Xbox Series X: First Thoughts

Normally at this point, some deep conclusions would be in order. But with a console launch – and especially this launch – that seems a bit premature.

The entire point of console gaming is games, and at this stage in the launch with so few games there is just not enough to say here. Consoles also seem to focus on exclusives, and here there is even less to say: Microsoft is certainly going to continue with the idea of exclusive games, but none of the launch day titles are exclusive to the Xbox Series X|S. The Xbox team is committed to continuing to support the Xbox One lineup, and all the games that will be available for launch as Optimized for X|S titles will also be available on Xbox One. That leaves the Xbox Series X|S launch in a strange spot, if you look back historically, and most certainly removes the “I need this today” feeling from previous console launches.

However that does not mean there is not a compelling reason to upgrade to the Xbox Series X|S lineup. To keep on the subject of games, Microsoft should be commended for the work they have put into backwards compatibility over the last several years. The Xbox One reaped the rewards of that effort, but with a new console generation with the entire lineup of previous generation games available (minus those that require Kinect) it does most certainly change the picture somewhat. No one is going to purchase the Xbox Series X|S to play Xbox One titles, but it most definitely does expand the launch-day lineup significantly.

The new hardware is also very compelling. When Microsoft launched the Xbox One, they made some decisions early on that cost them a significant performance edge versus the competition. Clearly the Xbox team has taken that miss to heart. The launch of the Xbox One X solidified the performance crown for the last generation, and the Xbox Series X is without a doubt the most powerful console on the planet today.

With an 8-core Zen 2 CPU, and 12 TFLOPS of RDNA 2 graphics, the Xbox Series X easily outpaces everything in the console space in terms of raw performance available. Add in the new features to improve visual quality that RDNA 2 brings to the table with Ray Tracing, as well as variable rate shaders, and the RDNA 2 graphics tech should allow the next generation games to really shine – pun intended.

Perhaps the most important change this generation though is the move to solid-state storage, with the Xbox Series X offering 1 TB of flash storage and Xbox Series S providing 512 GB, with 800 GB and 365 GB free respectively. This is part of the new Xbox Velocity Architecture, which couples the SSD with hardware decompression in the SoC, a new API in DirectStorage, and Sample Feedback Streaming. NVMe SSDs offer an order of magnitude more performance than the spinning drives found in previous generation consoles, and the new Xbox takes full advantage of not only the outright performance, but also the improved hardware capabilities to provide an almost instant-on capability to the console itself, plus much faster load times for all titles – optimized for the new console or not. As we get more next-generation games, the SSD speeds should usher in new ways for games to be portrayed, as the limitations of spinning drives no longer preclude visible loading more detailed textures mid-scene.

Solid State storage also means there is a new feature called Quick Resume, which most certainly changes the way you use a console. The exact game state from memory is written to disk, so switching games now allows you to switch instantly back to where you were exactly before you left. This was somewhat possible on the Xbox One, but only one game would be able to be kept in memory at a time. Since the entire contents of memory can be quickly written to disk, this limitation has evaporated, and is a major quality of life improvement with the Xbox Series X|S lineup. In the same vein, Microsoft has created what they are calling Xbox Smart Delivery, which not only ensures that the correct version of any game is available, it can also reduce the overall game sizes as strategically-placed duplicate textures will no longer be necessary, and the hardware decompression will remove the bottleneck of compressed textures.

One of the most interesting parts of the new Xbox has nothing to do with the console itself though. The Xbox All Access idea, where Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is coupled with a new console for a monthly subscription fee really changes value calculation. The monthly fee is not insignificant of course, but considering it includes a nice assortment of games with Xbox Game Pass, and the fact that Xbox All Access over two years works out to slightly less than purchasing the console and Xbox Game Pass separate, it is certainly going to open up the Xbox market to more people.

This is coupled with the full backwards compatibility of all Xbox One games (except those that require Kinect), so even on day one of the console launch, there are plenty of games to play on the new console. Most of them will not be optimized for the new console, although there is a good number of games coming that will be specifically optimized for the new consoles. But backwards compatible games still benefit from a lot of the Xbox Series X|S features, such as Auto HDR for SDR games, much faster load times, and more consistent framerates. Just be aware that the Xbox Series S will receive the Xbox One version, and the Xbox Series X will receive the Enhanced for Xbox One X titles, if available.

As far as the overall hardware, the Xbox team has delivered. The console is the most powerful console. The solid-state storage brings some very impressive quality-of-life improvements, and despite drawing a bit more power under load than the Xbox One X, the Xbox Series X is more or less silent at load. The design is a bit bland, but the matte black finish means that it is not going to really stand out, which is good.

Sadly, with so few launch titles available in the review period, it does not feel like we are getting a true glimpse of gameplay on next-gen titles. There will be a few more available by November 10th for the full launch of Xbox Series X|S, such as Watch Dogs Legion, which will come with ray tracing support, but they were not available yet during the short review window.

 

The hardware is amazing, and anyone looking to upgrade from a previous Xbox will love the new console. As a media device, the Xbox Series X|S offers a lot of capability, but perhaps not more than a dedicated media device would, without even getting into the ongoing Netflix HDR issues. But until we see more games, it feels like it is difficult to get a true feeling for the console’s potential. If you are going to buy the Xbox Series X because you are an Xbox fan, you will not be disappointed, but if you want to sit on the fence a bit and wait for more games, that is not a bad decision either. With Microsoft pushing Xbox Game Pass and offering full support for Xbox One for the foreseeable future, it feels like Microsoft’s Xbox team is happy to support both Xbox One or Xbox Series owners anyway, because the way Microsoft sees it, it's all Xbox.

Gameplay Analysis: The Wolf Among Us
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  • Kangal - Saturday, November 7, 2020 - link

    I haven't seen any TV, Radio, or Billboard ads. Even the buzz online has been quite mute.
    Despite that, 2020 is a bad time for console release. Not only is the pandemic risk a real problem, but the component supply issues are tough, the people having a lot less spending money is massive, and on top of that software and game developers have also been hit.

    Now every disadvantage has it's advantage!
    1) I think this was the perfect opportunity for MS to one-up and beat the console race, by pulling a "pro move". And what I mean about that is that MS should have trolled Sony, by developing a next-gen console that is launching in December, priced much higher, have worse specs, be much hotter, be much louder, look uglier, have a confusing name, and have gimmicky launch titles. So it's basically a 4K-checkerboard console with NO RayTracing. Yep, even going as far as sending lots of units to game publishers to work on, some individual units to online reviewers, and even limited supply to retailers. This would've meant Sony develops a PS5 that's even worse than now in terms of features (No RayTracing) and specs (20%-60% slower), and at a higher $600 price, to help the company profit-margin.

    2) Then at the last minute, bam, MS apologises and cancels the product just before launch. Then cite the covid restrictions, supply issues, etc etc as the culprit. But promise to release the system very soon when they are ready. A slimy business move indeed. It will have the half-baked PS5 competing with itself, which doesn't matter, as PS4 had won the current-gen console race.

    3) Then "re-develop" the next-gen console to actually release a year later, in Oct 2021. By this period, they would have stopped Xbox One/S/X production and ended stock. And released the "Xbox Two" as a better named, beautiful console, that runs cold, runs silent, ships with the Elite2 controller, and has a couple awesome exclusive games. It would run all enhanced "XB1X" games, and it supports next-gen games with an output of 4K-HDR-RayTracing with 120fps, but all games are actually rendered in 1080p. So because of the questionable 4TF RDNA +2 GPU its only a slight upgrade (modest upgrade to Base Xbox One), and priced equal to the discounted Xbox OneX at $300. Even worse it lacks a Disc tray, so it is Digital Only which gives a monopoly to MS for game sales and streaming. However, thanks to the much faster 4.0GHz Zen3 CPU, 16GB GDDR6 memory, and the Soldered 512GB nVme SSD, it does support all next-gen titles. So this rounds out the Xbox One era, with no reviewers sent any units, with all retailers having full stock already, it is ready for sale right away, shocks the industry and defeats the 1 year old $600 PS5 on a strict value proposition.

    4) But wait, there's more!
    Upon release of the Xbox Two, one week later MS holds a press release/announcement. This is their true fifth-gen console aptly named "The Xbox V". It's even better named, more beautiful design, runs silent, runs cool, released cheaper and better than expected. The next day and following, there are ads for it everywhere on TV, Radio, Billboards, and everywhere online. Whilst pre-orders start the next week, for a sweet $500 price, with heaps of stock in MS's warehouses boxed and ready. They would also have a new 5th-gen controller dubbed "XP5" for Xbox Pad 5 with an updated design. It also uses upgraded parts like 4.0GHz Zen3 CPU, a more modern 12TF RDNA2+ GPU, ample 32GB GDDR6 memory, and a 1TB nVme SSD that is user replaceable. Not to mention a much more polished API, Software, and launch titles/exclusives (not gimmicky). Overall there's a huge and noticeable (30%-90%) performance difference between the "half-baked PS5" versus the "enhanced Xbox V". This means PS5 suffers immensely with all third-party releases for the entire generation (not enough RAM, worse APIs, and slower CPU and GPU), and this new console package with such an instant reveal and launch puts Sony at a difficult position. Hence, having an early victory in 2020 for Sony proves useless in terms of profit and market share, and the console race really heats up.

    PS: ....with all this hypothetical yet possible scenario laid out, I should note Nintendo lost a similar opportunity with the Switch console. Which could have retailed more/less price, and launched same/earlier period, YET using the new technologies it could have been much more advanced and even more powerful than the PS4, thus supporting all third-party games from the current-gen consoles. It would've extended its effective lifetime, not be obsolete so quickly. Perhaps remain relevant in the next-gen console era as well, instead of relying on gimmicks, fans, and nostalgia.
    Reply
  • persondb - Saturday, November 7, 2020 - link

    That would require Microsoft to know ahead about the current situation. Because you know, hardware takes a long time to develop and it was likely finalized just before the start of this pandemic. Same for playstation really. Reply
  • Tams80 - Sunday, November 8, 2020 - link

    This is what an uninhibited stream of fanboi fantasy looks like.

    Utterly clueless, impractical, unrealistic, and silly. Move along; nothing to see here.
    Reply
  • TesseractOrion - Sunday, November 8, 2020 - link

    Total drivel. Reply
  • Kangal - Sunday, November 8, 2020 - link

    I concur.
    Still fun thought exercise. Besides fact is stranger than fiction.
    Reply
  • cmdrdredd - Monday, November 9, 2020 - link

    People without disposable income have made the PS4 Pro and Nintendo switch disappear from retail supply though. Seems people have more money than you think Reply
  • FloridaMan - Friday, November 20, 2020 - link

    Sir,

    Corporate espionage is a real thing. Nearly all tech companies engage in an array of both soft and hard spying to know what the competition is bringing to the table.

    AMD would be point entropy in this situation. Not only is a third party designing for both Sony and MS, but their using the same architecture as well. One has less room to differentiate their product within those lines. However, this is beneficial to the consumer as developers are working between a framework rather than having to code for separate entities.
    Gone are the days where one might wait a year for game to port. (At least for consoles. The PCMASTERACE still locked behind this constraint on many titles, but we are patient, and mighty! What cannot be unlocked will be emulated, modded or synthesized!)
    Reply
  • Yojimbo - Thursday, November 5, 2020 - link

    I don't know if that's true or not, as I don't watch any TV. But maybe they feel it would be counterproductive in this environment. Hyping something up that will be in short supply for a while might make people frustrated. And by short supply I don't mean the supply will be low, I mean that demand will already outstrip supply without any advertising.

    The console market as a whole is probably pretty stable without any advertising, but Sony and Microsoft would want to gain an edge against each other in enthusiasm. So I would expect campaigns to try to influence people. Perhaps at first they will be a bit more subtle? (such as to get their product talked about on gamer youtuber channels, etc...) Then it's out there in people's minds without the direct, implicit promises of availability that come with direct advertising.
    Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Thursday, November 5, 2020 - link

    Maybe they know they're facing supply shortages and there's no point in paying for advertising to sell a product that might already be sold out through the end of the year. I think enough gamers knew about PS5 and XSX that a tv commercial wouldn't move the needle. Reply
  • HarryVoyager - Saturday, November 7, 2020 - link

    That would be my suspicion. As I understand it, the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S have all, already, completely sold out in most markets, and it will be a while until they've got enough hardware on hand to make more.

    At that point a big ad blitz is just going to cost you money.
    Reply

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