Microsoft’s next-generational consoles, the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S have been in the sweaty palms of reviewers for a month now, and the embargo just lifted on review impressions.
Both consoles are powered by AMD for the CPU and GPU, both have super-speedy SSD storage, and both have a huge catalog of games at launch thanks to backward-compatibility. They both support variable refresh rate tech for silky visuals, the same updated controller, and can take advantage of Game Pass for subscription-based gaming.
If you were hoping for some awesome, next-gen launch titles to show off the more powerful hardware, you’ll be disappointed. There are no exclusive launch games, zero, zip, zilch. What you do get is a selection of the Xbox One’s hits, all optimized and given a new lick of paint with higher frame rates and lower loading times. There are next-gen titles, like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Watch Dogs: Legion, but all of the next-gen titles at launch are also available on other platforms, not giving any specific reason to stay on one platform.
That’s okay though, and fits Xbox’s new strategy of “play where you want to play.” Buy the hardware you want, play where you want, but please, please subscribe to Game Pass to do so. It seems to be working, with over 15 million subscribers to the Game Pass service as of September.
If all you want is the TL;DR version, it boils down to “powerful hardware, no rush to buy.” If you want to know why read on.
Xbox Series X
The main event, no-holds-barred Xbox Series X packs a huge amount of tech into that mini-monolith. It’s got a Bluray drive, 1TB of SSD storage, and can output up to 8K resolutions, although most users will likely be using it on a 4K TV. One of the new selling points is quick-resume, so you can stop your game at any point and go straight back to it without being bored by the loading screen.
That’s huge, with The Guardian saying “you can nip between different games as quickly as changing channels on a TV.” Perfect for those indecisive gamers, or when the game you opened just isn’t grabbing your attention. The smaller Series S gets this feature too, but you won’t be able to install as many games on the smaller drive on that model.
In case you were worrying that cooling the powerful hardware would put a wind turbine into your living room, you can let out that sigh of relief. The Financial Post calls it “whisper quiet,” going on to say that guests in their play space “couldn’t even tell it was switched on.” That’s impressive, considering my PC gets very noisy when it’s playing games at 4K.
The Xbox controller has changed for the better, although you’d be hard-pressed to spot the differences if you had it next to the Xbox One X controller. Why fix what isn’t broken, right? The shape has been trimmed slightly for smaller hands, the triggers and face buttons are more tactile, the directional pad is easier to hit, and there is a new share button; but it’s unmistakably an Xbox controller.
The custom CPU and GPU are the most powerful hardware ever put into a console, and are a huge jump over the hardware in the Xbox One X, at least on paper. PC Mag cautions that “it’s unlikely that many games will consistently offer 4K visuals at 60 frames per second,” which probably says more about how complex games are nowadays, and not about the hardware inside the Xbox Series X. Remember that it takes a $799 GPU in a PC to get consistent 60fps+ at 4K, and the $599 price of the Xbox One X seems about right.
The Verge basically calls it a PC that’s not actually a PC, without all of the various annoyances like driver updates, Windows Update, or the cornucopia of game launchers that PC gaming requires. “You turn on the Xbox, and you play games.” Ah, if only everything in life was that simple.
Xbox Series S
The smaller, digital-only version of the new Xbox drops the Bluray drive, halves the storage to 512GB, and is optimized for 1440p gaming. It still uses the same display controller as the larger console, so that means it’s capable of 4K at 120fps, but only if you find a game capable of that. See, the GPU in the Xbox Series S is a third as powerful as the Xbox Series X, at 4 TFLOPs versus 12 TFLOPs, so all of your games will run at lower speeds. It’s also got less memory, at lower bandwidth. Is that trade-off acceptable to you for the lower price? It might be at this point, but really we can’t judge that until true next-gen titles turn up next year.
Ars Technica went into how much of a drop, calling it “one step down” from the Xbox Series X. Think of it as the graphics settings on a PC game, if Xbox Series X is High or Ultra, then Xbox Series S is the next step down, either Medium or High. You can still play at 120fps, but it will render at a lower resolution.
The Guardian says “you can’t argue with the value that the Xbox represents, especially the Series S.” I mean, $299 for any new console is insanely cheap, especially with the power that the cut-down Series S brings to the entertainment console. Digital Foundry called it “cute to the point of being almost irresistible,” but worried about the 364GB of usable space on the SSD. We worry about that too, as the prices for the expansion SSD are high.
The bottom line
Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier might have the best wrap-up argument for the new Xbox consoles: “sleek, minimal loading screens, ZERO games that can’t be played on other platforms. If you skipped a lot of old Xbox games or want to play AC Valhalla at 60fps, cool. Otherwise, not a lot of reasons to buy one yet.”
That seems to be the sentiment across the majority of major outlets, with the new consoles setting the stage for upcoming games, rather than having any unmissable launch day titles. Or erm, any launch day titles. Isn’t a next-gen console with no next-gen games, just a console?