Everything You Need to Know Before Buying an Xbox Series X|S

So, you’re thinking about buying an Xbox. Do you want a Series X or S? Is your existing TV good enough, or do you need to upgrade? And will you have to stand the console up like some sort of monolith? Let’s answer the most pressing Xbox Series X and S questions.

What’s the Difference Between Series X and S?

The Xbox Series X costs $499, while the Series S retails for $299. Beyond price, the main difference between the two consoles is graphical power. They have similar CPUs, but the GPU on the Series S has about one-third of the raw power the Series X has.

Xbox Series X and Series S

The Series X sets a target of 4K resolution at 60 frames per second (fps), while the Series S settles for a more modest 1440p, also at 60 fps. On paper, this should be the only difference. However, in practice, we’ve seen games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla also cut back on features like ray tracing in the Series S version.

The Series X has a 1TB SSD, while the Series S only comes with 512GB. The Series S is an all-digital console, which means it has no disc drive for used or older games, or Blu-rays.

Related: Xbox Series X vs. Xbox Series S: Which Should You Buy?

What About Backward Compatibility?

Both consoles enjoy the same excellent backward compatibility. Almost every Xbox One game works on both the Series X and S. The only exceptions are games that require Kinect, which isn’t supported on the new consoles.

There’s also support for over 500 Xbox 360 games, many of which received last-generation patches to improve things like resolution and frame rate. Microsoft even decided to support a handful of original Xbox games, like Fuzion Frenzy and BLACK.

Related: How Backward Compatible Are the Xbox Series X and S?

Do Older Games Look or Run Better?

Since the Xbox Series X and S are more powerful than legacy hardware, games should, generally, run better on them. Games that experienced performance issues in the past, like Just Cause 3 (which barely managed 20 fps when things got hectic), now run at a locked 30 fps on the Series X.

Some games are being patched to take advantage of the new hardware. This is indicated by an “Optimized for Series X/S” label on the Microsoft Store. This includes titles like Forza Horizon 4, which runs at 60 fps in native 4K, and Gears 5, which supports up to 120 fps in multiplayer.

A feature called “Auto-HDR” is enabled by default on almost all older titles that don’t explicitly support HDR. Microsoft has used machine learning to automatically apply a fresh coat of HDR paint to almost every compatible game, including Xbox 360 and original Xbox titles.

Related: How Auto-HDR Works on Xbox Series X|S (and How to Disable It)

Which Resolutions and Frame Rates Are Supported?

The Xbox Series X supports 4K (2160p), 1440p, 1080p, and 720p output at 60 or 120Hz. The Xbox Series S supports 1440p, 1080p, and 720p at 60 or 120Hz. However, you can run the Series S dashboard at 4K if it’s connected to a compatible display.

To activate 120Hz on your Series X or S, you’ll need a TV with a panel that refreshes at 120Hz. To get Xbox Series X 120Hz at 4K resolution, you’ll also need a TV with at least one HDMI 2.1 port.

The number of games that will actually take advantage of the full 4K/120 fps remains to be seen.

What About FreeSync and Variable Refresh Rates?

Some TVs and monitors have “variable” refresh rates, which, in the case of the Series X and S, means they reduce their refresh rate to match the frame rate of the console. This prevents unsightly screen tearing and keeps gameplay smooth, even when the frame rate dips.

HDMI VRR Illustration

Both Xbox Series consoles support HDMI VRR and AMD FreeSync, so you have an option of which variable-refresh-rate technology you want to use. HDMI VRR will work over HDMI 2.0 up to a maximum of 60Hz, provided your TV supports it.

FreeSync is largely redundant in TVs that already support HDMI VRR, but it’s a good alternative if you’re using a monitor.

Related: What Is HDMI VRR on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X?

What Is Quick Resume?

Quick Resume is a feature on both consoles that allows you to resume a game precisely where you left off, even after you’ve quit. To do this, it creates a save state by dumping whatever is in RAM on the SSD.

This means you can suspend a game at any point and jump back in later exactly where you were, even if you were halfway through a level.

How many games Quick Resume can save at once depends on which titles you’re playing. Five or six seems to be the limit when you include a few older titles from the Xbox 360 and original Xbox.

Microsoft also has a habit of disabling this feature on some games whenever compatibility issues arise, so it can be a little inconsistent. Hopefully, Quick Resume will become more stable as the Series X and S mature.

Can You Buy More Storage?

After setting up your Xbox Series X, you’ll have usable space of around 800GB, as some of that is used by the system for features like Quick Resume. On an Xbox Series X, your usable space after initial setup is around 360GB.

Fortunately, you can buy more storage! The official Seagate Xbox Series X|S expansion card ($219) adds another terabyte of storage. This card will install and run everything from Xbox Series X and S native titles to original Xbox games.

Seagate Expansion Card for Xbox Series X|S

You can also use an external USB 3.0 or later drive, including solid-state or mechanical hard drives. However, neither of these will run a native Xbox Series X or S title—they need the raw speed of Microsoft’s SSD. You can use them to archive or play older titles, though.

Related: How to Expand Your Xbox Series X|S Storage

Can You Use Your Old Controllers?

You can use all Xbox One accessories on the Series X and S, except the Kinect and some older headsets. You can even play new Series X and S releases with your old Xbox One or Elite controller. The officially licensed Xbox One flight controllers, driving wheels and pedals, and fight sticks work too.

Some older Xbox One headsets use an optical connection that isn’t present on the Xbox Series X or S, so these might not work. If you own one of these, check with the manufacturer for an update on its compatibility.

Do You Need a 4K or HDR TV?

You don’t need a 4K TV to use either the Series X or S. Both support additional resolutions of 1440p and 1080p. You can even use a Series X in HD if you intend to upgrade to a 4K TV later.

HDR is used heavily by Series X and S, but it’s by no means necessary. You can disable all HDR features under the Settings menu.

Samsung Q95T

Presently, the Series X and S use HDR10, but Dolby Vision for gaming should be arriving at some point in 2021. While you don’t need Dolby Vision, if you’re buying a new TV anyway, you might want to prioritize it over other HDR formats.

Related: How to Buy a TV for Gaming in 2020

Is There an HDMI 2.1 Cable in the Box?

The Xbox Series X comes with an HDMI 2.1-compliant cable in the box so you can enjoy up to 4K at 120 fps in native, 10-bit color. The Series S comes with a regular HDMI 2.0 cable because it doesn’t need the additional bandwidth.

If you want a replacement cable for your Series X, just make sure you get an Ultra High-Speed HDMI that’s been certified by the HDMI Licensing Administrator.

Can You Play Games Remotely?

Remote play is possible between the Xbox console and a smartphone over a local network connection via the internet. However, your mileage may vary in terms of latency.

To do this, you’ll need a compatible smartphone, the Xbox app for iOS or Android, and a controller. You can use current or last-generation Xbox controllers for local play.

Game Pass for Xbox

Microsoft also has a cloud streaming service for which no Xbox is required to play games hosted on the cloud. This service (previously known as Xcloud) is currently in beta and requires a Game Pass Ultimate subscription ($14.99 per month).

Do Saves Sync Between Consoles or Remote Play?

Microsoft now uses cloud saves for all generations of Xbox games played on the Series X and S consoles. This means your saves will sync between consoles and any other devices you use to play.

Can You Take Screenshots and Videos?

The Series X and S controller features a dedicated Share button for taking screenshots and videos. You can customize the way the Share button works or map it to another button if you’re using an older controller.

By default, pressing the button once takes a screenshot, pressing and holding it saves a video, and double-tapping it reveals the capture gallery.

Forza Horizon 4 screenshot on Xbox Series X

After you take your screenshot or video, Microsoft uploads it to the cloud. You can then retrieve it via the Xbox app for iOS or Android, where you can also share it on social media or with your friends.

Can You Arrange the Consoles Vertically or Horizontally?

The Xbox Series X and S can both be arranged either vertically or horizontally. In the case of the Series X, though, just make sure you leave enough room for it to intake fresh air and exhaust hot air. Microsoft recommends leaving around 1.5 inches (4 cm) of space at the exhaust end.

For the Series S, you’ll want to make sure you don’t cover the black fan grille in either orientation.

What Is Game Pass?

Game Pass is Microsoft’s all-you-can-eat game subscription service. It works a bit like Netflix or Spotify, but for games. It features all first-party Microsoft titles on day one of their release. There are also a large number of third-party titles on the service that cycle in and out.

Microsoft's video game mascots in front of Xbox consoles.

Game Pass is available in a few tiers, with the best value being Game Pass Ultimate ($14.99 per month). It includes the Game Pass library, Xbox Live Gold, access to the cloud streaming beta, and (for an as-yet-undetermined period) access to EA’s back catalog via EA Play.

If you don’t want ultimate, though, you can get Game Pass for Consoles for $9.99 per month. However, you’ll still need an Xbox Live Gold subscription to play online.

Can the Series X Play Blu-rays with Dolby Vision?

The Xbox Series X has an Ultra HD Blu-ray player for movies, but the Series S doesn’t have a disc drive at all. Unfortunately, the Series X can’t currently play Dolby Vision discs in Dolby Vision, either—it defaults to HDR10.

Do the Consoles Get Hot or Loud?

Both the Xbox Series X and S will kick out some heat, but Microsoft has designed solutions to deal with this. The Series X uses a vapor chamber and a large 130mm fan to keep things cool. Under load, the console feels hot to the touch at the exhaust end, which indicates the cooling system is doing its job.

Both consoles are virtually silent, even under load. In an average living room, while playing a game at a low, but audible, volume, you probably won’t notice any noises. Installing a game from a disc is about as loud as the Series X ever gets.

Two Consoles, Two Price Points, One Ecosystem

Whether you go for the Series X or S, or just sign up for Game Pass on your Windows PC, Microsoft wants you in its ecosystem. The way games, saves, and subscriptions now work across platforms, it’s easier than ever to play wherever you are and on whatever hardware you’ve got.

Having a hard time deciding between the PS5, or Xbox Series X or S? If so, be sure to check out our comparison of the next-gen Microsoft and Sony consoles.

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