The $299 Xbox Series S seems too good to be true, but is it?

Laurent Giret

Xbox Series S console.

A week ago, Microsoft was forced to officially announce it Xbox Series S console a bit earlier than expected after pictures and pricing details for the new console had leaked. The Xbox Series S will be priced at $299, making it the cheapest next-gen console launching on November 10 along with the $499 Xbox Series X. The console will also be available for $24.99/month with an Xbox All Access subscription, which also includes 24 months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.

Unlike the Xbox Series X and Sony’s PlayStation 5, the Xbox Series S won’t support 4K graphics, and it’s also lacking a disc drive. The console will also include 512GB of SSD storage instead of 1TB on the Xbox Series X, which may not be ideal for a digital-only console. However, the console will support external USB drives, as well as the proprietary 1TB expansion cards from Seagate whose price is still unknown.

Xbox Series S Internals

There’s really a lot to like about the Xbox Series S, though Microsoft’s strategy may be difficult to understand for some. What if Sony’s choice to have two PlayStation 5 consoles, one with a disc drive and the other without it was better and easier to understand for consumers? Also, there’s been an ongoing conversation about the Xbox Series S “holding next-gen games back” due to its less powerful GPU.

So far, Microsoft didn’t do a great job at showing us how existing and next-gen games will run on both the Xbox Series S and the Xbox Series X. But make no mistake, the Xbox Series S is a true next-gen console that should be a great upgrade for people coming from the Xbox One, the Xbox One S, as well as the Xbox One X.

A true next-gen console

If Microsoft’s Xbox One X remains the most powerful console on the market due to its 6 teraflops GPU, its weak CPU has forced developers to make some sacrifices. While some games like Gears 5 and Forza Motorsport 7 are able to run in native 4K at 60FPS, most Xbox One X enhanced games are unable to reach this level of performance. Some Xbox One X enhanced games let players choose between a 4K/30FPS mode and a 1080p/60FPS mode, but 4K games locked at 30FPS can have some real performance issues, as we’ve seen in recent games like Remedy’s Control or EA’s Anthem.

4K was probably the wrong target for the Xbox One X, and that’s why the Xbox Series S is targeting 1440p at 60 FPS. The console will also support 120 FPS gameplay, and the Xbox team has already showed Gears 5 multiplayer gameplay captured on Xbox Series S at 120 FPS. We’ve isolated the segment below:

Making Gears 5 run at 120FPS on the Xbox Series S required some work from developers, but the NVMe SSD in the Xbox Series S will also be able to significantly improve loading times for games that have not been specifically optimized for the console. Here’s an example with The Outer Worlds, with a 12 seconds loading time on the Xbox Series S compared to 53 seconds on the Xbox One S.

The Xbox Series S and the Xbox Series X share the same custom-designed NVMe SSD with 2.4GB/sec speeds (4.8GB/sec compressed), though the Xbox Series X has double the storage. The CPU on the Series X and the Series S also have a very similar 8-core CPU based on AMD’s new Zen 2 architecture. However, the CPU on the Series S is clocked at 3.6Ghz, while the Series X’s CPU is slightly faster at 3.8 Ghz.

The most important technical differences between the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S are the RAM and the GPU: the Series S only has 10 GB of GDDR6 RAM while the Series X has 16GB. On the GPU front, the Series S has a 4 teraflops GPU based on AMD’s new RDNA 2 architecture, with a performance target of 1440p at 60FPS, with support for 120FPS. The Xbox Series X has a much more powerful 12 teraflops GPU targeting 4K at 60 FPS, with support for 120FPS as well as 8K. Microsoft said that both consoles will support next-gen features like DirectX ray tracing to improve light rendering in games, as well as Variable Rate Shading to allocate more GPU power where it’s more needed.

Some perception issues

Back in 2013, the Xbox One really suffered from the fact that many cross-platform games were running at 900p on Xbox One compared to 1080p on the PlayStation 4. The Xbox One was clearly the less powerful console of the two, and Microsoft didn’t manage to get the power advantage back until the release of the Xbox One X in 2017.

Fast forward to 2020, it seems that the Xbox Series S suffers from a similar perception issue, especially after Microsoft confirmed that backward compatible games running on the Xbox Series S wouldn’t support Xbox One X enhancements. This probably led many Xbox fans to believe that the Series S was less powerful than the Xbox One X. On paper, the One X has more RAM than the Series S and a powerful GPU that can do 4K, while the Series is only targeting 1440p.

In reality, the Series S will run the Xbox One S version of back combat games, with a couple of enhancements including faster load times, as well as better frame rate and texture filtering. Microsoft has also created an HDR reconstruction technique that will be able to make back compat games look much better on compatible TVs and monitors. Speaking with Polygon, a Microsoft spokesperson emphasized that these features are are “enhancements that aren’t possible on Xbox One X.”

Jason Ronald, Microsoft’s director of Xbox program management, also talked with The Verge to dismiss any concerns from game developers worried about the Xbox Series potentially holding next-gen games back. According to the exec, game developers will be able to build next-games targeting the Xbox Series X, and the process of downscaling these games for the Xbox Series S should be pretty straightforward.

“Developers have a whole host of different techniques, whether that’s changing the resolution of their title, things like dynamic resolution scaling frame to frame — that’s something we’ve seen a lot of adoption of, especially towards the end of this generation,” explains Ronald. “And obviously the ability to enable and display different visual effects, without actually implementing the fundamental gameplay.”

Ronald also made it clear that comparing the Xbox One X and the Xbox Series S doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially since the Series S’ GPU uses AMD’s much more efficient RDNA2 architecture. Coupled with a much faster CPU and NVMe SSD, the Xbox Series S is able to improve the gaming experience in a way that the old Xbox One X can’t.

Xbox Series S Features

“There are also opportunities where we can enhance the titles on Xbox Series S even further than what we can do on Xbox One X,” said Ronald. “If you look at the raw power of the Xbox Series S, if a title wants to go in and double its frame rates it’s actually really easy, because we’ve more than doubled the GPU performance and more than doubled the CPU performance, so it’s relatively easy for a developer to go in and enable that if they choose to update their title.”

If the Xbox Series S will have half the internal storage of the Xbox Series X, Ronald also confirmed to IGN that install sizes should also be smaller on the Series S. “With a performance target of 1440p at 60 fps, our expectation is that developers will not ship their highest level mipmaps to Xbox Series S, which will reduce the size of the games,” Ronald said. “Ultimately the controls in the developer’s hands. We’ve had this technology for a while that allows developers to intelligently choose which assets to install on which device they’re playing on. So the flexibility is in the developers’ hands to make sure the right assets are there.”

Overall, the Xbox Series S should provide really great value for $299. You probably won’t be able to find a PC that provides the same level of performance at that price point, and it’s great to see Microsoft giving more options to Xbox fans for their next-gen transition. However, we’ll really need to see more Xbox Series S gameplay to truly understand what the affordable console is really capable of.

Will it be competitive against the PlayStation 5?

Yesterday, Sony finally revealed pricing details for its PlayStation 5, which will start at $399 for the Digital Edition with no disc drive. Unlike Microsoft, Sony made the choice to offer the same console with or without a disc drive, and that will probably be easier to understand for consumers. The company also managed to bring back the $399 launch price for the PlayStation 4 back in 2013, which was then $100 cheaper than Microsoft’s Xbox One.

This time, Microsoft will have both the most powerful next-gen console with the $499 Xbox Series X, as well as the most affordable one with the $299 Xbox Series. It would have been nice to have a discless Xbox Series X right in the middle, but Microsoft also has its Xbox All Access plans that will bundle a next-gen Xbox plus 24 months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for a low monthly price starting at $24.99.

With all the excitement and (confusion) about PlayStation 5 pre-orders today, it seems that Sony’s console is already off to a great start. Pre-orders for the Xbox Series S and X will open on September 22, and both consoles will start shipping on November 10. Microsoft now has a little less than months to convince us why it will have the best next-gen consoles on the market this holiday season, and the games may eventually matter more than raw specs.