Xbox Series S Hardware Review – Next-Generation Gaming On A Budget
Xbox Series SNovember 10th
This new generation has been a long time coming. We've been hearing the rumors from both Microsoft and Sony regarding their new consoles for literally years, and now, we are finally looking down the barrel of the next console generation, and we have the systems in our hands. Today we're going to be revealing everything we know about the Xbox Series S after sitting with it in our houses for two weeks now. So, is Microsoft's budget-price next-gen system a perfect next-gen entry point, or lacking too much to be called a true next-gen console?
For my opinion on the Xbox Series S' design and aesthetics, you can see my unboxing video on Wccftech Plays, and this article is going to cover everything else, including how it runs and loads games, applications, and much more.
User interface and experience
With a new console generation comes a new user interface for players to get used to all over again. Luckily, it's smoother than ever before. The new home screen puts tiles for your recently used apps and games front and center, with the option to look at all of your installed software just a single move of the stick away. When I first used and Xbox One it took me longer than I'd care to admit to just look at the games available to play, while here it's instantaneous.
If you scroll down the home screen you see other options, including Game Pass, Store, Community, and the option to add more, so you can put your favorite games or people right on your home screen - though it's easy to say that some of these options feel superfluous. The Games & Apps menu is where you'll want to be most of the time, where you'll be browsing through which game to play next. Apps are separated from games, which is nice, and there's a "Full library" menu that easily allows you to browse all compatible titles which you own, are available via Games With Gold, or Xbox Game Pass. It takes moments to see what games are available and which you might want to download next.
These are the points that are most important - how easy it is to find games to play, and what games to play next, and this simple menu design delivers that. If you want anything more, simply press the Home button on the controller and you'll have access to shortcuts to your friends, party chat, achievements, captures, and even console settings. It's nice that navigating the console has been streamlined thanks to the lovely new UI, because other aspects of the user interface, like that of the Microsoft Store, are still a bit dated. Using the Microsoft Store here is nicer than using it on Windows 10 however, thankfully.
All of these UI tweaks make the user experience inherently better and improved over last-gen, but then we get to the new hardware features, and that's where the Xbox Series consoles start to shine. The new SSD drive is a huge plus, and regardless of whether you're playing brand new games, optimized for the system, or games via backward compatibility, you will experience vastly improved load times which will make getting into a game much easier. That doubles for the games which benefit from Quick Resume - and many do. Quick Resume can instantly take you right back into whichever game you were playing, exactly where you were, in a matter of seconds. And what might surprise you the most is how many games you can have with Quick Resume lying in wait at once - though it's certainly not a fool-proof saving solution, and shouldn't be used as such.
Playing Xbox Series S Enhanced Games
Of course, Xbox Series S Enhanced games are what this console is all about. Playing Xbox One titles and those from prior generations is a nice feature, but if you buy a new console this year, you want the games to look better than what you've seen before - and it that aspect, the Xbox Series S mostly delivers. Mostly.
Gears 5 is a perfect example. It's still locked at a rock-solid 60FPS on Xbox Series S, and comes with numerous visual enhancements not present on the Xbox One line of systems. Now, this console is not marketed as a device that is going to push 4K visuals, so that is not what you should expect here. In fact, you can expect many titles that run on the Xbox Series S to not even reach the resolution we can see from the Xbox One X. But in that trade-off, we have enhanced visuals and performance almost entirely across the board on enhanced games, in addition to those super-silky SSD load times which make taking breaks for loading screens a thing of the past.
But the problem with playing these enhanced games is that other than those load times, nothing feels particularly groundbreaking. Forza Horizon 4 is another excellent example of a game enhanced for Series S - it looks visually lovely, and the 60FPS target never seems to falter. But neither this, nor Gears 5, look remarkably different to how they run on Xbox One X, or even my older (albeit much more expensive) PC. As of right now, as far as Xbox Series S goes, there are no games with a distinct "wow" factor that will compel you into purchasing the console. That's reserved for the Xbox Series X. Instead, the Series S delivers the promise of future-proofing your entertainment set-up for next-generation, while playing all the games you know and love, at a more reliable level of fidelity than the Xbox One S could provide.
This "problem" is exemplified with The Touryst. The Touryst on Xbox Series S looks crisp and sharp, runs at an utterly flawless framerate, but might underwhelm those playing on a big screen. This is the concession of the Xbox Series S - it is not designed for a big entertainment center or a big TV at all. It is designed, impeccably, for gamers who want to play next-generation games in their current entertainment center, a modest 1080p TV, or a 1440p high refresh-rate display at most. For those smaller screen sizes, the Xbox Series S will look flawless, and play games better than the Xbox One S ever could.
Playing Xbox One Games via Backwards Compatibility
Going back to Xbox One games does present a problem. The Xbox Series S doesn't benefit from any of the enhancements that the Xbox One X provided, and so suddenly there's a disparity. Monster Hunter World is the perfect example of this - on Xbox One X the game has several performance options, and the game manages to look quite nice in all of them. On Xbox Series S, the game is stuck with the Xbox One version of the game and the same maximum resolution. To be frank, the game looks blocky and blurry at the best of times when running on the Xbox One or Xbox Series S.
But to assuage that negativity, the Xbox Series S does what it can in terms of raw horsepower to give these games the ability to run better. Monster Hunter World's Xbox One S visuals might look pretty bad at the dawn of next-gen, but it also infamously ran with an uncapped framerate, meaning the Xbox Series S can push the game all the way up to 60FPS, without any software enhancements. It doesn't consistently hold this mark at all times but does an excellent job of making the experience of playing the game much smoother than the Xbox One S ever could. And that is the trend for all Xbox One games running on Xbox Series S - while the differences without specific game optimizations cannot be transformative, they can, and will, make the experience of playing these games much more enjoyable.
Playing Xbox 360 and Xbox Games via Backwards Compatibility
When it comes to looking at even older backward compatibility titles it's a bit of a mixed bag, but regardless of how happy you are with how these games run or look, there's no question that it's a better experience than on either the original hardware, or Xbox One S, and that's no small feat. Mass Effect looks rough on Xbox Series S - that original resolution and thick film grain filter are doing nothing for the game in the modern day. But those load times have been sliced to pieces, making actually playing the game much better.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings manages to look pretty amazing on Xbox Series S, with the improvements to texture filtering becoming obvious - this game looks much closer to the PC version than the Xbox 360 version and is surprisingly refreshing to return to. Meanwhile, titles like Banjo-Kazooie and the Xbox Live Arcade port of the original DOOM look incredibly sharp, with very little in the way of aliasing or jaggies, even on a large display.
Even much older original Xbox titles all look sharper here than they ever did originally - though how many of those older Xbox titles will be worth revisiting without a decent dose of nostalgia is another question. It felt strange and incredible to see the original Xbox boot screen on my TV in 2020, but playing most of the games felt tiring - though that's certainly not down to the Series S itself. All in all, backward compatibility is a bit of a mixed bag, with some titles looking much sharper than others. Regardless of what you play though, it's unquestionable that this is a better playing experience than you'd get from an Xbox One S.
Backward compatibility is nice, but the concept of an all-digital machine seems to run counter to that ethos. One of the big things the Xbox Series S loses when compared to the Series X is the disc drive, and this can be a problem. I mentioned that the experience of playing Xbox Series S is unquestionably better than Xbox One S, which is true, but it's certainly not more convenient, depending on who you are. I personally like to have a physical game collection, and upon receiving a new console my first instinct is to go to a retail shop and buy up some cheap pre-owned titles. You will not be doing this with an all-digital console of course, and if you already have a library of physical Xbox One titles, you won't be using them here. Time to sell them all and buy Microsoft Store credit, I guess.
Initially, I really disliked the idea of an all-digital machine, and even a few days after playing with the console I was still against it. But if that's what I want, if that's what you want as a reader, then you need to get the Xbox Series X. If that's not so important to you, then the Xbox Series S might be the perfect system, simply thanks to services like Xbox Game Pass.
I mentioned that on your Games & Apps menu you have quick access to all of the currently available Xbox Game Pass and Games With Gold titles, and if you're buying an Xbox Series S, then subscribing to Game Pass is almost a necessity. With Game Pass Ultimate you get instant access to more than 100 titles available on Game Pass, and a few more each month with Games With Gold - in addition to access to titles on PC and Android, too. It's a hard bargain to pass up, even without an Xbox console, and the Xbox Series S is perfectly placed as a budget console that can easily fulfill all of the needs of an Xbox Game Pass subscriber. If all you want is Game Pass titles and the occasional new game from the Microsoft Store, then this is the perfect place to play them.
Just, not all at once. The SSD included in the Xbox Series S has 364GB of usable storage after OS features are accounted for - which is, frankly, not a lot, especially when titles like Destiny 2, Halo 5, and The Master Chief Collection all run from 90-108GB in size. Sure, you can fit a lot of games like The Touryst (<500MB) on your hard drive, but not so many big-budget AAA titles. We can only hope that future games optimized for Xbox Series S also optimize the texture packs so gamers don't fill up too fast. Luckily you can install games on external storage, or purchase the new external SSD, but one of those requires slow load times (and only works with backward compatibility titles), and the other requires an expensive accessory.
The Big Features
Clearly, the big aspects of the Xbox Series S right now are the SSD and the Quick Resume features. The SSD really does make playing any game, regardless of how old it is, less painful than ever. It's easier than ever to just jump back into an older game you were playing with Quick Resume, and then the SSD load-times will fly you through menus and quickly into the heat of action. It gets to a point where I was surprised whenever I had to look at a load screen for more than five seconds - something I could only wish to be surprised by when playing games on a PS4 Pro.
But something not enough people are talking about is the Xbox Series Controller, something I've become a particular fan of. First, the D-pad - I actually like it a lot, I just wish it had a more traditional cross-shape. If it had the same tactile-clicky feel, but on a cross, I'd be overjoyed with it. In general, the comfort is excellent, and you can quickly feel the controller sink into your hands. The triggers are another big plus, as they come complete with haptic feedback - this isn't quite the same as what you may have seen from previews of the PS5's DualSense, but the triggers have linear rumble feedback as you play games, and you'll notice this while driving in Forza Horizon 4 - shifting gears and revving the engine lets your acceleration trigger vibrate in time with the game - and while reloading in Halo 5: Guardians, where the trigger will hum as a weapon overheats, and click when you've loaded your next clip. It's a subtle effect, but one I'm appreciative of - though I do also fear it is killing the life of any AA batteries I put into it.
Is the Xbox Series S truly next-gen? Well, yes and no.
Yes, the console's hardware is more modern than any previous Xbox system, and regardless of how many TFLOPs it has at its disposal, it is primed and in a better position than the likes of the Xbox One X to deliver next-generation games and game engines. Quick Resume and the fast load times provided by the SSD are to be expected but do help to make the Xbox Series S feel like a different beast to what we currently have on the market.
This is all massively helped by the fact that the machine is utterly whisper-silent. Aside from the tone, it makes when turning on and off, I have not heard a single noise from the Xbox Series S. There's no disc drive to spin up, and I haven't heard the fan once, even when putting my ear close to the machine in a quiet room. The machine seems to cleanly eject warm air from the black circular ventilation fan on top of the machine, and it never felt too hot to rest my hand on. A beautiful work of engineering from Microsoft, and in their smallest system yet no less.
But then, no. I said it before earlier in the review, but the sad truth is that we currently don't have any next-generation games to put to the test on the Xbox Series S, everything we have is cross-gen, and as a result, everything you can play on the Xbox Series S thus far looks distinctly like that which we have already seen. While playing the likes of Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4, I couldn't help but think that I'd seen this level of visual fidelity already on my PC, and it's on par with what I would expect to see from the current-gen "enhanced" consoles.
But again, that's not really the point, is it? When buying an Xbox Series S you're not looking for 4K visuals that will blow your mind like nothing ever has done before - instead, you're looking for an affordable way to buy into the next-generation of gaming, to future-proof your entertainment center, as I said earlier. And for that, the Xbox Series S is very compelling. It's cheap, affordable, and will at the very least run the games you want to play for years to come. When something truly next-gen appears on Microsoft consoles, it will come to Xbox Series S, and that's all you really need to know.
Xbox Series S Specs CPU (Zen 2) 8 Cores @ 3.6GHz (3.4GHz with Simultaneous Multithreading) GPU (custom RDNA 2) 4 TFLOPs, 20 Compute Units @ 1.565 GHz with hardware raytracing support System Memory/Interface 10GB GDDR6/128-bit bus Memory Bandwidth 8GB at 224 GB/s, 2GB at 56 GB/s Internal Storage Custom NVMe SSD (512 GB) I/O Throughput 2.4 GB/s (Raw), 4.8 GB/s (Compressed with BCPack) Expandable Storage 1 TB Expansion Card (proprietary, developed with Seagate) External Storage USB 3.2 HDD Support (for XB1 games) Optical Drive 4K UHD Blu-ray Drive (up to 100 GB disc) Audio Custom hardware audio block based on Project Acoustics. Spatial audio supported through Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Windows Sonic.
Should you buy the Xbox Series S?
It all boils down to what you want from your next-gen machine. If you have a big display from which you want to play a massive library of games, if you have a shelf full of physical Xbox One, 360, and original Xbox titles, if you want to see the cleanest possible image presentation, then you want the Xbox Series X, not the Xbox Series S.
If your entertainment center is more modest, you have a 40" TV at the most or a monitor, and you just want to play the digital library of games you have, in addition to those coming in the future to services like Xbox Game Pass, then the Series S only makes sense. It will still play all of the games you want, and on a smaller screen, you won't even notice the visual differences. If you're looking for a way to play Xbox Game Pass titles are seldom much more, then the Xbox Series S is a perfect choice for you, and at the price point it's at, I predict that we'll see a lot more people entering the Xbox ecosystem this generation with Xbox Series S.
The Xbox Series S is a system aimed at the player that just wants to play games. With Xbox Game Pass Ultimate Microsoft have made an all-digital system compelling even for an old gamer like myself, still clutching onto a physical collection. This console will play all of the games you already enjoy on Xbox better than the Xbox One S could, and will enable you to play all the biggest games for years into the future. If you just want to play games with no-frills, the Xbox Series S is for you.
- Plays all games better than the Xbox One S can
- New hardware and features to future-proof your entertainment center
- SSD load times and Quick Resume
- New controller is a small, but notable improvement
- An excellent way to play Xbox Game Pass
- Plays some games at a lower resolution than the Xbox One X
- Current Xbox Series S enhanced games look nice, but underwhelming - there's not currently any games to truly display the console's capabilities
- Small SSD will fill up fast