Seven years ago, Microsoft and Sony kicked off a new console generation with the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. Fast forward to 2020, the PS4 went to sell more than 113.5 million units, beating PlayStation 3 sales by 26 million. Microsoft is no longer reporting Xbox One sales, currently estimated at around 50 million, though the Xbox division is still raking in the money with Xbox content and services revenue seeing a 30% increase in the past quarter.
Microsoft's Xbox One may not have reached the same level of momentum as the Xbox 360, which sold more than 80 million units, but the software giant finally has the opportunity to reset the counters with its new Xbox Series X and Series S consoles. Xbox head Phil Spencer may have said earlier this year that Amazon and Google are now Microsoft's true competitors in the gaming space, but it would be crazy to dismiss the ongoing rivalry between Xbox and PlayStation that started almost 20 years ago.
For the first time in Xbox history, Microsoft will kick off this new generation with two consoles, the Xbox Series X and the more affordable Xbox Series S. Microsoft gently sent us an Xbox Series X review unit last month, giving me enough time to compare this new console to the Xbox One X. The company will once again keep the power advantage over Sony’s PlayStation 5, but there’s much more to discuss than just teraflops and CPU clocks.
The Xbox Series X exceeded my expectations in many ways, and it’s now really difficult for me to go back playing games on my Xbox One X. The console offers a true generational leap and really changed how I use my console thanks to new features like Quick Resume. On the gaming front, though, it’s going to take some time before games can fully take advantage of the new hardware. There’s also some room for further improvements, especially since Sony seems to have a more forward-thinking approach with the PS5 operating system and its new DualSense Controller.
Before I dive into details, let me tell you that while I do enjoy writing about this industry and playing games on Xbox and PC, I have never been obsessed about 4K, ray tracing, or other things hardcore gamers really care about. I’ll leave the in-depth technical analysis to the experts, and I’ll be focusing my review on what it feels like to play existing and next-gen games on the Xbox Series X.
The Xbox Series X hardware is solid
I published my unboxing of the Xbox Series X last week, and I invite you to check it out if you missed it. Microsoft surprised everyone when it unveiled the Xbox Series X at the Game Awards ceremony back in December 2019, and this monolithic design is a first for the company. The vertical position seems to be the natural choice to optimize air flow, and it’s the one Microsoft uses in all of it its marketing materials for the console. However, I personally prefer the horizontal position for the Series X. I'll have more on that later.
The Xbox Series X isn’t that much bigger compared to the Xbox One X, and both consoles actually have roughly the same height when used in a vertical position. If you’re wondering, the Series X dimensions are 15.1cm x 15.1cm x 30.1cm, and the console weighs 4,08 kg (9.8 lbs). Sony’s PlayStation 5 is a much bigger machine, and Microsoft deserves credit for managing to cram so much power in such a small form factor.
The Xbox Series X comes with a 4K Blu Ray player and a USB-A port on the front, and the rest of the ports can be found on the back. The console includes two more USB-A ports there, plus an Ethernet port, an HDMI 2.1 port, a proprietary port for storage expansion cards, and the power input. The HDMI-in and optical audio ports are gone, likely due to low usage on Xbox One consoles.
I initially set my Series X review unit in the vertical position, though I got more and more anxious about it over time. Simply said, the aeration holes on the top of the console are so big that you can clearly see the fan, the heat sink and other components inside the console. I’m worried that dust could easily get into the console after a couple of months, but crumbs or liquid could also easily slip through. If you have kids who might be tempted to put things above the console or inside these aeration holes, I think the horizontal position is definitely the safest choice.
As of this writing, I put the Series X on a shelf next to my TV and gave it enough breathing room on the right side where the fan is pushing out hot air. So far, the Series X is the quietest Xbox console I’ve ever had, much more than my Xbox One X which could get pretty hot and loud when playing 4K games. This is definitely one of the things I appreciate the most on the Series X, and this quietness is also something you won’t find on most gaming PCs, at least those without liquid cooling.
The new controller is a minor upgrade
If the Xbox Series X looks quite different from previous Xbox consoles, the new Xbox Wireless controller that ships with it looks very familiar. It’s true that the Xbox One controller got many things right including ergonomics and support for third-party accessories, and the Xbox team apparently tried to improve this formula with some subtle changes.
The new Xbox Wireless Controller still ships with AA batteries, and the Play and Charge Kit remains a separate purchase. Microsoft often receives criticism for not including rechargeable batteries with Xbox controllers, though it’s worth noting that existing Xbox One Play and Charge kits will work with the new controllers. However, you'll need a new USB-C charging cable, which Microsoft provides with its new Play and Charge kits for next-gen controllers.
It’s not immediately visible, but Microsoft made its new Xbox controller slightly smaller to make it more inclusive. It still feels great in the hands, and existing accessories such as the Xbox One Chatpad still fit. Microsoft also added textured grips on the triggers and bumpers, a USB-C port for charging, as well as a new Share button and redesigned D-pad.
The new Share button makes it much easier to take screenshots and record videos, and Microsoft is actually catching up to Sony which first added a Share button to its PS4 controller seven years ago. A quick press on the Share button will take a screenshot and a long press will record a 30 seconds video, though it's possible to change that in the console’s Accessories app. However, you can’t use this button to start streaming your game on Twitch or YouTube, and this is something I'd really to see being added in the future.
If the new Share button remains a welcome addition, I’m not completely convinced by the hybrid D-pad that resembles the one on the Elite Series 2 controller: This new D-Pad looks pretty good, but it feels and sounds cheap. Worse, I don’t think it’s more precise that the D-pad on the current Xbox One controllers, and the clicking noises it makes when you use it are also louder. It’s a mixed bag overall, though your mileage may vary.
Another important new feature coming with the new Xbox Controller is Dynamic Latency Input, which will improve Microsoft’s low-latency Xbox Wireless protocol already used on Xbox One controllers. DLI will reduce latency even further by allowing developers to better synchronize the player’s input with the game’s simulation and render loop. This is probably not something that will be immediately noticeable for early adopters, though Gears 5 developer The Coalition recently claims that it has reduced the game's input latency by 36% (Campaign) and 57% (Versus) on the Series X.
Microsoft didn’t take a lot risks with this next-gen controller, and I wish it did. I didn’t try Sony’s new DualSense controller, but the addition of a mic and speaker, haptic feedback, and adaptive triggers seem to make a big difference for making the gameplay experience more immersive. This next-gen Xbox controller is solid, but I think Sony is the company with the most forward-thinking approach here.
A very familiar Xbox OS
The Xbox Series X runs the same OS as existing Xbox One consoles, with some interesting additions and omissions. The setup process is really straightforward, and Xbox One owners will be able to copy their current settings to the new console. Microsoft also added the option to use the new Xbox mobile app to set up the Series X and save some time by choosing the most important settings right there.
Once you’re done setting up the console, you’ll notice that there are new dynamic backgrounds that are enabled by default. These dynamic backgrounds are currently exclusive to next-gen Xbox consoles, and they do help to make the home dashboard look a bit more alive.
Due to the absence of an HDMI-in port on the Series X and the Series S, the OneGuide app is absent and can’t be installed, and I also noticed an important change in the My Games & Apps section. The option to group games by console type is still there, but the Series X does it differently compared to the Xbox One X: I’m currently seeing three different categories with Optimized for Xbox Series X/S titles, Xbox One games, and Xbox 360 & OG Xbox games. On the other hand, the Xbox One X can group together optimized Series X/S titles, Xbox One X enhanced games (including Xbox 360 games and OG Xbox games running in 4K), regular Xbox One games, as well as regular (non-optimized) Xbox 360 games.
I can’t immediately see Xbox One X enhanced games on the Series X, which is a bit unfortunate as there are not a lot of next-gen games available for the console right now. I actually spent a lot of time playing Xbox One games since I received the Series X, and the current grouping and filtering options don’t make it easy to find Xbox One X enhanced titles with 4K support in your personal library, the Xbox Game Pass catalog, and other services like EA Play or Games with Gold.
Overall, everything feels snappier on the Series X thanks to the addition of an NVMe SSD. The console takes less than 20 seconds to boot, and opening apps and games in much faster compared to the Xbox One X. It’s worth noting that the dashboard is still being displayed at 1080p even on 4K TVs, a limitation that was already present on the Xbox One X, though I’m fine with Microsoft keeping more system resources for other things.
The Xbox Series X can run all existing Xbox One games (except for Kinect titles), all backwards compatible Xbox 360 & OG Xbox games, as well as all existing Xbox One apps. The Apple TV app is also coming to Xbox One and Series X/S consoles on launch day, bringing over 100,000 movies and shows to buy or rent in addition to Microsoft’s existing Movies & TV library. Media apps also launch faster thanks to the console’s NVMe SSD, though I personally don't use my consoles for watching movies or TV shows.
There are two things I really wish Microsoft added to the Xbox OS: The first one is the ability to automatically upload game captures to OneDrive instead of Xbox Live. You can still save captures on external storage and then transfer them manually on your PC, but it would much more convenient if OneDrive did that in the background automatically.
The second new feature I would have liked to see is a native integration of game streaming services like Twitch and YouTube, something the PlayStation 4 had for years. Following the sunsetting of Microsoft’s Mixer game streaming platform, the Twitch app is now the only option to stream games on Xbox consoles, and the process is rather clunky. As I said above, it would be much simpler if we could start streaming by just pressing the Share button on the new Xbox controller, just like it works on PlayStation 4. Xbox head Phil Spencer said back in June that "we absolutely want to give gamers choice of where to stream from Xbox,” though we're still waiting for more information about that.
Quick Resume is a game-changer, with some limitations
Quick Resume is one of the most fascinating new features that is making its debut on Xbox Series X and Series S consoles. It leverages the new Xbox Velocity Architecture, which aims to eliminate loading times and allow gamers to seamlessly switch between multiple titles and pick up where they left off almost instantly.
In practice, Quick Resume provides an almost Netflix-like experience, with games needing approximately 10 seconds to resume. This is a system-level feature that supports Xbox games from all generations, even physical ones and games saved on external storage. Amazingly, Quick Resume even works after rebooting the console. This a real killer feature that should make gamers on other platforms jealous, and it should definitely help both casual and hardcore gamers enjoy playing games more on the Series X.
To be frank, it takes some time to get used to Quick Resume, especially if you trained yourself over the years to completely quit games from the Xbox Guide. This is no longer necessary on the Series X, and you can seamlessly switch between your most recently played games. Quick Resume works by saving each game in its own virtual machine, though there are some important limitations.
First of all, the Xbox Series X is only able to add a limited number of games to the Quick Resume pool, and there’s currently no way to know which games are currently in Quick Resume state, or how many more games can be added the pool. I’ve been able to make Quick Resume work for up to seven games at once, though the limit may depend on the type of games you’re playing. Again, this is all pretty obscure for the end user, and I think Microsoft can do better.
As of this writing, Quick Resume also doesn’t work for all types of games. I haven’t been able to make it work for live multiplayer games like Forza Horizon 4 or Sea of Thieves, though I can understand why games with online modes aren’t supported. Microsoft also told me that they had to disable Quick Resume for a selection of Xbox Series X|S Optimized titles games due to a recently discovered bug, which will require a patch to enable Quick Resume support.
When it works, Quick Resume is a really delightful feature, though the execution isn’t perfect. There’s currently no way to know when a recently launched game will be removed from the Quick Resume pool, which can be problematic if you were counting on Quick Resume to save your game. Quick Resume also doesn’t support media apps at this time, so you can’t seamlessly switch between Netflix, Amazon Prime, or YouTube videos just yet.
Quick Resume remains a very promising feature and I hope Microsoft can refine it with system updates. I’d like to be able to see at a glance on the Xbox One dashboard or the Xbox Guide which games are in a Quick Resume state and to have more control over games in the Quick Resume pool. Anyway, this is a great foundation for a true Netflix-like experience, and Quick Resume is definitely one of the main things I miss when going back to my Xbox One X.
Auto HDR can make backwards compatible games look even better
Another new feature that is making its debut on the Xbox Series X and Series S is Auto HDR. On compatible TVs and monitors, this feature will use machine learning to apply an HDR treatment to all backwards compatible games that didn’t launch with HDR support.
Back in 2016, the Xbox One S was the first game console to support HDR for games and media apps, and most TVs now support the HDR10 standard to enhance picture quality. Auto HDR on the Series X is a system-level feature that requires no work from developers, and Microsoft says that it has no impact to available CPU, GPU or memory resources. It’s another great example of the Xbox team's commitment to improving existing games with innovative features, though the results on SDR games may be hit or miss.
To be clear, Microsoft’s Auto HDR algorithm aims to improve the visual quality of backwards-compatible games without changing their overall look and the artistic vision of developers. This is pretty hard to describe in practice as no HDR games look the same, but you should expect images to look brighter and more colourful in some areas. You can see some examples below with the OG Xbox game Fuzion Frenzy and the Xbox One title Subnautica.
Auto HDR is an interesting addition, though once again, the execution isn’t flawless. Ideally, I’d like to have a per-game toggle option in the Xbox Guide which would make it easier to spot the differences between SDR and this Auto HDR treatment. HDR remains a new technology, and the improvements can be hardly noticeable for many gamers. I can’t say that I’ve been disappointed with Auto HDR so far, but again, I’d really like really to have a quick toggle to switch between SDR and HDR and see what looks best.
Existing Xbox games do play best on the Series X
The Xbox Series X is the most powerful Xbox console ever, featuring an 8-cores custom AMD Zen 2 CPU and a Custom RDNA 2 GPU delivering 12 teraflops of computing power. The console also includes 16GB of GDDR6 of RAM and a 1TB Custom NVME SSD that supports Microsoft’s new Xbox Velocity Architecture, though there’s only just 802GB of usable storage.
Both Sony and Microsoft aim to eliminate loading times by using ultra-fast SSD technology, and Microsoft has also done something special with its Quick Resume feature that lets players switch between games in less than 10 seconds. Loading times have not been completely eliminated on the Series X, though there’s quite a big difference compared to the Xbox One X which uses a regular hard drive.
I’ve been using the energy-saving mode on my review unit, and a cold boot takes approximately 20 seconds on the Series X. Loading big games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Forza Horizon 4, or Sea of Thieves now takes less than a minute, and a next-gen game like Dirt 5 loads in approximately 20 seconds. The Xbox Velocity Architecture makes a big difference, and it also benefits all backwards-compatible games that can use the full power of the Series X's CPU, GPU and SSD.
I’ve been quite impressed with how the Series X can make backwards-compatible games run with steadier frame rates and faster loading times, and you’ll enjoy all these benefits with a console that remains pretty much silent. A game like Red Dead Redemption 2, which turned my Xbox One X into a loud and hot machine runs flawlessly in 4K on the Series X, though the 30 FPS cap is still there. There are many other examples, and I'm looking forward to playing all the Xbox One X enhanced games in my backlog on the Series X.
A lacking launch lineup of next-gen games
There’s no way around it, Halo Infinite being delayed to 2021 is really bad news for the launch of the Xbox Series X, which has no flagship exclusive titles. The Xbox One X suffered from the same lack of blockbuster first-party titles three years ago, and Microsoft is once again relying on third-party developers to do the heavy lifting.
Microsoft previously revealed the list of 30 games that will be optimized for Xbox Series X and Series S on launch day, November 10. Fortnite, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs Legion, Borderlands 3, Devil May Cry 5, and NBA 2K21 are among the biggest third-party AAA games on the list, and many of them will also support Smart Delivery: Thanks to this new technology, Xbox gamers will only need to buy games once to always have the best available version of supported games on whatever Xbox console they are playing on. This should ensure a smooth transition to next-gen Xbox consoles, though not all developers are going to support Smart Delivery.
I’ve been able to play a couple of Xbox Series X|S Optimized titles during the review period, including previously-released games such as Forza Horizon 4, Gears 5, and Sea of Thieves. I also got access to new cross-gen games including Dirt 5 and Yakuza: Like a Dragon, but I’m more excited about the next-gen version of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs Legion and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla which were not available during the review period.
Even though I enjoyed playing games on my Xbox One X, I have to admit that seeing game developers prioritize 4K graphics over frame rates has been really frustrating. I would definitely choose a smooth 1080p/60FPS option over the 4K/30FPS standard that most Xbox One X enhanced titles have been targeting, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that camp. Fortunately, next-generation consoles should finally make 60FPS the new standard, and all the optimized games I played so far run at a solid 60FPS or more.
Microsoft says that the Xbox Series X has a 4K/60FPS performance target, with support for up to 120FPS and up to 8K. The console also supports Hardware-accelerated DirectX Raytracing, something that not many next-gen games will support at launch. Ray tracing will be available in the Xbox Series X version of Watch Dogs Legion and Assassin's Creed Valhalla, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it looks in the coming days.
Gears 5 is another optimized game I spent a lot of time on, and it looks really fantastic on the Series X. The Xbox One X version already looked really good for a game released at the end of this console generation, but the Series X version matches the Ultra settings from the PC version while using a dynamic 4K resolution. The multiplayer modes also now run at 120 FPS, though this is something I haven’t been able to try on my current TV.
Playing games at 4K/120 FPS requires a TV with an HDMI 2.1 port, a new standard that brings other gaming-focused features such as Auto Low Latency Mode and Variable Refresh Rate to reduce screen tearing and latency. 120 FPS support is definitely going to be a big deal for competitive multiplayer games, though this is something that solo games like Ori and the Will of the Wisps and the upcoming indie game The Falconeer will support.
I really enjoyed playing old games like Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, and Sea of Thieves with their next-gen enhancements, but the first wave of new cross-gen titles I played, including Gears Tactics and Yakuza: Like a Dragon didn't exactly wow me. Again, I’m really counting on Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs Legion to see some true next-gen graphics, though the game I really can’t wait to play on the Series X is Microsoft Flight Simulator. The game already looks incredible on PC, and with Halo Infinite being delayed I think it would have been a killer launch title for this new console generation
There’s much more to come
Earlier this year, Microsoft teased a new technology to double frame rates in select back compat games, and the company demoed this first on Fallout 4 running at 60FPS on the Series S. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to try that myself and it’s not clear when these enhancements will be available for Series X and Series S owners. Last month, the Xbox team explained that this new technology for doubling the framerate was "not applicable for many titles due to the game’s original physics or animations,” and we hope the company will share more details soon.
In addition to these frame rate improvements, the Series X will also be able to use the “Heutchy method” to make more backwards-compatible games run at a native 4K on the Series X and at 1440p on the Series S. We don’t have more details yet, but this could be a big deal for all Xbox One games that run at 1080p or a lower 900p resolution.
Microsoft also mentioned that the Xbox Series X and Series S will be the first consoles to support Dolby Vision for games, though that’s something that won’t be available until next year. Dolby Vision is Dolby’s proprietary HDR format that’s only supported on select premium 4K TVs, but it can make a big difference compared to the more ubiquitous HDR10 format. Indeed, Dolby promises up to 40x brighter highlights and 10x deeper blacks for games that will support Dolby Vision, and you can see some examples in the video included in the tweet below.
Get ready for the next evolution in gaming.
Introducing @Xbox Series X|S. The first consoles ever with gaming in Dolby Vision® and Dolby Atmos®.
Available soon. pic.twitter.com/ws4CGxXThf
— Dolby (@Dolby) September 29, 2020
The Xbox Series X and Series S will also support Dolby Vision for video content at launch as well as Dolby Atmos for games, two things that are already available on Xbox One consoles. With support for both DirectX ray-tracing and Dolby Vision for games, the Xbox Series X could really redefine console gaming, but again, it will take some time before developers are able to fully leverage these next-gen features.
Should you upgrade to the Xbox Series X?
Despite the absence of killer exclusives at launch, the Xbox Series X represents a true generational leap that makes it really hard to go back to 8th gen consoles. Quick Resume is a true game-changer that makes playing games on consoles even more convenient, and Microsoft’s Xbox Velocity Architecture can make all existing games and next-gen titles feel more enjoyable thanks to faster loading times.
4K games already looked great on the Xbox One X, but the Series X can run the same games while operating very quietly. Moreover, it can deliver a higher level of graphical fidelity at a silky-smooth 60FPS, with some games even offering a 120FPS option on compatible TVs and monitors. Microsoft’s backwards compatibility team also remains the best in the business, and the new Auto HDR mode can make games for previous generations look even better on HDR TVs.
Overall, the Xbox Series X is really great value at $499, and I think Microsoft will kick off this new console generation in a much better position thanks to a future-proofed console and valuable services like Xbox Game Pass. Sony will likely remain the market leader due to its huge PS4 install base, but I expect the Series X and the $299 Series S to sell much better than the Xbox One did back 2013.
I’m really enthusiastic about Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox consoles, though there are several things I wish Microsoft did better. The absence of strong first-party exclusives such as Halo Infinite and Microsoft Simulator on launch day is definitely a missed opportunity for the company. The Xbox OS is fine, but the lack of a native integration of game streaming services is quite anachronic when the PlayStation 4 added that many years ago. And don't get me started on the subject of free-to-play games, which still require an Xbox Live Gold subscription for a reason I can't understand.
I'm excited to spend more time with the Xbox Series X in the coming weeks, but I'll also be reviewing the Xbox Series S very soon. Despite its lack of native 4K support, I also expect this console to be a significant upgrade for Xbox One X owners thanks to the Xbox Velocity Architecture, 120 FPS support, and backwards compatibility improvements. The Xbox Series X will definitely be the obvious next-gen choice for most Xbox fans, but I think we shouldn't underestimate the Series S which will be the most affordable next-gen console this holiday season.
Microsoft may have "lost" this console generation in terms of console sales, but the company learned some important lessons and I'm convinced the Series X will be the best console to play next-gen games. It's hard to criticize Microsoft's hardware choices, but gamers ultimately care about games, and the next Xbox Game Studios titles built from the ground up for the Xbox Series X won't be available until next year at the earliest.