Xbox Series X review — True next-generation gaming

Xbox Series X stands in stark contrast to what is now the last generation of consoles. Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have tons of great games, but they come up short in terms of presenting those experiences. The Xbox One and PS4 are slow and clumsy and often loud. The Xbox Series X is the opposite. It is speedy and responsive and whisper quiet. It’s the kind of system that makes it okay to play on consoles again.

Microsoft is launching Xbox Series X for $500 on November 10. For that money, the company is promising the “most powerful Xbox ever.” The idea is to deliver content that lives somewhere in the range of 4K and 120 frames per second. Few games will hit both visual milestones simultaneously, but the Series X’s horsepower is evident in a number of games.

But if you’re wondering whether to try to get one right now, that’s going to depend on you. Do you just want exclusives, or are you someone who already plays an Xbox One every day?

As we dig into the details, I’ll try to provide all the information you need to know what is best for you.

Xbox Series X games

Reviewing a console is an odd business. We often judge platforms based on their software. But the point of a new console is that it’s launching from scratch, with effectively zero games. A few might show up at launch, but that’s not a large enough sample size to determine the future of the software library. And yet for most people, it is the most important determining factor when it comes to purchasing gaming hardware.

With that in mind, I’m going to try to speak to what you can expect from games on the Xbox Series X.

Your backward compatible library (and Game Pass) will run better than ever

Let’s start with backward compatibility, which is an undeniable strength for the Xbox Series X. As someone who loves PC gaming, I know that new hardware is often more about seeing how much better your old games run. The Series X taps into this by unleashing all of its extra horsepower on Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games.

Above: That’s not a light.

In almost every case, this leads to faster loading times. In many other cases, you also get higher framerates and render resolutions. Microsoft is also promising almost universal compatibility — although with exceptions, like Kinect games.

But backward compatibility on Series X is not entirely like the PC. Some games will continue to run the same on the new Xbox as they did on the old Xbox. That’s because developers often set performance profiles for console games that do not scale dynamically. This leads to situations where a game could run better, but it doesn’t. Microsoft says it’s looking at ways to improve these games without forcing developers to go back and create bespoke updates. But I haven’t seen this in action yet, so it remains a hypothetical.

‘Optimized’ games feel like free remasters

Old games don’t have to run in a backward compatible mode. Developers can specifically update them to run on Xbox Series X, which comes with even more advantages. Loading times are often even faster. And some games, like Gears 5, now run at 120 frames per second instead of 60. For now, these optimized games don’t feel like they live up to the “remaster” moniker publishers use to try to resell old games. But Xbox Series X optimizations come as free updates, so while Gears 5 doesn’t quite feel like Gears 5 Remastered, it’s close enough — especially for the price.

This also keeps things simple for anyone looking to upgrade in the future. Microsoft’s Smart Delivery system ensures you get the best version of a game no matter where you play it. So if you want to play Cyberpunk 2077 when (if?) it comes out this year but are waiting to get new hardware, I see no reason to hesitate. That Xbox One version of Cyberpunk will turn into the Xbox Series X version whenever you pull the trigger on a console purchase.

Every Microsoft game uses Smart Delivery, and some big-name third-party releases do as well. But not every publisher is getting in on this system, which spoils its simplicity. Still, it’s pushing the trend in the right direction.

Don’t get an Xbox Series X for exclusives yet

Something I hear a lot is that consoles are really only worth getting for their exclusives, and I think that’s probably true for a certain kind of gamer. If that’s you, you should wait for the Xbox Series X. If you only plan to show up to Xbox to play Halo or eventual releases like Avowed or maybe some big Bethesda game, then wait for those to come out before you buy the hardware. I don’t think I really need to tell you this, but I want to be as comprehensive as possible.

If you are happy to play exclusives but spend most of your time in multiplatform releases like Fortnite, FIFA, or dozens of other games, the Series X isn’t just a viable option, it’s the obvious choice, thanks to its services.

Game Pass is a killer app

Exclusives are still rare on Xbox Series X, and you have to factor that into your decision to spend $500 on hardware. Can you get by playing games on your current hardware? Are you definitely getting a PlayStation 5? Do you have a solid gaming PC? If the answer to any of these is “yes,” it’s easy to skip the Xbox Series X hardware and just stick with Game Pass on an older Xbox, on PC, or on Android via the cloud.

But even in those situations, Game Pass offers a perfectly good reason to still get an Xbox Series X. This “Netflix of games”-style subscription is an undeniable deal at $10 per month, or $15 for its Ultimate variation that includes Games Pass on PC and console, as well as EA Play, Xbox Live Gold, and cloud streaming. With Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, you can buy a $500 console and have a beefy library of games ready to go as soon as you set it up. Even if you’re someone who loves building up a collection of physical media for PlayStation, Game Pass creates a low-risk complementary method for trying a lot of new games and different genres. If you want, you can then buy those games on disc for another platform or cancel Game Pass at any time and come back to it when you’re ready to try more games.

With this business strategy, Xbox makes sense for so many more people as an ecosystem, and even as a console. If I had to recommend a console to friends or family, Game Pass makes me lean toward Xbox — especially as cross-platform multiplayer becomes the standard. The obvious exception is if that friend or family member expresses interest in the kinds of prestige first-party games you can only get from PlayStation right now.

If you play on console every day, you should upgrade

While some people primarily turn on their consoles for marquee exclusives, others use their Xbox One every day. If that’s you, you have to upgrade. Please stop playing games on that busted last-gen hardware. The quality-of-life improvements on the Series X make the upgrade worth it on their own. You’re spending so much time in loading screens and boot screens, and Series X mitigates, minimizes, and even eliminates that. That’s without saying anything about the improved performance of the games themselves.

Even if you don’t plan on upgrading to Xbox Series X, anyone who plays the PS4 or Xbox One every day should upgrade to one of the new consoles. Even a single extra day stuck on those systems is too long to wait. You deserve better, and Xbox Series X is a better way to play games than either of the last-gen boxes.

The faster SSD, CPU, and architecture make everything better

While the games are crucial when assessing a console, I think we can still find value in talking about the device itself. The Xbox Series X is powerful and speedy, which comes down to the next-gen GPU, CPU, and SSD storage. And everything works well, thanks to top-notch cooling and engineering.

This hardware design has ramifications throughout the performance of the console. Let’s talk about that now.

Navigating the console is breezy

For most of its lifespan, the Xbox One was pretty miserable to navigate. I made it work through the use of smart features like pins that enable you to quickly add games and apps to folders. But loading in your full game library or bringing up the store was sluggish for years. Microsoft has done a lot of work to improve this experience on the last-gen device, and the most recent updates make the Xbox One feel snappy. But that’s nothing compared to how the Xbox Series X feels.

Almost everything in the Xbox Series X’s menus load in an instant. A lot of this comes down to the speedier SSD. That storage medium can thrust much more information into RAM per second than an old hard drive. But it’s also about the CPU finding and processing that information quickly. This is noticeable when bringing up web-based content like the Microsoft Store or the Game Pass hub. These pages often come in over your internet connection, but the Xbox Series X doesn’t break a sweat when it comes to rendering and displaying that data.

In 2020, you should never have to wait while trying to swipe to another part of an interface. A console should feel at least as responsive as a high-end smartphone, and the Xbox Series X delivers here.

Loading games is faster

The benefits of the hardware don’t end at the UI. Games also load in much faster, thanks to the CPU, SSD, and the connecting architecture. This is obvious in backward compatible games, but it is even faster in Optimized and native Xbox Series X games. This isn’t exclusively due to hardware. Microsoft also has its own Direct Storage API that enables the GPU to bypass the CPU when calling specific data from the SSD. But developers will have to build their games for Direct Storage to take advantage of it. That means loading times should get even faster as we move deeper into the generation.

Quick Resume is brilliant

Xbox Series X’s Quick Resume feature may bypass the need for lengthy initial loads entirely. Microsoft has made a big deal out of this system and for good reason — it’s something a closed console can do that a PC would struggle with. Quick Resume works by holding a partition on the SSD with enough space to save the states of at least four games. So if you’re playing through Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla on your own, you can leave it to join your friends for a multiplayer session in Fortnite, Call of Duty, and Rocket League. When you return to Valhalla, the game will be waiting for you where you left off.

Quick Resume works if you turn the Xbox off or even unplug it. And it happens automatically. This also means you cannot choose to keep a particular game in Quick Resume. The system decides when it needs to push a certain save state out of storage. But this also means it mostly just works — especially with the way most people tend to play games.

Xbox Series X is now a fantastic media box

One factor Microsoft isn’t touching on in its messaging is that the Xbox Series X is now an excellent way to watch video. A lot of people use their consoles to watch Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, or whatever else, and I’ve always found that experience suboptimal. Loading Netflix from the hard drive on an Xbox One or PS4 takes way too long.

On Xbox Series X, video apps feel a lot more like they do on an iPhone. Opening the Netflix app takes seconds, as does loading in its content. If I want to bounce out to the menu, it’s simple to get right back in and continue my show from where I left off. Xbox won’t save your position in a show in Quick Resume because that doesn’t really make sense with an app that is streaming from the cloud. But loading up something like Prime Video is so fast that you won’t ever really have to wait to get back into your show.

Xbox Series X hardware

I like the way the Xbox Series X looks. At least, I think it’s beautiful when it’s standing up in its vertical orientation. On its side, it looks absurd and stands out. Even then, I think it’s ugly in an interesting way. The issue here is that most people won’t be able to choose how to set up their Xbox based on visual preference. You will have to fit this box into your existing furniture because I can’t imagine buying a new entertainment center to accommodate a console. And if the Xbox Series X only fits on its side, that’s what you’ll be stuck with.

But even on its side, I imagine everyone will get used to it over time. And it’s still more understated than even the smallest gaming PCs.

Acoustic engineering brilliance

Microsoft designed the Xbox Series X form factor to prioritize cooling, which is better than a fair trade in my opinion. I barely care that it looks goofy on its side. But I care deeply about the fact that I’ve never noticed the sound of the console’s fan spinning up during gameplay.

The boxy design enabled Microsoft engineers to put a giant fan right near the massive exhaust port. This big fan can move a lot of air without having to spin at excessive speeds. That means no motor whirring at an ungodly RPM trying to prevent the machine from overheating.

You won’t actually look at the console when you’re playing a game. But you would hear it if it was loud. I’m so thankful that it isn’t.

You should get an Xbox Series X

The Xbox Series X is so good that I think you should get one — only maybe not right away. If you pick it up at launch early next year, when big exclusives start coming out, or even after a price cut a few years from now, you’re going to end up with a great way to play games. Even if you have a powerful PC that runs all of Microsoft’s future releases on Game Pass, the Series X will work better with televisions and can serve as a great multimedia box.

But Microsoft didn’t design the Series X in such a way that you should feel like you’re missing out if you wait. If it’s how you want to play games, the company did an excellent job ensuring you’ll love the box. But if you only come to the Xbox ecosystem for Halo or a handful of other exclusives, the console is unnecessary. Subscribe to Game Pass and then play those games on your phone or on the PC.

It’s clear Microsoft only wants to instill the fear of missing out when it comes to its services. If you purchase its new hardware, it is focused on ensuring you end up happy to own it. But I think that approach can make it difficult to feel excited about spending $500.

And yet once you own it, it’s easy to fall in love with the Xbox Series X.

Xbox Series X launches November 10 for $500. Microsoft sent GamesBeat review units for the purpose of our coverage, including a $220 1TB Seagate Expansion Card. 

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