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We’re used to Microsoft keeping it simple, so the slightly complicated next generation of the Xbox is a little out of the ordinary. Just the last week, Microsoft announced it’s releasing not one but two new consoles: the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S. On top of that revelation, we found that the first round of first-party games will all be compatible with the previous generation’s Xbox One, and Windows PCs. All that, and we’ve not even started on xCloud, the Microsoft game streaming service. It’s going to mean you don’t even need any Xbox specific hardware to access a whole range of games. 

Every next generation brings big innovation and differences to the world of console gaming, and the Xbox Series X doesn’t fail to disappoint. We can expect games to look better (due to more powerful graphics hardware and built-in support for more realistic lighting technology) and feel more responsive in some cases (thanks to support for frame rates of up to 120fps). Games should also load faster because both consoles are now equipped with fast solid-state storage, a big improvement over the mechanical hard drive included in the Xbox One.

The tech giant’s approach to the new generation is, however, rather different from how it’s previously launched consoles, notes Jon Porter for The Verge. The standard trope has been for Microsoft and Sony to each launch one piece of hardware initially with a stable of exclusive games that require the console to get access to. While Sony, too, has operated a game streaming service for years, it’s only typically used PlayStation Now to offer access to older titles, rather than brand-new releases like xCloud is promising.

The two new consoles from Microsoft offer much more freedom to play games how you want, but your choice of gaming location is goigng to influence your exact experience. The Xbox Series X is an absolute winner when it comes to power compared to the Series S or the current Xbox One, for example, which will have a big impact on performance.

Check out Microsoft’s fresh pair of consoles

Rumors had been flying around for ages about a second Microsoft console, and last week those rumors were confirmed with the company saying it was bringing out a second next-gen console next to the Xbox Series X. The Xbox Series S is due on November 10 and is priced at $299 (£249, €299), much lower than the Xbox Series X which comes out on the same day and is $499 (£449, €499).

Image credit: microsoft.com

We’re used to seeing a couple of different hardware configurations available when new kit launches, but the differences are about minor specs and capacity. For instance, the PS3 was initially available in two models. The first one was a version with a 60GB hard drive, while another one was a cheaper version with a smaller 20GB hard drive, no Wi-Fi support, and fewer ports. Back in 2005, Microsoft offered a “Core” Xbox 360 which compromised with wired controllers and lacked a hard drive. 

Comparing the Xbox Series S and Series X shows much more significant differences and will probably change the look of your gaming experience. While Microsoft says the Series X is targeting running games at 60fps at a full 4K resolution, the Series S will instead target a lower 1440p resolution at 60fps. The disparity in power is big, it’s like putting the Xbox ONe and Xbox One X together, but you’re going to get to make the choice from launch day, rather than releases years apart.

Xbox Series X hardware. Image credit: itc.ua

Microsoft has a nicely put list of the major differences between the Xbox Series X and the Series S on its website. Both have 8-core CPUs, although the X has a slightly higher maximum clock speed of 3.8GHz, rather than 3.6GHz on the Series S. Both models support expandable storage of up to 1TB via an expansion card. Besides, both output over HDMI 2.1, and both are backwards compatible with “thousands” of Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox games. On both consoles you get hardware-accelerated ray tracing which is going to give games realistic lighting, and in terms of sound you’ll get  Dolby’s top-spec Atmos audio tech, supporting Dolby Vision HDR standard available on both, too. For compatibility, you’ll still be able to play with all officially licensed Xbox One accessories such as your headsets and controllers, but you’re not going to be able to use your Kinect camera. like controllers and headsets — although there are no plans to support the Kinect camera.

Yet, there are some big differences between the two.Your Series S is going to be digital-only meaning all games will need to be downloaded, whereas the Series X will come with a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray drive. And yet, the disc-based X also has double the amount of internal storage with 1TB as opposed to 512GB, and more RAM at 16GB compared to 10GB. In terms of size, the Series S is also a lot smaller than the Series X. Microsoft calls the console its “smallest Xbox ever.”

Xbox Series S hardware. Image credit: theverge.com

The biggest differences definitely show up in the graphics specs. Even though both consoles use AMD’s RDNA 2 graphics architecture, the Series X has 52 compute units. That’s not only twice as many as the 20 compute units you’ll find in the Series S, but they’re also clocked faster at 1.825GHz compared to 1.565GHz. Together, that means you get 12.15 teraflops of graphics power from the Series X, three times lower than the 4 teraflops on the Series S, says Microsoft. 

So, when it comes to the graphics department, that should make the Xbox Series X a shade more powerful than the PS5. While Sony’s consoles are also based on AMD’s RDNA 2 architecture, both models of the PS5 clock in with 10.28 teraflops of GPU power. They’ve got a smaller number of compute units at 36, but their maximum cap is higher at 2.23GHz. They’ve also got 8-core CPUs, but they’re clocked at 3.5GHz. Do remember that with the PS5, the CPU and GPU speeds vary based on the total workload – it’s not quite a direct and fair comparison to make. PS5 is going to have some advantages, but there’ll be limitations at other times, too. Otherwise, the rest of the PS5’s specs on paper are similar to the Series X. It has 16GB of RAM, 825GB of storage, and a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray drive.

Just like it’s competitor, Sony is bringing out a lower tier, digital-only version of the PS5, but the differences aren’t as marked. With no disc drive, the digital console will be slimmer, but there’s not anything else in it. You’re not going to see the same drop in power in the cheaper version of the PS5. 

XBOX SERIES X VS SERIES S VS PS5

Categories Xbox Series X Xbox Series S PS5 PS5 (digital-only)
CPU 8-core AMD Zen 2 CPU @ 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT Enabled) 8-core AMD Zen 2 CPU @ 3.6GHz (3.4GHz with SMT Enabled) 8x Zen 2 Cores @ 3.5GHz with SMT (variable frequency) 8x Zen 2 Cores @ 3.5GHz with SMT (variable frequency)
GPU AMD RDNA 2 GPU 52 CUs @ 1.825GHz AMD RDNA 2 GPU 20 CUs @ 1.565GHz AMD RDNA 2 GPU 36 CUs @ 2.23GHz (variable frequency) AMD RDNA 2 GPU 36 CUs @ 2.23GHz (variable frequency)
GPU Power 12.15 TFLOPS 4 TFLOPS 10.28 TFLOPs 10.28 TFLOPs
RAM 16GB GDDR6 RAM 10GB GDDR6 RAM 16GB GDDR6 RAM 16GB GDDR6 RAM
Performance Target Target 4K @ 60 FPS. Up to 8K. Up to 120 FPS Target 1440p @ 60 FPS. Up to 120 FPS Target TBD. Up to 8K. Up to 120 FPS Target TBD. Up to 8K. Up to 120 FPS
Storage 1TB PCIe Gen 4 NVMe SSD (2.4GB/sec uncompressed, 4.8GB/sec compressed) 512GB PCIe Gen 4 NVMe SSD (2.4GB/sec uncompressed, 4.8GB/sec compressed) 825GB PCIe Gen 4 NVMe SSD (5.5GB/sec uncompressed, typical 8-9GB/sec compressed) 825GB PCIe Gen 4 NVMe SSD (5.5GB/sec uncompressed, typical 8-9GB/sec compressed)
Expandable Storage 1TB Expansion Card 1TB Expansion Card NVMe SSD Slot NVMe SSD Slot
Backward Compatibility “Thousands” of Xbox One, Xbox 360, original Xbox games. Xbox One accessories. “Thousands” of Xbox One, Xbox 360, original Xbox games. Xbox One accessories. “Overwhelming majority” of PS4 games “Overwhelming majority” of PS4 games
Disc Drive 4K UHD Blu-ray None 4K UHD Blu-ray None
Display Out HDMI 2.1 HDMI 2.1 HDMI 2.1 HDMI 2.1
MSRP $499/£449/€499 $299/£249/€299 Unannounced Unannounced

 

Without actually getting our hands on them, we can’t say for certain how the performance of either new Xbox will fare. Microsoft seems to be focussing on the resolution capabilities of the two. The Series S targets 1440p, while the Series X targets 4K, aka 2160p (although it will technically support resolutions of up to 8K). Regardless of the differences in resolution, Microsoft claims that both are targeting frame rates of 60 frames per second but can support up to 120fps.

If Microsoft’s statements are accurate, then games should feel just as smooth to play no matter which console you’re using. Yet, they won’t be filled with as much detail on the cheaper machine due to the lower target resolution. That might not really matter to you if you’re playing on an older 1080p TV, but it’ll be more visible if you’re gaming on a modern 4K set.

Bear in mind, we’ve seen such talk about resolutions and frame rates in the past and the reality has been somewhat different to what we saw in the real world.  Although Microsoft stated the Xbox One X is capable of 4K gaming at 60fps, in reality, many of the most popular games around didn’t run at full 4K. For instance, Fortnite runs at a maximum of 1728p on the Xbox One X, while Doom: Eternal tops out at 1800p. It’s also common for games on both modern consoles to dynamically scale their resolution to keep their frame rates consistent. Digital Foundry found that Gears of War 5, for example, would sometimes drop its resolution to as low as 1584p, even though it was able to run at a maximum of 2160p. Resolution isn’t all important and the games you play will still usually look spot on so matter exactly how many pixels are on your screen, but just remember there will be some variation. 

Xbox One X generally runs games at 30 fps, particularly when working at a native 4K. Middle Earth: Shadow of War, for instance, ran at a maximum of 2160p, but at 30fps. Rise of the Tomb Raider, at the same time, could do 60fps on the Xbox One X while rendering at 1080p, but in its native 4K mode, it hovered closer to 30fps. With the more powerful hardware we’re getting on the Series X – and kind of on the Series S – means that games should be less likely to have to compromise on either pixels or frame rates. 

Although your existing Xbox One controllers will work on the Xbox Series X and Series S, there’s also an updated controller for the new consoles, which is available in two colors – white and black. Controller design hasn’t changed a whole bunch from the previous controllers, you’ll notice it’s a tad smaller and there’s a dedicated “Share” button that will make uploading screenshots and videos much easier. Like on the Xbox Elite Series 2 controller, the D-pad comes as a circle rather than the cross you got on the Xbox One. 

What’s new? 

When new hardware is on the way, you can be sure there’ll be new games to go with it. Microsoft’s partner studios have confirmed loads of new games for the new console. The biggest of the upcoming games is Halo: Infinite. It’s the newest instalment of the long-running series of first-person shooters in the sci-fi genre. The franchise goes hand in hand with Xbox and joined it on its debut in 2001. 

As a matter of fact, Microsoft recently delayed Halo: Infinite and that means that it will now release in 2021, rather than arriving alongside the new console. The delay has been blamed on the pandemic to a degree, with news coming soon after the game came in for criticism for its visuals when it was first unveiled. Halo’s developer 343 Industries admitted, “We do have work to do to address some of these areas and raise the level of fidelity and overall presentation for the final game.”

Image credit: ign.com

With other Xbox staples like Fable and Forza Motorsport without release dates, the delay has left third-party publishers to fill in the rest of the launch lineup, including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Marvel’s Avengers, Dirt 5, Watch Dogs Legion, and Tetris Effect: Connected.

The games that are coming at release will make use of different features on the Xbox Series X and Series S. Watch Dogs Legion runs in 4K and uses the ray tracing to enhance the lighting, according to Microsoft’s site, but ray tracing doesn’t get a mention on their page for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Dirt 5 is an interesting title, running at up to 120fps on the Xbox Series X. A high frame rate like this is especially important in a fast-paced racing game, and it should make Dirt 5 feel more responsive to play on compatible TVs.

One big commonality across most of these games is that they’ll work on current-gen devices like your Xbox One or PS4. It was even more surprising when Microsoft announced that this would be true for even its own flagship games. If the promise holds true, it’s a big change in their modus operandi as a console manufacturer. In the past, having exclusive games was a huge part of the sales pitch to get people to buy into the new hardware.

What about the old?

You’ll not have to invest in new hardware to enjoy the new first-party titles if you don’t want, since they’ll also work on the Xbox One. Phil Spence, the chief at Xbox talked about the company’s approach back in July. He said that any games coming out of Xbox Game Studios for the next couple of years would work on your Xbox One, too. 

For those who prefer PC gaming and don’t have an Xbox One, you’ll also be able to access Microsoft titles there since it’s confirmed the policy will continue this year.

It’s worth noting some of the T&C’s around this, though. The promise is only for games produced by Microsoft first parties, meaning games coming from Xbox Game Studios.  For now, Microsoft isn’t making any claims or promises about how other publishers like EA, Ubisoft, or Activision will handle their new games.

An extra caveat to note is that the promise has been made pretty explicitly about only covering Microsoft-developed games in the “next couple of years”. We’ve seen some signs that some high-profile titles that are in the works that won’t make it onto the Xbox One. It was noted after the Xbox event that Microsoft put on in July that most of the title cards for first-party Microsoft games, like Forza Motorsport and Fable, weren’t slated to appear on the Xbox One. 

Finally, you’re probably going to see a really different-looking game if you’re choosing to play on a base Xbox One from 2013 compared to a brand new Xbox Series X.

It’s been noted in some quarters that continuing to support Xbox One with new games might be holding back Microsoft’s next-generation games, possibly giving the leading edge to Sony, which can put all of its attention towards its new console only. Spencer reckoned it wouldn’t be a problem, yet “cross-gen” games on other consoles have never been able to live up the promise of the newer console. 

What’s missing?

What if you don’t have an Xbox or a gaming PC, but you’ve got an Android phone?  Are there any next-gen gaming options for you from Microsoft? Thanks to game streaming, the answer is yes. On September 15, Microsoft added game streaming to Xbox Games Pass Ultimate, which now costs $14.99 per month. With the new feature, formerly known as xCloud, you get to access loads of the biggest Xbox Series X games without ever owning a piece of Microsoft hardware. It lets you stream games on to your Android-powered phone, although it won’t work with iOS, and we’ll tell you why in a moment. 

The idea behind streaming games isn’t novel, Playstation Now has been around since 2014 although it didn’t get the raptuous welcome that was expected. The way Microsoft is approaching it is different, and interesting as well. Instead of focusing on older titles, as Sony did with PlayStation Now, Microsoft says its new games will be available to stream the day they release and lists recent first-party titles like Forza Horizon 4, Gears of War 5, Tell Me Why, The Outer Worlds, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps as being among the 150-plus games available to stream at launch.

The rub is that even if you’ve got powerful hardware to run the games on – Microsoft say that it’s going to be powered by Series S console with an upgrade to Series X in 2021 – it’s going to be tough to get all the information needed for the game on to your Android device through an iternet connection. Your internet speed and where you are will have a big impact on your gaming experience, as was noted by xCloud beta testers. 

The devices that xCloud is going to work on in the long-term is also questionable. As for now, xCloud is going to be supported by Android, however, due to the restrictions Apple places on game streaming services it won’t be available for iOS at launch, if ever. Only if Apple’s rules change beyond the limited concessions it made last week, iPhone or iPad owners won’t be able to use xCloud as it is.

The xCloud service is getting folded into the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription, which comes with loads of other content as well as gaming. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate’s $14.99 a month subscription also allows you to download and play more than 100 games directly on your Xbox or Windows 10 PC, as well as EA Play. What else is included is the Xbox Live Gold subscription, which provides you with an access to online multiplayer on Xbox.

You can still access PlayStation Now,  but it’s not something that Sony goes out of its way to promote. It might have an impressive catalog of more than 800 titles, yet it doesn’t feel like a serious attempt to compete with Microsoft’s game streaming, even though its price has recently dropped to $9.99 a month.

What works? 

When other consoles have launched in the past, the option to play games from older generation hardware on the new console, known as backwards compatibility, has had different standards. Nintendo’s Wii U could happily play every Wii game, and the Wii could play every GameCube game before it. On the contrary, the PS4 can’t natively play any games that were released for previous PlayStations — although some can be streamed via PlayStation Now.

With its new consoles, Microsoft has announced three ways how you’ll be able to play your old games on its new hardware. There’s going to be some games that are backwards compatible, there’s going to be enhancements made to others, and any others will get upgraded for free when a newer version comes on the market.

Big promises have come out of Microsoft about being able to play old Xbox games on the Xbox Series. Microsoft’s saying that “thousands” of games released for the original Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One will be playable on its new consoles, and there’s also a handy tool to let you browse them all. Included in this is nearly every game that was released on Xbox One, except ay that need a Kinect camera.

On the Xbox Series S you’ll still be ok to play older titles, but it’s been confirmed by Microsoft that Xbox One X enhancements won’t be included like the higher resolutions. Usually, you’re going to be playing the original version of the game that was made for the Xbox One S, but the modern hardware and speed of the solid-state drive could offer some improvements.

Microsoft has said that some games are going to be enhanced, meaning they’ll run on improved resolutions and frame rates that the originals and new tech gets support, like HDR. There have been some impressive results from Microsoft using these techniques on the Xbox One X, so we’re keen to see what more improvements can be rang in with the new hardware.

Last, there’s Smart Delivery; basically a program to get free upgrades – you’re not going to have to buy your Xbox One games all over again, as long as it gets released on the new system. In theory, you’ll get the biggest upgrade, but it’s only being rolled out selectively. If you have already bought the original Control for Xbox One, for instance, you won’t get a free upgrade to the next-gen version. That’s a feature only available for owners of Control’s new Ultimate Edition.

Sony hasn’t really said much about improvements for PS4 games running on the PS5. March saw the company confirm that an “overwhelming majority” of games for the PS4 would carry over on to its new hardware, with the expectation fo benefits from the “more stable frame rates and potentially higher resolutions.” Developers like Bungie have also noted that they’ll be doing free upgrades to PS5 versions of their output. 

What’s the price? 

With the new Xboxes, nothing’s stopping you investing in your hardware and purchasing your games up front. As we’ve already said above, the Xbox Series X is going to cost $499 in retail, while the Series S is going to retail for $299. Big ticket games will likely be priced the same as they are now, with potential for a $10 markup on premium versions of current-gen titles. Sony hasn’t announced pricing for its PS5 yet.

As we head into the next generation of consoles, Microsoft is putting a lot of chips on the get that people prefer paying for gaming monthly. For the Xbox Series X, that means paying $34.99 a month for 24 months via its Xbox All Access bundle (total cost: $839.76), while the Series S will be available for $24.99 a month (total cost: $599.76). All Access will be available in 12 countries this year: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Sweden, the UK, and the US.

There’s a bigger cost than buying the console in one go, but you do get Xbox Game Pass Ultimate with Xbox All Access. The Game Pass Ultimate comes with access to more than 100 Xbox One games, like Tell Me Why, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and Forza Horizon 4. You also get Xbox Live Gold, which is a subscription service offering free games monthly and online multiplayer access, plus game streaming through xCould. The best part is that it gives free access to more than 100 Windows 10 games as well, such as the Microsoft Flight Simulator which was recently released.

You’re still welcome to get your hardware in one instalment and sign up to one of the gaming services from Microsoft independently – Xbox Game Pass Ultimate has a couple of different flavors. Factor in the cost of these subscriptions to the total price of Xbox All Access, and the price of the console hardware itself drops to just $10 or $20 a month.

XBOX GAME PASS COMPARISON

Categories Xbox Game Pass Ultimate Xbox Game Pass Xbox Game Pass for PC
Platform PC/Xbox Xbox PC
Games included 250+ games 250+ games 200+ games
Xbox Live Gold Yes No No
xCloud Yes No No
EA Play Yes No Yes
Monthly price $14.99/£10.99/€12.99 $9.99/£7.99/€9.99 $9.99/£7.99/€9.99 (from September 17th)

 

Even if you’ve not got the cash to make an upfront payment, Microsoft still wants you to enjoy the next generation of gaming. You’re not going to own the games you play outright, except the Xbox 360 games that you can download with the Gold service from Xbox Live Games, but that’s the trade off for easy access to the console. 

There are big plans covering lots of areas coming out of Microsoft’s gaming plans. Two consoles that are available via subscription and can play a huge chunk of your existing Xbox games, a new roster of games that will be playable on your existing Xbox One, a continuing focus on PC gaming, and a game streaming service means that, regardless of what hardware you have, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to pay Microsoft to play its games.

It’s been noted that by working to sell subscriptions rather than physical kit, the real next generation of Xbox is going to be your monthly plan, rather than what you play with. Microsoft has got fingers in many pies, and is aiming to remove as many barriers to use as possible, primarily regarding hardware access – even if Apple isn’t ready to play ball yet. 

Over at Sony, things are moving in the same direction as always. A new console has been made, new and exclusive games are on the way, and they’re going to market it and get units sold. The approach is old-hat but it’s worked like a charm in the past – why change it?

At the time of publishing, the PS4 had outsold the Xbox One by two to one. You can understand why Sony is trying too hard to do anything different. Microsoft is the underdog in the battle of this generation so it’s working hard to morph the market in its favor.

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