Games

The New Xbox Consoles Are Built to Eliminate Every One of Gaming's Hassles

The systems may not have new games yet, but that won't stop them trying to pamper you with your back catalogue.
November 5, 2020, 2:00pm
The Xbos Series S and X stand side by side in a publicity still.
images courtesy of Microsoft

When I signed into my Xbox Series X for the first time, it asked if I wanted to import my settings from the Xbox One X that was now lying on the floor, demoted from being part of my home theater setup. I said yes and, completely seamlessly, was delivered to my familiar old home screen, with the exact same menu layout. I was just picking up from where I'd left off, as if I hadn't changed systems at all. It was incredibly convenient, and strangely underwhelming.

And that sums up the pre-launch experience of the Xbox Series X, which often felt like a marginally upgraded Xbox One X with a handful of convenience features. The real test of the console will, of course, be the games that are made for it, but during the review window there was very little available to demonstrate what all this new hardware power is going to be useful for. Instead I had access to an extensive library of backwards-compatible games, and a small library of games that have already been upgraded for the new system.

I'm not sure any console generation's launch has felt less essential than this one, largely because the games that make the argument for their necessity simply do not exist at the moment. Even the games that are getting Series X and S upgrades in the next week or so are fundamentally built for less capable platforms. Playing the upgraded versions of games like Forza Horizon 4 and Gears 5 in the last week mostly reminded me of how good those games already looked. But on my 60 Hz 4K LED HDR screen, it was difficult to spot the improvements. And honestly, sometimes it's difficult for me to spot the improvements even in a Digital Foundry review, where changes in hardware and rendering technique can yield things that increasingly look different… but not necessarily better.

A Gears of War screenshot, courtesy of Xbox

However, the new Xboxes are also built to make the experience of gaming as frictionless as it can possibly be via Quick Resume. The feature doesn't work evenly or perfectly across every game, but it works across a lot of what you'll find in the game library you'll carry over from Xbox One and what you can get on Game Pass. It saves game states so that, even hopping between a bunch of different games, you'll skip most of the loading time and just pick up your last session from where you left off after a brief pause. This is a godsend for games like Forza Horizon 4, which has a slightly dreary loading time even on Series X, but which can basically be held on-demand for you by Quick Resume.

We're talking about pretty small slices of time that Series X can save you now, if you're coming from a mid-range PC or a One X. The Series X has eliminated the 50 seconds of loading where I would take my phone out and contemplate my next bon mot on Twitter. I appreciate the snappiness but at the same time, load times on the One X were never something I felt was a problem I was desperate to solve.

 

When I got my One X back in 2017, I fell in love with it after just a couple weeks. The Series X follows in its footsteps by immediately rivaling or surpassing my PC in terms of performance. Setup is much easier as well: the Series X and its less expensive sibling, the Series S, both have some good HDR calibration options this time around and it also automatically sends my TV into the less-processed, lower latency "Game" mode when I launch a game, and then turns it off when I watch video content. This is a minor touch, but an appreciated one as someone who is as likely to watch a show or a movie as play a game on his Xbox.

The two Xboxes, standing at angles next to each other.

But the One X didn't have quite such a desperate shortage of showpiece games as the Series X had during my pre-release review window, and so my impressions are necessarily incomplete when it comes to the most important aspect of a new console: the games. In the next week, we should get Series X versions of Assassin's Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs Legion, Dirt 5 from Codemasters, and a small trove of upgrades to recent games as well. But if you want to know what is the moment that the Series X showed me something that could only happen on this new hardware, the answer is that I have yet to see it. If you have a One X, or you don't have a 120 Hz capable TV, the Series X is a solution to some extremely minor problems.  And if you're on the fence between the Series X and the PlayStation 5, it's just too early to have a meaningful comparison. These are major questions around a $500 console that make a clear recommendation impossible.

It's slightly easier to take a charitable view of the $300 Xbox Series S, which is the disc-less, 1440p alternative to the Series X. It has a lot of the same conveniences and quality of life features, while punching above its weight in terms of performance. On a 4K TV the upscaled image looks terrific and the brisk framerates and HDR lighting and post-processing effects command a lot more attention than whatever is lost with the lowered output resolution. It's a great budget option for 4K TVs and a no-brainer for older 1080p TVs.

 

Both machines should fit easily into most TV consoles and media centers. The Series S is surprisingly small and light, about the size of a box of tissue paper, and is easy enough to tuck away almost out of sight. The Series X is more imposing, a squat brute of a console that's about twice the size of the One X. It seems like it will be simple enough for most people to find an unobtrusive place to put it, but be warned: the Series X kicks out a lot of heat through the massive fan at the top of its chassis and I would definitely recommend making sure it's in a ventilated space and not blowing directly on anything heat-sensitive. Even when the Series X is on but idle, it can feel like a small space heater. Fortunately, it remains pretty quiet even under load.

Series S Console Side .png

I'm a bit skeptical that the Series S's 500 GB hard drive will hold up well in light of the ballooning size of modern video games. It was shockingly easy to fill the 1 TB drive on the Series X, and while the Series S uses space a bit more efficiently (its install sizes were notably smaller than on the Series X), the fact is that game installations are steadily creeping up to 100 gigs and I am curious what happens with that trend once the PS4 and Xbox One are firmly left in the rear-view.

But for the moment, both these Xboxes have been backwards compatibility machines, thanks to the seamlessness with which a lot of the Xbox One library has crossed over. They excel in that role, and for people who sat-out the One X they're undeniable upgrades. But so far they don't have a library of new games or lavishly updated older ones to make a persuasive case for their own frivolous necessity.