A new console generation is almost upon us, and this time, Microsoft is first out of the gate. Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S launch globally on November 10, beating Sony’s PS5 to the punch by a possibly crucial two-to-nine days (depending on territory).
In many ways, it’s an unorthodox product launch though. The mid-generation Xbox One X revamp offered a significant power boost to the Xbox One, making this leap perhaps seem, at a glance, more iterative than the transition from Xbox 360 to Xbox One was.
Meanwhile, the decision to release two discrete units in the form of the all-powerful disc-based Series X and the all-digital, lower spec Series S risks splintering at least public perception, if not outright confusing the potential consumer base.
We’ve now had hands-on time with the Series X for a couple of weeks, and it’s safe to say its improvements are clear.
The unit we’ve been putting through the paces is a final hardware model, although not running the firmware or OS it will at launch. As such, this preview represents a non-final experience and is not to be taken as a definitive review verdict on the Series X. Microsoft confirms a launch update will bring the Series X up to its final, retail version in line with what consumers will experience upon release, and we will reflect this in our ultimate review. We also expect to have time with the Series S in the near future.
The hardware itself has been lampooned for its boxy, cuboid shape, but in reality it’s not as imposing or unwieldy as it may appear. In its horizontal orientation, which – and please pay attention here, console designers of the future – the overwhelming majority of users will have the Xbox Series X set up in, as that is how most people’s media units are designed, it’s marginally narrower than the Xbox One X, and just over half as deep. Its footprint is, surprisingly, pleasantly small, though you’ll need 17-20cm vertical space between shelves to comfortably house its height, even laid flat.
Despite the size being less of an issue than expected, the Series X still isn’t the sexiest console ever designed, although we’re sure its minimalist aesthetic and sharp, clean lines will earn it some fans. The front is sleek, with merely a single USB port, the disc drive, the controller sync button, and the power button – which, sadly, doesn’t rotate for horizontal orientation, leaving the X pointing to the right – taking up space.
The rear is similarly tidy, with two more USB 3.1 ports, S/PDIF out, ethernet, HDMI and power sockets, and the storage expansion slot – more on that shortly – all neatly lined up.
Perhaps more important than the console box itself though is the controller, since that’s what players will be spending the majority of their time physically interacting with.
In many ways, the Xbox controller has already become the industry standard – the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller and countless third-party controllers for PC gaming already mimic the layout. As such, this generation’s model – the Series X and Series S will both use the same device – opts for an “if it ain’t broke” approach, with only minor alterations that refine what already worked.
The biggest difference on a tactile front is the grip on the underside. It’s now noticeably rougher, with a finely studded grip pattern ensuring that the controller sits more firmly and comfortably in your hand in even the tensest gaming sessions. This grip pattern is replicated on the triggers – which are said to be more responsive, potentially allowing tricks such as fine precision control on in-game weapons – and the edges of the shoulder bumpers.
In practical terms, the most notable change is to the D-pad, now an eight-way rocker rather than a four-point cross. The four cardinal direction points are raised up, allowing for precise inputs on 2D games, while a very satisfying click at all eight points gives a subtle haptic response. A dedicated ‘Share’ button on the front, sensibly positioned away from rogue thumb slips, is the only addition, but otherwise the Series X/S controller remains as good as ever.
Although the controllers are still not rechargeable themselves, as ever requiring 2xAA batteries, a nice compromise is the presence of a USB-C port at the top. This will allow power and data to flow through a USB-C cable – on PC or Xbox Series X – but also recharge suitable battery packs while in the controller.
We’ve not had chance to test this ourselves – we’ve been using regular, externally rechargeable AA batteries – but its a nice feature that could help cut down on battery waste, though it will require the purchase of a battery pack and cable as a separate peripheral.
On the software side, console set up is a relatively painless process. A new Xbox app, available on Android and iOS can do most of the work for you, even transferring your console settings from your Xbox One, and alerting you once everything’s ready to go.
If you’d rather not use the app, set up can still be done entirely on the console, and isn’t hugely dissimilar to Xbox One. Nor, currently, is the user interface – for the preview window it was, in fact, identical to Xbox One’s layout, though this will change for the final experience. We’ll report more on how the Series X dashboard and interface work in our final review.
The most important question though is: how does Xbox Series X play? To which the answer is: we’re still deciding.
For the preview window, games optimised for Series X have been in relatively short supply. Of those, there are hints of greatness though – Codemasters’ racer Dirt 5 looks stunning, bordering on the photo-realistic, while Sega’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon is more of a mixed bag, showing hints of being developed for the existing console generation in its character models, but also offering a staggeringly intricate and detailed Tokyo for them to inhabit.
We’ll be looking forward to seeing how the likes of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla take advantage of the Series X’s much vaunted power, including 4K 120fps visuals.
Instead, most of the emphasis during our preview time has been on the Series X’s backwards compatibility features, which seriously impress. There’s already a list of nearly 1,200 titles from original Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One that are compatible immediately (expect even more by launch day), ensuring most buyers who are upgrading will have a sizeable software library from day one. Game saves even transfer seamlessly through the cloud, allowing you to pick up where you left off without hassle.
What is notable – and this goes for the few Series X games available to us so far, as well as backwards compatible titles – is the speed of the console. Across the board, games installed locally on the 1TB NVMe SSD launch and load faster than on Xbox One X. We’re not quite talking instant-on, straight to the start screen as soon as you select a game, but we’re also not hugely far from that.
We’re also more impressed than we expected to be by the Quick Resume feature, which allows multiple games to be suspended and returned to. This is great for players hopping between several games, and the feature even resumes titles where you left them after a full reboot of the console – no more losing progress when you have to do a system update.
A caveat, though: it doesn’t seem to yet work on Xbox 360 or earlier titles. The 360 version of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night launched from scratch after another game had been played, even though multiple other games would happily still use Quick Resume. Fingers crossed this will be addressed.
1TB expansion drives
Part of the speed benefit comes from the switch to solid state storage for the Series X, which brings us to one of the most interesting aspects of the new hardware, the 1TB expansion drives, manufactured in partnership with Seagate.
These were also the one thing we had the most concerns about before getting our hands on one, but now we’re (almost) converts. These tiny drives – smaller than an original PlayStation memory card – slot into the rear of the console, but rather than merely offer more storage, crucially they function exactly the same as the internal SSD.
This means they’re just as fast, both in terms of data transfer – it took just 1m:02s to move a 40GB game from the internal storage to the expansion drive – and in running games natively. These micro wonders can play games optimised for Series X from the drive itself.
We noticed no difference in performance running Dirt 5 or Yakuza from the main drive or the Seagate expansion. While the Series X also supports external USB 3.1 drives, these simply won’t be fast enough to run Series X games (though they will run Xbox One or earlier games, and can be used to store Series X games).
Given the 1TB internal drive is likely to fill up rapidly with next-gen games, the Seagate expansions are likely to be a great option to store plenty of titles, especially since they can be ‘hot swapped’, allowing you to switch drives around at will if you have multiple expansion cards.
The only setback – and the one thing stopping us being total converts – is the price. At £219.99, they’re not cheap, and it’s hard to justify almost half the price of the console itself just for more storage.
In terms of active performance when running a game, the most immediately impressive trait of the Series X is how whisper quiet it is. Even the One X, which improved dramatically on the almost windy sounding original Xbox One model, puts out more noise than this.
If it weren’t for the glow of the power button, one might forget the console is even powered up. Early reports that the console runs physically hot aren’t entirely baseless, but in the weeks we’ve had with the console, it’s never gotten more than slightly warm to the touch. So far, we’ve no cause for concern, but we’ll be keeping a close eye as we test out dedicated next-gen games.
At this stage, we’re reasonably impressed with Xbox Series X, particularly its speed, silence and Quick Resume features. It’s not as hefty as we’d feared, and the extensive backwards compatibility support is especially pleasing.
How it fares when running true next-gen games will be the ultimate test though, and for that we reserve final judgement for our upcoming review.
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