For a long time now, Microsoft has been going out of its way to downplay the “box” part of “Xbox.” Whether it’s pledging to bring all of its first-party titles to PC, releasing some of them to platforms like Steam and the Nintendo Switch, launching its Game Pass service for Windows, or pushing xCloud streaming, the message has been clear: you don’t have to buy an Xbox to play Xbox games.
“The business isn’t how many consoles you sell,” Xbox chief Phil Spencer told The Verge earlier this year.
But obviously, Microsoft still plans to make Xboxes. The question, then, is this: why would anyone buy one? What is the relevance of dedicated Xbox hardware when Microsoft wants the Xbox platform to be everywhere?
With last night’s surprise reveal of the Xbox Series X, Microsoft answered that question in emphatic fashion. It is a console that looks unlike anything that has ever been released. Except, well, a gaming PC. And that’s very encouraging.
Gadgets get described as “monolithic” all the time, but I can’t think of a better application of the word than the Series X. It’s a vertically oriented, virtually featureless black slab. While it shares design language with the Xbox One X, that only serves to highlight the difference between the two. The One X was designed to be as small as possible, but the Series X screams power.
With its chunky prismatic frame, the Series X feels like it won’t be constrained in any physical dimension. It’s reminiscent of compact gaming PCs like the Corsair One. That has its drawbacks — even in horizontal orientation, it definitely won’t fit in my TV cabinet. But the advantage is that Microsoft now has a lot more thermal headroom to play with than ever before.
Size doesn’t guarantee performance, of course. Microsoft started out this generation with the largest, least powerful console, and now has the smallest, most powerful machine around. From what we’ve heard about the Series X, though, it’s shaping up to be a potent machine even by gaming PC standards. That wasn’t the case with the Xbox One and PS4, both of which were built around low-power AMD CPUs. But Microsoft says that the Series X will target 4K/60fps performance with Zen 2 and RDNA architecture from AMD, leveraging hardware-accelerated ray tracing, GDDR6 memory, and NVMe solid-state storage.
Teraflops don’t mean everything
Spencer tells GameSpot that the Series X will offer around four times more CPU performance than the Xbox One and twice as much GPU power as the Xbox One X. That should put the Series X at around 12 teraflops of graphical performance, which is up there with some of the fastest PC GPUs available today. The Series X is a bulky box, but I don’t expect there to be much wasted space inside.
Teraflops don’t mean everything, though, and it’s clear that the CPU and SSD will be the more transformative leaps for the platform. The name “Series X” all but confirms the existence of more next-generation hardware from Microsoft, one example of which The Verge has reported on extensively. A model codenamed “Lockhart” is expected to target lower resolutions with around 4 teraflops of graphical power, which is actually less than the Xbox One X.
Most of the One X’s GPU budget went toward pushing 4K resolution, however, while it only offered a minor CPU upgrade. If Lockhart’s CPU and other hardware features are similar to the Series X, it could run the same cutting-edge games at lower resolutions, whereas the Xbox One X’s CPU wouldn’t be able to keep up with the next-gen software. On the other hand, developers are likely to produce separate Xbox One/PS4 and Series X/PS5 versions of games for the foreseeable future. Halo Infinite is confirmed to be one such example.
In any case, it’s clear what Microsoft has done with the Series X: it’s built a simple, easy-to-use gaming PC for the living room. The current Xbox One UI is not what I would describe as intuitive, but it beats dealing with Windows with a mouse and keyboard from the couch, and now the Series X should be able to compete on pure power as well.
Unless you have the highest of high-end gaming PCs, I would expect the Series X to offer the best experience with most Xbox games at launch. That’s not the case with the Xbox One X, which can’t compete with gaming PCs on performance right now. PC gamers have had it easy over the past few years — the Xbox One and PS4 had such weak CPUs that, a couple of examples notwithstanding, it’s generally been very easy to run console games at much higher graphical settings and frame rates on fairly modest hardware. PC performance will obviously get better over time, but next-gen consoles are going to raise that bar considerably next year.
“Our goal has always been to build the most powerful console we can.”
That’s not to say the Series X will be an automatic purchase for many. From what Sony’s saying, the PS5 has been designed around similar principles, and the company’s first-party software advantage is significant. The PS4’s huge success also means that a lot of people will be unwilling to part with the digital libraries they’ve built up over the past seven years.
But if there’s a way to fight that head start, it’s probably Microsoft’s Xbox-everywhere strategy, where a subscription gets you instant access to a huge gaming ecosystem that can be played across various screens. With the Series X, Microsoft is simply aiming to power the best Xbox experience possible on one screen in particular. And Spencer is bullish on the competition. “Our goal has always been to build the most powerful console we can, and I think we’re there,” he tells GameSpot. “We like leading in power and performance and I feel like we’re going to be there again.”
The biggest questions around Microsoft’s new console are now price and the PS5. After seeing the Series X, I’m no longer wondering why anyone would buy an Xbox.