Note: This review was first published on 29 Dec 2020.
It’s been more than a month since Microsoft’s Xbox Series X gaming console launched here, and the time I’ve spent with the machine has been a little more than surprising – to say the least. Firstly, reviewing a console isn’t quite the same as, say, reviewing a graphics card or a smartphone phone. These electronic products usually have a yearly life cycle (or two years even) with incremental hardware upgrades or a design overhaul.
That’s not quite the same for gaming consoles. The big three – Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft – have traditionally launched a new machine every 5 years, although two consoles from the last generation had a mid-life upgrade (Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro) and thus extending that generation’s life cycle to eight years. So, with the Xbox Series X, I had decided to take a long-term approach to reviewing it so as to have a better gauge on how the console fares (I’m doing the same for the PlayStation 5 as well, so do stay tuned for that one) once Microsoft has gotten some of the early kinks and bugs out of the way, and how games launched within the first 30 days performed on it. Consoles and game designs have gotten far more complex these days and out of the box assessment on the first day or prior to launch won't necessarily tell the same tale as they used to.
We have already gone through quite a fair bit about the S$699 Xbox Series X in previous articles so there are some obvious key points that I won’t repeat in detail in my experience review here. But if you need a refresher to get up to speed, here are the quick links from our previous reporting for your reading:
Personally, I’m a big fan of the Xbox Series X design. The boxy monolithic design may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the look and feel are clearly a design evolution of the existing Xbox One X’s. If you own an Xbox One X console, the Xbox Series X will look remarkably familiar to you - just that the newcomer would be standing tall. My initial concern was that the ‘proper’ vertical placement of the console meant that it won’t fit in TV consoles or Hi-Fi racks. You can certainly fit it on its side, but visually that looks awkward in my opinion – especially with the rubber base jutting on one side.
That said, the Xbox Series X does look great next to the television if your table or console has room for it.
The Xbox Series X is powered by an AMD custom Zen CPU with eight cores at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT) and a custom RDNA 2 Navi GPU with 12 teraflops, 52 CUs at 1.825GHz. It is an impressively powerful next-gen console, but the CPU and GPU only tell half the story. Let us consider other key aspects of the console’s internal circuitry such as Wi-Fi and storage capacity.
On the Wi-Fi front, the Xbox Series X is equipped with a Wi-Fi 5 chip. Now Wi-Fi 5 (also previously known as Wireless 802.11ac) isn’t slow by any means, but I wish Microsoft had gone for Wi-Fi 6 (wireless 802.11ax) instead. It is a much faster wireless technology that would have also made the console a tad more future-proof. You will also miss out on the Optical output with this console, which kind of stings. This means that if you want to hook the Xbox Series X to an external amplifier, you’ll need to do some routing via HDMI, which can be a problem if your system doesn't support the latest standards or if your speaker system lacks an HDMI audio input option other than S/PDIF optical connection.
Your choice of storage expansion is also extremely limited with the Xbox Series X, as the only option right now is the Seagate 1TB custom Xbox Series X|S expansion card, which retail for an eye-bursting S$330 – nearly half the price of the Xbox Series X console itself.
That said, the built-in 1TB SSD drive in the console is still extremely fast. Even on the Xbox One X, I’d have time to load up my Facebook or emails while waiting for a game to load. Not anymore with the Xbox Series X. Depending on the games – and Red Dead Redemption 2 is a pain to load – you might still have to wait now and then, but the speed of loading is now on par with any good PC equipped with an SSD drive.
Then there’s Quick Resume, a feature that allows me to run five games at once and dropping in and out of these gaming sessions without needing to reboot and load up a save. It really is an excellent feature that enables quick bursts of gaming. The small little caveat here is that developers will have to build this feature into their games.
I have also always loved the Xbox controller since the Xbox 360 days and the new Xbox Wireless Controller is a neat evolution of its predecessor. At first glance and feel, you would really be hard-pressed to spot any major differences apart from the addition of a “Share” button. Unlike Sony’s complete (and fantastic) revolution of the PlayStation 5 controller, Microsoft opted to improve on a proven design with small improvements like textured triggers and an improved D-pad.
Whether that’s a plus or minus point is arguably dependant on the individual. Personally, the design is already four generations old now and while the controller works, it’s not exactly exciting – unlike the PlayStation 5 and its much talked about Adaptive triggers.
It is not just the Xbox Series X. Even the PlayStation 5 is a bit lacking in some key launch titles – Demon Souls and Spider-Man: Miles Morales on the latter felt more like the appetisers rather than the entrées. Instead, the most third-party developers have been pushing out updates/patches that improve on visual fidelity such as ray tracing or frame rates for their newest titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
This has an unintended effect of extending the longevity of the older but still powerful Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro. Shortage of stocks notwithstanding, there really isn’t a compelling reason (or a game) to have to own an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 right now. Unforutnately.
Our team have raved about the Xbox Game Pass as the Ultimate Games Subscription for PC and Xbox. It’s so value for money that it’s ridiculous, especially now that Bethesda belongs to Microsoft as a first-party developer expect to see all of the former publisher’s line-up on Xbox Game Pass. At this time of writing, the big hitters such as Elders Scroll: Skyrim, Doom Eternal and Fallout 76 are already available for all Xbox Game Pass subscribers. For western RPG series such as the Elders Scrolls and Fallout series, the Xbox Series X is without a doubt its new home.
Some notable titles currently available for all subscribers include the impressive Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, Final Fantasy XV, Wasteland 3, and even the most played game of 2020 – Among Us. The Xbox Series X may not have compelling first-party games as compared to the PlayStation 5’s more diversified library, but the Xbox Game Pass holds massive value for any Xbox owner.
Here’s the thing: the Xbox Series X is a machine with a bright future, ripe for the proper next-gen games that can make full use of its horsepower. That game could be the infinitely delayed Halo: Infinite, a Gears game or even Bethesda’s next epic RPG game. It’s a powerful console that will run some of the best-looking console games, without a doubt. But so will the PlayStation 5. Unlike previous console wars, today’s Xbox and PlayStation have almost identical specifications (and AMD laughing away now) that non-platform exclusive games will, in all likelihood, look and run similarly on either console.
The key question then is if you are convinced about the value proposition of the Xbox Game Pass. The PlayStation 5 may have the exclusive games that you like, but the Xbox Series X is a simpler, more versatile proposition with amazing backward compatibility support and an ace in the hole in Xbox Game Pass.