Xbox Series X Review – Playing The Future

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Having spent the better part of a month with the Xbox Series X preview unit, I’ve been able to experience the breadth of what Microsoft’s next-gen system offers. I’ve covered its capabilities in great detail with two full previews. Much of what I said then, particularly as it pertains to flagship features such as fast load times, Quick Resume, and some noticeable hardware-driven performance boosts still apply. The final review unit represents what consumers will have when they purchase the console and, having now spent a week with this version of the hardware, I can confidently say that the Xbox Series X is an impressive piece of hardware, one that flexes its power in subtle yet meaningful ways.

Whether it’s worth making the jump from Xbox One X to Series X is debatable and very much based on the kind of experience you want. Microsoft, by its own admission, isn’t too worried about whether you make the transition, having crafted Game Pass and Smart Delivery to ensure you don’t feel left out with older generations of hardware. However, those that make the jump to the new console will find the benefits of the next-gen hardware are tangible–and you won’t want to go back once you get hands-on.

The Ability Of Backwards Compatibility

With its RDNA 2 GPU and Zen 2 CPU from AMD, the Series X makes a significant technical leap with its power rated at 12.05 TFLOPs. For current-gen games played through backwards compatibility, this means unlocking untapped potential that the One X couldn’t leverage entirely. And in several cases, Series X does this without any need for optimizations.

Some games will get inherent performance boosts by virtue of the more powerful specs. For example, if a game runs an unlocked frame rate, or has a 60fps cap that it couldn’t always maintain on existing hardware, you will see the game hit those higher frame rates much more consistently. If a game runs a dynamic resolution, it’ll be able to maintain the highest resolution it’s allowed to hit.

Previous examples I’ve used are Final Fantasy XV and Monster Hunter World, both of which have One X enhancements but not Series X optimizations. In Final Fantasy XV, its performance mode (called “Lite”) runs a consistent 60fps, whereas on the One X it’d often drop to around 40fps even when exploring the open world. Monster Hunter World is able to keep up 60fps on its frame rate priority setting and even on its graphics priority mode, too. Where the Xbox One X would struggle to hit that upper limit, the Series X lets these games reach their potential.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is one game where the natural performance boost really improves the gameplay experience.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is probably one of the best examples of the importance of Series X hardware being able to simply boost a game’s performance to hit 60fps, unlike on the Xbox One X, which hovered around 30-40fps much of the time. It’s a case where it genuinely improves the experience, since Sekiro is an intense, high-stakes action game.

Conversely, some hard-coded limitations in certain games prevent performance boosts. These include Final Fantasy XV’s higher-fidelity options, which still run its enforced 30fps cap, and The Outer Worlds, which also locks to 30fps without any graphics options.

Don’t go in expecting every single game to be running full 4K resolution or super-high frame rates. Some games are made with built-in limitations to run properly on the hardware they were made for. In those cases, it’s up to developers if they want to go back and implement new optimizations to utilize the power afforded by the Series X.

The Series X Optimizations So Far

As for Series X-optimized games, we’ve had access to Gears 5, , , Sea Of Thieves, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon. With Gears 5, you can boost frame rate to 120fps in multiplayer to take advantage of the console’s 4K 120Hz refresh rate capabilities. The jump in frame rate makes the game look and feel silky smooth, though you will need the proper HDMI 2.1 display in order to actually use this feature when running 4K resolution. This is the only definitive use case I’ve had access to for review, but games such as the newer Call of Duty games, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and Dirt 5 (which we were able to temporarily access in earlier previews) will take advantage of the high refresh rate.

Gears Tactics does away with graphics options because it can run 4K at 60fps without compromises.
Gears Tactics does away with graphics options because it can run 4K at 60fps without compromises.

The enhancements I appreciated more, however, come from the increases from 30fps to 60fps while running crisp 4K. Such is the case in Gears Tactics, which tosses out performance options, because there’s no reason for them. Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves are also now running better than ever with full 4K and 60fps support. As opposed to the Xbox One X performance options, which asked you to choose between graphics or frame rate (or just accept 4K at 30fps), the Series X optimizations here really do provide the best way to play.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t as straightforward–it comes with two enhancement options: “High Resolution” for native 4K at 30fps and “Normal” for 1440p at 60fps. Each mode ran consistently with these target frame rates with the occasional drops when special effects from Heat Actions flared up on screen. Regardless, both modes provided enjoyable experiences from a technical standpoint. (You should also read my because that game is a gift to us all.) While it’s a bit early to tell, this approach could be indicative of where more graphically demanding games may go in this upcoming generation as it gives you options to lower resolution if it can’t outright hit 60fps when running 4K, similar to how some One X-enhanced games work now.

While some of the graphical and performance changes may not be necessarily mind-blowing, these games exhibit measurable and noticeable visual improvements. However, it’s still a fairly limited showcase of the Series X’s full power. We expect that more substantial enhancements will become apparent as more of these optimizations roll out throughout its lifespan.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon has two graphics options, but you should really enjoy Kasuga Ichiban's expressions in 4K.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon has two graphics options, but you should really enjoy Kasuga Ichiban’s expressions in 4K.

Saving Precious Seconds On Load Times

Super-fast loading is what people will be most impressed by, as it provides a more practical benefit that makes gaming experiences close to seamless. The internal 1TB NVMe SSD does the heavy lifting in this regard, and it does so without the need for specific optimizations.

Our tests have shown that the Series X can load games so much faster, leaving the Xbox One X taking about four to five times longer to load the same scenarios. When going from the main menu into a save, it took Red Dead Redemption 2 about 38 seconds on the Series X. Games like Control, Final Fantasy XV, and The Outer Worlds load into saves in about 10 to 13 seconds. Yakuza: Like A Dragon can load into its detailed open world in just six seconds. And for Gears 5 and Gears Tactics, loading into action from the main menu took up five seconds and 18 seconds, respectively.

Although Destiny 2 will get its own Series X optimizations in December this year, I could already see how the speed of the SSD improved the ongoing multiplayer game’s notoriously long load times. The game took 18 seconds to get from the title screen to character select, and just 21 seconds to load from the orbit menu down and into the Trostland EDZ. Compared to Xbox One X’s 1:34 and 1:12 for the respective situations, you’ll spend less time waiting and more time playing, which is valuable when considering how frequently you need to load between different in-game scenarios.

These numbers can start to lose meaning when rattled off like this, but it can’t be understated how much of a difference the speed makes. These are large, detailed games, often with vast open worlds, that load quick enough to keep you from reaching for your phone. The data doesn’t lie; these are all vast improvements over the previous gen. You can take a look at our direct comparisons in the table below.

GameXbox Series X Load TimeXbox One X Load Time
Yakuza: Like A Dragon6 secondsN/A
Dirt 512 secondsN/A
Gears 55 seconds28 seconds
Gears Tactics18 seconds52 seconds
Destiny 2 (orbit to gameplay)21 seconds1 minute, 12 seconds
Destiny 2 (to character select)18 seconds1 minute, 34 seconds
Red Dead Redemption 238 seconds2 minutes, 8 seconds
Control10 seconds58 seconds
Final Fantasy XV13 seconds1 minute, 11 seconds
The Outer Worlds11 seconds43 seconds

Fast times like these have been a major perk for PC gamers with NVMe SSDs, and now it’s the standard going into the new console generation. And it’s a luxury you can enjoy here.

Your Options For Storage Expansion

The internal SSD sure is fast, but the 802GB of actual free space on the 1TB drive can fill up quickly with the size of games today. If you’re looking at options for expanding storage, the 1TB Seagate expansion card is the premium option. Although it’s pricey at $220 at launch, it performs identically to the internal drive–it interfaces directly with console hardware and is ready to use in an instant.

You can also use external USB 3.0 drives to play backwards-compatible games that haven’t been optimized for Series X. If they are optimized or Series X-specific games, you’ll have to transfer them from external storage onto the internal drive or expansion card. Thankfully, transfer speeds are relatively fast over USB 3.0, though that is also impacted by whether you’re using an SSD or traditional hard drive.

The Best Xbox Series X/S External Storage Solutions

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In my testing, I used a Samsung T5 external SSD and Western Digital MyPassport external hard drive to measure two things: how fast a couple backwards compatible games could load when installed on them, and also how fast it takes to transfer those games to and from external and internal storage. If you’ll be relying on USB external storage to keep Series X-specific game files and free up space on the internal SSD, it’s something you’ll want to know. You can see the scenarios and results in the table below.

Data Transfer Speeds

Storage Drive (and scenario)Final Fantasy XV (84GB)The Outer Worlds (45GB)
Samsung T5 SSD (transfer from internal)5:502:54
Samsung T5 SSD (transfer to internal)3:562:05
WD Passport HDD (transfer from internal)14:247:35
WD Passport HDD (transfer to internal)12:557:00

Load Times

Storage DriveFinal Fantasy XVThe Outer Worlds
Xbox Series X (internal/expansion card)13 seconds11 seconds
Xbox Series X (Samsung T5 + USB 3.1)15 seconds13 seconds
Xbox Series X (WD Passport + USB 3.0)52 seconds26 seconds
Xbox One X (internal)1 minute, 11 seconds43 seconds

A Familiar User Experience With Some Nice Perks

Those who have been using the Xbox One for some time will notice that things haven’t changed all that much from the current user interface. Navigation is much snappier on the Series X, but it maintains the same overall look and feel, which I personally don’t mind since it works well enough.

What really brings that snappy navigation into its own is the Quick Resume feature. It’s one of the highlights of using the Xbox Series X–you can have around five to six game states suspended and jump between those games without having to reboot them. All you do is hit the home button and switch to another game, and Quick Resume takes care of the rest. It’s built into how the system operates.

Quick Resume retains those suspended states after turning off the console and even unplugging the power cord. I know that not everyone will jump between that many games, but it’s really convenient for hopping back into the ones you’re frequently playing. It’s had some hiccups during the review process with rare occasions of freezing while trying to jump back into a game–the hope is that these issues can be ironed out over time, because Quick Resume has been a real benefit for the way I play games. Just be aware that the system doesn’t communicate when Quick Resume reaches its upper limit.

First Look At Xbox Series X Boot Up And UI

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Form And Function

As I previously discussed during the preview phase, the Xbox Series X has a stark, almost brutalist design, but its brick-like aesthetic is one that really works for it. For one, the footprint is smaller than you might imagine, especially when it’s standing vertically. On its side it is perhaps more awkward a sight, though I wouldn’t consider it an eyesore.

You’ll be happy to know that the system has been whisper-quiet throughout my entire experience. It’s important to note that the top vent is where the main fan is housed, and really, you don’t need to worry about heat as long as you give the top fan enough space for proper airflow in your setup, as this will mitigate any potential overheating issues.

There’s a gravitas to the Series X’s presence, a simplicity in its design that speaks to a low-key confidence in its own power. It’s slick and, in many respects, understated, but still distinct enough to draw attention from people that may not have seen it before. But maybe you think it’s just a thick rectangle with no discernable features, other than the neon green painted accents around the holes at the top vent–and I wouldn’t argue with that. Either way, once it becomes a familiar sight, it just fades away into the background, letting the potential of its powerful gaming experiences take center stage rather than trying to stand out with eccentric visual flair.

Similarly, the controller doesn’t stray too far from what has been tried and deemed true. The changes from the Xbox One-era of controllers are subtle, including nice tactile textures on the grips and triggers. Xbox catches up with a new share button that lets you take screenshots or record short clips on the fly. The new crunchy 8-way directional pad is a bit loud and stiff compared to the Elite controller’s d-pad, but this doesn’t have any bearing on responsiveness. Like the main hardware unit it is paired to, it’s a simple and effective design.

Over time, the simplicity of the Xbox Series X's design grew on me.
Over time, the simplicity of the Xbox Series X’s design grew on me.

To Buy Or Not To Buy?

Overall, the Xbox Series X is a fantastic, straightforward console that still has a ton of potential to unlock. It’s focused on being the best version of hardware to make the most of an existing Xbox ecosystem–and while that means it’s not incorporating any wildly new ideas (depending on your view of Quick Resume), it’s executing on that vision even in these early days.

Until console-exclusive games come out, you won’t necessarily be gated from accessing any content Xbox is offering if you don’t buy it right away. Holding off until you start seeing more games make the most of the system’s potential is a fair and smart move, and nothing really screams out as a killer app for the Series X right now. It’s worth considering that buying a console is an investment for your gaming future, and not just for what’s available here and now. What we’ve seen thus far is an enticing showcase of the Series X’s capabilities, and also the tip of the iceberg for what can be achieved on the console.

The Series X is an extremely refined Xbox and a great piece of tech that sets a strong foundation for Microsoft to better serve its console users. If you factor in the brand’s development studio acquisitions and upcoming lineup of games, the future does look bright for the Xbox platform.

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