Tech

Xbox Series X hands-on: The big back-compat dive begins

  • Holes. Sam Machkovech
  • The "non-final" Xbox Series X, photographed before we powered it on. Sam Machkovech
  • The "non-final" Xbox Series X, photographed before we powered it on. Sam Machkovech
  • Xbox Series X, in vertical orientation. Sam Machkovech
  • The bottom stand is non-removable. Part of that may have to do with certain system parts being exposed by the open grating of this side of the system (which may or may not appear in the "final" retail version of the console). Sam Machkovech
  • Perspective, as compared to a Nintendo Switch—which, let's be clear, operates at a very different power threshold than a 4K-ready, 12 TFLOP console. Sam Machkovech
  • Perspective, as compared to a Nintendo Switch. Sam Machkovech
  • My entertainment center's default arrangement was just too narrow for the sake of Xbox Series X's horizontal orientation. It could fit, but that would require scraping the top and bottom the whole way through. Sam Machkovech
  • The bottom compartment is now one rung bigger, leaving space to spare for every device in question. Sam Machkovech
  • The space behind my television is normally devoted to cords and, ahem, folding chairs. This Xbox Series X may join the behind-the-TV party. Sam Machkovech
  • Back-of-X ports. The front includes one additional USB Type-A 3.1 port. Sam Machkovech

What good is a next-gen console without any "new" video games to play on it?

That question loomed as I unpacked an Xbox Series X console at my home office last week, nearly two months before its $499 retail launch on November 10. Such early access to a state-of-the-art gaming machine surely comes with some concession, and in my case, that was a severe asterisk on its compatible content. Unlike other console-preview opportunities I've had in my career, this one didn't come with a single new or freshly updated game in the box.

The funny thing is, this is exactly what I'd asked for.

Earlier this year, I suggested to Microsoft's PR team that it'd be fun to go hands-on with Series X during the limbo period before its launch, when new and upgraded games weren't ready… but the backward-compatibility feature was. I got this idea after remembering Xbox chief Phil Spencer was already sneaking into existing games' online lobbies with his own Series X. He joined the testing program in order to bolster his many proclamations about every Xbox generation's games working on this new device (and in some cases, even benefiting from Series X perks).

With that in mind, I took my shot: Could I join that testing fray, too?

No, I didnt get to all 1,000 games, sorry

The answer I eventually got was, "Sure, we'll call your bluff." Today, I've been given the greenlight to talk about the console's current backward-compatibility testing phase, and Microsoft has had zero control of my tests or takeaways—other than limiting me to 1,000 games across every existing Xbox platform. While the program will eventually encompass every game that works on Xbox One consoles, the pre-release compatibility list is a bit more narrow. 1,000 is a big number, but it leaves some huge Xbox hits out of my testing.

Still, the results so far have been telling—and, for the most part, reasonably impressive. I wouldn't dream of recommending a $499 game console solely based on how well it handles a sliver of existing Xbox games. But backward-compatibility sure is an interesting data point. My testing will be good news for anybody who likes the idea of a single, powerful Xbox that can juggle everything from Panzer Dragoon Orta to Playerunknown's Battlegrounds.

Most of the other impressions you might hope for in a "console preview" window are off the table for now; if one of your burning questions is missing from this article, that's because I'm playing nice by Microsoft's request, not because I'm holding back on any possible severe issues. There's still more to come, promise. At least I have been given permission to talk about the console's "industrial design" today. (That means discussion is coming about what happens when I shove stuff into the new console's venting holes.)

Xbox Quick Resume: The drool starts now

Raw footage of Xbox Quick Resume, as tested on preview Xbox Series X hardware

The easiest thing for me to test in this early period is the "Xbox Quick Resume" feature, a perk so immediately and obviously impressive that I'm confident Microsoft staked this "Series X preview" phase on how much drool it foments.

Think about jumping from one game to the next on any Xbox One console. Hit "start," and while the console dumps the last game out of system memory, a title card appears to advertise whatever you're about to play, pausing the console for 20-30 seconds. Then a few typical information cards (legal notices, studio logos) appear, which either disguise necessary loading times or simply torture you when you just want to play a game (come on, Xbox). After all of those, you have to tap through menus, pick a save file, and wait for that specific content to load.

Should you change your mind and go back to your previous game, you have to sit on your hands for that one, too. Back and forth, on and on: swapping, loading, and more loading.

Jumping from one game to the next via Xbox Quick Resume usually clocks in around 8 seconds.

On Xbox Series X, all of that changes. Whenever you're in a game and switch to the Xbox home menu, or to an entirely new game, the game you're currently playing goes into a form of "hibernation." This is how Xbox One worked, so you could leave a game and pick through menus, friends lists, the Microsoft Store, and other OS-specific stuff. But now, the Xbox Velocity Architecture includes a dedicated portion of NVMe 4.0-rated storage that juggles each gameplay session as its own virtual machine, no matter what generation of console it was made for… and it can do this for multiple games, not just one. A hibernated game retains everything about the game's current state as stored in active RAM, much like a "save state" in many popular emulators, to get the game up and running again as soon as a player calls it back up.

In a surprising twist, this happens whether the game in question is installed on the console's built-in NVMe storage (which is required for next-gen content) or on an external USB 3.1 drive (which can store and boot last-gen games). In my tests, jumping from one game to the next via Xbox Quick Resume usually clocks in around eight seconds and doesn't exceed 13 seconds, even when grabbing beefy XB1 fare like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Borderlands 3 off a USB 3.1 drive.

Listing image by Sam Machkovech

I'm sorry, did you say eight seconds?

Microsoft's understanding of average Xbox gamer habits, based on anonymized data taken from years of console use, suggests that an average user has an inventory of roughly three to four games they frequently return to. As a result, at a bare minimum, Xbox Series consoles should retain three to four "next-gen" game save states for the sake of Xbox Quick Resume—though, thanks to my back-compat limits, I've been unable to test this claim as of press time.

Instead, I've pushed my tester Xbox Series X console with a mix of XB1, X360, and OGX content to test how many save states I can cram into the console's internal memory before the feature stops working. My average result has been 12 games. Meaning, I can manually load 12 games, then go back in order to reload each of the dozen, and they'll each have a brief "Quick Resume" tag appear on the screen before reappearing in fully playable, middle-of-the-game action within five to 12 seconds.

In the system's current state, there's no way to quickly see which games are still in the Quick Resume pool, nor any alert when you've pushed the feature to its limits and a save state gets flushed out. From the sound of things, Xbox Series-specific games will hold a larger footprint within Quick Resume, so you'll want to exercise mild caution (read: reach a save point) before freezing certain adventure games. Obviously, any online-dependent mode will reawaken with the kinds of error messages you might get from a disconnection.

But those are far from dealbreakers when it comes to the coolest game-swapping feature I've ever seen in a console. Only one game, Rage 2, made me wait an additional few seconds to spin up game assets before resuming, while Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts required a close-and-reboot one time when Quick Resume stuttered. And if a game has finicky requirements about save file verification, particularly games in the Dark Souls series, you may run into Quick Resume failures. Otherwise, Xbox Series X has encapsulated my every gameplay session in a block of ice, so that whenever I return, neither my cars, my warriors, nor my cartoon mascots have any idea I abandoned them. I'm hopeful that the feature works the same in Series S, since it uses a nearly identical Velocity Architecture system, but that's only a guess until I conduct any tests on that cheaper console.

Quick Resume's edge cases

How far can an Xbox Series X owner expect to push Quick Resume? I found at least two scenarios that didn't make the console flinch.

In the first, I imagined a family's entertainment center covered in disc cases while excited kids swap from game to game. This is the "offline" family that will likely favor discs for the foreseeable future. Can they expect to enjoy Quick Resume perks? The simple answer is yes. Xbox Velocity Architecture treats Quick Resume the same with discs, since they simply act as license checks before loading from a hard drive. Eject one game, insert the next one, wait for disc recognition (about 9 seconds), then watch the Quick Resume process whisk them into gameplay.

As of press time, ejecting a disc gives you a scary "please reinsert your disc" notice, which I ignored while giddily swapping from disc to disc. I hope Microsoft updates this prompt with Quick Resume in mind, perhaps with a notice that says: "We've hibernated your disc-based game in case you'd like to come back to it later."

The second scenario played out because I wanted to take my Series X from one side of my apartment to the other. Would Quick Resume work if I completely powered the console down, turned it on elsewhere, and went back to previously loaded games? Yep. Thanks, NVMe memory.

Load times, dropping as much as 73%

That's not the only speed difference. Advertisements about Series X have been bullish about showing how quickly older games boot from cold to live gameplay action, and I wanted to put that sales pitch to the test, outside of the Quick Resume feature.

I went through the list of compatible games made available to me during the testing period, then found the ones I owned that had easily repeatable boot-up tests. In general, I wanted to test the full "cold boot" difference with software that had not been optimized for Series X—meaning, the amount of time spent from selecting a game in the Xbox Series X menu to the start of gameplay.

  • All loading times in these charts measure from the instant I press "A" to load a game until I reach the latest default save file. None of these games has received "next-gen" patches just yet.
  • Even a largely 2D game like Cuphead can benefit from Series X's architecture.
  • Some Xbox 360 games have smaller gains than others.

As expected, games installed on Xbox Series X's internal NVMe drive boot faster than those on Xbox One X, and by quite a bit. (I compared specifically to Xbox One X, because every game here runs in a mode equivalent to how it boots on that console, not on base Xbox One.) The ratio by which Series X load times outpace One X varies based on the software, likely because some games include more disguised loading during their startup sequences than others, but when Series X wins, boy, does it win.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is generally demanding in terms of loading times across all platforms, so it's telling to see Series X cut its cold-boot loading time by a whopping 57 percent. Recent platforming game Ori & The Will of the Wisps shaves its loading process even further to a 66-percent reduction—but from the look of how the game hops from one screen to the next on Series X, I could easily imagine a patch that wipes away the existing intro screens and delivers a bleeding-edge loading time. And the Borderlands 3 jump from XB1X to Series X is a staggering 73.5 percent—which, I should clarify, comes before its developers at Gearbox release the game's free "next-gen" patch later this year.

That being said, Series X's loading efficiency isn't a flat boost. The above benchmarks include a mix of loading-time reductions, and that variety bears out over additional games I tested. Also, OG Xbox game Panzer Dragoon Orta boots only slightly faster on Series X (49 seconds) compared to One X (56 seconds), and I'll be interested to test more of that family of games as the preview roster increases. Most notably, if you were expecting an across-the-board shrink of loading times to blink-and-you'll-miss-it flashes, please disabuse yourself of that notion. Between built-in loading pauses and last-generation code, Xbox Series X can only do so much.

Yet with relatively recent games like New Super Lucky's Tale shooting through a Series X turbo-tunnel and booting from cold in only 16.7 seconds, without any apparent Series X optimizations built into the game… that sure is a good sign for what we might see from next-gen software built directly for both PS5 and Xbox Series' NVMe standards. And mid-game loads appear to work the same way, with obvious example Destiny 2 loading mid-game content roughly 62-percent faster on Series X than on XB1X.

You'll notice the charts include USB readings for both XB1X and Series X. This is intentional: Extra NVMe storage for Series X is expensive, at $219 for 1TB (only $80 less than an entire Series S console), so you'll very likely lean on an older drive to store back-compat content. In that case, you'll still see loading-time improvements across the board, but not as big; fortunately, as I've already pointed out, those drives play nicely with Quick Resume.

A selection of perceptible performance gains

Speaking of "built for Xbox Series X," I can't easily take the current list of 1,000 working back-compat games and comprehensively answer what free gains we can expect on newer hardware. This issue will sound familiar if you followed Sony and Microsoft's mid-generation refreshes. PlayStation 4 Pro's "boost mode" and Xbox One X's default performance gains worked on a minority of existing software, as game developers traditionally focused on a single hardware spec. Why support higher resolutions or frame rates if a closed system has specific caps?

Nothing in the current preview-period list of games includes notes about special Xbox Series patches. (Microsoft has told us to expect Xbox Series-specific patches for select first-party games, such as Gears 5's eventual 120Hz patch, but I've yet to see any of those.) Whatever limits a game had on either base Xbox One or on the higher-powered One X, those transfer over to the $499 Series X.

In the case of certain games, however, "dynamic" systems for resolution and frame rate left the performance ceiling open for future consoles, whether designed for base Xbox One or for the newer XB1X. Series X can exploit these, but to what extent? Here's a cursory look at what I've uncovered thus far.

Playerunknown's Battlegrounds: The power proposition of Xbox Series X is only topped by this game's famously troublesome port to consoles, so the short answer here is… PUBG is still unstable (just like on both Xbox One and PlayStation 4). But Series X throws a new wrinkle into the mix: an inability to lock to a consistent frame rate peak, even in spite of its setting menus advertising "vsync" to cap the frame rate and prevent frametime spikes. Thanks to the power of Series X, this PUBG port can sometimes jump to 60fps, but it doesn't do so consistently.

Thus, playing this game is mostly an exercise in watching jumps from 60fps to 30fps and back, along with a spare few spikes beneath the 30fps threshold. Curiously, performance on Series X appears to be identical between both available modes: "performance" (close to 1080p) and "quality" (close to 2160p), so you may as well take the pixels. Ultimately, even with the hitches between 30 and 60fps, Series X performance is still a clear win compared to One X.

Grand Theft Auto IV: One Microsoft rep suggested I install and test this Xbox 360-era game, and it didn't take long to see why. Rockstar famously launched this game in 2008 with an unlocked frame rate, which hovered around the 30fps mark. When it received Xbox One X back-compat support a few years ago, we saw its frame rates jump closer to the 50fps threshold, which was better on paper but still left the game in a largely jumpy state.

Now, 12 years and $499 later, we finally have GTA IV with a near-locked 60fps refresh on consoles. This doesn't include any resolution boost beyond 720p, however, and it's hard not to imagine a higher-CPU patch getting this game up to at least a 1080p pixel count while sticking to 60fps. But, as with most past-gen games, expecting a publisher to move forward with a 12-year-old patch is sky-high wishful thinking; a locked framerate at a blurry resolution is better than nothing.

Devil May Cry V: This hack-and-slash revival from early 2019 already held a consistent frame rate at high resolution on Xbox One X… but only during gameplay. The game's copious real-time cut scenes, which crank up additional knobs for character detail, only run at roughly 45 to 50fps on both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. These have jumped to a nearly locked 60fps on Series X. (Eventually, a DMCV "special edition" will come to Series X and PS5, but it's nice to see the existing game benefit somewhat on Series X as a free, inherent upgrade.)

Final Fantasy XV: FFXV's patch for Xbox One X compatibility added a few graphical modes, and one of those is even better on Series X. The "lite" mode sets in-game resolution to 1080p, then unlocks the frame rate—which normally leads to wobbly One X performance. On Series X, this locks much more firmly to 60fps, and it doesn't exhibit frame-rate stutter when maxing out.

  • FFXV on Series X, cropped to 1080p resolution. This version can present more pixels while still maintaining 30fps resolution in the game's "high" performance preset. (All images in this gallery were captured in "high" mode.)
  • FFXV on XB1X, cropped to 1080p resolution. The pixel crawl as applied to this character's haircut is very telling.
  • FFXV on Series X, full 4K resolution. (Click the image to access its full resolution, for pixel-crawling fun.)
  • FFXV on XB1X, full 4K resolution. (Click the image to access its full resolution, for pixel-crawling fun.)
  • FFXV on Series X, 1080p crop. More power, more pixels.
  • FFXV on XB1X, cropped to 1080p resolution. Again, the dynamic resolution scaler is more aggressive on the older console to maintain a 30fps lock.
  • FFXV on Series X, full 4K resolution. (Click the image to access its full resolution, for pixel-crawling fun.)
  • FFXV on XB1X, full 4K resolution. (Click the image to access its full resolution, for pixel-crawling fun.)

Meanwhile, the game's default "high" mode combines a dynamic resolution with a 30fps ceiling, dropping beneath 2160p as needed to maintain a 30fps refresh. That 30fps is much firmer this time around, while resolution is definitely closer to a full 2160p signal on Series X than on XB1X. Without discrete pixel-counting gear, or a built-in benchmark in FFXV's console version, I'm primarily left comparing like-for-like real-time cut scenes, which include pixel-revealing hairdos as served by Square Enix's Luminous Engine. The above gallery includes one particularly telling scene to show the game's resolution lead on Series X.

Monster Hunter World: This Capcom adventure game lets players choose from three visual performance options: "resolution," "frame rate," and "graphics." On Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro, "frame rate" runs at 1080p without quite locking to 60fps, while "resolution" and "graphics" run closer to 30fps with different visual benefits. It's the kind of experience that makes you wonder whether its design was ahead of its time, in terms of console generations.

Sure enough, this is a showcase title for Series X, because it offers an automatic frame rate upgrade for all modes without any patch needed from the devs at Capcom. A locked 60fps in the 1080p "frame rate" mode is a great start. Even better is the "graphics" mode, which adds additional visual flair (particularly an increased "level of detail" setting) to the 1080p resolution while getting very close to 60fps on Series X. The not-quite-4K "resolution" mode lands closer to a 55fps average—a tad jumpy, but totally doable for a Monster Hunter game (and outright smoother than the lower-res "frame rate" mode on Xbox One X, which is quite a free feat).

Nier Automata, Project Cars 2: I'm lumping these two together because they each support Xbox One X with higher resolutions and higher, unlocked frame rates. Both games avoid maxing out at 4K resolution on XB1X, which remains the case on Series X. Both games also push XB1X to performance extremes in certain scenarios (boss battles in Nier, and rainy, 32-car packs in PC2) that drag the frame rate closer to 50fps with visible screen tearing or frame time spikes. On Series X, the difference is clear: both games run more efficiently, at apparent 60fps locks, albeit without any bonus pixels.

Auto-HDR: A free upgrade, with no CPU/GPU impact

The above list is brief, because there just aren't many of these kinds of games in the preview period's 1,000-strong selection. That being said, I was unable to counter these examples with surprising downgrades in performance or pixel count. I've yet to boot a back-compat game on Xbox Series X and see any alarming issues, red flags, or apparent incompatibility issues. Instead, I've seen the occasional stutter in a game's boot-up sequence, or one weird occasion where booting a game resulted in an HDMI error with my 4K TV; swapping from one game to another fixed that one.

The other bonus applied to nearly every game is a new "auto-HDR" toggle, which can be enabled or disabled on a system level. With this turned on, pretty much every back-compat game on Series X receives an automatic tone-mapping upgrade to the HDR-10 standard, as driven by Microsoft's machine learning model, to find and boost obvious specular highlights (a sun in the sky, flashes of fire, car headlights) to the top of your HDR-compatible set's brightness rating. This is aided by Xbox's new, built-in HDR calibration tool, which asks players to confirm minimum and maximum brightness levels as based on sample images. (The tool will eventually roll out to other HDR-compatible Xbox consoles.)

Auto-HDR works without touching a game's original color depth, so as not to artificially oversaturate any existing color grading. But more impressively, this is built into Xbox Series X's display controller level, thus not touching either the CPU or GPU. It's a free toggle.

Due to how HDR imagery translates to standard SDR Web content, I can't show you exactly how it looks. For the most part, the effect is welcome, especially in games like Halo 5, which Microsoft clearly paid closer attention to as a first-party showcase. But it's not an across-the-board win, particularly with driving games. In games like the Xbox 360 version of DiRT 3, auto-HDR doesn't consistently recognize taillights—the things you'll see more often than anything else in an average race—so other auto-mapped highlights look more artificial.

I'm hopeful that Xbox Series consoles eventually offer a per-game toggle option, instead of making it a universal one, because when it works in older software, it's a fun surprise—especially the explosion-filled, bike-balancing madness of the original Trials HD.

Industrial design: Inherent motion from curves, blots of paint

I'm not allowed to post a full list of currently compatible games in the Series X preview window, but I am allowed to solicit your requests. Do you have a particular back-compat game you'd like to see tested? More specifically, is there an issue with performance or loading times that emerges in certain use cases? I'm all ears.

But that's all I have on that front for now. Which brings us to the console's "industrial design."

  • An Xbox Series X is roughly 20 Nintendo DS/3DS cases tall. My best game, by far, is intentionally on top there.
  • Another angle. Notice how the color of the top venting array changes with hardly any angle adjustment? This is a visual theme for the console.
  • At the right angle, Xbox Series X's mix of straight edges and curved top delivers a cool optical illusion.
  • "It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black."
  • The vertical stand is not removable.
  • If you look closely enough, you can see the system's guts through these exposed holes.
  • It's not easy to see as photographed, but you might notice a few scuffs on this "top" edge of my testing Series X. I caused those by merely dragging the controller across that edge.
  • Finger-based oils, left by touching the system after washing my hands. These can be easily wiped off, at least.

If memes are your primary language, then you've already seen and heard plenty about Xbox Series X. Upon its design reveal in December 2019, the console's vertical orientation drew immediate comparisons to Kubrick's 2001 monolith—but that gag dwindled as people came to grips with Series X's girth. This cuboid has an equal length and width of 6-inches (15cm) and stands 11.625-inches (29.5cm) high. (If you'd like to use venting dots as a measurement, then its square edges measure 12×12, or 144 dots.)

Yes, it functions both horizontally and vertically, and one of the longer sides is flanked with small rubber feet for this purpose, while the "bottom" side in vertical orientation is buffered with a round, rubber stand. I quickly realized why the stand was nonremovable upon examining it. Without that stand in place, a considerable amount of Series X hardware is exposed, as this console doesn't wear any plastic or aluminum underpants to cover its bottom-of-hardware air-intake grid. If youRead More – Source

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