Microsoft Xbox Series S review: a budget-friendly next-gen console
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For the first time, Microsoft’s new generation of consoles will launch with two different models: the Xbox Series S and the Xbox Series X. Due out on November 10, the Series S and X replace the outgoing Xbox One S and Xbox One X, which were released in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
The Xbox Series S and Series X both feature 4K playback, a vastly improved solid state drive (SSD), and backwards compatibility for nearly every Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Xbox game. Microsoft says that Xbox One consoles dating back to 2013 will still be able to play new Xbox games for years to come, but the Series S and Series X represent a large enough leap in performance to be considered a new generation of hardware.
At $300 the Xbox Series S is the less powerful of the two new Xbox consoles, and it doesn’t feature a physical disc drive. While the Xbox Series S is capable of 4K playback, Microsoft says the console is designed to play most new games at 1440p resolution. The $500 Xbox Series X will play more games at 4K and have access to enhanced visual features, like ray tracing, in more titles.
Sony will release two versions of the PlayStation 5 on November 12, but the only difference between the two will be the Blu-ray drive, which makes the standard $500 PS5 $100 more expensive than the all-digital edition.
While the Series S is designed as an entry-level machine, its best features offer large improvements over the Xbox One X, PlayStation 4 Pro, and Nintendo Switch. After spending two weeks with a review unit provided by Microsoft, I feel that the Xbox Series S offers some of the best value in gaming at $300.
- Dimensions 10.8 (W) in x 5.9 (D) in x 2.5 (H) inches
- Weight: 4.25 lbs
- Internal Storage: 512GB NVME Solid State Drive (364GB available for use), 2.4 GB/s
- HDMI Out: Up to 4K, 120Hz refresh rate, HDR support (No HDMI In port)
- Ports: Expansion card slot for NVME storage (up to 1TB), 3 x USB 3.1, 1 x Ethernet
- CPU: Custom Zen 2, 8x cores at 3.6 GHz (3.4 GHz w/ SMT)
- GPU: Custom RDNA 2, 20CUs at 1.565 GHz, 4 TFlops
- Memory: 10GB GDDR6, 128-bit bus, title accessible memory 8GB at 224 GB/s
The next-generation features of the Xbox Series S are defined by an NVME solid state drive that can load data at speeds up to 40 times faster than the Xbox One. Put simply, that means you’ll spend less time downloading updates and looking at loading screens, and more time playing.
Huge game installs that once took ages can now be completed in a fraction of the time. For example, downloading a 21GB game like “Resident Evil 2,” takes about 33 minutes on my Xbox One X, but the Series S shaved that down to just under 10 minutes. My peak download speeds on Xbox Series S reached 940 Mbps on my gigabit internet connection, while the Xbox One S maxed out at 110 Mbps. That improvement comes from the NVME drive improving transfer speeds.
Another new feature, called Quick Resume, allows you to store a specific save state for multiple games so whenever you swap between them, you can pick up directly where you stopped. Quick Resume saves will even stay intact if you turn the console off or unplug it.
The solid state drive is a limited resource though, and the Series S will only have 364GB available for use once it’s formatted. New Xbox games must be stored on the NVME drive, and it’s expensive to upgrade because it’s custom-built.
Microsoft is offering a 1TB expansion card for $250 — but for $200 you could upgrade from the Xbox Series S to an Xbox Series X with twice the storage capacity and even better performance. The storage problem is probably the only flaw of the Series S, but increased download speeds will still make your games easier to manage.
The Xbox Series S further simplifies the already basic design of the Xbox One S, packing everything into a neat white rectangle with just one front-facing USB port, the Xbox power button, and a button for controller sync. The circular black vent on the top of the Series S provides a bit of character for the otherwise uniform box.
The Series S is about the same width as current Xbox One models, but the depth has been reduced by about one-third to minimize the new Xbox’s overall footprint. The Series S is much smaller than I expected, but it doesn’t really make a noticeable difference on my desk or living room shelves. While the console does have feet that allow it stand vertically, the ventilation holes on the side made me feel like it’s better suited laying horizontally.
It is worth mentioning that the Xbox Series S is much more shelf-friendly than the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, so it might be a good choice if you’re not ready to welcome a new centerpiece to your entertainment system.
Graphics and performance
In the past, new console generations have been defined by dramatically improved graphics and exclusive games that older hardware couldn’t play. However, because Microsoft is committed to making all new Xbox games playable on the older Xbox One, the visual differences between the Series S and the Xbox One are much more subtle.
The Series S offers 4K resolution, a 120Hz refresh rate, and AMD FreeSync support for gamers with the right hardware. The Xbox One X offers these same display settings, but the Series S is capable of using its extra processing power to boost resolution and performance, including for older Xbox One and Xbox 360 games.
For example, “Fallout 4” runs at 30 frames per second on the standard Xbox One, but the Xbox Series S constantly displays the game at 60 frames per second. The extra frames make animations look smoother and can make games feel more responsive overall. The Xbox Series S can upscale older games up to 1440p, and also has its own built-in high dynamic range (HDR) filter to enhance the colors when playing on modern TVs with HDR support.
With Microsoft’s SmartDelivery feature, developers can choose to leverage the extra power of the Xbox Series S in different ways. Some games might choose to give the Series S version greater visual detail than the Xbox One version, while others might offer improved frame rates at the same level of quality.
Playing on the Series S also drastically reduces load times thanks to the solid state drive — loads that could take a minute or more on the Xbox One are cut to a matter of seconds on the Series S. The Series S drive can completely change the pace of a game, eliminating the wait times after you die or when traveling across the map.
Simply put, the Xbox Series S and Series X offer the best experience yet for classic Xbox One and Xbox 360 games, thanks to the console’s built-in optimization features. Improved frame rates and load times will benefit upcoming Xbox games on the Series S as well, though it’s clear that the Series X will perform slightly better in the graphics department.
Unfortunately, the Series S lacks the strength to run the most demanding games at their maximum level of quality when compared to the Series X and Sony’s PlayStation 5. Enhanced visual features, like ray tracing, won’t be available in every game on the Series S; so if you want the absolute best graphics with every new release, don’t settle for the Series S, spend the extra $200 on a Series X or PS5.
Microsoft is bucking console launch tradition by launching the Xbox Series S and Series X without a major exclusive game to help boost sales. That game was supposed to be “Halo Infinite,” but Microsoft pushed its release into 2021 after lukewarm first impressions to footage earlier this year.
Instead, Microsoft is relying on Xbox Game Pass, the Netflix-style subscription service that offers more than 100 new and classic games to players for $10 per month. All of Microsoft’s exclusive Xbox games (“Gears of War,” “Forza,” “Halo”) are available on Game Pass the same day they’re released, and the library has a revolving lineup of hits from other publishers, with games like “NBA 2K,” “Final Fantasy XV,” and “Resident Evil 7” appearing on the service.
Earlier this year Microsoft announced the acquisition of Bethesda, the company behind legendary franchises like “Doom,” “Fallout,” and “The Elder Scrolls.” Bethesda CEO said the company’s future releases will be available on Game Pass moving forward, and the company could end up making their titles Xbox-exclusive. “Doom Eternal” was released for Game Pass last month after launching in March, and it’s one of the best looking games on the Xbox Series S.
Ultimately, there’s no game you need to purchase an Xbox Series S for, but it’s an ideal home for your Xbox collection, and Microsoft has made enough investments in the Game Pass catalogue to keep you busy for months, if not years.
The Xbox Series S wireless controller will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s used the Xbox One controller as the layout is nearly identical. A new sharing button on the Series S controller makes capturing screenshots and videos from the Xbox easier; the directional pad has also been updated with a webbing for diagonal inputs and the rear of the controller now has a slightly textured grip.
Xbox Series S supports all Xbox One controllers, so you won’t need to worry about buying more if you already own one, and that includes the $160 Xbox Elite controller.
Unfortunately, the Xbox Series S controller still runs on AA batteries, but Microsoft offers a rechargeable battery pack for $25 that you can charge with the Xbox controller’s updated USB-C port. Like all late-generation Xbox One controllers, the Series S controller is Bluetooth compatible, so you can also use it with your Android, iPhone, Mac or PC.
The missing disc drive
Xbox Series S isn’t Microsoft’s first time experimenting with eliminating the disc drive — an all-digital version of the Xbox One launched in 2019. That said, it is interesting to see the company commit to a digital-only option at the start of a new console generation.
With millions of people subscribed to Xbox Game Pass and the majority of video game sales now being made digitally, I’m confident that most people will be just fine without a disc drive on their console, unless they need a Blu-ray player. The missing disc drive may not be good news for the used game market or retailers, like GameStop, but it certainly doesn’t stop me from enjoying the Xbox Series S.
At $300, the Xbox Series S is an impressive gaming console for a remarkably low price, and it will meet the demands of most gamers without issue. With the added value of Xbox Game Pass, the Series S seems like an ideal pick-up for parents who want to introduce their children to gaming at a low cost, or for casual gamers who want an affordable centerpiece for their home entertainment system.
If you already own an Xbox One X or typically find yourself gaming more than two or three days a week, you will probably want to spend the extra money on an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 to guarantee yourself the best possible experience in the long run.
Considering that buying the 1TB Xbox drive expansion card costs $250 alone right now, you should definitely consider whether it’s worth investing in one of the more powerful consoles before settling for the Xbox Series S.
Still, the Xbox Series S console’s incredibly fast solid state drive, upscaling features, huge library of games, and low price make it an enticing entry-point for the increasingly attractive Xbox ecosystem.
Pros: Cheapest next-gen gaming console, support for up to 4K and 120fps, can play nearly every Xbox game ever released, SSD is ridiculously fast, much easier to fit in your living room than other next-gen consoles
Cons: Lacks power of Series X and PS5, no disc drive makes it harder to buy used games or maintain a collection, needs a $250 drive expansion card for more storage, only 364GB SSD space to start, Series X has twice the storage and more power for $200 more