Xbox Series X unleashed: Our unrestricted preview

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If you'd like to estimate Microsoft's confidence in its upcoming Xbox Series X console, start with the fact that the company gave us a console three weeks ago… and didn't hang around to see what we'd do with it.

That's not how cutting-edge hardware previews tend to work. There are supposed to be multiday events! And corporate handlers! And finger sandwiches! But mostly, there's supposed to be control on the manufacturer's part, in terms of swapping in new hardware or addressing failures the moment something might go wrong for a prospective critic. At such events, staffers may as well wear shirts that read, “We're still working the kinks out on that.”

Obviously, the massive, in-person events didn't happen this year. So what do you do as the industry's game-console underdog in order to convince people that your $500 console is better than the other $500 console? One of Microsoft's answers, apparently, was to drive a truck full of “PROTOTYPE”-labeled Xbox Series X consoles to critics' homes far earlier than we expected.

Today, after a few preliminary articles, I've finally been given the go-ahead to preview anything about the console that I want. (Not “review,” “preview.”)

From what I've tested so far, the company has good reason to be confident about this quiet, efficient hardware. Unless I'm missing something huge—even Red Rings needed longer than 22 days to manifest—my hardware experience has so far been quite smooth. As a computing device, Xbox Series X may go down in history as one of the most remarkable machines ever made—as compared to other products in its era, power level, and price.

But a piece of hardware is only as good as the software that it runs. While Microsoft has good reason to be confident about Xbox Series X as a big, honkin' box in your living room, the same can't be said for the range of software we've seen thus far. There's a lot to talk about with this console, so strap in as we jump from topic to topic and break down what a $499 gaming console can offer in 2020.

Hardware and orientation

Let's start with the system's physical design, which I've now lived with for 22 days—in both horizontal and vertical orientations. You'll likely experiment with both when you unbox Series X, whose cuboid structure (11.6 inches tall, 6 inches long, 6 inches wide) is a rarity in consumer electronics. Think of the common phrase “slot into your entertainment center,” and you can imagine receivers, DVD players, and other electronics that share a certain shape: not too tall, but plenty long and/or wide. You probably have shelves perfectly set up for these things to slide into.

The only “recent” exception I can think of isn't a good one: the GameCube, one of Nintendo's lowest-selling consoles.

To get my preferred entertainment center to accept the Series X, I had to adjust its shelves so that the system's vertical orientation, topping out at six inches, would have enough clearance room. (The gargantuan PlayStation 5's horizontal orientation reportedly tops out a hair above four inches, but its other dimensions, 15.4 x 10.2 inches, will still crowd out your other devices.) The Series X fit down there. It was fine. Then I looked at it and got a bit sad.

As I've previously written, the console's vertical orientation, which puts its venting array on top, executes a beautifully subtle design vision:

I like the natural motion inherent in the mild curvature of the top, which contrasts with the device's square edges and the rectangles that lead up to the top. And I like the mild use of varying green paint on the top venting holes, which suggests there's lighting inside the box—but, nope, no lights, it's just the tone of paint at work. The cool trick of that paint is how it varies on a hole-by-hole basis, which adds additional perceptible motion as you move around the box. It's like a wave: barely any noticeable color at a distance; a rising surge of color as you walk toward it; and the color mostly abated by the time you peer directly from above.

Between that and the matte-black finish, the design as executed seriously pulls off a sleek-and-subtle thing. Its stature simultaneously suggests power and efficiency—as in, it won't necessarily melt into whatever arrangement of devices or decorations you might have on a shelf, but instead stands there smugly, like a '50s rebel wearing nothing but black and leaning with one foot against a wall, one foot planted on the ground. Looking away from you, unperturbed, with a glint of green shining off their sunglasses.

Slot the same object sideways into an entertainment center, and the venting array vanishes, as does its clever curvature. At that point, it's more of an unwieldy, chonky boy that likely leaves too much space behind it. I'm not sure that Microsoft would care for a slogan like, “Xbox Series X: Go on, put all of your cords behind it.”

not how Microsoft intends for you to set up your Xbox Series X in horizontal mode. But I think it looks cooler this way.”>This is <em>not</em> how Microsoft intends for you to set up your Xbox Series X in horizontal mode. But I think it looks cooler this way.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/IMG_1162-980×550.jpg” width=”980″ height=”550″></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / This is not how Microsoft intends for you to set up your Xbox Series X in horizontal mode. But I think it looks cooler this way.
Sam Machkovech

For anyone keen on horizontal orientation with height to spare, one idea, which I've mocked up above, would be to 3D-print a stand to hold the console at a perfect 45-degree angle. In this orientation, it looks less like a box and more like a little rocket launcher. Just make sure you make enough clearance for the disc drive.

Super dust brothers

I've settled on Series X's vertical orientation at this point in part because I found a neat spot on top of my entertainment center behind my TV. I can easily reach it to change discs, and it's not totally hidden back there; I still see it at certain angles in my apartment and think, “That looks cool.” Your home-entertainment mileage will likely vary—especially if you're a parent. The venting array of paint-accented dots looks enticing, and the dots are thick enough, at 10mm diameter, to accept a pencil (not a crayon or an infant's finger). You can't get a pencil any further than the console's rubber fan, which sits atop a more tightly arranged aluminum trap, but this is still an open-venting design from bottom to top. Thus, you definitely don't want to put this hardware somewhere a dumber user (adults and children alike) might place a can of soda on top of it. (See more of this theoretical stress testing this in my prior coverage.)

But why would Microsoft release a $500 piece of electronics whose ideal top-side arrangement is so open? I believe the answer, in part, comes from a key difference with PlayStation 5.

Sony's new console has settled on a similarly large (and reportedly quiet) fan system, but it operates in a sort of sideways orientation, not a vapor chamber. This means Sony had to engineer “dust pockets” into PS5's chassis, which can be accessed by yanking off its plastic shell (ye gods) and vacuuming the dust out. That, to me, is somehow more awkward than Xbox Series X's design language, which, at the very least, resolves the issue of accumulating dust by guaranteeing that detritus is all sucked out via a natural, ongoing fan process. (Also, FYI: Using a vacuum cleaner inside of sensitive electronics is generally a bad idea, due to static electricity.) Three weeks into my Series X ownership, I haven't noticed a bunch of dust clinging to the holes, which is promising. However, I'd need a key for a Kensington lock to see how the system's guts are doing, dust-wise.

It’s getting hot in here—but how hot?

Before I settled on the console's vertical orientation, I performed extensive testing—particularly of “designed for Xbox Series X” software like DiRT 5—with the console inside of my entertainment center. This furniture wasn't designed for ventilation, so it was a great place to test the question that's been (ahem) heating up at various gaming forums.

How hot is Xbox Series X? Can it blow dry your hair or heat your house?

In a word, no. The heat it produces is noticeable, to be fair, owing to Series X's large and incredibly quiet rubber fan. Microsoft settled on the console's tower design in part because of a “vapor chamber” construction, meant to draw air from one side and propel it over every system element, then out through the top, to keep the system running efficiently and cool. Put your hand over the venting array while playing a next-gen game, and you'll notice a wave of heat. It's not the kind of airflow you'd want on your face after being outside on a hot, summer day.

But it's also comparable to the total heat output of most modern consoles. Series X's power draw—a theoretical maximum of 315 watts, but closer to 190 watts as measured by a Kill-a-Watt device while playing “next-gen” games—is a good metric, compared to the 120W average gameplay draw of the original Xbox One and 185W average gameplay draw of Xbox One X. (You read that correctly: In my limited testing, Series X and XB1X are absolutely comparable in power draw.) Series X just happens to vent its air at a particularly noticeable rate, which is probably why early reports claimed it ran hot.

So long as you're not within six inches of the console, you won't notice that fan-blown wave of heat (especially since it's so quiet, even more so than XB1X). After running Xbox Series X for a few hours in my entertainment center, I touched the center's walls and surfaces, and they were about as hot as running a PS4 Pro or XB1X in the same place—noticeably warm, but not alarmingly so.

Turning Gears to uncover good news

We've received a faint trickle of “next-gen” software during our three-week testing period, which is fair. We're about 27 days out before the console launches, and getting a game to a “performance complete” state, especially on brand-new hardware, is no small task.

That's the feeling I got while testing two upcoming third-party games: DiRT 5, which I previously wrote about, and Yakuza: Like A Dragon, which I did not. I received a copy of DiRT 5 with an assurance that this would be a true “next-gen” game, since it offers a 120fps refresh rate as an option—a first for a game on a console. As I came to realize, that's not the entire story. That blistering frame rate comes at a cost of serious detail, from geometrical detail to ambient occlusion, from shadow resolution to texture pop-in, and from missing weather effects to missing crowds of people. (You can turn off the 120fps mode in order to restore most of those graphical touches.)

I still think DiRT 5, in its pre-release state, feels tremendous on a pure driving level when it cranks up to 120fps, and I said as much. But I thought it was weird that Microsoft handed me that compromise-filled preview as my first example of a Series X 120fps game. Didn't seem very show-of-force of them.
A few days later, an updated build of 2019's Gears 5 landed on my Series X. This should've been my first taste of 120fps on Series X, I immediately thought.

Like I said in my 2019 review, Gears 5 offers a smorgasbord of modes, and many of them max out at 60fps on Series X. But the versus matchmaking suite can go all the way to the system's 120fps maximum all while running at 4K resolution. I immediately booted my PC version of the game and created dummy lobbies in order to create like-for-like comparisons to show you how a $500 console's 120fps mode compares to the same thing on a $1,500+ PC:

If you're struggling to notice any differences, you're not alone. What's crazier is, these crisp, detailed images full of handsome touches are appearing in isolation, as opposed to the dazzlingly smooth flipbook effect of running, somersaulting, and shotgunning at 120fps. Yet Xbox Series X doesn't sweat in rendering these frames at a blistering 8.33 millisecond threshold with barely any noticeable lurches in my hours of testing (and, again, with zero noticeable noise spewing out of the console at peak load). There's no getting around it: Series X is a fundamental game-changer in terms of console power, and Gears 5‘s buttery smooth 120fps toggle has me instantly excited at the prospect of other console-game developers following suit.

Microsoft's dev team at the Coalition already showed off a Gears 5 Series X build in March of this year, though this revolved around content capped at 60fps. This showed the game's campaign mode nearly reaching parity with the PC version while offering updates to its global illumination model. In the months since, the PC version has apparently adopted some of those illumination tweaks, so like-for-like comparisons show the PC version narrowly beating that of Xbox Series X on a visual basis, primarily due to superior ambient occlusion on the PC version… but, again, that's a PC version jacked up to “ultra” and “maximum” settings while running on an i7-8700K and RTX 3080. For pretty much every other graphical element you can think of (draw distance, shadow resolution, geometric detail), Series X is neck-and-neck.

When it comes to load times, the Series X version of Gears 5 handily beat out even a high-end PC equipped with an NVMe 3.0 drive (which stored both the Windows OS and the game). After testing a variety of Gears 5 campaign save files, I found a 75 percent improvement for the console version; 53-second loads on my PC were as short as 12 seconds on my Xbox Series X for identical content.

In case you skimmed over that paragraph: That's not comparing Series X load times to older consoles. That's comparing Series X load times to a top-of-the-line PC.

On top of that, as I've previously reported, Xbox Quick Resume means that you can bounce to other software and then expect load times back into Gears 5 as low as 10 seconds. When that works, it's a tremendous change of pace compared to getting up and running an errand while the game's usual loading screens play out. Sadly, due to Gears 5‘s insistence on checking in with Xbox's online services, Quick Resume frequently crapped out during my pre-release testing. If my console noticed a change in my cloud-save status because I'd tested the PC version, I had to reboot Gears 5 all over. Worse, the same would happen if I froze the game after an online match, then came back the next day—as opposed to a more standard “you were offline, go back to the main menu” notice.

DiRT 5 and Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which are listed as “optimized for Series X” in my games library, frequently failed with Xbox Quick Resume, as well. I couldn't figure out why that was the case, or how to reliably reproduce their Quick Resume errors. Microsoft reps have assured me that the Xbox Series X team can safely hibernate “3-4 next-gen games” in system RAM, but I'll be sure to doubly test this feature on final hardware just in case.

On top of Gears, we also have… more Gears?

The only other game we've tested in the “optimized for Series X” pool at this point is Gears Tactics, which is currently a Windows 10 exclusive but will arrive on XB1 and Xbox Series on November 9. Its ability to stick to a 4K/60fps performance target on Series X, while running at the PC version's “ultra” settings preset, is commendable—really, it's about as pretty as Gears 5. But this is a turn-based, top-down strategy affair, not a twitchy shooter. And Microsoft hasn't taken advantage of the game's slower pace and limited camera angles to push advanced graphical tricks, particularly anything that resembles ray tracing.

Gears 5 is a stunner, and its Series X build flexes the new console's hardware remarkably. But that's as “next-gen” of a game as I've tested on Series X thus far, and it was never built to leverage ray tracing effects, insane draw distances, Velocity Architecture trickery (in terms of having things like higher-resolution samples appear near-instantly), or substantial computational boosts. None of those have since been added. It's a last-gen game with some, but not all, of the next-gen dressing.

We've seen hints of this year's “next-gen” content for Xbox Series X, most notably in a sizzle reel from NBA 2K21‘s next-gen edition. In that game's preview video, players, coaches, jersey fabric, crowds, and floor reflections have all been so touched up that the combined result barely resembles its current-gen sibling. But how will that look on Xbox Series X compared to PS5? Will EA Sports perform similar wizardry for its slate of games, which have all had next-gen patches teased (but no gameplay footage shown yet)? Will the ray tracing effects in Watch Dogs Legion‘s PC version find their way to either console this year? How will next-gen updates for boundary-pushing software like Control and Borderlands 3 look and perform?
For now, we are left wondering how brief sizzle reel reveals from earlier this year will look on actual hardware, in the form of actual gameplay. Gears 5‘s impressive update is proof that Series X has power to spare, and there's no reason to doubt that developers will exploit it at some point. It's just a matter of when. This November? Next year? That remains to be seen.

Lightning-quick app access

In better system-level news, Series X hasn't been advertised as a media-app hub the way Xbox One was… but, gosh, it's so much better at the task. Xbox One, and its faster XB1X sibling, are notoriously slow with media apps and menus (and don't even get us started on how slow its Snap feature was, RIP). On Series X, media apps launch almost instantly, as do system option menus, storefronts, and your own installed games-and-apps library (even when you have content installed on older, USB-connected drives). Various media apps on Xbox One X take 20-28 seconds to launch, and those get down to 2-6 seconds on Series X.

Sadly, Xbox's media apps didn't get the Quick Resume memo, so any time you swap from Disney+ to Peacock to Netflix to Hulu, you'll have to start from scratch, instead of having an instant, alt-tabbing media experience—unless you only switch between two apps. Should you swap between three or more apps, Xbox Quick Resume chokes up. In one particular annoyance, each Series X media app with an account selector will bring this choice up every time, instead of remembering which person is stealing Aunt June's HBO Max credentials.

As far as home theaters are concerned, whatever setup you have better be compatible with direct connections to HDMI, instead of requiring a direct optical-out connection from your device to your sound system. Xbox chief Phil Spencer has previously confirmed that Microsoft did the math on how many people use the prior generation's optical-out port (which they determined through anonymous user data) and decided to kill the option on Series X due to how few people would be affected. That's cold comfort for anybody who saw the port's continuation from Xbox One to Xbox One X and assumed they were safe for a while.

One major Series X difference

I've previously written about Series X's backwards compatibility suite, and the only thing I can add to that today is how nice it is to have a single, super-powerful box that quickly loads many of my favorite older games. I don't know about you, but I've accumulated a lot of Xbox 360 and Xbox One software over the years. Yet as time has moved on, I've moved away from Xbox One—primarily because its menus are sooooo slooooow—and towards my PC. It plugs into my TV. It doesn't take a whopping 25 seconds just to see my full library of installed games, let alone the long load times once I pick one.

Three weeks of Series X testing has prodded me to load, test, and dive into dozens of classic Xbox games, even when such testing wasn't necessary. For example: Whenever I want, I can quickly hop into Geometry Wars 2, since it's sitting comfortably in my Quick Resume queue, and delight in nearly instant loads back into its three-minute blasts of action. Plus, this classic game is one of the new console's best examples of “auto-HDR,” which automatically applies a higher “nit” value to the game's lines of enemies and lasers as floating over a pitch-black backdrop, all tuned appropriately to HDR's wider range of luminance and color saturation. Nobody from the original Geometry Wars 2 team had to go back into the game to add that tweak; it's automatic on Xbox's part.

The same goes for older Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, and Dark Souls games, which all currently work on my Series X preview hardware. (Some games in my legacy Xbox library still don't work on the Series X through backwards compatibility, but Microsoft says this will be resolved in time for the system's launch.) In the case of games that already had maximum values set for frame rate and resolution, like Dark Souls 2 on Xbox One, Series X doesn't magically improve them. In the rarer case of games that didn't meet their original performance targets or left them unlocked, like the unpatched version of Assassin's Creed Unity on Xbox One, Series X does tend to run them at their maximum possible values.

There's also, sadly, the case of Dark Souls 1, whose 360 version always ran pretty badly. Somehow, Xbox Series X maintains that issue, thanks to a preview-period bug that sees its frame rate regularly drop to 10fps even during “light” scenes. It's honestly the only back-compat performance outlier I've found thus far while swapping from classic game to classic game, and it may be resolved in time for the console's launch, but I'll be curious to see how many other problematic back-compat games emerge. For all of Series X's horsepower, a bug can apparently turn all of those teraflops into bizarre 10fps slowdowns.

As I was preparing this article, Microsoft announced more details about automatic upgrades to select back-compat software on Series X, with one staggering example being Fallout 4 receiving a doubling of frame rate, from 30fps to 60fps. That's an incredible tweak to apply to the top of legacy code, one that I could see breaking a game with different animation speeds for different elements.  I look forward to testing it out, but so far, Microsoft hasn't made that patch (or any other fps-doubling patches) available to critics.
Lapsed Xbox gamers likely have at least a few favorite games from Xbox 360, or even the OG Xbox, sitting on an ancient account, whether purchased individually or scored as part of older Xbox Live Gold giveaways. Couple those with the 100+ games available at any given time as part of Xbox Game Pass, and you've got a hearty backlog to play with before you even buy your first “next-gen” Series X game—and all of that is set to run far more efficiently than ever before, thanks to quicker loading times and Quick Resume perks. The Series X difference in this regard reminds me of the first time I backed up my Nintendo DS games to a single flash cart and was able to bounce from game to game while on a vacation. The resulting sensation at the time was uncanny, and with Xbox Series X, I'm back to that feeling.

More questions that need answers

For some fans, that sales pitch isn't nearly as exciting as “the only place to play Spider-Man: Miles Morales and remastered Demon's Souls,” of course. If you're leaning towards PlayStation 5—and already have zero investment in the Xbox ecosystem—Microsoft likely won't ply you away this year, so long as we're all waiting for familiar names like Halo, Forza, and Fable to return (let alone any brand-new, next-gen IP to blow us away). But I also can't help but wonder why the heck Microsoft didn't get two of this year's biggest graphical powerhouses, Microsoft Flight Simulator and Minecraft Ray Tracing Edition, ready for Series X this year. Those are Microsoft exclusives. Those are beautiful, wonderful games. I can play them on PC right now, and I wish I could say the same for Xbox Series X.
But in the case of those games, and so many more, we're still left without answers. Hopefully, we'll get a few more ahead of our Series X review—which will run side-by-side with our first hands-on coverage of Xbox Series S, the $299 hardware variant that shaves power and resolution while promising near-equivalent gameplay.

Listing image by Sam Machkovech

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