Review of ElevationLab’s TagVault Keychain and MagBase

ElevationLab is a company that has created a lot of third-party accessories. While many are designed for Apple products, the do have some other accessories for Android and even some general headphone accessories. Specifically for Apple, they have things like iPhone stands and docks. There are two accessories that I have purchased and thought I would review. These two items are the TagVault: Keychain and the MagBase. Let us start with the TagVault.

TagVault: Keychain

One aspect to most of Apple’s product is that most products provide a market for third-party accessories. One of the products that provides the largest variety of options is the AirTag. Apple provides some accessories that you can purchase for the AirTag, however the ones that you can buy from Apple may not be usable in all situations.

The TagVault: Keychain is an AirTag holder that can be put on a keychain, which is very similar to Apple’s AirTag Leather Keychain. One of the possible downsides of Apple’s AirTag holders is that they may not hold up to abuse. That is where the TagVault can shine.

The TagVault: Keychain is an AirTag holder that encloses the entire AirTag in a water proof case. The waterproofing is accomplished by having two hard plastic outer halves, with a waterproof ring between the two halves.

ElevationLab TagVault: Keychain opened up.

The two halves of the case are secured with four screws. When these are tightened down, this will protect the AirTag and with the ring, it will be secure the AirTag. Now, you may think that you would need to have a screwdriver that will fit the screws that come with the TagVault, but that is not the case.

Included with the TagVault is a tool to be able to easily remove the screws and put them back in place. This is quite helpful and a small touch which adds to the overall appeal of the product.

Having an AirTag enclosed in a water proof case will have some effect on the functioning of the AirTag. The biggest impact is that the sound on the AirTag will be reduced. According to ElevationLab it should be two-thirds of the decibel level of the AirTag outside of the TagVault. This is a trade off that has to be made for waterproofing.

Tip

TagVault Keychain included tool

When I was putting an AirTag in the TagVault I realized that many might think that you should completely remove all four screws. This is not necessarily the case. In fact, you may only want to fully remove three of the screws and leave one mostly removed.

Possible Future Improvement

One slight improvement that I would like to see with this product is that I would like to see screws that cannot be removed from case, but would still allow the back half of the case to be removed. This way, the screws would not have a possibility of being lost.

Now that we have covered the TagVault, let us move onto the MagBase.

MagBase

MagBase with extension cable

When Apple introduced the iPhone 12 line of phones, there was a feature that can make life a bit easier. That feature is MagSafe. MagSafe allows you to use the magnets that are in the iPhone 12 line and magnetically attach accessories. There are a number of accessories like the MagSafe Battery Pack, Wallets, and even PopSockets. The benefit of MagSafe is that nothing is permanent, since it is only magnetically attached.

MagSafe is not exclusively used for accessories, but can be used to charge the iPhone as well. Through the aforementioned MagSafe Battery Pack or by using a specially designed Apple accessory called the MagSafe Charger.

The MagSafe charger is a charging puck that will allow you to charge your iPhone through the built-in Qi charging. There are two downsides to MagSafe charger. The first is that it has a completely flat bottom. This can lead to the charging puck moving around when you want to place your phone on it. The second downside is that the cable from the Charging Pad is only 1 meter (3 feet) long. This is often not long enough.

ElevationLab has an accessory specifically designed for the MagSafe Charger called the MagBase. The MagBase solves both of the issues mentioned above. It includes a base for keeping the charging pad in one spot as well as a USB-C extension cable.

The USB-C extension cable is also one meter long, which makes the overall length 2 meters or 6 feet. This makes it much easier to place the MagSafe charger where you need. The extension cable works well and can be used for whatever you need because it is a USB-C to USB-C cable.

The MagBase itself is a medical-grade silicone that uses micro air bubbles to be able to keep the MagBase adhered to the surface that you place it on. When you place the MagBase you need to make sure that it is firmly pressed to the surface. It may sound like you are permanently attaching it, but you are not. You need to press firmly because this is where the micro air bubbles will be able to attach.

After you have placed the MagBase you can then place your MagSafe charger in the base. You are able to easily pick up the phone with the MagSafe charger attached to use it while charging. Alternatively, if you need to remove the iPhone from the MagSafe charger entirely you can slide the phone off of the charger. This is possible because the micro bubbles will keep the MagBase in place.

As mentioned earlier, the MagBase is made of medical-grade silicone. Because of this, your iPhone will not get scratched when you slide it off of the MagSafe charger while it is in the MagBase.

Longevity

The MagBase in itself is useful, however I have encountered an issue which may reduce its overall effectiveness. After about a month of usage the MagBase stopped staying in place on the night stand that I have it on, without me moving it at all. Cleaning off both the bottom of the MagBase and the nightstand allowed the MagBase to stay in place again.

Closing Thoughts

Both of these accessories work well. The TagVault will allow you to have a super sturdy AirTag holder that can stand up to the elements. Even though the sound that is emitted from the AirTag is diminished when in the TagVault, it is still audible.

The MagBase is useful if you want to be able to keep your MagSafe charger in one spot without

Neither of the accessories is expensive. The TagVault is $12.95 for a single item, $39.95 for a four-pack and $74.95 for a pack of eight. There is only one color available, black. This is likely the color that most will want anyway. Similarly, the MagBase is $12.95. It only comes in white.

I hope that ElevationLab is able to come out with additional colors in the future for each of these products. If you need a waterproof AirTag case, definitely take a look at the Tag Vault. If you think the MagBase might work well for your situation, definitely consider it as an option.

Apple’s Magic Keyboard With Touch ID: A Review

Ever since the original Macintosh, introduced in 1984, there have been peripherals, like the a keyboard and mouse, included with most desktop computers. Some of the peripherals, in particular the mice, have not always been the most well received.

As time has gone on the Mac line of computers have received a set of upgrades that enhance a user’s experience. One of these upgrades was brought over from the iPhone and iPad. That feature is Touch ID.

Touch ID uses a fingerprint for this authentication, however, it is not an image of your fingerprint. Instead, it is a mathematical hash that cannot be directly accessed by the system and securely stored in a place called the Secure Enclave.

When you attempt to authenticate with Touch ID, the Touch ID sensor computes a hash of your finger and compares it with the fingers stored in the Secure Enclave and if there is a match, then the authentication request succeeds. If it does not match, then it fails and you have to try again.

On Intel Machines, Apple built some custom silicon, called the T2 chip, that would be the interface between the Secure Enclave and the built-in Touch ID sensor.

At their World Wide Developer Conference in June of 2020 Apple announced that they would be moving away from Intel chips to their own custom silicon. The first of these chips was introduced in November of 2020, and the System on a Chip is called the M1. The M1 is similar to the A-series of chips found in the iPhone and iPad.

There were three devices introduced as the first machines, the 13-inch MacBook Air, the lower-end 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the lower-end Mac mini. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have built-in Touch ID sensors on their keyboards. The Mac mini does not have a keyboard included.

In April of 2021, the first desktop machine with Apple Silicon was introduced, it was an upgrade to the 21-inch iMac, a new 24-inch M1 iMac. The 24-inch iMac included a new set of colors, a new profile, and a new accessory, a Magic Keyboard with Touch ID.

When it was introduced, many wondered how long it would be until Apple released a standalone keyboard with Touch ID. Apple has done just that.

Magic Keyboard With Touch ID

Magic Keyboard with Touch ID (2021)

There are only two different types of Magic Keyboards, the Magic Keyboard and the Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad. There is a variant of these two that includes a Touch ID sensor. This review will cover the Magic Keyboard with Touch ID, although everything in this review also applies to the Magic Keyboard with Touch ID and Numeric Keypad.

The Magic Keyboard with Touch ID is not the first Magic Keyboard, far from it. The first Magic Keyboard was introduced in October of 2015. The Magic Keyboard does not have any external batteries and connects via a lightning cable.

The same still applies to the Magic Keyboard with Touch ID, except instead of it being a USB-A cable to lightning cable, it is now a USB-C to lightning cable. The reason for this is because all of Apple’s modern devices have USB-C ports and do not have USB-A.

The Magic Keyboard with Touch ID is charged via a lightning cable. You can use either a USB-A, or USB-C to lightning cable.

USB-C Cable

USB-C to Lightning Braided Cable

There is one thing to mention about the included USB-C to Lightning cable. It is significantly different than a normal USB-C to lightning cable. The difference is that the outer jacket has a braided sleeve. It is not known whether or not these cables will last longer than standard cables, but my initial take is that they should last longer, because they do seem to be a it better constructed. But, as I stated, only time will tell if this is truly the case.

Design

Standalone Magic Keyboard with Touch ID

Beyond the actual connections for connecting the keyboard to your Mac, the keyboard itself has seen some slight changes. Most notably, the edges of the keyboard is now rounded. As a side note, the Magic Trackpad and other refreshed Magic Keyboards also have this same rounded look.

When you are using the keyboard, you may notice that some of the keys have changed. Most notably, the four corner keys, Function, Right arrow, Touch ID, and Escape are all rounded to match the corner radius of their respective corners, as to match the keyboard.

Beyond the rounded keys, the font on the keys themselves is a bit darker than on previous models, which should allow the letters to be easier to see.

Beyond the font being darker, there have been tweaks to the symbols on the keys. The Function, Control, and Option keys all have their corresponding Mac Menu symbols on the keys. These are 🌐 , ^ and ⌥, respectively. This is a big plus because if you do need to use a key combination it will be a lot easier to figure out the proper keys to use.

Magic Keyboard With Touch ID as compared to older Magic Keyboard

The special keys are not the only ones who received some new iconography. Three other keys, F4, F5, and F6 also have new icons. F4 has a magnifying glass, which indicates searching, F5 has a microphone, which indicates Siri. F6 has a half moon, which indicates quick access to sleep.

The darker font, new icons, and rounded keys to mirror the radius of the corners are all nice additions and provide a nice set of updates. Now, let us move onto Touch ID itself.

Touch ID

Touch ID Logo

The Magic Keyboard with Touch ID, as the name implies, has Touch ID. The Touch ID sensor will only work on Macs with an M1, or newer, chip. Meaning that the Touch ID sensor will not work on Intel-based machines.

You can still use the keyboard on any bluetooth-enabled device, but the Touch ID will only work on a Mac. Additionally, even though the latest iPad Pro models have an M1 in them, they cannot use the Touch ID sensor. The reason for this is likely due iOS expecting a Touch ID sensor to be directly connected, and not available over wireless.

Touch ID Prompt setup

When you connect the Magic Keyboard with Touch ID to your M1 Mac for the first time, you will need to securely pair the two devices. This is done by pressing the power button twice in rapid succession. The reason that this is needed is so the Magic Keyboard can exchange its public hardware key with the Mac. This pairing can only be performed when the on screen steps indicate to do so.

Enrolling Fingerprints

As mentioned earlier, Touch ID fingerprint hashes are stored in the Secure Enclave on the Mac. This is true whether it is an Intel or Apple Silicon machine. There is a limit to the number of fingerprints that can be stored in the Secure Enclave at a single time. The limit is three fingerprints. This differs from an iOS device that has Touch ID because those devices can store up to five fingerprints at a time. You can enroll the same fingerprint more than once, but that might not be the best decision.

Enrolling a fingerprint using the Magic Keyboard with Touch ID is the same as enrolling a fingerprint on a MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iPhone, or iPad with Touch ID.

In order to enroll a finger perform the following steps:

  1. Connect the Magic Keyboard with Touch ID to the Mac using a USB-C, or USB-A, to Lightning cable. A Notification will appear.
  2. Tap on the notification to begin the pairing process.
  3. When prompted press the power button on the Mac in rapid succession.
Touch ID Mac and Keyboard Pairing Prompt
  1. Open Up System Preferences.
  2. Locate the “Touch ID” system preference.
  3. Click on the “Touch ID” system preference.
  4. Click on the “+” fingerprint icon. You will be prompted for your password.
Touch ID Mac Start
  1. Enter in your password.
  2. Follow the prompts for placing and lifting your finger.
  3. Again, follow the prompts for lifting and placing your finger to get the outer edges.

Once you have gotten all of the angles of your fingerprint, the fingerprint hash will be saved and you will get a screen similar to the image below.

Touch ID on the Mac -- Enrollment Finished

Options for Touch ID

In the Touch ID system preference you can choose which system options are able to use Touch ID. The full list of options are:

  • Unlocking your Mac
  • Apple Pay
  • iTunes Store, App Store, & Apple Books
  • Password Autofill
  • Use Touch ID sensor for fast user switching

By default all of the options will be checked. However, you can control which actions will be available for Touch ID to best suit your needs.

Touch ID on the Mac -- Options for using Touch ID

Pricing

If you have a Mac mini, or could really use Touch ID on an external keyboard for your MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, and you have an Apple Silicon Mac, the Magic Keyboard with Touch might be a good solution. However, be prepared to pay for the convenience.

The Magic Keyboard with Touch ID is, in a word, expensive. The standard Magic Keyboard is $99, but if you want Touch ID as well, it will be another $50. So, it is $149. If you really need Touch ID it is the only solution. Otherwise though, I do not know if this price is worth the overall cost.

Closing Thoughts

The Magic Keyboard with Touch ID is a standard Magic Keyboard, so it can be used with any Mac you want, or even a PC if you would like, but the Touch ID sensor will only with Macs with Apple Silicon. The Magic Keyboard with Touch ID may be a great solution for those who use a MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro, in clamshell mode so you can still use Touch ID.

When you begin to pair the Magic Keyboard with your Apple Silicon Mac, you will need to perform an initial handshake between the two devices by pressing the power button twice at the appropriate time, which will be provided to you when it is needed.

The keyboard has some new design features, like the rounded corners for not only the keyboard, but also for the four corner keys. Beyond this, there is a darker font, some new iconography, and symbols on special keys. All of these changes will make it easier to use the Magic Keyboard in all situations.

Overall, the Magic Keyboard with Touch ID seems like it is quality, but it is not cheap. If you know you really need Touch ID for a particular Mac, be prepared to pay for it. If you just need a keyboard, the non-Touch ID version might be a more worthwhile purchase.

A Review of the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro

It is odd to think that the iPad has been around just over 11 years now. In the intervening time, the capabilities of the iPad have significantly improved. Not every iteration of the iPad hardware has been a giant leap, but they have all had some sort of improvement. It is now well known that Apple began working on the iPad before the iPhone. However, that project was put on hold because the technology was not yet ready. Once ready, Apple decided to show it to the world. 

Unlike the iPhone, I have not personally owned every new model of the iPad. I have owned seven iPads. Here are  models that I have owned:

  • 32GB Original iPad – Wi-Fi Only
  • 32GB iPad 2nd Generation – Wi-Fi Only
  • 32GB iPad 3rd Generation – Wi-Fi Only
  • 64GB iPad Air 2 – Wi-Fi + Cellular
  • 128GB 12.9-inch iPad Pro (1st Gen) – Wi-Fi + Cellular
  • 256GB 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2nd Gen) – Wi-Fi + Cellular
  • 256GB 12.9-inch iPad Pro (3rd Gen) – Wi-Fi + Cellular

As you can see, as time has gone on I have increased the amount of storage that I have purchased as well as including cellular on the later models. Some of this comes with the amount of storage increasing over time. Apple has not always provided the ideal amount of storage for the base models. This is, of course, by design. Apple tries to generate additional revenue by using the “good, better, best” approach to pricing, where you provide a variety of price points. For some, the base model is sufficient, while most will buy the “better” model, and those who want the most will go for the “best” model. The way that Apple typically does this is by providing different storage sizes. 

The storage is not the only way that can provide choices for users. A second way is by providing options for cellular. Cellular models always have an additional cost to them, but being able to use your iPad anywhere, can be a major benefit for some users. While I do not use cellular that often, it is a nice to be able to use cellular in those cases when internet goes out at home or if I am out and about and want to use the iPad for something.

As you may have also noticed, while I have owned a fair number of iPads, I have not purchased one for each generation. In particular, I did not buy a 4th Generation iPad Pro. The reason for this is because the upgrade was not enough of an upgrade to justify buying one. I also did not upgrade to the 4th generation iPad when Apple released the that in September of 2011. In that instance, while it would’ve been a bigger upgrade, I had just purchased the 3rd generation in March of 2011, and I could not justify spending the money to purchase another iPad so soon.

With Apple releasing a new iPad Pro, I have decided to upgrade my iPad to a 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro. As mentioned earlier, I do not go with the base model. The same continues this time around as well. The last two iPads that I have purchased have had 256GB of storage. On my 3rd generation iPad, I have about 78 GB free, so I am not really in need of a larger iPad. 

However, I did buy a 512GB 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro to replace my 3rd generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The reason I went for the larger size was for future proofing. While I may not need additional storage now, I might need it in the future and I would rather spend a bit more on the extra storage now instead of replacing the iPad or having to manage the storage. Before we dive into my thoughts and information about the latest iPad Pro, we need to look at a short history of the iPad.

Brief History of iPad

The first iPad was announced in January of 2010 and released three months later in 2010. Prior to the release of the iPad, there was speculation on the price of the iPad. At the time, many suspected it would cost $999. However, Apple shocked everyone with a price of $499. By today’s standards the original iPad was woefully underpowered, yet at the time, the iPad worked quite well and did exactly what it said. 

The second generation iPad, released in March of 2011, improved a bit on the original, mostly in design. Gone was the hump in the back. In its place, a flat back and a faster processor. The first significant change was the 3rd generation iPad. Besides being slightly faster, it had a significant improvement, a Retina screen. The Retina screen allowed for higher fidelity of video as well as better graphics for the system and apps.

A mere six months after the release of the 3rd generation iPad, Apple released the 4th generation iPad. The changes were better graphics processor, because many complained about the jittery scrolling when using graphics heavy apps and games. The bigger change was the connector. Gone was the 30-pin connector and in its place was the new connector. A smaller and reversible connector that Apple called Lightning. 

For the first three versions of the iPad, they all had the same screen size of 9.7 inches. At the same event where Apple announced the 4th generation iPad, they also made another change, a new device, the iPad mini. The iPad mini used the same internals as the 4th generation iPad, but in a smaller size of 7.9 inches, and it was still a retina screen.

In 2013, Apple decided to append a suffix to the name of the regular 9.7-inch iPad. They called it the iPad Air. The iPad Air was named such because the weight of the device was significantly reduced, by 25%. This made it the lightest and easiest iPad to hold and use. 

The iPad Air’s successor, the iPad Air 2, was released in October of 2014. The device maintained the same light design, but was even thinner than its predecessor. The original iPad Air was 7.5 mm, or 0.3 inches, thick whereas the iPad Air 2 was 12% thinner at 6.1 mm or 0.24 inches thick. Despite being introduced in 2014, the iPad Air 2 is still supported by the latest version of iOS, as of this writing, iOS 14. 

Apple unveils the newest version of the operating systems at their World Wide Developer Conference, or WWDC. At the WWDC following the release of the iPad Air 2, Apple unveiled iOS 9. The biggest change with iOS 9 was two new way of interacting, called SplitView and Slide-over. These two interactions allowed you to run multiple applications at a single time. 

Throughout its 4 year life, the iPad was primarily a consumption device. However, the additional of Slide-over and SplitView allowed the iPad to be used for even more of a creation device. As much as the iPad Air 2 was capable of being a creation device, the device for which iOS 9 was created was released in November of 2015. That device, was a whole new iPad, called the iPad Pro.

iPad Pro (1st Generation)

1st Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro

The iPad Pro was a significant improvement over the iPad Air 2. The first of these was the size of the screen. The iPad Pro has a 33% larger screen at 12.9-inch. This sized screen allowed for two full-size iPad apps to run side-by-side, and a third with SlideOver. Being able to use multiple applications at a single time is great, you can definitely be more productive. However, there is one addition to the iPad Pro that allowed you to be even more productive and create even more on the iPad Pro. That item was a new iPad Pro accessory called the Apple Pencil.

The Apple Pencil is a Bluetooth device that allows for precision drawing including pressure sensitivity and it can even sense which angle the pencil is being held at and adjust accordingly. Six months after the release of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, Apple released another iPad Pro, this one was the same size as the original iPad, at 9.7-inches. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro had the same internals as the 12.9-inch version, and supported the Apple Pencil. The main difference is that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro could support two full-size iPad apps, but only in landscape.

iPad Pro (2nd Generation)

The iPad Pro was followed up by the 2nd Generation iPad Pro. The 2nd Generation iPad Pro was released approximately 18 months after the first iPad Pro, specifically June 2017. The 2nd Generation iPad Pro improved on the original iPad Pro, just like the 2nd generation iPad improved on the original. The 2nd Generation iPad Pro kept the same screen size, but the device was thinner. The 2nd generation iPad Pro also came with another iPad Pro, but not with a 9.7-inch screen. In order to differentiate the iPad Pro from other iPads, it had a 10.5-inch screen. Along with the different size, there was a new screen technology called Pro Motion. Pro Motion is a 120 Hz screen that provides even smoother motion and allowed for improved Apple Pencil support. 

iPad Pro (3rd Generation)

3rd Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro

The 3rd Generation iPad Pro was been the biggest change to the iPad Pro line. Apple unveiled the 3rd Generation iPad Pro in November of 2018, approximately 18 months after the 2nd Generation model. The 3rd Generation iPad Pro was not a small update. The first change with the 3rd Generation iPad Pro was that it has a much smaller bezel. The screen used a new edge-to-edge display. 

The smaller bezel allowed a consistent edge around all of the edges. With the bezels being smaller, and consistent, the home button was removed. In its place is the Face ID sensor. The Face ID sensor was first introduced with the iPhone X in 2017. 

The new bezels also supported a new shape. The 3rd Generation iPad Pro took its design cues from the iPhone 5. By this, the sides of the device are square, as opposed to tapered as the previous models had. This allowed for a few other changes. 

The chief amongst these is a revision to the Apple Pencil, the Apple Pencil (2nd Generation). This version of the Apple Pencil still connects via Bluetooth, but there is no connector on the Apple Pencil. Instead, it charges via magnets that are on one of the edges of the iPad Pro. Placing the Apple Pencil on the top of the iPad would perform two things. First is that it would pair the Apple Pencil to the iPad Pro, and it would begin charging of the Apple Pencil.

The next change is the type of connector. With the introduction of the 3rd generation iPad Pro, the lightning connector was removed and replaced with a USB-C connector. This connector allows for faster connectivity and also allows for additional devices to be connected directly to the iPad. 

The last change was that the 10.5-inch iPad Pro was no more. In its place was an 11-inch model. This had the same exact features as the 12.9-inch model, just smaller. 

iPad Pro (4th Generation)

The 4th Generation iPad Pro, as well as the 2nd Generation 11-inch iPad Pro, were more minor upgrades. These were introduced in March of 2020. There were only two changes with this model. The first is that the processor was slightly upgraded from an A12X in the 3rd Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro to an A12Z in the 4th Generation model. The difference with the processor was that there was one additional graphical processing unit core, 8 in the A12Z as opposed to the 7 in the A12X.

The second change was a bit more of a change. This one is around the camera. There is a whole new camera system. This one includes a LiDAR Scanner. Over the last few years Apple has been pushing augmented reality, and the LiDAR scanner allows for faster calculations and object detection. The LiDAR camera system appeared in the iPad Pro before coming to the iPhone 12 line.

Now that we have covered the history of the iPad Pro line, it is time to discuss the latest in the line, the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro

5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro

The 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro was introduced at Apple’s “Spring Loaded” event. Many suspected that Apple would introduce a new iPad Pro, and they most certainly did. The 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro has made a significant set of improvements to the iPad. Some of these include, the internals, the screen, and connectivity changes. It is difficult to decide which upgrade is the biggest change to the iPad Pro, but let us start with the screen.

Screen

5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro Liquid Retina XDR Display

There are a variety of different ways to interact with an iPad. You can use the Apple Pencil, a Magic Keyboard, or even Siri. Each of these has its own positives and negatives. The primary interaction surface for almost any iPad is the screen. The screen on the 5th generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a whole new display technology. Apple calls this display the “Liquid Retina XDR display”. 

The Liquid Retina XDR display is currently exclusive to the 12.9-inch iPad and uses a newer technology called Mini-LED. mini-LED. Mini-LED is a newer technology that takes standard LEDs and shrinks them. On the 12.9-inch iPad there are 120x smaller than previous LEDs. The iPad Pro has 10,384 individual LEDs that are grouped into 2,596 local dimming zones. 

These dimming zones allow the iPad to provide even more precise color control. In fact, the screen has a standard brightness of 600 nits, which is the same as the previous models. However, the full brightness is 1000 nits when the screen is at full brightness. If you add in the High Dynamic Range capabilities, the maximum brightness of 1600 nits. This is the exact same specs as Apple 32-inch Pro Display XDR monitor. 

What this results in is that people can have the same XDR experience across all of their devices. No longer will you need to use an XDR device only at the end, in order to fix any color differences. Instead, you can use the iPad Pro to get the proper coloring throughout your entire workflow. The Liquid Retina XDR display will still support Pro Motion and run at 120Hz, as well as True Tone and the P3 Color gamut. 

It is not easy to articular in words the differences between the new screen and the old screen. It is much easier to show in pictures. So, here is a picture of the 5th generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro as compared to the 3rd generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

3rd Gen 12.9-inch iPad Pro vs. 5th Gen iPad Pro Screen comparison
Comparison of the screens between the 3rd Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro (Left) and the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro (right)
3rd Gen 12.9-inch iPad Pro vs. 5th Gen iPad Pro Screen comparison
Comparison of the screens between the 3rd Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro (Left) and the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro (right)

The screen is a significant improvement over the previous models. There is another item that is an improvement, but may not be as noticeable to many users, and that is changes to the connectivity.

Connectivity

There are a few different types of connectivity on the iPad Pro. This includes a physical connector, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and if you opt to get it, Cellular. Let us start with Wi-Fi and Cellular.

Wi-Fi and Cellular

Each model since the first iPad back in 2010 has had the option of either purchasing an iPad with Wi-Fi only or with Wi-Fi + Cellular. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Generations of iPad all had 802.11 a/b/g/n and optional 3G connectivity in either CDMA or GSM models.

Starting in 2013, with the iPad mini 2, the cellular models came with support for LTE, which provided even faster cellular connectivity over the 4G connectivity.

The original 12.9-inch iPad Pro brought 802.11AC connectivity, which would allow for faster connections over Wi-Fi. Each subsequent iPad has has the same, until the 4th Generation iPad Pro. The Wi-Fi connectivity was upgraded to Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11AX. The benefit of Wi-Fi 6 is that you can connect wireless connectivity speeds up to 3.5Gbps, in ideal conditions. This is accomplished by aggregating multiple connections to the same base station. 

The 5th generation iPad Pro has improved the cellular connectivity beyond LTE. The cellular models now support 5G connectivity, just like the iPhone 12 line. The 5G connectivity can, again in ideal conditions, provide a maximum speed of up to 1Gbps. If you connect to a millimeter wave, or mmWave, service then you are more likely to get faster speeds.

While you may not see much difference in speeds between LTE and 5G in many places, it is likely over the next few years that 5G will become even faster and more ubiquitous. Given that iPads generally last longer and are kept longer, investing in 5G now could pay off down the road.

Physical Connectivity

No iOS or iPadOS device has ever had more than two physical ports. These have been a headphone jack and the power connector. Starting with the 3rd Generation iPad Pro, the headphone jack was removed and the lightning connector was replaced with a USB-C connection.

Even though there is as physical connection on the iPad Pro, a vast majority of users will almost never physically connect anything to their iPad. However, the iPad Pro, as the name implies, is aimed at professional users. Professional users are one group who might actually connect items to their iPad Pro. The 3rd and 4th Generation iPad Pros had USB-C connectors. 

On the 3rd and 4th Generation iPad Pros you were able to connect a variety of items via the USB-C connection. This could include thumb drives, card readers, and cameras. Furthermore, you could also connect a powered, or non-powered, USB Hub that has a USB-C connection, so that you could connect multiple drives at the same time. 

The USB-C connection on the 3rd and 4th generation iPad Pro utilizes USB 3.1 Gen 2. This protocol has a maximum speed up to 10 Gbps. In most cases, this is sufficient in terms of speed. However, if you are working on 4K video and want to be able to do work on a large video directly from a drive, it may not be sufficient. 

The 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad changes this arrangement up a bit. The device still has a USB-C connection, however it is no longer strictly USB. Instead, it is a combination Thunderbolt/USB4 connection. The connector is till the same USB-C type of connector and you can still connect the same USB devices as before. 

The speed that these will be able to connect at depends on the connection type. Most current devices are USB 3.1 Gen 2, or earlier, so these devices will have a maximum speed of 10Gbps. If they are USB4 devices, then you will be able to connect at speeds up to 40 Gbps. 

The fact that the port supports Thunderbolt means that you can connect any thunderbolt device, provided it can connect using a USB-C connector.  When you do connect a Thunderbolt device, you ill be able to have connectivity of up to 40 Gbps. This is a significant speed increase over most USB devices.

You might think it is a bit odd to have an iPad with Thunderbolt, because why would Apple want to include Thunderbolt on the iPad. It is possible that Apple wanted to further differentiate the iPad Pro from the iPad Air, but Apple was able to provide it because of the bigger change to the iPad, the processor.

Processor

Each of the previous iPads has had an A-Series processor. The original iPad had an A4, and the 4th generation iPad Pro had an A12Z. You could not be faulted if you were to suspect that the iPad Pro would use the slight variant of the processor as the latest iPhones. The iPhone 12 uses the A14, so it would make sense that Apple would include an A14X. However, Apple did not do that. Apple decided to go a different direction.

At their World Wide Developer Conference in 2020 Apple announced that were creating their own processors for the Mac. Apple was able to take what they learned from developing the iPhone and iPad to be able to tailor the processor to provide an overall experience. In November of 2020, Apple announced the first devices to use their new Apple Silicon processor. Apple called the processor the M1. The M1 is a faster processor compared to almost anything else on the market, and significantly faster than the Intel processors that were used in the Macs. 

The M1 is not just a processor. Instead it is a System on a Chip, or SoC. The M1 is not Apple’s first custom SoC. In fact all iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices that have been equipped with an Apple A-series chip have been an SoC. This is also the case for the Apple Watch, Apple TV, and HomePods.

For the M1, the SoC consists of more than just the central processor. In fact it includes the processor, graphics, and a 16-core Neural Engine. Along with this, comes the Unified Memory Architecture, or UMA. In traditional computer configurations, you have memory that is a separated from the rest of the system and on their own dedicated chips that connect to the system on the motherboard. A Unified Memory Architecture is one where the the processor, graphics, and in Apple’s case, neural engine, all share the same memory. 

In a traditional computer, each subsystem would have its own memory. For instance, there is the main system memory, which is accessed by the central processing unit, or CPU. The graphical processing unit, or GPU, has its own dedicated memory. There are some tasks that are better suited for a graphics chip while others that are better suited for the CPU. In order to be the most efficient and process things most efficiently, different segments of the memory need to be transferred between the two processors. This transfer, while it takes very little time in reality, it can still take some time.

With the M1, this processor, graphics processor, and neural engine all share the same memory pool. What this means is that there is no delay in switching between using the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine. This results in the system processing items significantly faster.

The M1 chip is an 8-core chip, with four performance cores and four high efficiency cores. When you do not need top performance the efficiency cores will be utilized. However, when you need speed those processors will be used. This is beneficial for all Macs running the M1, but there is a specific benefit for portable systems. While this is not the case with the iPad, it still has the same “all day” battery life, which is approximately 10 hours, it is absolutely the case for the Macs running an M1 processor.

As of right now, I have not really noticed any significant difference in the overall speed of the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, as compared to the 3rd Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, in every day usage, at least how I use the iPad Pro. That may change as time goes on, depending on the advances in iPadOS.

Physical Size

The physical measurements of the iPad Pro are almost the same as the 3rd and 4th generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro models. The have the same height of 11.04 inches, or 280.6mm, and a width of 8.46 inches, or 214.9mm. There is a slight difference in the depth. The older iPad Pro models had a depth of 0.23 inches or 5.9mm; whereas the 5th Generation iPad Pro is 0.25 inches or 6.4mm. 

The 0.5mm difference is needed to accommodate the new Mini-LED screen and the 2596 local dimming zones. It is likely that future models will possibly be thinner again, but it cannot be guaranteed.

This is a slight difference, which most users will not notice in day to day usage. However, for certain accessories this will become a problem. For example take the Kensington StudioDock that was just released in January of 2021. This device allows you to connect your iPad and also charge your other devices, like the iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods using the base of the device. Due to the thickness change the new 5th Generation iPad Pro is not compatible with the StudioDock.

The Kensington dock is not the only accessory that might have this issue. Apple’s own Magic Keyboard, which was just released a year go, in May of 2020, also has the same issue. If you try to put the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro into the 2020 Magic Keyboard, it will fit. However, the Magic Keyboard will not close all the way. Trying to force the Magic Keyboard to close will likely cause either the Magic Keyboard to break, or it will cause damage to the iPad Pro.

2nd Generation 12.9-inch Magic Keyboard

Neither of these devices is cheap. The Magic Keyboard is $349 and spending an additional $349 when you just bought one last year might be a bit much for some people to spend. The StudioDock is is not an inexpensive accessory either.. For the 12.9-inch Model, the Kensington StudioDock is $399. 

I am a bit irritated by this. I understand that the increased thickness is a limit of the current technology, but with Apple knowing that this might have happened, the first generation Magic Keyboard could have been a bit thicker to accommodate future products, but that is not the way of Apple.

Storage

Apple offers the iPad at various price points. There could be a variety of ways to differentiate prices for an iPad. Unlike the Mac, the iPad only has one processor option. Apple uses storage size as a differentiation in their pricing. Over time Apple has added additional size options. Each generation of iPad Pro Apple seems to make a change to the storage options available. 

The 1st Generation iPad Pro had three storage options, 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB. The 2nd Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro kept the same number of storage options, but they were doubled to 64GB, 256GB, and 512GB. The 3rd Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro  added a fourth option, a 1TB option. 

The 1TB option in the 3rd Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro came with more RAM than the other models. It had 6GB instead of the standard 4GB. The additional RAM was needed to accommodate the larger file system tables needed by the 1TB SSD. 

The 4th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro and 2nd Generation 11-inch iPad Pro doubled the base storage again to 128GB. The options were 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB. One additional change was that all of the 12.9-inch models came with 6GB of RAM. This additional memory was needed to accommodate the LiDAR sensor and its processing.

Staying with the previous trends, the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, has added yet another storage tier bringing the total to five. These options are:

  • 128GB
  • 256GB
  • 512GB
  • 1TB
  • 2TB

There is one thing that Apple does not generally do when announcing iPhones, iPod touches, or iPads and that is provide the amount of RAM within the devices. The reason provided is that the amount of RAM does not need to be known to end-users. For the 3rd Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro Apple did not specify the RAM, instead users went looking and found out it had 6GB of RAM. 

While this has not been the case in the past, this actually changes with the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Apple has actually provided the amount of memory in each iPad. The 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB models each have 8GB of RAM, while the 1TB and 2TB options each have 16GB.

There is a lot of speculation as to why the difference. My guess is that the additional memory is needed on the larger sizes. My speculation is that additional memory is needed for the same reason to accommodate the additional file system table for 1TB and 2TB models. The reason that it is 16GB instead of say 12GB is because Apple is already manufacturing M1 processors with either 8GB or 16GB of RAM, so instead of created a wholly separate processor just for the iPad, it is probably cheaper, and simpler, to use the existing processors that they are already making.

Pricing

When the original iPad was released, it was widely rumored that the cost would be $999. Apple surprised the world by having the base model cost $499. Since then, there have been various price points for various models. 

The original iPad Pro, introduced in 2015, had a price of $799 and would have a maximum price of $1299. While the base price has remained the same, this is for the 11-inch iPad Pro, and not the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Over the years, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has increased to a starting price of $1099.

One thing that has remained consistent is that the Wi-Fi + Cellular models have cost more. This is because there is a cost for the cellular modem. While this has typically been $130, that has changed with this latest iPad. Instead, the cellular models now cost $200 more.

Here is the breakdown for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro based on storage size, and Wi-Fi only compared to Wi-Fi + Cellular:

Size Wi-Fi Only Wi-Fi + Cellular
128GB $1099 $1299
256GB $1199 $1399
512GB $1399 $1599
1TB $1799 $1999
2TB $2199 $2399

As you can see, there is a wide range of pricing. Once you get above 256GB there is a $200 additional cost to go to the next tier of storage. 

These are the most expensive iPad Pros that Apple has ever produced. However, it may be justifiable due to the inclusion of the M1 and the new and  improved screen, yet it might be a lot for someone to spend on an iPad. 

This is particularly noticeable if you were to compare it to the MacBook Air. A MacBook Air with the same specs of 16GB of memory and 2TB of storage is $2049. This means that the largest iPad Pro with 2TB of storage and 16GB of memory is $150 more expensive. 

Issues

I did run into some small issues, specifically with one of Apple’s Arcade games, Sping. The graphics for this game seems to stutter a bit. The problem with this is that the game requires precise tapping in order to gather the gems and bounce the collection gems. I presume that the game isn’t optimized for the M1 iPad and that is the cause of the stuttering. I presume that there will be additional games that are in the same state. Beyond Sping, I also noticed the same issue with MobilityWare’s Solitaire app with the animations.

The second issue that I experienced had to with the backlight on the iPad Pro. Specifically, at some points the screen would dim, but once I touched a key, or tapped the screen, the screen would not come back to the expected brightness. Even adjusting the actual brightness would not return. 

It should be noted that this did not happen all the time, nor even consistently enough to be able to say what was the cause. There was a simple enough to fix though. Once I put the iPad to sleep and then woke it up again, it went back to normal. I am sure that I am not the only one experiencing this, and it will likely be fixed in an update.

Next, let us look at the software that runs the iPad Pro, iPadOS.

iPadOS

The iPad needs an operating system to power the iPad. Throughout the life of the iPad, there have been instances when it seemed like Apple knew which direction to take the iPad. this was particularly true in 2010 when the iPad was first released, and then again in 2015 with the release of the iPad Pro. However, it does seem as though the iPad has not always received the attention that it deserves.

The hardware for the iPad Pro has outstripped the software since 2018, with the release of the 3rd generation iPad Pro. Apple hinted at big changes at their WWDC 2015 with Split Screen and Slide Over. These features were supported on the iPad Air 2, which was the latest iPad at the time, but were designed for the iPad Pro, released in 2015.

I am writing this review just a couple weeks before Apple unveils iOS 15, and iPadOS 15. While I am hopeful that Apple has a lot in store the M1 iPad Pro in iPadOS 15, I cannot guarantee that it will provide any meaningful improvements. Because of this, it is not a good idea to buy a product based upon its future usage, but what it is capable of, at the current moment. 

Benchmarks

No review is complete without a bunch of obligatory benchmarks. For previous reviews, it was straight forward to compare the current model with the previous model. However, in this case it is not so simple. The reason it is not simple is because there is a significant processor change. Even with this significant processor change, the benchmarks below will still show comparisons to as many different machines, and devices, that I have access to.

Device Single Core Multi-Core
12.9-inch iPad Pro (5th Gen) 1718 7272
12.9-inch iPad Pro (3rd Gen) 1104 4619
iPhone 12 Pro Max 1299 2295
iPhone 7 Plus 778 1408
iPod touch (7th Gen) 559 1016
Mac Mini (M1 Late 2020) 8GB 1748 7696
27-inch iMac (Mid-2017) 4.2GHz Quad-Core Core i7 24GB 1124 4703
16-inch MacBook Pro (Late 2019) 2.6GHz 6-Core Core i7 1059 5442
13.3-inch MacBook Pro (Mid-2015) 661 1420
Mac mini (Late 2018) 8GB 3GHz 6-Core Intel Core i5 973 4469
iPod touch (6th Gen) 661 1420

The best comparison is the 5th Generation iPad Pro and the Mac mini that I have. The reason this is best is because they are both an M1 with 8GB of RAM. The only difference is that the 5th Generation iPad has more storage. Outside of that, all of the other specifications are the same between the two devices.

It is quite interesting to see how the Intel Macs compare to the M1. As I said in my review of the M1 Mac mini “In Single Core performance, the M1 mac mini is 8.4% faster than my iPhone 12 Pro Max, 54% faster than my iPad Pro, and a whopping 62.8% faster than my 2017 iMac.  Even crazier though, is the multi-core benchmarks. The M1 Mac mini is 57.4% faster than my iPad Pro, 68.2% faster than my 2017 iMac, and 71.4% faster than my iPhone 12 Pro Max. This difference is absolutely noticeable.” This is still accurate. Every time I use my Mac mini I notice the difference with the iMac.

While the scores that were recorded on the 5th generation iPad Pro are a bit lower, therefore the percentages are a bit lower, there is still a significant performance difference between the two devices.

CoreML Scores

Geekbench has a newer app strictly testing machine learning. The settings used for the results below are TensorFlow Lite and using Core ML.

Device CoreML CPU GPU
12.9-inch iPad Pro (5th Gen) 2609 1018 2841
iPhone 12 Pro Max 1939 719 1389
12.9-inch iPad Pro (3rd Gen) 1349 692 1906
iPhone 7 Plus 411 407 707
iPod touch (7th Gen) 295 337 555

Geekbench ML is only available for iOS and not yet available on macOS, so the results are strictly for those supported iOS devices.

Closing Thoughts

If you have 3rd generation, and particularly a 4th generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the upgrade may not be worthwhile, depending on your needs. The biggest reason to upgrade to the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, at least at this time, would be for the screen. However, if you have a 2nd generation iPad Pro, or even the original iPad Pro, this would be a fantastic upgrade, even just for the speed increases alone.

The fact that the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro now an M1 processor is a huge step because this is the same processor that is in latest Macs. The iPad is an ideal device to use the processor, given that the iM1 is a power efficient processor that is capable of handling much more than the previous iPad Pro.

While the M1 processor may be the biggest change, it is not the only change to the 5th generation iPad Pro. There is an entirely new screen system. The new screen is a mini-LED. Mini-LED technology provides a lot more dimmable zones, 2,596 as compared to the 72 on the previous model. This means that the 12.9-inch iPad can more accurately make certain areas of the screen brighter than others. This results in darker areas being darker and lighter areas being lighter. The screen makes watching High Dynamic Range movies a better experience. 

Beyond the screen, there are some additional hardware changes including an updated Thunderbolt/USB 4 connector, so you can connect thunderbolt devices directly to your iPad Pro. For many, this will not be all that useful, but for those who do need it, it can be a lifesaver.

While most may not use thunderbolt, it is possible that they will need to connect while on the go. If you need to connect while out and about, you can use cellular data, if you purchase a cellular model of the iPad. If you do opt for the iPad Pro Wi-Fi + Cellular model, it will have 5G connectivity.

As mentioned above, it not necessarily wise to purchase a device for its possible future uses, however, it is more prudent to buy a device for what it can do today. As I write this, Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference 21 is just over a week away, and it is likely that there will be some improvement to iPadOS, even if it is not exclusive to the 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, there will likely be something that the next version of iPadOS will bring to the iPad. 

If you are looking to get a 12.9-inch iPad Pro, there will be a bit of a wait. As of this writing there is a six to eight week wait to receive a 5th Generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro. If you really need one sooner, you can try looking at a local Apple Store, or even a an Apple authorized third-party reseller. If you opt for one, I doubt you will be disappointed regardless of which model you purchase.

M1 Mac mini: A Review

There are some things that I purchase on a regular basis. Among these are groceries, gifts, and other various things. In terms of technology the chief among these is purchasing a new iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. I have purchased an iPhone and an Apple Watch each year since their respective introductions. I have purchased a number of iPads, but I have not purchased a new one every time one has been released. One type of device that I have not purchased on a regular basis is a computer, in particular Macs.

In my lifetime, I have purchased a total of five different Macs, three of these have been and two of these have been laptops. The first Mac that I purchased was a 20-inch 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo iMac that I purchased in March of 2007. The reason I ended up with a Mac was because I had nothing but issues with Microsoft Vista. I got tired of dealing with the constant crashing of the video drivers, even 6 weeks after its release, I opted to buy a Mac. This was in March of 2007, so it was after the transition from PowerPC to Intel. Here is the list of the other devices that I have purchased:

  • 2007 – 20-inch iMac – 2.16 Core 2 Duo, 8GB RAM, 500GB 7200RPM HD
  • 2007 – 13.3-inch MacBook – 2.16 Core 2 Duo, 8GB RAM, 750GB 7200RPM HD
  • 2011 – 21.5-inch iMac – 2.7 GHz Intel Core i5, 12GB RAM, 1 TB 7200 RPM HD
  • 2015 – 13.3-inch MacBook Pro – 2.7GHz Dual-Core Core i5 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD
  • 2017 – 27-inch – 4.2 GHz Quad-Core Core i7 with 24GB RAM, 3TB Fusion Drive HD

All of these devices have one thing in common, they are all Intel-based devices. 

Apple announced that they would be transitioning away from Intel processors to their own Apple Silicon. This announcement was made at their 2020 World Wide Developer Conference. At the announcement Apple indicated that the first machines would be released this year and that the entire transition would take approximately two years. While many suspected that Apple would announce a laptop, they announced more than just a single device.

Apple announced two laptops, that had Apple Silicon chips in them. These are the 13-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. As a surprise, Apple announced a desktop machine would have Apple Silicon in it as well, the Mac mini. All of these machines have the first Apple Silicon chip, which Apple has called the M1, inside them. Let us discuss a bit about the M1.

Apple’s M1

A processor with an Apple M1 logo on it.

Computers, for most of their history, have been comprised of distinct chips. Some of these include the processor, the system memory, the graphics chip, and storage. As time has gone on, some of these items have been integrated onto a single board. Most commonly the processor and graphics. Many computers these days also have their system memory soldered in, so that this cannot be expanded. This is quite common with laptops and less common with desktop machines. This type of configuration is consistent between both Intel-based and AMD-based systems. Apple’s M1 takes a different approach.

The M1 is not just a processor. Instead it is a System on a Chip, or SoC. The M1 is not Apple’s first custom SoC. In fact all iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices that have been equipped with an Apple A-series chip have been an SoC. This is also the case for the Apple Watch, Apple TV, and HomePods.

For the M1, the SoC consists of more than just the central processor. In fact it includes the processor, graphics, and a 16-core Neural Engine. Along with this, comes the Unified Memory Architecture, or UMA. In traditional computer configurations, you have memory that is a separated from the rest of the system and on their own dedicated chips that connect to the system on the motherboard. A Unified Memory Architecture is one where the the processor, graphics, and in Apple’s case, neural engine, all share the same memory. 

In a traditional computer, each subsystem would have its own memory. For instance, there is the main system memory, which is accessed by the central processing unit, or CPU. The graphical processing unit, or GPU, has its own dedicated memory. There are some tasks that are better suited for a graphics chip while others that are better suited for the CPU. In order to be the most efficient and process things most efficiently, different segments of the memory need to be transferred between the two processors. This transfer, while it takes very little time in reality, it can still take some time.

With the M1, this processor, graphics processor, and neural engine all share the same memory pool. What this means is that there is no delay in switching between using the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine. This results in the system processing items significantly faster.

The M1 chip is an 8-core chip, with four performance cores and four high efficiency cores. When you do not need top performance the efficiency cores will be utilized. However, when you need speed those processors will be used. This is beneficial for all Macs running the M1, but there is a specific benefit for portable systems. Significantly increased battery life. In particular, for the MacBook Air, you can get up to 50% more battery power, which is a significant increase, and a very welcome one.

Line drawing image of Apple's M1 with the Graphical Processing Unit outlined.

The shared memory pool, for the current machines, all come with 8GB standard. These machines are configurable for up to 16GB of memory. While this seems like a small amount, the machines that have been released are not aimed at those who need significant amounts of memory. Instead, they are aimed at the general consumer. This is most apparent with the fact that the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini still have Intel models that can be configured for higher specifications available to order, should users need the extra memory.

The M1 Macs are based on the same technology that is used within Apple’s other devices. This has a side benefit, the ability to run iOS and iPadOS apps natively, right on the Mac. It is up to the developer of the app to determine if their app is available on the M1 Macs or not.

If you look at the machines I have purchased, I end up purchasing a new Mac desktop every four years, and a new laptop every 8 years, although with two data points I doubt that this will be the case. There is one more computer to add to that list, the M1 Mac mini.

M1 Mac Mini

Top view of an M1 Mac mini box

Initially, I had not planned on buying an M1 Mac, at least not right away. My 2017 iMac works quite well and in reality my MacBook Pro needs to be replaced first, since it is older. I kept going back and forth on which configuration to get. Do I need the MacBook Pro, or would the MacBook Air suffice? I was not sure if I wanted to get the first-generation machines. Not because I think there would be any issues, but because I would want something with more than 16GB of RAM, and since I was looking at replacing my MacBook Pro, I wanted something with more than 2 ports. None of the devices that were released has more than two ports, so I was planning on waiting until the higher-end models were available.

Things came to a head when I asked a friend, who did get an M1 MacBook Pro, to try my app on the M1. He was able to install and most everything worked. Except there were a couple of things that ended up crashing. I could have attempted to trouble-shoot them, but that is not easy to do without being able to debug as you co.

Because of this, I had to order an M1 Mac. I decided to get the base model Mac mini, which comes with 256GB of storage and 8GB of ram. I opted to get the base model Mac mini for two reasons. The first is because it was the cheapest and second it was able to shipped right away. I ended up just getting the base model, because I primarily need it for development and since it will be a dedicated development machine, and not my main machine, I did not need it to be completely upgraded. In some respects, I wish I had upgraded it, but that is for discussion later. 

I was able to figure out the issues that were crashing the app. The problem was not with the M1 specifically, instead the issue that my friend was experiencing turned out to be a server-side issue. I ordered the M1 Mac mini in late November, and doing so extended the return window to be in early January. I have not returned the Mac mini yet. I do not think I will. In fact, I had not purchased Apple Care initially with the Mac mini, but I did just purchase Apple Care for my M1 Mac mini.

Overall Thoughts

The M1 Mac mini is fast. When I am using it, I can generally use it without any issues, slowdowns, or performance losses; most of the time anyway. Even though the model I have only has 8GB of RAM, this seems to be enough, and the 256GB of storage should be plenty since I am not using it as my primary machine.

The M1 Mac mini is the same physical form factor as the previous Mac mini, albeit in silver instead of Space Gray. The fact that it is the same form factor means that it includes a spinning fan. In the time that I have had the Mac mini I have not heard it spin up, even when performing system updates. This is not the experience that I have had with the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The fans on that will spin at full speed while updating. So, this is a nice departure. As a side note, the M1 MacBook Air does not have a fan, so you will never hear the fan on that machine ever.

The M1 Mac Mini does not have the same port configuration as the previous models. The M1 Mac mini has 2 USB-A ports, 2 Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, a gigabit ethernet jack, and an HDMI 2.0 port. For most users this port configuration is plenty. I know it is more than I need. The Intel model has the option of configuring the ethernet port to 10 gigabits per second and includes four Thunderbolt/USB-C ports. 

The M1 Mac mini includes Bluetooth 5.0 and a 3.5mm headphone jack. This is the same as on the Intel-based Mac mini. There is one last difference, and that is in wireless connectivity. The M1 Mac mini supports 802.11ax, also known as WiFi-6. If you have an 802.11ax router, you should see significantly faster speeds, when going between other 802.11ax devices. 

The M1 Mac Mini is capable of supporting two monitors, including Apple’s Pro Display XDR, as well as a 4K monitor. You can also use the USB-C ports for a display, along with the standard HDMI port.

Upgradeability

This should be a pretty quick section, as there is no way to upgrade the internals. The memory and storage are soldered onto the board, so nothing can be upgraded. Any storage upgrades would have to be external. There are not even any pins on the board to even begin to connect something internally.

Intel-based Apps

One of the benefits of the M1 is that you are able to run both Apple Silicon-based apps and Intel-based apps on the same machine. The ability to run Intel-based apps on the M1 is done through Apple’s translation layer, called Rosetta 2.

I have only used one app that has been Intel-based on the M1 Mac mini and I have not experienced any issues with that app. It is likely that you will not experience any issues with Intel-based apps on an M1 Mac, but it is possible that some issues might exist depending on the app, but most should work without any issues. There might be some performance issues, but they should be minimal.

Having articulate the speed difference with the M1 Mac mini as compared to other devices. So, I opted to use unarchiving the Xcode 12.3 beta. Let us now look at quantifying the speed increases, with some benchmarks. What would a review be without them?

Obligatory Benchmarks

I was trying to find a way to be able to articulate just how fast a Mac running an M1 really is. I decided to unzip the Xcode 12.3 beta on a number of different devices that I have access to, and here are the results from slowest to fastest, formatted in minutes and seconds:

Device Time (Hours:Minutes:Seconds):
Mid 2011 21.5-inch iMac (2.7 GHz Intel Core i5), 12GB): 1:36:35
Mid 2014 iMac (1.4 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5 8GB): 45:25
Early 2015 MacBook Pro (2.7 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5 16GB): 26:21
Late 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro (2.6GHz 6‑core Intel Core i7, 16GB): 17:57
Mid 2017 27-inch iMac (4.2 GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, 24GB): 12:58
2018 Mac mini (3.0GHz 6-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5, 8GB): 9:05
2020 Developer Transition Kit (A12Z, 16GB): 8:29
2020 M1 Mac mini (8GB): 5:00

As you can see, the M1 Mac mini is blazingly faster when it comes to unzipping a 11.2GB xip file to its full 27.2GB size. This is just part of the speed that the M1 offers.

Any time you use a newer machine, whether you replace an older machine or just add another machine to your existing computers, you expect the machine to be faster. This is definitely the case with the Mac mini. It is not faster just in Geekbench benchmarks, it is, see the chart above, but just in the general feel it seems faster. I am sure part of this is the fact that it is an SSD only machine, as well as not having all of my usual apps on the machine, and the fact that it is a new machine.

However, the actual difference is borne out through the benchmarks that have been done using Geekbench 5.

Device Single Core Multi Core
iPod touch (6th Gen) 258 528
iPod touch (7th Gen) 553 1077
iPhone 7 Plus 740 1355
Early 2015 13.3-inch MacBook Pro 746 1652
Late 2018 Mac mini 992 4442
Mid-2017 27-inch iMac 1068 4377
12.9-inch iPad Pro (3rd Gen) 1124 4680
Late 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro 1170 5391
iPhone 11 Pro Max 1328 3252
iPhone 12 Pro Max 1604 4297
M1 Mac Mini 1739 7366

In Single Core performance, the M1 mac mini is 8.4% faster than my iPhone 12 Pro Max, 54% faster than my iPad Pro, and a whopping 62.8% faster than my 2017 iMac.  Even crazier though, is the multi-core benchmarks. The M1 Mac mini is 57.4% faster than my iPad Pro, 68.2% faster than my 2017 iMac, and 71.4% faster than my iPhone 12 Pro Max. This difference is absolutely noticeable. 

The biggest speed improvements that I have seen are actually while I have been doing development.

Developing on an M1 Mac mini

As mentioned earlier, the primary reason that I bought an M1 Mac mini was that my app was crashing on a friend’s M1 Mac. Although, the issue ended up being on the server-side, and not the app itself, I have done quite a bit of development using the M1 Mac mini. I have some things that I have noticed along the way, so let us look at some of those now, starting with the screen.

Screen, or lack there of

One of the possible downsides of the Mac mini is that it does not include a screen. While I can purchase a monitor, including a 4K or 5K monitor, it is not likely to be a P3 color gamut monitor, and since the Mac mini is not my primary machine, I do not want to invest too much into it. I do have a 27-inch 1090p monitor that I purchased earlier this year, and have been using that.

Using this setup is definitely not ideal and is a significant departure from what I am used to with my 27-inch iMac. The difference is not only in the color, but also in the amount of screen real estate. On my iMac I use a scaled resolution, to provide me more usable space. This does result in smaller font, which I have no problem seeing, for the most part. 

However, with the Mac mini and a 1080p monitor, I am limited in the amount of space that I have available to me, so I have to do some juggling in order to be the most efficient. Sometimes I have multiple windows open, one for the current file I am looking at and another for the simulator that I have running. With the amount of space on the iMac, I am able to position all of the windows to be able to see everything at once. That is just not possible on the 1080p monitor I have. It is situations like this where I wish Apple had continued to sell a stand alone monitor. I understand that it is a very small market, but having quality monitors that work well with Apple’s hardware would be ideal.

Even though I have to do some juggling, I am able to get some development done. I do not necessarily need to use the Xcode simulator all the time. This is because I have begun using a slightly different way of doing development.

Most general computing tasks do not process things using more than a single core. Yes, there are a number of applications that are specifically designed to utilize all of the cores of a machine, but most do not necessarily utilize these to their fullest extent.

One area that can utilize the multiple cores simultaneously is when you are building an app. The reason that this is possible is because the compiler is able to handle multiple tasks at once. This is most noticeable when using a specific feature of Apple’s Xcode app, called SwiftUI Previews.

SwiftUI Previews

Despite having a 27-inch iMac, which should be able to handle most development tasks, there are some things that it is not able to do. Most notably, it is not able to use SwiftUI Previews. SwiftUI Previews is a technology built into Xcode that allows you, as the name states, preview SwiftUI views. SwiftUI is a user interface that takes the core aspects of the Swift language and builds a series of user interface elements on top of the language. When you create SwiftUI Previews, they are in almost real-time. This is possible because when you use SwiftUI Previews, your screen is divided in half. On the left side you see your code and on the right side you see the SwiftUI Preview. With this arrangement, when you make a change it should be instantly reflected in the preview. This has been my experience on the Mac mini, and is the intended experience for anyone using SwiftUI Previews.

The way that this works is by constantly re-building your app. If you have done development for any amount of time you likely realize that this seems like it would be a constant drain on the system. In most cases, it would be. However, Swift is able to recompile only the parts of the app that need to be recompiled, and this technique allows SwiftUI previews to work. 

My initial thought is that the reason SwiftUI Previews has not worked on my iMac is because it has a fusion drive, where a majority of the drive is a traditional spinning hard drive and a smaller portion is an SSD. So, I thought I would try SwiftUI Previews on my 2015 MacBook Pro, which is a pure SSD. However, I never ever been able to satisfactorily use them either. I have a 16-inch late 2019 MacBook Pro for work, and while SwiftUI can work on this, there are times that it even has issues with SwiftUI Previews.

That is not the case on the M1 Mac mini. I am able to use SwiftUI Previews without any issues, including the near real-time recompiling of my app. Changes that I make are reflected in the previews, and that is previews plural. With SwiftUI Previews you are able to have multiple devices show in the preview canvas simultaneously. This can allow you to easily see how an app will look at various screen sizes.

Each of these previews is its own simulator. Any simulator requires some memory, and if you have a large number of SwiftUI previews, even for a single SwiftUI View, they can use significant amounts of memory. This can be problematic in some situations. On the topic of memory, let us look at that next.

Memory Usage

Throughout most of the time I spent working on my app on the M1 Mac mini I did not experience that many issues. However, it seems as though Xcode will use as much memory as it can. At one point I started running into some performance issues and realized that Xcode was using 10.2 GB of memory, the LLVM process was using nearly 3GB of memory on its own. The amount of swap being used was 6.3GB.

This resulted in the Mac mini needing to use some swap, which I never experienced on my iMac. The reason for this is because my iMac has 24GB of memory in it The 8GB that came with it, and the 16GB of memory that I added after the fact. The 2017 iMac still has an access door for being able to add memory.

As you might expect, once I quit Xcode and waited for all of the processes to close and then restarted Xcode, I was back to having my regular performance. I guess that proves that sometimes it is best to just quit the app and restart it. However, the 8GB of memory does seem to be a bit of a bottle neck. This is most noticeable if I am working on SwiftUI Previews while also having simulators running at the same time.

Just as is the case with a tradition architecture, if the memory that is being used is full, anything not being used is swapped to the SSD. The speed of the SSD is fast enough where you will not likely notice the memory being swapped. However, as I experienced, there is a limit. Even though the memory swapped very fast, and I did not even notice it being done, it can have a slight performance impact.

One of the benefits to the M1 Macs is that users can run iOS apps natively, provided a developer opts in. Now, as a developer this has a benefit for you as well. You are able to test your iOS apps natively, including all of the features that are supported, such as handoff. This means that if you have an M1 Mac and an iPhone, you are able to do full handoff testing to verify that everything will work as expected without needing to have multiple iOS devices. Granted, this is provided that you are not offering a native macOS app, but only offering your iOS app for use on the M1 Macs.

Even though the M1 Mac improves your experience with macOS, and development using some of Apple’s most intensive development tools, it has not been entirely smooth sailing. So let us dive into some of the issues that I have experienced.

Problems

As much as we would like it to be the case, nothing is perfect. To quote John Siracusa, “Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be complained about.” I have actually experienced a few different issues with the M1 Mac mini. The first of these, and the most annoying as well as most prevalent, is with an item I use all the time, the Magic Mouse.

Magic Mouse

Apple Magic Mouse 2

I use a Magic Mouse 2, and a Magic Keyboard, with my Mac mini. I did not buy these new when I got ordered the Mac mini. The whole idea of the Mac mini is to be able to use your existing Keyboard, Video, and Mouse, which is what I did. Most of the time these just work, however, the Magic Mouse seems to randomly disconnect. This happens right in the middle of me using it. Sometimes I am pasting text and other times I am simply scrolling. There is no rhyme or reason as to why it happens that I have been able to ascertain, yet.

Once the mouse disconnects, it will reconnect, then immediately disconnect again, and then reconnect again. Again, this is not consistent. There are times when the disconnect and reconnect only occurs once, sometimes it is twice, and yet on a few occasions it has been three times. Sometimes, the mouse will work after it reconnects, but sometimes it does not. I have tried manually disconnecting and then reconnect the mouse, and it will work again for a while. This could be a half hour, an hour, or even longer, but it will inevitably happen again.

At first, I thought it could be an issue with macOS Big Sur 11.0.1. It was the first release of macOS Big Sur after the M1 Mac launched. While using the Mac mini macOS Big Sur 11.1 was released. I, of course, updated to this version. I updated not just because of this issue, but because I prefer to stay on the latest version of macOS. After installing the update, the issue continues. So that did not fix it. 

The next thing I tried was a different Magic Mouse, a first generation one, that requires batteries and is not rechargeable with a lightning cable. Unfortunately, this did not fix the issue either. While it seemed that the issue happened less often with the first generation Magic Mouse, it did still happen. The issue is transient and does not happen consistently enough for me to be able to identify a pattern. I will continue to see if I can identify what is causing the issue. I have not experienced any issues with the Magic Keyboard disconnected, that I know of, so I think the issue may be isolated to the Magic Mouse.

I am beginning to suspect that the issue is entirely related to Xcode. I have used the mouse quite extensively while browsing the web and other tasks on the Mac mini and they did not happen when I was doing that, so it seems like it might be an Xcode-specific bug. This is still problematic because I am intending to use the Mac mini as a development machine, so Xcode is pretty important.

The issue with the Magic Mouse has not been the only issue I have experienced. I have encountered some issues while doing development.

Problems with Development 

The second issue is one that I have only experienced twice, and may only be due to the 8GB of memory on the machine. I was working on my app and I came across an error, while using Xcode, that states:

The current system settings are not sufficient to allow booting additional simulators: maxFiles: 1288, openFiles: 1163, enforcedFilesBuffer: 1868. Please see Simulator help for information on adjusting resource limits.

Xcode with error "The current system settings are not sufficient to allow booting additional simulators: maxFiles: 1288, openFiles: 1163, enforcedFilesBuffer: 1868. Please see Simulator help for information on adjusting resource limits."

I have never seen this error before, or anything even like it. Even with my usual build and run cycle on my iMac I have never come across this, or anything similar. Now, when I saw this error I was a bit confused because I was not trying to actually boot a simulator. I was actually in the middle of coding and just trying to build the app. I am sure that the reason that I got this error was because I have been using SwiftUI Previews. SwiftUI Previews can have multiple previews and each preview can rebuild the current view in an incremental manner. This results in quick builds and I suspect that there were just too many preview windows that ended up using up the available resources.

Furthermore, I am thinking that the fact that I only have 8 GB of memory in the Mac mini is part of the cause. It could be that I have not experienced this on my iMac because it has 24GB of memory, therefore it has enough resources to handle this. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, SwiftUI Previews has never worked properly on my iMac. Therefore, it could be a combination of me not using and it not working properly on my iMac as the reason I have never experienced this.

The fix was quite simple and an easy one. I simply closed Xcode and made sure the simulator, and all of its associated processes were closed. After restarting Xcode, I was back in business. I have not experienced this issue again, but who is to say that I will not again in the future.

LSBundleWrapper

I did get another issue, one that is not related to memory, but what seems like a compiler bug. This is the error I received:

Please try again later. Failed to finalize LSBundleWrapper mutator instance for [bundle identifier]

Xcode error that states "Please try again later. Failed to finalize LSBundleWrapper mutator instance for [bundle identifier]"

One of the things that you can do with an M1 Mac is run iOS apps. In addition to this, you can run your iPad app right on your M1 Mac. In order to do this, you select the build target of ““My Mac (Designed for iPad)”” in Xcode. Each time you successfully run a build using this target, your iOS is wrapped in a bundle and copied to your debug folder. As is the case with other apps, if there is already an existing app with the same name the app is incremented. For instance, for my app wwriteLite, the first build would be “wwriteLite”, the next would be “wwriteLite 2”, the third “wwriteLite 3”, etc.

At first, I thought that I ran into the issue because the Mac mini has a limit on the number of builds allowed in the directory, but I do not think that is the case. I attempted to replicate the issue by purposely building and running, but I could not replicate the issue.

When this happened, I tried the first step in any troubleshooting, I tried quitting Xcode and re-opening it, but that did not fix the issue. I then decided to google the issue. The only result that I could find indicated that you needed to enable Mac Catalyst, build the app, and then disable it. To me, this does not seem like an appropriate solution because I was not building a Mac Catalyst app, and I did not want to deal with any possible problems that might arise from doing that.

At this point I opted to do the equivalent of nuke and pave for development: Clean the build folder and build the app again. Guess what, this fixed the issue. So, if you run into issues sometimes just doing a clean build folder and rebuilding the app fixes it. It the development equivalent of “quit and relaunch”.

There is yet another last issue I ran into, and this was also related to compiling.

Compiling Issue/Resource Utilization issue

A few times while I was compiling my app, I have had the entire system just stop responding. The mouse was able to move but that was it. Ironic, I know that the mouse, which has been causing other issues would continue to work, but I could not click on anything, I could not hit command-tab to switch to another app, nor could I bring up any windows. When this did happen, I let it sit and it would eventually catch up. Of course any actions that I had performed would replay. Obviously something locked up the system, but I am not sure what it was. 

Read Only File System?

The last weird error that I have encountered while using the M1 Mac mini is an error that stated:

You can’t save the file ‘About.swift’ because the volume “Macintosh HD” is read only.

Xcode error that states "You can't save the file 'About.swift' because the volume "Macintosh HD" is read only."

Now, when I got this message I was definitely confused, because I had been using the system, and therefore it the volume that the app is on is definitely “read only”. I do not use iCloud Document and Desktop syncing for my development iCloud account, because I do not need the feature since I do not have more than one machine dedicated for development. Even if I did, all of my code is source controlled, so I can just pull from source control.

As has been the case with many of the issues, quitting Xcode and restarting it fixed the issue. I have not experienced the same issue again. It is possible that I happen to try and save the file when the file system was taking a local Time Machine snapshot, but if so, then that was some really good timing on my part.

Closing Thoughts

The M1 Mac mini is fast, even in its base configuration. The M1 Mac Mini is speedy with everything it does, from just interacting with Finder, to building the incremental SwiftUI previews, and even building an app from start to finish.

If you are a developer, I recommend getting an Apple Silicon Mac as your next development Mac. This is particularly true if you plan on supporting your iOS to run on the M1 Macs, but a necessity if you have a native Mac app. If you do need one, you do not need to break the bank to get a great machine. However, you may want to wait for larger memory configurations.

The speed of the Mac mini alone is worth it. This is particularly true if you use SwiftUI and utilize SwiftUI Previews. The Mac mini is able to render these in near-real time is quite nice. Furthermore, the speed of the Mac mini allows you to be more productive. The fact that the system can compile builds, and incremental builds, so quickly means that you will spend less time waiting for the system and more time actually developing. 

One thing I would recommend would be to get at least 16GB of RAM. At the time of this writing, the maximum you can get is 16GB, and I would definitely recommend it. I am sure that some of the issues that I have experienced have been due the fact that the Mac mini I purchased only has 8 GB of memory and not 16GB. In some ways, I regret not ordering a machine with 16GB of RAM, and time will tell if this was ultimately the wrong decision.

On a similar note, since I am only using the Mac mini as a development machine, the 256GB of storage should be sufficient, but I will not really know until I have used the machine for a bit longer. The reason that I say this is because half of the space is already used up, and I do not have a lot on the device. I have Apple’s built-in apps, Xcode, BBEdit, and a couple of other small applications. I do not have much else on the machine. As any developer knows, Xcode and its associated files do take up a lot of space. I wish Apple would have some sort Xcode cleanup utility, or have ways of cleaning up some of the excess Xcode files.

While I think 256GB should be enough for this device, for my needs. If this was my main machine, it would definitely not be enough storage space. So, take that into consideration if you do decide to purchase an M1 Mac. Even thought I have experienced some issues, I can still recommend getting an M1 Mac, even if you are not a developer.

I am not the first one to say this, but it does need to be said, these are the SLOWEST Apple Silicon Macs we will ever see, and these are already super fast. I do not expect to see the same type of speed increases in the future, but this is a great baseline to compare to with future M1 Macs. These machines absolutely blow away all Intel machines, and even most of Apple’s other Apple Silicon-based devices, like in the iPad and iPhone.

Ultimately, I may end up getting a different Apple Silicon-based Mac in the not too distant future, depending on what Apple releases. Even if I do end up buying another Apple Silicon Mac and using that for development instead, the current Mac mini can be used for a number of different things, like a server. If used as a server, the limitations of the smaller internal storage and 8GB of memory would not necessarily be limiting factors in that, since storage can be external, and while possible, it is hard to see 8GB of memory not being enough, for a server.

Here is one last thing to keep in mind. Even if you are not planning on getting a Mac mini, because you would prefer a laptop, everything I have written also applies to those machines as well. This is because all of the M1 Macs are using the same processor. Therefore, regardless of M1 Mac that you get, you should see significant improvements. Furthermore, even if you are not a developer and just need a new Mac, I recommend getting an M1 Mac, it should be able to serve your needs for many years to come. Now, if Apple would only release a standalone 5K monitor, but again, that is a whole other story.

Xbox Series X: A Deep Dive and a Review

If you were to ask anybody if they play games, you will very likely get an affirmative answer. Everybody has played at least one game in their lives. It may not be a video game, but it is a game of some sort. Gamers are simultaneously the same and unique. We are all the same because we have all had triumphs and heartbreaks, while playing a game. We have all felt the anticipation of a new game, and the let down when a game did not live up to our expectations. We have all been frustrated and elated all while playing games.

Even though we have all felt those experiences, none of us have had the exact same overall experiences when it comes to games. We all have different favorite types of games, games we have played, and even when, where, and what games we had access to and played.

I have played games on a range of devices and consoles. Over my life I have played games on a wide variety of devices, ranging from the Apple II/e to the Xbox Series X. The entire list includes:

  • Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
  • Sega Genesis
  • Sega Game Gear
  • Nintendo 64
  • Sony Playstation 2
  • Microsoft Xbox
  • Nintendo Game Cube
  • Nintendo Wii
  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Sony Playstation 3
  • Xbox One
  • Sony Playstation 4
  • Nintendo Switch
  • Xbox Series X

I have also played games on Microsoft DOS, Microsoft Windows 95, 98, 2000, XP, and even on the Mac, iPhone and iPad. The games that I remember most will always be ones that I enjoy playing. These games are ones that I have undoubtedly purchased multiple times. Some of these include Super Mario Bros 1, 2, and 3, Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, and Sonic & Knuckles, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, the entire Half-Life series, Duke Nukem 3D, and a bunch of other games.

I have purchased a new iPhone each year since its original introduction in 2007. Having purchased a new iPhone each year, I have been able to figure out what areas I need to cover in each review that I post about the phones. 

Having owned an iPhone for so long I have played a bunch of games on the iPhone, as well as the iPad. While I do not play that many new games on the iPhone, there are four games that I play almost daily.  Given that I spend so much time with my iPhone, you would think I would spend more time playing games on there, but I do not. For the last seven years worth of iPhones, I written a review. 

Even though I have played many games, across the various consoles, I have never actually written a review of a gaming console, as far as I can tell. So, this is somewhat of a first for me. I have written about the Xbox One and Playstation 4 in two separate e-books, but never a full review.. But I will give it a go. With that, let us dive into various aspects and my thoughts on the latest Microsoft console, the Xbox Series X, starting with a bit of history of gaming.

Brief History of Gaming

When you look at the tech industry in general, you will see a new phone being released at least every month, sometimes even every week, and that is just from a single manufacturer. There are some manufacturers, like Apple, who release their new phones only once a year. There is one industry that makes even Apple look like speed demons when it comes to releasing new products. There are some types of devices that do not get new releases every year, or even every few years. One type of device that meets this definition is. gaming console. 

When new phones are released, they are typically generally incremental changes from the previous versions. That is not to say that they do not make leaps from time to time, they certainly do, but they are just not nearly as significant of shifts.

The same cannot be said for gaming consoles. Typically, console manufacturers tend to release new console generations every five to seven years. The primary reason for such a long time span between console generations is due to development times. One of the factors that contribute to the time is that the entire platform may change. This has happened more than once in recent history. Another factor is that console manufacturers must get game developers on board and developing for the new system in order to have titles available at the launch of the new console.

While console manufacturers release new console generations in longer spans, there are typically incremental versions of the console that are released at some point between the generations. Typically, these incremental versions include additional storage, smaller designs, and other internal refinements. Some of the recent incremental consoles include the Xbox One S, the Xbox One X, the Sony Playstation 4 slim, and the Playstation 4 Pro. The question becomes, what defines a “console generation”?

Console Generations

Depending on whom you ask, a console generation can be defined in a number of different ways. However, there has been some consensus of what each console generation is. The early console generations were marked by significant advances and included things like hardware changes. For instance, in the first five generations we go from the original Pong machine, all the way to the Sony Playstation 1. These generations include going from 4-bit consoles, to 8-bit to 16-bit, or 32-bit to 64-bit consoles. This also includes going from 2D graphics to 3D animated graphics. The first five console generations spanned from 1972 to 1999, while the sixth to 9th generations span from 2000 to now.

Each console generation has its own iconic consoles, below are the big names for each generation.

1st Generation

Original Pong

2nd Generation

  • Atari 2600
  • Intellivision
  • ColecoVision
Atari 2600 Console
Atari 2600 Console

3rd Generation

  • Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
  • Commodore 64 Gaming System
  • Sega Master System
Nintendo Entertainment System Console.
Nintendo Entertainment System Console.

4th Generation

  • TurboGrafx-16
  • Sega Genesis
  • Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
Sega Gensis Console.
Sega Gensis Console.

5th Generation

  • Sega Saturn
  • Nintendo 64
  • Sony Playstation 1
Nintendo 64 Console.
Nintendo 64 Console.

6th Generation

  • Microsoft Xbox
  • Nintendo GameCube
  • Sega Dreamcast
  • Sony Playstation 2
Original Xbox Console.
Original Xbox Console.

7th Generation

  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Nintendo Wii
  • Sony Playstation 3
Nintendo Wii console.
Nintendo Wii console.

8th Generation

  • Microsoft Xbox One
  • Nintendo Switch
  • Nintendo Wii U
  • Sony Playstation 4

9th Generation (Current) 

  • Microsoft Xbox Series X|S
  • Sony Playstation 5
Playstation 5 Console.
Playstation 5 Console.

As time has gone on, the number of distinct consoles being manufactured has been dropping to only a few manufacturers. The first generation saw 888 different consoles, whereas the last four generations have only had three or four consoles being released.

The reason for such a precipitous drop is that a change happened with the second console generation. Instead of having a device being dedicated to a single game, the consoles become platforms with the ability to play multiple games. A significant number of consoles utilized cartridges. These hard plastic cartridges were durable and allowed you to use swap them out easily.

Stating with fifth generation, games began switching from cartridges to using CDs, or DVDs for their games. The reason for this was storage density and the need to be able to store more information than a standard cartridge could hold. 

Another shift happened with the seventh generation of consoles. That change was the ability to download games to your console and not need a physical item to be able to play your game. This had the advantage of allowing you to re-download your games again, as well as allowing updates to games. 

Nintendo has typically done its own thing, and continues to do so by going back to using cartridges for their Nintendo Switch system. There are two reasons for this shift. The first is that the Switch is meant to be portable, so having a spinning drive is not possible. Secondly, the storage space available on cartridges has increased to the point where they can put games on cartridges. The Nintendo Switch does support digital downloads, so you do not need to use a cartridge, but you can if you would like.

As you can see there have been three major manufacturers, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony, for the lsat three generations. Each of these manufacturers have their own line of consoles. It is possible that another console manufacturer will enter into the market, however, it does not seem likely.

As mentioned above, gaming consoles are not released every year, there are typically refinements released at about half-way through a console generation’s lifetime. This has been true with the release of smaller versions of each of the most recent consoles.  When there is a revision released, it is typically smaller, or in the case of Nintendo, a bit more powerful, or a different form factor. 

When it comes to console gaming, I primarily play games on the Xbox. I do have a Playstation 4 and a Nintendo Switch, so I can play games on those as well. I typically only play console-exclusive games on those devices. 

Because I primarily game on the Xbox, I was excited to hear that Microsoft was releasing a new console this holiday season. Unlike so many others, I was able to get a console for launch day, although I did have some trouble. You can read about the problems I had here.

Now, that we have covered some history, let us get to the review of the Xbox Series X by starting with the unboxing.

Unboxing

Xbox Series X in its box

There are a slew of different unboxing videos of the Xbox Series X available. Like this one from What’s Good Games, but here are some pictures of the unboxing of my Xbox Series X.

I have watched a few different unboxing videos, so I knew what to expect. When you open the The Xbox Series X packaging, you are presented with the Xbox console right up front. It is nicely wrapped in a soft wrap to protect the console.

Behind the console is a box that contains the power cord, an HDMI cable, and the included controller. In order to setup the console you need to take it out of the box. The Xbox Series X console is HEAVY, at 9.8 pounds or 4.45 kilograms.. The console is not unwieldy, but it is dense and would be problematic to cart around. So, it is a good thing that it is designed to be stationary. This compares to the Xbox One, which was 7.7 pounds, or 3.5 kilograms. Therefore, this newer console is 27% heavier than the original Xbox One.

Ports on the back of the Xbox Series X
Ports on the back of the Xbox Series X

The Xbox Series X has a number of ports on the back of the console. The ports include:

  • Two USB 3.1 gen 1 ports, using the USB-A style connector.
  • One gigabit ethernet port
  • One power cord plug
  • One HDMI out
  • One dedicated proprietary storage expansion port.
  • One Kensington lock port

The layout of the ports for the Xbox Series X are pretty good. Each port has its own shape, so they are easily identifiable by sight. There is a nice touch that many users may not need, but it can be vital for a certain segment of the population. There are unique bumps beneath each of the ports. This is designed for those who may have visual issues and need to identify a port by touch. 

The USB ports have 3 single dots on them. The ethernet port has two dots, the power port has a single dot, the HDMI out port has a long bar, and the storage expansion port has four dots beneath it. These will allow you to easily identify the ports should you need to be able to identify the ports without looking at them.

As mentioned above, the Xbox Series X includes a gigabit Ethernet port. While some will end up using this port, many will likely use the wireless connection instead. The included wireless is dual-band the 802.11ac. This means that it can support 802.11b,g,n,a, and AC, at 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. This all sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo, and unless you are steeped in wireless connectivity it may not mean much. To make things easier the Wi-Fi working group has retroactively re-named some of these using straight numbers. The Xbox Series X supports Wifi 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. It does not support Wifi 6, which would be 802.11ax. Even though it does not support the latest wireless connectivity, 802.11ac should be sufficient for most everyone. 

All of these ports are on the back, now let us flip it around and look at the front. There is one port on the front as well, another USB 3.1 gen 1 port that uses the USB-A style plug. There are three buttons on the front of the Xbox. There is the disc eject button to remove physical discs. Close to the disc eject button is the Power button. In the opposite corner from the power button is the controller synchronization button.

Outside of the console, you also receive the power cable, a controller (more on that in a bit), and an HDMI 2.1 cable. This cable is a “Ultra High-Speed” cable because it needs to be able to deliver all of the data to your TV, again more on some of the new technology in a bit. Now that we have covered what is in the box, let us look at the internals for the design of the Xbox Series X.

Design

Internals of the Xbox Series X
Internals of the Xbox Series X

The Xbox Series X console is a rectangular device, that is 5.94 inches wide by 5.94 inches deep, by 11.85 inches high. When consoles are released there are generally designed to lay flat. Technically, the previous Xbox consoles, except for the original Xbox, can be placed on their side, but it is likely that many use it while laying flat.

The Xbox Series X is designed to be used in either orientation. I typically use my Xboxes with the disc drive being horizontal, where the top of the disc will be towards the top of the console. This is because it makes it much easier for me to know which way the disc is supposed to be inserted. I still buy most of my games in physical format, because I can do what I would like with the physical disc afterwards. That is not to say that I have not purchased digital games, I have, but I just prefer to get the physical games. 

Modern gaming consoles are very much like PCs, and contain many of the same type of components. What separates gaming consoles from standard PCs is that gaming console hardware is typically static and highly customized, meaning that they do not typically use off the shelf components.

The Xbox Series X is designed to have the air flow through the core of the console. In order to facilitate this, on the bottom of the console there is a foot that will allow the console to sit slightly above the surface it is placed on. This foot is on the console in order to allow enough to flow over the internals. In order to get enough airflow and to keep the console cool enough, some of the internals have been specifically designed. The biggest example of this is the motherboard.

The motherboard of the Xbox Series X is actually a unique design with two individual boards. One of the boards has the processor, graphics, and memory on it. The second board has all of the input and output, like the wireless, USB ports, HDMI port, and disc drive.  The two boards are attach to a metal chassis, which lines up the boards and allows them to interconnect so everything works well together.

Xbox Series X Split Motherboards
Xbox Series X Split Motherboards

This is very reminiscent of the 2013 Mac Pro, in that it has a unique layout, and the design of the Mac Pro had air flow over the internal core. One of the issues with the 2013 Mac Pro was that it was very limited in terms of thermals, which limited its upgradeability. Luckily, that is not likely to be a problem with the Xbox Series X, because it is not designed to be upgradeable in anyway, and typically game console generations do not change significantly, except in their size.

Internal Chip on the Xbox Series X
Internal Chip on the Xbox Series X

On the motherboards you will find an 8-core 3.8GHz custom processor and a GPU that is capable of running at 12 teraflops, or 12 trillion operations per second. To complement this is 16GB of system memory. This memory has two different speeds, there is ten gigabytes of memory that runs at 560 gigabits per second, and six gigabytes of memory that runs at 336 gigabits per second. The reason that there are two different types of memory is for throughput. Some tasks need to be able to read and write memory as fast as possible, so it would use the ten gigabyte block of memory. Whereas memory that does not necessarily need to be that fast can use the six gigabyte block of memory.

The types of items that may be stored in memory are loaded from the permanent storage, or non-volatile memory. The Xbox Series X has 1 terabyte of custom storage. This uses the Non-Volatile Memory Express, or NVME, protocol. This protocol is designed to connect directly to the CPU. This connection means that the CPU will be able to access the memory faster than going through traditional buses. This should provide faster speeds.

While the Xbox Series X comes with 1 terabyte by default, you can expand the storage in two ways, using the dedicated expansion port, or USB 3.1. Each option has its own trade-offs.

Xbox Series X Expansion Storage Port
Xbox Series X Expansion Storage Port

If you use the dedicated expansion port, you will have to get the custom Seagate Storage Expansion Card. Using this expansion card allows you to use the storage just as if it were internal storage. This would increase your overall storage to 2 terabytes. The downside to this is that it is not cheap. As of this writing, the expansion card has a retail price of $219.99, but it does match the internal storage exactly.

If you opt to go with the USB 3.1 external drive route, you can get much larger storage sizes, upwards of 8 terabytes. While these are typically cheaper, particular for a 1, 2, or 4 terabyte drive, you are not able to use these type of drives for playing games directly off of. Instead, you would need to copy the games from this drive to the internal storage. While this would be significantly faster than re-downloading a game from the xbox servers, or re-installing from disc and then updating the game, it will still take some time. Furthermore, it will take some manual management of your games.

All of these internals support the whole reason you are using the Xbox, to play games. In order to be able to see what you are doing, you need to have some graphics. The Xbox Series X can output games at true 4K, meaning a resolution of 3840 pixels wide x 2160 pixels tall, provided you have a 4K television. The Xbox Series X is capable of handling high-dynamic range, or HDR, content. 

HDR is a technology that allows more vibrant colors. For instance, lighter colors will be brighter, while darker colors will be richer. This can add more contrast to a game and can enhance your overall game play. If you have a capable television, or monitor, you can even play games at 120 frames per second. This would allow the game play to be even smoother than playing at 60 frames per second.

There are a few different types of HDR standards. These include HDR10, HDR10+, HLG, Dolby Vision, and Advanced HDR. The Xbox Series X supports HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision. These are the most common types, so it is good to have these supported.

While not all monitors can display content at every refresh rate, described using frames per second, or fps, many monitors can support multiple refresh rates. The Xbox Series X can handle the following refresh rates, 24 frames per second, 30 fps, 60 fps, and 120 fps. The various refresh rates can be used within a single game, depending on the content. For instance, if there is a video cut scene that plays at 24fps, while most of the remaining gameplay is 60fps, the Xbox Series X can seamlessly switch between the two modes, and if your monitor supports it, can adjust on the fly without you ever noticing. 

While video is probably the most important aspect of any media on the Xbox Series X, sound can be just as important in some contexts. The Xbox Series X is capable of handling Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, DTS 5.1, Dolby True HD with Atmos, up to 7.1. This is all provided that you have the proper sound setup in order to support the sound.

With all of this technology in such a dense package, it is time to actually get to to playing some games, so now that the technology has been covered, let us move onto to actually setting up the Xbox Series X.

Setup

Xbox App connected to console.

When I first turned on the Xbox, as you might expect, there was a day one firmware update. This patch was only about 800 megabytes, so not terribly large, particularly as compared to some day 1 game updates. Yes, I am looking at you Call of Duty and your 135GB of downloads, but that is a different story. This was actually smaller than I had expected, but I did expect an update to be needed. Just about every modern devices will need to be updated as soon as they are plugged in and powered on, it is just the modern way of technology.

Xbox Series X performing initial update.

It has been quite a long time since I had to set up an Xbox. There are a few different ways to setup an Xbox console. The first is to use the on screen guide, which will walk you through step by step. The second option is to use the Xbox app to help set up your Xbox. I opted to use the Xbox app on my phone. The reason I opted for this was because I have a complicated password for my xbox account and trying to enter this via the controller would be a pain to do. Combine this with two factor authentication and it would probably take 10 minutes to get past the login screen.

When you setup and Xbox, you have an option to transfer the settings from an existing Xbox, or to set up the Xbox as a new console. I opted to transfer my settings. This took a lot less time that I expected. The amount of time was short because the transfer was only for the settings and account information. It did not transfer game data, like I had initially thought. Of course, this was my own ignorance. 

The Xbox app will walk you through all of the steps needed. This includes updating the console, selecting power options (energy saving or instant on), setting up automatic updates, enabling remote features, naming the console, and then finally copying the settings from another Xbox.

There was one last thing that happened after I finished the setup. My Xbox Series X controller needed to be updated. Which is not a new thing, since my previous Xbox controllers needed updates from time to time, but I was a bit surprised to see that was immediately after finishing setup. 

There was one last thing that happened after I finished the setup. My Xbox Series X controller needed to be updated. Which is not a new thing, since my previous Xbox controllers needed updates from time to time, but I was a bit surprised to see that was immediately after finishing setup. 

Xbox Series X performing controller update

After the setup comes installing games onto the console. Let us move to that for a bit. 

Installing Games

After you have setup an xbox, you do have the option of transferring over game data after the fact. This is done via the settings. After I had finished my setup I contemplated transferring over the game installation data. However, I opted to not do this because there is a new feature for this generation of Xbox consoles.

The Xbox Series X, as well as its cousin the Xbox Series S, have a feature called “Smart Delivery”. Smart Delivery will only download the assets that are necessary for that console. Let us say for instance that you have an Xbox Series S. The maximum resolution for the console is 1440p. This means that you will not need the full 4K resolution images. Similarly, if you have an Xbox Series X, you will not need to download the 1440p assets. This means that you should be able to save some space on your console. If you have an Xbox Series S, you will save more space than the Xbox Series X, but both consoles should save some space.

Xbox Series X list of games including optimized games for the console.
Xbox Series X list of games including optimized games for the console.

Since I was going from a non 4K gaming device, the Xbox One S, to a 4K one, the Xbox Series X, I opted to get the optimized versions of the game data delivered so that I could experience the games I chose to install in their full 4K resolution.

There are two downsides to this technology. The first is that the game developer has to support this technology. I honestly do not know what it takes to support Smart Delivery. It might be as simple as tagging different assets for which console or indicating its maximum size. If a game supports Smart delivery it should indicate “Smart Delivery” on the game’s information on the Xbox console or xbox.com. Similarly, if you purchase a physical game, it will have the wording “Series X” on the front cover of the case. 

The second downside is that it will take time to download the optimized version. Game assets that use 4K will take up more storage space, so they will take longer to download, even if they are compressed. This is due to having significantly more resolution, and therefore being of larger size, than standard 1080p or 1440p assets.

On the topic of software, let us move onto the Xbox dashboard software.

Xbox Dashboard 

One of the benefits of software is that you can update, change, and adapt software over time. The software that is used to handle the non-gaming interface of the Xbox is the Xbox dashboard software. If you upgraded from an Xbox One to the Xbox Series X you should notice absolutely no difference between the dashboard of the two consoles. 

Where you would notice some differences is with the capabilities of the console. There are a couple of new options for the Xbox Series X that were not in the Xbox One S, which is what I upgraded from. These include some HDR options, which are outlined above, and another new feature supported by the Xbox Series X.

Game Play

My old Xbox was an Xbox One S. I got this from my brother after he upgraded to a different Xbox One model. The Xbox One S had a 500GB spinning hard drive that ran at 5400RPM. The fact that it was a 5400 RPM hard drive did mean that things were going to take a bit longer, but should be sufficient for game play. The Xbox One S does support 4K Blu-Ray playback, but not 4K gaming. Even the Xbox One S was an upgrade from the original Xbox One that I purchased back in 2013, because that did not include any 4K capabilities at all.

The first thing I noticed with the Xbox Series X is how fast games load. This was most notable when comparing the load times on Watch Dogs: Legion. On the Xbox One S I could get up, go and grab something to drink and come back and still not have the game be loaded. With the Xbox Series X it would take approximately 15 seconds to load, which was a significant improvement.

There are two factors that allow this. The first is that there is an SSD on the Xbox Series X, and the second is the NVME storage, given that it is significantly faster than a spinning hard drive. Solid State drives, by their nature, are faster than any spinning hard drive. This is because solid state drives can read random parts of the drive, where as a spinning hard drive must seek out a specific spot and may need to make a few revolutions before finding the particular sector.

Now, let us switch to a whole new feature for the Xbox Series X, one that will make aspects of game play a bit richer. That feature is called Ray Tracing.

Ray Tracing

Ray Tracing is a newer technique that allows more accurate shadows and lighting around objects. Say for instance you have a. Desk with a light shining on it. In the past it would take a lot to render the exact lighting that would move while a character moves. You would not always be able to take into account how a player would move. Therefore, you would be more likely to render consistent lighting, so that you could have a predictable result. 

However, with todays technology this information can be computed and rendered in near-real time. This technique will allow for even better game play experiences.  Here are two examples from Microsoft’s game, Minecraft. The first one does not have Ray Tracing enabled, while the second one does hav Ray Tracing enabled.

Xbox Series X with Ray Tracing off within the game Minecraft.
Xbox Series X with Ray Tracing off within the game Minecraft.
Xbox Series X with Ray Tracing on within the game Minecraft.
Xbox Series X with Ray Tracing on within the game Minecraft.

Not every game supports Ray Tracing, but for the ones that do, there may be an option to turn off Ray Tracing within the settings of the game. This is the case for Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War. Since Ray Tracing is still new to the Xbox, it may not be optimized and may have issues. If you do experience any, it might be best to turn it off until the issues can be rectified. I have not experienced any issues specifically related to Ray Tracing, that I know of, but that is not to say that there have not been any.

Now that we have finished with the game play, let us switch to how you play games, using the controller.

Xbox Series X Controller

Xbox Series X Controller Box
Xbox Series X Controller Box

The way that you control a game depends on the platform. For desktops and laptops, you may be able to use a keyboard, mouse, joystick, or another input device. Remember the old ThrustMaster racing wheels? There are some consoles, like the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo Switch that have their own unique controllers, like the Wii Remotes, and the Joycons on the Nintendo Switch. Even though the Switch and Wii have their own unique controllers, there is another controller available, the Pro controller, which has a controller that is more akin to traditional console controllers.

Some gamers are not able to use traditional controllers and instead need to be able to adapt a controller to their needs. For these gamers, there is the Microsoft Adaptive Controller. While it is not covered in this review, it is available for those gamers who need it.

If you were to just make a quick glance between an Xbox One controller and the Xbox Series X controller you might not think there is any difference between the two. However, there are some differences, but they are subtle. 

Xbox Series X Controller
Xbox Series X Controller

All Xbox controllers, excluding the Xbox Adaptive Controller, have a number of items on the front of the controller. These items are:

  • Two joysticks, one on the upper left, and one on the right side towards the bottom.
  • A directional pad on the left button side.
  • Four buttons in a diamond pattern, from top going clockwise you have Y, B, A, and X.
  • An options button on the left.
  • A start button on the right..
  • In the middle at the top is the controller power button.

The buttons and joysticks on the front are not the only buttons. There are some along the back as well. These are:

  • Two bumper buttons on the shoulders of the controller, one on the left and one on the right.
  • Two trigger buttons on the back, again one on the left and one on the right.
  • A power port between the bumpers.
  • A pairing button to the left of the power port.

There is one last port on the bottom of the controller, an accessory port. This is used to connect additional items like headsets. The Xbox Series X controller also has one additional button, that is in between the options and start buttons, and that is a dedicated share button.

The function of the Share Button can be customized through the Settings on the Xbox Dashboard. You have a few different options. This can be “Record what happened”, “Take Screenshot” or “Start/Stop recording’. Now, the “Record What Happened” option depends on your default capture settings. For 4K game captures you can capture the last 30 seconds, for 1080p, it is 1 to 2 minute, 720p is up to 3 minutes. The screenshots will be in 4K. The option for “Start/Stop Recording” will begin a record when you press it, and then stop the recording. This allows for a more customized length of video, which can save time in editing later. Even if that editing is just trimming the beginning and the end, it is still time saved.

Besides the power port, the directional pad has changed. The directional pad on the Xbox One controller is designed to allow you to more easily hit the up, right, down, and left arrows. These sit at 90 degree angles to each other. The modification with the Xbox Series X controller is that it is much easier to hit the diagonals, or 45 degrees from the standard directional buttons. This configuration can provide for more control during a game, particularly puzzle games or any other game where exact controllers or small adjustments in those specific directions are needed. This is not the first controller to have this type of configuration. The Xbox Elite Controllers have had this type of directional pad.

Having these additional directional options make playing some type of games a bit better and can make some actions a lot easier. Along with the directional pad there are some other changes, most notably to the back of the controller. This change can also allow for a better overall experience.

Increased Grip

The original Xbox One controller took the shape of the Xbox 360 controller and refined it. One of the aspects of the original Xbox One controller was that the area where you wrap your fingers around the back were smooth. While this felt nice, and provided a uniform feel across the entire controller, it could be a bit problematic. 

Imagine if you will, you are heavy into a gaming session, fighting the last boss of a game, you are low on health and barely surviving. Or maybe you are in a multiplayer match, and you are on a hot streak, going 10 and 0, and you need to keep going, or maybe you are playing a Dance Dance Revolution game and you are hitting every single beat perfectly. Because everything is a bit stressful your palms begin to sweat and with the controller being smooth it may be a bit difficult to hold onto the controller and you may end up dying or failing to hit that button at right the right moment.

Xbox One S Controller's grip
Xbox One S Controller’s grip

Microsoft took the feedback about this and with the Xbox One S controllers, as well as the Xbox Elite Controllers, and added some gripping material to the back of the controllers. This would help during those intense gaming sessions and would allow air to flow through the bumps on the controller.

Xbox Series X Controller's grip
Xbox Series X Controller’s grip

The Xbox Series X controller take this a bit further and adds just a bit more grip material. When I compare the Xbox One S controller and the new Xbox Series X controller, the Xbox Series X controller does seem to have additional grip material on it. I will concede that it is possible that the grip material on the Xbox One S controller has been worn away over time and it might have the same amount of grip material when it was new. Regardless, it does have more grip material than the original Xbox One controller, which did not have any grip material at all.

There is one last item to discuss about the controller itself, and that is the port on the controller.

USB-C

It is likely that many players use their Xbox controllers wirelessly, but that is not the only method. You can also used them wired to your Xbox as well. If you use rechargeable batteries, or the charge kit, you will need to plug in your controller from time to time. The primary purpose of these ports is to allow the controllers to be connected via a cable. 

The Xbox series of consoles have all had Universal Service Bus, or USB, ports included in them. USB is designed to allow a standard physical interface between devices. At this point USB is considered an “old” technology. It is not outdated, but it has been around a long time. USB was finalized in 1996, with the first devices coming out later in the same year. USB really is universal. While it is being replaced by new ports, it is still in use today on a large number of products, including newly introduced ones.

The original Xbox had a proprietary USB connection that was used for the controllers. Since the Xbox 360, the Xbox consoles have all had standard USB ports, available to the end user. These have been USB-A ports. 

The Xbox Series X continues to have USB-A ports on the console. There are two ports on the back of the console and one on the front. However, what has not remained the same is the type of connection on the controller. The Xbox 360 had a proprietary connector that would allow even a wireless controller to connect to the Xbox 360, and would charge the controller if you had rechargeable batteries in the controller.

While the ports are used primarily used to connect controllers, there have been some other accessories that have also used USB ports. This includes the Kinect, controllers like guitars and drums for rhythm games, and hard drives for storage. These are just a few of the many other accessories that have been available over the years.

With the introduction of the Xbox One in 2013, the port included on the controllers was a standard one, a Micro-USB port. Unlike other systems, these ports are standards compliant. Changing to a standard port would allow gamers to purchase any USB-A to Micro-USB cable to be able to connect their controller to their console. One of the downsides of the Micro-USB port is that you need to plug in the cable in a specific direction.

With the Xbox Series X, the port has changed again, but only on the controller. It is no longer Micro USB port as it was on previous controllers, but has been replaced. With a USB-C port. The fact that it is a USB-C connection is actually a good thing, for a couple of reasons. First, you longer need to worry about plugging in the power cable incorrectly. This is because USB-C is designed to be reversible. Secondly, USB-C is quickly becoming the de-facto standard for connecting most peripherals. Furthermore, if you have another USB-C cable, you can use that to charge your controller.

The thing that I am confused about is why there is not at least one USB-C port on the Xbox Series X console. I can understand needing to retain one or two USB-A ports, given that many users have existing accessories that will work on their Xbox Series X, but not having a USB-C port on the console itself does seem a bit strange. As mentioned earlier, USB-C is quickly becoming the go to standard for not just accessories, but for all other types of devices, like phones, laptops, tablets, and other gaming consoles. 

I would hope that when the next revision of the Xbox Series X comes about, if tradition holds in about in 3 to 4 years, that it would have at least one USB-C port on it, if not having all of the ports being USB-C. While it is a minor issue, it does seem a bit odd to not have a single USB-C port on the console, particularly considering that USB-C has been around long enough where there would have been time to change one or two ports to USB-C. There one last thing to mention related to the bundled-in controller and USB-C, and that is the cable.

USB-C Cable

As mentioned above the Xbox One controller used Micro-USB for its connection to the Xbox One and to charge. The cables included with these controllers were somewhat unique in that they included a light to indicate the current charging status of the controller. If this indicator was orange the controller was charging and if the light was white the controller was fully charged. 

The USB-C cable bundled with the controller does include this indicator. The controller will vibrate when you plug it in, so there is some feedback regarding the controller. However, there is no easy way to see on the cable, or the controller, the current charge status. You can use the Xbox dashboard to see the current charge status, but this does require you to turn on the Xbox in order to see the information.

The USB-C cable does have another difference, compared to the Micro-USB cable provided with the Xbox One. It is much thicker. One thing I did notice over the years of using the Xbox One, and the Xbox One S, is that the Micro USB cable would eventually fray and need to be replaced. I have owned three “Plug and Charge Kits” for the Xbox One. I would either buy a new one because the rechargeable battery would not hold a charge long enough or because the cable frayed. Since Micro USB is a standard I could have just purchased or used a standard cable, but the cables included in the “Plug and Charge Kit” was always a longer one, so I could, as the name suggests, plug in the controller and charge it simultaneously. Furthermore, it had the indicator light. So both of these items kept me purchasing the cords. The good thing about having purchased so many is that I now have a number of rechargeable batteries that can be used.

The thicker USB-C cable should provide a bit more reliability and the cable should not wear out as quickly. At least that is my hope. Again, since it is not a cable with any additional features, should it happen to break in the future, I can just order a new cable in the length I would like so that I will be able to continue charging the controller while playing. It would be nice to see Microsoft come out with a USB-C cable with a charging indicator. It was a nice feature to be able to easily see the charging status.

Even though the controller has USB-C, the console only has USB-A ports. There might be another reason why there are so many USB-A ports on the Xbox Series X, and that is backward compatibility.

Backward Compatibility

When gaming consoles first came to market, you would not have any expectation of being able to play games from another console on the current one, even if the consoles were from the same manufacturer. This was the way that gaming worked until approximately 20 years ago, when the Playstation 2 was released. The Playstation 2 allowed you to play games from the original Playstation. Microsoft did not have its own gaming console until November of 2001 with the introduction of the original Xbox, so it did not have to worry about supporting older games.. 

If Microsoft had been releasing its second console in 2001 instead of its first, they might not have included support for the original Xbox, and some may have been okay with that.. However, Microsoft’s second console did support backward compatibility.

Being able to support older console games is not as simple as snapping your fingers and having it function properly. Each game console is its own platform, has its own specifications and idiosyncrasies. Another reason this is not simple is due to the underlying platforms possibly being significantly different between console generations. 

For instance, the original Xbox console was built with parts that were similar to standard PCs. This was chosen because Microsoft knew PC parts quite well having worked on various operating systems that support the PC market for 15 years at that point. Whereas the Xbox 360 used an entirely different architecture. The Xbox 360 used an IBM Power-PC architecture. You would not be able to play games from the original Xbox on the Xbox 360, at least not without some additional work being done to support the functionality.

When the Xbox 360 was released it was announced that it would support some original Xbox games. This was possible due to technological advances that were made in the four years between the release of the original Xbox and the Xbox 360. In order to be able to run original Xbox games, the Xbox 360 would need to emulate the original Xbox’s software. 

Four Star Wars Games that are backward compatible on the Xbox Series X, from the original Xbox to the latest console.
Four Star Wars Games that are backward compatible on the Xbox Series X, from the original Xbox to the latest console.

When you do any sort of emulation, you will invariable see a loss of performance. Luckily, the Xbox 360 had enough power to be able to play the original Xbox games fast enough, even through emulation, that most users likely did not notice a difference.

When the Xbox One console was released in 2013, Microsoft had made some additional changes. Amongst these was the switch back to more standard PC-like hardware. This would allow the Xbox One to more easily emulate the original Xbox games, but with the different architecture would make it a bit more difficult. This is where the second change coms into play. That change was the way that the underlying Xbox operating system architecture had been changed. 

In the intervening eight years between the release of the Xbox 360, in 2005, and the Xbox One, in 2013, a new type of technology became more viable as a solution. That technology is what is called a hypervisor. A hypervisor allows you to run multiple operating systems simultaneously. If you have ever used some like VirtualBox, Parallels, or Microsoft’s Hyper-V, you are well aware of how you can run multiple operating systems on the same machine at the same time. This is how the Xbox One console functioned. The Xbox Dashboard was run in one virtual machine, while games were run in another. In fact, the Xbox 360 operating system would effectively virtualized, albeit with modifications, to allow the Xbox 360 games to run, even though the underlying architecture were different. The same approach continues to be the case with the Xbox Series X. 

These two changes, back to PC-like hardware and the transition to using a modified version of Microsoft’s Hyper-V, allowed backward compatibility to thrive. Since the architectures between the Xbox One and the original Xbox were similar, being able to run the original Xbox games would be expected. However, since the architectures differed between the Xbox One and the Xbox 360 so much, you might expect backward compatibility for those games to not be present. 

This is where the hypervisor comes in as well as the length of time between console releases. With the eight year difference the capabilities of the hardware improved significantly. Much like the Xbox 360, the Xbox One had enough spare processing power to be able to play the Xbox 360 games without much difference being noticed by the gamer, even when emulated. All of the Xbox 360 games that I have played on the Xbox One worked flawlessly and felt just as though they wee running on the Xbox 360.

Providing compatibility for software is core to Microsoft. However, the Xbox Series X introduces a new type of compatibility, and that is with some hardware. So, let us look at that compatibility next.

Hardware Backwards Compatibility 

Gaming is neither strictly personal nor strictly communal. It can be either one, or both at the same time. It is likely that you will end up playing a game with others from around the world, however your setup will likely be unique to you. One way that you can make gaming your own is by finding just the right controller. This could be a standard Xbox controller, or possibly even one from the Xbox Design Labs, or even a third-party controller. When you find the right controller you will likely want to be able to keep using it. Unfortunately, this has not been possible with previous generation changes.

When you think of Microsoft, you may think about their operating system, Windows, even though the have de-emphasized Windows in recent years, it still may come to mind. When you think about Microsoft Windows you might think about “backward compatibility”. If Windows has anything going for it, it is that it is highly backward compatible. As an example, if you installed Windows 7 in 2009, you could run software that was originally built for Windows 3.1, or even DOS. This type of compatibility is highly unusual.It appears that the desire for hardware backward compatibility has migrated to the Xbox Series X.

Typically when you buy a new gaming console you will get a new controller to go along with it, so you can play right out of the box. However, you may have to buy an additional controller, as well as all new accessories. While some may be compatible, it is possible that some will not. As was mentioned earlier, each time an Xbox console was introduced the previous generation’s controllers would not be compatible. What this would mean is that you would have to buy all new controllers and accessories. This is not necessarily the case if you were to upgrade to an Xbox Series X, or Xbox Series S, at least for controllers.

Original Xbox, Xbox One S, and Xbox Series X controllers
Original Xbox, Xbox One S, and Xbox Series X controllers

That is right, you are able to use your Xbox One controllers with the Xbox Series X. This is easy enough to do. It is as simple as pairing any other controller. You simply perform the following steps:

  1. On the Xbox Series X console, press the controller pairing button, which is on the front near the USB port. The on/off button of the Xbox Series X console should begin blinking.
  2. On the controller tap the pairing button on the top of the controller. This is next to the power port. The one/off button on the Xbox One Controller should begin blinking.

The two devices should begin pairing and once they have paired both on/off buttons will stop blinking and become solid. Once the devices have been paired, you can begin using your Xbox One controller with the Xbox Series X console. The controllers that you can pair are not just the Xbox One S controllers, or Xbox One X controllers,, but you can even pair an original Xbox One controller. This includes any of the stock controllers, Xbox Design Lab controllers, or even the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

There is one additional benefit that this ability has. Say that you are having a gaming party, but you do not have enough controllers. Now, with backward compatibility, you can ask your friends to bring their own Xbox One controllers so you can all play with a familiar controller.

The fact that all Xbox One controllers will work with the Xbox Series X is a great change to see. This is particularly true given that some users have already purchased some expensive controllers and want to keep using them. Let us now power on through to another accessory for the controllers.

Xbox Rechargeable Battery

Xbox Rechargeable Battery and USB C Cable box
Xbox Rechargeable Battery and USB C Cable box

Controllers since the Xbox 360 have had the ability to be used wirelessly. Even though the controllers can be wireless they need to be powered. This is possible by either using two standard AA batteries, or by using some rechargeable batteries. Microsoft does sell a rechargeable battery with an appropriate charging cable. They call this the Xbox Rechargeable battery. 

The kit for the Xbox Series X contains a rechargeable battery, which fits nicely inside the Xbox Series X controller as well as a USB-A to USB-C cable, so you can use the battery in your Xbox Series X controller . You do not need to use this specific set for the newer controllers. You can use the older version of this set, called the “Xbox One Plug and Charge Kit”. 

I like the Rechargeable Battery kits because they can charge while you play, provided you plug in the controller while the rechargeable battery is inserted into the controller. All batteries will degrade over time, so it is likely that you will need to replace the battery in a couple of years in order to be able to get the same amount of gameplay as when it was new.

Battery Life of the Controller

The battery life on the Xbox Rechargeable battery is quite amazing. I have had the Xbox Series X for about a month now and I have only had to charge the controller twice in that time. That means that I get approximately ten days to two weeks of game play time before needing to recharge. I do not always play the same amount of time eery day, it varies as you might expect. This is likely due to the rechargeable battery being new, but it is nice to not have to charge the controller every few days. 

My experience with Xbox Series X has not been all fun and games, although it has been mostly that. I have run into some issues while using the console. 

Problems

Xbox Series X on its side

As is the case with just about anything these days, I have experienced problems with the Xbox Series X. The biggest problems that I have experienced, has been the Xbox Series X freezing. And when it does freeze, the entire console just shuts down. Basically, it is a hard crash. This has happened in with more than one game, therefore it is not necessarily game-specific. I have even had this happen while scrolling through the user interface. I hope this is a transient issue that is fixed with a future update. 

I have not been the only one to experience this issue, there are others that have. Some indicate it is due to ray tracing, but that is game specific setting. I suspect it is actually due to airflow problems. I set my Xbox Series X on its side with the disc drive at the top of the, and with what I thought was enough airflow around the console. However, after I moved the Xbox into an area with a bit more airflow the issue has not re-arisen, at least as of this writing. 

Airflow through the Xbox Series X
Airflow through the Xbox Series X

I have also experienced crashes of games. For one game it would crash and when I realized it had crashed I would try to go back to the Xbox dashboard, but the Xbox dashboard would end up freezing. Eventually the game would actually crash and allow me to start it up again. Typically, the game took a minute or two to actually crash.

I know that this issue was not related to airflow, because I have experienced this after moving the Xbox. I do have automatic updates enabled for both game and system updates, so it is possible that these have already been fixed, and that they may not re-occur.

I know that developing software is not an easy task, and that any piece of software is going to have bugs. Sometimes these bugs do not manifest themselves until they are in the hands of users. Hopefully, no major issues come up during my usage of the console and I hope that these issues were just software related and not an issue with the hardware.

Closing Thoughts

When you unbox the Xbox Series X you will notice notice that it is indeed heavy for a gaming console. It comes in at 9.8 pounds, or 4.45 kilograms and it is rectangular in shape. Inside the box are the split motherboards, central cooling. Powering all of this is custom CPUs and custom GPUs that are capable of handling 12 trillion processes per second. To help handle the gaming, you get two different speeds of memory, 10 gigabytes of faster memory and 6 gigabytes of slower memory.

In order to store your games and media you get 1 terabyte of storage standard on the Xbox Series X. This storage is a powerful custom solid-state drive. This SSD is faster than a standard hard drive, but also due to the speed of the SSD, which uses the Non-Volatile Memory Express, or NVME, memory. This memory allows the console to be fast not only for launching titles, but also allows for faster load times while playing games. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft introduces even larger storage options for the Xbox Series X in the future, which could add to the longevity of the console.

Once you get past the initial setup and update, you can then begin playing. When you do begin playing you can play the most current games, like Watch Dogs: Legion, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, or even NBA 2K21. While at the same time, due to backward compatibility, you can play games from previous Xbox generations, including some games that were only available on the original Xbox console. It is still mind boggling to be able to play games that were released nearly 20 years ago, all as if it were on the original console. 

If you are upgrading from an Xbox One, you may get the game data that is optimized for your console. This is known as Smart Delivery and can allow you to save some space by not downloading unneeded data. Once you do upgrade, for newer games, there may be some new technologies that enhance the game. If the game supports Ray Tracing, you may be able to have even better game play with improved shadows including very realistic rendering of the shadows in real-time. If you have the proper television setup this can make for more immersive games.

You will most likely be playing with a controller. You can use the included Xbox Series X controller or you can use any Xbox One controller. This backward compatibility with hardware is a great addition that can protect your existing investment in Xbox One accessories. So if you really like that Xbox One Elite controller, you can use still use it with your new console.

Overall, I like the Xbox Series X thus far. In most cases, it is not easy to spot any difference between playing on my old Xbox One S and the Xbox Series X. The place I notice the most change is with the amount of time that it takes for some games to load. It is noticeably faster than the older consoles, particularly if you are coming from a console that has a 5400RPM spinning hard drive.

The Xbox Series X is a great platform for gamers. The inclusion of full 4K gaming allows the highest quality of gaming. Once you add High Dynamic Range, or HDR, in with the games you will have the latest and greatest technology available and this will provide you with the best gaming experience that you can get today.

As of this writing it is difficult to get an Xbox Series X, but availability should improve over the next few months. If you are looking to either get into the Xbox, or upgrade an existing Xbox One, you cannot go wrong with the Xbox Series X. It should prove to be a great console for years to come.