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Microsoft’s Xbox Series X Review: The Living Room Gaming PC I’ve (Mostly) Always Wanted

Last year, not long after Microsoft announced the Xbox Series X, I declared that the upcoming console would “end” — I specifically did not say “win” — the PC/console war, not by beating the PC, but by effectively becoming a PC. At the hardware level, that’s more-or-less what has happened, and it’s particularly true in Microsoft’s case because the Xbox runs an OS based on Windows 10. Does it do what an HTPC/gaming PC does in a living room? I thought it would.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to put my theory to the test by evaluating the $ 499 Xbox Series X as an HTPC and downstairs gaming system replacement for the hardware I currently use for that task. Because I’ve never reviewed a console before and don’t have a handy PlayStation 5 to compare against, I’m going to evaluate the XSX explicitly from the viewpoint of a lifetime PC gamer considering the value and utility of the system. I’ll also have more to say about the system and some more direct comparisons at a later date when I am not responsible for two completely different reviews simultaneously.

This review does not focus on absolute image quality between Xbox and PC versions of a game. This is partly because virtually all of the truly next-generation games for Xbox Series X is still locked away, and partly because I just bought a 4K OLED and have only had a week with the Xbox Series X, which isn’t enough time for comparative analysis. Rendering a verdict without proper comparison risks mistaking improvements to the display with improvements to the image quality.

Specifically, I bought this OLED. LG CX 55-inch. It’s only been a week, but we’re very happy together.

Defining ‘PC’ in This Context

Conceptually, the Xbox Series X challenges the utility of a Home Theater PC, or HTPC, as well as a living room gaming PC (these are sometimes the same thing). HTPCs are pretty common in the enthusiast community, going all the way back to ATI and the days of their All-in-Wonder video capture card. An HTPC is typically (but not always) a secondary system attached to a TV rather than someone’s primary rig. They can be optimized for low power consumption and high storage capacity or kitted out more like gaming systems for simultaneous HTPC and high-end big-screen gaming capabilities. Content playback and gaming are the two markets where an HTPC would typically compete with a console and I’m comparing them on that basis.

What I Thought of Consoles Going In

Before starting this review, I thought of game consoles as a perfectly valid method of gaming, especially if you already had a lot of cash invested in the Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo ecosystems, but certainly not a preferable one. Console developers, in my opinion, were far too willing to tolerate low frame rates. The few times I picked up an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller, I felt like I was gaming on a mid-to-low-end PC.

Unlike some PC gamers, I do not and have never hated consoles, but I’ve rarely been impressed by them.

The Hardware

My first thought, when I saw the Xbox Series X, was “Awww. It’s cute.”

The Xbox Series X is an unusually shaped small form factor PC. It uses a single 130mm ventilation fan to cool the system and it’s very quiet. I never heard the machine while gaming or watching content, even with the TV volume low. The PlayStation 5 may yet prove to be a truly chonky boy, but the XSX is smaller than I expected it to be. If you’ve spent a few decades with an ATX tower of one sort or another cluttering up the living room, the Xbox Series X is a delightful step towards smaller solutions, not larger ones.

The Xbox Series X’s ventilation diagram. The invasive pool noodles shove their way through the console until they are transformed into a cooling mint tornado. Or something. Seriously though, this thing is whisper-quiet.

As far as backward compatibility goes, the Xbox Series X had no problem identifying and enabling an Xbox One controller. The two controllers feel identical, at least to my hand, but I’m not exactly a connoisseur of the art form. My significant other, who is also a PC gamer, commented that the rumble didn’t make her rings vibrate, which she appreciated.

It’s not directly germane since I’m not comparing against a PS5, but the 3,328 RDNA2 GPU cores are worthy of a desktop PC card — and will be mounted in them soon enough.

As far as technical specs, we’ve discussed both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 on more than one occasion. Microsoft went for an AMD Zen 3-based CPU, RDNA2 GPU, and fixed clock speeds for both, in direct opposition to Sony’s emphasis on variable clocking. There’ve also been some interesting remarks recently that confirm something we’d heard privately a few months ago: The Xbox Series X supports the full RDNA2 feature set, while the PlayStation 5 is supposedly based on RDNA (but with ray tracing still enabled). We don’t know enough yet to suss out the differences here, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Services and Gaming: Microsoft Makes a Hell of a Case

The Xbox Series X cold boots from an unplugged state in 20.58 seconds on average when measured from the moment the button was pressed, not when the screen activated. The total time to load a saved game and begin playing Fallout New Vegas was 47.48 seconds when completely unplugged. When I merely turned the console off at the switch (depressing the button until the light turned off completely), the resume time was 4.5 seconds. We can’t compare the Xbox initialization process exactly to the boot time of a PC, but those figures are solidly within the range of high-end desktops, depending on how many applications you load at boot.

Setting the console up with a Microsoft account is arguably less annoying than installing Windows 10 (this is not a high bar), and once you’ve got it configured, things happen fast. I saw Fallout New Vegas available via Xbox Game Pass and was jaunting through the Mojave within 15 minutes of creating my account. I’m not going to say a high-end PC couldn’t match the same time from OS installation to game creation, but you’d need to be using the latest version of Windows 10 with pre-loaded GPU drivers or willing to run unpatched to score equivalently.

When it comes to outfitting the console with a suite of common apps like YouTube, Netflix, and such, Microsoft lands firmly in “just works” territory. Netflix image quality is much higher on the Xbox Series X, even though my HTPC streams using Microsoft Edge. An apples-to-apples comparison of the exact same stream always favors the Xbox Series X. Given a choice between streaming a service over Xbox Series X or my own HTPC, I’d take the XSX, ten times out of ten.

On the whole, the Xbox Series X is a very effective advertisement for Microsoft’s entire gaming ecosystem. Xbox Game Pass gives a new player an instant library of titles to choose from, with multiple entries in popular genres. Setting up apps like Netflix to run on the console is trivial. Game load times seem equal to or better than what we’d expect from an equivalent PC.

This is the sort of feature Microsoft promised to deliver when it began marketing the Xbox Series X. It wasn’t a feature I was certain we’d get. As I said earlier, I don’t — or at least I didn’t — associate consoles with high-end performance.

How does it feel to play the Xbox Series X? It feels like playing a game on a high-end PC, with a heavy-duty CPU core backing it up. The caveat here is that the titles we had available to play for Nov. 5 reflect current-generation titles and don’t feature capabilities like ray tracing, but then again, you can’t run DXR on any other AMD GPU currently in-market, either. As next-generation games unlock we’ll be able to compare more effectively on that front.

Every common title that I’ve played on both console and PC felt as equivalently good to play on this console as on any PC, at least as far as the underlying hardware’s performance. Microsoft is still working out the kinks in its Quick Resume feature, but it’s incredibly quick in action: tap, tap, and boom — you’re in a different game. Alt-tabbing between different games on PC is a risky proposition at best unless you already know both applications behave nicely when loaded simultaneously. The fact that you can even try alt-tabbing between games without instantly crashing the system is itself an achievement — GPUs didn’t used to tolerate being used for multiple workloads simultaneously under any circumstances.

From where I sit, this is no small thing. Unless you consider the PS5 — and I don’t have one to consider — there’s no way to get this kind of performance at the $ 500 price point in the PC universe. If you have an otherwise high-end system you could certainly upgrade your GPU to equal or better performance for less than $ 500, but the Xbox Series X is quite aggressively priced for its hardware specs.

What I Didn’t Like

There are some distinct things I do not like about the XSX. First, there’s the controller. While I have absolutely no complaint about the Xbox Series X controller as a controller, I would like to point out to whatever god or gods might be listening that using analog sticks to control a first-person shooter is like taking away a person’s hands and giving them a pair of stupid meat flippers instead. Nothing makes a sniper kill more satisfying than trying to simultaneously maneuver the world’s least-precise instrument over a head that’s four pixels wide without standing up / opening your Pip Boy / accidentally shooting Sunny Smiles in the back of the head.

Controllers vex me, is what I’m saying. They vex me enough that the learning curve, at least in some games, feels more like a learning cliff. If you’re a lifelong PC gamer like myself, you should expect some transition pains. After a week, I’m still not comfortable in a lot of titles, and full mouse and keyboard support would go a long way to making the Xbox Series S / X feel like a welcoming home for PC gamers.

Another negative? No modding support on the XSX, at least not yet. Modding on consoles is still in its infancy, so a big support boost from Microsoft would probably help the idea take off. Mods are a very important part of gaming to me and I’d always keep a foot in the PC gaming ecosystem for this reason alone, even if I switched primarily to console gaming.

The last thing about the Xbox Series X that I didn’t like is its overall network usage. While this could be the result of a disagreeable interaction between the XSX and my router, it’s a terrible bandwidth pig. Some applications “share” bandwidth more easily than others, which is to say that some of them will tank your entire internet connection as they hoover data out of the internet, while some are better behaved.

The Xbox Series X is not well-behaved. I actually had to shut the console down at multiple points during simultaneous Zen 3 / Xbox Series X testing, in order to download benchmarks at any kind of speed. Eighteen minutes on a 12MB download doesn’t cut it. I’m open to the idea that this is a conflict with my router, but the situation is untenable regardless.

There currently seems to be no method of controlling the Xbox Series X’s bandwidth usage while downloading without doing it externally at the router.

Is the Xbox Series X a Better Living Room PC Than a Typical PC?

The question of whether the Xbox Series X is a better living room PC than a regular HTPC depends, I think, on what your needs are. If you’re into video editing, content remastering, or upscaling, you know there are a lot of players and plugins you can use to improve baseline image quality in various ways. If you have content in unusual or esoteric video formats, there’s almost certainly a codec available on PC to play it. Consoles are dicier in that regard, though both Microsoft and Sony support the most common video and audio codecs.

If Microsoft supported keyboard and mouse configurations out of the box across the entire Xbox product line, I’d be 100 percent sold on the idea of the XSX as a media playback and gaming machine. Seeing as I’m still on Team Meat Flipper, I’m a little more circumspect in my evaluation. Is the Xbox Series X better than the [Insert $ 1,000+ gaming PC] you can buy at [insert OEM / boutique builder]? Very possibly not. Is it better than any $ 500 gaming PC you’re going to find in-market any time soon? I’m comfortable saying yes.

I’m not going to try to predict how the Xbox Series X will perform against the PS5 or which console players will prefer, but as far as comparisons to an equivalently-priced PC are concerned, the Xbox Series X more than holds its own. I’m downright impressed by the overall value proposition of the console and its capabilities. Obviously, you won’t be running DaVinci Studio Resolve on an Xbox any time soon, but when evaluated in terms of streaming fidelity, the Xbox Series X wins. Evaluated against the gaming capabilities of a $ 500 PC build, the Xbox Series X wins.

Gaming on the Xbox Series X may not feel much like gaming on the PC, thanks to the difference in interfaces, but it offers all of the PC’s greatest strengths in terms of load times and frame rates. The platform overperforms its price point, and it’s impressed me as far as the overall ecosystem value. There are no weak points here, and no Kinect-style screwups to muddy the value of the system. It’s a much stronger offering than Microsoft launched in 2013, and I’m really curious to see if the company will manage to convert PlayStation 4 owners to its own ecosystem, or if it’ll mostly appeal to existing Xbox, Switch, and PC gamers.

I’ll have more to say in upcoming articles. As a newcomer to the Xbox Series X ecosystem, I’m impressed by what I’ve seen thus far.

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‘I’ve come a long way’: A year on, Danforth shooting survivor Danielle Kane hopeful through pain

Danielle Kane and her boyfriend, Jerry Pinksen, were out for a friend’s birthday at a busy restaurant in Toronto’s Greektown neighbourhood on a summer Sunday. It was the evening of July 22, 2018.

Outside 7Numbers, commotion broke out on Danforth Avenue; a frantic woman burst in saying someone had been shot.

Pinksen, a emergency room nurse, and Kane, a nursing student at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, immediately got up to help.

They hardly made it out the door when they came face-to-face with Faisal Hussain, who fired at least eight bullets in their direction.

One of them tore through Kane’s stomach and diaphragm before shattering her T11 vertebra, near the base of her spine.

In that moment, Kane became one of the 13 people injured in the mass shooting that also claimed the lives of 18-year-old Reese Fallon and 10-year-old Julianna Kozis.

Hussain, 29, died of a self-inflicted shot to the head after a gunfight with police. Kane, 32, who spent 11 days in a medically induced coma and underwent multiple surgeries, survived.

The National first spoke to Kane last summer, just a month after the shooting, at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, where she was immersed in intensive physical therapy.

A year later, this time in the lobby of the downtown apartment building she and Pinksen share, Kane appears effervescent. She spoke to us on what she calls a “good pain day.”

Pain the new normal

“It’s been a really tough year. I’m really surprised about how long the rehabilitation process is taking, especially regarding the chronic pain that I’m experiencing,” Kane told The National’s Andrew Chang. 

“It’s like an intense pins-and-needles feeling from my waist down. It’s quite all encompassing. Like half your body is trapped in concrete.”

Kane’s pain management regimen includes a variety of medications, including pregabalin (Lyrica) in addition to CBD oil and medical marijuana, which helps her from feeling overwhelmed by constant, nagging pain. 

Kane says the pain, more than the inability to walk, is the most debilitating aspect of her recovery.

“We knew that the disability, the paraplegia ― she will never walk again ― was an issue and we were preparing for that. But this new element of pain, it’s been difficult,” Pinksen said. 

“The pain management takes up all of her day and there’s nothing I can do to take her pain away.”

Kane struggles with constant, daily pain. But with the support of her partner, she’s building a new life. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A year ago, the question of regaining some mobility in her legs remained open. Now she, and Pinksen, have moved beyond that hope.

“Honestly, it’s hard for me to see all all the other able-bodied young people and just seeing how freely they move through the world. And it just it reminds me of what was taken away from me.… It’s hard,” Kane said.

“When I have those thoughts, I kind of need to, like, go home and into a private space where I can kind of digest those thoughts, and, I guess, focus on the fact that I’m so lucky to be here still.”

Mental health and the shooter

In her first interview with The National in September 2018, Kane expressed sympathy for Hussain. At the time, she avoided using his name. Now she doesn’t hesitate.

“Faisal clearly had these issues for a long time and he fell through the cracks,” she said. “The investigation showed just how long he had been dealing with mental health issues and clearly he needed help and he didn’t get it.”

WATCH: Danforth shooting survivor Danielle Kane on why she feels sorry for gunman

One year after she was shot in a mass shooting on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, Danielle Kane says she felt sorry for the gunman and it was clear he needed help. 1:02

In the days following the shooting, Hussain’s family put out a statement detailing their son’s long history of mental illness, including depression and psychosis.

For Kane, she says her sense of compassion is rooted in her own battles with depression. 

“I’ve been in really dark places where I felt like I was on the outside, or that my life wasn’t going as I expected and, you know, I felt like maybe it would be better if I wasn’t around,” she said.

“I understand how someone who is alone would have trouble getting out of that negative spiral. I know it’s hard for other people to believe, but we need to bring in people like Faisal and love them. None of us are perfect.”

After a nearly yearlong investigation, investigators said they were unable to pinpoint a motive for the shooting spree.

Returning to the scene

The couple doesn’t talk much about that night ― Pinksen says it can hinder their recovery and their ability to move forward ― but they have been back to the Danforth since the shooting. 

It happened by accident, and instead of fear or hatred, Kane said she felt stronger being back at the scene.

Kane and Pinksen were dropping friends off at home after stopping at a pub on St. Patrick’s Day, when they happened to pass by Bowden Street — where Kane was shot. 

WATCH: Danielle Kane reflects on returning to the Danforth after mass shooting

Danforth shooting victim Danielle Kane says a chance encounter brought her back to the place she was shot, but it gives her strength. 1:15

“Just to see it again, how narrow the street is and how close the shooter was to me, I’m again reminded of how lucky I am to be alive, because I could not have been closer to him,” she said.

“It was surprising to me. I thought I might feel afraid. But instead I feel stronger because I’ve come a long way since the last time I was there. I was bleeding and broken and now I’ve been put back together and I’m on the path to recovery.”

Plans for the future

Kane had planned to return to nursing school in January, but the challenges of her recovery have pushed that goal down the road.

“I expect to be able to get back to some kind of normal adult life. Working, going back to school. But I’m just realizing that the timeframe I need to move on to those steps is going to be a little bit farther away than I want it to be,” she said.

“It’s hard to know how many days of clarity, of concentration I’ll be able to string together. I don’t want to go back before I’m ready.”

Kane is starting a new life in Oshawa, Ont., and hopes to finish her studies in nursing school with a new-found drive to help people. (Evan Mitsui)

The pair does have plans to relocate to Oshawa, Ont., into a home they plan to make fully accessible with the help of financial support from donors.

Their new home is also a short walk from the Abilities Centre, where Kane plans to continue her physical rehabilitation, as well as the Ontario Institute of Technology, where Kane one day plans to continue studying to become a nurse.

“I just think about other people around the world who have been victims of violent crime or who’ve been victims of war, and I think of how lucky we are to live in Canada,” she said.

“We have health care. We have insurance. So we’re set up nicely to handle this and to overcome it. For that, we’re so grateful.”

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