Xbox Series S review: An affordable next-gen experience with some compromises

Laurent Giret

Xbox Series S Design Official Cropped

It’s been a week now since Microsoft released its new Xbox Series X and Series S consoles in 40 Xbox markets across the world, and the company already said that this was the biggest launch ever in Xbox history. Compared to the Xbox One launch seven years ago, Microsoft seems to be in a much better position by having the most powerful console with the Xbox Series X, in addition to the most affordable next-gen console with the Xbox Series S.

I previously reviewed the Xbox Series X ahead of its November 10 release and explained why it’s a great upgrade for Xbox One owners and a true generational leap for console gamers. I have since received the Xbox Series S and have had a whole week playing games on it, and I’d say it’s hard not to immediately fall in love with the small form factor and great industrial design.

It’s also hard to ignore that the Xbox Series S has had a pretty unusual road to market. The console’s existence leaked early on with the first “Anaconda” and “Lockhart” codenames, and what became the Series S was believed to have been cancelled back in June 2019. Even though “Lockhart” was the worst kept secret, Microsoft didn’t officially announce the Xbox Series S until September 8, just two months before the console’s launch on November 10.

Why didn’t Microsoft reveal the Xbox Series S sooner, especially when the Series X was unveiled as early as December 2019 at The Game Awards? This is still a bit hard to understand, and this late announcement means that the Series S still suffers from several perception issues. Is it less powerful than the Xbox One X because it’s targeting 1440p instead of 4K? Will it hold back next-gen games in the long run? While I think I can answer the first question, it’s still too early to tell if the Series S will feel underpowered in three or four years.

Xbox Series S Next To Xbox Series X

A lovely throwback to smaller consoles from the past

We published our own side-by-side pictures with the Xbox Series X and the Xbox One X last week, but it’s hard to realize how small the Xbox Series S is until you see it with your own eyes. This is Microsoft’s smallest Xbox console ever, and it’s a nice throwback to how consoles looked like twenty years ago. I don’t have my Super Nintendo or original PlayStation anymore, but it’s quite amazing to see how Microsoft managed to cram so much power in such a small form factor.

The console’s dimensions are 6.5cm x 15.1cm x 27.5cm, and the Series S only weighs 1,92 kilos (4.25 lbs). This is a console that can easily fit in a backpack, and it also won’t take too much space on a desk or a TV cabinet. The small design comes at the cost of a disc drive, but as someone who only buys digital games, this is a sacrifice I’m completely ready to accept. Microsoft pioneered disc-free gaming with the Xbox One S All-digital Edition last year, though this console was just as big as the regular Xbox One S. The Series S has been designed from the ground up for digital gaming, making such a small design a possibility.

Even though it’s much smaller than the Xbox Series X, the Xbox Series S includes the exact same ports: You’ll find a USB-A port on the front, two more USB-A ports on the back along with a proprietary storage expansion port, an Ethernet port, plus the power cord and HDMI ports. The HDMI-in and optical audio ports are gone, though these aren’t things I’ve ever used on the Xbox One consoles I owned. I like this streamlined selection of ports, though adding an extra USB-C port would have been nice as these are now becoming the new standard.

A true next-gen console, though next-gen games are still rare

Despite the Xbox Series S only targeting 1440p at 60FPS instead of 4K like the Xbox Series X and the older Xbox One X, the Series S is definitely a true next-gen console. It shares the same AMD-based Zen 2 CPU found in the Series X, though with a 200MHz clock difference. The AMD RDNA-2 based GPU is also similar, though with only 20 compute units delivering 4 teraflops of computing power compared to 12 teraflops for the Series X GPU. Still, the Series S supports the same next-gen features including DirectX Ray Tracing and Variable Rate Shading, and it can run select games at 120FPS while the Xbox One X ran most 4K games at 30FPS.

The memory situation may probably be a bigger concern in the long term as the Series S only ships with 10GB of RAM, with only 8GB usable for games. In comparison, the Xbox Series X ships with 16GB of RAM, and the Xbox One X had 12GB. As of today, though, the Xbox Series S feels just as fast as the Xbox Series X, and it also uses the same custom-designed NVMe SSD that supports the new Xbox Delivery Architecture and Quick Resume.

However, there’s only 364GB of internal storage available on the Series S, compared to 802GB on the Series X. This is clearly not enough for an all-digital console, but now that external SSDs have now become pretty cheap, you’ll probably need to invest in one to install backwards compatible games. I hooked up a 1TB SSD for storing Xbox One and Xbox 360 games, and I also purchased the Seagate 1TB Expansion card to store next-gen games. While it’s possible to move next-gen games to external USB storage, these won’t run until you move them back to the internal drive or the Seagate Expansion card, which is the only external storage solution (for now) that supports Microsoft’s new Xbox Velocity Architecture.

Coming from the Xbox Series X or an older Xbox One console, the Xbox Series S feels instantly familiar as it uses the same Xbox OS. However, there’s the new Quick Resume feature that can suspend multiple games in the background and let gamers pick up where they left off in less than 10 seconds. Quick Resume can still be slightly unreliable as of today, and it also doesn’t work for live multiplayer games, but this is definitely one of my favourite new features on the new Xbox Series X|S consoles.

In terms of next-gen games, over 30 Xbox Series X|S optimized games are already available, including existing Xbox Game Studios titles such as Gears 5, Halo: MCC, Forza Horizon 4, and Sea of Thieves. All of them are targeting 1080p at 60FPS on the Series S, though Gears 5 and Halo: MCC both have a 120FPS option on compatible monitors. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to try that myself as I don’t have a TV or gaming monitor that supports HDMI 2.1 and a 120Hz refresh rate.

I’ve been moving back and forth between the Series X to the Series S in the past couple of days, and it’s now clear to me that these first Xbox Series X|S optimized can sometimes be disappointing. I have no issues with Xbox Game Studios titles which run flawlessly, even though Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, and others are targeting 1080p instead of the advertised 1440p resolution. However, games like Ori and The Will of the Wisps and The Touryst run at 4K/60FPS on the Series S, so 1440p really isn’t limited to 1440p. Of course, the console can also upscale games to 4K when connected to a 4K TV and monitor, though the results won’t look as good as the same game running in native 4K on an Xbox Series X or Xbox One X.

While Microsoft’s cross-gen games look and perform really well on the Xbox Series S, I’ve been disappointed by the Xbox Series S versions of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs Legion. Both games have a 30FPS cap on the Series S, and playing them feels like playing the same games on Xbox One consoles. However, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on the Series S looks just as good as the Xbox Series X version which runs in 4K/60FPS, and it also looks better than Watch Dogs Legion, one of the few games that support ray tracing at launch.

Ray tracing significantly improves reflections on water in Watch Dogs Legion, though visuals on the Xbox Series S can look pretty blurry for a next-gen game. I would have like an option to turn ray tracing off in exchange for a smoother frame rate and better visual quality, and I hope this is something Ubisoft will offer in the future. It’s really up to developers to decide how to use these powerful new consoles, but I really wish all next-gen games offered a much more comfortable 60FPS as a standard.

What the Series S does better than the One X and One S

The Xbox Series S has now replaced my Xbox One X on my desk, and I don’t really miss the last-gen Xbox console. Make no mistake, I really liked the Xbox One X, which was much more powerful and slightly smaller than the Xbox One S, though this console was clearly held back by its weak CPU and slow hard drive. The Xbox Series S brings significant improvements on both fronts.

In practice, most of the 4K enhanced Xbox One games on the Xbox One X were capped at 30FPS, including cartoonish-looking games like Sea of Thieves. The Xbox Series S can run this game at a much more enjoyable 1080p/60FPS, and it’s really a night and day difference. When you add other features like faster loading speeds, Quick Resume, Auto HDR for all games, plus next-gen capabilities like Ray Tracing, it’s clear that the Xbox Series S can provide a better gaming experience overall.

If you care about your electricity bill, it’s also worth mentioning that the Xbox Series S is also Microsoft‘s most power-efficient console. Measuring power usage on Gears 5, one of the most demanding games on Xbox consoles, Digital Foundry observed a 82.5W peak on the Series S, compared to 210W on the Series X, 173W on the Xbox One X, and 73W on the Xbox One S. While my old Xbox One X could get loud and hot when running demanding games, the Series S is just as whisper quiet as the Xbox Series X, and it doesn’t get too warm either.

Xbox Series S With Controller
The black circle on the Xbox Series S hides a big fan that is pretty silent.

Speaking with Digital Foundry, Xbox system architecture Andrew Goosen explained that it didn’t make sense for Microsoft to keep manufacturing the Xbox One X when Microsoft has a better disc-less alternative with the Xbox Series S. Simply said, the Series S is built for next-gen games and it can do things the Xbox One X can’t.

“I’ve read a lot of question on the internet, like, why isn’t Microsoft going to continue Xbox One X as the low-end machine. Well, one thing is that it would last a long time through the generation and we felt that the new generation is defined by aspects such as the Xbox Velocity Architecture, and graphics features such as Variable Rate Shading and ray tracing and the 4x processing performance boost on the CPU,” counters Goossen. “And so we wanted to make sure that there was an entry level at the right price-point so that we could really advance the generation rather than hold it back. I’ve heard that Series S is going to hold back the next generation but I actually see Series S advancing it because by doing Series S we’ll have more games written to the characteristics of the next generation.”

There’s no question that the faster SSD, CPU and GPU in the Xbox Series S should make a big difference in the long run. The Xbox One X remains a great console for 4K gaming, and some cross-gen games may look slightly better on it, but after spending a week on the Series S, I almost don’t miss my Xbox One X. Truth be told, backwards compatibility may be the only area where the Xbox Series S offers a compromised experience, though it’s as bad as what I expected.

The Series S runs Xbox One S versions of backwards-compatible games

Unfortunately, the Xbox Series S doesn’t provide the same great backwards-compatibility experience as the Xbox Series X, which can run the Xbox One X enhanced versions of back compat games. What the Series S does is run Xbox One S versions of back compat games, without 4K upgrades or optional performance modes with smoother framerates. If you’re coming from the Xbox One X like me, going back to 1080p or even 900p games can be quite frustrating.

Simply said, it’s quite shocking to see how blurry some games look on the regular Xbox One without the graphical upgrades provided by the Xbox One X. It’s better than nothing, but the Xbox Series S can still improve back compat games by automatically applying 16x anisotropic filtering, and those games will also use the full power of the console’s CPU and GPU. This means that the Series S can run backwards compatible games with unlocked frame rates (GTA IV and Assassin’s Creed: Rogue are two examples) at 60FPS, something that the Xbox One X with its weaker CPU couldn’t do.

Another thing that the Xbox Series S can do to improve backwards compatible games is doubling the frame rate on games locked to 30FPS, and it’s something that Microsoft previously demoed on Fallout 4. The software giant has yet to make this upgrade available to the public, but this would definitely make the blurry graphics easier to swallow on the Series S. Xbox’s Andrew Goossen told Digital Foundry that this is another thing the Xbox Series S can do that the Xbox One X can’t, in addition to Quick Resume and Auto HDR.

“So, one thing we did is we designed the Series S to enhance the Xbox One S games in a way that the Xbox One X can’t,” explains Andrew Goossen. “We made it easy for existing Xbox One S games to be updated to run with double the frame-rate when played on Series S as well. When games are updated, existing games can query to determine whether they’re running on the new console. And in terms of the performance, the Series S provides well over double the effective CPU and GPU performance over the Xbox One, making it pretty straightforward for the games to do this. And in fact, the Series S GPU runs the Xbox One S games with better performance than the Xbox One X.

It’s still not clear if we can expect many backwards compatible Xbox games to benefit from these frame rate improvements, but Goossen said that “We’re working with game developers and publishers to update – it’ll basically be select games that run at a doubled frame-rate on the Series S.” Anyway, I’m really looking forward to hear more on that front, especially since I have a huge backlog of Xbox One games I didn’t really want to play due to the 30FPS limitation.

There’s another last thing to note about backwards compatibility on the Xbox Series S, and it’s pretty good news: Xbox 360 and original Xbox games that have been enhanced for the Xbox One X with 4K graphics will also look better on the Xbox Series S. You’ll get a 2×2 resolution boost to 1440p, and these games now look less blurry compared to most Xbox One games running on the Series S. You can see an example below with Half-Life 2 and Gears of War 2, two Xbox 360 games running at 1440p on the Series S. The water reflections in Half-Life 2 still look good for a 2004 game, a time when ray-tracing didn’t exist.

Overall, I’m really liking the Xbox Series S, which now sits on my desk next to my gaming PC. I’d easily recommend the console to anyone looking to replace an ageing Xbox One S, though the absence of a disc drive and the small amount of internal storage may be problematic for some gamers. For Xbox One X owners, the Xbox Series X is the obvious next-gen console to choose, though I want to emphasize again that the Series S can run optimized cross-gen games even better than the Xbox One X can.

Microsoft deserves credit for trying to make next-gen gaming more affordable with the Xbox Series S. It’s too early to see what this small console is really capable of, but if it can provide a solid 1080p/60FPS gameplay experience on the majority of next-gen games, then I believe this is going to be a great option for gamers who don’t really care about 4K or those who don’t need a ton of internal storage. The Nintendo Switch has been flying off the shelves since its launch despite its weak specs and 32GB of internal storage, and I believe the Xbox Series S could become a great second console for gamers interested in trying Xbox Game Pass or Xbox exclusives.

The Xbox Series S doesn’t come without compromises, though, and it’s true that losing Xbox One X enhancements on backwards compatible games is quite unfortunate. The Xbox Series X offers the full next-gen experience without any compromises, though it costs $200 more, has a bigger form factor and isn’t as power-efficient as the Series S. I honestly like both next-gen Xbox consoles very much, but with the Series S now standing on my desk next to my gaming PC, I may ultimately use it slightly more than the Series X.

We’re just at the beginning of this new console generation, and we have yet to see what the Xbox Series S can really offer. It’s already a well-balanced console that provides incredible value for just $299, and it’s a great starting point for next-gen gaming. If Microsoft continues to offer mid-gen upgrades during this new console generation, it would be really interesting to see what an upgraded version of the Series S with more storage, memory, and a more powerful GPU could bring to the table.