The arrival of the new Xbox Series X instantly transformed me into a 15-year-old. When it showed up at my home last week, I literally stopped everything I was doing to set it up. Could it really live up to Microsoft’s hype over the past year and deliver a gaming experience that we’ve never seen before? After a weekend of putting it through its paces, here are a few observations that might be helpful for anyone who’s considering an upgrade from their existing Xbox.
First things first: legacy console gamers who suffer from performance-heavy PC gaming envy will not be shortchanged with the new Xbox Series X. In my view, the Xbox Series X comes closer to recreating the gold standard of a top-performing PC experience than any other console in history. This is due in no small part to speedy SSD storage, an insanely powerful AMD CPU, 120Hz video support and (perhaps most importantly for legacy Xbox users) excellent backward compatibility with existing games. The latter is not surprising as the Xbox’s embedded operating system has a Windows heritage dating back to the original Xbox. And let’s face it: with an installed base of 1.4 billion Windows PCs, Microsoft knows a thing or two about backward compatibility.
Hardware runs silent and cool
Microsoft leveraged its engineering expertise to cram an impressive amount of components into the Xbox Series X’s admittedly boxy, tower-inspired form factor. Looking at it from a particular angle, positioned vertically, it brings to mind the iconic monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some may not be thrilled with the Xbox Series X’s overall design as it is no aesthetics breakthrough, but that’s almost beside the point. It’s essentially an unassuming black box that you’ll put under your TV in your entertainment center and forget about.
As for connectivity, the console includes two USB ports at the rear of the unit, alongside an Ethernet port, a storage expansion slot and HDMI 2.1 out. At the front of the console, you’ll find a 4K Blu-drive and a single USB port. Strangely, Microsoft decided to punt on USB-C ports. This seems a bit short-sighted, since future accessories and peripherals might benefit from higher speeds. I’m also a bit disappointed that Microsoft decided to drop its ingenious HDMI passthrough system available on the current Xbox One X. That feature allowed you to avoid the hassle of changing video inputs to play games, run apps and access your TV’s cable or satellite service. It’s also a bit confounding that W-Fi 6 is not supported on the new Xbox Series X—many console gamers would have appreciated it for futureproofing purposes.
In the scheme of things, though, these are relatively minor quibbles. Remarkably, I have not noticed any problems with noise on Microsoft’s new console. I’ve never heard the unit’s fan kick in, a welcome engineering improvement over the legacy Xbox One X. Microsoft needs to send AMD a holiday card as the silent operation of Xbox Series X is undoubtedly due to the console’s low-power AMD Zen 2 CPU (which features eight cores and runs at a nominal 3.8 GHz).
It’s all about speed and faster load times
Ask gamers about what they hate about existing consoles, and they’ll likely cite slow load times. Because the Xbox Series X utilizes a significantly improved CPU that works in conjunction with the SSD, load times are dramatically improved over the current Xbox One X. In my admittedly unscientific testing, popular games like Madden NFL 21, Sea of Thieves, and AC: Odyssey load 50-75% faster than the Xbox One X. These are the kind of speedy load times that SSDs deliver to traditional PC gamers. On the subject of storage, it’s important to note that while the Xbox Series X comes standard with 1TB of storage, only 802GB is accessible. Microsoft reserves the rest of the space for the OS and the new Quick Resume feature, which allow you to flip between games in ten seconds or less.
What’s more, games that have been specifically updated for the Xbox Series X can utilize Microsoft’s new Velocity Architecture that optimizes the console’s SSD for performance. Be warned that most backward-compatible games don’t use this new architecture, so you’ll have to wait for those games to be updated to take advantage of this feature.
120MHz video mode is where the Xbox Series X shines
The load time and CPU enhancements, combined with a mammoth increase to 12 teraflops of GPU performance, come together to generate an experience that feels markedly smoother. That indicates that most titles with mediocre or poor performance on an Xbox One should reach a constant 30fps. Frame rate drops on many Xbox One X games are not unheard of; they merely disappear with the Xbox Series X, thanks to the hardware boost.
Microsoft has made multiple Xbox Series X optimization patches available to many legacy titles at launch, and it is transformative. Sea of Thieves, for example, feels like a brand-new game. It truly feels like a PC gaming experience—many gamers know how visceral the difference between 30fps to 60fps can be.
The intoxicating PC-like smoothness—and I can’t emphasize this enough—really shines when 120Hz mode is enabled. In this mode, some games will drop the visual quality down to 120fps (which is still stunning), but input latency gets reduced and the visuals look mind-blowing on a 4K TV.
Should you make the upgrade?
Assuming you can find one to order (Microsoft sold out all online preorders in less than 30 minutes on September 22nd), the new Xbox Series X will be a transformative purchase for those experienced with previous Xbox models. I do not make that comment lightly. Microsoft’s strategic intention for the Xbox Series X is to create a PC-like experience for console owners. PC gamers who upgraded their PCs from an NVIDIA GTX 1060 to an RTX 3080 video card know that feeling. Everything you play feels faster and just looks better.
But let’s face it: the biggest downside of PC gaming is that it’s a PC. One must worry about drivers, ongoing Windows updates, multiple game launchers and other “maintenance” considerations that can throw a monkey wrench in the gaming experience. True, the advantage of PC gaming is that users can open the form factor and continuously upgrade their system—the very essence of futureproofing. Having said that, the sheer technology and power of the new Xbox Series X are so impressive that it will be years before you’ll have to make that decision. Restated differently: the most outstanding characteristic of the Xbox Series X is that it’s not actually a PC. At $499, it’s also far more affordable than a conventional and comparably equipped gaming PC (which can cost $1,500 or more). While Microsoft will also offer a disc-less model called the Series S for $299, with a reduced feature set and a maximum supported resolution of 1080. My guess is that the Series X will be the hottest version over the holiday session as most early adopters clamor for power and capability.
Lastly, this new Xbox Series X, as a platform, represents a marvelous opportunity for Microsoft’s 23 first-party studios to create mind-blowing next-gen games to utilize the potential of this new console. Powerful hardware is one thing; new games that push the hardware to its limits are another. I believe that will make the Xbox Series X genuinely shine. I’ll be eagerly awaiting!