Xbox Series X: raw power fused with familiar Xbox DNA

Thanks to Xbox ANZ, I’ve had an Xbox Series X for the past couple of weeks to put it through its paces. Here are my thoughts, for what their worth, on Xbox’s vision for next-generation gaming.

In a handful of hours – less than six, if we’re counting – the Xbox Series X and it’s smaller sibling the Xbox Series S will launch in New Zealand and Australia.

Come the stroke of midnight on November 10, Australasian gamers will be able to get their hands on the new generation of gaming machines. Sony’s PlayStation 5 launches in New Zealand and Australia two days later on November 12. Without a doubt, it’s definitely an exciting time to be a console gamer.

Much has been made of the Xbox Series X’s design: Yes, it kind of looks like a fridge. Yes, it looks like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in all honesty, it’s no bulker than the original Xbox’s footprint, which was a hearty boy for sure, and it was actually more compact than I was expecting. It is hefty, though.

Unsurprisingly, given the consoles roots, it reminds me more of a PC than previous consoles thanks to its mini-tower design. I have it sitting vertically next to my Samsung Series 8 4K TV and it doesn’t look out of place, thanks to its minimalist design.

Out of the box, set up is incredibly simple using the Xbox smartphone app. The console updated itself (so you’ll need an active internet account for setup) as I was entering my existing Xbox account sign-in details. From booting up the console to the Xbox logo splash screen was around 14 seconds, with the boot screen often appearing about the same time I’d managed to select the right source on my TV. Using the consoles instant on feature, the boot up was less than 5 seconds.

There was a console update and there was also a firmware update for the controller. It was all remarkably stress-free and within a few minutes I was staring at a familiar-looking Xbox dashboard.

Without any games installed, the high-speed SSD had around 800Gb free and with five games installed, I still had 6725Gb of space to play with. For me, that’s plenty of space but you can expand the storage space when you need it using proprietary storage solutions which slots into the rear of the machine.

Powered up, the Series X actually ran quieter than I was expecting, too, especially given how much hardware is crammed into its tight form factor. It’s designed so that all the heat created by the console is drawn upwards, exiting via a massive 130mm exhaust fan at the top (which has a neat green effect that shifts as you move your perspective when you’re looking at it. It’s hard to describe). The engineering clearly works as when I put my hand over the massive air exhaust at the top, I felt the gentlest of breezes, even when the console was under load.

In a nod to Digital Foundry and it’s technical analysis, I used an infra-red temperature reader that I bought for one of my son’s science projects many moons ago to check the console temperature: At idle, the front was sitting at around 20deg Celsius while the grilled top above the exhaust fan sat at about 25.6deg. Under load – a solid session of Gears Tactics – the exhaust recorded a temperature of 45deg. It was warm but not hot.

See the green colour? It’s applied so that it appears to move as you change your view.

The XSX comes with one controller and it looks like … well, an Xbox controller: That’s not a criticism it’s just an observation. It’s roughly the same size as an Xbox 360 controller (minus the battery compartment on the bottom, of course) but smaller than the original Xbox’s duke controller.

I always have liked the design of the Xbox controllers and the XBX’s feels familiar and comfortable to hold. It also has a nice textured back. The controller is an evolution of all the Xbox controllers before it: The triggers feel more refined as do the shoulder buttons. There’s also a dedicated screen capture button on the face, which is nice touch.

The only technical issues I encountered was after a few days the console decided it didn’t like the HDMI connection on my TV that I’d selected and turned itself off a few seconds after booting up. Changing to another HDMI port, which the TV automatically identified as an Xbox, seemed to sort the issue out.

It’s all about the software, baby

Microsoft kindly supplied a handful of game codes and while some of them weren’t optimised for the Xbox Series X yet, I tested out Ori & The Will of the Wisps, Gears of War 5, Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Gears Tactics, The Touryst, and Red Dead Redemption to test the backwards compatibility functionality. I would have loved to have tested out Assassin’s Creed Valhalla but the supplied game code, while pre-loading the game, wouldn’t unlock the game until until November 10, the consoles launch day which was kind of frustrating.

As time of writing, games that had been optimised for Xbox Series X were Gears of War 5, The Touryst, Gears Tactics, Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves. Games that would be optimised at or before launch included Watch Dogs Legions, Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Dirt 5, Destiny 2 and Tetris Effect Connected.

Gears Tactics looks great and plays great on Xbox Series X.

Gears of War 5 already looked great on Xbox One but it looks even better on Xbox Series X and performs a lot better, too. Colours are more vibrant, textures are much higher resolution, especially on a 4K TV. The frame rate is much more stable, too. Gears Tactics, too, plays extremely well and is a nice addition to the Xbox family. If you haven’t played it, I recommend it highly.

Ori looks gorgeous, too, even in its unoptimised state, as does The Touryst (allowing up to 120FPS, I understand), but Like A Dragon looks, well, like the Yakuza games did on PlayStation: Nice but not ground breaking.

It’s a shame, though, that Halo Infinite wasn’t ready for the console’s launch (Master Chief is still plastered across the back of the console’s box) as I feel the Xbox Series X really does need a strong console-selling first-party game at launch – and Halo would have been that game.

And how was the Backwards Compatibility mode? It’s good and while disappointingly, Batman Arkham City isn’t one of the compatible games, Red Dead Redemption is, requiring a 7.4Gb update, and it looks remarkably superior to the original 360 format that I played it on: Visuals are much, much sharper with higher resolution textures and much faster transitions between game play and cut scenes.

BC is a great option if you have a large Xbox 360 library and no longer have your Xbox 360 or Xbox One console but for me, I want a new console to bring me new games and new experiences: Not play old games but with better frame rates.

The verdict

To me, hardware aside, the Xbox Series X is more a refinement of what came before, not an evolution: The dashboard is a refined version of that of the Xbox One (to this day, I believe the most impressive Xbox dashboard was from the original Xbox: That was truly innovative) and the controller is a refinement of previous controllers. Not bad things in themselves but I was expecting a little more innovation in those areas.

The Xbox 360 controller on the left, the Xbox Series X controller on the right. You can see refinements in the D-pad, buttons and sticks but the shape remains relatively the same.

I feel Xbox have played it a little safe in terms of UI and controller design, here, but in terms of raw power, the XSX is a winner and I really look forward to seeing what the future holds – and what developers can do with the power under the hood.

I’ve also heard older hardware like the Xbox One series are starting to creak under more graphically intensive titles so it seems the timing is right for a new generation of more powerful console, but – and there’s always a but – I feel all this power is being squandered at the moment without some strong first-party games to really showcase what the hardware it is truly capable of. Those games will come, of course, with time.

For the time being, though, the Xbox Series X has laid robust foundations for the future. Now, Xbox needs to build on those foundations in the months and years to come.

PlayStation Neo becomes … PS4 Pro

sony-announces-playstation-4-pro-147328048462I watched the PlayStation event this morning and, if I’m being completely honest, I was left a little underwhelmed. It was a low-key briefing – it only lasted about 45 minutes – with lots of talking, but I didn’t go away from the briefing yelling at the top of my lungs, “Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna pre-order me a PS4 Pro.”

The briefing revealed the aforementioned PS4 Pro  and also perhaps one of the worst kept secrets as far as PlayStation was concerned, the PS4 Slim which everyone knew about weeks ago but PlayStation acted at the event as if it was a surprise when they announced it today. That was just a little weird. The PS4 Slim will launch in NZ from September 16 for $489.95 for a 500GB console or $569.95 for  1TB model (September 29).

The PS4 Pro will retail in New Zealand for $639.95 and launch on November 10. That’s a really sharp price but the owner of a current PS4 that does all I need it to, I won’t be upgrading any time soon.

If you want the technical specs of the PS4 Pro, you can find them here (thanks Eurogamer) but my take on the PS4 Pro is that unless I have a 4K TV, which I don’t (and I’m not planning on buying one soon), I’m best to stick with the launch PS4 I have. I’m fine with that. The games look great on my PS4 and while Sony says owners of 1080p TVs will notice a difference with the PS4 Pro,  frankly, my eyes are getting so bad I can’t actually see the difference between 4K and 1080p unless I’m up really close and my nose is pressing on the screen (OK, I’m not that bad but, you know, old age …)

PlayStation said a firmware update next week will enable HDR (High Dynamic Range) capabilities on all current PS4’s, which is great, but again, that’s pointless on my 1080p TV as I’m pretty sure it can’t output HDR. Right now in my life, 4K and HDR gaming isn’t an option so I’ll stick with my perfectly fine current generation PS4.

frontps4proPlayStation sees 4K gaming as the future (but showing off 4K content over a 1080p stream is never going to do it justice) and the Pro will do 4K content playback but strangely, it doesn’t come with a 4K Blu Ray drive, and that does seem an odd omission, given that the recently released Xbox One S, which I believe is cheaper, comes with one as standard.

My take on this, though, is clearly Sony doesn’t see the future of 4K entertainment in physical media (ie Blu Ray discs), evidence by PlayStation’s Andrew House pointing out how many hours of 4K content would be on streaming service Netflix by the end of this year.

That said, I can see why PlayStation have come up with the PS4 Pro. It’s releasing its entrant into the VR wars, the PS VR, next month and the PS4 Pro will offer better VR performance than the current PS4. (I’m still tossing up whether I’ll get a PSVR so if/when I do, I’ll perhaps contemplate a PS4 Pro)

Also, if you’ve always thought about buying a PS4, but never got around to it, and do own a 4K TV then it seems November will be your lucky month, won’t it? The cynic in me also wonders whether PlayStation hopes that the PS4 Pro will help sell more of its own 4K TV sets …

Part of me can’t help but wonder whether PlayStation has jumped the gun here with the PS4 Pro in a response to Xbox’s Project Scorpio console which isn’t even due for release until the end of next year. Surely the PS4 Slim could have filled the gap until next year when the company could have announced its competitor to Project Scorpio.

The PS4 Pro will almost be a year old when Xbox’s more powerful console comes to market and I can’t help but feel that Microsoft have the upper hand here, given that Project Scorpio is more powerful than the PS4 Pro already – and  it’s hardware configuration could change dramatically between now and the end of next year.

Speaking of Xbox, the company couldn’t help having a dig at PlayStation in this tweet suggesting its own Xbox One S was a better option:

My son and I were talking about hardware announcement cycles this morning and it seems to me that games consoles are almost going same way as mobile phones, with a new model being announced almost every year.

To be honest, I’m contemplating whether might even just invest the money that I might put into a new console into upgrading my PC’s GPU (it’s got an Intel i7 CPU  and 8GB of Ram so I’m OK on that front. My GTX660Ti, however, is well past its use by date), connect it to my 55-inch TV using Steam’s Big Picture mode and do it that way, meaning I can still game from the couch using a controller (and to all those who  bleat “You’re not a real PC gamer if you use a controller!” I say, bollocks to you).

Right now, I don’t see any benefit for me buying a PS4 Pro console unless a 4K TV magically appears in my lounge to replace my two-year old LED screen, and that’s not going to happen.

I may be proven wrong but right now, I’m not jumping on the PS4 Pro bandwagon just yet. I’ll be watching with interest.