Xbox Series S Review

Next-gen gaming in a surprising package

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Microsoft Xbox Series S

Xbox Series S

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

What We Like
  • 1440p next-gen gaming

  • Plays all Xbox Series X|S games

  • Backwards compatible

  • Tiny form factor

  • Great price

What We Don't Like
  • Limited 4K support

  • Underpowered for a next-gen console

  • No disc drive

  • Limited storage

  • Can’t play physical discs from previous generations

The Xbox Series S packs a lot of impressive hardware into a deceptively tiny package at an attractive price point, but it lacks the punch of other next-gen systems.

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Microsoft Xbox Series S

Xbox Series S

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

The Xbox Series S is a low-cost alternative to the Xbox Series X, Microsoft’s flagship next-gen console. It plays all the same games as its more expensive counterpart and has similar hardware, but its reduced processing power limits graphical output to 1440p for the most part.

This console is remarkably compact and has a surprisingly low price point. Gamers looking for a 4K UHD in HDR experience will need to pay a premium for the Series X, but the Xbox Series S offers an enticing alternative if you’re looking to save some money or haven’t yet made the jump to 4K. 

Design: Sleek and compact

The Xbox Series S is small, and it's almost impossible to oversell that point. I had seen pictures and videos of the console and the spec sheet, but I was still surprised at how compact this thing was when I unboxed it. It's smaller than the Xbox One S, and Microsoft bills it as "our smallest Xbox ever." That's especially noteworthy since Microsoft and Sony went exceptionally big with their flagship consoles, the Series X and PlayStation 5.

Xbox Series S
Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

The overall form factor of the Series S is similar to the Xbox One S, but the Series S lacks an optical drive and includes a massive circular vent on one side. This striking design choice has drawn comparisons to a speaker and a washing machine. It also bears a passing resemblance to Microsoft’s adaptive controller, which is boxy, white, and features two large black circular pads. This aesthetic might not be for everyone, but I like how it stands next to my television.

Aside from the bold vent grill, the Series S doesn’t break any new ground regarding design choices. It has sturdy rubber feet on two sides, so you can lay it flat or stand it up on end, as has become more or less standard with home consoles. It feels pretty sturdy in both positions.

Setup Process: Easier than ever before

Game consoles are usually pretty easy to set up, but the Xbox Series S takes that to the next level. Start by connecting the console to a television with an HDMI cable and plugging it into power. When you turn the Series S and the TV on, you get an invitation to set up the console with the Xbox app or do it the traditional way.

Optimized titles, like Gears of War 5, looked decent on my 1080p television and great upscaled on my 4K television.

I highly recommend setting up the Xbox Series S with the help of the Xbox app. It massively streamlines the process, makes it easier to connect to Wi-Fi since you don’t need to type out your password with the Xbox’s on-screen keyboard, and even pre-loads the Series S with settings from your old Xbox One if you had one.

I ended up wiping the console back to factory settings a few times while I put it through its paces, so I also tried the traditional setup method after circling back. It’s similar to setting up an Xbox One; not that difficult or time-consuming, but the app option is better.

Performance: Rock solid 1440p gaming

The Xbox Series S is a bit of a mixed bag in the performance department because of its stripped-down hardware. The CPU is similar to the more expensive Xbox Series X, but the GPU is significantly weaker in teraflops (TFLOPs) and has less RAM. 

In cutting back on the Series S hardware to meet its attractive price point, Microsoft targeted a resolution of 1440p at 60 or 120 FPS. A handful of games like Hades and The Touryst render in 4K at 60 FPS, while poorly-optimized games like Cyberpunk 2077 struggle and most games run best in 1080p.

I've used the Series S with 1080p and 4K televisions and found the graphics decent and the frame rate rock solid in most cases. Most games run better in 1080p, but 4K upscaling also worked well in my experience.

If you have a 1440p monitor, that's ideal, as that's the console's default resolution, but it worked fine when connected to my 1080p and 4K televisions.

Developers can optimize Xbox One games and Xbox Series X|S games to take advantage of the more powerful hardware. During my initial time with the Series S, I played a handful of titles optimized for Xbox Series X|S and one Xbox Series X|S game.

Optimized titles, like Gears of War 5, looked decent on my 1080p television and even better upscaled on my 4K television. Gears of War 5 played buttery smooth, with no noticeable FPS fluctuation as I slid between taking cover and mantling over obstructions to chainsaw enemies.

Load times were negligible in each of the games I played, which is expected from a system with super-fast NVME SSD storage.

Another optimized title, Forza Horizon 4, looked and played great, though it was weird to see ghosts of my friends dating back to the game's original release populate my races on the Xbox Series X|S version.

Post-launch titles have run the gamut. Cyberpunk 2077 was disappointing initially, with a capped frame rate and dynamic resolution. I ended up playing it on a PC instead, but the devs did go back later and add a performance mode that bumped it up to 60 FPS at the cost of a lower resolution. At the other end of the spectrum, I was pleasantly surprised when Hades ran in native 4K, and it felt just as fluid and frenetic as it ever did on PC.

Load times were negligible in each game I played, which I expected from a super-fast NVME SSD storage system. Some games had more noticeable load times than others, but not enough to disrupt gameplay.

Games: Microsoft still has an exclusivity problem

You won't have any shortage of games to play on the Xbox Series S, especially if you're a Game Pass subscriber. I predicted that the Series S would be the ultimate Game Pass machine at release, and that prediction has borne fruit in my home, at least.

Microsoft's game subscription service provides hundreds of games to download and stream, including major day-one releases from first-party studios, and that's how my Series S has seen most of its use.

Full backward compatibility meant you could play every Game Pass game on day one. The Xbox Series X|S launch lineup was robust, with titles like Gears of War 5 re-tuned specifically for Xbox Series X|S and brand-new games like Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Dirt 5, and Assassin's Creed Valhalla ready to go. Hundreds of additional titles have bolstered that lineup since then, like Halo Infinite and Psychonauts 2. 

The catch with the Series X|S game library is that all Microsoft first-party console exclusives are also on PC. That means anyone with a decent gaming rig can play the same exclusives as the Xbox Series S. That's meaningless to anyone who doesn't own a gaming PC, but it does take a bit of shine off the console from the perspective of a PC gamer.

A handful of games like Hades and The Touryst render in native 4K at 60 FPS, while poorly-optimized games like Cyberpunk 2077 struggle, and most games run best in 1080p.

Other consoles, like the PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch, have games you can't get anywhere else, while the Xbox Series X|S has timed exclusives and console exclusives. That isn't a knock against Microsoft, as the availability of Xbox exclusives on the PC is fantastic for computer gamers. Still, it does put Xbox consoles in a tough spot compared to consoles from other manufacturers.

Microsoft's $7.5B purchase of Bethesda's parent company, Zenimax, brought some hope of additional exclusives appearing in Microsoft's arsenal. (Bethesda is the publisher of Fallout, DOOM, Dishonored, Skyrim, Wolfenstein, The Elder Scrolls, and more.) However, the situation is murky as the company has yet to clarify which (if any) Bethesda titles will be exclusive to Xbox.

Storage: Disappointingly shallow, so bring your USB drive

The biggest problem with the Xbox Series S is the lack of storage. Unlike the Series X, which packs in a 1TB drive, the Series S only offers 512GB of space. That's an extremely shallow pool to swim in when dealing with an all-digital console, as you have to download every game you play.

Wanting to see how my Guardian looks on next-gen hardware, Destiny 2 was one of my first downloads, and I almost immediately regretted it. At over 100GB, Destiny 2 ate nearly one-fifth of the total storage space on the console. Unable to find a USB drive that I could format, I sucked it up and deleted the game to make room for titles that had been optimized or designed for the Xbox Series X|S.

Even then, space became an issue quickly, and I sacrificed the drive I typically use with my PS4. Moving games is, thankfully, a breeze. However, I could not move the Xbox Series X|S games to the drive because it was too slow. The moral of the story is that if you pick up a Series S, make sure you have a fast USB drive on hand or get used to playing musical chairs with your onboard storage.

For me, the solution has been to use the Series S primarily as a Game Pass machine. Since Game Pass lets you stream games instead of downloading them, the restrictive storage issue becomes less of a concern.

For those who need more space, the Series S has a slot on the back for a storage expansion card, a proprietary storage device designed to be just as fast as the built-in NVME SSD. The issue is that it's expensive. You can get a USB 3.1 SSD of a similar capacity for less than half as much, so most price-conscious Series S owners will probably gravitate in that direction. However, Microsoft gives the raw I/O bandwidth of the drive, and presumably the expansion card, as 2.4 GB/s, which is almost twice as fast as USB 3.1.

So if you go with an external USB drive, you'll only be able to play Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox games stored on it.

Internet Connectivity: Fast when wired, but Wi-Fi is a mixed bag

With all those massive games and the fact that the Series S is a digital-only console, you will spend a lot of time downloading. The Series S has built-in Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port, so you have options, but a wired connection is the way to go here.

Xbox Series S
 Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

When downloading over Wi-Fi, I rarely saw over 150Mbps (compared to the 350Mbps I measured on my HP Spectre x360 laptop in the same room and at the same time). Curiously, the Series S download speed tanked, down to the lower double digits, while I was running speed tests on my laptop. Similarly, download speeds dive into the low teens whenever a game runs, even in the background.

When connected via Ethernet, the Series S reported 880Mbps down and 65Mbps up on the network status screen. That’s right on the money in terms of what I see directly at my Eero router. Actual download speeds topped out at 500Mbps and typically hung out between 270 and 320Mbps.

The bottom line is that the Series S provided fairly unimpressive download speeds over Wi-Fi but tore it up when connected via Ethernet. You’ll want to connect this all-digital console via Ethernet to a fast internet connection.

Software and User Interface: Familiar and cozy

Microsoft isn’t looking to rock the boat with the Xbox Series X|S in terms of the user interface. If you’ve used an Xbox One, you’ll find the Xbox Series X|S user interface strangely familiar. The dashboard looks almost the same, and the guide functions as expected. There are a few upgrades and changes here and there, but this is nothing like the massive change between the Xbox 360 dashboard and the Xbox One dashboard.

An overhaul of the dashboard is currently in the works, and we expect it to arrive in 2023.

Controller: Iteration more than innovation

The Xbox Series X|S controller is a pleasant surprise, as Microsoft also chose to stick with a winning formula. The original Xbox One controller was well-received, and its minor facelift with the release of the Xbox One made it even better. Microsoft took that design for the Xbox Series X|S and tweaked it ever so slightly.

The overall shape of the Xbox Series X|S controller is quite similar to the Xbox One controller. The dimensions aren’t identical, but it’s tough to pick them out with the naked eye. The most notable difference I noticed was that the body of the Xbox Series X|S controller is a bit thicker when viewed head-on. The battery compartment is also slightly smaller.

Since the Series S supports most Xbox One peripherals, owners don’t have to worry about the added expense of buying extra controllers.

The most significant addition to the controller is that it now includes a dedicated share button. Snapping screenshots and recording video wasn’t difficult on the Xbox One, but adding a dedicated button makes it that much easier.

The D-pad has also changed, with the Xbox Series X|S controller adopting the faceted single-piece design previously seen in Xbox One Elite controllers. It feels nice, if different, but only time will tell if it’s more robust than previous iterations. The triggers and bumpers also received a facelift that ditched the glossy finish and added some nice texturing.

Aside from that, the only other item of note is that the Xbox Series X|S controller includes a fairly aggressive texture on the grips that feels quite nice when held.

Xbox Series S
Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen 

Price: Jaw-droppingly low

Pardon me for burying the lede, but the price of the Xbox Series S is the actual headline here. The Series S has an astoundingly low MSRP of just $299. Additionally, you can buy one by paying just $24.99 per month for two years, including access to Game Pass Ultimate.

Whether you buy a Series S outright or use Microsoft’s Game Pass inclusive financing option, this is a tremendously affordable console. The Series S undercut the Xbox One S at launch, though Microsoft later discontinued the previous-gen consoles. The Xbox One X currently has an MSRP of $499, so it’s pretty clear what Microsoft is doing here.

One nice thing about the Xbox Series X|S is that when you buy a new console, you typically have a bunch of add-ons to worry about that drive the price up. For example, you might have to purchase several controllers to support multiplayer, which adds up to $60 or more per controller. Since the Series S supports most Xbox One peripherals, owners don’t have to worry about the added expense of buying extra controllers.

One expense you may need to budget is a high-speed USB 3.1 drive. The console is perfectly usable without an external drive, but expect to uninstall games regularly to make more space if you limit yourself to the onboard storage.

Xbox Series S vs. PS5 Digital

This comparison is a bit of an unfair fight because Microsoft and Sony took entirely different approaches when designing their lower-priced console options. Microsoft cut back on hardware to offer an incredibly low price point, while Sony removed the optical drive. The result is that the PS5 Digital blows the Xbox Series S out of the water in terms of graphics and performance, but they aren’t even in the same time zone in terms of price.

The PS5 Digital is essentially the same console as the PlayStation 5, which has similar specifications and performance to the Xbox Series X. It’s capable of 4K HDR graphics at 60 and 120 FPS, and the Series S can’t touch that with its pared-down GPU.

On the other hand, the Xbox Series S has an MSRP of just $299, while the PlayStation 5 Digital sells for $399. Rumors indicated that Sony might have gone even higher in price but cut it as far as possible to remain competitive.

Final Verdict

An affordable alternative for those without a 4K television.

The Xbox Series S might be a bit of a step back from the Xbox One X in performance, but the fact is that it’s a next-gen console that plays next-gen games with some impressive hardware and an unreal price tag. Gamers in search of the best graphics possible will want to look at the Xbox Series X instead, but gamers who haven’t yet made the 4K plunge, parents in need of an affordable console for their kids, or anyone looking to save money will all find something to like here.

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Specs

  • Product Name Xbox Series S
  • Product Brand Microsoft
  • SKU RRS-00001
  • Price $299.99
  • Release Date November 2020
  • Weight 4.25 lbs.
  • Product Dimensions 6.5 x 15.1 x 27.5 cm.
  • Color White
  • CPU 8 core AMD Zen 2 CPU @ 3.6GHz (3.4GHz with SMT)
  • GPU AMD RDNA 2 GPU 20 CUs @ 1.565GHz
  • RAM 10GB GDDR6
  • Storage 512GB PCie Gen 4 NVME SSD
  • Expandable Storage 1TB expansion card, USB 3.1 drives
  • Ports 3x USB 3.1, 1x HDMI 2.1
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