October 24, 2020

Xbox Series X Has Great Features, Small Content Library

Microsoft has given some reviewers the green light to publish extensive previews of the Xbox...

Microsoft has given some reviewers the green light to publish extensive previews of the Xbox Series X. A few weeks ago, we got reports based specifically on backward compatibility. Now, the company has authorized other disclosures regarding the system.

The reports — at least as concern the hardware themselves — are uniformly excellent. There was some concern that the Xbox Series X hardware might run hot, but Ars Technica reports that the console never gets warmer than an equivalent Xbox One X. They write: “As a computing device, Xbox Series X may go down in history as one of the most remarkable machines ever made—as compared to other products in its era, power level, and price.”

Polygon’s writeup focuses on the use of AutoHDR and an HDR calibration feature that makes enabling the option a snap. This sounds incredibly useful — if you’ve ever tried to calibrate a display for HDR on a per-game basis, you know that getting the feature to work properly on the PC can be a bit of a chore. Consoles have been ahead of PCs as far as deploying HDR support, but it looks like Microsoft has taken some necessary steps to make the feature easier to deploy. AutoHDR is used to add the feature to games that don’t support it by default, while the calibration app walks you through the process of calibrating the software to work well on your own display.

The Verge minces no words, declaring the $500 box is “quieter and far easier to use and maintain than the $3,000 gaming PC I built a few weeks ago. There’s a reason the Xbox Series X looks like a PC — it’s because it often feels like one.” The Verge also published a comparison of load times for modern titles between the Xbox One X and the Xbox Series X.

It is assumed that many of these gaps would be even larger if they’d compared against the Xbox One / One S, so keep that in mind. Overall, the performance gains are exactly what Microsoft promised. In The Outer Worlds, load times fall by nearly 80 percent. Even in the weakest case, CoD: Warzone, the Xbox Series X is still 25 percent faster. 40-60 percent accelerations are fairly common. Gamers have access to 802GB of the 1TB SSD, which is actually a bit more than the Xbox One X (780GB).

Everyone Loves 120Hz Gaming, PC-Quality Detail

The 120Hz option that Microsoft offers requires you to trade off a lot of graphics detail, generally speaking, but the tradeoff in certain games is well worth it according to various publications. Ars writes: “There’s no getting around it: Series X is a fundamental game-changer in terms of console power, and Gears 5’s buttery smooth 120fps toggle has me instantly excited at the prospect of other console-game developers following suit.” (Emphasis original).

Xbox Series X Gears 5, Swamp Edition, 120Hz. Image by Ars Technica

PC Gears 5, Maximum Detail, Swamp Edition. Photo by Ars Technica

The PC still retains a small advantage over the Xbox Series X in Gears of War 5, thanks to a superior ambient occlusion implementation. I zoomed into a pair of Ars’ screenshots to create the following close-up examination of how detail levels vary between the two:

Xbox Series X extreme closeup, 120Hz. Image by Ars Technica. Accidental inclusion of Paint.net tool selector reflects an error on my part, not a bundling decision by Microsoft.

PC extreme close-up, maximum detail. Image by Ars Technica.

While PC image quality is still higher, the PC image was taken with the game running at maxed-out detail levels on a Core i7-8700K and an RTX 3080. The RTX 3080 alone will cost you $700 if you can find one, while the Xbox Series X is a $500 platform. Also, it loads data stupidly faster than a PC in at least some cases. Ars reports that some areas of the game took as long as 53 seconds to load on an NVMe PCIe 3.0 drive, compared with 12 seconds for the Xbox Series X. A gap that large is unlikely to be explained by the difference between PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0. One might expect performance to double with doubled bandwidth, but the Xbox takes 22 percent as long as the PC to load the same content. It isn’t 2x faster, it’s 4.4x faster.

Ars does note that there’s one game that runs terribly on Xbox Series X: The Xbox 360 version of Dark Souls will apparently drop to 10fps in places.

The games being tested in these previews are “Optimized for Series X,” but Microsoft is keeping a lid on actual next-generation titles. Weak links in the current design include the length of time it takes to upload clips (Polygon) and the rather clumsy means of sharing content compared to equivalent features on the PC side of the equation.

Apart from ongoing concerns about launch titles and the impact COVID-19 has had on software development, the folks who’ve spent time hands-on with the platform love it. Multiple previews talk about how much gaming on the console feels like playing on a PC. In some places, the Xbox Series X outperforms even a top-end PC. It’ll be impossible to match the console’s performance with a $500-$700 full system build, and it may even challenge the value of mainstream PC upgrades. Imagine, for example, that the Xbox Series X proves to match the performance of a $300 – $450 discrete GPU. This is arguably likely, considering it has 52 CUs to the Radeon 5700 XT’s 40 and runs at equivalent clock speeds. Given that we’ve already measured the performance of RDNA and we know how fast a Ryzen 7 3800X is, Microsoft should be able to beat the current Ryzen 5700 XT with its RDNA2-powered GPU.

It would be ridiculous to declare a winner between Microsoft and Sony when Microsoft is sharing extensive details and Sony is keeping quiet. But at the very least, we can say the Xbox Series X looks to be much better competition for the PlayStation 5 than the Xbox One ever was against the PlayStation 4. The fastest console isn’t always the one that wins the generation, but Sony had a known advantage in that department when the PS4 launched back in 2013. This time around, the technical numbers favor the Xbox Series X. We’ll see if that does or doesn’t translate into a real-world advantage in a few more weeks.

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