Reviews

The 4K 60FPS Era is Here — Xbox Series X review

Reviewing a console is a bit strange as you don’t play the hardware, but the games you install on it. That said, this new generation is a massive leap forward in several ways and deserves additional attention beyond the launch games that ship with it. Without further ado, let’s talk about the Xbox Series X.

Before we dig in too far, we want to point out that there are two versions of the Xbox — the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S. The Xbox Series X is the flagship console, with all of the bells and whistles, whereas the Xbox Series S is a slimmer, less powerful, but downright affordable alternative. We have an Xbox Series X in house, but have not gotten our hands on the S, so we are going to focus on the flagship console exclusively.

While it may be gibberish for some, let’s talk through the specifications on this brand new console before we get into how those specs affect gameplay.

  • CPU: 8x Cores @ 3.8 GHz (3.6 GHz w/ SMT) Custom Zen 2 CPU
  • GPU: 12 TFLOPS, 52 CUs @ 1.825 GHz Custom RDNA 2 GPU
  • Die Size: 360.45 mm2
  • Process: 7nm Enhanced
  • Memory: 16 GB GDDR6 w/ 320b bus
  • Memory Bandwidth: 10GB @ 560 GB/s, 6GB @ 336 GB/s
  • Internal Storage: 1TB Custom NVME SSD
  • I/O Throughput: 2.4 GB/s (Raw), 4.8 GB/s
  • Expandable Storage: 1TB Expansion Card (matches internal storage exactly)
  • External Storage: USB 3.2 External HDD Support
  • Optical Drive: 4K UHD Blu-Ray Drive
  • Performance Target: 4K @ 60 FPS, Up to 120 FPS

That’s quite the mouthful, and some of these numbers are probably completely useless to you as a consumer. Let’s break them down one at a time.

CPU:
The central processing unit of the system is an 8 core CPU made by AMD called the Zen 2. It operates at 3.8 GHz for each core, but 3.6 GHz with simultaneous multithreading, or SMT. SMT is when a game or application is able to access multiple processors, utilizing their horsepower in a parallel method rather than occupying a single processor core at a time. While it is slightly slower, being able to subdivide the work across multiple cores means the end result is actually executed more quickly.

GPU:
This is where the sausage is made. AMD has built a custom GPU for the Xbox Series X capable of delivering 12 TFLOPS of power. By way of comparison, a GeForce RTX 2080 hits 11.3 TFLOPS at a launch price of $699 — more than the cost of this entire console. The “52 CU” is short for 52 compute units. Each compute array is made up of several compute units, allowing commands to be passed asynchronously and processed individually inside that array. Think of them as “pods” where work can be sent, completed, and passed back to the system, through the cache and onto the memory controller. The Xbox Series X has 52 of these “pods” and in this case, more is certainly better.

Die Size and Process:
Neither of these have any effect on your games in any meaningful way, save one — smaller die sizes and more efficient processes have led to a far smaller Xbox Series X.

Memory:
This is a big one as developers have long complained about not having enough high-speed memory at their fingertips. With the Xbox Series X they have a full 16GB of GDDR6 – the latest standard (ignoring Micron’s experimental GDDR6X) which operates at a speedy 560 GB/s for 10GB, and 336 GB/s for the remaining 6GB. Once again, this places the Xbox Series X into a class normally reserved for high-end PCs, with memory more than capable of keeping up with the most exciting change thus far — the storage.

Storage:
As a quick and somewhat reductive history lesson, the original Xbox had an 8 GB rotational drive, capable of speeds around 66 MB/s. The Xbox 360 also used a 5400 rpm rotational hard drive that could hit roughly 100 MB/s. The Xbox One X also uses an internal drive, but with a better hard drive controller, hitting speeds around 133 MB/s. External SSDs pushed this number far higher, hitting around 500 MB/s in our testing, making the largest leap we’ve seen, until now.

The Xbox Series X uses an internal custom 1TB NVME SSD for storage. NVME is a flash storage type, capable of a whopping 2.4 GB/s uncompressed read and write speeds, with compression pushing that up to 4.8 GB/s. We are going to take a pause on specs here and talk about just what that sort of storage does for your gaming.

Load Times:
Over the last few weeks I’ve been testing and recording how games that are identified as being “enhanced” for Xbox Series X, and some that aren’t, perform with load speeds. Using a system called “DirectStorage” gives developers the ability to load in assets continuously, pulling the area ahead into the CPU for processing and then passing it to the storage, thus reducing the on-demand use. We see this during gameplay, not the initial load, so bear in mind that these initial loads are not representative of all the ways the “Xbox Velocity Architecture” improves your gameplay.

Some of these numbers are downright shocking. Notoriously painful load times like Minecraft, Destiny 2, and Sea of Thieves have been cut by 75% or more. Call of Duty: Warzone loads before you can get your butt settled. Final Fantasy XV no longer requires several page scrolls in Reddit before you get started. It’s very likely that we’ll see a lot of these games get further refinement as the console launch continues into the holiday season, but what we see here is already impressive.

I mentioned that these improvements have a direct impact in gameplay as well, and the best example I can give is The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. Loading sequences could be somewhat lengthy during fast travel events, but on the Xbox Series X, these same load times are frankly imperceptible. The game fades to black, fading back in immediately with Geralt in his new location.

It’s also worth noting that a number of games support a Quick Resume function on the Xbox Series X. We tested a number of these titles and found that it works precisely as advertised, allowing us to juggle up to five games without the need to reload it from scratch. I wouldn’t rely on it in lieu of a save, but it does let you pop out and play something else for a bit before jumping back to another game.

Cooling:
The cooling architecture of the Xbox Series X is a masterclass in engineering. The smaller manufacturing process can pack a lot more power into a small space, but that also generates more heat. The Xbox hardware team took on the challenge by taking several steps to drive that heat away from components as efficiently as possible. Inside the case lie three airflow channels that help create lanes to effectively move heat around the stovepipe-like case. Splitting the motherboard into several component parts also allows air to flow past and through the GPU, memory, hard drive, and other components to keep them cool. With a nod to the Xbox One X, the sealed “Vapor Chamber” cooling system makes a return, creating a closed-loop atomized liquid cooling system for the processor. The final component of this combined cooling system is a fantastic fan pair that pulls air from underneath and funnels it out of the top. Normally I would measure the sound coming out of the top of the console, but there just…isn’t any. The ambient sounds in the room (e.g. the hum of the air conditioner, an overhead fan, the clacking of my keys) were all louder than this console. It is effectively silent, even when under heavy load. I am absolutely blown away, pun intended.

Storage Expansion:
Frankly, 1TB of storage just isn’t a lot, especially with the likes of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War on the horizon at 250GB, somewhere around 70 for Cyberpunk 2077, around 50 GB for Watch Dogs: Legion, and roughly 50 GB for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, plus any previous gen games (looking at you Red Dead Redemption 2 at over 100 GB), media, captures, and anything else soaking up the 802 GB of usable space, with the OS takes roughly 198 GB of space off the top. If you plan on having a lot of games installed, you’ll likely want an external storage solution of some kind.

Partnering with Seagate to create an expansion card (a custom made 1 TB NVME as well), the expansion card matches the speed and specs of the internal drive in the Xbox Series X. This means you’ll get precisely the same load speeds, and resume functionality, but without soaking nearly 1/5th of it for the OS.

In addition to these expansion cards (more on those when we get one in hand to test), the Xbox Series X has a number of USB 3.2 ports where you can plug in a USB-powered hard drive. This can be a rotational drive like these, or a high speed SSD like this one. Realize that this may create a speed bottleneck, so choose wisely what you store there.

Optical Drive:
The Xbox Series X has a 4K UHD Blu-Ray drive for loading games and to watch movies — the Xbox Series S does not, making the system slimmer, lighter, and $100 cheaper. Tests of this drive went about as expected, booting up a crisp 4K Blu-Ray as fast as my external player does. I found that the drive was a nice thing to have as it allowed me to load games like Red Dead Redemption 2 to the drive far faster than the behemoth download would.

Performance Target:
The last bullet point in the spec sheet for the Xbox Series X is the “Performance Target” where it lists “4K @ 60 FPS, Up to 120 FPS”, but realize that there is a very important comma in that statement. That is not to say that every game will run 4K and 120 FPS, and conflating the two will be a bad time. That said, every game we’ve tested in the launch lineup is more than capable of delivering 4K and 60 FPS, with some titles offering performance balancing selections that balance framerate against visual quality. We’ll have to see how games shake out as we go, but I will say this for sure — the age of 4K @ 60 FPS is here.

Beyond the performance target, the Xbox Series X supports Variable Refresh Rate TVs and monitors. Screens that support this technology can sync up with the Xbox Series X and provide the smoothest visual output possible without framerate wobbles and screen tearing. I’m going to turn to an older NVIDIA video for a visual example of this in action, and why anyone looking for a new TV this holiday season should pay attention to this tech:

In addition to VRR support, the Xbox Series X also has an Auto Low Latency Mode. This improves the latency between the inputs of the controller and the results on the screen, providing the best possible experience when latency matters.

But what about all that 8K business that team Microsoft was talking about ahead of this launch? While it is true that the console, with the right TV (and receiver if you are using one), and with an HDMI 2.1 capable cable, can output 8K, we have no way of testing it. Moreover, I’m not sure what sort of performance would be possible at that resolution, given that we’ve really only seen DOOM Eternal running at that resolution on an RTX 3090 (at $1200) using DLSS and other tech to make it possible. Still, it’s nice to see that Microsoft is looking towards the future and trying to be ready.

Smart Delivery:
While it’s not a spec, per se, the Xbox Series X has another ace up its sleeve — Smart Delivery. Microsoft has committed that games you purchase that are tagged as “Smart Delivery” will be playable wherever you’d like, and will provide the best possible experience for that platform. By way of an impressive example, I am co-authoring Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla with Editor David Flynn. I put in 16 hours on PC and went to fire it up on the Xbox Series X only to find a “Continue” button instead of “New Game”. The system, without any prompting whatsoever, pulled my save across and was ready to continue my adventure on the Xbox Series X. Doing another quick check, I was able to do the same thing on Gears 5, Gears Tactics, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Other titles like Call of the Sea, Chorus, Cyberpunk 2077, Hellblade 2, Destiny 2, Dirt 5, Metal: Hellslinger, Scarlet Nexus, Second Extinction, The Ascent, Vampire The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2, Watch Dogs Legion, Sea of Thieves, Planet Coaster, Maneater, Forza Horizon 4, Borderlands 3, and many more committed to using the same service, so it’s exciting to see it work flawlessly right out of the gate.

Backwards Compatibility:
How far back, you ask? Try ALL the way back. The Xbox Series X supports games on the original Xbox, the Xbox 360, and Xbox One titles. This means you suddenly have literally thousands of games at your fingertips at launch (you can check out a list here).  Want to play Star Wars: Republic Commando?  Suit up, trooper!  Got BloodRayne or BloodRayne II on the brain? Fire it up and have fun. Me?  I’m gonna jump back into Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge (which desperately needs a reboot, please!).  Check out how that looks on the Xbox Series X right here:

The Xbox Series X supports all of the hardware from the Xbox One…well, minus the Kinect anyway — sorry Dance Central. It’s impressive to see this level of support for older games, and I commend Microsoft for their steadfast devotion to it. While not every game will work, so I’m told, every game I tried certainly did.

95

Excellent

Xbox Series X

Review Guidelines

The Xbox Series X represents a massive improvement over its predecessors. With a blisteringly fast SSD, a powerful GPU, and an impossibly quiet cooling system, this system ushers in the 4K / 60 era with a bang. Throw in far-reaching backwards compatibility, support for variable refresh rate, auto low latency input, and Smart Delivery, and this device is easily a must-have for this Holiday Season.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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