Xbox Series X preview: the next gen feels like a PC

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I haven’t been using my Xbox One as much recently, as it just feels outdated. As someone who plays primarily on PC, the lower frame rates and input lag on current-generation consoles are enough to put me off playing a lot of games on an Xbox One or PS4. That was until I started playing games on the Xbox Series X three weeks ago.

Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox comes the closest I’ve ever witnessed to re-creating the superior PC experience of playing games, thanks to SSD storage, a far more powerful CPU, 120Hz support, and impressive backward compatibility features that improve existing games. This is all inside a $499 box that’s quieter and far easier to use and maintain than the $3,000 gaming PC I built a few weeks ago.

There’s a reason the Xbox Series X looks like a PC — it’s because it often feels like one.

I’ve been using a preview version of the Xbox Series X, so it doesn’t have the final software, game selection, or experience you’ll find with a retail unit. But it’s most of the way there. While this may read like a review, we’re not scoring the Xbox Series X yet or reviewing it fully until it’s closer to its launch next month. However, I’ve spent three weeks playing a variety of games on the Xbox Series X, and that’s more than enough time to give you a breakdown of this new console.

Let’s start with the hardware. Microsoft has squeezed all of the components of the Xbox Series X into a boxy, rectangular, tower-like box. It looks like a miniature PC but with an unassuming design that looks far better standing vertically than it does laying horizontally (just like most PCs). The base of the Xbox Series X isn’t removable, and (unlike the PS5) the console is not designed to be opened up. When placed horizontally, it’s fair to say that the Xbox Series X looks like it fell over with the base permanently attached. I’m not a fan of the design, but I’m also not bothered by it. It’s a black box you stick under your TV and forget about, as long as you’re able to fit it under your TV.

There are two USB ports at the rear alongside an Ethernet port, a storage expansion slot, and HDMI 2.1 out. At the front, there’s a single USB port and the 4K Blu-ray drive. Microsoft has also added raised Braille bumps next to the ports on the Xbox Series X — a nice touch for accessibility. I would have liked to have seen USB-C here or even the clever HDMI pass-through system from the Xbox One days, but neither is a major omission. Sadly, the Xbox Series X doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6, which would have been great future-proofing for many.

Xbox Series X ports.

The main concern for console hardware is cooling. Microsoft has placed the Xbox Series X exhaust fan at the top, flanked by a green coating in the plastic cover that makes it look like there’s an LED up top. I’ve never once heard this fan, which is surprising since my Xbox One X can get pretty loud in certain games. Yet, the Series X has remained silent throughout the entire three weeks I’ve been using it. I also haven’t noticed any significant heat coming from the top of the Series X, nor has it ever been too hot to touch. It’s very similar heat to what I experience exhausting out of the back of my Xbox One X or my giant gaming PC.

I don’t have any immediate concerns about the fans, heat, or dust gathering inside the Series X, but it’s also difficult to judge this fully after only three weeks. I haven’t squeezed this console inside a TV unit, instead letting it sit on top of a stand where air can flow freely. I think most people are going to need to think about positioning and airflow with these next-gen consoles, just like gaming PC owners do.

The only other hardware that’s new with the Xbox Series X is the controller and the storage expansion cards. (More on these in the next section.) The updated controller is very similar to the Xbox One version, with an updated D-pad, textured grips, and the addition of a new share button and a USB-C port. The share button lets you quickly share clips or screenshots with friends, much like on a PS4, while you’ll need to purchase a rechargeable play-and-charge kit separately ($24.99) if you really want to take advantage of USB-C — the controller runs on AA batteries by default.

Load times are one of the most impressive new aspects of the Xbox Series X. While you could upgrade the spinning HDD inside the Xbox One X to an SSD variant if you really wanted to, the Xbox Series X has a greatly improved CPU that works in tandem with the SSD to help games load far faster than current-gen consoles.

I’ve noticed the load time improvements immediately using the Xbox Series X across practically every game I’ve tested. Some are dramatically faster in terms of minutes saved waiting for a game or a level within a game to load. If you’ve never used a gaming PC with a fast SSD inside, then load times on the Xbox Series X will impress.

Xbox Series X load times

Game Xbox Series X Xbox One X
Game Xbox Series X Xbox One X
CoD: Warzone 16 seconds 21 seconds
Red Dead Redemption 2 52 seconds 1 min, 35 seconds
The Outer Worlds 6 seconds 27 seconds
Evil Within 2 33 seconds 43 seconds
Sea of Thieves 20 seconds 1 min, 21 seconds
Warframe 25 seconds 1 min, 31 seconds
AC: Odyssey 30 seconds 1 min, 7 seconds
No Man’s Sky 1 min, 27 seconds 2 mins, 13 seconds
Destiny 2 43 seconds 1 min, 52 seconds

In fact, I’m still impressed with the Series X load times even though I’m used to PC SSDs. I covered a bunch of them during our initial preview after a week with the Series X, with games like Sea of Thieves and Destiny 2 loading in less than half the time they do on the Xbox One X. Given how long Steam takes to do its verification process on Destiny 2 over on PC, I can actually load the title quicker on my Xbox Series X than on my gaming PC with a 2TB Samsung Evo Pro 970 NVMe drive inside it.

While the Xbox Series X comes equipped with 1TB of storage, you can only use 802GB of it. That’s actually more than the 780GB of usable space on the Xbox One X, even with Microsoft reserving space for the OS and new Quick Resume feature that lets you swap between games in around 10 seconds or less.

Xbox Series X storage defaults.

Microsoft is also using a proprietary storage expansion slot on the Xbox Series X, and so far, only Seagate has been confirmed as a partner for the $219.99 1TB cards that will slot into the rear of the console. The usable space on these cards is 920GB, as, once again, space is reserved for Quick Resume.

Games that have been specifically updated for the Xbox Series X make use of Microsoft’s new Velocity Architecture to get the most performance out of the system’s SSD, so you can’t run them off USB storage. The vast majority of backward-compatible games, however, don’t use Velocity Architecture, meaning they can be played directly off a USB drive — unless they get a Series X update in the future.

Warframe load time improvements.

That does mean we’re just seeing load time improvements that are thanks to the SSD and CPU alone, not the new APIs Microsoft has implemented that should improve load times even further. It also means that if some of your older games don’t get updated for the Velocity Architecture, then you could just run them freely from USB storage. You’ll see plenty of load time improvements this way — providing you’re using fast USB SSD storage drives — and some may even come very close to the times you’ll see using the internal drive.

These load times and CPU improvements, alongside a big bump to 12 teraflops of GPU performance, all contribute to an experience in existing games that feels a lot smoother. That could mean a jump from 30fps to 60fps in games like Fallout 4, or menus and planet load times in Destiny 2 suddenly being on par with PC. I’ve walked through how Destiny 2 improves in greater detail in the video below.

These improvements also mean that most titles with poor performance on an Xbox One should hit a stable 30fps at the minimum. A lot of frame rate drops that I’ve seen in games on the Xbox One X have simply disappeared with the Xbox Series X, thanks to the hardware boost. I’ve noticed Apex Legends, Warframe, and Destiny 2 all dipping less at demanding points.

Perhaps the most impressive part of all this backward compatibility support is the Xbox 360 version of Grand Theft Auto IV. It runs super smoothly on the Xbox Series X locked at 60fps, while the Xbox One X often struggled to maintain that 60fps performance. Grand Theft Auto IV also benefits from the auto HDR feature that Microsoft is shipping with the Xbox Series X, that will work on most games to make them look even better.

I haven’t been able to test every game I wanted to during this preview period, though, as Microsoft has been unlocking more and more titles on a weekly basis. Grand Theft Auto V and Forza Horizon 4 are two of the many that I wanted to try that simply don’t run on preview units yet.

The new 120Hz option on Xbox Series X.

The most exciting games I’ve tested so far on the Xbox Series X are Dirt 5 and Gears 5 — not because they’re necessarily technical showcases for the console, but because both offer a new 120Hz option.

This is where the Xbox Series X really started to feel even more PC-like to me. I play at 165Hz with frame rates that exceed 200fps in games like Destiny 2, Valorant, Call of Duty: Warzone, and CS:GO on my gaming PC. I do this a lot of the time by dropping a lot of the quality settings lower because I personally value frame rates over visual quality. Running around the versus multiplayer mode in Gears 5 in 120Hz felt like I was playing on my PC. With frame rates hitting 120fps, input lag is reduced, and the experience was suddenly so much smoother than what I’ve ever experienced on an Xbox One X.

Gears 5 supports 120Hz in multiplayer.

That same feeling of PC-like smoothness plays out in Dirt 5 with the 120Hz mode enabled. Sure, the game drops to rendering at 1440p and some of the visual quality is lowered to achieve 120fps, but when I’m sliding around corners and the input latency is reduced, it’s far better than some mud and snow rendering just that little better on my 4K TV to the point I probably wouldn’t notice the difference.

It’s that feeling that’s really important with this new Xbox, and I can’t stress it enough. Games feel better. Whether that’s because of load times, better frame rates, or simply the CPU, SSD, and better GPU making things like menus or character changes in games feel instant, a lot of the sluggishness has been removed without developers having to touch games.

DIRT 5 video options.

While both Microsoft and Sony obsessed over 4K for the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro, it’s encouraging to see that frame rates seem to be the focus on the Xbox Series X. I’m sure we’ll see some beautiful next-gen Xbox games eventually, but having games hit these high frame rates is more important to me personally.

I’m also encouraged to see that a choice is emerging in Xbox games. That’s something we’ve seen in current-gen games, with video options like FOV sliders you typically only find on PCs. Dirt 5 and Gears 5 are good examples of this choice, allowing you to enable a 120Hz mode for the higher frame rates and smoother gameplay or focus on a 4K target with image quality prioritized.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon also offers three modes on the Xbox Series X: normal, high resolution, and high frame rate. Normal mostly sticks to 60fps with occasional dips, while high resolution switches over to 4K running at 30fps, and high frame rate prioritizes a 60fps lock at 1080p resolution.

I’m hoping we see these choices on many optimized Xbox Series X titles in the future.

While the hardware and experience of gaming have changed on the Xbox Series X, the dashboard hasn’t. Microsoft is keeping the same Xbox One dashboard that exists today, with some changes the company has been working on in recent months.

It feels like Microsoft has been tweaking the Xbox One dashboard ever since the disastrous launch of the console back in 2013, and not a year goes by without an overhaul. I think it’s definitely in much better shape these days, but I still find the guide confusing to use at times.

Xbox Series X dashboard and store.

Most of the big issues I had with the Xbox One dashboard have disappeared, though. Speed and reliability problems have vanished, and, like games, the dashboard feels just that bit more responsive on the Xbox Series X. A new store interface, also available on the Xbox One, has definitely helped. It’s clear Microsoft has taken the feedback and made some meaningful changes in recent months, but I’d still like to just be able to pin my favorite apps and games at the top of the home interface instead of seeing recently used ones that rotate frequently. Microsoft could still do with offering more customization options here and simplifying the interface further.

You do get the benefits of a dashboard that feels instantly familiar if you’re coming from an Xbox One, but without the fun and fanfare that a new UI entails. Thanks to the faster components inside the Xbox Series X, you can now boot from cold (not standby) in around 20 seconds. That might be enough for some to turn off the instant standby option in favor of some energy bill savings and the health of our planet. Also, the boot animation no longer has an accompanying sound so loud it makes you feel like your house is falling down.

The biggest new addition to the Xbox Series X dashboard over the Xbox One is Quick Resume. It’s a feature that lets you switch between games in around 10 seconds or less. The timing will vary per game, as will the number of games you can switch between and quickly resume. I’ve been able to regularly swap between five games freely, but the number will vary on titles.

The vast majority of games I’ve tested work with Quick Resume, but there are some, like Sea of Thieves, that don’t. It seems to be mostly big predominantly online games that don’t work, but it’s a feature you’ll mostly use for single-player campaign games. It even works after reboots or updates, and it’s great to just turn a console off and not have to worry about save points.

Quick Resume on Xbox Series X.

Quick Resume also happens to be the buggiest part of the Xbox Series X preview unit. I’ve regularly had games freeze up, crash, or even make the console unresponsive for at least a few seconds at a time. Microsoft is aware of the issues, and this is a preview unit, so hopefully those problems will be ironed out before the retail version is available next month.

The final part of the dashboard I want to touch on is sharing clips and screenshots. Microsoft made a big deal about a new share button on the Xbox Series X controller, but it’s totally let down by the dashboard on this preview unit. It still takes far too long for clips and screenshots to be uploaded to Microsoft’s Xbox Live service for you to share them.

This is a problem that exists on the Xbox One, and I’ve had to wait minutes for clips to be available despite having a fast 1Gbps upload at home. On my gaming PC, I can instantly stream clips or my screen to friends on Discord, and the Xbox process just feels old and slow in comparison.

In this not-a-review preview, I’ve talked a lot about how the Xbox Series X feels like a PC. I think that has been part of Microsoft’s intention with this generation, and you can feel it throughout the Series X. If you upgraded from a GTX 1060 gaming PC to an RTX 3080 PC right now, you’d get the same Windows 10 you know, and access to the same games you’ve been playing for years. Everything would just feel faster and look better, and you’d be ready for the latest and greatest games.

That’s exactly what you get with the Xbox Series X. Not only does it feel like you’re upgrading your PC if you move from an Xbox One to an Xbox Series X, but it feels and looks like it. (Hello PC tower design.) You take everything you already own, and even existing hardware accessories, and you bring them along with you, just like you do on a PC.

It’s a different approach to Sony with the PS5 and its dedicated exclusive next-gen games, new dashboard UI, and new controller. Microsoft has focused on the basics that really matter: high frame rates, a quiet and cool console, faster load times, accessory support, and backward compatibility. In my three weeks of using an Xbox Series X, it’s fair to say it has delivered on these basics.

But the best part about the Xbox Series X is that it’s not actually a PC. I don’t have to worry about drivers, copious game launchers, or Windows updates ruining how my PC works. You turn the Xbox on, and you play games. If developers embrace the choice and performance options I’ve experienced on the Series X, I’d certainly be tempted to play far more on an Xbox with cross-play, cross-save, and keyboard and mouse support all becoming more prominent on Xbox.

There’s one big question that remains for me with the Xbox Series X: when will Microsoft’s 23 first-party studios deliver the next-gen games to truly show what this console is capable of? Powerful hardware and a sleek user experience are only part of the mix. Microsoft will need the games to really make the Series X feel like something brand-new.

Photography by Tom Warren / The Verge

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