The next generation of gaming consoles has arrived. This time around, Microsoft is using a two-pronged approach to take on the competition. The Xbox Series X is the flagship, delivering 8K movie playback, 4K gaming at 120 frames per second. The Xbox Series S is the cheaper and much smaller version, which represents great value for money and while not as powerful as the X, will still likely find itself under many Christmas trees this year.
I’m 38 years old and have been a gamer for more than 30 years. That means I’ve been through many, many generations of consoles and when I reflect on how far we’ve come in my lifetime, it really is phenomenal progress in a relatively short period of time.
So what should we expect from this latest generation, naturally, every 5-8 years, we compute and graphics capabilities have progressed sufficiently to enable developers to create new experiences, different enough to justify upgrading.
Naturally, we expect big graphical leaps each time we fork out hundreds of dollars for new hardware, but we already had 4K gaming with the Xbox One X, we all went out and bought new 4K TVs and for the most part, things weren’t broken. So why do need a new generation?
The reality is, when developers created 4K titles in the past, they were really pulling rabbits out of hats to make that work at any level of an acceptable rate of frames. Thankfully, there’s so much hardware in the Series X, that developers are able to turn on all the goodies and still sustain 60fps with HDR.
Like many, I don’t have a 120Hz display with HDMI 2.1 connectivity, so this prevented me from testing this part of the experience. As much as I’d love one, I also don’t have an 8K TV, so was equally unable to test that. These two elements of the Xbox Series X, really demonstrate just how future-leaning this console is. It’s likely if you buy one now, it’ll be with you through your next TV upgrade, so at some point over the next couple of years, you’ll simply get a better gaming experience when you upgrade your display.
Thankfully this generation has great backward compatibility, meaning accessories like controllers, headsets, steering wheels etc and most of your games are likely to still work. In 2020, we’re now in a world that’s serviced by much faster internet than just a few years ago, which fundamentally changes the ability for consumers to download new games from the comfort of their couch. While many enthusiasts moved to digital-only gaming last generation, I think this time, that hits the mainstream. For those who love optical discs, I’m confident in predicting this is the very last console generation with an optical drive.
With that overview out of the way, let’s get into the detail.
This console looks like no other we’ve seen before, but the brand new design isn’t just trying to be intentionally different, I actually really enjoy the massive engineering effort that went into this. It’s a really difficult challenge to package hardware that is essentially high-end gaming components while keeping it cool. Then we throw in the fact that people are going to have these on display in their living room, so it has to look good and be quiet.
The Xbox Team have really done an excellent job of combining the internal hardware in a form factor that is not only acceptable but interesting. The top design of the console, with its convex dish, complete with green accents, offers a real connection to the Xbox brand throughout the years and particularly the original first Xbox console.
This unique top plays a critical to achieving this visual interest but also hides a critical aspect of cooling the console. The console exhausts the hot air out away from internal components and does so, seemingly with ease. This thing is silent, to the point where you couldn’t tell it was on, if it wasn’t for the glowing Xbox power button on the front and I love that. Even in the middle of hardcore gameplay, where a gaming rig would be screaming its head off, this console is uber quiet.
The matte black finish is a fingerprint magnet, but with a simple wipe down, once it’s in place, that’s easy to fix. This isn’t a laptop or the center console of your car, so once you’re setup, you’re unlikely to touch it day-to-day, especially if you go for digital downloads.
On the back of the black rectangle, you’ll find more circular cutouts, continuing the theme, as well as the I/O ports to connect power, HDMI, USB, Ethernet, and that proprietary storage expansion slot.
Many of you may be contemplating if the size of this design is conducive to fit in your low-line entertainment unit. While I think it will be marginal for some, I tried the Series X in both of mine and it fits perfectly, almost like it was made to fit in there. While I’m sure Microsoft would love to see you stand it on top of your entertainment unit as a great conversation starter, I expect many will want to lay it down and tuck it way. Thankfully there are rubberised feet on one side, which helps stop it from moving, or scratching any surface underneath. Both orientations work, just make sure you have adequate room for the air to flow.
While perhaps not as visually interesting as a scale model of Dubai’s next apartment complex, the Xbox’s design is subtle, letting its insides do the talking. I applaud Microsoft for having constraint here, this could have been styled with outrageous amounts of RGB, hard, angled edges, like an aerodynamic fighter jet, but I don’t think people need that from their console. Most people want the devices under their TV to disappear into the background and let the expensive centerpiece, the TV, do the talking and for that, the Xbox Series X does an exceptional job.
The new controller is definitely an iterative improvement on what they had previously. The new textured grips make the triggers far more accessible, especially if you’re in a long, sweaty Halo of COD battle. I love the new share button, although due to the NDA during the review period, I’ve been unable to really give that a run publicly.
With a brand new console, we’re all pretty excited by the prospect of getting a new, faster interface to explore and see a manufacturer’s take on what a modern UI should look like. This is what makes Microsoft’s decision to leave much of the UI the same, pretty puzzling.
In one respect, its familiar, which makes existing customers comfortable, but personally I wanted substantial change, expecting that we haven’t iterated our way to the perfect home screen over the past 5 years.
Don’t get me wrong, the new animated background is nice, the tweaks are functionally better, but easily the biggest improvement is to the speed of the interface.
The Xbox One and then Xbox One X, never really felt snappy, always taking a half-second too long to deliver a slick experience. Thankfully that’s had close attention paid to it and it feels like the software team actually worked with the hardware team this time to ensure they nailed the performance.
There simply are no delays anymore, as you flip up and down, left and right, enter into content and back out of it, is all lightning fast. Now you probably expect this level of performance when you buy a new generation console, but I’m happy to confirm this speed issue is finally solved.
The subtle changes to the interface are in areas like the new share button on the controller, on the Xbox Guide that pops up with you press the Xbox X on the controller during gameplay. These won’t change your life, but after a few days of use, you’ll find things are generally pretty fast to get to.
What is a big change to the Xbox Store interface, is the ability to now buy Microsoft hardware through the console. While Microsoft has been generous to retail partners, it feels like they’re finally ready to turn up the consumer advantages, despite potentially alienating some legacy partners.
Microsoft’s Game Pass is featured heavily and is clearly a good example of win-win. Microsoft gets recurring revenue each month, while the subscription for the user is a small monthly fee to access to a growing catalogue of more than 100 games, many of them A-list titles.
One final thing to touch on in the software is the recording of in-game clips. It’s now possible to record the clips in 4K, but only up to 30 seconds. I’m not sure why that time constraint is there, I wish it wasn’t, but I will say, the rendering of the clip, from the point of capture, is now incredibly fast, within seconds fast. I also noticed that sharing this out to OneDrive is restricted to just 1080p quality which needs to be fixed.
Gaming is ultimately a fairly social thing and having the ability to share great in-game experiences via social networks with your non-gaming friends may actually help convert a few people to get a new console for themselves.
How does it perform ?
Inside this black box lays some very impressive specs, something you’d expect to pay much more for than the asking price.
- CPU – 8X Cores @ 3.8 GHz (3.6 GHz w/SMT) Custom Zen 2 CPU on a 7nm
- GPU – 12 TFLOPS, 52 CUs @1.825 GHz Custom RDNA 2 GPU
- RAM – 16GB GDDR6
- Storage – Custom 1TB NVME SSD & CPU
- HDMI 2.1 – Auto Low Latency Mode. HDMI Variable Refresh Rate. AMD FreeSync.
- Audio – Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby TrueHD with Atmos, Up to 7.1 L-PCM
- Network – 802.11ac dual band, Gigabit Ethernet
- Dimensions – 15.1cm x 15.1cm x 30.1cm
- Weight – 4.44kg
This performance offers some very different gaming experiences on the Series X. Load times for games are substantially reduced, not by a little, but by tens of seconds. What this means is that those more casual gamers who tend to jump in and play a game for half an hour, are much more likely to do so, given how fast it now is to get into gameplay.
This feature is not everywhere yet, with game-by-game support required to enable this. When it is enabled, like on games like Forza Motorsport 7, Mortal Kombat X, Doom Eternal, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and more, it is an absolute treat to use.
This works by essentially suspending the game, almost like pausing a virtual machine. When you jump out of a game, then say watch Netflix, you can quickly jump back into your game. As little as 5-10 seconds you can be back, not just back to the menu, but back in the action.
When I watch TV, I’ll often get bored during ad breaks and just mess around on my phone, but with the ability to rapidly get in and out of games, this really is possible to play 2 minutes of games, pause it, then go back to. Whatever magic is being done here was definitely worth it, this is definitely one fo my favourite new features.
Raytracing has been around for many years, I remember using it in 3D modelling/rendering in the past. Back then, rendering with fairly handsome hardware took mintues per frame. Today the Xbox Series X is capable of rendering 60 of those frames every second and in 4K resolution.
This DirectX Raytracing delivers more realistic lighting with dynamic reflections and shadows, rich graphics, and high visual fidelity.
If you’re into eSports, you probably look down on consoles, obviously because of the lack of keybaord and mouse, but because the response times have just not been there. Now with the Series X’s support for up to 120FPS, things are a lot more respectable in the console gaming arena. Faster frames per second, enable split-second inputs to be rendered in-game which results in a heightened sense of immersion, realism and more precise controls for fast-paced action.
HDR reconstruction technique
This feature is something I think about in a similar vein to upscaling in TVs. The Series X|S are using a HDR reconstruction technique to enhance games that only shipped with standard dynamic range with no work from developers. The cool thing is this ability to provide better lighting, with more shadow detail comes with no impact to available CPU, GPU or memory resources.
Stand out features of this console.
Let’s face it, you don’t buy a new console to get new hardware, you buy it for new games which require new hardware.
It’s not by accident that both the Xbox and PlayStation new consoles are launching in November, almost the perfect distance from Christmas. While there’s a bunch of games that have been optimised for Series X, it does feel a little rushed in some areas. It seems developers are using every last day before the console launch to develop patches and updates to their games to ensure that you have the very best experience on launch day.
The Xbox Series X comes with 1TB of storage which ordinarily sounds like a lot, but once you understand how large modern 4K games are, you’re likely to want more.
The amount of games you can fit, certainly depends on the games you install, with many ranging from 20GB to 100GB. If you happened to like racing games, they seem particularly heavy on storage, likely due to the volume of textures relating to tracks and vehicles. Typically you’ll get somewhere between 10-20 games before the drive fills, so then what?
Well if you have fast NBN speeds, you could delete the game (your progress will be stored in the cloud), then just re-install the game when you feel like playing it again.
A far better option is to pony up a few extra dollars (ok it’s A$359.00) for the Seagate Storage Expansion Card for Xbox Series X or S. Fortunately Seagate were nice enough to provide one for my review and it was an absolute lifesaver.
What happens when you install the custom 1TB storage expansion is that the console recognises it and prompts you to let you know its ready to use (this takes a few seconds). From there you can set it as the default storage location for new downloads, or just decide next time you go to download a game. The awesome thing about using this expansion card, is that it maintains the same level of performance as the internal NVME drive. That tells me this is far more than an oversides SD card.
With the expansion card added and now able to leverage the best part of 2TB of storage (a little reserved and lost to formatting), you’re free to just download games at will and not be concerned by the space. I was able to download all the modern games I wanted to from my owned list, as well as the Xbox Game Pass and still have plenty of room to spare. While not cheap, I’d definitely recommend this as one of your first accessory purchases.
If you’ve used an external SSD with the Xbox before, you can absolutely still do that with the Series X’s USB3.1 port. You should be aware that anything other than the Storage Expansion Card unfortunately won’t be able to deliver the same peak speed and performance.
Not everything’s perfect
With really stellar performance, a really solid design attributes, it’s hard to fault the new console on the hardware side. I think my biggest complaint would simply be that there’s maybe not enough new feeling on the software side of things to really make you feel like your purchase was money well spent on day 1.
As more games are released that are enhanced or even specifically produced for the Series X, you’ll definitely feel that change over time.
The other aspect that’s more of a slow burn, is the support for faster, higher-resolution TVs. This is something each household will differ on, but at some point during the Series X’s lifetime, many of us will have an 8K display in the home, we just have to wait for the price to drop first. This ultimately means you can’t see the best experience your Series X can offer you on day 1 and that’s a little strange.
PRICE & AVAILABILITY
How much and when can you get one ?
The Xbox Series X and Series S officially launches on November 10th, 2020. The challenge will be actually getting hold of one, with the pre-orders for the consoles selling out quickly. To buy outright, the console costs A$749.00 and is available from Microsoft directly, or one of their Australian retailers – Amazon, JB Hi-Fi, BigW, Harvey Norman or EB Games.
At the time of writing, pre-orders are sold out, however is likely we’ll get another batch of stock ahead of Christmas, so watch the website closely.
This is also the first time the console is available on a subscription plan. Microsoft has partnered with Telstra to offer the console for A$46 per month, for 24 months and $0 upfront. This helps make the console to be more available to a wider audience which is ultimately a good thing. The Xbox All Access subscription includes the Xbox Series X console, as well as Game Pass Ultimate.
For more information, or to buy the Xbox One X|S, head to xbox.com.au
All things considered, the Xbox Series X is an absolute monster in terms of performance and staggeringly quiet, even when gaming flat out. What has been accomplished here by the team of engineers inside Microsoft is technically, incredibly impressive.
The design would be easy to characterise as bland, particularly when positioned horizontally, but as I stated earlier, you don’t need the console to scream ‘look at me’, you want it to be far more of an appliance in the living room.
The improvements made in this generation really are to the internals of the device, making the great gaming experience we’re used to even better. As with every console release in the past, developers will take some time to become familiarised with the new hardware to really extract the maximum possible performance from it. As it stands today, 4K60 looks absolutely stunning.
For those coming from PC gaming, this is the equivalent of having all graphics settings set to ultra. OK it’s not the same as having the latest Core i9 paired with 64GB of RAM and an RTX3090, but this also doesn’t cost $3,500. When I think about the price tag, this really does represent great value for money, with a similar performing PC, would easily run you $1,000+.
Gaming on the Xbox Series X, really does feel like a gaming experience with all possible visual settings (lighting, shadow, texture, and reflection) all set to max. It’s really hard to describe the feeling you get while playing the Series X, other than to say there are moments of awe, where you notice the blades of grass, or the reflections in windows, or sun shining through the rain. Some games are certainly better than others, but a number of gaming experiences I’ve had this week are the best I’ve ever had, period.
I look forward to spending more time with the Series X and watching the updates roll in as Microsoft and developers refine the software experience to match that fantastic hardware.
If you’re a gamer and can find an Xbox Series X, I definitely recommend you buy one now and be set, with the hardware necessary to power the next few years of gaming.