Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, the fourth iteration of the Xbox, may be the most powerful home entertainment system ever. It’s also at least two years ahead of its time. The new Xbox brings more computational power than any console in history, yet no games that really necessitate that power. It’s like showing up to a party too early for fear of missing out.
For almost 20 years, Microsoft’s Xbox series has always tried to be ahead of the game. When the original Xbox debuted in November 2001, it was the most powerful unit in that sixth generation of consoles. It was also the very first video game system to feature an internal hard drive, which allowed it to eschew the memory cards needed for players to store their save data on other consoles, and — coupled with the console’s DVD player — also hinted at Microsoft’s goal of creating the ultimate home entertainment system. From day one, the dream was to fit games, movies, and music all in one (X)box.
The Series X feels like nothing less than the culmination of that dream, from design to operating system to unadulterated power. It may not reinvent the wheel, but the machine represents the logical destination of the trajectory that Microsoft has been charting in the video game world for the last two decades, and it fulfills the broad potential that Xbox loyalists have always seen in their brand of choice.
But Xbox’s need to prove its worth raises questions about the point of all that effort. Yes, you can play “optimized” versions of games like “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” or “Cyberpunk 2077” — which certainly promise to run smoother and at higher frame rates — but whether that justifies the sticker shock is debatable.
Make no mistake: Once the future catches up with the present, this Xbox will be a marvel of graphic wizardry. And as an entertainment system, the Series X is essentially a faster, larger Amazon Fire TV Cube or Roku Ultra — that also happens to support the most bleeding edge video game tech. But there’s also something bittersweet about bumping up against the ceiling of what a console like this can do, and any celebration of the Xbox Series X comes pre-installed with the feeling that future returns might only diminish from here.
What’s in the Box?
It’s difficult to unbox the new Xbox console and not get the idea that its designers meant for gamers to worship at its base. Aside from some green paint within the ventilation port, this thing is a dead ringer for The Monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” absent the extra ornamentation that the PlayStation 5 saw fit to add on top. In a strange way, it’s easy to see the evolution from the original Xbox — a bulky, bulbous, and decidedly un-boxlike console — to this cuboid object that looks great either standing or on its side.
Much has been made of Series X’s size (11.85 inches tall, 5.94 deep/wide), but the system resembles a subwoofer when you stand it up, and will easily disappear into most home decor as a result. The only drawback to the machine’s beautiful matte finish is that it immortalizes every fingerprint you smudge upon on it, so be sure to handle it with care if you want it to stay classy.
In addition to the console, there’s the next generation of Xbox Controller, which is essentially a carbon copy of the version that shipped with the Xbox One S and X aside from three noticeable changes: a share button (for screenshots and recording video), a concave (and much clickier) directional pad, and textured grips along the controller’s handles and triggers. There’s also some added heft, but the controller will still feel plenty familiar in your hands.
The console also ships with an HDMI 2.1 compatible cord, which when paired with the proper TV will allow for games to run at 120 frames per second in 4K (walk your heart out, Billy Lynn). That’s no insignificant point. In order to get the most out of this machine, many users will need to invest in a new television to support the higher quality output (any set that supports an HDMI input of 4K@120Hz should do the trick). Over a 10-year hardware cycle that might eventually become a more effective selling point, but for now it’s a tantalizing promise that the system has to room to grow.
12.1 Teraflops Is the New 1.21 Gigawatts
One of, if not the, key selling point of Xbox Series X is its 12.1 teraflops of GPU performance. What’s a teraflop? Excellent question. In essence, it’s a mathematical measurement of a computer’s power, with each teraflop amounting to a machine’s ability to process one trillion calculations a second. Which means the Xbox Series X can handle 12 trillion operations a second (which, frankly, seems like it should be enough). For those keeping track, that’s eight times as many as the original Xbox One and double that of the previous gen Xbox One X. That’s also 20% better than its primary rival, though it remains to be seen what developers will actually be able to do with that extra muscle.
So what do all those flops buy? Well, in addition to the aforementioned boosted frame rate, the Xbox Series X boasts a new feature called Quick Resume, which lets you jump back into any of your most recently played games exactly where you left them (bypassing vanity cards, titles, and even load screens). Quick Resume feels like a game-changer in every sense of the word, as it represents the kind of quantum leap that will rewire the relationship that people have with gaming consoles, and turn the once-tolerable inconvenience of having to wait a few seconds into an unforgivable sin going forward.
Loading times — an inextricable part of the video game experience since the industry started abandoning cartridges in favor of CD-ROMS and the like — have also just become an endangered species thanks to all those fancy teraflops. The Series X is so fast that it can breathe new life into old favorites. Fire up a massive open-world game like “The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt,” and you’ll find that some of the features that used to suck the fun out of playing it have been flattened into actual conveniences; the fast travel system used to require load times so long that you could almost just walk across the map in the same amount of time, but now Geralt of Rivia is zapped between places in the blink of an eye. For diehard gamers, this is the kind of upgrade that will save entire days of their lives.
These incredible speeds are also due to the Series X’s 1TB NVMe solid state drive. That 1TB sounds like a lot, until you realize that, a) after accounting for the OS, there’s only 802GB left for games, and b) that most of the games “optimized” for the Series X will hijack between 50-100GB a pop (71.9GB is needed for “Gears 5,” 81.9GB for “Forza Horizon 4,” and a truly jaw-dropping 187.9 GB for “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War”).
To combat the forthcoming storage wars, the Series X includes a proprietary internal storage expansion slot (Seagate is selling an additional 1TB for $230) and three USB 3.0 slots for external hard-drives (though optimized games can only run from the SSD). Either things are going to get tricky and/or expensive in a hurry, or players might have to focus their attention on a few games at a time.
Is The Xbox Series X The Ultimate Home Entertainment System?
The Xbox Series X is likely the perfect object of home entertainment. In addition to its high-powered gaming capabilities, it also sports a 4K Blu-ray drive with support for HDR10 (as of this posting, it does not yet support HDR10+ or Dolby Vision, though those could be added via firmware update, as both the gaming and streaming arms of the machine already support Dolby Vision) and, like the Xbox One (but unlike Amazon and Roku), hosts apps for every major streaming platform (save for Quibi, may she rest in piece). The result is a hub that serves as one-stop shop for all your glowing rectangular entertainment needs, allowing its users to bounce between a beautiful 4K transfer of “Parasite” on Blu-ray, streaming Netflix’s “The Crown“or Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso,” listening to IndieWire’s Screen Talk podcast on Spotify, and jumping right back into “Doom Eternal” using Quick Resume. If only the console came equipped with a Kindle app.
But What About the Games?
Even when compared to the paltry lineups that gamers have come to expect from a new console at launch — and even when compared to the exclusive titles that Sony rushed over the finish line in time for the release of the PS5 — there just isn’t much exclusive content for the Series X right now. And that fact is only compounded further by Microsoft’s (welcome) decision to continue to support the original Xbox One with titles for the next two years, meaning that the Series X’s primary short-term value will be the improved graphics and reduced loading times that it retrofits on cross-generational titles.
The delay of “Halo Infinite” also means the Series X launched without Microsoft’s flagship title at its side, which made the system’s release feel less like an event than a quiet changing of the guard. While unrivaled backwards compatibility (stretching all the way back to the original Xbox!) ensures that gamers won’t be at a loss of options, and system-agnostic blockbusters like “Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla” and “Ori and the Will of the Wisps” have been optimized for the Series X, nothing that’s currently on the market has been designed from the ground up to make the most of this new machine. You can bring the future home, but you can’t reach it quite it.
The hope, of course, is that the eventual arrival of “Halo Infinite,” “Cyberpunk 2077,” and the “Fable” reboot (however far off that is) will usher in the kind of gameplay and graphics that certify the Series X as the formidable gaming machine its specs belie. Additionally, Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Bethesda — home of both the “Fallout” and “Elder Scrolls” series — may result in a whole new crop of top-tier exclusives for the console in the future, and help balance out Sony’s edge in the software market. But until then, at least from a gaming standpoint, the system is really just a souped-up Xbox One X.
Oh, but what a soup that is! It is not an understatement to say that playing any current-gen game optimized for the Series X is an actual breathtaking experience. The stellar upgrade in visuals showcased within the optimized version of “Forza Horizon 4” may be the most jarringly beautiful graphics ever rendered on a console, (even rivaling some PC graphics cards at a fraction of the price). There is an intense joy when jumping behind the wheel in “Forza” and being able to feel like you’re on the precipice of what gaming is capable of, with the windshield reflecting your avatar’s hands on the wheel, as the most realistic vistas sweep past.
So Should I Buy One or Not?
The Xbox Series X is the most powerful console released to date (judging by tech specs alone, it may offer even greater upside than the PS5), but the jury is still out on when games will actually be able to harness that strength, and even in less pandemic-afflicted times it would be hard to suggest that people stampede into their local Walmart on Black Friday in order to buy something that they won’t really be able to use until much further down the line.
It’s only a matter of time before the Series X is going to be the gold standard for console gaming, but absent the high-quality exclusives that made the PS5 a more appealing launch day purchase, impatient gamers might find themselves paying a premium for what currently amounts to an overpriced RAM upgrade. Keep in mind that Microsoft’s Smart Delivery technology allows you to purchase games on the Xbox One and seamlessly port their save data over to the Series X down the line, so there’s no risk of having to buy something twice or starting a game over if you decide to hold off until next holiday season or the one after that.
On the flip side, you could always split the difference and go with the Xbox Series S, which lists for $299, though that discount comes at the fairly steep expense of a console featuring just four teraflops of power, a 512GB SSD, and no Blu-ray (or disc drive of any kind). It’s a bit risky when you consider that any new Xbox is an investment in a future that isn’t quite here yet, and buying one that may not be able to play some killer app down the road would be an awful betrayal of the console gaming experience, which has always been streamlined and uniform and free of the system requirement-related headaches that are endemic to PC gaming.
All that being said, anyone with the means to pick up a new system — and a taste for the kind of multiplayer-focused exclusives that have always been Microsoft’s bread and butter — could do a lot worse than betting on the Xbox Series X, which is already the most powerful entertainment hub ever created, and could one day be a great video game system to boot. Considering what it can achieve, it might just be the last console of its kind you ever have to buy.
The Xbox Series X is now available.
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