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CNN  — 

The line between PC and console gaming has been blurring for quite some time. What used to be two clearly delineated worlds have slowly come to homogenize into one. Slowly, PC users have been seeing consoles adopt some of the aspects that have made PCs desirable as gaming machines over the years — most recently, features such as ray tracing, a special graphics technique that simulates the effect of real-world lighting in a virtual space. Meanwhile, PC gamers have been enjoying features like this for some time, as well as crossover appeal of services like Xbox Game Pass that make playing on PC feel more like gaming on a console.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox console has simply continued its evolutionary process and has made one more stopover on the way to becoming what is, essentially, a compact gaming PC. The Xbox Series X resembles a gaming PC in nearly every way, from its towerlike form factor to its multitiered approach to bringing gamers on multiple platforms together.

After spending time with the system ahead of its official launch date, we’ve come to a singular conclusion about its capabilities as a next-gen gaming console: It’s everything we’ve been waiting for — and then some — out of the next Xbox. The only thing it’s missing? More exclusives. Otherwise, it’s a strong contender for one of the best consoles in recent years. It’s also the closest thing to a gaming PC most console owners have likely had in some time.

A quiet little tower

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At first glance, like you’ve probably heard a million times over on the internet (or thought to yourself), the Xbox Series does resemble a diminutive refrigerator. But the thought was likely more to shape it like the computer tower it’s mimicking. Unlike the PlayStation 5, which looks as though it was torn from a science-fiction novel, the Xbox Series X is an assuming black rectangular box that can be stored vertically or horizontally.

It has no removable base, and while it can be nudged into a home media center easily on its side, it can be an obtrusive console if used vertically. It’s around the size of a stack of particularly thick novels when placed vertically. If placed horizontally, it’s around twice the thickness of an Xbox One. Since many don’t have the space to use it vertically, you’ll probably have to tuck it under the TV somewhere and forget about the massive brick. These aren’t feelings or concerns the Xbox One or Xbox One X conjured, as both simply resembled the Xbox 360. This new design simply will take some time to get used to.

It also attracts fingerprints no matter how hard you try to avoid them, which is nothing we experienced with the Xbox 360 long ago but did begin with the Xbox One and Xbox One X. It’s unfortunate that the system becomes grimier the more you handle it, so if you happen to move it a lot, you’ll want to wipe it down with a microfiber cloth (perhaps constantly, depending on how much you touch it).

It isn’t just the system’s design that’s a bit strange. The entire surface of the system is more than a little minimalistic. On the front, you have the 4K Blu-ray drive, since the Xbox Series X is the system relegated to a discless existence. There’s also a USB port. Otherwise, the system seems content to live life as a soulless monolith. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — it’s just different than anything we’ve seen from Microsoft’s console designs in the past.

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In terms of connectivity, all of the ports and important access points are positioned on the back of the system, all located by a series of circular vents. You have two USB ports, an Ethernet connection, HDMI 2.1 out and a storage expansion slot that you can use to add additional hard disk space — yes, it’s 2020, and we’ve somehow reverted to using memory cards.

At the top is a concave portion of the tower riddled with holes and punctuated by a bright green — that’s the Xbox branding coming through. This is the system’s exhaust fan. The console runs extremely quietly, and it remains very cool to the touch. These are both great things, of course, as while using the system horizontally and vertically it never heated up as much as even a gaming laptop during a particularly grueling title.

It’s obviously a good idea to keep it in a spot where air flow is at a maximum, but after copious usage with demanding titles, the system never showed any signs of struggling with cooling down or anything like that. Perhaps Microsoft was onto something with this design.

Staying in control

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Of course, with a new console comes a new controller. Unlike the PlayStation 5’s completely overhauled DualSense, the Xbox Series X is content to remain with a slightly updated controller that’s hardly changed from the Xbox One iteration. There are a few differences, but less from the Xbox One to the Xbox Series X than there would be from the Xbox One controller to either version of the Xbox One Elite Controller.

There’s an updated D-pad that feels comfortable enough and a new share button that’s much less delayed-feeling than what you may have come to be used to from the Xbox One’s somewhat clumsy UI. There are also textured grips that keep the controller squarely in your hand; there’s no danger of letting it slip to the floor here.

Unfortunately, the controller still utilizes batteries. If you want to recharge it, like the DualSense on PlayStation 5, you’ll have to spring separately for a play and charge kit ($24.99; microsoft.com). Though there’s a USB-C connector, it’s not doing much good without a rechargeable battery pack. Still, it’s overall a solid improvement on the old system’s controller, even though it’s a bit disappointing to not have been given additional functionality.

Kicking back with the dash

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It’s all well and good to discuss the externals of the Xbox Series X, but of course everyone wants to know about how it actually performs. One thing to keep in mind is that the new Xbox dashboard isn’t really different from what you can currently get or will be getting on Xbox One. That’s by design, as Microsoft wants to keep the ecosystem the same across its various devices. As such, the team is keeping things largely the same and rolling out changes to everyone to keep things homogenized.

The main difference now between the new and old dashboard is that the overhaul feels much zippier, more responsive and less confusing. While the Xbox One dashboard has always been an enduring downgrade over the Xbox 360’s, the Series X makes it feel effortless to glide through submenus, choose a game to play and even browse through titles to purchase. The new store interface is far less annoying in that it doesn’t seem to crash at random.

Unfortunately, there still aren’t many options available for those of us who like to tweak the console experience, so we’re relegated to recently played titles taking up the dashboard instead of being able to move these tiles around. It feels great to use, but there’s still this cold feeling of wishing there were something exciting and new to experience with the UI. On the plus side, it will be instantly familiar for those coming over from Xbox One.

What’s truly impressive, however, is the Xbox Series X’s Quick Resume feature. Instead of having to quit a game, wait for a new one to start all the way up and then jump into that title, you can effortlessly switch between games if you happen to have trouble focusing on one title over another. Load up a game and swap to another in as little as seven seconds (though sometimes it’ll take up to 15 seconds). Most titles do work with Quick Resume, with the exception of a rare few I found, and it makes getting right back into the single-player title you were enjoying feel like putting a Nintendo Switch to sleep and popping it back on. Being able to do this with a console feels positively futuristic.

Gaming the system

It’s all well and good to talk about the Series X and how it looks and whatnot. But of course everyone wants to know about how the games feel. Unfortunately, most of the titles you’d be the most curious about were simply not available to play during the preview period. However, games such as Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Sea of Thieves and Gears 5, enhanced for Xbox Series X, performed quite admirably.

Load times have been cut down considerably, to the point where it feels as though the system has to do little work at all to deliver the game you’re ready to play. The system’s CPU utilizes an internal solid-state drive (SSD) to get your games up and moving and ready to go before you even realize what’s happening. It’s such a far cry from the Xbox One X, literally saving up to 45 seconds from the previous generation. For anyone with little patience or those who believe a PC is still the most reliable system to boot up games the quickest, the Xbox Series X will make believers of them.

For example, Red Dead Redemption 2 was one of the titles with an impressively short loading time. Where it could take up to one minute and 45 seconds on Xbox One X, we clocked it at 45 to 52 seconds on Xbox Series X consistently. Perhaps the most impressive jump in loading times was Destiny 2, which used to take nearly two minutes or more to spring up on the Xbox One X. We timed 40 seconds at its quickest on the Series X. This is on par with the loading times in most high-end gaming PCs, if not a little faster in some instances.

The SSD is an important part of the Xbox Series X experience. Games are getting larger and larger, and even having installed mostly Xbox Series X Enhanced titles, the SSD quickly began to clutter up. The system comes equipped with 1TB of storage, but only 802GB is actually usable space.

Additional space will need to come in the form of the aforementioned storage slot found on the back of the console, which can offer an additional 900GB or so, down from the 1TB they’re advertised as. Having the extra space is useful, however, as is ensuring you have a safety net for games you choose to grab online.

Bottom line: A viable console for PC fans

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Though many of the games that are pending release on Xbox Series X aren’t out yet and, as such, are unavailable to reviewers, it’s clear from the titles already tested that this is a formidable console very much worth picking up.

Whether you’re interested in grabbing it for the heavy hitters still to come like Cyberpunk 2077 or you want to invest in Xbox Game Pass, there’s something here for just about any use case.

Don’t expect any sort of massive alterations from one system to another in terms of Xbox One to Xbox Series X, though, aside from the actual console itself. The changes come in the form of quicker, more responsive UI and an aggressive performance boost that must be seen to be believed.

For anyone looking for their next console to purchase, the Xbox Series X is an excellent choice — especially for those who want performance that’s on par with a high-grade gaming PC.

The Xbox Series X launches on November 10 for $499, and these retailers are offering preorders: Amazon.com, Best Buy, B&H Photo, GameStop, Microsoft Store, Target and Walmart. Keep in mind that preorders are fluctuating and may not be available. You can see our full review of the $299 Xbox Series S here.