There are perks to being the underdog.
Microsoft's Xbox One currently trails a distant third in the video game console wars, with sales lagging far behind Sony's PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. With its new high-end offering, the Xbox Series X, Microsoft has created the most powerful home gaming console ever made, with an eight-core custom Zen 2 processor running at 3.8GHz and a GPU that generates 12 teraflops of processing power, on par with some high-end gaming PCs and outpacing the horsepower of Sony's PlayStation 5.
Here's the thing: specs were never what was holding Microsoft back. The preceding three iterations of Xbox have overwhelmingly catered to performance obsessives and fans of shooters and sports games. I don't fall into any of these categories, but I'm positively smitten with the Series X. It took nearly two decades, but Microsoft has finally broadened its horizons beyond "dudes who like Halo." After spending a couple weeks playing both older games and new ones, it's abundantly clear the Series X is a huge step up from both the Xbox One X and PS4 in terms of visuals and overall ease of use.
The Xbox Series X retails for $499. Here's what comes in the box:
- Black Series X console
- Black Xbox wireless controller, with batteries
- Power cable
- HDMI 2.1 cable
But what's not in the box is actually the biggest selling point of Series X.
Xbox Series X: How it looks
The Series X reveal at The Game Awards back in December 2019 sparked a deluge of memes likening the Series X's stocky obelisk design to a refrigerator. That comparison proved to be so catchy that Xbox itself eventually got in on the joke, offering social media followers the chance to win a Series X fridge in the weeks ahead of the November 10 launch.
Memes aside, I was pleasantly surprised with the overall look of the Series X when the time arrived to unbox it. While the matte black surfaces are a magnet for grubby fingerprints, I instantly warmed to the sleek column with its unobtrusive branding. It's substantial enough to catch a curious eye — roughly the size of a shoebox — with subtle apple-green accents barely visible from within the cross-hatched top vent. No, it doesn't fit in my low-slung TV stand, but that doesn't bother me for now. (It works fine laying it on its side if you prefer to keep your consoles tucked away from pets, little ones, or feral dust bunnies.)
As someone who never got on the PS4 Pro or One X bandwagon, the visuals of the Series X represent a substantial step up. Fabric textures, facial details, and environmental intricacies noticeably outstrip their previous-gen equivalents. While testing out Forza Horizon 4, Madden 21, and even retro-style games like Wargroove, I found myself stopping to smell the roses on numerous occasions — always to my detriment — due to simply gawping at the remarkable level of visual detail.
Be warned, Series X will probably make you want a splashy new TV the size of a billboard. After a couple of weeks with this console, my mid-range 55" Samsung set suddenly feels downright prudish.
Xbox Series X: How it feels
Microsoft's latest UI update rolled out across existing Xbox consoles in October, but Series X was the first substantial amount of time I've spent with it. Its ease of use, lickety-split responsiveness, and intuitive design are particularly noteworthy in contrast to the PS4's UI, which has a justified reputation for being slow, clunky, and confusing.
The Xbox storefront is a breeze to navigate, and the companion mobile app adds more functionality than I'd expected, allowing you to easily share screenshots and video clips, use your phone as a remote, or even play Xbox games on a mobile device using your home wi-fi network. Best of all, it's not fiddly to figure out — it just works.
With past-gen consoles, booting up the hardware was usually a good opportunity to make a snack. With Series X, roughly three seconds after you press the Xbox button on your controller, you're on your home screen and ready to go. It's so fast that it can actually feel a little jarring, like looking at Slack before you've had your first coffee.
So how does Series X compare to Series S in terms of load times? Not surprisingly given the $200 price discrepancy, you'll spend less time waiting around for Series X. But the difference may not be quite as dramatic as you'd expect. Inverse tested the time to launch three different games across Series X and S:
- Ori and the Will of the Wisps — 0:34 on Series X, 0:36 on Series S
- Madden 21 — 0:19 on Series X, 0:43 on Series S
- Gears 5 — 0:46 on Series X, 1:19 on Series S
Times for the Quick Resume feature for swapping between already-booted games were virtually identical across Series X and Series S, averaging between five and nine seconds. So that's one speed perk that isn't exclusive to the high-end model.
Xbox Series X: The outlook
Series X was originally meant to launch alongside the next installment of Microsoft's marquee franchise, Halo: Infinite. (Series protagonist Master Chief is all over the Series X packaging, the poor thing.) After the game's visuals drew widespread derision following the Xbox 20/20 digital showcase in July, Microsoft and 343 Industries pushed the release back to 2021. That means Xbox doesn't really have a Breath of the Wild-style console-seller to rely on right out the gate. Then again, neither does Sony — its most notable first-party offering this holiday season, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, is playable on both PS4 and PS5.
Microsoft has frequently vocalized its aim of increasing access to games in the months and years ahead, taking a softer approach to generational upgrades and encouraging people to play on a variety of devices, including smartphones and even older Xbox hardware. Consumer-friendly perks like Smart Delivery, backward compatibility, and the ever-expanding Game Pass library make Xbox more attractive than ever to players with interests beyond Microsoft's traditional wheelhouse of sports and shooters. But performance enthusiasts are likely wondering which future games will take full advantage of the Series X hardware.
If you're a fan of Bethesda franchises like Elder Scrolls and Fallout, these will likely be Xbox exclusives — or at least timed exclusives — following Microsoft's startling $7.5 billion acquisition of parent company Zenimax. These graphically intense open-world games will surely benefit from the Series X's added processing power, but the extent to which these future games will truly necessitate top-spec hardware remains to be seen. It seems Microsoft will continue to scoop up high-profile developers to expand its Game Pass offerings, but frankly neither pending nor prospective acquisitions should be a deciding factor in picking up a Series X right this minute. There's still too much we don't know.
Why we recommend Xbox Series X
- Stunning visuals and lightning-fast load speeds
- Consumer-friendly practices like Game Pass and backward compatibility
- Straightforward cross-platform UI that just works
Xbox Series X is the best console Microsoft has ever made, enabling games to look and run far better than on PS4 or Xbox One. If you've got a 4K TV — or are planning to get one soon — it's well worth the future-proofing to splurge for the high-end model. If you've got an extensive library of physical copies, or just enjoy impulse buying used games every now and again, that's another rock-solid reason to pick Series X over the all-digital Series S.
The appeal of the Series X goes beyond the hardware itself. Game Pass offers up a boatload of new games to discover from day one. You don't need to dust off your old hardware to play older games or buy a next-gen copy of an old favorite. You can still use your existing peripherals. Even accounting for the cost of a monthly Game Pass subscription, that means far fewer opportunities for hidden costs and inconveniences. Sure, Nintendo and Sony will have their must-play exclusives in the months ahead, but I'm already convinced Series X will be the platform I use most — it's got all the flash you can handle with far fewer headaches.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)