Xbox Series X review

By Luke Albigés,
Well, it's here. The wait has been almost unbearable, especially with every month of 2020 feeling several years long, but it's finally here. Xbox Series X arrives in a matter of days (alongside the Series S, which we've not had a chance to test out yet), and we've spent the last couple of weeks putting Microsoft's latest and greatest console through its paces. There are plenty of articles in our Series X|S release hub that dive deep into specific aspects and topics, but if you just want a general overview and impressions, you've come to the right place. Long story short: we really like it, but let's break it down and tell you why.

xbox series x

What's In The Box?

First things first, let's tackle what you can expect to find in that big ol' retail box when you pop it open on launch day, for those who haven't subjected themselves to an unboxing video. The box itself is really smart, flipping open to reveal the main course — the chunky Series X console itself — nestled in a bed of protective foam, wrapped up all snug in yet more layers of cushioning, and wearing its 'power your dreams' branding with pride. Everything else is packed neatly away in a separate compartment, a box within a box, if you will. Here, you'll find the new controller (with a pair of AA batteries), a standard figure-eight power lead, and a two-metre HDMI 2.1 cable. And that's it.

Notable by their absence are the trial codes for Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Live Gold that would typically come with a new console, although these would be somewhat wasteful when there's a trial scheme for Game Pass Ultimate hard-coded into the subscription system itself. It's also a little mean that you don't get a USB-C cable to connect your controller in case you run out of batteries mid-session, especially since everything up to this point has been micro-USB so some folks might not have one of these kicking around. There's also no headset (not even like the cheap and cheerful single-ear one that came with Xbox One), but then again, Series X supporting the majority of existing Xbox peripherals should mean that isn't too much of an issue.

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Connectivity

The monolithic design of the Series X sees most slots and ports arranged on the rear, with only the disc drive and a single USB3.1 port bucking this trend and living on the front of the unit. Well, putting the disc drive anywhere else would be sort of silly. On the reverse, you'll find another pair of USB3.1 ports, a small slot for the storage expansion, a standard ethernet port, and a couple of familiar holes that you should probably plug the HDMI and power cables into if you want the box to do anything. There's no 'HDMI In' this generation (not that many will miss it), nor is there a S/PDIF output for anyone still using optical cables in their audio setup.

In terms of non-wired functionality, things get a little disappointing. The Series X packs a 802.11ac dual band antenna, which is the same kind of spec as you'd find in an Xbox One X. Given how much of an effort has been made to future-proof the rest of the console's specs, it's a shame to see this older wireless tech used over the newer Wi-Fi 6 standard. It's not the end of the world and we've encountered no issues so far with wireless networking, but the faster speeds available using Wi-Fi 6 would certainly have been helpful as 4K media streaming continues to rise in the mainstream.

As for audio, there's once again a headphone jack in the new controller that will accept most standard 3.5mm headphones and some headsets, but supported wireless headsets can also be connected to the console without the need for extra adapters or anything.

xbox series x

Form Factor

Xbox Series X is dense. It's a solid block of tech where everything is crammed in tight to keep it down to even this size, so naturally it's got a bit of weight to it (9.8lbs, so around 1.5lbs heftier than the One X). The design is extremely simple, but the slightly concave top grill and gentle glow illusion (it's actually just colouring inside of the holes to make it look like a glow from certain angles) give it a clean overall look. Not that it'll stay clean for long, mind — the matte finish makes it an absolute fingerprint magnet, so you might want to go careful any time you need to move the console. While it looks pretty cool stood up vertically, not everyone will have room to use it such, and the alternatives are not ideal. Laying the unit down on its side, the circular base protrudes awkwardly and looks ugly, and it would still need plenty of space either side to let the airflow system do its thing. You could also have it laid down and with the grill facing you, but you might then find that the disc drive and connections are tricky to get at depending on how much space you're working with. Still, the clean lines and functional design mean it'll blend right in in just about any media unit that will accommodate it. Which can't be said for its rival — Sony's new console is a masterclass in design for design's sake, an audacious and frankly impractical behemoth of a console that looks like it's wearing its dad's old trenchcoat with the collar popped.

We were going to bust out the noise level testing kit, but it soon became apparent that would just be a waste of time. Any time it's not running a physical disc, Series X is effectively silent, even when running some of the most intensive stuff we have access to right now (things like Gears Tactics' in-engine 4K60 cutscenes). Reports of the console getting hot enough to double as a toaster also seem to have been heavily exaggerated, and even during those more demanding bouts of processing, it has never gotten more than slightly warm to the touch while the cooling pillar design does its thing and pushes similarly warm air out of the grill on top. Nothing to worry about on the sound or heat levels, then, but it'll be interesting to see if and how this deteriorates over time as current-gen consoles have done.

xbox series x

Controller

At first glance, the new controller differs little from the Xbox One pad, but you only have to pick it up to notice that it certainly feels different. The textured rear and triggers offer better grip and purchase than the smooth finish on the old model, and the oh-so-subtly altered shape makes it just a little more confortable to hold. The main revision to existing buttons comes in the form of a new d-pad design, which proves to be a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's easy to make precise inputs with it which makes it great for menu management, but on the other, it's really quite clicky and loud, and feels a little awkward for more complex inputs such as fighting game special moves.

There's also a brand new button smack in the middle of the pad: the Capture button. A quick tap while playing instantly captures a screenshot, while holding it down briefly instead saves a brief video of what just happened. Quality and duration can both be altered to your liking in the settings, but it's overall just a much more tactile and useful implementation of a system that already existed on Xbox One. Trying to capture via a controller was previously a fool's errand, however — pressing the Guide button to bring up the option to take a screenshot would send 95% of Xbox One games to the pause menu and end up taking a picture of that instead, so this controller-level solution is most welcome.

If you're not a fan of the revised controller, or if you simply want a few more to hand for local multiplayer or switching to have one usable and one on charge at all times, you'll be pleased to know that all old Xbox One controllers and accessories are fully supported. We've switched over to an Xbox One pad while the new one was charging (using the existing Play and Charge kit, in fact) several times, and everything works as it should. The only thing you miss out on is the Capture button. It's great to see this level of support for legacy accessories, particularly if you're a fan of genres like fighting, racing, and flight, all of which benefit from dedicated enthusiast controllers which can be really quite expensive.

xbox series x

Specs

CPU: 8X Cores @ 3.8 GHz (3.66 GHz w/SMT) Custom Zen 2 CPU
GPU: 12 TFLOPS, 52 CUs @1.825 GHz Custom RDNA 2 GPU
Memory: 16GB GDDR6 w/320 bit-wide bus
Memory Bandwidth: 10GB @ 560 GB/s, 6GB @ 336 GB/s
Storage: 1TB Custom NVMe SSD
gears tactics

Performance

Okay, so it looks neat, runs pretty cool and very quiet, has a neat controller, and is filled almost to bursting with top-end tech. But how does Series X actually run? It should come as no surprise based on the tech specs above that the answer to that question is 'very well indeed.' As with any new hardware, it'll be a while before we see any software that really pushes the kit to the redline, but Series X is making running what's there at launch seem almost effortless for the most part. Bearing in mind the challenges 2020 has presented in just about every industry and not just cutting edge game development, and that a lot of what is playable on day one will be older games updated for the new console, it's impressive how stable everything seems to be. We've noticed a few frame drops here and there and some games certainly fare better than others (the screen tearing in Ark is absolutely horrific), but anyone with a 4K display is going to notice some pretty major upgrades over what last generation hardware was capable of pushing out.

One of the best features is one we started to see on revised models like the Xbox One X over the last few years, and that's graphics options. More games than ever seem to be offering players the choice to prioritise what they choose, whether it be performance, resolution, or frame rate. Ray tracing comes at a fairly steep processing cost, so some games also feature that among their suite of options. Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition's menu offers ray tracing on at either 4K30 or 1080p60, or equivalent options with ray tracing turned off where frame rates are doubled. Hopefully this degree of choice will be commonplace in this generation, as everyone wants slightly different things from their gaming experiences, and having more options is never a bad thing.

The tech here does some pretty smart stuff with older games that haven't been updated, too. Auto HDR is a basic but pretty effective way to brighten up even games that predate it, while any games that formerly struggled to hold their target frame rates (or had uncapped frame rates) now seem to hold steady, all with additional filtering going on. Loading times are also a massive step forward whether a game is optimised for Series X or not, which we've gone in-depth on in its own article. If you're the kind of person who plays a lot of games that take their sweet time loading, you should seriously consider upgrading to Series X just to get more play time from every gaming session. It's feels like a proper generational leap and for me, it's the biggest 'wow' factor with the new console so far.

Quick Resume is another cool feature of the hardware, effectively allowing you to keep multiple games and apps open at once in order to return to them quickly without dealing with menus and title screens. While the principle is certainly exciting and indeed useful, it's rendered slightly less impressive by the fact that games are already loading in a matter of seconds anyway. In quite a few cases, it's just as quick to reload back into a game the normal way as it is to do so via Quick Resume, although at least the new system means you can do so without having to worry about saving your game or anything like that. It has felt ever-so-slightly temperamental in our experience so I personally wouldn't risk relying on it instead of standard saving at this point, but it's still a useful feature all the same and will only be improved over the console's lifetime, no doubt.

As for that speedy storage, we should probably mention how easy it is to fill it up. Right now, we have a total of 20 games on our Series X — 15 of which are major titles, including some hefty ones like Destiny 2 and Ark, which come in over 100GB a piece — and we're at 99.9% full. It feels like this should be more than enough for the majority of users, especially with the ability to transfer games to and from external storage much faster than you'd be able to redownload them. Series X games can't be run from external drives (bar the official expansion card), and you likely won't want to run much older stuff from there as it won't benefit from the improved load times, so this largely serves as cold storage for large games and a permanent home only for snappier back-compat titles that already load perfectly quick enough. You'll want to keep an eye on your free space, though, as filling it up this much resulted in a noticeable decrease in responsiveness on the dashboard (using the virtual keyboard in particular) and also seemed to create issues with launching certain games, which we had never experienced before getting so close to storage capacity.

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Interface

One of the most exciting things to do whenever you get any new piece of tech is to simply mess around with it. Even the most boring of menus can feel like a playground when the experience is fresh, but sadly, that's one thing that really feels like it's missing with Series X. There's no doubt that the refined version of the recent dashboard is some of Microsoft's best UI work yet — whether the fact that it's effectively a cleaner vertical version of the beloved 360 Blades interface is by design or purely coincidental — but the familiarity just takes the edge off that usual new console excitement. On the plus side, you're unlikely to get lost looking for important options or lose time trying to find the games you want to play, since there's a good chance you already have plenty of experience with something very similar. It's a solid refresh for sure, and that's arguably better anyway once that honeymoon period expires and you just want to get on with using the console.

There are several strange quirks with the Series X UI at the time of writing, which should hopefully be ironed out by the time the dashboard is made public. Early recipients of the console noticed that the UI itself was only running at 1080p to begin with and while it feels like it is running at a higher resolution now, there are still some odd things going on. Some menu options briefly load at a visibly lower resolution before popping up smoother and clearer, while there's occasionally some odd (if extremely mild) flickering in other menus. It'd also be nice to have an option for HDR implementation on the dashboard itself, purely to stop displays from cutting in and out of HDR mode every time you back out to the dash or load into a game. All mild inconveniences at worst, mind, and all only ever an update away from being remedied.

You'll quickly notice loads of minor tweaks to the UI that make understanding what games will get the most out of the new hardware, too. Game Pass lists can now be sorted by platform, for instance, which prioritises Optimised for Series X|S games, while other menus stick unique symbols on game icons to show that they're upgraded for maximum performance. The progress bar even changes from 'updating' to 'upgrading' when downloading a game update specifically to enhance an Xbox One release to a Series X|S one, and it just feels like MS really wants you to understand the new ecosystem. But, with Smart Delivery in use, there won't be any confusion over whether or not you've got the best version of any major game anyway — the system should be doing all the hard work for you on that front.

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Verdict

Even at this early stage where we've only seen a fraction of what Series X can do, it's already clear that it's a beast. Given how good the upgraded versions of the likes of Forza Horizon 4 and Gears 5 look, we can't wait to see how incredible they'll look when designed with the full grunt of Series X in mind. It's not all about the visuals, either. If you already played some of these games (especially on PC) then we're definitely talking diminishing returns on the graphical front, but that NVMe SSD adds a freshness of a different kind and ensures that they feel snappier than ever before. Between this, the revised UI, and a lot of the other smart features, Series X absolutely feels like a massive step up on last generation. And it's only going to get more impressive. Bring it.

Ubisoft's pair of launch titles and a handful of others are yet to go live for us at the time of writing, but we'll be back with our thoughts on those as soon as they do. Similarly, we've yet to get our hands on a Series S retail unit, but we'll be sure to share our detailed thoughts on Series X's little brother as soon as we have one. In the meantime, keep it locked on our Xbox Series X|S launch hub for all our coverage up to and beyond launch.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Hey, I'm Luke! I've been playing games since way back in the 8-bit days, and have spent the last 15+ years writing and talking about them professionally for anyone and everyone who would let me. Monster Hunter fanatic, wearer of many fine hats, and always up for a raid.