June 17, 2021

Xbox Series X Review: Old Wine Made New

Xbox Series X isn’t looking to wow you with its design. Just look at its direct rival, the PlayStation 5. Unlike Sony’s swanky dual-winged dual-tone console and its matching rebranded controller, Microsoft’s offering is as plain as it comes. The Series X is just a giant black box. It doesn’t have any fins nor any curves. It’s all flat surfaces and straight lines. The Xbox Series X looks very much like a PC cabinet you would see in an office. As for the controller, it’s more or less the same — that’s both good and bad. The Xbox Series X feels like a product from a company that’s very confident in what it promises elsewhere.

Whether that confidence is misplaced or not, is a question that will take several years to answer fully. For now, it’s a bit strange to witness given that Microsoft lost the previous generation — PlayStation 4 vs Xbox One — by a margin greater than 2:1. It’s likely why it has a very different gameplan this time around. The Series X is part of Microsoft’s dual strategy for the new generation of consoles, as the premium 4K offering (the only one that goes toe to toe with PS5) that costs significantly more than the Xbox Series S, which targets the non-4K crowd. While the Series X costs Rs. 50,000, the Series S comes in at Rs. 35,000. Sony has two consoles too and they are priced Rs. 10,000 apart, but the only difference between them is a disc drive. The Series X and S, on the other hand, are like night and day.

Microsoft says it wants to welcome gamers to the Xbox ecosystem no matter where they are. Do you have a PC? You can also be on Xbox, with the subscription service Xbox Game Pass for PC. Are you on Android? You too can be Team Xbox (in select markets), thanks to game streaming via Game Pass Ultimate. In fact, you can go so far to say that Xbox Game Pass is Microsoft’s true next-gen offering. With this new approach, Microsoft is attempting to disrupt the ecosystem altogether. It’s like the early days of the last decade. While major studios were launching new movie channels and making home media more affordable in India, the likes of Hotstar and Netflix were preparing to eat their lunch altogether — fun fact: they did.

Xbox Series X performance, games

  Xbox Series X PlayStation 5
Price Rs. 49,990 Rs. 49,990
Resolution 4K @ 60fps, up to 120fps 4K @ 60fps, up to 120fps
Disc 4K UHD Blu-ray 4K UHD Blu-ray
CPU Custom 8-core AMD Zen 2 CPU @ 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT) Custom 8-core AMD Zen 2 CPU @ 3.5GHz with SMT (variable frequency)
GPU Custom AMD RDNA 2 GPU 52 CUs @ 1.825 GHz Custom AMD RDNA 2 GPU 36 CUs @ 2.23GHz (variable frequency)
  12.15 teraflops GPU power 10.28 teraflops GPU power
RAM 16GB GDDR6 RAM 16GB GDDR6 RAM
Memory bandwidth 10GB at 560GB/s, 6GB at 336GB/s 448GB/s
Storage 1TB PCie Gen 4 NVME SSD 825GB PCIe Gen 4 NVMe SSD
External storage 1TB expansion card, support for USB HDD NVMe SSD Slot, support for USD HDD
I/O throughput 2.4GB/s (raw), 4.8GB/s (compressed) 5.5GB/s (raw), 8-9GB/s (compressed)
Dimensions 151 x 151 x 301 mm (5.94 x 5.94 x 11.85 inches) 390 x 104 x 260 mm (15.35 × 4.09 × 10.23 inches)
Weight 4.45kg (9.8 pounds) 4.5kg (9.92 pounds)

If it’s boring on the outside, the Xbox Series X is a beast inside. In purely technical terms, it’s got a custom chip and graphics unit supplied by AMD: an 8-core AMD Zen 2 CPU clocked at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT, or simultaneous multithreading), and an AMD RDNA 2 GPU with 52 CUs (compute units) and clocked at 1.825 GHz. The latter delivers 12.15 teraflops of power, which is more than what’s offered by PlayStation 5 (10.28 teraflops). But it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, because the PS5’s GPU — also AMD RDNA 2, clocked faster (2.23GHz) but with fewer compute units (36) — is capable of variable frequency (GHz). The PS5 also has the same CPU as the Series X in the custom-made 8-core AMD Zen 2, but it’s got a lower clocked speed (3.5 GHz with SMT) albeit with variable frequency capability in that department too.

What that means for games is power in spades. The environments on Gears 5 and Destiny 2 are lush, with the faces in the former and FIFA 21 particularly detailed on the Xbox Series X. Gears 5 is one of the few titles that support ray-tracing. Forza Horizon 4 looks beautiful and runs smooth, unlike beautiful (4K) or smooth (60fps) on the Xbox One X. Gameplay is smooth across the board — be it gunplay in Destiny 2 or running around in Ori and the Will of the Wisps — as long as the title supports 60fps or an unlocked frame rate. I did notice some texture pop-in with some titles — No Man’s Sky, Watch Dogs: Legion, and Forza, all of which are “Optimised for Xbox Series X|S”. But I can’t say for certain that this is a developer issue and not hardware limitation, though the former seems more likely.

Ray-tracing has been touted as a must-have feature with next-gen consoles, but at launch, not many games actually support it. Big names include Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition (not on Xbox Series S), Gears 5, NBA 2K21, and Watch Dogs: Legion. The in-development Forza Motorsport and Halo Infinite are also on the list, but they won’t be available for months or years. Microsoft is also leaving it up to the developers how they wish to implement raytracing. Neither of Watch Dogs: Legion, Gears 5, or NBA 2K21 allow you to turn it off. Bot Watch Dogs and NBA are stuck with a 4K 30fps experience as a result, even though the Series X is more than capable of 60fps. Gears 5 manages to eke out 60fps while delivering ray-traced graphics.

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Forza Horizon 4 on Xbox Series X
Photo Credit: Microsoft/Playground Games/Panic Button

All the aforementioned Xbox Game Studios titles — Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps — are part of Xbox Game Pass, and the Series X upgrades are available to anyone who bought the Xbox One version of the games too. Microsoft has been upgrading many of its first-party titles — Gears, Forza, and Halo Guardians among others — for free, while some PlayStation Studios have been charging extra (hello, Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered) or not providing upgrades at all for PS4 era games on the PS5. To help you get the best out of them, games will prompt you if they have a Series X upgrade when you fire them up. Microsoft calls this entire package “Smart Delivery”.

If you already have an Xbox One, you can also copy them over using Xbox’s “Network Transfer”, as I did for many titles. This saves you both waiting time and gigabytes off your Internet cap. Unfortunately, the feature is not as helpful for “Optimised for Xbox Series X|S” games because they need an update. In at least three cases (Forza Horizon 4, Watch Dogs Legion, and Immortals Fenyx), this update ended up being close to the size of the game, which suggests that it was essentially re-downloading the full game. But early into the new console era, most games do not have a Series X upgrade, allowing you to directly copy and play your Xbox One games. They will still perform better on your new Xbox, with Microsoft tech helping them deliver higher resolution or frame rate (with no help from the developer).

Xbox Series X is the pinnacle of backward compatibility in the console era. While the PS5 is limited to running PS4 games (unless you’re lucky enough to access PlayStation Now that has a limited selection of PS2 games), Microsoft’s counterpart is capable of running games from every Xbox era that has existed: Xbox One, Xbox 360, and the original Xbox. Only titles developed for Kinect will not run, since they require specific hardware. Of course, the extent of the benefits do somewhat depend on the developer. Red Dead Redemption 2 runs at a better resolution but is locked to 30fps by Rockstar Games. The newer Cyberpunk 2077 fares better. Even though the game is poorly optimised in general, the Series X has so much raw power that it delivers the best available experience for Cyberpunk 2077, outside of high-end gaming PCs.

This is all with “last-gen” games though. Once developers start making games with only the Series X (and the PS5) in mind will we get to see the full potential of its hardware. That will probably not happen for a couple of years, given the 160 million of Xbox Ones and PS4s out there currently dwarfs the total of their next-gen iterations.

Xbox Series X SSD storage

Title Load time
Xbox instant-on 8 seconds
The Touryst 10 seconds
World of Warships: Legends 13 seconds
Destiny 2 15 seconds
Rocket League 15 seconds
FIFA 21 18 seconds
Fortnite 19 seconds
Marvel’s Avengers 19 seconds
Sea of Thieves 19 seconds
No Man’s Sky 20 seconds
Xbox boot 20 seconds
NBA 2K21 22 seconds
Cyberpunk 2077 25 seconds
Watch Dogs: Legion 25 seconds
Red Dead Redemption 2 26 seconds
Ori and the Will of the Wisps 40 seconds
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla 46 seconds
Forza Horizon 4 47 seconds
Gears 5 49 seconds

The other big hardware change on Xbox Series X is the inclusion of a solid-state drive (SSD) — a first for consoles, at par with the PS5 — taking over from the mechanical hard disk drive (HDD) that had been present until the Xbox One X days. The effect is obvious. Games load blazingly fast, with most reaching the main screen in under 30 seconds. The in-game loading screens hang around for a lot less too. I complained about them in my review of Watch Dogs: Legion, because there were several and they would take about a minute each on my Xbox One X. But on the Series X, they disappear in about 5 seconds or so. Thanks to the SSD, Microsoft has also built a “Quick Resume” feature for the Series X, which lets you pick up right where you left off, even after a full shutdown and playing other games. Unfortunately, developers must enable it themselves to make use of it, and right now, Quick Resume doesn’t work in most places.

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Xbox Series X games sorted by size
Photo Credit: Akhil Arora/Gadgets 360

At the same time, there’s also a downside to including an SSD in a console. Owing to the price constraints, Microsoft has only been able to fit in a 1TB SSD. The PS5’s is even tinier at 825GB. The amount of storage capacity is on par with what was offered by PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Except every game now has 4K textures so it fills up fast. There’s around 800GB of usable storage on the Series X which I used up after installing 15 games. For what it’s worth, they were mostly AAA titles (Red Dead Redemption 2, Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Marvel’s Avengers, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs: Legion, Cyberpunk 2077, and FIFA 21) alongside a few indie and smaller games (Ori and the Will of the Wisps, The Touryst). I think it’s unlikely that you’ll have so many major titles on your console at the same time.

That said, if you do wish to have it all, you can expand storage capacity by using the Series X’s proprietary “Expansion Slot”. Seagate is the only official manufacturer for now, and its Series X storage card — priced at $220 (about Rs. 16,250) in the US — is unavailable in India as yet. You can also hook up a compatible USB 3.0 HDD and store your games on there, as you could with Xbox One, but there are caveats on Xbox Series X. You can play Xbox One games off a connected hard drive, but you can only store Series X games on a hard drive. Think of it as cold storage. If you want to play Series X games, they must be moved to the internal SSD. Of course, you can also play games off the included 4K Blu-ray disc drive, but I can’t speak to how physical games work in terms of installation and storage, as we didn’t have any discs on hand to test.

Xbox Series X controller

The only items that came with my Series X review unit are exactly what you’ll get with your Series X retail unit at purchase. Apart from the console itself, that includes the new Xbox Wireless Controller, a pair of Duracell batteries (for the controller), and an HDMI 2.1 compatible cable (you’ll need this for a 4K HDR TV with support for high refresh rates).

Microsoft hasn’t changed the controller much unlike Sony. That’s why it’s still called the Xbox Wireless Controller, as before. It’s got the same overall shape, except it’s less angular and more streamlined around the glowing Xbox logo and the trigger buttons. The latter also have a grainy texture in lieu of the original glossy finish on the Xbox One controller. That texture is replicated across the back of the controller, which seems to make it less slippery — a good thing for hot and humid markets like India where your palms are bound to sweat over long sessions. The front of the controller is also less prone to sweat formation.

The only major changes are a USB-C connector (more on that in a bit) and the D-pad. Borrowed from the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller, the new D-pad is more clicky and audible than the Xbox One variant. And there’s just one introduction in the “Share” button. Borrowed from the DualShock 4, it joins the “View” and “Menu” buttons in the middle of the controller. Obviously, it helps you snap an in-game screenshot or record an in-game clip with the, well, press of a button. This cuts short what was once an elaborate process: hit the Xbox button, go to the “Capture & share” section, and then pick from the available options.

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Xbox Wireless Controller
Photo Credit: Akhil Arora/Gadgets 360

I love the Xbox controller and I’ve always preferred it over the DualShock 4, which feels tiny and is less comfortable for me over long periods of play. The improvements with the new Xbox Wireless Controller are welcome, but there’s one thing missing: in-built rechargeable batteries. Sony has always included them, including with the new DualSense for PS5 (even as they have their own problem of depleting in single-digit hours.) AA batteries are a nuisance in this day and age. The new Xbox Wireless Controller is the best available controller today, I believe, but it’s incomplete without the Xbox Plug and Play Charge Kit, now known as Xbox Rechargeable Battery + USB-C Cable (which seems to be not available in India).

You can also use your existing Xbox One controllers on the Series X, showcasing that Microsoft’s backward compatibility isn’t limited to games. Yes, the DualShock 4 works on the PS5 too, but only for PS4 games. Xbox One controllers are fully compatible on the Series X. During my time reviewing the Series X, I’ve used both my Xbox (One) Wireless Controller and Xbox Elite Wireless Controller on the Series X without any issues. It’s allowed me to bring a couple of friends into games old and new. That wouldn’t be possible on the PS5, where my two existing DualShock 4s would essentially be useless with all modern titles.

Xbox Series X Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision

Microsoft’s next-gen consoles — both Series X and S — also have two software features that Sony doesn’t bother offering on PlayStation 5: Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. Of course, you will need compatible hardware to make use of them.

The former is Dolby’s proprietary HDR (high-dynamic-range) offering that affords 12-bit colour depth, as opposed to the 10-bit colour depth offered by the open standard HDR10. In layman terms, that means Dolby Vision is capable of 68 billion colours, significantly more than the 1 billion possible with HDR10. The PS5 uses HDR10.

The latter offers three-dimensional / spatial sound, a leg up from the days of surround sound. Sony has its own proprietary “Tempest 3D AudioTech” for the PS5, but it’s currently focused on headphones, and it’s unclear how it works with your existing speaker setup. Dolby Atmos enjoys much wider support.

As of now, Dolby Atmos is available on the Series X with all supported games, while Dolby Vision is due in early 2021. But you can enjoy Dolby Vision meanwhile with your entertainment content. Netflix and Disney+ are the only apps that support both Atmos and Vision on Xbox Series X, with the likes of Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ falling behind.

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Dolby Vision on Xbox Series X
Photo Credit: Akhil Arora/Gadgets 360

But there’s a much bigger problem here, and that has to do with Microsoft’s implementation of Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision on Xbox Series X. It forces every audio stream to be up-converted to Atmos, and packages every video stream in Vision/ HDR10. It’s even playing around with the soundstage, and by putting SDR (standard-dynamic-range) film in an HDR package, it’s setting up potential problems with certain displays.

Creators should get to decide if they want to offer an Atmos audio track for their film, or master their TV show in Dolby Vision. For instance, Christopher Nolan has shown no interest in including Atmos tracks on any 4K Blu-rays of his films, including the newest Tenet.

To make matters worse, Microsoft doesn’t offer an option to turn off this auto-upgrade to Dolby Atmos and Vision. The only option you have is to turn off both of them altogether.

A third software feature brings the Series X on par with the PS4: HDMI-CEC. Conspicuously missing from all Xbox One models, it’s now available, allowing you to control your TV — turn it on / off — with your console. And vice versa, the TV remote can also be used to browse through the Series X menus.

Xbox Series X UI, navigation

Speaking of menus, the Series X’s user interface looks the same if you’re coming from another Xbox. Again, Microsoft isn’t pushing for a flashy change as Sony has done with the PS5, confident in what it had on the Xbox One. It made some UI improvements that rolled out in October and are hence available to every Xbox One owner as well.

The basics remain the same. Your recently used games and apps appear in the top carousel, and you can jump into the “My Games & Apps” section from the home page. There are also three spaces next to that, which Microsoft uses to highlight in-game achievements you can complete, or advertise new offerings from Xbox Game Pass and ongoing sales or limited free-play events in the Microsoft Store. You can scroll below to find dedicated hubs for Microsoft Store, Xbox Game Pass, community posts, and in-game events — you can remove any and all of them — and you can add hubs for your favourite games.

The Xbox Guide, available across the system by hitting the Xbox button on your controller, is the cornerstone of navigation. You can pull it up to jump into/ force close games and apps, pause music playing from Spotify or elsewhere, check on your friends, send messages and invite them to parties, browse through in-game achievements, recently captured screenshots and in-game videos, add new profiles, sign out of logged-in accounts or jump into the settings section. The Xbox Guide lets you jump to home screen, and has dedicated buttons for notifications, Game Pass, Store, search, and audio and music controls.

If you hold down the Xbox button rather than pressing it, it will bring up the power off menu, where you can turn off your controller, restart your Series X, or shut it down.

xbox series x home screen xbox series x home

Xbox Series X home screen
Photo Credit: Akhil Arora/Gadgets 360

Xbox Series X review

The Series X is undoubtedly a very powerful console. But it’s also the first of them — alongside PlayStation 5 — that follow mid-gen upgrades in Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro. Hence, it’s not quite a generational leap we’re witnessing, as we did when we went from Xbox 360 to Xbox One. Of course, that depends on where you’re coming from. I was a lot more impressed by Xbox Series X when I played games that I had previously played on my PS4 Slim. But the situation was a lot more different for games that I had already experienced on my Xbox One X. In those cases, they looked a bit better, delivered higher and more stable frame rates, and booted up much quicker.

That’s because the OG Xbox One and Xbox One S have been outdated for a while now. Forget buttery smooth 60fps gaming, those two have been struggling to deliver even full-HD 1080p resolution for the past few years. With Xbox Series X, you are looking at a massive upgrade on both fronts — it targets 4K at 60fps. If that’s the jump you’re making, the Series X upgrade is easily worth it. But it becomes much harder to justify the expenditure for those already with an Xbox One X (or PS4 Pro). They debuted in late 2017 at over Rs. 40,000, and the Series X costs Rs. 50,000. If you’re going to make such investments every three years in the console space, you might as well start considering the PC route.

That doesn’t mean it’s not enough of an upgrade. After all, the Xbox One X’s CPU bottleneck meant it never really gave us actual 4K, with most games employing the use of dynamic resolution and checkerboard rendering techniques. Additionally, games such as Forza Horizon 4 that delivered 1080p at 60fps on the One X now offer 4K at 60fps on the Series X. In some cases — including the likes of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, Dirt 5, Rocket League, and the upcoming Halo Infinite — you’re even looking at 120fps gaming. Assuming your television can handle it, of course.

That fact is important in itself if you’re considering an upgrade. To make the most of Xbox Series X, you need a TV that supports Dolby Vision and 120Hz refresh rate (these generally cost one lakh rupees or more), and dedicated Dolby Atmos speakers on the ceiling (this can be cumbersome) or upward firing speakers / soundbar (these can be fairly expensive too). With a future update, the Series X will also be able to output 8K. Microsoft hasn’t enabled that yet because of a lack of 8K content.

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Xbox Game Pass on Xbox Series X
Photo Credit: Akhil Arora/Gadgets 360

If it’s a next-gen console you’re after, the Xbox Series X is a solid proposition. Game Pass is a great money-saving idea in a world where Rs. 5,000 games are becoming the norm. Microsoft’s new console also lets you play games from every console Microsoft has ever made. New games look and perform better than ever, without breaking the bank. And the Series X belongs to the only console family that supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos for gaming.

Yes, Xbox doesn’t match PlayStation in the legacy and name recognition of its exclusives, but Microsoft seems determined to improve upon that this generation. It announced the acquisition of The Elder Scrolls and Doom maker ZeniMax Media late last year, which means Xbox Game Studios has now grown to 23 in-house studios. Together, they will launch tons of new games for the Series X, and thanks to Microsoft’s new approach, all of them will be available at no additional cost as part of Xbox Game Pass. Sony meanwhile will charge PS5 owners Rs. 5,000 per title.

The Xbox Series X doesn’t look anything special by itself — it’s just a drab box — but that doesn’t matter because the real wonder is on your screen. It’s meant to be tucked into a corner and forgotten. Assuming you can fit it, anyway. Or even get your hands on one right now.

Pros:

  • Really powerful
  • Delivers constant 4K 60fps
  • Reduced loading times
  • Great backward compatibility
  • Support for Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos
  • Capable of 8K / 120fps
  • Network transfer feature

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Lack of truly next-gen exclusives
  • Not a generation leap over Xbox One X at launch
  • Proprietary storage expansion
  • No rechargeable battery with controller
  • Implementation of Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos

Rating (out of 10): 8

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