Xbox Series X/S review: This console launch just isn't weird enough

Microsoft has two new consoles this holiday season. They're both great. A little too great.

A review of the new Xbox is really a review of two new Xboxes — and also kind of a review of Xbox's wider "platform" which now includes older Xbox One units and gaming PCs. The choice between these machines is not quite as black and white as the Series X and the Series S actually appear.

This generation Microsoft is once again executing a radically different strategy than its competitors Sony and Nintendo — and likely a far more effective one than the company employed during the last console cycle. Rather than simply pushing a whiz-bang new box on consumers (though, to be clear, they are absolutely still doing that), the tech behemoth is asking players to buy into a service, a platform, and an identity.

If you’re reading this review of a gaming console on a tech website during its launch window, you probably already know what a great deal Game Pass is. If not, allow me to illuminate you: Game Pass Ultimate is Microsoft’s all-you-can-eat gaming subscription service which, for just $15.99/month, gives you access to an incredible library of high-quality games, many of which are available day-and-date with their retail releases. These games can be played on Xbox (currently all of them run perfectly fine on Xbox One in addition to the new models), PC, or on Android phones via cloud streaming. Think of it as a sort of Netflix of gaming, though the company wishes we’d stop calling it that.

Microsoft is asking players to buy into a service, a platform, and an identity.

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This affordable, wide distribution of gaming content to different machines running Microsoft software will have cataclysmic effects on how games are funded, made, marketed, and consumed. But there’s a reason you’ll want to play them on the Series X or Series S: You’ll easily get the best quality to price ratio vis-a-vis graphics and performance from Xbox games — almost any Xbox games — on these new consoles.

So how are they? How do they stack up against the Xbox or PC you may already own? How do they stack up against each other? And should you really pick one up instead of Sony’s PlayStation 5? You’ll have to answer many of these questions yourself, but allow me to break down the conundrum for you.

They're literally boxes

Both of these consoles got a head start in the design department thanks to whoever was drunk and stoned at Sony when they developed the PlayStation 5. But competition aside, they’re well-designed products all their own.

The Series X is already iconic simply for being a matte black rectangle sporting a small Xbox logo and the clever green detailing hidden in the vent on the top of the unit which serves as a sort of “crown” for gaming’s new spec king. The only major downsides of the design are its unavoidably large size and propensity for attracting fingerprints.

Ryan Houlihan / Input

The Series S, despite being incredibly easy to meme, has already carved out a place for itself among design snobs — with many consumers preferring its slim form factor, stark white body, and gigantic black statement vent. Yes, it looks like a washing machine, no that’s not a bad thing.

Ryan Houlihan / Input

Both boxes opt to be unique but inoffensive, fusing the best attributes of Microsoft’s past releases. The Series X borrows its black, entertainment center aesthetic from the Xbox One and its sheer size and iconic green details from the original Xbox. The Series S is a mix of the Xbox 360’s Apple-like simplicity and the slim profile of the Xbox One S and Xbox One X hardware revisions. Both would be chic, welcome additions to nearly any living room.

Controller evolution, not revolution

Following on the heels of the Xbox One controller, one of the most ergonomic and excellent feeling controllers in gaming history, the new Xbox controllers have quite a lot to live up to. Thankfully, they do.

Rather than attempting to rethink the concept of game controls completely (while I don’t detest it quite as much as some of my contemporaries, thank god the Kinect is nowhere to be found during this launch) the team opted to refine the beloved design from the Xbox One. The triggers have more grip, there’s a dedicated button for sharing gameplay recordings, and the D-pad is much, much more usable.

This is a similar strategy to one Sony has been employing since its very first PlayStation, but one which it has recently abandoned with the PlayStation 5. Unlike that console’s DualSense controller, the Series X/S revision does not feature immersive haptic feedback or adaptive triggers. How much this actually matters — and whether devs support those features on PS5 — remains to be seen. But after playing with Sony’s offering, one does feel their absence here.

Ryan Houlihan / Input

What the controllers lack in innovation, they make up for in practicality. These controllers are workhorses featuring high compatibility with other operating systems, long battery life via user replaceable batteries (both AA and rechargeable, for an additional price) so you needn’t toss the controller when the lithium-ion starts to give out, and the ergonomically superior asymmetrical layout for control sticks.

All in all, the controllers feel great. Just nothing revolutionary.

Content dashboard

The Xbox team was smart not to try and fix what hasn’t been broken for quite a while now. The UI/UX is largely the same as we’ve seen on the Xbox One in recent years — and thank god! The Xbox’s system of infinite tiles and slide over menu options is worlds better than the bizarre, Byzantine hodgepodge Sony threw together on the PlayStation 5.

If you somehow don’t like the platform’s simple, clean interface or you just can’t remember where a specific setting is, the operating system has a Universal Search option similar to Windows, Android, and Apple’s many OSes. This makes it a cinch to ask for what you want and be pointed in the correct direction to find it.

The controller borrows one of the PS4’s best innovations, adding a Share button in addition to its two other function keys. Pressing the Xbox logo at the center of the controller brings up a mini menu, offering nearly every setting one could need to adjust mid-game.

The Xbox Store is easy to navigate, offering a variety of media apps, an infinite amount of Xbox games both old and new (more on that later), and download speeds many, many times faster than on the PS5 — even when hooked up to the same internet and router. That alone makes quite a difference in use, especially on the models without optical drives.

Extreme power

This is where you’ll find the starkest difference between the consoles. The Series X is a beefed up juggernaut — the strongest console spec for spec on the market — while the Series S is a slimmed down, streamlined box punching way above its weight class.

The Series X is equipped with a custom 3.8GHz AMD Zen 2 CPU, 12 teraflop AMD RDNA 2 GPU, a custom 1TB NVMe SSD, and 16GB GDDR6 RAM. This enables it to target 4K content and hit 120 fps (though almost certainly not at the same time). If that means nothing to you, just know that those are some very good specs. The Series X is more than up to the tasks presented by current games and gives developers a lot of room to grow over the course of this generation.

The Series S slims this down to a custom 3.6GHz AMD Zen 2 CPU, 4 teraflop AMD RDNA 2 GPU, a custom 512GB SSD, and 10GB GDDR6 RAM. The Series S is able to target 1440p content upscaled to 4K and hit 120 fps. These are also good specs, just not as good as the Series X, obviously.

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Gamers will probably do just fine with the lower end model. The vast majority of players would be hard pressed to see the difference between 4K content and 1440p content upscaled to 4K on any TV that's 48 inches or less. Native 4K is certainly nice to have if you can get it but it's not going to make or break an otherwise fun game. The cutbacks are barely noticeable when you're actually using the Series S, which means Microsoft made the correct trade-offs when trying to hit the $300 price point. The question is whether the Series S will bottleneck, and therefore frustrate, developers with its slightly less forgiving hardware.

Both SKUs feature hardware accelerated ray tracing, a banner feature of this console generation. Ray tracing, if you're unfamiliar, is the ability to map realistic lighting in real time. This means that instead of the traditional fixed lighting we've seen for decades, games will be able to accurately map shadows, sunbeams, and mirror effects. This feature is already going underutilized by developers looking to eek out additional performance from the Series S, but at this point it's unclear whether that trend will hold.

Load times on both consoles are slashed drastically.

The consoles’ new NVMe SSDs, however, are being put to stunning use. Load times on both consoles are slashed drastically — slightly more on the X than the S, but nothing that would affect gameplay — and it’ll be exciting to see how a hardware feature like this impacts the kind of gameplay that devs can explore.

On the Series X, Watch Dogs: Legion loads in 24 seconds. That increases to 25 seconds on the Series S, hits a minute and 2 on the One X and a minute and 7 on the One S. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla produces similar results, with the Series X at 23 seconds, the Series S at 24 seconds, the One X at 54 seconds, and the One S at 61 seconds. This trend holds for every title we tested.

Perhaps the most polarizing choice made by both Microsoft and Sony is the lack of an optical drive in the companies’ “all digital” editions. Conceptually, this makes sense: If you’re buying a cheaper console and a subscription service, what do you need a disc drive for anyway? But in the real world, fans have collections of older game discs they’ll want to use. They like shopping for used games at retail stores or garage sales. They might not have the most robust internet connection. All of these issues are further exacerbated by the Series S’ embarrassing 512GB storage offering.

With games able to dynamically adjust to the available Xbox hardware, be it a new console or one of the many Xbox Ones, these machines are more like PCs than they've ever been. Which raises the question as to why one would purchase an Xbox over a gaming PC, since, after all, it likely makes no difference to Microsoft. The main selling point of console gaming has always been its affordability which, in a global pandemic and recession, continues to make the one-two punch of the Series S and Game Pass look like a master stroke.

Generations of games

Microsoft did not skimp on features this time around. Notably, every new Xbox is compatible with all the Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One titles to which Microsoft could secure the rights. It sounds like a lot, but in actuality, it's only about 568 Xbox 360 games and 39 Xbox games as of this writing. These games do run better — higher frame rates, HDR, lower loading times— than they ever have, but they obviously can't compare to new, next-gen games.

The company is also touting its “Smart Delivery” feature, which automatically (and at no additional cost) upgrades Xbox One games to their Series X/S enhanced version. It’s good peace of mind for shoppers and, in practice, I’ve never seen it fail.

Is Game Pass technically a feature? If it is, Game Pass is the Xbox's best feature. And thanks to a new deal it also includes EA Play, a good source for sports games and The Sims. These games can be played on any new Xbox console, the vast majority on Xbox One consoles, PCs, or on Android via some pretty impressive cloud streaming. It's hard to overstate the value to consumers that a "Netflix for games" subscription presents in a world where Sony is asking players for $70 each time a new title launches.

Game Pass is the Xbox's best feature.

Less successful features include “Quick Resume,” which promises to cache the last several games played so that players can hop back and forth between them as easily as changing TV channels. As wonderful as this sounds, there’s been some hiccups with its roll out and I’ve yet to see it actually work. Not once. Hopefully Microsoft has a fix waiting in the wings for its next system update.

The units also support Dolby Atmos and DTS, external storage for games you’re not using much, and remote play via Microsoft’s Xbox smartphone app. The Series X can also play back UHD Blu-Ray content via its optical drive.

Future Expansion

There aren’t many accessories for the consoles so far. While I actually did enjoy some of the ambient features of the Kinect, Microsoft has smartly backed off of the motion-sensing feature for now. Also absent is the Xbox One’s HDMI in, which granted the console the ability to control your cable TV. But at this point who isn’t switching to an option like YouTube TV now?

Likely the main accessories anyone will want at this early stage are additional NVMe storage (available at a premium via a $220 “expansion card” collaboration with Seagate), a headset (there are many third party options), additional controllers, and rechargeable batteries for those controllers. All of these options are competent, if a little pricey.

Perfect, but boring

Microsoft has produced two great machines. There’s no denying that. The Series X is an absolute technical beast and, at its price point, the Series S delivers a shockingly convincing next-gen experience thanks to smart trade-offs by the designers. The company took what was already working for it, adapted the feature set around its new Game Pass model, and crafted instantly iconic designs that can discreetly blend into most modern homes.

The only downside to this strategy is one that almost feels childish to mention: The wow factor. Thanks to Microsoft (and, to be fair, Sony) introducing mid-generation hardware revisions that already provided 4K support and additional horsepower, there’s not much in the way of flagship features here.

Yes, the SSD is phenomenal. Cloud gaming on your phone is neat. Ray tracing is the future of graphical enhancement. The expansion of Game Pass is a deeply convincing vision of the industry. But there’s nothing here to capture the imaginations of regular people, like the moms and dads doing holiday shopping.

It shouldn't bother anyone that all new Xbox games will hit the One at the same time they do the X/S. It's a nice way to include all players and it helps the company sell more games, right? And yet, even if it's silly, the lack of exclusivity saps the energy from these new machines. Every time you boot up a Series X/S "Enhanced" title, you'll appreciate the technical upgrades, yes, but a small part of you will wonder if you could have saved $300-$500 by continuing to use your old One S or One X and just putting up with loading screens. Were they really bad enough to warrant spending hundreds of dollars during a recession? Perhaps this is more of an issue with bottomless consumerism than it is with the new Xboxes.

This console launch just isn’t weird enough.

These are two of the best consoles ever produced. Full stop. But there’s something off about this launch — and it’s not just the pandemic or the election. Without a big new feature like 3D, optical storage media, motion controls, HD, online gaming, or, hell, even much in the way of must-have exclusive games, it’s really hard to explain to anyone who isn’t a serious gamer why they need this new box. This console launch just isn’t weird enough.

Perhaps the importance of the wow factor won’t matter this time. Many shoppers are serious gamers, including mom and dad, and people are desperate for affordable luxuries that can help them pass the time during this period of quarantine and anxiety. The Xbox team has probably lucked into such a booming market that they needn’t have produced these insanely powerful and well-engineered machines in order to see sales success.

Microsoft made a perfected, refined Xbox in the Series X. They made the perfect console for our economic and cultural moment with the Series S. They even extended the platform to include older Xbox One units and PC gamers. It’s the perfect big tent for every gamer to find their niche in.

But sometimes the problem with perfection is that it’s, well, boring.