Xbox Series X and Series S: are they everything Microsoft promised?

After what seems like an age (time always seems to pass more slowly when you’re waiting for something good), it’s finally here: the much-anticipated Xbox Series X (along with its smaller, less gutsy, digital-only sibling, the Series S – more on this below) became available for sale internationally from 10th November 2020.

What can gaming enthusiasts look forward to in this latest iteration of the famous console? Here’s our whistle-stop review to ease your curiosity and put you in the know.

The new look

First things first: appearance-wise, the Series X is quite a departure from earlier versions. It’s a minimalist yet strangely handsome matte-black slab encasing exceptionally brawny computer power beneath, reminiscent (for those old enough to recall it) of Stanley Kubrick’s mysterious black monolith in his masterpiece sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey/. In a more boxy, cuboid kind of way, that is.

The numerous indented circular vents on the upper surface are lined with green, and they’re positioned atop the box to allow for maximum heat release: there’s a lot of heat-generating power packed inside. We’re talking plenty of cores and teraflops (see below).

There are a few more cooling vents on the back, along with two USB 3.2 ports, an HDMI 2.1 output port (you’d do well to hook this beast up to a 4K-ready TV to get the optimal visual capabilities out of it) and a networking port. In addition to the power input port, there’s also a storage expansion port. All of the ports feature tactile, raised dots above them (e.g., three for the USB 3.2 ports, one for the power input), so you don’t have to crane your neck to see the back of the box.

‘Under the hood’ (or ‘bonnet’ if you’re British)

We mentioned cores and teraflops above. Here’s the detail: the Xbox Series X boasts a thundering 12 teraflops of GPU performance – that’s twice the amount in the Xbox One X and eight times as much as you’ll find in the standard Xbox One.

As a result, the game load time of this magnificent beast isn’t just fast, it’s hyper-fast – the kind of load times that were previously confined to the very highest-end gaming PCs. This means that games, both old and new, look and perform far better than with any of the previous iterations.

Courtesy of the unit’s two quad-core units, you get eight CPU cores and 16 threads (one whole core is entirely dedicated to running the operating system and the front end ‘shell’).

Another seriously significant upgrade is the move from HDD to SDD for internal storage: the quantity is the same as the Xbox One X and Xbox One S (1TB), but the solid-state disc makes everything faster and more efficient. A 1TB expansion card can be added for heavier-duty gamers.

Microsoft clearly has the 4K TV market in mind with this model: it can play titles in awesome 4K at 120fps with upcoming 8K support for 60fps. If you haven’t invested in one of these screens yet, you might want to consider doing so before you go for the Series X, because you really need a compatible TV or AV receiver to get the full visual sumptuousness that this device is capable of.

Features

Another feature you’ll notice is that while it generates about as much heat as the Xbox Series One X, the fans are whisper-quiet, even when you’re engaged in the most intense parts of your game.

However, perhaps the most enjoyable feature of the Series X as far as the gaming experience is concerned is the ‘Quick Resume’ capability. This lets you flit straight back into a game you’d been playing some time ago with no requirement to load the whole thing again and pore through start menus to return to where you left off.

Games: the bad news and the good news

Let’s start with the bad news. If there’s an underwhelming note to be found, it’s in the paucity of new titles that have accompanied the launch of the Series X (the much-vaunted and eagerly awaited Halo Infinite has been delayed until 2021, which hasn’t helped). However, this is set to change: Microsoft has been very aggressive in acquiring gaming studios over the last two years or so, and is certain to start releasing a raft of new exclusives in the foreseeable future.

The good news is twofold. The Series X is backwards-compatible for a huge range of games, so you’ll have no problem playing those that you already own. And, with a monthly subscription to Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, you’ll have full access to literally hundreds of additional games.

 

The Xbox Series S

Our review would be incomplete without a quick look at the mighty XBox Series X’s more diminutive digital-only sibling, the Series S, which was released simultaneously. If you’re underwhelmed by the restricted launch-exclusives accompanying the Series X and you don’t mind purchasing your games digitally, the considerably less expensive Series S may be just the ticket.

When we describe it as ‘diminutive’ we’re not joking. The Series S is easily the most compact XBox ever produced (the absence of a 4K HD Blur-ray optical drive helps in the pursuit of its comparatively elfin size). Given that the financial outlay for this little box of wonders is appreciably less (at $299.99/£249.99) than for the Series X, a subscription to the huge digital library of XBox titles via XBox Game Pass is a much more affordable option: you can bundle the console with XBox Game Pass Ultimate for $24.99/£20.99 a month.

Do note, however, that you’ll have to forego physical versions of the games because of the absence of a disc drive, so there’ll be no more buying used games or trading games with friends if you opt for the Series S.

Another “buyer beware” point is the limited storage: just 512 GB, although that’s on an SSD, so it’s uber-fast and vastly superior to the sluggish HDDs on earlier models. But 512 GB get filled up fast – five games could stuff it almost full, meaning that you’ll have to delete something first or invest in the extra cost of the console’s expandable storage option.

The console can’t compete on the graphics front with the Series X. Instead, the Series S is a significant lower-than-4K resolution option, targeting 1440p for gaming (it does upscale to 4K, though, if you connect it to an ultra-HD display). PC gamers love 1440p, however, because it delivers better image quality than 1080p. If you’re used to the resolution you can get from an XBox One X, though, you’ll likely notice the drop to 1440p on the Series S.

That said, the Series S packs much more CPU power under the hood than the One X and has a much, much more sophisticated GPU (AMD’s RDNA 2 architecture ensures that).

Our verdict: the ultra-compact Series S is much less expensive that its bigger sibling, the Series X, but it’s still capable of playing all the next generation games you want.

 

The importance of HDMI

Getting the best out of this offering hinges on owning an 8K-ready TV replete with the new HDMI 2.1 tech standard – but as yet, only a select few of the newest sets feature this (they’re also necessary if you want high-frame-rate gaming – 120fps – at 4K).

Don’t fret though: you can still play Series X titles at 4K resolution provided that you opt for 60fps. The more ubiquitous and increasingly commonly used HMDI 2.0 will be fine for this.

 

Investing in a machine as sophisticated as this effectively future-proofs your gaming interests for as far as you can see. Maybe now is a good time to get serious about your gaming room and install an HDMI wall plate. EuroNetwork’s excellent selection of HDMI wall plates will give you a tidy plug-and-play solution, keeping unsightly, messy cables out of sight (and the plug-and-play option means that you won’t have to fuss around with fiddly soldering).

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