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Oliver Cragg / Android Authority
Microsoft’s Xbox might be the newest player in console gaming’s “big three,” but the brand has managed to stand out with unique hardware and services from the very beginning. Two decades in, Xbox is already looking well beyond the console age and into the future of gaming with cloud-based gaming infrastructure.
So how exactly did Xbox get here and what lies ahead? We put together this comprehensive guide to the brand, covering everything from console history to first-party studio acquisitions and more. Whether you’re a long-time fan or a recent Xbox Series X or Series S buyer, here’s everything you need to know about Xbox!
Although Xbox has expanded to software and services in recent years, the heart of the brand is still home consoles. At this point, we’ve had two decades of releases, comprising four separate generations and several more inter-generational upgrades to keep pushing graphical limits as far as possible.
If you really want to learn more about the history of Xbox consoles, we have a full guide for that linked below. For the brief version, keep reading.
Read also: The history of Xbox
Hadlee Simons / Android Authority
Microsoft’s first Xbox console came out back in 2001, competing with the Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo Gamecube, and to a lesser extent, the Sega Dreamcast. Considering the PS2 is the best-selling console of all time, that’s some fierce competition.
Even so, the Xbox managed to win over some fans. It didn’t make much headway in Japan (where all three other consoles originated), but it fared much better in Europe and the United States.
Much of that success is due to Xbox Live, which offered the best online gaming experience of any console at the time. Paired with an integrated broadband modem and the flagship game Halo 2, the original Xbox truly set the stage for later expansion of online gaming as a whole.
Xbox Series X and Series S
Oliver Cragg / Android Authority
Xbox was at a low point when coming into its fourth generation of consoles, but it really brought the heat with two separate console designs to suit all budgets in 2023. The more expensive Xbox Series X provides truly next-gen performance, while the all-digital Xbox Series S allows access to the same games at a lower resolution — and a much lower price point.
Without getting too deep into technical specifications, the Series X is built to target consistent 4K/60fps, with support for up to 8K resolution and 120fps. The less powerful Series S, on the other hand, targets 1440p/60fps, with support for 4K upscaling and 120fps.
As mentioned above, Xbox had a special focus on service since its very early days with Xbox Live. Today, those services expand beyond just the console space and form a big part of Xbox’s strategy to build out its digital ecosystem.
To give you an idea of what the company has to offer, here’s a quick roundup of all Xbox services currently available. Be sure to check out our dedicated guides to learn more about each service.
Xbox Cloud Gaming
Oliver Cragg / Android Authority
Looking to the future, Xbox has recently launched a cloud gaming service called Xbox Cloud Gaming. Known as Project xCloud while in beta, it offers access to a library of Xbox games streamed directly from the cloud to your mobile device.
Xbox Game Pass
Another key Xbox service is Game Pass. First launched in the Xbox One era in 2023, it offers access to a library of games for a simple monthly subscription fee. It’s often referred to as a “Netflix-for-games” model, and Microsoft’s last official disclosure revealed 18 million paying subscribers. However, an unofficial source pegs the service at 23 million subscribers as of April 2023.
Next: Xbox Game Pass buyer’s guide
There are actually two separate versions of Xbox Game Pass: One for Xbox consoles and one for PC. These have different libraries and require separate subscription fees (unless subscribed to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate). Both libraries are constantly shifting, although discounts are offered on games leaving Game Pass for those who want to continue playing.
Microsoft has pushed Xbox Game Pass heavily in the past few years, and a big part of that is day-one access to new first-party games from Xbox Game Studios. As the list of studios grows to include Bethesda, Rare, Mojang, Activision Blizzard (pending the deal’s closure), and many others, the value of a Game Pass subscription also goes up. That makes it an attractive prospect for both casual and hardcore gamers alike.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate
While Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Game Pass for PC offer great value, nothing compares to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. As the name implies, it’s the ultimate subscription service for both console and PC gamers.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is the best deal in gaming.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate includes both Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Game Pass for PC, Xbox Live Gold, Xbox Cloud Gaming, and EA Play. All of that costs just $14.99 a month, which is less than any two of those subscriptions purchased individually.
This premium subscription is a big part of Xbox’s strategy going forward, as evidenced by its bundling with an Xbox Series X or S with Xbox All Access. This special deal includes a console and two-year access to Game Pass Ultimate for either $24.99 or $34.99 a month, depending on whether you opt for the Series S or Series X.
Xbox controllers and accessories
Read also: The best PC game controllers you can get
While we’re on the subject of controllers, there’s one more option you might want to consider if you’re an avid user of Xbox Cloud Gaming, and that’s the Razer Kishi Xbox Edition. It has all of the same buttons as a regular Xbox controller, but it clips onto your phone for Xbox gaming on the go.
The company also released the innovative Xbox Adaptive Controller for gamers with disabilities in 2023. This features two large buttons and a large D-pad, plus more than twenty ports that support a variety of input devices. This setup allows enormous customization of control schemes so virtually anyone can game, no matter how limited their mobility.Xbox charging accessories
Unless you want to spend the rest of your days buying AA batteries, you’ll want to invest in a Play and Charge controller battery pack. This nifty little pack offers up to 30 hours of playtime on a single charge. It takes about four hours to fully charge via USB
If you’re worried about charging downtime cutting into your gaming, you can also swing for the PowerA Charging Stand. It comes with two battery packs and a handy stand to store two controllers. The battery pack won’t last quite as long, but it will make sure you always have at least one controller ready to go.
343 Industries: Halo
Alpha Dog Games: Primarily mobile titles
Arkane Studios: Dishonored, Deathloop
Bethesda Game Studios: The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Starfield
The Coalition: Gears of War
Compulsion Games: Contrast, We Happy Few
Double Fine Productions: Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, Broken Age
id Software: Doom, Quake
The Initiative: Perfect Dark
inXile Entertainment: Wasteland, Bard’s Tale
MachineGames: Wolfenstein, Indiana Jones
Mojang Studios: Minecraft
Ninja Theory: Kung Fu Chaos, Heavenly Sword, Devil May Cry, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Obsidian Entertainment: The Outer Worlds
Playground Games: Forza Horizon, Fable
Rare: Banjo-Kazooie, Conker, Kameo, Sea of Thieves
Roundhouse Studios: New studio from Human Head Studios devs (Prey, The Quiet Man, Rune II)
Tango Gameworks: The Evil Within, Ghostwire: Tokyo
Turn 10 Studios: Forza Motorsport
Undead Labs: State of Decay
World’s Edge: Age of Empires
Xbox Game Studios Publishing: Publishes games by external devs (Ori and the Blind Forest, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Zoo Tycoon)
ZeniMax Online Studios: The Elder Scrolls Online
What makes Xbox unique?
Ryan-Thomas Shaw / Android Authority
For other game consoles like the Nintendo Switch and the Sony PlayStation 5, what makes them stand out from the crowd is a variety of exclusive titles. In the case of Xbox, there are some exclusive titles (as seen above), but the approach is much more inclusive.
Nearly all first-party Xbox games are available on both PC and console (not to mention the cloud), so gamers don’t need to purchase any expensive hardware to get the Xbox experience. Even the latest next-gen console games are available with ray-tracing support on the $300 Xbox Series S.
Xbox is well-positioned in an increasingly crowded and competitive gaming industry, but that doesn’t mean it can rest on its laurels. For now, it sits among the top three for console games, but with mobile and now cloud gaming on the rise, other brands may rise and fall to meet the shifting tides.
Here’s a quick roundup of some of Xbox’s biggest competitors now and in the future.
More: PS5 vs Xbox Series X
Still, PlayStation has a lot to offer beyond just first-party exclusives. Its consoles offer excellent VR support (which the Xbox Series X/S do not have), as well as an incredible new DualSense controller with adaptive triggers and immersive haptic feedback. For many pure console gamers, that puts PlayStation a head above Xbox when choosing new gaming hardware for the living room.
Oliver Cragg / Android Authority
Nintendo has historically been the odd man out in the console gaming scene, with unique console designs and input schemes unlike even its own previous iterations. This means that each generation is fresh and exciting, although backwards compatibility is often woefully absent.
The biggest draw, regardless of the hardware, has always been Nintendo’s incredible library of first-party games. Iconic games from series like Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Kirby, Fire Emblem, Super Smash Bros, and countless others are exclusively found on Nintendo consoles. This is enough to drive demand, despite historically weak graphical performance when compared to Xbox or Sony consoles.
Neither Xbox nor PlayStation can compete with Nintendo’s first-party games.
The Japanese company’s latest console, the Nintendo Switch, is one of a kind in that it can serve as both a home console and a portable console by removing it from the included dock, hence the name. More than four years after it first hit the market, it’s selling better than ever and may prove to be Nintendo’s most popular console to date by the end of its run.
That said, it isn’t seen as an Xbox rival to the same extent as the Sony PlayStation is. As the Xbox brand expands into the cloud gaming space and beyond, this is unlikely to change. Nintendo will continue to do its thing by delivering excellent, but limited, gaming experiences for the whole family.
It might come as a surprise to find Google on the list of Xbox competitors, but it makes sense when you consider the wider goals of the brand. Xbox wants to be a household name in gaming in the same way that Google is a household name in search (and many other industries). It can also be seen as an offshoot of the rivalry between Google and Xbox’s parent company, Microsoft.
That said, the main overlap between the two is cloud gaming. Google was the first major player to enter the scene with Google Stadia back in 2023, and it remains one of the most (technically) proficient platforms, with low latency performance and excellent device support. Instead of relying on subscription services, players can buy a game and keep it forever, playing whenever they want from the cloud.The Xbox 360 catches on
Xbox has been in a perennial second or third place, but the brand really made some headway with its second major console release. The Xbox 360 didn’t exactly sell more than its fellow generation of consoles, but it does remain the best-selling console in Xbox history.
A big part of that was price. It launched a full $200 cheaper than the PS3, which was a tough upsell from the incredibly popular PS2 at the time.Online gaming with Xbox Live
Online gaming was big in certain circles when Xbox Live launched in 2002, but on consoles it was in a fairly sorry state. Dreamcast Online and PlayStation Online suffered from poor server performance and a serious lack of basic features, meaning that online play was mostly relegated to PC gaming.
To combat this, Microsoft made Xbox Live a key feature of its first console, providing excellent server performance, a friends list, voice chat, built-in broadband support, downloadable content, and more. Once Halo 2 came out in 2004, the service had more than established itself as the premier platform for online multiplayer on consoles.Release of the Xbox Adaptive Controller
When it comes to accessibility, gamers with reduced mobility are often left in the dust. Thankfully, Microsoft addressed this problem in 2023 with the Xbox adaptive controller.
With two large buttons and a host of features for customization, it opens a lot of doors for disabled gamers. It was named as one of Time’s Best Inventions of 2023 and remains one of the best accessibility controllers for any platform.Launching Xbox Game Pass Ultimate
It’s no secret that Xbox Game Pass is set to play a huge role in Xbox’s business strategy going forward, but it’s also a huge boon for gamers. While most people are suffering from subscription fatigue, few are complaining about Game Pass. Everyone wanted a “Netflix for games” subscription, and that’s exactly what Xbox delivered.
The most expensive option, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, is widely considered the best deal in gaming. It just has so many excellent titles to play through on console, PC, and the cloud, with new first-party titles joining the service on day one.The commitment to backwards compatibility
Ever since the release of the Xbox 360, Xbox has been committed to maintaining backwards compatibility for all of its consoles. This is a huge benefit for legacy gamers and goes far beyond anything offered by its rivals.
Currently, the Xbox Series X and Series S are backwards compatible all the way back to the original console. Not every game is supported, but virtually all of the big hits from Xbox history can be enjoyed on a single console.
Worst moments in Xbox historyXbox 360 Red Ring of Death
While the Xbox 360 was a high point for the brand, it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops. Early consoles were plagued with technical problems, most notably the infamous Red Ring of Death (RRoD), riffing off Window’s Blue Screen of Death.
Mostly caused by consoles overheating, it led gamers to try all kinds of strange home remedies like wrapping their consoles in a cold towel. Ultimately, Xbox extended warranties to three years for early models, and spent a lot of cash repairing and replacing faulty consoles.Xbox One price shock Heavy-handed DRM on second-hand games
Pricing wasn’t the only controversy during the Xbox One era. When the console was first announced, Microsoft announced that it would require gamers to fully install games onto their hard drives (including disc-based games), and verify their purchase every 24 hours to play. This also meant the company would control whether or not you could sell your games or lend them to friends and family.
Thankfully, Xbox officials quickly walked these plans back after heavy backlash from fans. Gamers were free to share, lend, and sell their games at launch, and once a game was installed on a console it could be played without ever connecting to the internet again.Xbox Live Gold price hike
Shortly after the release of the Xbox Series X/S, the company announced that its online component, Xbox Network (formerly Xbox Live), would double in price from $60 to $120 a year. Compared to online gaming on PCs, which has always been free of charge — plus the fact that even free-to-play games like Fortnite required a paid subscription — this struck fans as incredibly out of step with the times.
Like the DRM debacle above, Xbox backtracked on these plans as well. Xbox Live Gold remained the same price as always, and the company even dropped the paid subscription requirement for free-to-play games.Other details
Although Xbox seems to have largely abandoned its aspirations to be a set-top box replacement, the brand does have one interesting device in the works that ties in with Xbox Cloud Gaming. Essentially a streaming stick that plugs into the back of any TV, it would allow access to game streaming without any further hardware (other than a controller).
Microsoft has confirmed that the device is coming soon, but hasn’t provided any details beyond that. We don’t know what it looks like, how much it will cost, or even whether it will launch alongside a standalone Xbox Cloud Gaming subscription (it’s currently tied to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate).
Another upcoming development is an Xbox TV app, which essentially does the same as the device above but for smart TVs. With just a compatible controller and a stable internet connection, users can stream Xbox games directly to their TVs. This would bring it up to device parity with the most accessible cloud streaming platform at the moment, Google Stadia.
A: The first Xbox came out on November 15, 2001 in North America, and in early 2002 in the rest of the world.
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