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Microsoft’s latest consoles, the Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

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20 years of Xbox: a visual history

Four generations and a surprising amount of redesigns

Twenty years ago today, Microsoft released the original Xbox in North America, marking its bold entry into the world of console gaming. Since then, the design of Xbox consoles have changed almost beyond recognition. What started with a piece of big and bulky ‘90s-style electronics has (generally) gotten sleeker and more compact, and as trends have shifted, we’ve seen wired controller ports, and even some disc drives, disappear.

To celebrate the anniversary, we’re taking a look back through each of the major Xbox consoles, from the original Xbox with its huge “Duke” controller, through the many iterations of the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and last year’s Series S and X. Microsoft may have technically only released four generations of Xbox in total, but there have been numerous smaller iterations made over the years as Microsoft has tweaked its designs and added support for emerging technologies.

Xbox

Original Xbox
The original Xbox with its smaller Controller S.
Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft really leaned into the “X” branding for the original Xbox console, so named because of the Microsoft DirectX technology on which it was based. The whole console is designed around the letter, with a massive lime green logo in its center showing its name. But despite its stylized look, the console had a very functional design overall, with four controller ports on its front, an internal power supply, and of course a built-in ethernet port for Microsoft’s all important Xbox Live online gaming service.

Unlike in later generations, Microsoft didn’t release a slim version of its original Xbox console. But its controller went through a slimming process soon after its release when Microsoft replaced the original console’s hulking “Duke” controller with the much more compact “Controller S” that had originally been the standard controller for the console’s Japanese release. Despite its unwieldy size, the Duke still has its fans, so much so that accessory manufacturer Hyperkin would later resurrect the design as an Xbox One controller.

Xbox 360

xbox 360 stock
The original Xbox 360 with its Kinect accessory on top.
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

The Xbox 360 was a very different-looking console to the original Xbox. It now came in white as standard and ditched the giant “X” shape in favor of minimal Xbox branding along the disc tray.

The console was a huge success for Microsoft, and it arguably became competitive with Sony’s PlayStation for the first time, but the original machine was beset with problems that led to an estimated quarter of consoles experiencing some kind of hardware failure. Most common was the “Red Ring of Death,” so called because of the three red lights that would flash on the front of the console in the case of a problem.

Microsoft would later announce an extended warranty to deal with the issues, and over the years numerous home-brew fixes for the issues would emerge online, with sellers offering tools and replacement thermal paste to help users fix the problems themselves.

Other notable hardware features of the original Xbox 360 include memory unit slots on the front of the console and an easily removable (albeit proprietary) hard drive on select models. Oh, and of course there were the swappable faceplates, which Microsoft intended for users to be able to use to customize the look of their machines. There was just one problem with the faceplates: nobody bought them. Turns out most people were happy enough with the original console’s white color scheme.

Xbox 360 S

The Xbox 360 S.
Image: Microsoft

The Xbox 360 S brought two significant advantages over the original Xbox 360, or three if you include its slimmer dimensions. First was that it offered a dedicated port for Microsoft’s new Kinect peripheral, which let you use the new motion-tracking accessory without needing to power it from the wall separately. And second was that it was a hardware redesign that Microsoft hoped would put the 360’s hardware failures clearly behind it.

More minor changes included the introduction of the glossy black color scheme that Microsoft would continue to use well into the Xbox One generation, leaving behind the white coloring that had dominated the Xbox 360 lineup until then. It also benefitted from built-in Wi-Fi, additional USB ports, and it ditched the 360’s proprietary hard drives in favor of SATA.

Xbox 360 E

The Xbox 360 E.
Image: Microsoft

Microsoft released the final model of the Xbox 360 E in June 2013, just months before it would release the next-generation Xbox One. The 360 E didn’t bring with it much in the way of new features, but it had a new design that was in line with the upcoming next-gen console. Microsoft also announced that it would run quieter and cooler than previously 360 consoles.

Xbox One

The original Xbox One alongside its Kinect camera.
Image: The Verge

With the Xbox One, Microsoft had ambitions for its video game console to act as a central hub for all your entertainment, rather than just games. At launch it included a number of video streaming services, and there was the ability to route your cable box through the console to be able to use it to watch live TV, even while you’re playing games. Early models also came bundled with a new version of the company’s Kinect camera.

But buggy functionality, not to mention a dated VCR-style console design, limited the appeal of the original hardware. The Xbox One never delivered the home entertainment revolution that Microsoft promised, and in the years after its original launch, Microsoft would move away from these initiatives as it attempted to reposition the Xbox One as a gaming-first machine and close the extra $100 price gap with the competition.

Xbox One S

Xbox One S
The Xbox One S.
Photography by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Although at first glance the Xbox One S looks like a typical mid-generation slim-down, it also included some substantial upgrades over the original console. Top of the list was the addition of a 4K Blu-ray player, as well as support for 4K / HDR video streaming services, and HDR support for games themselves. By default, it also came in a bright white color scheme, which seemed to emphasize a clean break from the largely black and gray consoles that proceeded it.

That’s not to say it wasn’t also a much more compact console than the original Xbox One (40 percent smaller according to Microsoft), but these upgrades were significant at a time when 4K-capable disc players and streaming devices were far less common and affordable than they are now. Microsoft would later release a more affordable disc-less model in 2019.

Xbox One X

The 4K-capable Xbox One X.
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Originally teased under the codename “Project Scorpio,” the Xbox One X was meant as a way to bring 4K / HDR gaming to Microsoft’s Xbox One without needing to usher in a whole new generation of Xbox consoles. But despite packing in far more graphical horsepower than either the original Xbox One or the Xbox One S, the Xbox One X still managed to be remarkably compact, with a similar sharp rectangular design to the One S.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s interesting that Microsoft’s initial promises that the console would be capable of VR never really came to pass. But it was tough to care given the performance upgrades the console offered over the original Xbox One, which even extended to some backward compatible Xbox 360 and original Xbox games.

Xbox Series S

The Series S.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

While it wasn’t the first time that Microsoft has offered two tiers of console in a single generation (like the “Core” edition of the Xbox 360 which came without a hard drive and had a wired controller) the Series S and Series X represent the most substantially different consoles Microsoft has ever released at the same time. The Series X looks like the future, while the Series S looks much more like an evolution of the Xbox One S.

Compared to the Series X, the Series S is smaller, targets 1440p rather than 4K resolutions, and can only play digital versions of games thanks to its lack of a disc drive. But Microsoft’s bet is that more budget-conscious gamers are unlikely to care when the console is available for almost half that of the more premium Xbox Series X.

Xbox Series X

Hot console, cool design.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The Series X’s unique design may have drawn frequent comparisons to a fridge thanks to its wide, upright design, but Microsoft doesn’t seem to mind. It’s even playfully embraced it with its fully functioning Xbox-themed fridges.

While its design is unlike anything that Microsoft has put out before, the Series X clearly draws inspiration from the clean lines and dark color scheme of the Xbox One X.

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