Xbox Series X review: A sports car with no gas

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 hyper-critical fan base. But COVID-19 has thrown off these elaborate schedules, much to Microsoft’s frustration.

The Xbox Series X is like an athlete who spent the year practicing for the big game, only to find the rest of the team didn’t show. It’s a tech powerhouse that corrects many of the wrongs from the early days of the Xbox One. It’s a system with a bright future. But, due to key software delays, it’s not a system that must be purchased immediately – or any time in the coming months.

There’s no discussing the Series X without acknowledging the delay of Halo Infinite. Microsoft pinned the launch of the game to the Series X some 17 months ago. Master Chief is all over the console’s packaging. It was the single biggest selling point for the Series X. And it missed the deadline.

Whether Halo’s delay was due to the pandemic, or quality issues, is immaterial. Without it, there’s no system-selling game to support the Series X this holiday season. And while Microsoft’s Game Pass means there’s plenty of games to play on the system, thanks to backwards compatibility and optimizations on some third-party titles, the company is asking players to spend $500 on a new console — when the same games already work on the old one.

Digital Trends reviewed the Xbox Series X over the course of a week. (This review focuses solely on the Series X, not the lower priced Series S.) And, in full candor, realizing a consumer-level experience was challenging, as optimizations were only available on a handful of titles. (EA, for instance, only says it will detail its optimizations for Madden NFL 21 “soon,” and SquareEnix doesn’t plan to optimize Marvel’s Avengers until 2021.

Setup: Hurry up and download

By now, gamers know to expect a day one patch, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. For the Series X, the patch comes in at about 850MB, so at least the delay will be a fairly short one. (This is separate from any required game updates.) The controller also requires a patch.

Certainly, it’s better to receive a patch than to not, but conflict between launch-day updates, and the desire to load up a game the instant you turn on the console, is something the blazing new solid state hard drive can’t entirely fix.

Otherwise, setting up the console is a breeze. Microsoft pushes using the Xbox app to do so. It really is a time saver, 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 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 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 a jet engine.

The Series X is not, however, an easy fit in most home entertainment centers. Microsoft (like Sony) built their 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 height, the consequence of a shape more similar to a box than a slate. It could be an annoyance to some owners.

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 area used by the system’s operating system. That should be fine initially, but as this generation drags on 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 price. The Xbox Series X console will launch November 10 for $499 (a key selling point for Microsoft).

That’s still better than Sony’s PlayStation 5, which ships with 825GB of internal storage and, like the Xbox Series X, not all of that will be available for installing games. Only 667GB is available for games. That means the PlayStation 5 has 135GB less available storage than the Xbox Series X. (stet)

If 1TB isn’t enough, you can expand the storage. Players can hook an external hard drive to the system. Testing by Digital Foundry discovered that, at least for backwards-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. The PlayStation 5 can be upgraded with a wider variety of third-party PCIe 4.0 SSD, 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.

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, allowing players to record screenshots and video clips and quickly post them online.

It continues to use AA batteries, rather than internal rechargeable ones (which the PS5 offers), but is anything but a power hog. We didn’t have to replace the batteries once through the testing process.

Games & Software: The lack of launch title stings

Given the paucity of games built for Series X, and the very few that were optimized during the review window, evaluating its gameplay potential is – frustratingly – the most TBD part of the Xbox Series X experience.

Yes, games look amazing. Gears 5 runs incredibly smooth at 120 FPS, which raises all sorts of hopes of titles still to come. Visual fidelity is only part of the gaming experience, of course, but it’s a hook that draws players in. But Gears 5 at 120 FPS isn’t nearly enough to sell a new console as next-gen. A new console needs a launch title to really show off, and with Halo Infinite delayed until next year, the Series X simply doesn’t have one.

The promise of faster load times remains unproven. From launch to gameplay in Gears 5 (for a new campaign) still takes well over a minute. Watch Dogs: Legion, while un-optimized, took less time. Hopefully, games that are built with the next gen in mind will boast load times that feel next-gen.

The system also enables ray-tracing on many games, but few of the titles for review offered that feature. Gears 5 is certainly a more atmospheric game with the feature, but we’re much more interested in how it changes Legion or Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. The little taste we got, though, bodes well for future titles. 

Quick Resume, the touted feature that suspends games much like you suspend an app on your smartphone, seems to work fine, though several optimized titles had a bug that forced Microsoft to disable the process. (The company says those will be updated post launch.) Generally, however, games you navigate away from do re-open quicker, after a brief splash screen.

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

Microsoft feels it has something to prove 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 has put strains on everyone in the gaming world.

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 have a new Forza, Halo, or Gears to play with your Series X this year. And you may not 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 (as well as the slew of third-party games this holiday) 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. For now, the Xbox Series X falls short in that department.

Our take

The Xbox Series X is a powerful system that doesn’t have anything to truly showcase its abilities. With sharp graphics, a familiar interface and fast load times, it’s set up to be a strong contender this console generation. But a lack of showcase games means there’s no need to rush to purchase.

Is there a better alternative?

If you’re an Xbox fan, no. The Xbox One X has been discontinued, but not discounted. At this point, if you’re looking to buy a new Xbox, this is the best option. 

If you are interested in buying one, we’ve rounded up the best Black Friday Xbox deals ahead of Black Friday sales.

How long will it last?

The system comes with a one year warranty. (Microsoft offers an extended warranty if you buy it from them.) The Xbox is a major component of Microsoft’s business model, so expect the company to continue supporting it for years. (The Xbox One, for comparison, has been on the market for seven years now.) 

Should you buy one?

No, not immediately – but it could top your list in 2021. 

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