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June 2021

Xbox Series X

Platform(s): Xbox Series X
Genre: Hardware
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Microsoft
Release Date: Nov. 10, 2020

About Chris Barnes

There's few things I'd sell my soul to the devil for. However, the ability to grow a solid moustache? I'd probably sign that contract ... maybe ... (definitely).


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Hardware Review - 'Xbox Series X vs. Xbox Series S'

by Chris Barnes on Nov. 17, 2020 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

The Xbox Series X is Microsoft's fastest, most powerful console ever and sets a new bar for performance, speed and compatibility.

Buy Xbox Series X|S

Seven years ago, I made the leap to PC as my primary gaming platform. The timing was certainly no coincidence. With the release of PS4 and Xbox One, the upgrades from their predecessors were seemingly invisible, between sub-30 fps performance, remasters releasing every other day, and CPUs that were dated before the systems were even released. For this console launch, a humbled Microsoft seems to have learned its lesson with the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, and in doing so, may have won back my heart as a console gamer.

Both consoles are packaged in cleanly presented boxes. Tightly wrapped sleeves embrace the body of the system with the message, "Power Your Dreams." There aren't any free codes, pack-ins, or console bundles this go-around. With that simple but effective message, Microsoft is relying on the system to do the talking.

This also holds true when you get the Series X set up in your gaming space. Opting to have my Series X stand vertically (my first time ever choosing that orientation for a console), it stands like an obelisk within my entertainment center cabinet. You notice its presence — not because of its noise (there is ostensibly none) but because of its appearance. Coming in at $499, the flagship Series X model screams high quality. In stark contrast, the more budget-conscious Series S may be the cutest console I've ever laid eyes on. The speaker memes and drive-through speaker analogies were all I could think of leading up to launch day, but to my surprise, I am in love with the aesthetics of the Series S. Its ridiculously small form factor (roughly the width and depth of a PS2 Slim) makes it the perfect console to tuck away on a desk or a bedroom TV stand when you're looking to move your next-gen gaming to a different room for a short while.

After running through the incredibly easy setup process (using the mobile Xbox app to expedite everything), I picked up one of the revised controllers that came packed in with the system and was off to the races. Like the system, the controller isn't a revolution, but it's a much-needed refinement to the prior models. Instead of adaptive triggers or something innovative, Microsoft opted for minor tweaks to the original formula and a slightly decreased form factor. It did take me a short while to adjust to the size, since my fingers don't quite line up with the triggers like the previous-gen models. In addition, the controllers now sport textured grips and triggers that make for more comfortable gaming sessions.

Perhaps the most noticeable change to the controller is the new d-pad. Instead of a simplistic cross design, the controller features a circular directional pad with recessed diagonals and a much more tactile response when clicking in any direction. I still need to use the new d-pad in games within the fighting and platforming genres, where these changes could have the biggest impact, but it's enjoyable to use in navigating dashboards, menus, and keyboard prompts.

The Xbox dashboard finally feels like it has reached its full potential because everything feels snappy. A console that's been woken up from rest boots up within seconds of pressing the controller's Xbox guide button. Dashboard tiles, store pages, and applications slide across your screen almost instantaneously. Again, this isn't a fresh, new take on the Xbox dashboard but is identical to the existing Xbox One dashboard. The speed is markedly improved over the prior generations, and I enjoy the dashboard now that it performs well. Pins are easy to set up, so you can quickly group games into various buckets; friends and party invites are just one or two button prompts away; and browsing for new games in the store and Game Pass sections is much smoother.

After familiarizing myself with dashboard, I was off like a little kid in a candy store. Even games like NBA 2K21, which I'd typically never consider purchasing, caught my eye in the interest of putting each of the consoles through its paces. One thing that caught my eye was the download speeds of these new consoles. With an ethernet cord and gigabit internet, I was happy to see downloads in the 300-500 Mbps range and download even the beefiest of games — looking at you, Call of Duty — in a short amount of time. It's worth noting that these download speeds tank to 30-40 Mbps if you have a game actively running, even if it's running in the background.

It wasn't the download speeds that limited my brief downloading spree — it's the storage. Yes, the storage on both consoles is quite small. I am spoiled in this regard, since I'm used to 4 TB of space on my PC, but it's a downer nonetheless. While the modest 800 GB on Series X should be enough for the majority of gamers, the paltry storage capacity is even more apparent on the Series S, which sports less than 400 GB of usable space. Is it the end of the world? Certainly not. Between Xbox's intuitive external storage solutions and a plug-and-play external proprietary SSD, the options to work around the lack of space are plentiful (if potentially expensive), but even users who don't suffer from the most extreme cases of gaming ADHD will need to delete and download games more often than they'd like.

Up to this point, my comments on the overall console experience remains the same between both the Series X and the Series S, its smaller, cheaper (and cuter) sibling. Where the two diverge is in game performance. Ultimately, I found that the snappiness within both systems' dashboards also carries over to the games. I haven't experienced a single hiccup, frame drop, or hitch while gaming on the Series X or Series S. The overall visual quality between the two can differ by quite a bit, and it's certainly something to be aware of when purchasing your next-gen gaming console.

With high frame rates and consistent frame times, the Series X is an absolute monster of a machine. Everything I threw at it felt great to play, without any sacrifice of quality. The crispness of 4K gaming is finally able to shine on next-gen hardware. Gaming on my PC always felt like a concession: I could either enjoy a smooth gaming experience at 1080p or settle for a stutter-fest at 4K, even with a modest card like the RTX 2070 super. That isn't the case here. New releases like Assassin's Creed Valhalla and Dirt 5 run at 4K with gorgeous textures and jaw-dropping draw distances but still maintain high frame rates.

It is worth noting that like the PC experience, users will still face options when it comes to the overall presentation. Nearly all of the games available at launch for Xbox Series X/S offer some level of flexibility when it comes to performance and visuals. Do you want better resolution or a higher frame rate? This will surely be unfamiliar territory to those who have never delved into the PC gaming space, but this shouldn't cause any need for worry. The approach on the new consoles is much more straightforward than the sliders in PC games. You're limited to two or three options here, so you'll never feel too overwhelmed.

Unlike the $499 Series X, which targets the best possible performance and visuals for the best TVs on the market, the Series S instead targets low-resolution (and potentially low-frame rate) gaming at a budget-friendly price point of $299. On paper, these may come off as massive downsides to most folks, but in practice, I must admit that I love my Series S. Would I want this to be my only console in the house? No.

You aren't getting quite what Microsoft led us to believe when the console was revealed. Simply put, the Series S isn't simply a Series X at a lower resolution. You can experience everything from 900p resolution at 60fps, 1440p at 30 fps, or games that are lacking raytracing modes available to Series X users. Ultimately, this console seems like it'll succeed or fail based on the developers' willingness to work around it. I find that I'm opting for the high-resolution mode settings in games and dealing with 30fps performance. Titles like Yakuza: Like A Dragon look incredibly blurry on my 1440p monitor if I choose the performance mode. I'd rather see a game with slightly lower-quality shadows if it leads to a higher resolution and stable frame rates. It's a problem if developers take a simple approach of dropping the resolution so low that the end user is left with muddy images. From what I've played so far, there's been at least one graphical option available on the Series S that meets my expectations.

With a tantalizing price tag that competes with the Nintendo Switch and a form factor that can squeeze onto just about any shelf, the Series S is a competent little machine that has impressed me thus far. Despite my disdain for 30fps games from the previous console generation, I've been pleased with the feel of games at the lower frame rates on the Series S. Surely this is largely in part due to my monitor's support for variable refresh rate, which was a feature that I had overlooked during the lead-up to this console launch, but it's been a crucial factor in my enjoyment with the Series S.

While most aspects of the Xbox Series consoles are a refinement over the prior generation, one notable addition is the Quick Resume feature. My experience with it so far isn't good. Admittedly, this is partly due to Microsoft turning off the feature on "most" games optimized for Series X/S, but that's one of the biggest gripes with Quick Resume. The system offers no indication as to whether a game has a suspended save state. At one point, Assassin's Creed Valhalla started up via Quick Resume, and it was great. I was instantly back to running across rooftops and raiding villages. A day or two later, the game didn't open via Quick Resume. Was the feature turned off? Did I force-quit the game out of old habit without even realizing it? Did my wife start up a different game and potentially get rid of a Quick Resume save state on my profile? All of it is a mystery.

I have no way of knowing which games support it or when I'm going to launch a game from scratch versus Quick Resume. The feature is so finicky that I've decided to expunge from my brain any information I absorbed through marketing leading up to console release and tell myself that it was all a fever dream. Maybe that will change and Microsoft can release a fix to get the feature working for the majority of games, but even then, it'll need to clean up the presentation on the dashboard before it can be a reliable feature. Until then, I'll be manually saving all my games and relying upon the lightning fast load times from the system's NVME SSDs to launch games.

The load times on both the Series X and S are so good that the prior paragraph may come off as spoiled whining. With blazingly fast load times, the Quick Resume feature feels like a nice-to-have and not a requirement for a next-gen console. Without it, the Series X and S both feel like safe, smart refinements over the prior consoles. The new consoles are not revolutionary, but the Xbox Series feels like a re-do. This is what the prior generation of consoles should have felt like at launch. Whereas the PS4 and Xbox One felt dated even before their releases, the Xbox Series consoles feel next-gen and built for gaming. Games aren't stuttering and dropping frames, breaking my immersion, and making me notice every little mishap or muddy texture on-screen. I haven't booted up my PC since owning the new Xbox. The Series X (and even the S, to an extent) may be the system that brings me back to console gaming. I'm not fiddling with graphical settings in menus, dropping HWMonitor and RivaTuner overlays onto games, or sweating about every little dropped frame.

I'm playing games on a console again, and it's glorious.

Ultimately, the Xbox Series X is superior to the Series S. The Series X has more graphical horsepower, a larger hard drive, higher frame rates, and supports 4K visuals. The Series S is smaller and cheaper, and while it wouldn't be my primary gaming platform for this generation, it's the perfect secondary console for PlayStation gamers who want to dip their toes into the Xbox ecosystem or for Xbox loyalists who want an extra console in another room of their house. Whether it can keep up with the Series X and the PS5 in the years to come remains to be seen. If I were scoring the Series S on its own, it would garner a 7.5/10. If I were to score the Series X on its own, it would easily earn a 9.0/10. Since I can only assign one score per article, the final score is an average of the two scores.

Score: 8.3/10

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