Xbox Series X Review: The Living Room Gaming PC I’ve (Mostly) Always Wanted
Last year, not long after Microsoft announced the Xbox Series X, I declared that the upcoming console would “end” — I specifically did not say “win” — the PC/console war, not by beating the PC, but by effectively becoming a PC. At the hardware level, that’s more-or-less what has happened, and it’s particularly true in Microsoft’s case because the Xbox runs an OS based on Windows 10. Does it do what an HTPC/gaming PC does in a living room? I thought it would.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to put my theory to the test by evaluating the $499 Xbox Series X as an HTPC and downstairs gaming system replacement for the hardware I currently use for that task. Because I’ve never reviewed a console before and don’t have a handy PlayStation 5 to compare against, I’m going to evaluate the XSX explicitly from the viewpoint of a lifetime PC gamer considering the value and utility of the system. I’ll also have more to say about the system and some more direct comparisons at a later date when I am not responsible for two completely different reviews simultaneously.
This review does not focus on absolute image quality between Xbox and PC versions of a game. This is partly because virtually all of the truly next-generation games for Xbox Series X is still locked away, and partly because I just bought a 4K OLED and have only had a week with the Xbox Series X, which isn’t enough time for comparative analysis. Rendering a verdict without proper comparison risks mistaking improvements to the display with improvements to the image quality.
Defining ‘PC’ in This Context
Conceptually, the Xbox Series X challenges the utility of a Home Theater PC, or HTPC, as well as a living room gaming PC (these are sometimes the same thing). HTPCs are pretty common in the enthusiast community, going all the way back to ATI and the days of their All-in-Wonder video capture card. An HTPC is typically (but not always) a secondary system attached to a TV rather than someone’s primary rig. They can be optimized for low power consumption and high storage capacity or kitted out more like gaming systems for simultaneous HTPC and high-end big-screen gaming capabilities. Content playback and gaming are the two markets where an HTPC would typically compete with a console and I’m comparing them on that basis.
What I Thought of Consoles Going In
Before starting this review, I thought of game consoles as a perfectly valid method of gaming, especially if you already had a lot of cash invested in the Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo ecosystems, but certainly not a preferable one. Console developers, in my opinion, were far too willing to tolerate low frame rates. The few times I picked up an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller, I felt like I was gaming on a mid-to-low-end PC.
Unlike some PC gamers, I do not and have never hated consoles, but I’ve rarely been impressed by them.
My first thought, when I saw the Xbox Series X, was “Awww. It’s cute.”
The Xbox Series X is an unusually shaped small form factor PC. It uses a single 130mm ventilation fan to cool the system and it’s very quiet. I never heard the machine while gaming or watching content, even with the TV volume low. The PlayStation 5 may yet prove to be a truly chonky boy, but the XSX is smaller than I expected it to be. If you’ve spent a few decades with an ATX tower of one sort or another cluttering up the living room, the Xbox Series X is a delightful step towards smaller solutions, not larger ones.
As far as backward compatibility goes, the Xbox Series X had no problem identifying and enabling an Xbox One controller. The two controllers feel identical, at least to my hand, but I’m not exactly a connoisseur of the art form. My significant other, who is also a PC gamer, commented that the rumble didn’t make her rings vibrate, which she appreciated.
As far as technical specs, we’ve discussed both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 on more than one occasion. Microsoft went for an AMD Zen 2-based CPU, RDNA2 GPU, and fixed clock speeds for both, in direct opposition to Sony’s emphasis on variable clocking. There’ve also been some interesting remarks recently that confirm something we’d heard privately a few months ago: The Xbox Series X supports the full RDNA2 feature set, while the PlayStation 5 is supposedly based on RDNA (but with ray tracing still enabled). We don’t know enough yet to suss out the differences here, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Services and Gaming: Microsoft Makes a Hell of a Case
The Xbox Series X cold boots from an unplugged state in 20.58 seconds on average when measured from the moment the button was pressed, not when the screen activated. The total time to load a saved game and begin playing Fallout New Vegas was 47.48 seconds when completely unplugged. When I merely turned the console off at the switch (depressing the button until the light turned off completely), the resume time was 4.5 seconds. We can’t compare the Xbox initialization process exactly to the boot time of a PC, but those figures are solidly within the range of high-end desktops, depending on how many applications you load at boot.
Setting the console up with a Microsoft account is arguably less annoying than installing Windows 10 (this is not a high bar), and once you’ve got it configured, things happen fast. I saw Fallout New Vegas available via Xbox Game Pass and was jaunting through the Mojave within 15 minutes of creating my account. I’m not going to say a high-end PC couldn’t match the same time from OS installation to game creation, but you’d need to be using the latest version of Windows 10 with pre-loaded GPU drivers or willing to run unpatched to score equivalently.
When it comes to outfitting the console with a suite of common apps like YouTube, Netflix, and such, Microsoft lands firmly in “just works” territory. Netflix image quality is much higher on the Xbox Series X, even though my HTPC streams using Microsoft Edge. An apples-to-apples comparison of the exact same stream always favors the Xbox Series X. Given a choice between streaming a service over Xbox Series X or my own HTPC, I’d take the XSX, ten times out of ten.
On the whole, the Xbox Series X is a very effective advertisement for Microsoft’s entire gaming ecosystem. Xbox Game Pass gives a new player an instant library of titles to choose from, with multiple entries in popular genres. Setting up apps like Netflix to run on the console is trivial. Game load times seem equal to or better than what we’d expect from an equivalent PC.
This is the sort of feature Microsoft promised to deliver when it began marketing the Xbox Series X. It wasn’t a feature I was certain we’d get. As I said earlier, I don’t — or at least I didn’t — associate consoles with high-end performance.
How does it feel to play the Xbox Series X? It feels like playing a game on a high-end PC, with a heavy-duty CPU core backing it up. The caveat here is that the titles we had available to play for Nov. 5 reflect current-generation titles and don’t feature capabilities like ray tracing, but then again, you can’t run DXR on any other AMD GPU currently in-market, either. As next-generation games unlock we’ll be able to compare more effectively on that front.
Every common title that I’ve played on both console and PC felt as equivalently good to play on this console as on any PC, at least as far as the underlying hardware’s performance. Microsoft is still working out the kinks in its Quick Resume feature, but it’s incredibly quick in action: tap, tap, and boom — you’re in a different game. Alt-tabbing between different games on PC is a risky proposition at best unless you already know both applications behave nicely when loaded simultaneously. The fact that you can even try alt-tabbing between games without instantly crashing the system is itself an achievement — GPUs didn’t used to tolerate being used for multiple workloads simultaneously under any circumstances.
From where I sit, this is no small thing. Unless you consider the PS5 — and I don’t have one to consider — there’s no way to get this kind of performance at the $500 price point in the PC universe. If you have an otherwise high-end system you could certainly upgrade your GPU to equal or better performance for less than $500, but the Xbox Series X is quite aggressively priced for its hardware specs.
What I Didn’t Like
There are some distinct things I do not like about the XSX. First, there’s the controller. While I have absolutely no complaint about the Xbox Series X controller as a controller, I would like to point out to whatever god or gods might be listening that using analog sticks to control a first-person shooter is like taking away a person’s hands and giving them a pair of stupid meat flippers instead. Nothing makes a sniper kill more satisfying than trying to simultaneously maneuver the world’s least-precise instrument over a head that’s four pixels wide without standing up / opening your Pip Boy / accidentally shooting Sunny Smiles in the back of the head.
Controllers vex me, is what I’m saying. They vex me enough that the learning curve, at least in some games, feels more like a learning cliff. If you’re a lifelong PC gamer like myself, you should expect some transition pains. After a week, I’m still not comfortable in a lot of titles, and full mouse and keyboard support would go a long way to making the Xbox Series S / X feel like a welcoming home for PC gamers.
Another negative? No modding support on the XSX, at least not yet. Modding on consoles is still in its infancy, so a big support boost from Microsoft would probably help the idea take off. Mods are a very important part of gaming to me and I’d always keep a foot in the PC gaming ecosystem for this reason alone, even if I switched primarily to console gaming.
The last thing about the Xbox Series X that I didn’t like is its overall network usage. While this could be the result of a disagreeable interaction between the XSX and my router, it’s a terrible bandwidth pig. Some applications “share” bandwidth more easily than others, which is to say that some of them will tank your entire internet connection as they hoover data out of the internet, while some are better behaved.
The Xbox Series X is not well-behaved. I actually had to shut the console down at multiple points during simultaneous Zen 3 / Xbox Series X testing, in order to download benchmarks at any kind of speed. Eighteen minutes on a 12MB download doesn’t cut it. I’m open to the idea that this is a conflict with my router, but the situation is untenable regardless.
There currently seems to be no method of controlling the Xbox Series X’s bandwidth usage while downloading without doing it externally at the router.
Is the Xbox Series X a Better Living Room PC Than a Typical PC?
The question of whether the Xbox Series X is a better living room PC than a regular HTPC depends, I think, on what your needs are. If you’re into video editing, content remastering, or upscaling, you know there are a lot of players and plugins you can use to improve baseline image quality in various ways. If you have content in unusual or esoteric video formats, there’s almost certainly a codec available on PC to play it. Consoles are dicier in that regard, though both Microsoft and Sony support the most common video and audio codecs.
If Microsoft supported keyboard and mouse configurations out of the box across the entire Xbox product line, I’d be 100 percent sold on the idea of the XSX as a media playback and gaming machine. Seeing as I’m still on Team Meat Flipper, I’m a little more circumspect in my evaluation. Is the Xbox Series X better than the [Insert $1,000+ gaming PC] you can buy at [insert OEM / boutique builder]? Very possibly not. Is it better than any $500 gaming PC you’re going to find in-market any time soon? I’m comfortable saying yes.
I’m not going to try to predict how the Xbox Series X will perform against the PS5 or which console players will prefer, but as far as comparisons to an equivalently-priced PC are concerned, the Xbox Series X more than holds its own. I’m downright impressed by the overall value proposition of the console and its capabilities. Obviously, you won’t be running DaVinci Studio Resolve on an Xbox any time soon, but when evaluated in terms of streaming fidelity, the Xbox Series X wins. Evaluated against the gaming capabilities of a $500 PC build, the Xbox Series X wins.
Gaming on the Xbox Series X may not feel much like gaming on the PC, thanks to the difference in interfaces, but it offers all of the PC’s greatest strengths in terms of load times and frame rates. The platform overperforms its price point, and it’s impressed me as far as the overall ecosystem value. There are no weak points here, and no Kinect-style screwups to muddy the value of the system. It’s a much stronger offering than Microsoft launched in 2013, and I’m really curious to see if the company will manage to convert PlayStation 4 owners to its own ecosystem, or if it’ll mostly appeal to existing Xbox, Switch, and PC gamers.
I’ll have more to say in upcoming articles. As a newcomer to the Xbox Series X ecosystem, I’m impressed by what I’ve seen thus far.
Update: An earlier version of this article contained a typo claiming the Xbox Series X uses a Zen 3 chip. I was reviewing Zen 3’s launch this morning and crossed my references. The Xbox Series X uses the same Zen 2 core as AMD’s Ryzen 3000 series (minus the APUs). I have not yet run down the rumors on the PS5 using RDNA / RDNA2 to my own satisfaction — but — I suspect that if any difference exists, it’s as small or smaller as the difference between the PS4 and Xbox One as far as support for asynchronous compute.
I should have made it clear that I was reporting this rumor with a hefty dose of salt. While I do think the Xbox Series X is likely to offer stronger GPU performance than the PS5, this is based solely on the difference in GPU core count, not any proposed architectural difference. RDNA2’s two biggest features are higher clocks and ray tracing, and we know the PS5 has both.