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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  • eastcoast_pete - Saturday, November 7, 2020 - link

    You're correct, and Brandon was outstanding in this movie (by Elia Kazan, I believe). Thought Stallone did borrow that line for Rocky, but it's been a while that I watched it. That being said, the "S" is at risk of being the bum among consoles, and the fact that it's readily available for pre-order suggests it's not rocking many boats out there. Reply
  • flyingpants265 - Friday, November 6, 2020 - link

    One or two of the cores are doing things not related to games. Reply
  • flyingpants265 - Friday, November 6, 2020 - link

    What exactly is the point of the Series S? The whole point of consoles is that they're standardized Reply
  • andrewaggb - Friday, November 6, 2020 - link

    The trend started with the ps4 pro and xbox one x. They're still fairly standardized, same peripherals, same cpu, same gpu archicture, same software. Series S is just for 1080p only and will probably have somewhat lower quality textures because it has less ram. Reply
  • Shlong - Monday, November 9, 2020 - link

    The Series S also doesn't have updated graphics for backward compatibility games. The graphical updates for Xbox One games will show up on Series X but not S. Reply
  • cmdrdredd - Monday, November 9, 2020 - link

    That went out the window a while back. Now it's just a brand, the Xbox. All games using smart delivery work on any Xbox One or Series console and will use the appropriate settings and resolution for that console. Not unlike graphics settings in your PC. I could ask what the point of a RTX3070 is and the answer is the same. A lower power and cheaper alternative that is good enough for a lower resolution. Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Friday, November 6, 2020 - link

    Thanks for the first look/review, Brett! Question: Did you have a chance to see just how fast the USB 3.1 connection is when a. Used with an external SSD or b. a regular 7200 rpm HDD. Especially interested in getting an idea how fast or slow it is to transfer some of the games you tested back into the built-in SSD. If you haven't tested it but still have the unit, can you try it? Thanks! Reply
  • Brett Howse - Saturday, November 7, 2020 - link

    Thanks for the question. I don't actually have a USB SSD drive to test this. I do have a slower USB HDD but I think it would end up being the bottleneck and would give unreliable results. I think whether this is worth it for you is whether you have fast internet or not.

    I'll still try the USB HDD this weekend and just see how it goes and let you know.
    Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Saturday, November 7, 2020 - link

    Thanks Brett, even a regular HDD will give an initial idea. Regarding an external SSD: Maybe someone else at AT has an external SSD they can lend you? With the current pricing for the proprietary add-on SSD, a half-priced external SSD connected by USB 3.1 is an interesting alternative. Assuming the Series X supports about 350 - 400 MB/second over USB, I'd probably get a 1TB external SSD and keep an external 8 TB HDD for "cold storage". Reply
  • Brett Howse - Saturday, November 7, 2020 - link

    Just so you are clear on this, any USB connected drive is not capable of being used for Series X|S games. It can be used for storage only. To play the new games they have to be on internal storage or on the Seagate storage drive. You'd have to shuffle games around if you want to keep them on USB. Reply

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