Xbox Series X Review

4K gaming and super speeds, but lacking must-play exclusive games

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Microsoft Xbox Series X

Microsoft Xbox Series X

 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

What We Like
  • Beautiful 4K graphics

  • Fast loading and menus

  • Most powerful console

  • Extensive backward compatibility

  • Runs quiet and cool

What We Don't Like
  • Lacks big exclusives

  • No rechargeable controller battery

  • Extra storage is expensive

The Xbox Series X packs much more refinement than the Xbox One before it and delivers impressive performance, but it continues to suffer from an exclusivity problem.

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Microsoft Xbox Series X

Microsoft Xbox Series X

 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Microsoft fumbled the Xbox One launch—and played catch-up throughout the eighth console generation, ultimately selling less than half the units that Sony's PlayStation 4 did.

Even the powerful Xbox One X revision, the excellent value of the Game Pass Ultimate subscription, and acquiring loads of notable game studios weren't enough to save the generation.

The Xbox Series X represented an opportunity for Microsoft to start over with a new generation of console gaming. Microsoft took a two-tiered approach this time, with the less powerful Series S and flagship Series X sharing the same basic hardware and playing the same basic games. The Xbox Series X is the most powerful home console today, handily beating out the rival PlayStation 5 in raw specs.

Plus, it has an array of user-friendly features that stand out in use—such as super-speedy loading times and quick swaps between open games, not to mention extensive backward compatibility with older games.

Xbox Series X and TV
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

While the Xbox Series X is an impressive piece of hardware, it does suffer from an exclusivity problem. The console continues to lag behind the PS5 in exclusives, with Sony having secured about four times as many titles. Microsoft’s strategy of releasing their exclusives on PC, often with day-and-date Game Pass availability, further dilutes the value of a Series X for anyone who also has a gaming PC. For console-only gamers, though, there’s much to like about the Series X.

Design and Ports: Big, black brick

The Xbox Series X looks significantly different from any other previous Xbox or any other home console at all. It almost looks like a desktop PC tower but with a more compact build. Aligned vertically, it sits about one foot tall and is six inches wide, and it feels very densely packed with top-end tech, given its nearly 10-pound weight. A non-removable base at the bottom indicates that the vertical orientation is the default. However, Microsoft has also put tiny feet on one side if you prefer to lay it horizontally.

While it is a unique shape to stick into a home entertainment center, I prefer this simple, unfussed design to the PlayStation 5, which is much taller, wider, and curvier.

Microsoft has gone ultra-minimal with this design: it’s the most simplistic, box-like Xbox. And while it is a unique shape to stick into a home entertainment center, I prefer this simple, unfussed design to the PlayStation 5, which is much taller, wider, and curvier. Sony’s console might look cooler, but it’s overwrought compared to the simplicity of the Xbox Series X. Microsoft’s console isn’t wholly free of flourishes, either: the classic green accent popping out of the large fan holes at the top is a clever touch.

The front face has a subtle power button at the top left (when vertical), with the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc drive directly beneath, topped with an eject button.

A single USB port and Bluetooth connectivity button are on the bottom right. Flip to the back, and you’ll find a simple cluster of ports at the bottom: two USB ports, a single HDMI port, an Ethernet port, and a power cable port.

Xbox Series X
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

There's one more large port: the storage expansion slot. Because of the incredible speed of the custom, built-in 1TB solid-state drive (SSD), your average SSD or hard drive won't be able to plug in via USB and match its capabilities. Instead, Microsoft has partnered with Seagate to produce tiny Storage Expansion Cards that match the internal SSD speed and plug right into the back. The downside is that a 1TB card costs a whopping $399.99, and even the smaller 512GB card will set you back $139.99.

Unlike Sony's innovative DualSense controller on PS5, Microsoft has essentially stuck with the same controller design from the Xbox One. That's fine: it's a solidly-built, responsive controller, but there aren't any surprises to the layout and functionality here. The directional pad is now circular and raised, rather than just showing the + shape above the surface; plus, there's an added grip texture to the triggers, a more prominent texture to the grips, and a new dedicated screenshot/share button on the face.

The console can output up to 12 teraflops of graphical power, double what the previous Xbox One X console could, and also beats the PlayStation 5.

Elsewhere, the newer, increasingly standard USB-C port replaces the micro USB port for wired play, but Microsoft still doesn’t pack in a rechargeable battery with the controller. You can buy a rechargeable battery, pop it in the back, and plug in the USB-C cord to charge it. Otherwise, you’re able to use a pair of AA batteries. It seems strange for a modern $60-65 controller to use disposable batteries by default. I suppose one could frame it as adding versatility, but when the alternative option is using disposable, wasteful batteries, that’s not a benefit.

The Xbox Series X is compatible with all previous Xbox One controllers, so if you already have some kicking around, there’s no need to buy the new ones for local multiplayer gaming.

Setup Process: App or controller

Setting up the Xbox Series X will be familiar to anyone who has used a modern console system, such as an Xbox One or PlayStation 5. You’ll need to connect the HDMI cable from the console to your TV, plug in the power cord, and press the power button to start. You can then decide whether to manually continue setup from the console using the controller or a paired Xbox smartphone app. The set up includes establishing an internet connection via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable and logging into or creating a Microsoft account, which lets you download games and services online.

Xbox Series X
Lifewire / Andrew Hayward 

Performance and Graphics: Crisp, smooth, and fast

Thanks to a custom AMD RDNA 2 GPU with 52 compute units (CUs) at 1.825 GHz, and an octa-core custom AMD Zen 2 GPU, the Xbox Series X sets a new standard for home console performance. The console can output up to 12 teraflops of graphical power, double what the previous Xbox One X console could, and also beats the PlayStation 5 (~10.3 teraflops).

That means the Xbox Series X delivers stunningly detailed games in native 4K resolution (not upscaled) at up to 120 frames per second for TVs that support 120Hz output. Of course, you’ll need a 4K HDR TV to see the most significant benefits of the console; a 1080p set won’t be able to deliver the kind of crispness and clarity that Xbox Series X games are built around. The system will eventually support 8K-resolution displays, but Microsoft hasn’t yet enabled that option given the lack of supported games and media, let alone consumer-priced 8K screens.

In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the snowy Nordic backdrops glisten with immense detail, even in the far-off distance, and there’s reactive snow that realistically tramples under your feet and dreamy lighting effects.

Despite the massive upgrade in raw performance capabilities, the visual difference from last-generation games may not be quite as immediately evident as some past generational leaps. This generation’s most extensive enhancements seem more focused on delivering a smoother, more consistent level of graphical fidelity with additional flourishes that help nudge the visuals closer to either realistic or the developers’ creative vision. One of those flourishes is real-time ray tracing, a rendering technique that delivers incredibly realistic and reactive lighting and reflections rather than canned, pre-set animations.

Xbox Series X
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

The Xbox Series X had a few genuinely stunning games at launch, the most beautiful of which was Ubisoft’s open-world adventure, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. The snowy Nordic backdrops glisten with immense detail, even in the far-off distance, plus there’s reactive snow that realistically tramples under your feet and dreamy lighting effects. I fired up the same game on my Xbox One S for comparison and found that the last-gen rendition was noticeably fuzzier and had less-smooth animations, not to mention less visible detail in the world around you.

No doubt, the Xbox Series X version is visually impressive—but the last-gen version of the game still looks pretty good, and more crucially, it plays the same. Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War is crisper and more detailed on Xbox Series X but ultimately looks like a slightly better version of the same graphics we’ve seen in the series for years. The off-road racing game Dirt 5 doesn’t come across as significantly different from what was possible on the last generation of hardware.

Thanks to the beefier hardware, games look better on the Series X than the Series S, with crisper graphics and higher frame rates.

Fortnite looks great here, thanks to added detail, crisper character and environment models, and volumetric cloud effects, but it’s still Fortnite as you know it.

Post-launch titles like Halo: Infinite, Elden Ring, and Forza Horizon 5 fit a similar pattern. Thanks to the beefier hardware, games look better on the Series X than the Series S, with crisper graphics and higher frame rates.

The most considerable improvement over previous generations is undoubtedly Microsoft’s custom NVMe SSD, which loads data much faster than the traditional hard drives of past consoles. Large-scale games that took a couple of minutes to load from the menu screen now take a fraction of the time—Fortnite is an excellent example of that, and so is the updated version of 2018’s Forza Horizon 4. The car-soccer game Rocket League now loads into a match in about two seconds, and I was always the first one in, waiting for everyone else to connect.

The PlayStation 5 also uses a speedy NVMe SSD, but it lacks a killer feature exclusive to the Xbox Series X (and less-powerful Series S): Quick Resume. Essentially, Quick Resume uses the power of the SSD to maintain your current game state across multiple titles, meaning you can pop between Forza Horizon 4 and Call of Duty within about 10 seconds and be right back in the game. Not every game is making the most of it right now, and some have disabled the feature due to glitchy performance—Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, for example, is still plagued by Quick Resume issues even years after release.

Xbox Series X
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Between dramatically faster loading times and the ability to switch between many games on the fly, you’ll spend much less time waiting while playing the Xbox Series X. It makes for a smoother, more responsive, and more engaging experience. Even older games benefit from the hardware: many Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox games supported by the Xbox Series X load faster and have smoother frame rates than on their original hardware.

Thankfully, the Xbox Series X also runs much more quietly than its predecessors and doesn’t feel nearly as warm in use, thanks to a greater focus on cooling due to its Parallel Cooling architecture, vapor chamber, and whisper-quiet fan at the top.

Software and Games: Lots to play, but it's all available elsewhere

The Xbox Series X interface is a slightly enhanced and evolved version of the one we've seen on Xbox One in the last couple of years. It's thankfully faster than Microsoft's interface was in the past; the Xbox One was known for being much more sluggish and cumbersome to get around than the PlayStation 4, but the added speed of the Xbox Series X hardware makes a difference here.

Regarding games, there are two ways to look at the current situation. On the one hand, the Xbox Series X has the most extensive library of any Microsoft console ever because it runs nearly the entire Xbox One catalog and hundreds of games from previous generations. That's a lot to play, and Microsoft's continued focus on backward compatibility has generated a lot of goodwill with fans. And as mentioned, many of those games run better on the new hardware.

On the other hand, the Series X has an exclusivity problem. At launch, there wasn't anything exclusive to the Xbox Series X that you couldn't also play on Xbox One.

Today, the Series X doesn't offer anything you can't also play on PC. That even includes big tentpole titles like Halo Infinite, which was simultaneously available on both PCs and as a free title to Game Pass Ultimate subscribers.

Xbox Series X
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

In short, there’s a lot to play but absolutely nothing that requires the Xbox Series X hardware. And from what I’ve played, the visual enhancements—while appreciated—are very modest overall. That said, beyond Halo, Microsoft has invested heavily in studio acquisitions to ensure that it has significant exclusives in the years ahead, including new Forza and Fable games. Microsoft even acquired Bethesda, the publisher behind everything from Elder Scrolls to Fallout and Doom, which could eventually land additional exclusives on the Series X. Unfortunately, Microsoft seems reluctant to bring that exclusivity hammer down in any practical way.

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is also worth noting here, as Microsoft’s subscription service has become one of the best deals in gaming. For $15 per month, you gain access to more than 100 downloadable games, including all of Microsoft’s first-party releases on day one and many other big releases; even surprising third-party titles like Persona 5 Royal have made their way to the service. 

Ultimate also gets you the usual Xbox Live Gold subscription, which offers free games and enables online multiplayer. If you usually buy two or three of Microsoft’s big titles each year, it may be worthwhile to sign up for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate instead and access an extensive, rotating library of games all year.

It is the most powerful home console today, surpassing the new PlayStation 5. It also has an array of user-friendly features that stand out in use.

The Xbox Series X also provides access to an extensive array of streaming video services, including Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and plenty more; plus, the disc drive can play 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray movies and TV shows, as well as standard Blu-rays and DVDs.

Price: A lot of power for the price

You get a lot of pure processing power here for $499, and there’s no way to build a comparable gaming PC for anywhere near that amount. It’s a solid investment if you have a 4K HDR TV and you’re still running a non-4K console. On the other hand, Microsoft doesn’t have a ton of must-play exclusive titles or a compelling reason to choose the Series X as your multiplatform console when the similarly-priced and exclusive-rich PS5 is also on the table.

Xbox Series X vs. Sony PlayStation 5

The enduring console battle between Microsoft and Sony has entered its fourth round, with the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 launching days apart. Both consoles pack in serious graphical power and SSD-powered speed for $499. Microsoft has the more powerful hardware on paper, even if the games look about the same on both systems, plus it has a more significant focus on backward compatibility. The Quick Resume feature is also a great benefit, even if it doesn’t work well in some games.

Xbox Series X
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

On the other hand, Sony has a ton of exclusives, starting with launch titles like Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sackboy: A Big Adventure (also released on PS4 the same day, to be fair), and the Demon's Souls remake. Sony has expanded that list with titles like Returnal and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and big names like Final Fantasy 16 and Forspoken on the horizon.

The DualSense controller also feels like a real innovation, with dazzling haptic feedback across the device and adaptive trigger buttons that feel different and provide resistance in certain games.

Final Verdict

Impressive performance without a lot of exclusives.

Microsoft has delivered an impressive hunk of hardware with the Xbox Series X, which provides vibrant native 4K resolution gaming and seriously speedy loading times and game swapping. However, the relative lack of exclusive titles tempers excitement, and the edge in power doesn't yield markedly better graphics or performance in multi-platform games compared to the competition. Still, the Series X is a powerhouse that won't fail to impress if Microsoft's exclusives do call to you and you don't have a gaming PC.

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Specs

  • Product Name Xbox Series X
  • Product Brand Microsoft
  • UPC 889842640724
  • Price $499.00
  • Release Date November 2020
  • Product Dimensions 11.85 x 5.95 x 5.95 in.
  • Color Black
  • CPU Custom 8-Core AMD Zen 2
  • GPU Custom AMD Radeon RDNA 2
  • RAM 16GB
  • Storage 1TB SSD
  • Ports 3 USB 3.1, 1 HDMI 2.1, 1 ethernet, 1 expansion card port
  • Media Drive 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
  • Warranty 1 year
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