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Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen
1440p next-gen gaming
Plays all Xbox Series S|X games
Tiny form factor
No 4K graphics
Underpowered for a next-gen console
No disc drive
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.
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 reduced processing power limits its graphical output to 1440p for the most part. This console is remarkably compact, and it 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.
The Xbox Series S is small, and it’s almost impossible to oversell that point. I had seen pictures and video of the console and the spec sheet, but I was still surprised at exactly how compact this thing is when I unboxed it. It’s smaller than the Xbox One S, and Microsoft actually bills it as “our smallest Xbox ever.” This is especially noteworthy since Microsoft and Sony went exceptionally big with their flagship consoles, the Series X and PlayStation 5, which both dwarf the diminutive Series S.
The overall form factor of the Series S is similar to the Xbox One S, with the notable differences that 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 quite like the way it looks standing up next to my television.
Aside from the bold vent grill, the Series S doesn’t break any new ground in terms of 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.
Game consoles are usually pretty easy to set up, but the Xbox Series S takes that to the next level. It starts out normal, with connecting the console to a television with an HDMI cable, and plugging it into power. When you turn the Series S and television on, you’re greeted with an invitation to proceed 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 tried the traditional setup method as well after circling back. It’s similar to setting up an Xbox One, not that difficult or time-consuming, but the app option definitely streamlines the process.
The Xbox Series S is a bit of a mixed bag in the performance department on account of its stripped-down hardware. The CPU is similar to the one in the more expensive Xbox Series X, but the GPU is significantly weaker in terms of TFLOPs, and it 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 depending on factors like which game you’re playing. Developers are actually free to render in native 4K if they prefer, and we may see some of that in the future, but it seems as if hitting the 1440p target is easy enough on this hardware that it’s what most devs are favoring early on.
I hooked the Series S up to both 1080p and 4K televisions and found the graphics to be decent and the frame rate rock solid on both. If you have a 1440p monitor that’s ideal, as that’s the console’s native resolution, but I found it to work just fine when connected to my 1080p and 4K televisions.
Game selection is limited during pre-release, but I was able to play a handful of titles that were optimized for Xbox Series X|S and one native Xbox Series X|S game. Optimized titles, like Gears of War 5, looked decent on my 1080p television and great upscaled on my 4K television. Gears of War 5 played buttery smooth, with no noticeable FPS fluctuation as I slid between cover and mantled 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 original release of the game populate my races on the Xbox Series S|X version.
Load times were negligible in each of the games I played, which is expected from a system with super-fast NVME SSD storage. Some games had more noticeable load times than others, but not enough to disrupt gameplay.
You won’t have any shortage of games to play on the Xbox Series S, especially if you’re a Game Pass Ultimate subscriber, Microsoft's game service that provides hundreds of games to download and play, including major day one releases from first-party studios, for a low monthly fee. Backwards compatibility means you can play every Game Pass game on day one, and the Xbox Series X|S launch lineup is fairly healthy as well. 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, there are plenty of great titles ready to go.
One of the most highly anticipated launch titles, Halo Infinite, was pushed back to 2021. It’s still coming, but the larger issue is that in addition to a relatively thin stable of exclusives available at launch, all Microsoft first-party console exclusives are also released 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.
Developers are actually free to render in native 4K if they prefer, and we may see some of that in the future, but it seems as if hitting the 1440p target is easy enough on this hardware that it’s what the individual devs are favoring.
Other consoles, like the PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch, have games that 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 PC gamers, but it does put Xbox consoles in a bit of a tough spot when compared to consoles from other manufacturers.
Conversely, however, Microsoft's recent $7.5B purchase of Bethesda parent company Zenimax could mean a much more appealing stable of exclusives in Microsoft's arsenal in the future, though the company has yet to clarify which (if any) Bethesda titles will be exclusive to Xbox.
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 go swimming in when you’re 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. Weighing in at over 100GB, Destiny 2 ate up almost 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 pretty fast, and I ultimately sacrificed the drive I typically use with my PS4. Moving games is, thankfully, a breeze. However, I found that I was unable to move Xbox Series X|S games to the drive due to it being 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.
The Xbox Series X|S does have a slot on the back for a storage expansion card, which is a proprietary storage device that’s 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. The catch is that 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 do go with an external USB drive, you'll only be able to play Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox games that are stored on it.
With all those massive games and the fact that the Series S is a digital-only console, you’re going to be spending 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 really the way to go here.
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 absolutely tanked, down to the lower double digits, while I was running speed tests on my laptop. Similarly, download speeds dove into the low teens whenever a game was running, 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 here is that the Series S provided fairly unimpressive download speeds over Wi-Fi, but tore it up when connected via Ethernet. If at all possible, you’ll want to have this all-digital console hooked up via Ethernet to a fast internet connection.
The Xbox Series X|S controller is a pleasant surprise, as Microsoft chose to stick with a winning formula here as well. The original Xbox One controller was fairly well-received, and the minor facelift that it got with the release of the Xbox One made it even better. For the Xbox Series X|S, Microsoft took that design 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 perfectly identical, but it’s tough to pick them out with the naked eye. The biggest difference I was able to notice 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, Xbox One owners don’t have to worry about the added expense of buying extra controllers.
The biggest addition to the controller is that it now includes a dedicated share button. Snapping screenshots and recording video wasn’t exactly difficult on the Xbox One, but the addition of a dedicated button just 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 bit of 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.
Pardon me for burying the lede, but the price of the Xbox Series S is the real headline here. The Series S has an astoundingly low MSRP of just $299. Additionally, you can opt to buy one by paying just $24.99 per month for a period of two years, and that also includes access to Game Pass Ultimate.
Whether you choose to buy a Series S outright or go with Microsoft’s Game Pass inclusive financing option, this is a tremendously affordable console. The Xbox One S sells for $399, and the Xbox One X currently has an MSRP of $499, so the Xbox Series S even undercuts previous generation consoles. The previous-gen consoles are likely to drop in price in response, but 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 buy several controllers to support multiplayer, and that adds up at $60 or more per controller. Since the Series S supports most Xbox One peripherals, Xbox One 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.
This is a bit of an unfair fight, because Microsoft and Sony took completely different approaches when designing their lower-priced console options. Microsoft cut back on hardware to offer an incredibly low price point, while Sony merely 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, meaning it 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 just 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 at least remain competitive.
The Xbox Series S might be a bit of a step back from the Xbox One X in that it only outputs 1440p instead of native 4K, 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.