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Xbox Series X review: A next-gen powerhouse

, Senior news editor · ·
Review An assessment or critique of a service, product, or creative endeavour such as art, literature or a performance.

(Pocket-lint) - Unlike most other technologies that opt for iterant upgrades yearly, gaming is usually a relatively static genre. Console generations linger for six to seven years before being fully replaced, with maybe one or two minor hardware updates and software refinements in the meantime.

That's why there's generally a massive fuss whenever a new generation arrives. Not only does it invariably bring greater graphical fidelity and hardware advancements, it traditionally rips up the copy book and presses the reset button.

Not so this generation though. While the Xbox Series offers a true technological leap with the sort of specifications you'd normally find in a top-line gaming PC, it also has its feet firmly planted in the existing Xbox ecosystem and therefore starts with access to thousands of compatible games from the get-go – many of them optimised and improved simply thanks to the console's inner wizardry.

But does that mean if you're already an Xbox One owner that there's a distinct lack of initial wow factor from the Xbox Series X? Maybe, but as a future-looking console we suspect it'll be wowing players for a while to come.

Our quick take

The Xbox Series X is undoubtedly an impressive games console. In fact, we'd go as far to say it's barely a games console in the traditional sense at all. It's a gaming PC, with the exterior to match, but at a fraction of the price.

That future-proof power is why it's well worth the investment. As more games start to realise some of its potential, you can be safe in the knowledge that you have invested in a machine that'll have the grunt to cope – and then some.

It is also silent – hence the big fan grille on the top – and while it may lack that initial wow factor, we believe its moment in the sun is further down the road, when that big engine under the hood gets the run out it deserves. Then it'll be one thrill ride after another.

5 stars - Pocket-lint editors choice
For
  • Extremely powerful
  • Superfast in menus and loading times
  • Built to last in both body and specs
  • Capable of native 4K gaming at 60fps
  • Also supports up to 120fps gaming
Against
  • Heavy and chunky - hard to hide away in standard TV cabinets
  • Lacks wow factor due to software similarity
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A good while has now passed since the Series X launched, and time has been kind to the console - in particular, the launch of gorgeous games like Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 has helped to expand its library of next-gen titles.

Updates from Microsoft have also helped the console to guzzle less power and run less hot on standby, something that's very much appreciated, while its dashboard has been upgraded to true 4K resolution, too. These small changes help, but the bedrock of the Series X is its superb power and the ability to run basically any Xbox game from the last decade.

That makes it a really great part of any home console setup, representing the past and present of console gaming in one box, and it's still the most sensible long-term investment you can make if you're a fan of Xbox consoles, in our opinion. The PS5 still probably has the edge in terms of major exclusives since launch, but which of the two you should opt for is a different kettle of fish.

The Series X is a real break from tradition. If you're an Xbox One owner then everything seems the same, from the software side at least. The menu system, media abilities, and even controller aren't a million miles away from what you're already used to using. You might even be concerned that you've made an expensive error in upgrading.

Thankfully though, you would be wrong. Delve deeper and check under the hood, and it's a whole different kettle of fish. This is a powerhouse of a games console, with a user experience that is so familiar because it already works. Not only has Xbox adhered to the adage "don't fix what isn't broken", it revels in it.

Sadly, that doesn't extend to the design, which we're still not as convinced by. The Xbox Series X can be laid flat or, as seems to be the primary intention, stood upright like a mini tower PC. It is mostly non-descript and, in black, could fade into the background of an AV cabinet. But that also means it's not really good-looking enough to stand proud as a monument to gaming (like the PlayStation 5, say), nor is it small enough to really stay out of the way.

The Series X is chunky, heavy, and our worry is that the all-important heat grille is on the top when vertical. Lay it on its side and we wonder, over time, whether that will present an issue – heat rises, after all. Essentially, make sure there is plenty of free space around it no matter the orientation.

On the front, you get a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc drive slot, USB 3.1 port, plus controller connection, eject, and the trademark Xbox logo on/off buttons. The rear is reasonably empty of clutter, with another two USB 3.1 and HDMI 2.1 ports, with an Ethernet and a figure-of-eight power socket for good measure.

We suspected that the lack of at least one USB-C port would be annoying for those trying to cut down on the number of cables they own for headsets, controllers and the like. That fear has come true over the last couple of years of using the console, and it remains a surprising omission.

There is also a slot for the official SSD Expansion Card, which is currently only available in 1TB and made by Seagate. Two large grilles adorn the back too, which help with heat dissipation along with the concave grille on the top (or side, orientation dependent) of the console.

One nice design feature is that, by colouring the inner rings of some of the open holes on the roof, it creates a green circular pattern. But that's about it for distinguishing features. The Series X really does put the box into Xbox.

Along with the console, plus power and HDMI cables, you get the new Xbox Wireless Controller in the box – in carbon black, like the Xbox itself. And you get two AA batteries to put in it.

Yep, Xbox has opted not to add a rechargeable battery as standard and continue down the route of choice. You can either add your own rechargeable cells, Xbox's official charging solution, or a third-party alternative. And we don't mind that.

While it's not ideal for the environment to use up and throw away shop-bought AAs, adding our own rechargeable battery units means we can replace them when they start to fail and/or offer reduced playing time. By putting in a sited battery, that option is essentially closed off.

It is also indicative of the very idea of the new console series – that it is part of the same ecosystem as the last. Indeed, the new controller is compatible with Xbox One consoles too, while older versions are also compatible with the new console (and the Xbox Series S).

This cross-compatibility makes it a lot easier (and cheaper) for upgraders, who can simply re-register all their existing spare controllers, headsets and other accessories and continue to use them ad infinitum.

The only main change between this controller and the last is the share button that you find dead centre. It enables much easier sharing for screenshots and the like. The D-Pad is also redesigned, but it's more for ergonomic reasons than any tech benefit.

Inside, Bluetooth Low Latency (BTLE) and Dynamic Latency Input (DLI) support purportedly reduce lag, but we've never really had a problem in that area with the previous controllers anyway, so are yet to notice any difference.

There is a USB-C connection on the top to wire the controller and reduce latency even further, if you are an eSports gamer, for instance. It can also be used to charge the official rechargeable battery pack, if you buy one separately.

As we alluded to at the beginning of this review, the biggest and most impressive talents of the Xbox Series X lie within. Its specifications easily put it above any console that has gone before and, in fact, its next-gen peers.

You get a custom-build eight-core Zen 2 processor with each core running at up to 3.8GHz. There is also 16GB of GDDR6 RAM (10GB running at 560 GB/s, 6GB at 226 GB/s), and a graphics unit with 12 teraflops of processing power and 52 compute units.

Cutting through the numbers, that allows for a console to render full, native 4K at 60 frames-per-second as standard, with the potential even of hitting 8K somewhere down the line (if developers fancy a dabble). It can also run games at a smooth and stable 120fps, with the initial batch likely to drop the resolution a tad to do so.

The earlier Xbox One X is capable of 4K gaming and, sometimes, 60fps – but not on this scale and not with such ease.

The processing is also just part of what Xbox calls its velocity architecture, which adds the speeds of the Series X's custom 1TB solid-state drive (SSD) to provide developers with performance possibilities never before seen in a console. In short, it's a monster with so much potential that we'll unlikely see exactly what it can do for a good year or so.

Speaking of the SSD, while we were initially worried by the 1TB storage space, it seems okay for most usage scenarios. You can fit around 10-15 optimised games on it, without needing expanded storage. If you struggle, you can always add the official Seagate Storage Expansion Card, which is effectively the same standard SSD but plugged into the rear.

This is an expensive solution, however, so you might just want to add a USB 3.0 or 3.1 external hard drive instead, plugged into one of the three ports (you can add three HDDs if you choose). The only issue with this is that, even if you have a third-party external SSD, it won't be able to match the speeds of the internal drive or official expansion – and it won't be compatible with the optimised features for dedicated Xbox Series X/S versions of games.

It will work with Xbox's new quick resume feature, which enables six or so games to pause in the background simultaneously ready to start instantly, but not actual game optimisation. Quick resume has been a mixed bag - when it works, it can feel like magic, but it also sometimes leads to glitchiness in games, and some developers have recommended that you don't use it.

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We suggest, therefore, that you store any Xbox One and other backward compatible games on an external drive, reserving the internal storage (or official Storage Expansion Card) for actual Xbox Series X/S games.

As we've already alluded to, the user experience of the Xbox Series X will be so familiar to existing Xbox One owners that it's the least interesting feature. That's because it is identical, bar the addition of dynamic backgrounds on the homepage and an overall sense of speed.

It's extremely fast to use on the Xbox Series X – more so than on Series S even – and, to be fair, has only recently been upgraded and tweaked anyway. Think of it as having the latest Apple iOS or Google Android operating system launch on existing handsets before new iPhones and Pixel handsets are available.

Those with fresh eyes will note that the Xbox UI is busier than other consoles, with the tile approach placing a lot of scrollable menus on the screen at once. However, it's very easy to navigate and we'd prefer to see more on the homescreen than have to search for hidden areas in menu systems.

Newcomers and Xbox One owners alike will applaud the new setup system, which works through the Xbox app for mobile devices. That way, you don't have to use the clumsy on-screen keyboard with the controller and simply log in through your smartphone or tablet instead. In addition, if you are upgrading from an existing Xbox, you can bring all your settings with you.

Another great feature for upgraders is the ability to transfer your external hard drives and any games stored on them over to your Xbox Series X by just unplugging them from the old console and plugging them into the new. The games might need a small update, but then they work without any further downloading needed. And, those with Xbox Gold Live (or Xbox Game Pass Ultimate) will have cloud saves already stored online for their games library, which will instantly transfer as soon as you start any relevant title.

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This is backward compatibility at its best. It might not have the wow factor of a brand-new console operating system, but that seamless interoperability is a godsend for those who have already accrued a decent games library and don't want to start again. Disc-based Xbox One and compatible Xbox 360/original Xbox games will even just play in the Series X with minimum fuss.

In fact, such games might even play better. As well as increased frame-rates and resolution bumps in many instances – which are instant and without the need for a developer patch – a HDR (high dynamic range) effect is added to games that didn't sport the picture tech previously. This is sort-of an upscaling technique that doesn't add extra colour information as such but does artificially increase contrast. It generally looks great on the titles we've tested so far.

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We haven't yet been able to test the console's other interesting tech addition – Dolby Vision for games – but will hopefully soon see titles that make use of the Xbox's unique new feature. It most definitely works well for movies and TV shows, through streaming services like Netflix and Disney+, Dolby Atmos too.

While both the Xbox One S and X are also capable of playing 4K Blu-rays, we've always had an issue with their loading times. This is significantly improved on the new console, and image quality is similarly impressive. One other thing to note though: the disc drive in the Xbox Series X is not compatible with 3D Blu-rays. That might not affect many but is a final nail in the coffin for the format in our house. You'll soon see stacks of copies of Tron: Legacy in charity shops, no doubt.

Performance is the most important element of the Xbox Series X. On paper, the console should present games like never before (apart from on top-end a PC gaming rig).

It has DirectX ray-tracing – which genuinely makes a massive difference to the way games look. It introduces a new, more natural lighting model that can flesh out games and render them more accurately than ever before.

Then, of course, you have the resolution and frame rate. So far it's clear that most Xbox Series X games are consistently aiming for a 2160p (4K) resolution running at 60 frames-per-second, although many are failing to manage it. Some games, such as driving sims and first-person shooters, can opt to increase the frame rate to 120fps, while dropping the resolution in some cases.

That could be essential for some gamers who prefer smooth, precise gaming over visuals, and will likely be a welcome trade-off.  Supporting games will more often than not offer that as an option in their settings.

In all honesty though, we've been playing several of the "optimised" titles that will be available at launch and we love the best of both worlds you get with 4K and 60fps. The frame rate is still as smooth as butter, while the visual fidelity is extraordinary. Even on some of the Xbox One games, we're getting crisper, smoother graphics than we've seen before.

Indeed, we mistook one game for its optimised counterpart, the depth and detail was so much improved, even though we were actually just playing an Xbox One game through backward compatibility.

One area where the Xbox Series X suffered at launch was in the games department. By that we mean native, optimised games either made especially for it or delivered as updates on existing games through smart delivery.

After Halo Infinite was delayed into 2021, the console launched with few standout exclusives – relying on upgraded back catalogue titles and third-party releases. Halo is now here, and there are a number of other next-gen titles that mean this problem has largely been resolved, though.

To further help, you have Xbox Game Pass (which is best subscribed to through Ultimate) and the 200 plus games it has to offer. It is so compelling for a new console, letting new owners instantly sample loads of titles.

Several of those games are also enhanced on Series X, so while there might not be hundreds of triple-A draws to make you choose Xbox over rivals, you get a massive library of games from the get-go.

To recap

In the Series X, Xbox has built the self-proclaimed "most powerful games console" on the planet. It is extremely fast in operation, making mincemeat of both menu browsing and loading times for games, and is a great choice for those with a big back catalogue.

Writing by Rik Henderson. Editing by Max Freeman-Mills.