Microsoft Corporation
Hardware Review

Xbox Series X

review by 
Alan Walsh
November 5, 2020
Microsoft Corporation
Hardware Review

Xbox Series X

review by 
Alan Walsh
November 5, 2020

The New Generation Is Here

On November 10th, Microsoft kicks off the next-generation of gaming with the launch of its Xbox Series X|S hardware. For the first time in its history, it’ll offer not only the most powerful console in the market, but also the cheapest next-gen system. Both are designed to play next-gen games and the classics you love with varying levels of performance. Xbox Series X is focused on native 4K outputs as the all-digital Xbox Series S caters for 1440p and 1080p resolutions. Both are capable of framerates up to 120FPS if developers optimize their games to render at such high refresh rates.

For this review, Microsoft provided me with an Xbox Series X console, an assortment of games and 12 months of its Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription. However, I will not be focusing on the specs of the hardware in this story, which have already been discussed extensively by other publications. Instead, I wish to focus on the everyday experience of using the Xbox Series X and take a detailed tour of playing games both new and beloved on the system.

Before we dive into it, a few points to note. I reviewed the Xbox Series X on a Sony Bravia A8-55 OLED TV set to 4K HDR at 60Hz. It also offers a 120Hz mode at 1080p. I positioned the console next to the display in its vertical orientation. The Xbox Series X feels premium to touch and it certainly isn’t light to hold. The design indicates that the console is better positioned vertical, and that’s exactly how I kept it. During extensive play sessions, the upper sides of the system would feel lukewarm. Place your hand above it and there’s some heat being exhausted, but it’s nothing unusual. The console is whisper quiet even in the most demanding titles, so much that you could hear a pin drop. Now with all of that said, let’s get into the good stuff – this is my Xbox Series X experience.

Power Your Dreams

Powering on the Xbox Series X for the first time and being greeted with its all-new splash screen really set the tone for the adventures I was about to embark on. Experiencing the launch of a new generation is an excitement that’s just unmatched in console gaming, and one of the new innovations was immediately noticeable. The Xbox Series X has the most streamlined setup process of any modern day electronic I've used. As it downloaded the latest system update, I was promoted to take out my phone and use the newly updated Xbox app to sign into my Xbox account, enter my WiFi password and personalize the experience from there.

The console understands that I want to immediately jump into the fun. I don’t want to fumble around entering account details awkwardly using my controller, which for the record feels great to hold – those subtle improvements do add up. Using the Xbox app on mobile, I can set games to download, manage installed content, view clips and screenshots captured on the console and easily share them from there. All the mundane tasks I’d often have to engage in on my Xbox One are now simplified and readily available on my phone. The app can even stream installed games to my device, and I can play them using any Bluetooth-enabled Xbox controller. All combined, it shows how much Microsoft has simplified the overall experience, but it doesn’t stop there.

The new Home Screen is faster and snappier than ever before. It might be identical to the current Xbox One layout, but this time of round, it’s fluid in motion. It’s fun to use, there’s no freezes or slowdowns, it just works, and it feels instant. Jumping into a game was as easy as plugging in a hard drive and loading it up. But of course, to take full advantage of the Xbox Series X’s insane speed, I knew I’d need to begin moving those games to the internal SSD, and that’s absolutely what I did. The result of all this is a gameplay experience simply unparalleled compared the Xbox One, especially in titles which are optimized for Xbox Series X. For the first time in so long, console hardware feels in line with modern-day gaming PCs.

But it’s not just about new experiences. Microsoft’s commitment to backwards compatibility is unmatched and it immediately shows. Not only are existing Xbox One controllers and headsets compatible with the new console, but Xbox Series X also plays all non-Kinect Xbox One games, as well as those select Xbox 360 and Original Xbox titles added to the program over the years – and they be can played either digitally or by inserting the disc you own into the 4K Blu-ray drive. Many of these titles feature immediate improvements thanks to the sheer horsepower of the new hardware. One of the first games I booted up on the system was Grand Theft Auto IV using my old save profile from the Xbox 360. Released in 2008 with an unlocked framerate, the Xbox Series X is the first console to lock it at 60fps – no doubt an impressive feat considering how inconsistent its performance is on other platforms.

Like every game I tried, the loading times feel almost non-existent. Other Rockstar titles like Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 load into their Story Mode offerings in under 40 seconds, with the former also accounting for its splash screen intro sequence. Red Dead Online increased that duration to over a minute. It’s all around impressive and highlights the benefits of installing games onto the 1TB SSD. Depending on your gaming habits, this will fill up in no time with 802GB available to the user, but any game that isn’t optimized for the Xbox Series X can be stored and played on an external hard drive – something to consider if you’re running out of available storage. Just know that these won’t benefit from the super fast loading times offered by the internal SSD or the official, albeit pricey 1TB Storage Expansion Card, which fits snugly into the back of either the Xbox Series X|S.

The real magic of next-gen began to show as I shifted between each of these games, with “Quick Resume” allowing me to pick up right where I left off in them. This feature seamlessly allows you to jump from game to game and resume immediately. All games except multiplayer only titles are supported. Let me give you an example of a unique scenario this enables: I finish a Campaign mission in Gears 5 and I suddenly feel the urge to race. I switch to Forza Horizon 4 and I’m by a Street Race located at Glen Rannoch, I decide to enter and win! Should I then fancy some puzzle gameplay, I can reattempt a level in The Touryst that I was stuck on a few nights prior, or maybe I’ll satisfy my needs for chaos in Crackdown 3 before returning to Gears 5.

This is all achieved without rebooting the games and going through their initial load sequences, so there’s no worrying about checkpoints or if my data is saved – I know it’ll be there and ready for me when I need it. It’s all stored in the console, and that doesn’t change even if it’s turned off or unplugged. I do however wish the list of games that are currently suspended in Quick Resume was displayed in the Xbox Guide or someplace else, so you can easily keep track of them. On average, you can have around 6 games stored at a time, though it varies depending on how demanding they are. Overall, it’s a very impressive feature, one that I’m sure has many complex technicalities behind-the-scenes, but it feels truly next-gen and that’s what matters.

Xbox Series X: Optimized

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been playing all kinds of games, including some of my favourites of the current generation, those from a decade past as well as newer titles that harness the power of Xbox Series X. Those which fall into the latter include first-party Xbox Game Studios titles such as Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves and Gears Tactics, as well as indie gem The Touryst.

Gears 5

Let’s start with Gears 5. It’s a visual showpiece with spectacular Campaign levels and ultra-responsive gameplay. It runs in dynamic 4K, 60FPS across gameplay and cutscenes with the competitive Versus mode serving up blistering 120FPS action through resolution scaling. As of reviewing, this is one of the best upgrades offered on Xbox Series X and I didn’t expect anything less from its developer, The Coalition. Gears 5 has fun, fluid but tight gameplay that doesn’t miss a beat and takes full advantage of the Xbox Series X’s reduced latency. It’s excellent level design features realistic environments, all meticulously crafted with stunning vistas, lifelike character models, gorgeous lighting effects, dynamic reflections and super detailed textures clearly made for a 4K screen. When it’s all put together, Gears 5 is almost indistinguishable from the real world, it’s impressive and playing it on Xbox Series X feels like playing on a high-end PC, especially with its optional keyboard and mouse integration, as well as its blistering fast loading times.

Forza Horizon 4

Forza Horizon 4 is another stellar highlight. Instead of choosing between 4K or 60FPS as offered on Xbox One X, the Xbox Series X version developed by Panic Button in conjunction with Playground Games, hits a solid 4K, 60FPS with all the ultra-quality bells and whistles of the PC version. The game has never looked better, played smoother or loaded faster on console before. In fact, every task that involves “loading” only takes a few seconds. Whether you’re booting into the game, fast travelling to a different location, switching cars or heading to Fortune Island or LEGO Valley, I never felt like I had to wait. It’s such an unexpected feeling on Xbox Series X, despite having a similar experience on the PC version already, yet I still felt blown away by it. The SSD will be a game-changer for this console generation, and I can’t wait to see how games take full advantage of it in the years ahead. Oh, and did I mention Forza Horizon 4 still has some of the prettiest, most detailed reflections ever?

Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves on Xbox Series X is the finest way to experience Rare’s online pirate adventure game on console. It’s boosted to native 4K at 60FPS with improved graphical fidelity. I played this one on the Xbox Series X both before and after it was optimized and the difference was jarring, especially in terms of framerate. The art-style of Sea of Thieves genuinely “pops” out at you in 60FPS, it’s the sort of game that I feel mandates this level of smoothness and responsiveness. The delay that existed before is now a thing of the past and the motion of sailing through the waves feels perfectly tuned. My biggest takeaway from this is that it’s a necessity to play Sea of Thieves at this level of fluidity, and for those who actively grind this game on console, this upgrade is a game-changer.

Gears Tactics

Gears Tactics is making its console debut with the launch of the Xbox Series X|S. Now optimized for controller with new challenging enemies, new Supreme equipment and companion ally, Jack. The turn-based strategy game takes advantage of Xbox Series X with a native 4K resolution at 60FPS. Here the resolution is more important than ever before, as a top-down experience requires a sharp, detailed image that’s smooth in motion – especially if you’re sitting back from the TV. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a first-party launch title after Halo Infinite’s delay to 2021. If you’re a Gears fan, this is one to keep on your list.

The Touryst

The Touryst is a puzzle-based adventure platformer that takes you on a tour across various islands in search of monuments and the secrets that lie within them. It’s a fascinating, fun but surprisingly addictive indie title that’s certainly worthy of your time. It’s also on Xbox Game Pass and features two performance options on Xbox Series X: Native 6K resolution at 60FPS or 4K resolution at 120FPS, and no, that 6K figure is not a typo! The result is a super crisp image that makes the most of its pixel count through super-sampling. It means there’s no rough edges whatsoever, even if you go up close to your screen. The choice really comes down to what your display is capable of – I recommend the 120Hz mode if your TV can output it at 4K. Otherwise, the 6K option at 60FPS is still buttery smooth and does wonders with The Touryst’s blocky art-style. It’s elegantly designed with each island soaked in detail and painted with eye-watering colours.

All the Series X Optimized titles I discussed above take advantage of Microsoft’s Smart Delivery initiative. Any supported game that you own already on Xbox One such as Watch Dogs Legion or the eagerly awaited Cyberpunk 2077 will grant you the Xbox Series X|S version for free at launch. Just download it from your ready-to-install list or insert the disc (if applicable) and voila!

You can find the full list of current and upcoming Smart Delivery games here.

Revisiting Old Favourites, Upgraded

I’ve enjoyed a wide variety of classic games during my early time with the Xbox Series X. For Halloween, I revisited the decade-old Undead Nightmare expansion for Red Dead Redemption, a unique experience that pitches the wild west against zombies. Despite its age, Xbox Series X plays it at its absolute best – a native 4K resolution locked to 30FPS. Forza Horizon 2, which runs in 1080p at 30FPS, also benefits from Auto HDR, with its lighting and skybox being more vibrant because of it. This unique HDR implementation brings out the highlights in the games Microsoft specifically enables it in, though some will benefit more than others. It doesn’t beat native HDR support from game developers, but it does the trick. For the best results, I recommend using the console's built-in HDR calibration tool to fine-tune the peak brightness and contrast levels.

Microsoft says nearly all backwards compatible titles available on Xbox Series X|S benefit from 16x anisotropic filtering and Auto HDR, however only a select few such as Fallout 4 will have their performance doubled due to the “original physics or animations.” Overtime, I’d like to see more Xbox One and older titles benefit from increased resolutions to 4K or beyond, as well as 60FPS support to preserve these games and set a new performance standard. Whilst Xbox Series X runs every game which I’ve tried better than my Xbox One X, all of which support the brilliant “Quick Resume” feature, there’s still more that can be done – and I hope Microsoft doesn’t slow down on their efforts here, because thus far, the results have been absolutely worth the investment.

Every title that’s playable on Xbox Series X|S can also be enjoyed with the new Xbox Wireless Controller included with the console, or any of your current Xbox One or Elite controllers. The newest pad has several refinements that make it standout from its older sibling. It better fits into smaller hands, the rubberised grips on the back and on the triggers make it more comfortable to hold, the new d-pad with its fine-tuned hybrid angles feels far more satisfying to use and the controller itself sends information to the console more frequently to reduce input delay. These improvements add up for a better experience all-around, and I certainly noticed the games I was trying felt more responsive than they usually would on console.

The best part of the new Xbox Wireless Controller is the Share button featured prominently in the centre of the pad. Press it to save a screenshot, hold it to record the last 30 seconds of gameplay or reconfigure them for yourself! It’s a lot of fun using this, and it beats the old method of using the Xbox Guide by a significant margin. Clips and images save instantly too and are uploaded to Xbox Live so you can access them on your phone to share elsewhere. It still irks me that I can’t capture the Xbox Dashboard itself, but the current implementation of Game DVR is the best it’s ever been and remains the most straightforward way to save your gaming highlights.

A Console Experience Like No Other

I’ve sailed the high-seas in search of valuable treasures in Sea of Thieves, I’ve explored snowy landscapes and desert biomes as Kait in Gears 5, I’ve relived the adventures of Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde Gang in Red Dead Redemption 2, I’ve taken on new challenges in Forza Horizon 4 with its increased fidelity, I’ve wreaked havoc in Crackdown 3 and undergone a globe-trotting expedition in The Touryst. This has been my journey in gaming over the past few weeks, superpowered by the Xbox Series X, but the best part is that I’m just getting started. After all, there’s a whole new generation of games to look forward to playing on this console, but until they arrive, I have access to all my favourites to revisit now, or at any time in the future, and they’ll play better than they did before. It’s a totally different approach to a new console generation, but I’m onboard with it.

That’s the Xbox Series X experience. One that’s unlike any other past console. It made me smile as I used Quick Resume to seamlessly switch from game to game, world to world and universe to universe. It’s magical to just go back to a game that I haven’t played in days and see it resume from right where I left it in only a matter of seconds. Meanwhile, the SSD that powers the “Xbox Velocity Architecture” does wonders across the entire system. Navigating through it feels fast and fluid, there’s no other way to describe it. It’s that good. Even the boot-up times are short, with the console turning on from standby in just a handful of seconds, and 20 seconds if powered off.

If you’ve got a collection of Xbox One games or supported Xbox 360 classics, then the Xbox Series X is undoubtedly the perfect next-gen upgrade. Not only will all of them play on the console, but they’ll play better than they did before – preserving their legacy and increasing their replay value going into the future. That’s the real reason to upgrade on day one, the fact that thousands of games and their save profiles will seamlessly move into the new generation with you. That’s the vision of Xbox Series X and it absolutely delivers on that idea.

Whilst the Xbox Series X has little to offer in terms of true “next-generation game experiences” today, its back catalogue of existing and enhanced titles, its Quick Resume functionality and seriously fast navigation more than makes up for it. That’s not even mentioning the incredible value of Xbox Game Pass and its hundreds of quality titles for just $10 a month (or $15 for online play and PC Game Pass included). If that’s not the deal of the century, then I don’t know what is.

I also believe that Xbox Series X is the perfect console to accompany a gaming PC due to how intertwined these platforms are. The option to switch between both and have your Game Pass benefits, your accomplishments and game progression follow you around harmonizes the overall experience. It’s that kind of seamlessly integration to put the player first that really sells the Xbox Series X to me more than anything else. The next-generation games will come, they always do, only this time we don’t have to rely on the launch titles to keep us occupied – Xbox Game Pass and backwards compatibility nullifies that idea altogether, and it’s truly wonderful.

Console gaming doesn’t get much better than this. Xbox Series X makes every game you play on it simply better. Old classics, modern day hits and the experiences of the future with gameplay that’s fast, fluid and responsive.
Alan Walsh

Alan is the co-founder and co-owner of FullThrottle Media. As someone who enjoys spending all his free time playing video games, he keeps the website updated with new and relevant content, including news stories, reviews and opinion pieces for the games he likes writing about the most. He also tweets too much, probably.