At launch Xbox Series X had an uphill struggle to tease gamers away from PS5, and with the spectre of Xbox One's muted support hanging over it, this was a hard task. As 2022 ends, and two years on, Xbox Series X has proved to be a powerful games console that's more than something you buy if PS5 has run out of stock.
While at launch on November 10, 2020 things felt muddied – it launched with the less powerful Xbox Series S and Xbox One was shared its games roster, time has been kind to Xbox Series X. While PS5's design took us aback (read my PS5 review for more) Xbox Series X was a small black box, its lines failed to ignite the imagination. Yet, over time, that simplicity has become beneficial and it has proved to be one of the best games consoles around. I also have a comparison feature, PS5 vs Xbox Series X.
At launch a lack of exclusive games was a problem. The best Xbox Series X games are by and large the same on PS5, for example Elden Ring is available on both platforms, but Microsoft has released exclusives since launch, and plans on releasing some big titles in 2023, such as Starfield. However, when it comes to games, Game Pass – the subscription model for getting monthly free games – remains unmatched. Also, unlike PS5, Xbox Series X is fully backwards compatible with hundreds of classic Xbox games. (Discover more games for Xbox Series X in my guide to the most anticipated games of 2023.)
Inside the black box is the kind of tech you expect from a state-of-the-art games console; a super-fast SSD loads and reloads games in under a second, plenty of internal storage and the kind GPU and CPU combo you'd get in a high-spec gaming PC or one of the best laptops for gaming – the eight-core Zen 2-based AMD processor with AMD's RDNA 2 GPU can handle everything thrown at it.
Below I'll go into a little detail about why Xbox Series X has shown itself to be a dependable and superb games console. Before that, take a look below at a comparison of Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, launched together they're similar but slightly different.
Xbox Series X review: two models
Xbox Series X is the slightly more powerful of two consoles and features a 4K Blu-ray disc drive. In terms of performance you may not currently notice much difference as the real upgrade for Series X is its output of 4K at 120Hz (it can output at 8K).
The games libraries, UI, storage and more technical features remain the same. It's worth noting if you have an Xbox games collection Series X is preferred as you have a disc drive for full backwards compatibility.
The Xbox Series S is a slightly cheaper model compared to the Series X, largely because this is a digital-only console that doesn't feature a disc drive. If you don't want to play Blu-ray movies or old Xbox games, it's worth it.
The other area it lags behind Series X is in output – this console has less powerful graphics performance so displays games at 1080p and 1440p. This will be fine for a couple of years, but eventually developers will target 4K and 8K and Series S could be left behind.
Xbox Series X review: design
Xbox Series X underwhelmed at launch. It's a small rectangular black box of tricks, and to an extent simply re-enforced a sense Microsoft's console is just a gaming PC with few innovative features.
However, after spending two years with the Xbox Series X I really appreciate the simplicity of the design. At just 15.1 x 15 x 30.1 cm it's smaller than PS5 and is a neat little black box that can sit unassumingly next to, beneath or behind a TV. Despite initial impressions, the simplicity of the design makes Xbox Series X a functional but also eye-catching console. Design should consider use as much as aesthetics, and time has been very kind to Xbox Series X.
There's a little design flourish with the inclusion of the textured top vent, which breaks up the hard lines and offers a little secret to discover. In hindsight the design of Xbox Series X is actually lovely, it's slightly textured and has the one slim slit for the disc drive, giving this console a smart, almost industrial and modernist look.
It has all the ports you could need, including a HDMI 2.1, two USB 3.2 ports, and a storage expansion slot for extending the console's memory. There's another subtle design idea here too, as each rear port features raised dots so you can judge by feel which port is which – why has this level of accessibility never been done before?
This is a super-quiet console, too. The top and rear vents disperse heat really well and when turned on you won't notice at all – it's near silent. Overall, Xbox Series X has shrugged off the initial design impressions to reveal a discreet games console.
Xbox Series X review: performance
Xbox Series X is, technically, the most powerful games console on sale right now – yes, it's slightly more powerful than PS5. It boasts an eight-core AMD Zen 2 processor (3.8GHz), a custom RDNA 2 AMD GPU (with 12 TFLOPs of processing power), 16GB of GDDR6 memory and a 1TB Custom NVMe SSD for fast loading.
Like PS5 the SSD is used to reduce loading and reloading times to under a second for most games, some can be a little longer. This is great for jumping straight back into games with no loading, and you can skip between games and start right where you left off – you can juggle between multiple games from the dashboard. The SSD is best used in games such as Elden Ring, where you're starting and restarting instantly.
CPU: 8x Cores 3.8 GHz, Custom Zen 2 CPU
GPU: 12 TFLOPS, 1.825 GHz Custom RDNA 2 GPU
Internal Storage: 1TB Custom NVME SSD
Expandable Storage: 1TB Expansion Card
External Storage: USB 3.2 External HDD Support
Optical Drive: 4K UHD Blu-ray Drive
Performance Target: 4K / 60fps / 120fps, 8K / 30fps
When playing I really notice frame rates more than ever these days, and Xbox Series X delivers 4K at 60fps and can manage 120fps – only really necessary if you super-competitive in Halo Infinity or Gears 5 – this shooter supports 4K at 120fps online, which is, frankly, incredible.
This is also a testament to Microsoft's backwards compatibility, as Gears 5 was an end of life Xbox One game that shines on Xbox Series X. Some games will drop resolution to 1080p to handle 120fps. It will mean you'll want one of the best 4K TVs, eventually.
It's worth digging into Xbox Series X's backwards compatibility and features, as this really puts this console in its own unique space. As well as offering automatic HDR support to boost the colour depth and contrast of older games there's also FPS Boost that can quadruple the frame rates of older games – classic Xbox games (X360, Xbox and Xbox One) can get boosts from 30fps to a locked 60fps, some can reach 120fps. This gives these older games a sharper look and smoother feel. It varies from game to game, but many older titles can be tweaked.
Xbox Series X review: UI
The downside to Xbox Series X is its UI – it launched with a mere tweak to the older Xbox One dashboard and hasn't changed too much in two years. The tiled approach is okay, but feels old fashioned. Each tile connects to game collections, Game Pass, the Xbox Store, apps, party chat and more. You can move the tiles around and pin them yourself, so your regulars are always top.
If you've been using Xbox for years, or Windows, the Xbox Series X UI likely feels okay and functional, however if you're coming fresh to this series of consoles it can feel clumsy and obtrusive. There are some weird quirks too, particularly in Game Pass, where it regularly shuffles focus – for example if you just want to find the newest added games they can be harder to find than needed.
Unlike PS5, the Xbox Series X UI hasn't really evolved or changed in two years. It is faster and lag-free compared to older Xbox consoles, but there's a new charm of personality to the layout or user journey. Microsoft does have plans to revamp the UI in 2023.
The biggest advantage is the new Quick Resume feature that I touched on earlier. This enables you to drop in and out of up to five games at a time. The UI can be accessed at any point, it auto-saves and records status and progress. It can be a little hard to keep track of what games you've been playing and when and where you can drop back in, but the feature is smooth, fast and instant (it takes seconds to launch and relaunch).
Xbox Series X review: controller
The Xbox Series X controller is an iteration on the Xbox One controller rather than a completely new design. This is more ergonomic and textured, it feels good to hold and is fairly lightweight. At launch colour was black or white (Series S), now there are a number of fun and vibrant colours, including Electric Volt, DayStrike Camo and Pulse Red.
This is a premium controller that feels solid and functional, and has the off-set sticks and button layout that many prefer over the PlayStation controllers – for shooters and racing games, the Xbox layout is a better design. There are more third-party controllers available for Xbox Series X than PS5, too. This means there are some fun and advanced controllers available now, two years on, and generally more choice than PS5 offers.
There's a weird design choice too; the Xbox Series X controller uses two AA batteries so you will need to invest in a Charge and Play kit eventually, which is sold separately, It feels like a hangover from a past console generation.
It's a solid controller but old tech and lacks the haptic feedback, touchpad, adaptive triggers and other progressive design choices Sony made with the PS5's DualSense Controller. If you've not played on a PS5 you won't miss these features, but going from PS5 to Xbox Series X can feel like a downgrade in some respects. Full disclosure, I own both consoles and make deliberate choices to play some games on PS5 only – Deathloop, for example, feels more immersive on PS5.
Yet, Xbox Series X now has the new Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 in its corner. Since the console launched this new controller has been released, and while it still lacks the features of PS5's DualSense Controller, this new gamepad features fully customisable triggers and sticks, and buttons can be programmed for multiple games. It's also cheaper and has a longer battery life than PS5's forthcoming pro pad, the DualSense Edge Controller.
Xbox Series X review: games
At launch Xbox Series X felt like a powerhouse without anything to show off its tech. The launch games were lacklustre and Microsoft relied on third-party publishers to pad out the games line-up. Worse still, the exclusive games were all available on Xbox One, and included Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4 and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which gave little reason to invest in a new console.
Two years on, however, and the games library and future prospects are much brighter. Xbox Series X exclusive games include Halo Infinite, Microsoft Flight Simulator and Forza Horizon 5 – and all three are outstanding titles. (Some of the best games on Xbox Series X have been nominated in this year's BAFTA Games Awards 2023.)
It's the future that looks impressive for Xbox Series X, as Microsoft has spent two years buying and investing in new studios, including ZeniMax Media, home of Bethesda, which means blockbuster releases such as The Elder Scrolls 6 and Starfield will only be Xbox Series X (and PC). Microsoft is also in protracted talks to buy Activision Blizzard, home of Call of Duty, Diablo and Crash Bandicoot.
The biggest advantage Xbox Series X has is Game Pass. This monthly subscription service offers free, with most being day one releases and exclusives. This meant in 2022 Xbox Series X had A Plague Tale: Requiem, High On Life and Football Manager 2023 free at launch, and new games on the horizon include Redfall, Atomic Heart and Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty. Subscribers also get access to EA and Ubisoft collections, including classic games from Xbox 360.
Xbox Series X review: should I buy one?
At launch in 2020 I would have said stick with Xbox One, aim for a PS5 or at a push get an Xbox Series S because it's more cost effective. However, two years since launch and Xbox Series X is now an established and impressive console. Costing $499 / £449 it's cheaper and easier to buy than the PS5, and many of the launch issues have been ironed out.
Day one Xbox Series X had no exclusive games and offered little reason to buy a new console. Two years later this next-gen console has exclusive games that demonstrate the power of the console, and for those on a budget the development of Game Pass to deliver new games, on the day they're released, is a serious advantage.
Game Pass costs $14.99 / £10.99 a month, but you can always get offers – for example there's a $1 / £1 a month deal for new subs and after that you can even get three months for free on a 12 month sub. When a single new game can cost as much as $69.99 / £69.99, Game Pass is great value.
I was always on the fence about the design of Xbox Series X as its subtle, box-like approach can feel underwhelming in isolation, when it's in your hands and in your home this simplicity really shines. It's a shame the UI remains a little outdated and unchanged and the controller, while good, lacks the tech and flourishes of PS5's DualSense Controller.
To an extent Microsoft played it safe with the Xbox Series X, from the design to the UI and controller – it's all simple and effective and at a lower cost. This means the games and performance become a greater priority, and while lacking in 2020 Xbox Series X now impresses, particularly as its a fully backwards compatible console with older Xbox titles. More so, with exclusives such as Starfield, Fable and Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 coming in 2023 there are enough big games to sustain the console.
Two years on, Xbox Series X represents great value for money and has a bright future. PS5 is still slightly ahead due largely to the DualSense Controller and its exclusive games, but the distance between them is now paper thin.