Xbox Series X Review

Native 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 a lot more refinement than the Xbox One before it and delivers impressive performance, but lacks essential games for now.

4

Microsoft Xbox Series X

Microsoft Xbox Series X

 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Our expert reviewer purchased the Xbox Series X to thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading our full product review.

Between an increased focus on being a home entertainment hub, requiring the Kinect motion sensor, and consumer-unfriendly messaging around used games, Microsoft really fumbled the Xbox One launch—and it never came close to catching up with the rival PlayStation 4, which has sold more than double the consoles to date.

Still, within the last couple of years especially, Microsoft seemed to find its footing again on multiple fronts, whether it was providing the most powerful hardware with the Xbox One X revision, delivering excellent value with its Game Pass Ultimate subscription, or acquiring loads of notable game studios to expand its stable of exclusives.

The Xbox Series X represents Microsoft’s opportunity to start over with a new generation of console gaming. In terms of raw hardware grunt, it is the most powerful home console today, surpassing the new PlayStation 5 on that front as well, plus it has an array of user-friendly features that really stand out in use—such as super-speedy loading times and quick swaps between open games, not to mention extensive backwards compatibility with older games.

Xbox Series X and TV
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

On the other hand, there isn’t a lot of immediate incentive to spend $499 right now on a new console. The big, exclusive games are coming, but they’re not here now. And truth be told, while the mostly multiplatform launch games do look noticeably better on Xbox Series X than past consoles, the difference isn’t big enough in this initial batch of games to truly transform the experience. Still, it’s clear that the Series X is a console with significant future potential, and there’s already a lot to like right now.

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 feels very densely packed with top-end tech given its nearly 10-pound weight. There’s a non-removable base at the bottom that indicates that the vertical orientation is considered default, although Microsoft has also put small feet on one side if you prefer to lay it down horizontally.

While it is a unique shape to stick into a home entertainment center, I prefer this simple, unfussed design to that of 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 to date. And while it is a unique shape to stick into a home entertainment center, I prefer this simple, unfussed design to that of 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 completely free of flourishes, either: the way the classic green accent pops out of the large fan holes at the top is a clever touch.

On the front face is the subtle power button at the top left (when vertical), with the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc drive directly beneath at the bottom, topped with an eject button. There’s a single USB port on the bottom right, too, along with a Bluetooth connectivity button. 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 just 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 with ease. The downside is that a 1TB card is a whopping $220 as of launch.

Unlike Sony with its innovative new 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 really any surprises to the layout and functionality here. The directional pad is now circular and raised up, 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 as well, and a new dedicated screenshot/share button on the face.

Those who can’t wait will surely appreciate the myriad visual upgrades and quality-of-life improvements introduced with this beefy new Xbox.

Elsewhere, the micro USB port has been replaced with the newer, increasingly standard USB-C 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 very strange for a $60-65 controller in 2020 to use disposable batteries by default. I suppose it could be framed as adding versatility, but when the alternative option—using disposable, wasteful batteries—is a bad one, then that’s not really a benefit at all.

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

Setup Process: App or controller

 Setting up the Xbox Series X will be pretty 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 and then plug in the power cord, then press the power button to start. You can then decide whether to continue setup manually from the console itself using the controller or via a paired Xbox smartphone app. Setup includes establishing an internet connection either via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable and logging into or creating a Microsoft account, which lets you go online to download games and services.

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 1.825Ghz paired with 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, which is double what the previous Xbox One X console could, and also beats the new PlayStation 5 (~10.3 teraflops).

That means the Xbox Series X is well primed to deliver 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 biggest 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, as well, 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, plus 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 biggest 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 already has a few truly stunning games at launch, the most beautiful of which is arguably 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 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 exactly the same. The new Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War is crisper and more detailed on Xbox Series X, but ultimately just looks like a slightly better version of the same graphics we’ve seen in the series for years. Off-road racing game Dirt 5 likewise doesn’t come across as significantly different from what was possible on the last generation of hardware.

Right now, the Xbox Series X has games that are crisper and smoother but don’t feel tangibly changed in any way by the graphical upgrade. Fortnite looks great here, thanks to added detail, crisper character and environment models, and volumetric cloud effects but it’s ultimately still Fortnite as you know it. That’s a running theme with the initial batch of Xbox Series X games.

Right now, the Xbox Series X has games that are crisper and smoother, but don’t feel tangibly changed in any way by the graphical upgrade.

Where the experience does benefit more significantly, however, is in the use of Microsoft’s aforementioned custom NVMe SSD, which loads data much faster than the traditional hard drives of past consoles. Large-scale games that previously took a couple of minutes to load from the menu screen now take a fraction of the time—Fortnite is a good example of that, and so is the updated version of 2018’s Forza Horizon 4. 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 that is 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 loading from scratch each time as of this writing.

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 a lot less time waiting while playing the Xbox Series X. It makes for a smoother, more responsive, and more engaged experience. Even older games benefit from the hardware: many of the 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 respective 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 little new

The Xbox Series X interface is a slightly enhanced and evolved version of the one we’ve seen on Xbox One the last couple of years. It’s thankfully faster than Microsoft’s interface has been 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. It’s not quite as elegant-looking as the new PS5 interface, but it works.

As far as games go, there are two different ways to look at the current situation. On one hand, the Xbox Series X launches with arguably the largest day-one selection of playable games on any console ever, since 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 backwards compatibility has generated a lot of goodwill with fans. And as mentioned, many of those games run even better on the new hardware.

On the other hand, there’s nothing available right now that is exclusive to the Xbox Series X that you couldn’t also play on Xbox One. Halo Infinite, the latest entry in the smash first-person shooter series, was supposed to release alongside the console but was delayed into 2021. That means that the launch lineup is largely populated by multiplatform, cross-generational games like the aforementioned Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War, plus some popular Xbox One games from recent years—including Forza Horizon 4 and Gears of War 5—have been updated to take advantage of the new hardware.

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 major exclusives in the years ahead, including new Forza and Fable games in the works. Additionally, Microsoft recently acquired Bethesda, the publisher behind everything from Elder Scrolls to Fallout and Doom, so the Xbox Series X should be a serious destination for exclusive console games. Just not now, unfortunately.

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; this year’s Doom Eternal is already on there, for example. 

Ultimate also gets you the usual Xbox Live Gold subscription, which comes with free games and enables online multiplayer. If you might normally buy two or three of Microsoft’s big games each year, it may be worthwhile to sign up for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate instead and have access to a very large, rotating library of games all year long.

In terms of raw hardware grunt, it is the most powerful home console today, surpassing the new PlayStation 5 on that front as well, plus it has an array of user-friendly features that really 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. On the other hand, Microsoft has yet to release any games that are exclusive to the Series X, and the early multiplatform games don’t make a strong enough case for splurging that kind of cash right now unless you’re a 4K, cutting-edge die-hard. The Xbox Series X is impressive hardware, and your $499 investment may well be justified in time. But if you can live with your existing console into next year, then it might be worth waiting.

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 pack in serious graphical power and SSD-powered speed, and both cost $499. It’s early days, but there are some initial differences between the two. Microsoft has the more powerful hardware on paper, even if the games look about the same on both systems, plus it has a larger focus on backwards compatibility. The Quick Resume feature is also a great benefit.

Xbox Series X
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

On the other hand, Sony actually has proper exclusive launch titles, with Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Sackboy: A Big Adventure (also released on PS4 the same day, to be fair) and the Demon’s Souls remake. And the DualSense controller 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. Because of those elements, the PlayStation 5 is a more exciting prospect right now, but both systems should have very bright days ahead.

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Final Verdict

Packed with promise.

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 lack of exciting first-party launch games tempers the initial excitement, and the multiplatform games aren’t hugely improved by the graphical upgrades. Still, those who can’t wait will surely appreciate the myriad visual upgrades and quality-of-life improvements introduced with this beefy new Xbox.

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Specs

  • Product Name Xbox Series X
  • Product Brand Microsoft
  • UPC 889842640724
  • Price $499
  • 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