Xbox Series S Review: Affordable Next-Gen With Compromises

In an unprecedented move for a console launch, two options are available when it comes to new-generation Xbox systems: The powerful and fully equipped Xbox Series X, and the more affordable but somewhat limited Xbox Series S. I’ve already delivered my , but what does the Series S offer? Well, it’s a cute and compact console that’ll play previous and next-gen Xbox games, and do so for a relatively cheap entry price of $300 USD.

It’s a sleek system that comes with many of the same great features of the beefier Series X, but it comes with some notable compromises that you’ll need to consider if you’re interested in this itty-bitty Xbox. And it’s not just about the visuals; its limited internal storage space, the nuances to how backwards compatible games look and run, and the lack of a disc drive will influence whether or not this console’s for you–the importance of those things depends on your own needs but, either way, the Xbox Series S packs a punch.

The Little Console That Could

Let’s first talk about in-game performance. The RDNA 2 GPU and Zen 2 CPU from AMD that are built into the Series S are scaled-down versions of what’s in the Series X–it’s all part of the same technical architecture. Microsoft’s aim for the Series S is to hit 1440p resolution instead of full 4K, which is still ambitious, all things considered. When playing optimized games on the smaller console, it’s impressive to see just how good they perform while flexing graphical enhancements.

Gears 5 looks and runs great; it might not offer the same clarity seen on the more powerful systems, and the details might not shine through as distinctly on a 4K display, but you still get a consistent 60fps at what looks to be either 1080p or 1440p resolution. The Series S also has room to do 120fps like its more powerful counterpart, if optimizations allow for it and if you have a proper 120Hz display. As part of Gears 5’s optimization, the option to run 120fps in multiplayer is available. A handful of games are planned to take advantage of 120fps capabilities, like Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Dirt 5, although we’re not sure if that’ll come with noticeable visual compromises.

Forza Horizon 4’s Series S optimizations help it run a smooth 60fps.

Forza Horizon 4 is noteworthy when it comes to Series S optimizations. It’s a remarkable showcase of what the console can do. It’s able to hit 60fps and maintain its fantastic visual flair at what looks like either 1080p or 1440p resolution. On a 4K TV, I can tell the image isn’t as sharp as it is on the Series X, but otherwise, it looks crisp in motion.

One curious case is Yakuza: Like a Dragon. As of this writing, the game actually offers the same two graphics options as it does on Series X, albeit scaled down for Series S hardware. “High Resolution” mode seems to do 1440p at 30fps, and “Normal” mode looks to be 1080p at a smooth 60fps. (On Series X, the modes offer 4K at 30fps and 1440p at 60fps, respectively). This could mean that we may see similar options pop up even for Series S-optimized games in the future.

Backwards Compatibility With Different Results

As for backwards compatibility, the Series S essentially takes base Xbox One builds of games and goes from there. This has an impact on what you get out of current-gen games when running on the Series S compared to the Series X.

If a game is not optimized for next-gen, the Series X will play the One X-enhanced version, which usually means the game will employ the same graphics options for improved performance or visuals–or just straight-up lock into better visuals, whatever the case may be. For the Series S, however, games will only run the base Xbox One version if they don’t receive a performance update, meaning you’ll miss out on the enhancements that came from the previous generation’s high-end console.

For now, Doom Eternal is limited to its Xbox One resolution when running on the Series S.
For now, Doom Eternal is limited to its Xbox One resolution when running on the Series S.

For example, when playing Final Fantasy XV on Series X, you can access the One X enhancements, which allow you to choose to boost frame rate or crank up the visual fidelity. When playing on Series S, you simply play the base Xbox One version that runs at a capped 30fps with its blurry sub-1080p resolution. Doom Eternal is enhanced for One X and runs great on the Series X too, but it’s a bit disappointing to play the base Xbox One version on the Series S, which caps resolution at a fuzzy 900p to maintain 60fps.

The Series S can run non-optimized backwards-compatible games with more stable performance by virtue of the stronger hardware. In situations where a game uses an uncapped frame rate or a 60fps limit, it’ll be able to maintain and hit those high marks. If a game uses dynamic resolution, it’ll maintain the higher resolution permitted. But it’s still beholden to the built-in limitations of the base Xbox One builds in these cases. The reasons for this are understandable–as the power differentials across all consoles in play aren’t so simple–but the Series S has so much power leftover and unused in these scenarios.

Things can always change, though, as it’s basically up to developers to go back and implement optimizations to improve the experience, if they want.

Speedy SSD Without Much Space

While the Series S concedes some graphical horsepower, it doesn’t skimp out on the SSD in terms of speed. It packs the same type of internal storage drive as the Series X, so you get the same ultra-fast load times. Some examples I’ve used in coverage of the Xbox Series X are Final Fantasy XV, The Outer Worlds, and Control, which all load from the main menu and into gameplay in about 10 to 13 seconds. Yakuza: Like A Dragon and Gears 5 only take about five or six seconds to get into actual gameplay. In previous tests for comparisons, the Xbox One X internal drive would take about four to five times longer.

To me, this is a real game changer–a practical and tangible benefit that makes the gaming experience much more fluid, letting you spend more of your time actually playing games. It’s a thing that permeates the entire experience, particularly valuable in games that have frequent resource- and data-intensive scenarios to load into. Once you get a taste of super-fast loading in games, you will not want to go back to anything lesser.

Where the Series S makes a major cut is in its SSD’s size. The 512GB internal drive actually comes out to 364GB of free usable space. Considering the size of games, that is not a lot of storage. If you consistently play something like a newer Call of Duty, well, that’s basically a third of your drive gone.

One thing Microsoft has brought up is that some games actually have smaller install sizes specifically for the Series S version thanks to Smart Delivery. Forza Horizon 4 takes up 71.4GB on the Series S as opposed to the 84.6GB on the Series X, and Gears 5 takes up 55.1 GB down from 71.9GB, respectively. This helps somewhat, but not by much. However, Sea of Thieves chops off a significant chunk, going down to 17GB for Series S from 46.6GB on Series X. Developers can decide which assets to include as part of the installation, and since the Series S doesn’t need 4K assets, the shrinking of game sizes should be a little more common (although your mileage will vary).

The Series S has 364GB free on the internal SSD, which is not a lot of space for games.
The Series S has 364GB free on the internal SSD, which is not a lot of space for games.

How To Overcome Limited Storage

You have some options for expanding storage if this presents a problem for you. The 1TB Seagate drive is technically the best solution, but it’s also the most expensive. At $220 bucks, you’d be paying more to pair the drive with a Series S than you would for just a Series X console.

Another solution is to use an external USB 3.0 drive. You can play backwards-compatible games that are installed on the drive, and the load times can be pretty quick if you’re using an external SSD. However, you can’t play next-gen or Series S-optimized games straight off a USB drive–you have to transfer the install files to internal storage, which thankfully doesn’t take that long.

Regardless, if you want to move beyond that 364GB limitation of the Series S’s internal SSD and you don’t already have an external drive, it’s going to add to the overall cost of moving to this console.

Other Matters In Brief

Most other things across the Xbox Series X and S stay the same in terms of the user experience. The UI is the same; it’s as snappy as it is on the Series X, and Quick Resume works exactly as it’s intended. As I’ve said before, suspending up to five or six games and jumping between them in a matter of seconds is pretty sweet and a useful feature for how I play games. And the fact that games stay suspended after powering off the system, or unplugging the power cord, is cool too.

As we move closer toward adopting digital distribution wholesale, the lack of a disc drive on the Series S makes sense, especially considering the emphasis on Game Pass for Xbox’s future. But those of you who kept your physical Xbox One and Xbox 360 games will be out of luck with a Series S (or if you want to use your system for entertainment on Blu-ray discs). If those things are important to you, the Series S is a no-go.

If it’s not the absence of a disc drive that jumps out at you when looking at the Xbox Series S, it’s the elegant physical design of the console. Whereas the Series X has a sort of low-key yet imposing vertically-inclined presence to its appearance, the Series S is cute and leaves a small footprint. Maybe you think it’s just a plain white box with a big fan vent on top, but considering the power it packs and the fact that it’s an actual next-gen system, it’s impressive–tiny and light, sporting a minimalist aesthetic, and literally the smallest Xbox ever.

Almost hard to believe that this is a next-gen console design.
Almost hard to believe that this is a next-gen console design.

It’s The S… Or Is It?

It’s nice that you can access next-gen for $300 USD with a compact box like the Xbox Series S–an entry-level option is just cool to see available right at launch. Moving forward, games will naturally accommodate the Series S with proper optimizations, so cases like Forza Horizon 4 and Gears 5 will be more common. And off the bat, you have the advantage of quick SSD load speeds. Whether or not it should be your system of choice for next-gen is determined by how much its compromises affect you, and also if you even care about 4K resolution. If you think its concessions make it a dealbreaker, consider saving a bit more for the Xbox Series X.

The Series S could serve as a great, cost-effective system that is complementary to, say, a PlayStation system or Nintendo Switch. If you just want to access what the platform offers now or what’s to come in Xbox’s future, and don’t mind the gap in graphical details and storage space, this is the Xbox for you.

Now Playing: Xbox Series S Video Review

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