Skip to main content

Xbox Series X hands-on preview: Microsoft's best console ever

Xbox Series X
(Image credit: Future)

TechRadar has had hands-on time with a not-final version of the Xbox Series X as part of Microsoft's preview program, and what follows are our initial impressions based on that experience.

The Xbox Series X is everything Microsoft promised, based on our time with the console so far and the games we've played. The next-gen Xbox console is super-fast, surprisingly quiet, and boasts performance that we've previously only seen from gaming PCs. 

Gaming PCs, though, never come at this price tag for the same specs, and the Xbox Series X manages to pack in a lot of power for under $500 / £450 / AU$750. The result is a console that's not only technically impressive, with drastically reduced loading times and significantly improved visual fidelity in games, but one which utilizes numerous quality-of-life features to make your gameplay experience more pleasurable.

Combined with Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass service, the Xbox Series X looks like it's going to be a force to be reckoned with, and it shows that the company still has its finger on the pulse when it comes to putting the players first.

Xbox Series X design

Xbox Series X

(Image credit: Future)

The Xbox Series X design is a major departure from its flatter predecessors, with an upright tower design more reminiscent of a gaming PC, though you can position the console horizontally, too. 

Measuring 15.1 x 15 x 30.1cm and weighing 4.45kg (9.8lbs), the long, cuboid-shaped console is matte black all over apart, from a green hue inside the indented cooling vents on the top. 

The face of the console is pretty straightforward, with an Xbox power button on the top left-hand side, a disc drive (and eject button) on the bottom left-hand corner, and a pairing button and USB 3.2 port on the bottom right-hand side. The back of the console has some cooling vents as well as an HDMI 2.1 output port, two USB 3.2 ports, one networking port, a storage expansion slot and a power input port. 

The sides of the console are blank, save for an Xbox logo in the corner of the left side and some rubber buttons on the right side – this allows the console to sit horizontally. The bottom of the console has a slightly elevated disc-shaped stand, with some more cooling vents. Then, as mentioned, the top of the console is entirely made up of cooling vents.

Xbox Series X

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The console itself looks minimalistic. Despite its weight and fairly large size, the symmetrical design of the Series X means it looks considerably smaller than its measurements would suggest. We found it slotted with ease into an Ikea Kallax shelving unit (39cm x 39cm), when oriented either horizontally or vertically, and easily blended in with its surroundings. 

A major upside of the Xbox Series X is how unexpectedly quiet it is. We've almost become accustomed to consoles revving up like they're about to take off when running games that really put them through their paces. But the Xbox Series X is the quietest Xbox we've had the pleasure of playing on – even if we need more next-gen hands-on time to truly make a call on this. 

When you're on the home screen, the console puts out around 30dB of sound – that's about the audio level of a whisper – and this changes very little when you actually load up and play games. When playing Sea of Thieves, No Man's Sky and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, we found the decibels never exceeded 33dB.

That said, when installing a larger update we were able to record sound levels up to 45dB, which is roughly as noisy as a printer in action. Even then, that's not too loud, and it barely registers over the sound of actually playing a game. This is also the case when playing the next-gen titles we've sampled so far (Dirt 5 and Yakuza: Like a Dragon).

It's welcome news for those who don't want their gameplay interrupted by the whirring of a struggling machine.

But with this quietness still comes a fair bit of heat. The Xbox Series X is on a par with the Xbox One X when it comes to heat emission, with heat dispersed through the cooling vents at the top, which we advise leaving ample space for. The console itself does get toasty, too, but we didn't find that this impacted performance when running more intensive next-gen titles. 

Still, it's worth noting again that this is not a final version of the Xbox Series X, which may pull off better heat control.

The Xbox Series X design is something you may either love or hate – but we found it a welcome change from the low-profile Xboxes of the past. It's sleek, modern, and looks like something a grown-up would actually want to own. It's a nice evolution from the flat-but-compact One S and One X models. Still, the matte black design does mean the console is easily scuffed and scratched, though it doesn't get dirty.

Xbox Series X

(Image credit: TechRadar)

While the external design of the Xbox Series X is a considerable departure from its predecessors, the console's UI and dashboard have undergone more subtle changes.

The Xbox Series X dashboard is pretty much the same as that of the Xbox One. The main reason for that is because Microsoft rolled out a meaty update to the Xbox One back in August to make its UX more streamlined, and to converge it with that of the Xbox Series X. 

That means the Series X UI still has a tiled layout, with customizable pins, so you can choose which games and apps you want to see first on your home screen, and easy access to games, apps, party chat and other features via the Xbox button on your controller. It's a pretty streamlined user interface, and allows for plenty of customization options and easy navigation. 

Customization seems to be at the heart of the Series X UX. In addition to being able to move around your pinned games and apps, Microsoft is also letting players express themselves a bit more with the inclusion of new profile themes that act as a themed background for your profile page. 

Not only that, but players can now finally use dynamic themed backgrounds, which gives a more personalized home screen option for those who are bored of the Xbox One's static offering.

Xbox Series X performance

Xbox Series X

(Image credit: Future)

The Xbox Series X is an absolute powerhouse, rocking an eight-core AMD Zen 2 processor running at 3.8GHz, a custom RDNA 2 AMD GPU that puts out 12 TFLOPs of processing power, 16GB of GDDR6 memory, and a 1TB Custom NVME SSD. So what does that mean in terms of real-world performance? 

Well, for a start, the Series X is super-fast thanks to that SSD. We've seen the Xbox Series X shaving seconds off the loading time for games compared with the same games on the Xbox One S. The Xbox Series X always loaded quicker – in some cases by a few seconds, and in others almost halving the load time. 

To give you an idea of how much faster these loading times are, we timed how long it took to load into a game from the 'Continue' button on the menu screen, for the same games on both Xbox One S and Xbox Series X. 

For Two Point Hospital, it took six seconds to load into the map after hitting the 'continue' button on Xbox Series X, compared to nine seconds on the Xbox One S. To further load into the level Duckworth-Upon-Bilge from the map screen took 15.8 seconds on Xbox Series X, but 37.26 seconds on the Xbox One S – that's less than half the time.

You can check out the loading times for some of the games we tested below:

  • Two Point Hospital: 9 seconds on Xbox One S, 6 seconds on Series X
  • Fable Anniversary: 32.97 seconds on Xbox One S, 21.62 seconds on Series X
  • Alan Wake: 7.95 seconds on Xbox One S, 4.49 seconds on Series X
  • Ori and the Blind Forest: 4.47 seconds on Xbox One S, 4 seconds on Series X
  • A Plague Tale: 66 seconds on Xbox One S, 53 seconds on Series X
  • Sea of Thieves: 100 seconds on Xbox One S, 35 seconds on Series X

While some titles benefit more than others from faster loading times, a saving of even a few seconds is welcome. While games such as Ori load fairly quickly anyway, and so the difference is less noticeable, it's with titles like Fable where these shorter loading times are definitely welcome. 

Games don't just load faster on the Xbox Series X, they look better too, with Microsoft aiming for a performance target of 4k at 60fps and up to 120fps. 

To make sure we could experience Series X gameplay the way it was intended, we hooked the console up to a 55-inch Samsung Q80T QLED 4K HDR Smart TV. We made sure the TV's game mode was enabled, and configured the Xbox's TV settings to allow for 4K UHD and 120fps, which is only achievable on an HDMI 2.1-compliant display like Samsung's here, and which is recommended for enabling the best visual experience possible.

Like the Xbox One, the Series X allows for calibration of HDR for games. We'd advise setting this before playing any games, as it makes sure the balance of contrast is spot-on, giving you the best visuals possible.

During our preview time, we primarily had access to a selection of backwards-compatible titles which, for the sake of comparison, are the best indicator of the boost in performance the Xbox Series X delivers over its predecessors. With the above settings enabled, we found that the games immediately looked better on the Series X – which isn't particularly surprising, given that Microsoft has implemented native HDR for these titles.

We go into detail as to how this performance boost improves Xbox Series X Optimized titles further down, but in short, when playing backwards-compatible titles on the Xbox One S and Series X versions side by side we could clearly see the visual upgrade.

Sea of Thieves, for example, appeared brighter, sharper and with a lot more detail on the Series X in comparison to the Xbox One S, and we also found this to be the case with the likes of A Plague's Tale, Alan Wake and Fable Anniversary.

Here's a nice shot of Sea of Thieves on Xbox Series X – the game gets the kind of visual benefits PC players have enjoyed for a while now:

(Image credit: Rare)

The Xbox Series X's 1TB Custom NVME SSD translates to 802GB of actual usable storage, with 198GB reserved for system files and the Xbox operating system. We were able to download 18 games of varying sizes before having to utilize the console's expandable storage. 

That's a fair chunk of games, but we'd advise picking up an expandable storage card if you really want to take advantage of features such as Quick Resume and the plethora of titles available through Xbox Game Pass. Note also that the number of true next-gen titles currently on offer to previewers is limited, and we'd expect them to have larger file sizes for textures, taking advantage of the full breadth of Xbox Series X's capabilities.

Along with our console, we were able to test Seagate's 1TB expansion storage card for the Xbox Series X – which was extremely easy to use, but doesn't come cheap at $219.99 / £219.99 / AU$359. When we found we were running out of storage, we simply slotted the card into the back of the Xbox and accessed the extra terabyte. When the console detects that it's approaching its storage capacity, it asks if you want to install on the card instead, while also offering a pretty straightforward option for freeing up space by deleting games.

If the expansion storage card runs a bit expensive for your taste, you can always attach an external drive HDD or SSD via the console's USB 3.1 port. However, it's worth noting that these can only play Xbox One and backwards compatible games (with the SSD allowing for faster loading times). You can store your Xbox Series X games on the external HHD or SSD, but only an NVMe SSD can play Xbox Series X optimized titles. We haven't tested loading times with an external drive yet, but we'll do so before release.

What's good about the Xbox Series X's storage is that, when installing (or uninstalling) games, you can select particular parts of games to install rather than the full thing. So, for example, you can download Doom Eternal's multiplayer but not the campaign, or vice versa. We're curious to see how many games will support this kind of installation functionality at launch, because it's a welcome feature.

Xbox Series X controller

Xbox Series X

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The Xbox Series X Controller feels familiar in the hand yet subtly different, with improved tactile textures and refined geometry making for a more ergonomically friendly (and comfortable) playing experience. 

On the surface, the Xbox Series X controller doesn’t look like a particularly drastic departure from its predecessor. It sports a similar shape, and keeps its traditional button and trigger layout. On closer inspection, though, you begin to notice the subtle differences Microsoft has implemented. 

For a start, the gamepad’s previously glossy exterior has been replaced by a matte finish that closely matches the console’s design. While this certainly looks sleek, it does come with drawbacks – the black controller that comes with the console easily picks up scuffs and scrapes that are quite noticeable on its matte finish, and considering the amount of hands-on time gamepads are subjected to, it’s possible that it will be hard to keep it looking in tip-top condition for years to come. Other color variants of the controller are available though (you'll need to buy these separately), and may be less prone to scuffs.

That's a minor quibble, and overall we found that the Xbox Series X controller resembles a more premium controller, both in look and feel.

Xbox Series X

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The revised pad now has a tactile texture on the triggers, grips and bumpers. We found this small improvement made the controller feel more secure in our hands, without causing a rub rash. 

In addition, while the controller is the same size, the bumpers and triggers have been rounded and reduced in size, which overall makes the gamepad feel less bulky. If you're someone with small hands, past Xbox One controllers have felt quite tanky, but this simple change improves comfort levels in a subtle but noticeable way. 

Perhaps the most notable changes to the controller are the addition of the ‘Share’ button and the hybrid D-pad. The Share button essentially acts as a capture button, allowing you to snap screenshots of your game at a simple click. One click takes a snapshot, while holding the button down longer takes a 15-second video (though you can adjust the times in Capture settings). It's much easier than the Xbox One's need to press the home button then X or Y, but we did find it a bit fiddly to quickly take a screenshot – this may vary depending on how big your hands are.

The hybrid D-pad, on the other hand, aims to provide a middle-ground between the Xbox One controller’s classic D-pad and the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2’s changeable disc-shaped, faceted D-pad. What results is a kind of traditional D-pad, laid over a disc. Again, this is a small but welcome change and is intended to give more control and leverage over the D-pad – while generally feeling more comfortable.

But there’s a lot about the controller’s design that hasn’t changed. The Xbox Series X controller keeps its 3.5mm audio jack and expansion port at the bottom, its USB charge port and pairing button at the top and its View, Menu and Xbox bottom on the face.

Outside of its industrial changes, the Xbox Series X controller has seen improvements in functionality too. We found the controller to be more responsive, which is likely down to the boasted lower latency, while connecting the gamepad wirelessly via Bluetooth to a range of devices – including the Xbox One, an iPhone 11 and a Mac – was a straightforward task. 

It's worth noting that the Series X controller again runs on AA batteries (or a separately bought charging pack). Our controller ran out of juice after 10 days of playing every day for considerable periods of time. It's not ideal for those who don't want to have to keep picking up batteries, so invest in some rechargeable ones.

Xbox Series X features

Fable Anniversary

(Image credit: Microsoft)

The Xbox Series X has a number of useful features and meaningful quality-of-life improvements.

Perhaps the most welcome of these is Quick Resume. The purpose of Quick Resume is to allow you to continue a game from a suspended state pretty much instantly. So, within seconds, you can jump back into the game where you left off as if you never stopped playing – without having to sit through loading screens again. Not only that, but you can jump between multiple games that have been left in this suspended state in no time at all. 

We found that we could seamlessly jump between gameplay in a matter of seconds – as long as the games you're hopping between have already been booted up at some point beforehand. We were able to jump from being in a timberyard as Alan Wake to being Alyson Ronan in Dontnod's Tell Me Why within 11.4 seconds by pressing the Xbox button on the controller and selecting the game from the sidebar. That's from gameplay to gameplay – no loading screens. If we wanted to access Tell Me Why from the Xbox dashboard home screen, selected as the current game we were playing, the time from the dashboard to gameplay was 2.7 seconds.

Microsoft hasn't stated if there's a limit to the number of titles that you can have in a suspended state at one time, but we found more than four to start taking its toll on the machine. If we stacked more than four games in a suspended state, then we found that some required a full boot up again – with the console closing the first game opened. Again, it's worth underlining that this is not a final Xbox Series X unit, however. 

Online multiplayer games work a bit differently to the other titles. It wouldn't be feasible to allow players to suspend mid-play during online gameplay, or we would just have a bunch of AFK players in the servers. 

So, for example, if you're mid-game in Sea of Thieves, and then decide to jump into another game, you will be removed from the game – but you can Quick Resume from the title screen. 

Alan Wake

(Image credit: Remedy Entertainment)

Another of the Xbox Series X's best features is the breadth of its backwards compatibility. During our time with the Xbox Series X, there were around 1,000 backwards compatible titles available – but keep in mind, this isn't indicative of the console's final offering.

As mentioned previously, we found these titles loaded faster and simply played better – with more stability meaning fewer frame rate drops and making older games feel nicer, even if they're otherwise a little outdated by the standards of modern blockbusters. 

This backwards compatibility also extends to Xbox accessories. We found that we could easily connect the original Xbox Wireless Controller and the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 to the Xbox Series X with no issues. 

We also found we could connect our previous headsets to the console. However, while the Turtle Beach Recon Spark (which connects via audio jack) easily plugged into the Series X controller and was compatible, we experienced a bit more trouble with the SteelArctis Arctis 5 – which connected by audio jack but wasn't picked up by USB. It's worth noting, however, this again isn't the final Xbox Series X product so compatibility probably isn't ready yet. 

In addition to these handy features, the Series X also offers a range of multimedia features. For one, the console boasts a built-in 4K Blu-ray player that is simple and easy to use. You then have access to a range of streaming services that includes Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus (to name just a few). All of which can take advantage of the console's 4K UHD capabilities – though some require a decent internet connection.

Xbox Series X gameplay

(Image credit: Sega)

Even if you're not someone who can identify things like frequency and frame rates when it comes to game performance, you will notice a difference in Xbox Series X games

We got hands-on time with preview builds of Yakuza: Like A Dragon and Dirt 5 as part of our early access (both games are Xbox Series X Optimized, meaning they're versions made specifically for the console). This is when the power of the Series X really becomes clear, as all that horsepower is put to work. 

Considering that neither Yakuza nor Dirt 5 are out yet, we were unable to compare the titles to their Xbox One equivalents, so instead we compared them to their predecessors: Dirt 4 and Yakuza Kiwami 2 (respectively).

Dirt 4 does not hold a light to Dirt 5 in terms of performance, which is no surprise given it's an older last-gen game. Dirt 4 occasionally suffered from dropped frame rates on Xbox One and the graphics were far from sharp – though with a racing game that's arguably less of a priority. On the other hand, Dirt 5 gameplay is smooth, responsive and the visuals are simply stunning on Xbox Series X. 

The game has three video modes, either prioritizing 120hz, image quality or frame rates. And, while you could see the difference in prioritizing video quality, even the other video modes looked fantastic – while we had no performance issues in any modes. Load times are fast, and navigation is seamless. 

We had a similar experience with Yakuza: Like A Dragon. Loading screens were minimal and even when they did appear, they lasted mere seconds before throwing you back into the action. While Yakuza Kiwami 2 isn't inundated with loading screens, we found some lasted around 24 seconds when loading between scenes – considerable longer than with Like a Dragon. This was even clearer when using fast travel taxis in Like a Dragon, which got us to our destination in less than five seconds. We can't fairly compare the two, really, since they're games separated by a generation, but this gives you an idea of what a next-gen upgrade gets you in terms of experience. 

But it's the visuals of Like A Dragon that really stood out to us. While Kiwami 2 often sees blurred edges around textures, Like A Dragon is super sharp to look at. Assets in Like A Dragon are more detailed and the colors are vibrant, while movement is incredibly smooth. 

Going from the Xbox Series X games to their predecessors highlighted just how much of a difference these minimized load times and improved visuals make, and this bodes well for future titles.

Early verdict

Xbox Series X

(Image credit: Future)

Microsoft has so far delivered with the Xbox Series X, offering a fast, powerful console that makes even older games perform better. 

The Xbox Series X slashes load times, vastly improves visual fidelity and adds considerable stability to Xbox games, but it's features such as Quick Resume and backwards compatibility that could see it going above and beyond what we hoped. 

So far, the Xbox Series X seems to provide a good player experience, offering better looking, sounding and performing games than we've seen before while eliminating irritants like loading times. 

It's an unassuming black box, but, combined with Xbox Game Pass' vast library, it could be the generational leap we've been hoping for. That said, we will need to play more next-gen games on the console to have a better idea of its capabilities. In addition, we're a bit concerned about the lack of big-hitting launch exclusives coming to the Xbox Series X – especially with the delay of Halo Infinite

Even with Xbox Game Pass offering a multitude of games to jump between, Microsoft will still need some exclusive, flagship titles to make the Xbox Series X worth picking up – and to properly show off this console's immense power.