Ahead of the release of the Xbox Series X next month, select news organisations around the world have been given a preview unit to try out - including Newshub, the only outlet in New Zealand to receive one.
I've been playing with Microsoft's next-generation console for the last few weeks and while it's non-final hardware and software I've been using, it's very impressive.
This is a super powerful, beautifully quiet, elegantly designed gaming console whose full potential I've only just scratched the surface of.
The Series X is released in New Zealand on November 10 - two days before its primary rival, Sony's PlayStation 5.
Here are my impressions.
Goodbye load times
The most exciting thing about the Series X so far is its glorious high speed.
There is quite a lot about this new machine's power that I haven't yet experienced and won't for some time, but just how quickly it makes stuff happen is a real thrill.
Waiting around for a game to boot up, for the console itself to boot up, or for your saved game to load is all drastically reduced.
PC users have grown accustomed to these tiny wait times in recent years as the popularity of solid-state drives (SSDs) boomed, but it's new to consoles. Even if you plugged an SSD into your Xbox One or PS4, it's not the same as the raw power of the onboard NVMe one in the Series X.
Loading up a game like Dirt 5, it almost gives you whiplash how quickly you travel from the Xbox home screen to the game's menu and then into a race.
Using the Series X I've played a good few matches of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG), usually as part of a squad with players on current-gen consoles. One of those times I recorded how long each squadmate took to load into the lobby from the start menu when the "starting game" message appeared on-screen.
Keep in mind that the following times weren't scientifically recorded and there are a truckload of variables that could impact them, such as varying internet speeds - all that aside, here's how they looked:
- 20 seconds on the Series X
- 49 seconds on the Xbox One X
- 50 seconds on an original Xbox One with the game loading from a USB-connected SSD
- 64 seconds on the Xbox One S
To double-check, I got into a duo match with someone on a console on side-by-side screens using the same high-speed fibre connection, to eliminate internet speed variability at least.
Testing that three times over, each time the Series X loaded into the lobby in around 18 seconds every time, while the One S with the game on a USB-connected SSD took between 50 and 54 seconds each time.
As for the actual game itself, PUBG hasn't released a version optimised for Series X yet and when it does I expect a nice, much higher framerate that's lockable. But the framerate seemed higher anyway and the trees and other objects all appeared to load in much quicker on the Series X than the One consoles.
The Xbox's war on load times is taken to its most extreme level with the Quick Resume function.
This is such a great feature.
Quick Resume allows you to suspend a game automatically simply by quitting it. When you reboot, it'll fire back up right where you left off.
This might sound familiar - Microsoft tried it with the Xbox One, but it didn't work out. The Series X nails it by freezing your game state directly into the NVMe SSD's memory.
Think what it's like switching between apps running on a recent smartphone and you're on the right track.
It's almost like using a powerful PC and alt-tabbing between games that you've left running - but unlike that, Quick Resume even worked after I unplugged the console, moved it somewhere else and plugged it back in. Plus they're not actually running and using CPU power to do so - they're frozen in the background, waiting for your return.
There is a limit to the amount of games that can be suspended at the same time, but it's not a fixed number as some games are bigger than others.
When you've reached capacity, currently it'll automatically pop the oldest one out to make way for the newest - but if enough people ask for it, Xbox will probably allow this to be user-managed. That might be nice.
Silence is golden
The Series X is the quietest console I can remember using. It's pretty much silent.
Recently I upgraded my PC to a mighty 10th-gen Intel i9 CPU which required a new, very large cooling fan. Even though the Cooler Master fan is brand new, when it starts to whir it's noticeably louder than the Series X.
The exterior design of the Xbox means there's quite large holes that may allow dust through. One can use compressed air to clean any build-up away, but I'm told this can only be done externally and so pulling off an outer layer will likely void the warranty.
Xbox insists that the machine will stay this hushed even years after using it, but I guess time will tell.
For now, it's beautifully noiseless. Put your head up right beside the console in a quiet room and you'll hear its little hum and definitely feel some of the heat it's pushing out - but what weirdo is doing that?
Just us super geeks when we first get it and want to warmly smile at the quietness. Tragic, I know, but it is so lovely.
If it ain't broke...
The Series X's user-interface (UI), boot-up sounds, menu options and general look is all very similar to the Xbox One. This could well change when the console is actually released to the public - but I wouldn't expect big changes.
Microsoft says they're creating a gaming 'ecosystem' that is very expansive and evolving, rather than standalone devices with separate everything. So if you're playing on various consoles, a PC, your mobile or whatever, it should all look pretty much the same.
I guess also the company is just really happy with how its UI currently looks, and there is strength in its simplicity. It's still slightly difficult to find certain things like 'redeem code' - maybe a quickly accessible search function like that on the lower left of Windows 10 would be a helpful addition.
The controller is also very similar to the Xbox One's, with a few little tweaks. The RB and LB buttons along with the D-pad feel a little clickier, which is satisfying - but not as satisfying as the new texturing on the bottom of the controller and the triggers.
It provides greater grip and just feels oh-so-nice to the fingertips.
The D-pad is also circular rather than cross-shaped and there is an extra button - a share button, which functions almost identically to that of the PS4 controller.
This is actually a cool upgrade when used in conjunction with the new Xbox smartphone app. You can really quickly use the controller button to capture a screenshot or video, which uploads to your Xbox cloud, then have the ease of sharing it via your mobile and social media apps on that.
I have long been a big fan of Xbox controllers and generally prefer them to PlayStation controllers, but I am very interested in the new haptic technology Sony is talking up a lot about the PS5's DualSense - if it's as good as they say, that's an advantage over the Series X controller.
As for the Series X console's design, I really like it. The industrial matte black, rectangular look is great and doesn't look out of place alongside anything else in the house. The green paint in the exhaust grill gives it personality, but it's subtle - not garish and dorky like a lot of products aimed at gamers are.
A potential to underwhelm?
So far, I haven't played a truly next-generation game that has really blown my hair back with the Series X preview.
There's a lot of exciting stuff it offers - as outlined in the rest of this article - but the actual games so far are super fast to get into, but don't show enormous jumps in graphics or complexity.
Big caveats here: this is non-final, preview hardware I'm playing on. Also, launch games are generally like this in modern times - third-party titles that have to straddle current-gen and next-gen to be financially viable, so can't really flex next-generation muscles very hard.
Current-gen and previous-gen games play fantastic on the Series X thanks to the backwards-compatibility efforts, but y'know, they aren't next-gen.
So if you get a Series X at launch, don't expect the leap you may remember from Sega Mega Drive to the original PlayStation. Seeing that sort of enormous, obvious jump is probably coming a bit later, or at least not with the preview hardware and software.
Gears Tactics, ported from PC, is the most impressive game I've played so far on the Series X. It's got huge game-spaces which are super-detailed at all ranges - from high-up birds-eye views of the battlefield to close-up animations of a Locust being chainsawed in half.
It's also just a lot of fun and a great direction for the Gears franchise to go in. And by that I mean the X-COM direction.
As for the other new games, Dirt 5 looks and feels very current-gen aside from the framerate, as does Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
Oh, but about that framerate...
Buttery smooth motion
Aside from the high load speeds and Quick Resume, the one truly next-generation feature I have been able to get a taste of is 120 frames-per-second in Dirt 5.
No, this is not like the high framerate The Hobbit screenings you watched in cinema. This is not a film, this is a game and the effect is much more pleasant with this medium. It's hard to explain how much smoother it looks, you really have to see it.
Unfortunately I've only been able to experience this on a relatively small gaming monitor so far - my big primary TV is a Panasonic OLED that's a few years old.
That means I'm faced with a problem many people will have in that while everything looks mint in 4K with HDR on, my TV doesn't have VRR, ALLM or 120Hz mode - so I'm really not getting the full benefits of Series X.
If those terms don't make sense to you - welcome to the confusing world of buying a new TV in 2020!
True potential untapped
Having not seen everything this baby can do is frustrating on one hand, but it's also tremendously exciting.
Very quickly upon using a Series X one gets a whiff of its power. Sure, we're not seeing that power used to its full potential just yet, but when we do, it's going to be so good!
This thing plays like a gaming PC that you'd have to spend many thousands of dollars to build, but will cost NZ$800 when it goes on sale. Plus you pull it out its box, plug it in and you're good - no desktop assembly or anything like that.
It's a shame Halo Infinite wasn't made in time to be the big launch title that defines the start of the Series X era and shows just how amazing games can be on it.
I can't wait to discover what the first Series X era defining game actually is soon. Before then, it's a lot of fun playing all my current-gen games faster and better than they ever have.
Microsoft provided Newshub with a preview Xbox Series X console for this article.