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Xbox Series X vs. PC: Which is right for you?

Xbox Series X vs. PC
(Image credit: Microsoft/Tom's Guide)

The Xbox Series X looks like the most powerful home console ever made — and it’s still not as powerful as a high-end gaming PC. With holiday 2020 and the release of the new consoles drawing ever closer, a lot of gamers may want to start squirreling money away for their next big tech toy. But at the beginning of any console generation, it’s worth asking: Would that $500 (give or take) be better invested in a console, or a PC?

The short answer is that both consoles and PCs have pros and cons, and that every user’s situation is a little different. But with the Xbox Series X, the calculus is a little bit different than before. The Xbox Series X isn’t selling itself on exclusive games or bespoke hardware; it’s just one way to access an entire gaming ecosystem. And, perhaps for the first time in console history, you’ll be able to access the exact same ecosystem on a PC.

This story isn’t really about comparing an Xbox Series X and a gaming PC head-to-head, partially because there are thousands of different gaming PCs, and even with the Xbox Series X specs in hand, we haven’t seen how it performs firsthand yet. Instead, here’s a look at whether there’s still value in buying a console when everything it offers works just as well — and probably better — on a PC. 

(Image credit: 343 Industries)

Xbox Series X vs PC: Games 

I recently wrote a piece comparing the PS5 to gaming PCs, in which I pointed out how PlayStation’s strong library of exclusive games was reason enough to buy a PS4, and will be a strong incentive for PS5 as well.

With Xbox Series X, though, there’s basically no such thing as an “exclusive” title. Every first-party Microsoft game will be available on both the Xbox Series X and the PC. (Many will also be available on the Xbox One, at least for the next year or two, but I don’t think a current-gen console is a great investment at the moment.) As such, if you have a reasonably good gaming PC already, there’s not much incentive to get an Xbox Series X — unless you want a separate living room system. Save data will sync across PC and Xbox versions of a game thanks to Smart Delivery, so that’s one argument in favor of buying a new console.

However, there’s still one big area where the PC won’t be able to match the Xbox Series X, and that’s backwards compatibility. The Xbox Series X will be backwards-compatible with every Xbox One game, as well as a ton of Xbox 360 and original Xbox games. You can get most Xbox One games on PC already, but Xbox 360 and the original Xbox had more than their fair share of beloved exclusives. “Buy a brand-new console specifically to play old games” is admittedly an odd pitch, but if the games are good and you’ve never played them before, it’s a compelling argument.

It’s also worth pointing out that PC owners will be able to fully leverage their Xbox Game Pass subscriptions, and even download some PC-exclusive titles, such as Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. Not every Xbox One game on Game Pass works on PC, but many of them do, and every Xbox Series X game will. The Xbox Series X controller will be fully compatible with PC, streaming boxes and mobile phones, just as the Xbox One controller is.

Microsoft seems to be building a whole gaming ecosystem around the Xbox Series X rather than simply a console. My colleague Roland Moore-Colyer wrote an article on this subject, but the bottom line is that between Smart Delivery, Game Pass and Project xCloud (which can stream Xbox games to mobile platforms), the Xbox Series X is more of a central hub for gaming than a single, comprehensive machine. In essence, you can get the complete Xbox Series X experience without ever touching an Xbox Series X.

(Image credit: Future)

Xbox Series X vs. PC: Price 

Of course, there’s one area where an Xbox Series X still has a major advantage over a PC, and that’s price. My colleague Adam Ismail and I discussed this at length in an article on the next-gen consoles, but custom-built gaming PCs are always going to be more expensive than mass-produced consoles. While we don’t know how much an Xbox Series X will cost, $500 seems like a reasonable assumption. You can build an extremely bare-bones gaming PC for that price, but it almost definitely won’t match the power of a CPU, GPU or SSD on the Xbox Series X. Mass production makes expensive parts cheaper; there’s no getting around basic economics.

Out of curiosity, I went on Newegg and tried to create a PC with Xbox Series X specs. Even with the cheapest parts I could find, my total was almost $1,500 — and that’s not counting a case or a copy of Windows 10. It’s easy to say that a gaming PC can do whatever an Xbox Series X can, and more. But it’s hard to justify doubling or perhaps even tripling what you’d spend on an Xbox Series X just to play the same games with (perhaps) slightly better graphics and frame rates.

Granted, PC parts drop in price over time, and by November, this setup could cost hundreds of dollars less. But consoles are always going to be cheaper to buy and simpler to set up by a wide margin. Building a PC can be fun, but it’s also a complicated, time-consuming process. And when (not if) something goes wrong, being your own tech support is absolutely, positively no fun. Buying pre-built systems is even more expensive.

As such, Xbox Series X vs. PC isn’t so much a matter of specs. You can always build a PC with better specs. The question is whether said PC is really worth the money. If you want to do video editing or graphic design, then a gaming PC is a smart investment, as it can pull double duty. But if you really just want to play games, watch movies and listen to music, an Xbox Series X will get the job done for one-third of the price.

Xbox Series X

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Xbox Series X vs. PC: Which one should you get? 

There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for Xbox Series X vs. PC — particularly since the Xbox Series X won’t be out for months, and we don’t have any firsthand experience with how it runs. But I can make a few broad, gut-feeling suggestions:

If you already have a good gaming PC, you probably don’t need an Xbox Series X. When games like Halo Infinite and Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II come out, buy one, and see how it performs on your system. If it works well, great! If not, consider whether you want to spend a few hundred bucks on a new console, or on a substantial upgrade for your PC.

If you don’t have a powerful PC, the Xbox Series X would be a good choice — but so would a gaming rig. Consider how much money you want to spend, and whether you could also use a PC for productivity purposes. If you just want a gaming and multimedia machine, the Xbox Series X would probably fit the bill. So would a PS5, but that’s a separate story.

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.