It’s time: the new Xbox is here. The Xbox Series X and S, the two models of Microsoft’s fourth gaming console, came out on November 10, almost seven years to the day after the release of its predecessor. Unlike that system, the Xbox One, the Series X and S aren’t openly vying to replace every other device in your entertainment system. Yeah, they’ll play all kinds of other media, from streaming video and music apps, to Blu-rays and 4Ks, but the focus is pretty clearly on gaming here. As I wrote in our review, it’s essentially a high-end gaming PC rig inside a console, making it a good fit for anybody who wants top performance today but doesn’t want to deal with the confusion and complexity of PC gaming.
That review covers all the important details about the new Xbox, but hey, I get it. You’re busy, you’re stressed, society’s years-long slow motion collapse made the jump to lightspeed over the last 10 months, and so it’d really help you to see all this stuff laid out in easy, convenient bullet points. So here it is: everything you need to know about the Xbox Series X and S, in handy dandy list form.
Of the two models, the Series X is the more powerful (and thus expensive) of the two. They share the same CPU, but the Series X has a more advanced graphics processing unit, more memory, and it can output native 4K resolution at up to 60 frames per second. The Series S hits 1440p, but can upscale to 4K. Both are capable of running certain games at 120 FPS, although not at the peak resolutions, and both support HDR—high-dynamic range color. The Series X also has a larger solid-state drive, with 1 terabyte of storage compared to the Series S’s 512 GB. Oh, also, and this is crucial:
...which means it can play physical media, both games and Blu-rays. If you’re still a believer in the bright, comforting shine of discs—if you feel like you have to actually own your games in order to own them—you’ll want to get an X, even if you don’t care about its slightly beefier specs.
No disc drive means the only way you’ll be able to play or watch anything on the Xbox Series S is if you download or stream it. It might not have the 4K performance that the Series X has, but its digital focus makes it the more forward-thinking of the two, and also considerably smaller. If you’re cramped for space, the smaller footprint of the Series S might be your best bet.
This could be the biggest concern for anybody on a budget. $500 is on the higher end of what gaming consoles have cost in the past (discounting how, adjusted for inflation, systems from the ‘70s and ‘80s probably cost about what $500 in 2020 bucks), although it’s a good bit less than what a comparable gaming PC would cost. The Series S isn’t as powerful as the X, but it’s cheaper and will play the same games, so the question is if 4K resolution, a disc drive, and more storage is worth $200 for you.
If you get your Xbox Series X or S right now, you won’t have any major next-gen exclusives to play on it. You can get optimized versions of various Xbox One-era games, including Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves, and more. And recent big name releases, including Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Watch Dogs: Legion, are also already available for the new system. It’ll also be the first console that’ll play Gears Tactics, the Gears of War RTS that came out on PC earlier this year, and will be the exclusive next-gen home of Yakuza: Like a Dragon until next March. There’s not a lot of new games that will be available alongside the Series X and S’s launches, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have nothing to play, as…
Backwards compatibility is being pushed as a crucial feature on the new consoles, and it works more easily and smoothly than you might expect. When you set up your system (a quick, painless process that requires use of a free mobile app and the login information for your Microsoft account), you’ll link it to your already-existing Xbox account. Once that’s done, your Xbox Series S and X library will list every digital game you owned on both the Xbox One and Xbox 360 that’s playable on the Xbox Series X and S. That’s the vast majority of Xbox games, except for ones that require a Kinect. (Uh, see the bad news below, motion control fans.) Yeah, you’ll have to download them again, but still, as an example, I was able to access almost 13 years of game purchases on my brand new system right out of the box. On my very first day with the system I had installed Crackdown, Demon’s Tilt and Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, and guess what: they’re both still amazingly fun. (Crackdown hasn’t aged nearly as well, with its always insulting racial stereotypes looking worse than ever, and the twist in its law and order narrative coming a little too late to make up for all its one-sided pro-cop jive, but hunting down agility orbs never gets old.)
The only games from your older library that you can download are ones that you owned digitally. You can still play most of the older games you owned on disc, though, if you have an Xbox Series X. You’ll still have to download the games, but that happens automatically once you put the disc in the system. I tested this out with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and it worked perfectly: the disc went in, the download began, and within a half-hour or so I was able to revisit Renaissance-era Italy once again.
Think of Xbox Game Pass as like Microsoft’s attempt at Netflix. For a monthly fee, you’ll have total access to dozens and dozens of games, including most Microsoft titles, several major third-party games, and, starting with the Xbox Series X, everything on EA Play. You’ll have to download the games, and if they cycle off Game Pass they won’t be playable until they return or until you buy them individually, but if you want a large library for $10 or $15 a month (it’s $10 for the console-only version, $15 for access on both consoles and PC), including the occasional brand new game that debuts on Game Pass at launch, it might be worth it.
The enhanced graphics might wow those with a TV big and nice enough to really make use of them, but one thing all Series X or S owners will appreciate is the enhanced speed of the new consoles. Expect to see load times cut across the board, whether you’re loading a game for the first time, loading a save state within a game, or even while playing a game, as you head from one level or area into another.
As an adjunct to the faster load times, the Xbox Series X and S also have a new feature called Quick Resume. Basically the system can keep up to five games running at one time, letting you quickly and easily hop between them. Say you finished a mission in Gears 5 and want to switch over to Ori and the Will of the Wisps for a bit. If both games were running, you could use Quick Resume to hop between them within seconds. Users are discovering some quirks with Quick Resume—occasionally the system will fully close a game, making you load it up from the beginning again—but it’s saved me a lot of time so far on the Xbox Series X.
If you can’t spring for a $500 system and $10 a month for Xbox Game Pass, the Xbox All Access program will let you take home a Xbox Series X with a two-year membership to Game Pass for $34.99 a month for 24 months, or an Xbox Series for $24.99 a month. It’ll cost you more in the long run than if you just buy a system and subscribe to Game Pass, but that’s how credit works.
The Xbox Series X and S were officially released on Tuesday, Nov. 10, and are widely sold out everywhere. The preorder business was brisk over the last several weeks, and the odds of walking into a store or pulling up a website and being able to buy one right now are slim. Some preorders might not even be filled until later this month or into December. Still, stock should come and go at major retailers, so if you’re 100% committed to buying Microsoft’s new system keep an eye out on social media or set up alerts, where possible.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.