The Xbox Series X, that looming dark pillar, sits silently beside my entertainment console. Its square girth extends beyond the combined heights of an Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 stacked horizontally on top of each other by more than an inch, so it doesn’t fit on my designated gaming shelf.
I’ve had a week of hands-on with the Xbox Series X. The Series X and its smaller, disc-less sibling the Series S are Microsoft’s entrants into the next generation of gaming, one of crisp 4K output, gorgeous naturalistic lighting thanks to ray tracing, higher frame rates for smoother movement, and solid-state drives delivering .
Yes, the Series X performs great, but despite the new hardware, it doesn’t feel like it heralds a distinctly new era of gaming as we’ve seen in past generations. Instead, the latest consoles are morphing the intergenerational landscape from one of the clearly defined upward steps into a more sloping gradient of tweaks and improvements.
Moving from 2017’s Xbox One X to the Series X feels more akin to upgrading a few components in a gaming PC than buying a whole new system outright. It’s a noticeable upgrade, certainly, but it doesn’t quite have that excitement factor that comes with previous generations of new consoles.
One thing I can say the Xbox Series X has over any other console is presence.
In shape, it’s unlike any console I’ve owned before. The Series X feels more akin to a form-factor gaming PC than a plug-and-play video game machine with its thick, monolithic exterior. It puts the “box” in Xbox.
In performance, it runs impeccably well. Series X-optimized games like racer Forza Horizon 4, puzzler The Tourist, and Xbox Game Studios’ own Gears 5 are stunning. Frame rate and lighting improvements are readily apparent over their predecessors and previous incarnations on older platforms. Non-optimized and not-yet-optimized games I downloaded on Game Pass have notably shorter load times when measured against 2017’s Xbox One X.
As hardware goes, the Xbox Series X has the beefiest components in town. With a 12 teraflop graphics processor, it has twice the power of the One X, able to process 12 trillion computations in a single second that allows for its incredibly dense and detailed graphical output. Paired with a fast 8-core central processor and plenty of RAM, it can handle even the most demanding moments in games.
Storage on the Series X is a blazingly fast but perhaps too-small 1TB solid-state drive with about 800GB of usable storage. The Series S is even smaller at 512GB, with just over 330GB of usable storage. The upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War game is somewhere between 175 and 250GB on PC, which means Series X owners could download four or five games of that size before needing to delete some software or buy a proprietary solid-state expansion to plug into the back. There is support for non-proprietary expansion via hard drives through USB 3.1, but you’ll suffer some speed loss.
The controller, while not visually much different from the previous generation, contains some tweaks that make it just a bit better. It’s smaller in form, making it more accessible for people who don’t have large hands, yet it doesn’t feel cramped. There are new textured surfaces on the triggers and bumpers for improved stability, and the triggers are slightly smaller, making them more comfortable to pull when firing a weapon or hitting the gas. The four vibration gyros (two in the grips, two in the trigger) have returned from the Xbox One controller for detailed and directed haptic feedback.
Series X is without a doubt the most powerful console I’ve used. That’s great on paper, but what really matters is how it works in practice.
The Series X difference
When jumping from the Xbox One X to the Series X, the Series X hardly distinguishes itself from its predecessor at startup, aside from faster boot, a new opening animation starring the Xbox logo, and a short audio clip that sits somewhere halfway between the cinematic and the sound a sliding door makes on a sci-fi spaceship.
The design for the Series X’s home screen is identical to the One’s, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does add to the feeling that not much has changed here. Once you play a game, though, the difference is clearer.
The console remained near silent
In Gears 5 I navigated the opening mission’s varied landscape, dropping down into a lush green oasis beside a waterfall, peering through dark, steel-and-concrete structures with light seeping in from openings, and stepping over nefariously red, fleshy masses of enemy Locust encroachment. Ray tracing, which mimics the nature of light photons bouncing off of surfaces for more realistic effects and visuals, does wonder on these scenes.
The Tourist’s more minimalist, boxy approach to design was similarly amplified by the power of the Series X. It looks crisp in 4K, and the lighting across its various island destinations makes the beachy locales feel inviting. Conversely, its dungeon-esque monuments feel dank and deep thanks to the richly dark atmosphere penetrated by the shadow-casting glow.
In these optimized games (most notably Gears 5), the console remained near silent. After a few years of a whirring, hot Xbox One X, a wheezing PlayStation 4, and a lightly buzzing Nintendo Switch, it’s nice to have a console in my living room that doesn’t sound like it could keel over in demanding situations.
When I jumped from playing the racing game Dirt 5 on Xbox One X to its not-yet-optimized version on Xbox Series X, a disparity in performance was noticeable but minimal outside of load times, which shrink significantly. On my One X, I selected the first race in the game, chose my car, and looked at the loading screen for 40 seconds before I could start the race. On Series X, that loading screen only lasted 12 seconds, a 70 percent reduction in load time. That’s huge.
During the race itself, frame rates between the two consoles were a bit different especially when other vehicles were in view, visibly putting more strain on the One X’s hardware whereas Series X handled it in stride. Additionally, the One X had some visual stuttering on elements like trees and buildings outside the track itself. Graphically, the Series X version of Dirt 5 was brighter, had more detailed shadows casting off of objects and smoother assets all over the place. 2D graphics that had jagged slopes on the One X were smooth on the Series X, and the dirt and puddles that made up course surfaces had a more realistically detailed appearance on the Series X.
If I wasn’t specifically nitpicking and going over the game with a fine-toothed comb, I don’t think I would really notice much of a difference visually, though.
What the Series X lacks right now are new games. The lack of new titles, especially a flagship game from Xbox Game Studios to rival Sony’s own Spider-Man: Miles Morales, makes the Series X feel like it’s entering the marketplace with a whimper.
It’s launching with barely anything new to show it off
Here we have all this power, new hardware to deliver some of the most impressive performance possible in gaming outside of very expensive PC setups, and it’s launching with barely anything new to show it off. Old games load fast and may look nicer, but they still run quite well on the previous generation’s hardware.
Xbox has shown us a good-looking lineup of upcoming games for its new console, but many including Halo: Infinite, The Medium, and Psychonauts 2 won’t be available at launch, some not even until 2021.
Game Pass is the console’s saving grace at the moment. That extensive library of games, available for a monthly cost of $10 for console access, contains a lot of heavy hitters from the past couple of decades of gaming and will include a bunch of upcoming releases, most notably all first-party games the day they release. Without it, there currently wouldn’t be much reason to get Xbox Series X right now, especially over a PlayStation 5.
The Series X is a good console and an important technological step for allowing developers to deliver great looking games. It just looks like we’re going to have to wait on a lot of the more enticing, fresh games.