Microsoft's new monolith could mark the last big leap in video game technology before returns plummet.
Microsoft's Xbox Series X, the fourth version of the Xbox, is possibly the most powerful home entertainment system ever. It is also at least two years ahead of its time. The new Xbox offers more processing power than any other console in history, but no games that really need that power. It's like showing up to a party early for fear of missing out.
For nearly 20 years, Microsoft's Xbox series has always tried to stay one step ahead of the game. When the original Xbox debuted in November 2001, it was the most powerful unit in this sixth generation of consoles. It was also the first video game system with an internal hard drive that avoided the memory cards players need to store their stored data on other consoles and – along with the console's DVD player – also suggested Microsoft's goal of creating it the ultimate home entertainment system. From day one it was the dream to put games, films and music in one (X) box.
The X Series is nothing short of the culmination of this dream, from the design to the operating system to the unadulterated performance. It may not reinvent the wheel, but the machine is the logical target of the development Microsoft has pursued in the video game world over the past two decades, and it fulfills the broad potential that Xbox loyalists have always seen in their preferred brand.
Xbox's need to prove itself, however, begs questions about the point of all of this endeavor. Yes, you can play "optimized" versions of games like "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" or "Cyberpunk 2077" – which certainly promise smooth play and higher frame rates – but whether that warrants the sticker shock is debatable.
Make no mistake: once the future catches up with the present, this Xbox will be a marvel of graphic wizardry. And as an entertainment system, the Series X is essentially a faster, larger Amazon Fire TV Cube or Roku Ultra – that also supports the most modern video game technology. But there's also something bittersweet about bumping into the ceiling of such a console, and any Xbox Series X celebration comes pre-installed with a feeling that future returns may only diminish from here.
What's in the box?
It's difficult to unzip the new Xbox console and not get the idea that its designers were meant for gamers to revere at its base. Aside from some green paint in the vent, this thing is a dead alarm clock for The Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, without the added ornamentation that the PlayStation 5 thought appropriate. Strangely enough, it's easy to see the evolution from the original Xbox – a bulky, bulbous, and decidedly unboxy console – to this cuboid object that looks great either upright or on its side.
Much of the X Series size (11.85 inches high, 5.94 deep / wide) has been made, but the system resembles a subwoofer when you set it up, so it easily fades into most home decor. The only downside to the machine's beautiful matte finish is that it will immortalize any fingerprint you smear it on. So handle it carefully if you want it to stay classy.
Aside from the console, there's the next generation Xbox Controller, which is essentially a copy of the version that came with the Xbox One S and X, apart from three noticeable changes: a release button (for screenshots and video recordings) , a concave (and much more clicking) directional pad, and textured handles along the controller's handles and triggers. There's a bit more weight, too, but the controller will still feel comfortable in your hands.
The console also comes with an HDMI 2.1 compatible cable which, when paired with the correct TV, allows games to run in 4K at 120 frames per second (run out of heart, Billy Lynn). That is not an insignificant point. To get the most out of this device, many users will have to invest in a new TV to support the higher quality output (any device that supports an HDMI input of 4K at 120Hz should do so). Over a 10 year hardware cycle, this could ultimately become a more effective selling point, but right now it's a tantalizing promise that the system must have room for growth.
12.1 teraflops are the new 1.21 gigawatts
One of the top selling points for the Xbox Series X is its 12.1 teraflops of GPU performance. What is a teraflop? Excellent question. In essence, it's a mathematical measurement of a computer's performance, with each teraflop representing the ability of a machine to process a trillion calculations per second. This means the Xbox Series X can perform 12 trillion operations per second (which frankly seems sufficient). For those of you keeping track, that's eight times as much as the original Xbox One and twice as much as the previous Xbox One X. That's also 20% better than its main competitor, although it remains to be seen what developers can actually do with that extra muscle.
What are all these flops buying? In addition to the increased frame rate mentioned above, the Xbox Series X has a new feature called Quick Resume that allows you to go back to any of your most recently played games right where you left them (bypassing vanity cards, titles, and even loading screens) . Quick Resume literally feels like a game changer as it represents the kind of quantum leap that rewires people's relationship with game consoles and turns the once-bearable inconvenience of waiting a few seconds into an unforgivable sin for the future.
Load times – an inseparable part of the video game experience since the industry began abandoning cartridges in favor of CD-ROMs and the like – have also become an endangered species thanks to all of those fancy teraflops. The X series is so fast that it can breathe new life into old favorites. Start a huge open world game like The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and you will find that some of the features that once sucked the fun of gaming have been merged into actual conveniences. In the past, the fast travel system required loading times that were so long that you could almost only walk over the map in the same amount of time. Now Geralt of Rivia is zapped between locations in no time. For die-hard gamers, this is an upgrade that will save entire days of their lives.
These incredible speeds can also be attributed to the X-Series 1TB NVMe Solid State Drive. That 1TB sounds like a lot, until you realize that a) after considering the operating system, there are only 802 GB left for games and b) most games "optimized" for Series X hijack between 50 and 100 GB per pop (71, 9 GB are required for "Gears 5", 81.9 GB for "Forza Horizon 4" and a breathtaking 187.9 GB for "Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War").
To combat the upcoming storage wars, the X Series includes a proprietary internal storage expansion slot (Seagate sells an additional 1TB for $ 230) and three USB 3.0 slots for external hard drives (although optimized games can only be run from the SSD). Either things get difficult and / or expensive in a rush, or players have to turn their attention to a few games at a time.
Is the Xbox Series X the ultimate home entertainment system?
The Xbox Series X is probably the perfect item for home entertainment. In addition to its powerful gaming capabilities, it has a 4K Blu-ray drive with support for HDR10 (as of this post, HDR10 + or Dolby Vision are not yet supported, although these could be added via a firmware update as both die Game and streaming arms of the machine already support Dolby Vision) and, like the Xbox One (but in contrast to Amazon and Roku), host apps for all major streaming platforms (except for Quibi, it can rest in peace). The result is a hub that serves as a single point of contact for all of your glowing rectangular entertainment needs, allowing its users to switch between a beautiful 4K broadcast of “Parasite” on Blu-ray and Netflix's “The Crown” or Apple TV's “Ted "Stream Lasso", listens to IndieWire's Screen Talk Podcast on Spotify and jumps back to "Doom Eternal" with Quick Resume. If only the console was equipped with a Kindle app.
But what about the games?
Even compared to the meager lineups gamers expect from a new console when it launches – and even compared to the exclusive titles Sony brought across the finish line in time for the PS5's release – there just isn't a lot of currently exclusive content for the Series X. And that fact is compounded by Microsoft's (welcome) decision to continue to support the original Xbox One with titles for the next two years. This means that the primary short-term value of the Series X will be the improved graphics and faster load times for cross-generational title retrofits.
Halo Infinite's delay also means the Series X launched without Microsoft's flagship title on the side, making the system release feel less like an event than a silent changing of the guard. Unrivaled backward compatibility (going back to the original Xbox!) Ensures gamers don't lose options, and system-independent blockbusters like "Assassin's Creed: Valhalla" and "Ori and the Will of the Wisps" were made for the series X optimized. Nothing currently on the market has been designed from the ground up to make the most of this new machine. You can bring home the future, but you cannot quite achieve it.
The hope, of course, is that the eventual arrival of "Halo Infinite", "Cyberpunk 2077" and the reboot of "Fable" (as far as that is) will usher in the gameplay and graphics that certify Series X as The Impressive Slot machine that its specifications believe in. In addition, Microsoft's recent acquisition of Bethesda – home of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series – could lead to a number of new top tier console exclusives in the future and help maintain Sony's software lead balance market. But until then, from a gaming standpoint at least, the system is really just a souped-up Xbox One X.
Oh, but what a soup it is! It is no understatement to say that playing a current generation game optimized for Series X is a breathtaking experience. The outstanding visual upgrade in the optimized version of Forza Horizon 4 is possibly the most amazing graphics ever rendered on a console (and can even rival some PC graphics cards for a fraction of the price). It is an intense joy to jump behind the wheel in Forza and feel like you are on the edge of what games are capable of. The windshield reflects your avatar's hands on the steering wheel, while offering the most realistic views of the past.
So should I buy one or not?
The Xbox Series X is the most powerful console to date (it may offer even more perks than the PS5 based on specs alone), but the judges are still unsure when games can actually take advantage of this power in less pandemic times to claim that on Black Friday people storm into their local Walmart to buy something they won't be able to use until much later.
It's only a matter of time before the Series X becomes the gold standard for console gaming. Without the high quality exclusives that made the PS5 a more attractive purchase on launch day, impatient gamers may pay a premium for what is currently the same as an overpriced RAM upgrade. Note that Microsoft's Smart Delivery technology lets you purchase games on Xbox One and seamlessly transfer their stored data to the X Series. So you don't have to buy twice or restart a game if you decide to wait until the next holiday season or the next.
On the flip side, you can always split the difference and go for the Xbox Series S, which is $ 299. This discount is at the expense of a console with only four teraflops, a 512 GB SSD and no Blu-ray (or drive of any kind). It's a bit risky considering that every new Xbox is an investment in a future that isn't quite there, and buying an Xbox that might not be able to play a killer app would be a terrible betrayal of the console gaming experience that has always been streamlined and consistent and free from the system requirements headaches common with pc gaming.
That being said, anyone with the funds to get a new system – and a taste for the kind of multiplayer-exclusive products that have always been Microsoft's bread and butter – could do a lot worse than they did on the Xbox Series X. Betting is already the most powerful entertainment center ever created and could one day be a great video game system. Given what can be achieved with it, it may well be the last console of its kind you will ever need to buy.
Xbox Series X is available now.
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