Hardware Review: Xbox Series X

It's felt at times like the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S were never going to land at our doorsteps in 2020, but against all odds, the future of Xbox has officially arrived. Welcome to the next generation!

You probably know the score by now - Microsoft has positioned the Xbox Series X as its premium offering for devoted gamers, while the Xbox Series S arrives as a $300 console for more casual Xbox fans who aren't necessarily bothered about a disc drive or playing games in 4K, but still want plenty of those next-gen benefits moving forward.

Ahead of its release on November 10th, Microsoft recently provided us with an Xbox Series X review unit which we've been using extensively for the past couple of weeks, giving us the chance to get hands-on with various games and features, and ultimately determine whether it lives up to our lofty expectations. Has it succeeded? Let's find out!

Xbox Series X Review: Unboxing & Setting Up

We've already gone into detail about unboxing the Xbox Series X elsewhere on Pure Xbox, but to recap, the experience is genuinely a very enjoyable one, and it's clear that Microsoft has gone the extra mile with the design of the packaging to make a great first impression.

The console itself is wrapped with a neat "Power Your Dreams" banner and thin, black covering, while the accessories are housed away in a hidden compartment at the back of the box. Included is the new Xbox Series controller with two AA batteries, the power cable, a helpful start-up manual and most importantly, an Ultra High Speed HDMI 2.1 cable which allows compatible TVs and monitors to display content at 4K, 120Hz where applicable. You don't need to go out and buy anything extra for this.

Next, you'll be ready to set up your system, which is now integrated into the new Xbox app for mobile. To make the process more seamless, you can head to the app, input the code displayed by the Xbox Series X, and customise the console's settings from your phone while it prepares itself for a first-time use. This actually conjured up a few error messages in our case, but it's definitely a welcome timesaver assuming everything's working as intended.

Xbox Series X Review: Design

Hardware Review: Xbox Series X - Design

You've probably seen images of the Xbox Series X from various angles at this point, so it'll come as no shock to hear that it's a significantly bulkier console - at least in terms of depth - than that of the Xbox One S or Xbox One X.

That said, Microsoft has made a big deal about how the system (along with the Xbox Series S) is designed to "blend in with the environment", and based on our experiences with it so far, it certainly adapts to the home pretty well. It's clearly designed from an aesthetics standpoint to be placed vertically, but we've been using ours horizontally due to TV cabinet restrictions, and it still doesn't look out of place or dominate the room as part of our setup. In fact, you might be surprised by how much smaller the console looks in person.

One of the reasons the Xbox Series X blends in so well is that it makes very little noise whatsoever, even when playing games optimised for the next generation. It's hard to tell the giant fan is even spinning unless you're literally sitting right next to it, and while it remains to be seen how quiet the system will prove in years to come as dust build-up and gradual wear-and-tear becomes a factor, we can say that for now, this is a very quiet console.

There were also plenty of rumours earlier this year that the Xbox Series X might give off an excessive amount of heat, but again, based on our experiences with it to date, this isn't the case. We've been running it daily for two weeks, sometimes for the entire day, and while it does emit an obvious warmth from the top of the fan (which is hotter when you're playing more intensive games), it's nothing unexpected. It's toasty, yes - but we've never felt like the system is straining itself under the weight of anything we've thrown at it.

We'd be remiss for not touching on the system's ports as well, especially as they're a little different to the Xbox One. To go with the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray drive, there are three USB 3.1 ports (two on the back, one on the front), an ethernet port, an HDMI 2.1 out port and an expansion slot for the optional Seagate 1TB Storage Expansion Card (more on that later).

Xbox Series X Review: Controller & User Interface

Hardware Review: Xbox Series X - Controller

The new Xbox Series controller isn't a major overhaul compared to the standard Xbox One design, but it adds plenty of quality-of-life improvements that result in a more comfortable and enjoyable next-gen experience.

For example, the new Share button allows for quick screenshot and video captures at the click of a button, while the revamped d-pad now shares more in common with the Elite Series 2 controller with its rounded design. We're actually the most impressed by the new bumpers which feel more robust and responsive compared to their Xbox One counterparts, and textured grips have also been applied to both the handles and the triggers, which adds further comfort and ensures your fingers don't slip too often.

Like the controller, the Xbox Series X user interface and dashboard is again very similar to that of the Xbox One, with some minor next-gen specific improvements thrown in. Navigation is still handled the same way, from installing games to managing your settings, but keep in mind that Microsoft recently applied a new Microsoft Store experience and dashboard update for Xbox One - these were clearly built with the next generation in mind, and perform much faster and smoother on the Xbox Series X.

Ultimately, the overall functionality is very similar to the Xbox One in many ways, which might disappoint those looking for a more elaborate overhaul, but the big benefit is that everything just works. The majority of accessories support cross-compatibility, so connect an old Xbox One controller, and it's detected right away. Plug in a USB hard drive, and your games library is instantly updated. You can even copy over the settings from your Xbox One and apply them to your Xbox Series X. The transition between the two systems is far more intuitive and painless than ever before.

Xbox Series X Review: Next-Gen Performance

Hardware Review: Xbox Series X - Gears 5

The Xbox Series X has been described by Microsoft as "the most powerful console the world has ever seen", boasting a next generation custom processor, Variable Rate Shading, support for DirectX Ray tracing, HDMI 2.1 innovation, a super fast SSD 1TB storage drive and much, much more.

But how does that translate in terms of performance? It's still a little too early to say given that we haven't had access to much of the console's launch line-up thus far aside from various enhanced first-party titles such as Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves and Gears Tactics, but for reference, the general performance target for games on the Xbox Series X is 4K resolution at 60 frames per-second, as opposed to the 1440p, 60FPS on the lower-priced Xbox Series S.

The Coalition's Gears 5 is a great example of a game that, despite first being released over a year ago, legitimately feels like a next generation title on the Xbox Series X. The studio has bumped up the visuals to a considerable degree, running at 4K, 60 frames per-second (even during cutscenes), and the game looks absolutely stunning as a result. Multiplayer even gets the added benefit of 4K resolution at 120 frames per-second on HDMI 2.1 compatible TVs and monitors, and while the vast majority of displays won't be able to take advantage of this feature for now, it certainly results in a super smooth experience with notably low latency if your setup can handle it.

It's a given that we're going to experience a boost in visual quality on the Xbox Series X, but as pointed out by Xbox boss Phil Spencer on numerous occasions throughout the past year, it's the feel of playing games and using the Xbox Series X in general that might surprise you. The games we've tested on it so far run at highly stable framerates and boast very short loading times, with everything feeling snappier and more responsive as a result. The sense of immersion is heightened, and you're no longer reaching for your phone every time a loading screen pops up.

That's not to mention the new Quick Resume feature, which allows you to switch between various titles near-instantly without having to load them again from scratch. This can save massive amounts of time in the long run if you're constantly jumping between the same three or four titles, and it even survives the console being turned off for days at a time, which is really impressive. The only downside (at least for now) is that it doesn't provide any indicators as to which games are currently utilising the feature, and we've also suffered a few issues with some titles due to a pre-launch bug which Microsoft had made us aware of.

Xbox Series X Review: Storage & Backwards Compatibility

Hardware Review: Xbox Series X - Backwards Compatibility

As with the Xbox Series S and even Sony's PlayStation 5, the Xbox Series X boasts super fast loading times thanks to its custom (1TB) internal SSD. However, this now means you need to be extra careful with storage management as games built for the system will only run off this drive or a separate, expensive Seagate 1TB Expansion Card, with USB drives now limited to just pure storage and/or playing backwards compatible games.

At the very least, we'd recommend investing in some kind of external drive for storing the majority of those original Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One games, or you're very quickly going to make use of the 802GB of usable storage available to you on the Xbox Series X, especially with games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War clocking in at 136GB!

Speaking of backwards compatibility, the Xbox Series X works with all non-Kinect Xbox One games, as well as all previously backwards compatible original Xbox and Xbox 360 titles, and based on our experiences with them so far, they all appear to function without issue. You can access them the same way you always did on Xbox One, and many of them now benefit from smoother performance, visual improvements and - if you store them on the internal SSD - significantly faster loading times.

We've sampled plenty of older titles that now run much better on Xbox Series X, including some notoriously janky games that even struggled on Xbox One X, which years later are now finally able to achieve a consistent framerate on console. There are limits with these older titles in terms of framerate caps and visual quality, but you can rest assured that the Xbox Series X gets as much out of them as it possibly can.

Microsoft has even gone the extra mile to make older games look more impressive with techniques such as Auto HDR. This is a feature which applies HDR to games that never received it the first time around, making them appear more vibrant. It works really well with a game such as Insomniac's Sunset Overdrive, which is bursting with brightness and colour, and even impresses with older games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. All of this is implemented without any work required from the original developers, which is quite the feat.

Xbox Series X Review: Verdict

It's very difficult to sum up the Xbox Series X after just two weeks of use, especially when it's clearly built with the next few years in mind. As of now though, we can tell you we're having an absolute blast with it, and it certainly makes the Xbox One (and even the Xbox One X) feel particularly sluggish in comparison.

Microsoft has really built up the hype and made a lot of promises with this system over the past year, and based on our experiences with it so far, it definitely appears to have been worth the wait. It's evidently powerful, super responsive, virtually quiet at all times, and most importantly, makes playing games across all four generations of Xbox more immersive and enjoyable than ever before.

Is it worth buying right now? That might depend on how you feel about the launch lineup. The vast majority of those early titles will be available on Xbox One as well, so you'll need to weigh up whether the advantages are worth it, but keep in mind that you also get access to plenty of next-gen optimisations via Xbox Game Pass, while the Xbox Smart Delivery service ensures compatible games get a free upgrade for Series X|S.

For us, the Xbox Series X is ticking all the right boxes. We're really impressed with the design and functionality of the system, and can't wait to see how developers harness its potential in the weeks, months and years ahead.

It's an exciting time to be an Xbox fan!

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