Microsoft's new black box wants you to play, share, stream and shop.
The Microsoft Xbox Series X is a console without surprises. Some of that comes from the steady stream of details, tech specs and game lists that have kept potential buyers well informed since it was first teased under the codename Project Scarlett more than two years ago. But much of it also comes from Microsoft's determination not to fix what wasn't broken.
Just the name itself, Xbox Series X -- following Xbox One X and Xbox One -- points towards steady progress as opposed to a grand leap into uncharted territory. But the $500 (£450, AU$749) Xbox Series X is also a different beast at launch, compared to its 2013 predecessor, the Xbox One. There's no more Kinect camera and no HDMI-in port right next to the usual HDMI-out port, back when the Xbox One wanted to be your cable box. Gone are gimmicks and extras (except for a semiproprietary slot for an expensive Seagate expansion drive). The one loss I'm lamenting is the optical audio jack, an Xbox One feature missing here. Yes, it's not for everyone, but AV people want what they want.
Read More: Xbox Series X Restock Tracker: Where to score a console.
If anything, Microsoft's Xbox Series X is a reductive evolution, fine-tuning and perfecting what worked so well in the Xbox One line.
If the PlayStation 5 is a games-at-heart machine, flexing its classic gamepad prowess at the expense of all else, then the Xbox Series X is a more well-rounded console-as-ecosystem, leaning into multimedia, community, cloud gaming and cross-platform continuity.
The $499 Xbox Series X is available starting Nov. 10, although preorders sold out quickly, and finding one online or in a store may be difficult for some time.
For Microsoft, all those years making everything from Windows to MS Office to Surface Laptops more consumer-friendly has paid off, because the onboarding process for setting up and signing into the new Xbox is among its most polished features.
Setup via the Xbox app (iOS, Android or Windows 10) is a breeze. It reminds me of setting up a good smart home appliance. Turn on the console itself and it broadcasts its own Wi-Fi signal, which the app picks up on and uses to complete the setup. Just make sure to go through the setup options carefully to avoid sending too much data to both Microsoft and third-party publishers.
Exactly how much continuity is there going from the Xbox One and One X and the new Series X? Not only can you transfer most of your device settings from the older console to the newer one (via the app), but my Logitech Harmony remote seamlessly started controlling the Series X when I hit the button for its predecessor.
Design wise, it's hard to get simpler than a big black box. I've described it as a Soviet-era constructivist office block as reimagined by Syd Mead. If I were casting it in a dystopian film, I'd use it as the headquarters of the secret police. According to Microsoft's own designers, they didn't want anyone to say, "That looks like a microwave."
It's nearly featureless from the outside, save for a glowing, all-seeing eye... I mean small, light-up Xbox logo. There's also a vertical optical drive slot and a nearly hidden USB-A port. Other than that, the main visual feature is a slightly concave black-and-green grid over the top, which acts as a fan vent.
And this thing kicks a good amount of really hot air out of that vent. I spend a lot of my time with high-end gaming PCs, so I know a bit about system heat and exhaust, but I was still surprised. I'd keep a good amount of headroom free above the console if you're going to stand it up vertically.
Turning on the Xbox Series X, you'll see only minor tweaks to the current Xbox One menus. They are remarkably similar, with the same advantages and quirks.
Multimedia and shopping, from streaming apps to the Microsoft game and video storefronts, gets prominent placement, nearly as important as the games. On the PS5, the menu is split into separate Games and Media sections, firewalled from one another.
My theory has always been that Microsoft wants your game console to be a trojan horse for the illusive living room PC concept. The company says that Universal Windows Platform apps will run on the Xbox Series X and S (as they currently do on the Xbox One), which makes it easier to develop for both PC and Xbox at the same time, which is especially good news for indie game developers.
That's not to say the experience is seamless. The Xbox interface moves quickly, but is too busy and not exactly intuitive. A handful of most recent apps show up at the top, but diving deeper requires going into submenus or creating your own set of pins. Getting to the system settings is a multiclick process, and not as easy to access as on previous iterations of the Xbox OS. Part of this feels deliberate -- like a Vegas casino keeping you on a looping path and away from the exits, the interface here steers you towards community and commerce.
The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 cost the same (in their top-end configurations), they're arriving within days of each other and they play a lot of the same games. They're also very similar on the inside, each with a custom AMD Zen 2 CPU and a GPU based on AMD's RDNA 2 graphics architecture. You can read a much deeper dive into the components of both new game consoles here, but the key takeaway is both the new PlayStation and Xbox are built around the same hardware. Both also greatly benefit from having solid-state drives for storage, which lets games load faster than old spinning-platter hard drives.
I've been able to test a few older games optimized for Xbox Series X, including Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4. Other games may benefit from faster load times and less slowdown, but you shouldn't look for a radically different experience from your back catalog just yet. That said, the loading time boost is a huge benefit and makes any game feel faster and newer. Since the very sparse pre-release period, I've been able to test a few more games, including Watch Dogs: Legion, which now appears to have been optimized for Series X/S use. It's reflection-filled London location shines and shimmers the the daylight, and it feels markedly different than the non-optimized version I tried a couple of weeks ago.
My CNET colleague Eric Franklin points out that some back catalog games are a natural match for the Series X: "I think the biggest benefit comes from games with unlocked frame rates," he says. "Something like Sekiro or Monster Hunter: World that ran at 30 frames per second on Xbox One X can now run at 60 fps on Series X. That'll be a huge benefit." The company promises near-universal backwards compatibility for Xbox One and Xbox 360 games, plus a nice chunk of original Xbox games.
Microsoft also brags about Quick Resume, its ability to seamlessly jump in and out of multiple games, essentially leaving each one in a suspected state. As a busy adult/parent/employee, one of my barriers to gaming is how long it takes to turn everything on and load games up. It's a fantastic feature, although not quite as instantaneous as alt-tabbing between browser windows on a PC, and it doesn't yet work consistently over a wide selection of games. But I strongly support the mission to remove a good deal of get-into-the-game friction.
Also highly touted is a feature called Smart Delivery. Frankly, it's a fancy name for exactly the kind of versioning I'd expect in any new hardware. Basically, if there's a newly optimized version of a game you already own available for the Series X or Series S, it'll get patched to the appropriate version on your next-gen console without you having to do anything about it. Even better, if you have the Xbox Series S, which has a smaller hard drive, it'll make sure you're not downloading 4K textures and eating up storage space. I guess I'll never work in marketing, because it would never have occurred to me to call that out as a special feature.
Like the PS5, the selection of software available prelaunch is thin. In Gears 5, I could definitely tell the frame rates were higher and experience smoother than the original XB1 version. I wouldn't call it a life-changing experience, but there's a clear improvement.
Forza looked great beforehand, and once patched to the Xbox Series X/S version, it really shined, with some great lighting and reflection effects. But again, it's maybe a 10-20% improvement, not a totally different experience.
The TL;DR version: The Day 1 library for either of these new consoles is mostly older games retrofitted to show off some new visual features or new games that are cross-generational and therefore developed with older hardware in mind. You're an early adopter for bragging rights -- the stuff that will really knock your socks off will come later. The first console launch I covered as a reviewer was the Sega Dreamcast in 1999, and this has been largely true for every console generation since. It'll take at least a year to start seeing games that feel truly next-gen.
Beyond the hardware, the Xbox Series X is built around a subscription software model.
Sure, you can give the company $500 for the console itself, but what it really wants is your $15 (£11, AU$16) a month in perpetuity for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. (Skip the cheaper non-Ultimate plan, because then you'll need a separate Xbox Live subscription.) It includes a Netflix-like catalog of on-demand games, plus online multiplayer, access to some cloud-based games and a decent catalog of PC games as well.
The bad news is your Xbox experience will be limited without it. The good news is this kind of subscription package is forward-looking, offers a ton of excellent content and is well worth signing up for. EA Play, a similar collection of EA games, is being added to the Game Pass Ultimate membership in November.
Game Pass embraces the DNA of PC gaming, where you can access your Steam or GOG or Epic Game Store library from any gaming laptop and jump right back in wherever you were in a game. For example, I've played Gears 5 on PC, on the Xbox One, via Xbox cloud gaming, and now on the Xbox Series X and Series S. Every time, my cloud-based save syncs right up, with no additional action required on my part. That kind of continuity removes a major friction point for me.
Between Game Pass games on PC, Xbox cloud gaming (Microsoft's beta-ish cloud service), and even remote play through the iOS or Android Xbox app, the services ecosystem becomes more important in the long run than the actual hardware box.
That's a point I first made back in 2013, when I suggested the fixed-hardware living room console would eventually be replaced by small set-top boxes built around cloud gaming. Why give people a hardware box that will age quickly, when you can upgrade cloud-based gaming servers as needed and offer access on a subscription basis? I may have been off by a console generation or two, but considering how quickly everything from phones to laptops age, the idea of locking yourself into 2020 hardware for the next seven-plus years feels like it's close to becoming an old business model in a new world. One caveat: This requires someone to really nail cloud gaming and all the lag and quality issues it comes with, and no one has really done that yet.
Like the PS5, the Xbox Series X is a big investment, yet preorders sold out in minutes and we expect all new consoles will be hard to find this holiday season. That said, if the lifecycle of game consoles remains in the seven- to eight-year range, it's also an incredible value in the long run. Microsoft and Sony asking for $500 every seven years feels a lot more reasonable than certain phone-makers suggesting you drop $1,000 or more on a slightly newer phone every 12-24 months.
And if you don't feel like $500 is the right number for you, I'm pleased to say I had an excellent experience with the less expensive Series S model as well. Besides being much smaller and, in my opinion, having a better aesthetic design, the Series S keeps most of the best features for a much more reasonable $300.
The Series S can stream media at 4K in HDR. It has half the SSD capacity and doesn't do native 4K game output, instead topping out at 1440p. But that lower resolution means it can still handle the ray-tracing and other new game eye candy, despite a less powerful GPU. I played the same handful of games on both the Series X and Series S, via a 65-inch LG OLED, and found very little practical difference in the experience. The Series S also lacks the optical drive, but I'm a well-known optical drive skeptic, preferring to skip complex mechanical parts that spin around and are more likely to break down.
Now, I can't promise that future games won't eventually split off into Series X and Series S versions, with different visual features for each -- but if you're a casual gamer, have a smaller TV or just want to spend less, I'm very comfortable recommending the Series S. As a long-time PC gamer who likes to play everything at the highest resolution and detail settings, I'll be opting for the Series X myself.
First published Nov. 5