REVIEW: Xbox Series X|S - For The Fans
So the time is finally upon us and Microsoft’s next gen consoles are here. The Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S will launch globally on November 10th and we’ve been lucky enough to test both consoles out over the last few weeks. Now, if you’ve been keeping up with both consoles, you’ll know that they’re pretty similar in terms of what they offer with the majority of this review focusing on the more powerful of the two consoles, the Series X model. It’s this particular console that Microsoft want to showcase their true ‘next-gen’ prowess with and it’s the console we’ve done most of our testing on. So, let’s get into it, here’s what we thought of the Xbox Series X.
This particular area is either very important or completely irrelevant to many of you but it’s still one which can’t be ignored when it comes to any piece of hardware you’re potentially going to be looking at for the next few years. Originally mocked for looking like a mini black fridge, the Series X is an incredibly dense yet discreet black box and should easily slot into most home entertainment set ups.
The immense airvent at the top of the device is given a cool little pop of the iconic Xbox green colour which can only be seen as certain angles with everything else completely black in colour. Like most recent home consoles, the Series X can be placed in a vertical or horizontal position but, with the power button design and irremovable base stand, it looks like Microsoft wants you to keep it vertical.
Unfortunately, even for a brand new 2020 cutting edge console, Microsoft have failed to include a USB-Type C port on the device for charging of accessories etc. but I guess, due to their efforts to work so seamlessly with current gen accessories, it was deemed unnecessary.
Thermals & Fan Noise
This area is one that may not bother you in the slightest but is the first section others may read. Fan noise and how loud a console can get has almost become a punchline in the gaming community with the likes of Sony’s PS4 Pro sometimes being interpreted as a ‘jet engine’ due to the noise it generates when under heavy load. Thankfully, Microsoft’s expertise of keeping fan noise to a minimum in the Xbox One X console has carried over and I can say that the Series X is almost completely silent, even when pushing a 4K/60fps title like the newly optimised Gears 5 (more on this later.)
When it comes to heat and overall thermal control of the device, again, things are kept well in check. Yes, if you place your hand above the air vent at the top of the device during gameplay, you’ll feel some heat but that’s exactly what’s meant to be happening and it never got too hot to cause any worry. Another job well done here by the design team.
You’ve probably already noticed how little has actually changed for this new Series X/S controller but that’s not to say they haven’t made a lot of minor changes that have improved the overall experience. For those of you that have used either Elite controller, Microsoft’s more premium and customisable controller, this new Series X/S controller can be seen as somewhat of a hybrid between it and the previous gen controller.
The upgraded D-pad works much better and allows for much more range of control and the newly textured triggers give better grip. The all new Share button located in the centre of the controller also makes sharing screenshots and gameplay videos much more seamless. Charged via USB-Type C, if using a rechargeable battery pack, the controller still runs of two AA batteries otherwise. We do wish Microsoft built the batteries into the controller like Sony’s offering, but I guess they feel it gives better practicality to leave the external battery option in place.
As of right now, I’ve tested three Xbox Series X optimised games. Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4 and Yakuza 5. Having played each of them on a 4K/60 HDR display (don’t worry, I’ll be making the upgrade to an HMDI 2.1 4K/120 display very soon) I can say they all look spectacular in their own way. Now, I must state, if you’re coming from an Xbox One X which was more than capable in its own right, and were playing on a 4K HDR display, the graphically upgrades and improvements may not jump out right away.
For each of the titles, I felt things ran much smoother than I was used too whilst still pushing 4K, 60FPS or both, all at the same time. There’s definitely more customisation options also when it comes to how your games are displayed, letting users choose their preference for either framerates, performance or visuals.
Gears 5: In the absence of 343i’s newest instalment in the Halo franchise, we see Microsoft pushing what is arguably its other tent-pole shooter franchise and highlighting the many graphical and gameplay improvements they’re bringing, for free, to Gears 5.
Now, Gears 5 already ran at close to 4K/60FPS on the Xbox One X with HDR enabled, with the upgrades coming to the Series X version of the game, we’re going to see everything else pushed to their max settings. Running on PC’s ultra settings, there’s a definite jump in graphical fidelity. Everything has more detail with improved lighting and shadow effects. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test the 120hz multiplayer mode but, from reading other online impressions, it definitely offers a more immersive competitive gaming experience. The team at Digital Foundry recently shared their impressions of the Xbox Series X version of the game and its a comprehensive look at what players can expect on the new console.
Forza Horizon 4: Again, Forza Horizon 4 was already a visually stunning game when played on the Xbox One X but was limited to ‘just’ 4K/30FPS given that its open-world design hindered it from being able to run at the full 60FPS on the console. Now, with the increased power of the Series X, the team at Playground Games were able to update the title to run at full 4K/60FPS and it looks glorious. Speeding across the virtual British countryside at this resolution and framerate is a sight to behold and quite the visual showcase for this new console, even if the game is over 2 years old.
Yakuza 5: Admittedly, this title is the most random on the list and quite the strange ‘launch’ title for the console but, nevertheless, the guys at SEGA have given players on the Series X three visuals modes to choose from including ‘Normal’, ‘High Resolution’ and ‘High Frame Rate’. Normal mode offers a 1440p/60FPS experience with slightly reduced visuals, High Resolution offers full 4K/60FPS with even more restricted visuals and High Frame Rate offering just 1080p/60FPS but has all the visual bells and whistles turned on. We prefered the 4K/60FPS mode in particular as it looks pin-sharp in motion, even if the overall visuals are slightly reduced.
Now, as the official launch date of November 10th draws near, more and more recently released titles such as Watch Dogs Legion will be getting Day One patches to take advantage of the new consoles, including ray tracing, so we’ll be sure to include our thoughts on these as they roll in.
For those of you using HDMI 2.1 capable displays, you’ll also be able to avail of new display features built into the Series X/S such as Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM) which works by keeping the TV’s display refresh rate and, in turn, the input lag you experience to a minimum and will come in handy when playing online competitive titles. This feature was also available on the Xbox One X and One S but it’s great to see it included in the new consoles from Microsoft as well.
There’s also Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) which again, works in tandem with the TV to help keep screen tearing to a minimum and keep framerates as consistent and smooth as possible. The new consoles also coming with their own HDMI 2.1 cables which is a nice touch and helps to make sure you’re ready for all of the above features, right out of the box, if connecting up to an HDMI 2.1 compatible display.
Backwards Compatible Games
Now, going back to the title of this review, when I say ‘For The Fans’, it’s really to highlight the work Microsoft has done to ensure as many previous gen titles are playable on these new Series X and Series S consoles and they’ve done a fantastic job in realising this. Not only do they support the vast majority of your favourite Xbox One generation titles, they even support a wide selection of original Xbox and Xbox 360 titles as well with some adding improvements only capable on the new consoles.
Each of the Xbox One titles I tested, which included Monster Hunter World and Final Fantasy XV, all ran much smoother and, thanks to Monster Hunter World’s unlocked framerate, we were able to get 60FPS experience whilst still maintaining a super-sharp image.
If ensuring wide-reaching back-compatibility wasn’t enough, Microsoft also developed their own ‘Auto HDR’ mode which, for a wide number of titles that didn’t support HDR when they originally launched, can now be showcased in high dynamic range.
I tested 2015’s Batman Arkham Knight which was a fantastic looking game anyway when it launched but now, with the new Series X and Series S consoles’ ability to render the title in HDR thanks to some backend machine learning measurements of the the game’s lighting in real time, the neon lit streets of Gotham never looked so immersive.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an official list of what games support the Auto HDR feature and, for some titles, where it impacts the original design and artistic choices of the game, it’s disabled altogether so your success on finding which ones have it or not may be varied. When it does work though, it’s fantastic. Again, the team over at Digital Foundry has done a much more comprehensive job of testing this out so have a watch of the below video to see what we’re taking about.
Quick Resume feature
This is one feature in particular that can really change how you play on these new consoles. It’s called Quick Resume and what it does is allow you to keep a number of games in waiting with the ability to jump back into any of them in a matter of seconds. Now, we must be honest, it hasn’t worked flawlessly for us all of the time but the Xbox team has told us they are still ironing out some of the bugs in the back end ahead of the console’s launch.
When it does work though, we could jump between slaying demons on DOOM Eternal to riding across the Wild West in Red Dead Redemption 2 in less than 10 seconds. Thanks to the significant improvement to on-board memory, Microsoft was able to pull this ‘game-changing’ trick off and we absolutely love it. We must flag though, it doesn’t work for multiplayer titles like COD: Warzone right now for obvious reasons but we hope it’s something Microsoft can work on to enable it to allow gamers to jump between single player titles to multiplayer ones just as easy.
Another major improvement to the overall gameplay experience, thanks to the new built-in SSD storage, is the significantly reduced load times. When comparing the loading times between Gears 5 on the One X and Series X, the differences were pretty striking. Loading up the campaign on the One X took us 1 minute and 34 seconds while it only took the Series X 32 seconds to do the same.
The Serie X got me to the Forza Horizon 4 home screen in just under 24 seconds and back into my car in an insane 6 seconds. This is compared to the One X which took 38 seconds to get to the home screen and a further 32 seconds to get back into the driving seat of my car.
We can only see these load times becoming even more reduced as we get more true next-gen titles on the systems that can really take advantage of the lightning fast SSD inside and the new ‘Velocity Architecture’ Microsoft has spoken about.
On-Board Storage & Expansion Options
The Xbox Series X comes with a 1TB NVMe SSD, while the Xbox Series S is equipped with a 512GB NVMe SSD. We must flag though, the Xbox Series X only has 802GB of usable storage, when you take away the 198GB that is reserved for system files and the Xbox operating system.
There is the option to expand this though, either with a third party SSD hard drive (which is recommended to ensure fast loading times for back-compat games) or Seagate’s first party 1TB expansion card which slots neatly into the back of the device but will set you back €249.99.
The ‘New’ User Interface
If you’re coming from an Xbox One console with the latest UI software installed, you’ll notice just how similar the ‘new’ user interface is on the new consoles. For me, I think bringing the current gen consoles’ UI in line with what is installed on the next gen consoles was a smart move and it made the transition pretty seamless. I was able to navigate around the new console with ease and again, thanks to the improved memory and onboard storage, jumping into sections such as the store was a breeze with it loading almost instantly.
In terms of making it your own, you’ve still got the ability to pin your favourites, quickly manage your friends and parties and it’s even got a nice feature in the ‘Games & Apps’ section which allows you to split your games up to show which are Xbox Series X/S optimised or not.
The New Xbox App
Along with prepping the UI on the current gen consoles to get people ready for the new ones, Microsoft were also working away on a new Xbox app for mobile. The newly updated app is a fantastic way to manage many different parts of your Xbox account and even allows you to stream your new consoles to your handset if you like to game on the go (although no one’s really going anywhere at the moment but still a very good feature to have in place for when we do start travelling again.)
They’ve also made the app, which is available on Android and iOS, your go to helper when setting up your new console which removes a lot of the pain of entering account info on your TV using the controller and on-screen keyboard. Once set up, you can use the app to download apps remotely, share screenshots and video captures on your social channels or even just on WhatsApp, see what your friends are up to and just peruse the store for your next game. It’s all very handy and intuitive.
Xbox Series S Impressions
As part of this review process, we’ve also been testing the new Xbox Series S console in conjunction with our Series X review. TheEffect.Net contributor and ‘Launch Day’ Xbox One owner, Mark Reilly, has been using the Series S for a few weeks now and here is how he’s been getting on so far:
My experience with the Series S has been good so far. Before this, my primary console was a launch day Xbox One that has not let me down yet. Sure it was big, heavy and not the most silent of consoles but it has been reliable, unlike its predecessor the Xbox 360 which was notorious for breaking down. If you have ever experienced the red ring of death you’ll know what I’m talking about.
So for me the new Series S had a lot to live up to but after a couple of weeks of using it, I’m happy to say that I’m pleasantly surprised. The transition from the Xbox One to Series S was effortless and even personal preferences are carried over seamlessly using the Xbox app, much like John’s experience above. All previously owned games are ready to download with the benefit of the Series S being fully backward compatible.
Bearing in mind that the Series S is sold without a disk drive so it will only be the digital version of these games that are playable. As of yet, there are no major changes to the home screen and interface making the move over to your new console much easier. If you’re new to Xbox, the layout is very user friendly and easy to navigate unlike some other consoles that can be tricky to get the hang of.
So far, most of the apps that were available on the Xbox One are ready to use on the Series S, although there are some still in the process of porting over.
When it comes to visuals, the Series S is a welcome step up from the Xbox one. It’s a lot smoother in many ways and can handle better graphics effortlessly all the while staying whisper quiet. Older games will be generally optimized once playing on the Series S so they look and feel enhanced with newer titles being optimized to make the most of the Series S’s computing power which I believe will allow them to run at a maxed out 1440p resolution but still has the capabilities to run titles at 120hz, which is a nice addition.
Physically, as you can imagine, it is a lot smaller than the original Xbox One. Almost half the size in fact, although most of the space has been saved from not including a disk tray, it’s still an impressive amount of technology in a relatively small console.
The Series X will have some extra touches, larger onboard storage (1TB vs. 512GB) and also include a disk tray but, for me, the Series S coming in at around 40% cheaper is a great option. If people are interested in next gen consoles but don’t want to pay out almost €500 and aren’t looking for ‘full fat’ 4K visuals or simply hooking their device up to a 1080p display, then the new Xbox Series S is the way to go.
One final note though, on storage. The Series S has 512GB of SSD storage built in but, after you take away the space needed for system files and UI etc. you’re actually only left with a fairly low 364GB of space. Something to keep in mind if you plan on downloading a lot of titles but, like John mentioned above, there is the option to expand your storage options but it won’t come cheap.
All in all, Microsoft has done a fantastic job of creating a powerhouse of a console that is sure to set you up for the next generation of gaming. Its ‘fan-focused’ approach to areas such as backwards compatibly, Quick Resume and Auto-HDR makes the Series X, and the new Series S also, a great home for all of your Xbox endeavours, be it past, present or future. Yes, we do wish they had Halo Infinite as a launch title but, with Xbox Game Pass, their subscription model which gives access to over 100 titles plus the inclusion of EA Play in this offering on November 10th, it’s never been a better time for gamers to join the Xbox eco-system.
Pricing & Availability
The Xbox Series X and Series S are launching in Ireland on November 10th for €499 and €299 respectively with very high demand in the lead up to launch. Availability, if you haven’t pre-ordered already, is pretty slim so be sure to keep and eye on the likes of GameStop, Argos, Smyths and Harvey Norman’s social channels for updates on new batches as they become available with some of these outlets allowing you to sign up for email updates so you’re notified when new stock becomes available.