Xbox Series X and Series S review: New game consoles attempt to lighten the load

From left, the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S.

With the launch of the Xbox Series X and S, it’s not so much about better video game graphics as it is about making your life as a console game player better.

Yes, Microsoft’s latest consoles, available Nov. 10, feature video games that will look better than its predecessors. But having spent time with the Xbox Series X ($499.99), the more exciting perks not only involve access to a larger library of games available to play, but spending less time waiting for those games to launch and load.

Console launches have typically focused on the graphical leaps made between generations, as video games shifted closer to realistic high-resolution visuals. But with the arrivals of Xbox Series X and S, and Sony's PlayStation 5, out Nov. 12, graphics are taking a backseat at launch in favor of changes that attempt to remove the hassles of console gaming.

For the Xbox Series X, it starts with the setup. Users are advised to perform the setup process on their smartphones using the Xbox app, which provides a much smoother, easier transition. No more trying to awkwardly type an email address and password with a video game controller. As the console installs the appropriate updates, you'll log in to your Xbox Live account through the phone and adjust your settings.

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The device itself is a bit more compact than the Xbox One, boasting a 3D rectangular shape. Although most images show the new Xbox standing vertically, the console sits just as comfortably in a horizontal position. It's also super quiet. 

Xbox: How it saves you time

One of the immediate changes you might notice while playing on a Series X is how quickly games load. Some titles available from Xbox One have been optimized for the Series X and S, introducing significantly faster load times. In a title like the racing game "Forza Horizon 4," for example, it only takes a few seconds for players to wait for the game to load before you're out on the road racing. But even on games that aren't optimized, you're spending a lot less time sitting and more time actually enjoying your games.

Xbox Series X expands this further with Quick Resume, which allows players to quickly transition between games while skipping loading or title screens. You can start in the middle of one game, and seamlessly switch to another with very little wait time. Between this and shorter load times, it's clear the Series X is a major upgrade.

Games on Series X show some subtle visual improvements compared to an Xbox One X, the latest model of Xbox One. In the action game "Gears 5," you clearly see sharper detail in backgrounds and gunfire clearly blazing across your screen, or palm trees in pirate adventure "Sea of Thieves" appear more lush.

The Xbox Series X.

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Xbox Series X: Support for older gear

The other key benefit to Series X is unlike previous generations of video game consoles, there is far more support for earlier games and accessories. Xbox One controllers and other accessories work on the Series X, and most games from the Xbox One and even the Xbox 360 and original Xbox are compatible. Plenty of newer games will also appear on the new Xbox, such as "Assassin's Creed Valhalla," "Madden NFL 21," "Marvel's Avengers" and "Yakuza: Like a Dragon."

Gears 5: The Locust is back in Gears 5. This third-person tactical shooter offers a bigger campaign mode and several multiplayer options.

The Xbox controller holds true to its form, with some minor but useful tweaks. The grips on the controller are more textured, making it easier to hold. The triggers and top buttons are also textured with tactile dots for an improved feel. Microsoft also borrows from its Xbox Elite controller with the addition of a directional pad offering more precise control. The controller also supports Bluetooth and includes a Share button for uploading screenshots or video clips.

Xbox console: What about the Series S

There's also the Xbox Series S, a smaller model that ditches the Blu-ray disc drive and costs $200 less. It also packs slightly less power compared to the Series X, and less internal storage for downloading games (512 GB vs. 1 TB on the Series X).

About 60% smaller than the Xbox Series X, the Series S is about the size of a big novel, say a Harry Potter book, or a David McCullough biography. It weighs just more than 4 pounds.

Microsoft's Xbox Series S console ($299), is smaller than the new Xbox Series X console and ditches the Blu-ray disc drive.

The Series S sets up smoothly, just like its larger sibling. And quickly allows you to download games from your previous Xbox system and the Xbox Game Pass subscription service.

However, if you download many games – for instance, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which includes six classic Halo games – you can quickly find yourself running short of storage. (we had filled 84.5% of the hard drive – which devotes 364 Gigabytes to games, according to our test drive – and hadn't downloaded any apps yet.) 

If you are a gamer who wants a large library on hand, you can plug in a Seagate 1 Terabyte Storage Expansion Card ($219.99) into the back of the system (it works for Series X, too) and games stored on that will load faster than on previous systems.

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Next-gen gaming: a different upgrade

In some ways, moving to the Xbox Series X felt like upgrading your smartphone. You get a device at launch that operates more nimbly and helps your games run more efficiently, and you maintain a familiar user experience, as the interface remains very similar to Xbox One. And you're not starting over with brand-new games or apps. However, there's no immediate experience on the Series X pointing to what "next-gen" gaming looks like.

Of course, those experiences will come soon as developers start to push the technical capabilities for the Series X. For now, it's a joy just spending less time loading my games.

What's your gaming go-to? Share it with Brett Molina & Mike Snider on Twitter: @brettmolina23 & @mikesnider