Xbox Series X review


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The Xbox Series X is a somewhat paradoxical console. It’s the most powerful black box Microsoft has ever produced to play games on, launched at the same time the company keeps saying that hardware doesn’t matter, and all Xboxes are created equal.

It’s a new console launching without a single major exclusive game – nope, not even a Halo – but instead the promise that it’ll play just about every Xbox game ever made, and make most of them look better than ever.

This is an Xbox that doesn’t really do anything that your current Xbox doesn’t. But it will do most things better, faster, and at more frames per second (if you have one of the few TVs that supports >60fps, that is). For a major new console that makes it an oddly niche proposition – though read my Xbox Series S review for the more mainstream take on a next-gen Xbox.

Oh, and it looks a bit like a fridge. Did I mention that yet?

Design & build

Microsoft has nailed the look of the Xbox Series X – which is a good thing, because by virtue of its sheer size this is a console you’re likely going to have to look at a lot.

Xbox Series X

A large cuboid, measuring 15.1×15.1×30.1cm, the Xbox Series X is basically the biggest console ever – well, at least until the PS5 arrives mere days later.

But not only is it big – because of the boxy design, reminiscent of a desktop PC tower, it’s simply the wrong shape to fit into most TV cabinets or entertainment centres. If you’re like me and prefer to tuck your consoles away, this is a problem: the Series X does not tuck. Unless your shelves are enormous, this is a console destined to sit on show, right next to your TV, whether you like it or not.

With that in mind, it’s a relief that Microsoft opted for a design that’s basically just a big black box. Interrupted only by a disc drive, ports, and a couple of small logos this is pretty much just a solid expanse of minimalism, so it almost blends in.

Xbox Series X side

The only touch of colour is the hint of green inside the heat exhaust that makes up the console’s whole top side, but even that vivid splash is only visible from just the right angle. And I say top, but of course the Xbox Series X can be placed either vertically or horizontally, so that fan may just as well end up being on the console’s side.

Whichever way you position it, the console’s front bears the 4K UHD Blu-ray drive (only available on the Series X, and not included in the cheaper Series S) along with a single USB 3.1 port. You’ll find two more USB ports on the rear, along with the HDMI 2.1 out, ethernet, power port, and a slot for custom expandable storage – more on that in a bit.

Xbox Series X rear

Unlike the PS5 there’s no USB-C port to be found on the console. That’s probably not a problem for most, but it would have been a welcome touch to find one if only for future-proofing – we’re only going to see more USB-C peripherals as time goes on.

A lot will no doubt be made of how the Series X compares in design to the PS5. To some extent it doesn’t matter too much, but as their sheer size begins to dictate where you can put these machines it matters more than usual.

I will say this: I really, really wish I was able to put the Series X away in my media cabinet, and mildly resent that its blunt bulk has forced me to evict a houseplant in order to make space next to the TV. I wouldn’t blame anyone for avoiding the Series X so as not to make the same concession.

Controller

If the console itself bucks convention, Microsoft has taken no such risks with its controller. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the same old gamepad you’d find with an Xbox One. It’s not, but little enough has changed that Microsoft is perfectly happy to let you keep using your last-gen gamepads if you prefer – they work just as well.

Xbox Series X controller

Available at launch in black, white, or blue – it’s black that ships with the Series X – the core design is essentially the same. The shape of the grips has been tweaked ever so slightly, mostly for the better, and a new textured finish on the rear and shoulder buttons helps you keep your grip.

The D-pad has had a major re-work, swapping for a circular pad that makes it easier to roll across in fighting games – though I found it a little loose for my liking in simple top-down 2D fare like Wargroove.

A new Share button in the centre of the controller makes it quicker and easier to capture screenshots and video – up to 30 seconds of 4K HDR video and 4K screenshots – with generously customisable settings for how this works. Similarly, controls across the gamepad are immensely adaptable, as Microsoft continues to put genuine and commendable work into accessibility – did you notice the raised markers on all the console ports up above?

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Xbox Series X trigger

The subtle tweaks across the board for the gamepad make its one crucial failing all the more galling: in this, the year of our Lord 2020, the Xbox Series X controller still runs on AA batteries. This is frankly absurd, and the fact that Microsoft has taken the opportunity to upgrade to a USB-C port for a controller you can’t charge – unless you pay £20/$20 for a rechargeable battery pack of course – only adds insult to injury.

Set aside the batteries, and this is a great gamepad. It’s simple, it works, and it’s comfortable. It won’t change the way you play, but right now Microsoft doesn’t want to. Like the console itself, the Series X pad is simply the same, but better.

Specs & performance

Alright, let’s get down to brass tacks. What’s inside the Series X, and what can it actually do once you get down to gaming?

Xbox Series X base

At the heart of the console is a custom 8-core AMD CPU based on the company’s 7nm Zen 2 architecture, paired with a custom GPU from the same company, and 16GB of GDDR6 RAM.

In practice, that means the Series X can render games at up to 8K resolutions with HDR, and framerates up to 120fps.

Don’t get your hopes up too much though. Those are two separate best case scenarios, and the performance target for most games is simply 4K at 60fps – don’t expect to hit 8K or 120fps often, and probably never at the same time.

Still, TVs that actually support 8K or 120fps are few and far between, so a console that reliably delivers [email protected] – the best the average TV can handle – is a sensible priority. While some games already deliver that performance on existing hardware, the promise here is that almost every game will from now on.

Xbox Series X Forza Horizon 4

My TV – the one I’ve been testing the Series X on, of course – doesn’t support 120Hz. So I can’t test Microsoft’s claim that Gears 5 now hits 120fps on the Series X, or let you know if those extra frames will give you a competitive edge or not. But odds are your TV doesn’t either, so it all feels like a bit of a moot point.

As for what I can test, Forza Horizon 4 delivers true 4K with rock solid 60fps and some stunning HDR effects, cementing its position as the best looking virtual depiction of Britain we could ever hope for. Gears Tactics, which makes its console debut on the Series X (but launches on Xbox One at the same time), makes the most of the high resolution by packing the screen with detail and particle effects, though I’m not sure the muddy brown hues of Gears are the perfect platform to show off HDR.

All of this horsepower runs hot, and if you hold your hand above the Series X while you’re playing it’ll feel like an oven. Perhaps that’s why Microsoft opted for the odd shape – precisely to stop people shoving the console into media cabinets and overheating it.

Xbox Series X top

Still, hot as it runs, so far the fan has stayed quiet – at least compared to my long-in-the-tooth PS4 Slim, which has begun to sound a bit like a jetplane with a bad cough. That is of course a reminder that over time this will change, as dust builds up, the processor deprecates, and games get more demanding – but for now at least, Microsoft’s cooling is doing its job.

If you’re coming from a regular Xbox One or PS4, the graphical jump here is legitimately astonishing, but those coming from an Xbox One X or PS4 Pro may find less to be excited about. There’s more horsepower here for sure, but outside of locking into 60fps – not even a guarantee, with some launch games still not hitting that target – you won’t notice it much.

What you will notice is the SSD. This is the first Xbox with a solid state drive, with 1TB included – though that only translates to 802GB of usable space once the operating system is factored in.

Xbox Series X logo

Solid state storage brings with it a wealth of technical advantages, many of which Microsoft is touting as part of its ‘Velocity Architecture’. The big one is load times, which are…minimal. Whether you’re playing a new Series X game or an older backwards compatible title, levels now tend to load in seconds rather than minutes.

This is bad news for tea breaks, but great for getting straight into games. It’s one of the most compelling reasons to upgrade right now, because even if you only ever used the Series X to play the same games you do already, the quality of life boost from near-instant load times is difficult to resist.

It’s also quicker to swap between games, though support for this Quick Resume feature is less widespread so far. When it works it means you can switch back and forth between games and end up right where you left off without having to dive back through the menu again. It takes ten seconds or so to switch, so it’s not quite instant, but jumping right back into the mission you left off from will make it a lot easier to peel off for a couple rounds in Warzone before returning to something single-player.

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In the future both Microsoft and Sony say we’ll see games developed with SSDs in mind, with more open worlds, fewer corridors, and less busywork to stop us noticing loading times. So long as devs have to worry about last-gen’s consoles that won’t happen yet though, so for now the promise of the SSD is simply faster loading.

Xbox Series X USB

Sticking with storage, as I said you get 1TB, which gives you 800GB of usable space – enough for 15-20 games, depending on size. You can expand this – but this is where things get a bit complicated.

First off, if you have an external USB disk with at least USB 3.0 then you can connect this to one of the three USB ports for extra space. You can use this to play backwards compatible titles from the Xbox One or earlier, but you can’t use it to play Series X optimised games – these optimisations rely on the speeds of the internal SSD, which a USB drive just can’t match.

So, the budget option to expand your storage is to throw all your old games onto an external drive, and keep everything new on the internal drive. You can also always store some games on the external disk and move them back and forth when you want to play them – it only takes a few minutes to move even a 100GB game across.

Xbox Series X storage

If you can afford it, the more seamless approach is to buy one of Microsoft’s fancy custom expandable storage cards. Right now though, only Seagate makes one, and it’ll set you back a tidy £220/$220 for 1TB. This will let you play games directly without a performance hit (so Microsoft says – I wasn’t supplied one and so haven’t tested the claim), and it’s compact and portable, but… it’s £220/$220. You could almost buy an Xbox Series S for that. Until more options arrive and prices drop, you’re better off making do with a USB drive if you’ve got it.

The SSD – a feature shared by the PS5, it’s worth adding – is really the main reason to buy an Xbox Series X right now, unless you own a TV that can crank up to 120Hz or are upgrading from a non-4K console.

It’s a hell of a reason though, adding a seamlessness to gameplay that genuinely does feel like a generational leap, even if the soft jump to widespread 4K and steady 60fps is less likely to impress.

Games & software

A new console means a new operating system, and duly Microsoft has redesigned the Series X interface. This is… not a good reason to buy a new console. Which isn’t a criticism of the new interface! It just is what it is.

It’s a slightly convoluted, overly busy way to get to your games, manage your storage, and be advertised a load of other games while you’re at it. Just like every console OS, but with fun Microsoft-specific wrinkles like prominent pre-installed apps for Edge and Skype that you’re never going to use.

The biggest change here is the tighter integration with the updated Xbox app for phones, which you can use not only to set the Xbox up, but also to manage storage, remotely download and install games, and even stream games from the console. It’s a smart acknowledgement that sometimes phones are better than gamepads, while conveniently looping into Microsoft’s ambitions to make Xbox your go-to gaming brand across every device.

Gears Tactics Xbox Series X

I said right at the top that the Xbox Series X doesn’t really pack a killer app, a launch title you just can’t get anywhere else. With the delay of Halo Infinite (though even that was set to be cross-generation, remember!) there’s no big Microsoft title here at launch to sweeten the deal for early adopters.

Instead, for now the focus is on enhanced versions of older titles – Microsoft’s internal teams have already optimised the likes of Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves, and Gears 5 to make them feel new – and of course delivering all of this season’s multi-platform monoliths, with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Cyberpunk 2077, and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War all coming to Series X by the end of the year (and, again, Xbox One too).

This might disappoint die hard early adopters, who will sink half a grand into a console that doesn’t play anything their old one couldn’t. But it’s also a testament to Microsoft’s new approach: you should be able to play every Xbox game on any Xbox (or PC, or streamed to your phone).

Gears 5 Xbox Series X

With that in mind, the Series X is also backwards compatible with every previous Xbox game, right back to the OG, with the not-so-sad exception of anything that relies on the Kinect motion sensor, which isn’t compatible with the new hardware.

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That gives the console an enviable back catalogue – and thanks to the disc drive here, you can continue to play any disc versions you already own, rather than relying on digital copies or Game Pass. Whether disc or digital, they’ll load faster thanks to the SSD, and look better thanks to upscaling and auto HDR tech.

And Game Pass really is the elephant in the room here. A subscription service that gives you access to basically all of Microsoft’s best games, plus plenty of third-party titles for £7.99/$9.99 per month, now including an EA Play subscription if you opt for the £10.99/$14.99 Ultimate tier, which also throws in Xbox Gold (the separate paid plan for online multiplayer) and cloud streaming to your phone.

The pitch is simple: buy an Xbox, sign up to Game Pass, and never bother buying a game again. As a value proposition Sony simply can’t match it right now, and for the platform agnostic it’s a very compelling reason to opt for an Xbox.

Xbox Series X Hello from Seattle

For my money I’d still take Sony’s library of exclusives, but Microsoft is making ground here too, bolstering its staples of Halo, Gears, and Forza with major acquisitions climaxing in the mammoth purchase of Bethesda, raising the tantalising prospect of Xbox-exclusive Elder Scrolls and Fallout games. They’re years away no matter what though, so I wouldn’t recommend anyone make their console choice on the basis of where Fallout may end up years from now.

There’s nothing in the Series X game lineup to justify a jump to the new generation yet, and it honestly looks like it could be another year or two before meaningful exclusives show up. That’s no failing of Microsoft, but instead an integral part of its strategy – but it does mean many will find little reason to make the jump just yet.

Price & availability

The Xbox Series X launches worldwide on 10 November, and will set you back £449/$499, including a controller, but not including any games or other accessories. If you’re feeling lucky here’s our guide to where to buy the new Xbox, though stock at launch is going to be exceedingly limited.

If you prefer, you can also buy it on a subscription model through Xbox All Access for £28.99/$34.99 per month for two years, which includes Game Pass Ultimate. Assuming you want Game Pass this works out slightly cheaper in the long run, but of course bear in mind that you’re taking a risk on your credit score if you’re unable to make the payments down the line.

The console is just about the exact same price as Sony’s PlayStation 5, and on paper the difference between the two looks like much of a muchness – the real question is whether the value proposition of Game Pass is a bigger draw than the chance to play God of War 2 or the next Spider-Man.

Xbox Series X vs S

Of course the other option is the Xbox Series S, just over half the price at £249/$299. This is less powerful and ditches the disc drive, but will play the same games and – crucially – has the same SSD, albeit in a smaller size. Your priorities will dictate which is the better buy, so check out our Xbox Series X vs Series S comparison for a more detailed breakdown.

Verdict

Like I said, the Xbox Series X is in an odd position for a new console generation. It’s more powerful than any Xbox before, but you can’t use that power to play any games that you couldn’t before – and depending on your TV specs, you probably won’t even see half of the benefits that extra power brings to existing games.

Still, those who appreciate such things will relish the chance to play Gears 5 multiplayer at 120fps, or sail through Sea of Thieves in [email protected], while the rest of us will probably mostly enjoy how damn fast everything loads with that snappy new SSD.

At the end of the day this is a small step, not a giant leap, and if you’ve never been kept up at night worrying about frame rates then there’s really no need to buy an Xbox Series X right now.

So long as you own another console, it’ll do the same stuff. This one just does it better, faster, and smoother. For some people, that’s a no-brainer, even at half a grand. For the rest of us, there’s the Series S.

Specs

Xbox Series X: Specs

  • CPU: 8-Cores, 3.8GHz, custom AMD Zen 2 (7nm)
  • GPU: 12 Teraflops, 52 CUs, 1.8GHz, custom AMD RDNA 2
  • Memory: 16GB GDDR6
  • Storage: 1TB NVMe SSD
  • Expandable: Seagate Expansion Card (1TB) or USB 3.1 external HDD
  • Video output: Up to 4K at 120fps gaming, up to 8K HDR
  • Optical drive: 4K UHD Blu-Ray
  • Ports: HDMI 2.1, 3x USB 3.1 gen 1, Ethernet
  • Wireless: Dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5
  • HDMI features: Auto low latency, variable refresh rate, AMD FreeSync
  • Sound: L-PCM, up to 7.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby TrueHD with Atmos
  • Dimensions: 151x301x151mm
  • Weight 4.4kg





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