It’s hard to believe that the dawn of a new age of gaming is upon us, but here we are. The next generation is just around the corner.
Out on 10th November are Microsoft’s two next-generation consoles: the all-powerful Xbox Series X, and its smaller and less-powerful sibling, the Xbox Series S. We’ve spent some time with the Xbox Series S – and while there’s a lot to love about this small, white slab, there’s also a lot that gives us pause.
Now, our experience with the Xbox Series S has been limited; there have only been a handful of optimized games available to us, so we’ve not been able to test the console as widely as we’d have liked. But we have been able to see Gears 5, Gears Tactics, DIRT 5, Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Sea of Thieves. We’ve also been able to try a wide selection of backwards-compatible titles – essentially, pretty much everything that works on an Xbox One works here. We’ll get onto the games in more detail shortly. But first, let’s talk about the console itself, and the contents of the box.
Specs and hardware
Here are the official specs of the Xbox Series S:
|CPU||8X Cores @ 3.6 GHz (3.4 GHz w/SMT) Custom Zen 2 CPU|
|GPU||4 TFLOPS, 20 CUs @1.565 GHz|
|Memory||10GB GDDR6 128 bit-wide bus|
|Memory Bandwidth||8GB @ 224 GB/s (Title Accessible Memory), 2 GB @ 56 GB/s|
|Internal Storage||512GB Custom NVME SSD|
|Performance Target||1440P @ 60FPS, with support for up to 120FPS. Also supports native 4K where developer chooses to render at 4K.|
|HDMI 2.1 Features||Auto Low Latency Mode, HDMI Variable Refresh Rate, AMD FreeSync|
|Sound||Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby TrueHD with Atmos, L-PCM up to 7.1|
On the back of the console, you’ll find a HDMI 2.1 port, 2 USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports (and one more on the front), an ethernet port, the power socket and a storage expansion bay:
It’s hard not to fall in love with the Xbox Series S the moment you see it. It’s tiny. A small, understated white slab with a statement black vent on the side, it looks great either standing up or laid on its side. It weighs just 4.25lbs – less than half the weight of a Xbox Series X – and it measures 27.5cm by 15.1cm by 6.5 cm. Basically, you probably own a book that’s bigger and heavier than this cute little thing.
You can see it in the flesh in our unboxing video.
In use, it’s absolutely silent. Seriously, we haven’t heard a peep out of it at any point in testing it. Not in running games, not in installing anything, or booting up or shutting down. It’s silent, which is hugely impressive. All the heat from the console comes out of the black circular vent though, which does get rather warm (impressively, the rest of the console stays cool-ish). Just make sure you never cover the vent by stacking anything on top of it, and ensure there’s always enough space around to let the heat escape.
The new controller is a huge improvement, too. While the d-pad is a little clicky, its new circular design is comfortable to use and allows for better directional input. Even better, its indented design means your thumb sinks comfortably into the centre of it; it makes for a very pleasant rest position. The new share button, too, is a game-changer. No longer do you have to navigate through menus to take a screenshot or record video. Simply hit the button and a screenshot is instantly saved, or a long press will record video. Yes, it’s a feature that PS4 has had for its lifetime, but it’s nice to see that particular function making its way to Xbox finally.
However, there is one issue with the Xbox Series S’s box contents: its supplied HDMI cable doesn’t support 4K at 120Hz. You’ll need to buy a faster HDMI if you want to utilise that feature. 120Hz at 1440p is fine, or 4K at 60Hz. But not both. Considering the console will scale content to 4K if you have a 4K TV, it’s a poor oversight, and having to purchase another HDMI cable to be able to use the full functionality of your console isn’t ideal.
A “500GB” SSD
The Xbox Series S advertises its storage space as being 500GB. It’s not a lie, but that 500GB is eaten into by the console’s system files. It means you only have 364GB of available space to use. For some people – who don’t play more than two or three games a year – that might be enough. But for others, it’s woefully small. And considering Xbox Series S optimized games need to be stored on the internal SSD (or a proprietary memory card), you don’t have the option of using a cheap external hard drive like you do on Xbox One.
The good news is that Xbox Series S optimized games seem to be a little smaller. Gears 5, for example, is about 18% smaller on Xbox Series S than it is on Xbox One X, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon is about 10% smaller. It heavily depends on the game, and some will have little to no difference at all.
Even with a slightly smaller file size though, most AAA games are still going to sit somewhere in the 30-50GB region. Some will be much bigger than that. If you’re an avid gamer, it won’t be long until your Series S is full. You can run backwards-compatible games from a standard external hard drive, though load times won’t benefit as much as being installed on internal storage. Series S optimized games can be stored on an external drive, too, though you’ll have to move them back to the internal SSD before you play. So unless you want to spend another £220 on a 1TB SSD memory card, expect to do a lot of storage management.
Dashboard, user interface and functionality
The latest Xbox dashboard is perhaps the best from Microsoft yet. It’s sharp, it’s responsive, it looks better than ever, and it performs better than ever, too. The problem? It’s available across all Microsoft devices. Loading up the Xbox Series S for the first time was a bit like getting a new phone. You take it out of the box all excited, then turn it on and… everything looks exactly the same as it did on your old device.
It’s hard to condemn Microsoft for this, since the dashboard is great – but it’s deflating that there’s nothing new or ‘next gen’ about it (minus a dynamic background, it turns out, which you couldn’t have on Xbox One or One X). It’d have perhaps been a better move for Microsoft to hold out on the system updates until after the Series X and S had released, so we’d at least get a new and shiny experience out of the box.
Of course, if you’re new to the Xbox ecosystem, then that’s not a problem for you. What you will find is a user interface that’s logical, customisable and easy to navigate. Your recently-played games are accessible from the home screen, and your library is just one click away. You can add new ‘tabs’ to your dashboard, too, allowing you to put the content that matters most to you just a few button presses away. You can create a list of your most-played games, for example, or have a tab specifically for your favourite game.
Apps are just as easy to find and download as before, too. All the usual suspects are here: Netflix, Amazon, Spotify, Sky, Now TV, iPlayer, All 4, and pretty much anything else you could want.
We encountered a problem, however, with the console’s built-in capture features, something we use frequently on Xbox One X (and something we’d planned to use a lot here, especially with the new ‘capture’ button on the controller). First, just like an Xbox One S, you only have the option to capture in 720p or 1080p. Second, the footage of three out of five games we recorded came out unnaturally dark. We presume at least that final issue is a bug that will be addressed in a future update – likely something to do with auto-HDR – but it’s still worth taking into consideration.
No Xbox One X enhancements
We knew a little while ago that the Xbox Series S would not play the Xbox One X-enhanced versions of games. Over the years, hundreds of Xbox One games have received X enhancements, making them look and play substantially better on Xbox One X. Typically, that includes improved textures, higher resolution and better performance. When we reviewed the Xbox One X back in 2017, we noted that some One X-enhanced games felt next-gen. The difference between that and a standard Xbox One is truly night and day.
So the Xbox Series S ignoring these enhancements to play the standard version of an Xbox One game is a big problem for anyone who’s gamed on an Xbox One X in the last couple of years. Aside from the games that have had a specific Series S/X upgrade – which is a very small amount right now – much of your Xbox One library essentially gets a downgrade.
You’ll see rougher textures and lower resolution on many games on Xbox Series S than you will on Xbox One X. They’ll load faster, thanks to the console’s superior processor and hard drive, and you’ll likely get better performance. AutoHDR helps boost the colour in some games, too. But more often than not, the visual hit is a hard pill to swallow.
If you’ve never had an Xbox One X and you’re considering upgrading to an Xbox Series S from a base Xbox One (or Xbox One S), this likely won’t be as big an issue. But for Xbox One X gamers, it’s hard not to see the Xbox Series S as a downgrade in some regards.
What happened to 1440p?
All marketing materials for the Xbox Series S since its announcement – which, granted, have been thin on the ground – have sort-of dubbed the the console as a ‘1440p machine’. The Series X does 4K; the Series S does 1440p. It’s what we expected. However, whether or not a game can achieve 1440p seems to be very hit and miss at the moment. Few games have received their optimization patch yet, but the ones that do have been a mixed bag.
Sea of Thieves, for example, optimized for Xbox Series S, a next-generation console, runs at 60fps at 1080p.
Fortnite, a game that is available on just about every platform including mobile phones, runs at 60fps at 1080p.
Yes, the constant framerate is nice, but 1080p is a very low bar. This is a next-generation console, after all. Some games allow you to tinker with the settings to better suit your needs; don’t be surprised if a game lets you choose to prioritise framerate or visuals.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon, a new title enhanced specifically for next-generation consoles has a ‘Normal’ and ‘High Quality’ mode. High Quality appears to run at 1440p; it looks sharp and textures are nice. But normal mode – which the game defaults to – prioritises a 60FPS framerate. The trade-off for this? 900p resolution. Not even full HD.
Some games will achieve that 1440p sweet spot, of course, and some will go beyond that. The Falconeer runs at a whopping 1800p at 60FPS on Xbox Series S. Granted, it’s not as visually demanding as some titles, but it’s a promising sign that not every game will be damned to 1080p.
We’re yet to see many other games in action on the console. More games will receive an ‘Optimized for X/S’ patch in the coming days before the console’s official launch on November 10th, so we’ll be able to gather more information about the true performance of Series S soon. But our initial impressions are less than glowing.
If you’re playing on a smallish 1080p TV, then this may not be an issue to you. But the majority of TVs over 32″ now are 4K as standard. Even if you don’t own a 4K TV yet, it’s likely you will the next time you upgrade, and you’ll definitely notice the lack of clarity in the Xbox Series S’s image quality when you do.
As mentioned, we’ve only been able to try a handful of Series X/S Optimized games so far. But what we have tried has been a mixed bag.
We mentioned that Yakuza: Like a Dragon‘s ‘Normal’ mode has a resolution of 900p. It performs nice, but it looks horrendous considering you’re playing it on a next-gen console. Discounting that immediately, the game’s ‘High Quality’ mode is a huge improvement. Its resolution appears to be 1440p; it’s sharp, and its shadows and texture quality appear to be a step up from Xbox One X. Not hugely noticeable, however; but zooming into, say, the tarmac on the road, or a wall texture in the distance, the Xbox Series S seems to have the edge. But that’s not always the case.
The same goes for Gears 5 and Gears Tactics. They both look nice on Xbox Series S, but comparing side-by-side with Xbox One X, there’s no real noticeable improvements. DIRT 5 at least has different options available – you can play the game in 120Hz mode, but it’s probably not worth the graphical hit.
The Xbox One X has, of course, been our main point of reference in reviewing the Xbox Series S. Where we’ve been able to, we’ve compared games side by side, and with Series X/S Optimized games, there’s very little difference visually. The lower resolution means that, even with an Optimized game, some titles still look better on Xbox One X. Most perform better on Series S at least; the much more superior processor and SSD means that loading times are faster, and framerates in games are smoother.
Mostly, though, the Xbox Series S is hampered by the fact that not one single game exists for it yet that you can’t play on an existing current-gen platform. The first exclusively next-gen game is The Medium, due out in December. We feel like that’ll be a true test of the hardware, as it’ll be the first game specifically designed with next-gen in mind. Will that feel truly next-gen? We’re dubious, but hopeful.
It’s not all disappointing. The Xbox Series S packs in several features that we can comfortably call “next-gen”. The speed of the SSD is a noticeable improvement. Optimized games load in a matter of seconds, while backwards compatible games benefit from a speed boost, too. The actual improvement time varies from game to game; sometimes it may only shave off a few seconds, but other times your load time will be halved or more. More time gaming and less time staring at a loading bar is always good.
Quick Resume is a nice feature, too. This allows you to have several game instances open at once. Say you’re in the middle of a mission in Watch Dogs Legion, but you’re itching to have a quick race in Forza. Or you don’t want to lose your progress in something, but your friend is bugging you to jump into a Gears 5 multiplayer match with them. You don’t need to quit; you can simply go ahead and open another game, and your previous game will be suspended. You can do this with several games at once – the exact number will vary depending on the titles you have in Quick Resume.
It’s not foolproof, though. Currently, there’s no way to see what games you have in Quick Resume. Hopefully Microsoft will add in the ability to manage (or at least view) your Quick Resume games in a firmware update, because at the moment, all you can do is try to remember what’s there. We’ve also encountered a few instances of games not properly Quick Resuming, and games that rely on an online connection will lose that connection (and potentially your progress) if you try to suspend them. So we’d recommend using it sparingly and at your own peril, at least initially.
The cheaper option?
The Xbox Series S’s main selling point is its price. At £249.99, it’s £200 cheaper than an Xbox Series X, and more than £100 less than the cheapest PS5. On paper, that’s a huge saving, and surely it’s worth making a few compromises for?
Frankly, probably not. If you’re torn between a Series S and a Series X, £200 is a heck of a lot of money. But let’s take the Series S’s much more limited storage, forgetting about anything else. You’re more likely to need/want an external memory card if you have a Series S; add the price of that – £219.99 – and you’ve already spent more than what a Series X would have cost you. Granted, you’ll have around 500GB more space over a Series X if you buy a 1TB memory card, but you’ll have spent more money yet have a far inferior console. It’s just not worth it.
The cheaper option is even less of a selling point when you consider Microsoft’s All Access scheme. Xbox All Access lets you pay a monthly price over two years for a Series X or S console, including Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. There’s no interest, and no upfront charges; it’s a bit like a phone contract, except after the two years, you’ll stop paying. An Xbox Series S will cost £21 a month; a Series X £29 a month. That’s £8 a month difference, which isn’t a massive amount. And yet the bridge between the consoles is huge.
The bottom line: is the Xbox Series S worth buying?
It pains us to say this – we really did want to like this little white box – but we struggle to recommend the Xbox Series S. At least at this point in time.
If you’ve got an Xbox One X already, you’ll immediately notice the drop in resolution in the majority of your games. It’s hard not to see the Xbox Series S as a downgrade. Your backwards compatible games will more than likely look worse than they do on your current console, which is not something we should have to say about a next-gen console.
If you’re upgrading from a base model Xbox One, or you’re jumping into an Xbox console for the first time, it’s likely to be less of an issue, but you’re still not getting a particularly great next-generation experience. You’ll get the benefit of faster load times, smoother performance and Quick Resume, sure, but games will always look sub-par compared to PS5 or Xbox Series X.
The only possible situation where an Xbox Series S might be worth considering right now is if you own a 1080p TV and are fairly sure you’ll not be getting a 4K TV at any point in the next several years. Even then, you’ll still miss out on graphical enhancements in some games, such as ray tracing in Devil May Cry V Special Edition, compared to an Xbox Series X. The difference will vary from game to game.
With no true next-gen games available just yet, it’s hard to truly quantify the power of the Series S. Who knows, when games are fully designed to make use of the RDNA 2 architecture, maybe Series S games will look noticeably better than they do on Xbox One X. Perhaps the more problematic issue is that there’s no pressing reason to jump into any next generation Xbox console just yet. At launch, there’ll be next to nothing that you can’t play on a standard Xbox One or the Xbox One X.
So, in our opinion you should hold off for a few months at least. And if Xbox is the way you definitely want to go, perhaps just buy via All Access and fork out an extra £8 a month for an Xbox Series X. Then your next-gen purchase is likely to feel next-gen.