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Microsoft Xbox Series X review: You’re going to want a Game Pass subscription

Xbox Series X Stylized Graphic
Xbox Series X
MSRP $500.00
“The Xbox Series X is an extremely powerful console, but it still struggles to deliver console-selling exclusives.”
Pros
  • Gobs of potential
  • More storage than PS5
  • Accessible library through Game Pass
  • Good value
Cons
  • Lacking big exclusives
  • Difficult to fit in most A/V cabinets
  • Next-gen potential is untapped

Timing is everything.

When a console launches, it’s critical. Every component of a new system — from hardware to software — has to come together to meet the expectations of an eager and often hypercritical fan base. And when the Xbox Series X first launched in 2020, it didn’t have the art of timing on its side due to COVID-19 spoiling Microsoft’s big launch plans.

At first, the Xbox Series X felt like an athlete who spent the year practicing for the big game, only to find the rest of the team didn’t show up. It was a powerhouse that corrected many of the wrongs from the early days of the Xbox One. The future was undeniably bright, but, due to key software delays, it just wasn’t a system that was worth purchasing immediately – or any time in the ensuing months.

That’s changed in the years since the console’s release … but not by much. Major releases like Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 have helped give Microsoft’s powerful sports car a little more gas, but the Series X still struggles when it comes to delivering big exclusives that truly put its power to the test. Big gambles like Starfield and Redfall have yet to pay off some of Xbox’s pricier investments that were meant to reinvigorate its first-party efforts. Instead, Microsoft has doubled down on Xbox Game Pass to fill the gaps. When you’re fully bought in to the full Microsoft ecosystem, the Xbox Series X feels like the best console on the market today.

But that’s the catch — you’ll need to pay that monthly subscription fee to make the system feel worthwhile. Game Pass means there are plenty of games to play on the system, thanks to backward compatibility and optimizations to some third-party titles, but is it worth plopping down $500 on a new console when the same games already work on the old one or your PC?

Digital Trends originally reviewed the Xbox Series X over the course of a week, though we’ve since updated it to reflect the current state of the console (Note that this review focuses solely on the Series X, not the $300 Series S). After spending more time with it and watching its library expand, the Xbox Series X is still a tricky machine to recommend. It’ll either be your most or least used console depending on whether or not you’re willing to buy into the Game Pass ecosystem.

About our Xbox Series X review

Our Xbox Series X review was first published on November 5, 2020 by Chris Morris. It has since been updated by Giovanni Colantonio, keeping it up to date with recent game releases and hardware updates. The most recent update was on May 3, 2024, to reflect new game releasess like Starfield, as well as developments in Microsoft’s multiplatform game strategy.

Setup: hurry up and download

Gamers know to expect a day one patch, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. The initial download was less than 1GB, and that was separate from any required game updates. The controller also requires a patch.

The result is a setup process that will likely take 10 minutes to an hour of your time, depending on the speed of your internet connection. Certainly, it’s better to receive a patch than to not, but the conflict between major day one updates and the desire to load up a game the instant you turn on the console is an issue the blazing new solid-state hard drive can’t fix.

Otherwise, setting up the console is a breeze. Microsoft pushes using the Xbox app to do so. It really is a timesaver, letting you copy your settings, GamerTag, Wi-Fi password (assuming you don’t have a hardline internet connection for your console), and other information over quickly, drastically simplifying the setup.

Performance: plenty of power, in a big box

Microsoft has shouted about its superior hardware at nearly deafening levels since it first teased the Series X (called Project Scarlett at the time). By now, you likely know the specs and buzzwords: 120 frames per second (fps), HDR, 12 teraflops of processing power, and so on.

Despite its performance, the Series X is surprisingly quiet. The cooling structure of the system is so efficient that you’ll sometimes wonder if the console is actually turned on. The Xbox One, in comparison, is like a jet engine.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Series X is not, however, an easy fit in most home entertainment centers. Microsoft (like Sony) built its next-generation system to be a showcase item. The Series X is smaller than the PlayStation 5, but it’s still not built to fit easily into the average living room A/V cabinet. This is due to its width, the consequence of a shape more similar to a box than a slate. It could be an annoyance to some owners.

Once you have the opportunity to put the Series X to the test, you’ll find an extremely powerful machine that lives up to Microsoft’s performance promises. Games like Forza Horizon 5 and Microsoft Flight Simulator look stunning on Series X and will likely play better there than they will on your PC, unless you’re dealing with a high-end rig. But those experiences are still few and far between, even two years later. I imagine we’ll see the console’s hardware pushed to its limits more consistently as Microsoft scoops up publishers like Activision Blizzard, but for now, the power bump over the Xbox One hasn’t felt as impactful as it should be.

Storage: 1TB isn’t what it used to be

The Series X comes with acceptable, though not optimal, storage space. The 1TB hard drive (compared to the Series S’s 512GB) is on par with the Xbox One X. You’ll only have 802 GB available, though, after subtracting the amount used by the system’s operating system. That should be fine initially, but as this generation progresses and games require more space, it could be problematic.

Bumping system memory to 2 TB could have future-proofed the console, though it certainly would have affected the Series X’s $500 price (a key selling point for Microsoft).

Still, Sony’s PlayStation 5 is at a disadvantage. It ships with 825GB of internal storage and, like the Xbox Series X, not all of that will be available for installing games. According to prelaunch reports, about 667GB is available for games. That means the PlayStation 5 has 135GB less available storage than the Xbox Series X.

Microsoft

If 1TB isn’t enough, you can expand Series X’s storage. Players can hook an external hard drive to the system. Testing by Digital Foundry discovered that, at least for backward-compatible titles, an external solid-state hard drive was almost as fast as on-device storage.

The console also has a Storage Expansion Card slot that can double memory size, but at $220, it isn’t inexpensive to do so. The PlayStation 5 can be upgraded with a wider variety of third-party PCIe 4.0 SSDs, which can be purchased for as little as $200 (for 1TB of storage).

The controller: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it

Controllers are our connection to the games we play, and they’ve become increasingly important over the past few generations. Microsoft has stuck close to the same design for the past two generations, and there aren’t any major changes this time around.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Series X controller fits nicely in your hands and has been ergonomically tweaked to make it slightly more comfortable. It’s a bit more social than previous Xbox controllers thanks to the addition of the capture and share button, which allows players to record screenshots and video clips and quickly post them online.

It continues to use AA batteries, rather than internal rechargeable ones but is anything but a power hog. Still, the use of batteries feels a little dated. The PlayStation 5 controller ships with an internal rechargeable battery. Xbox Series X owners will have to pay for that upgrade as an add-on.

Games and software: Struggling with exclusivity

When we originally reviewed the Xbox Series X, the game library was anemic. The console launched with no major exclusives, with its biggest day one title being a next-gen rerelease of Gears Tactics. That slow launch would ultimately set the stage for the console’s entire life span so far. Even if the Xbox Series X has found its foothold with Game Pass in the years since launch, the lack of true console-selling exclusives only gets more glaring as time goes on.

The launch lineup undoubtedly looked amazing at the time. Gears 5 ran incredibly smooth at 120 frames per second (fps), which raised hopes for titles still to come. The issue is that we’re largely still waiting for Microsoft to capitalize. Outside of Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite, there’s virtually no single piece of software that’s as enticing as the PlayStation 5’s Horizon Forbidden West or Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. That was supposed to change when Starfield and Redfall landed in 2023, but both games underwhelmed to different degrees. Significantly more games are on the horizon, but we’ll likely be halfway through the Series X’s life span by the time Microsoft finds a consistent cadence. And even then, there’s no guarantee that games like Clockwork Revolution will be strong enough to make players feel justified in their purchase of the console.

Gears 5 Perks
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Microsoft’s long-term play is Xbox Game Pass — and it’s working to an extent. The subscription service is a tremendous deal, giving players access to a whole library of titles. If you asked me what the best console currently on the market is, I’d say Xbox Series X with a Game Pass subscription. However, remove the service from the equation, and it’s much harder to justify the $500 price tag — especially when you can still get Game Pass via your PC. You’re even able to play games like Halo Infinite through your Samsung TV. Plus, Microsoft has begun launching some of its best exclusive (like Pentiment and Hi-Fi Rush) on other consoles. All of those options make the Series X feel like a very expensive way to do what your other devices can do. Granted, the console will give you much more stability over a cloud experience and there’s value in keeping everything in one Xbox ecosystem.

So how do games actually benefit from the Series X hardware? Reduced load times are the big draw, though I’ve found that the PS5 tends to feel faster on the whole. Loading from game launch to gameplay in Gears 5 (for a new campaign) still takes well over a minute. Watch Dogs: Legion, while unoptimized, took a bit less time. These are better results than an Xbox One X, but not the instant-play accessibility that was suggested. Forza Horizon 5 is much more impressive with hardly any loading at all in its massive open world, but there are noticeable stalls when firing up its photo mode. Still, load times are notably better than on old hardware, even if they’re not the fastest in the West.

Quick Resume, the touted feature that suspends games much like you suspend an app on your smartphone, is a strong selling point. On several occasions, I’ve had multiple games open at the same time and been able to seamlessly jump in and out of them. It feels like a magic trick and remains one of the Series X’s most impressive tech features.

The Smart Delivery feature, which ensures players get the best version of a game for their system, is a nice touch that will save frustration, but the fact that it’s not available for every game is annoying. It’s not even available for every Xbox Game Studios game, which is positively baffling.

The promise

The Xbox Series X is Microsoft’s bet on the future. It’s an insanely powerful system that, once the company’s internal teams begin to showcase its power, could wow the gaming world. The problem is that it’ been years now and we’re still waiting for that moment.

Microsoft feels it has something to prove in this console generation. The Xbox One stumbled out of the gate and never fully recovered. That’s not the case this time. While the lack of software is bothersome, it’s hard to fault the company entirely, as the pandemic put long-term strains on everyone in the gaming world

It still struggles to catch up to the hype …

Microsoft is making a compelling case for the value proposition of Series X with Game Pass. There’s a reason it’s touting the huge library of backward-compatible games and the Smart Delivery option. No, you won’t get a deep library of AAA exclusives that could keep you occupied for a year. And you may not get it for quite some time. But Microsoft argues that this is a perfect opportunity to play games you never got around to or are currently enjoying in an enhanced environment.

It’s not a bad argument, by any means, but it’s more sensible and practical than emotional. Console launches were once a chance to show off new gaming experiences that simply weren’t possible before. The Xbox Series X fell short in that department in 2020 and it still struggles to catch up to the hype years later.

Chris Morris
Chris Morris has covered consumer technology and the video game industry since 1996, offering analysis of news and trends and…
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