go through when this incremental upgrade started in 2017. There will be a lot of waiting for patches and updates to take advantage of all this power for older games. Unpatched games run just fine on Xbox Series X, so developers need to determine if they can save the manpower to give their games a try. Do you remember the Super Duper Graphics Pack for Minecraft that was announced at E3 2017? It was an Xbox One X expansion patch that never showed up and was officially canceled last year because it was too difficult to implement. Chances are there are some patches to improve Xbox Series X that will never see the light of day.
Not a big Xbox Series X launch game
There will be a lot of older games to play on launch day, but there won't be any big new games on the Xbox Series X. The closest thing to a Series X system vendor game, Halo Infinite, was postponed until August 2021. Without having a shiny new entry in the sci-fi shooter series, Microsoft is banking on people who are looking for well-known multi-platform tariffs like Assassin's Creed Valhalla or the timed exclusive Yakuza: Like A Dragon of the next generation PlayStation 5 enthusiastic version of it won't appear until March. And a large number of older games that have been updated with higher resolutions, faster frame rates, improved lighting effects, and faster load times.
Even a relatively new game like Gears Tactics, which was already released on PC, is coming not only to the X and S series, but also to the Xbox One. The next generation version just runs better.
Yakuza: Like a dragon that runs in high definition mode on Xbox Series X.
Microsoft sells some owners of the X and S series with the promise of eventually getting a new Fable, a new Forza and new games from Rare, Obsidian and others of the company's recently expanded studio list. All of this is far away.
The bottom line on Xbox Series X.
All of this cross-platform play and sharing of older Xboxes game libraries aided my first impressions. The Xbox Series X is not a traditional next-generation system. In fact, it challenges the idea of console generations as we know them. Microsoft is continuing the model established with the Xbox One X and One S and developing the Xbox One further instead of completely replacing it.
And why not? Why use a whole generation of games for a possible obsolescence or block the nostalgic with constantly paid new editions (* cough Nintendo cough *)? Instead, why not carry on the legacy smoothly and seamlessly? No one who buys an Xbox Series X will regret putting their Xbox One aside or trading. In fact, it lives on in a newer, much more impressive form.
Oh, what about the Xbox Series S?
A note on Xbox Series S from Kotaku EiC Stephen Totilo: One of the most unusual things about the launch of this new generation of consoles is that one party, Microsoft, is launching two new consoles at the same time. For the Xbox, we primarily focused on Microsoft's more popular device, the powerful Xbox Series X for $ 500. But we also played with Serie S. Mike had the X in Georgia. I had the S in New York.
The $ 300 Series S is significantly weaker than the X and has less storage space. This gives me access to less than 400 GB compared to the 800 GB in the X. This is somewhat limited in the number of games I could fit and play on my S. It is less likely that I will just happily download new games, that will be added to the Xbox Game Pass subscription service when I see them available. But other than this little memory, I don't have any medium term complaints.
Like the X, the S feels like I've replaced my Xbox One the way I occasionally replace my iPhone with a newer model. My games – or at least the ability to download them – are fine, as are my settings. And the S series seems to have enough power to give me the opportunity to do the same quick resume juggling attempt Mike did and experience many of the load speed improvements he is experiencing.
There's a catch hopefully related to the standard rush that comes with launch. While Quick Resume worked great for me about a week ago, Microsoft sent reviewers a message Thursday that some games being updated to the S and X series had been identified and the company announced support for Quick Resume for that Games would disable games. As a result, I couldn't make a quick résumé with Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4, but with the new Assassin's Creed, the latest Tony Hawk remaster, and Batman Arkham Knight.
Microsoft PR informed me that this is a software issue that will be addressed in patches and title updates up to and after launch. Confusingly, Forza Horizon 4's Quick Resume still worked on a coworker's Xbox Series X, but Microsoft PR repeatedly emphasized this as a software problem when I asked if Series S wasn't as good as the X on Quick Resume. I will pursue that of course.
The Xbox Series X sits on top of the much larger Xbox One S.
Aside from the hopefully temporary issue with Quick Resume, the S works quite well. Some of my Xbox One games run at much better frame rates, just not the 4K resolutions Mike is likely to see. As someone who has preferred to put current generation games in a high frame rate mode rather than a high resolution mode, I don't mind the compromise. It feels like a more powerful machine and still gives me a lot of the Xbox experience including access to Game Pass, which I enjoy.
Of course, I don't know what I'm missing as I don't have an X and can't see through Mike's window to spy on his X from New York. But hey, the weaker S spec is the tradeoff for a console that costs only $ 300 (full disclosure: Microsoft sent us these X and S units as is standard for console testing). It's also the compromise for a shockingly small console: the S series is the size of a thick paperback book.
And then there is the long-term. The existence of the S could affect the specs of future Xbox series games, or it could require developers to leave the S behind at some point. Given that Microsoft states that even the Xbox One will be supported for some time to come, the technical inferiority of the S versus the X is unlikely to matter for a long time.
Right now, the S series is an impressive little machine that I'll continue to keep readers informed about as I use it more often.