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Xbox Series S Review

The Xbox Series S offers next-gen gaming in a dinky, budget box.

Verdict

The Xbox Series S is the best next-gen console for anyone on a budget or without a high-end 4K TV, with the added performance power allowing for significantly better graphics than what's possible with an Xbox One S. However, the stingy 364GB storage capacity is inexcusable for a console lacking a disk drive, making the expensive storage expansion an essential expense.

Pros

  • Major performance upgrade on Xbox One S
  • Small and stylish design
  • Next-gen SSD reduce loading times dramatically
  • Incredible value considering the specs

Cons

  • 500GB storage is far too small
  • Lacks a disk drive
  • No support for Wi-Fi 6

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £249.99
  • Gaming perf: Up to 1440p 120Hz
  • DirectX Raytracing support
  • Video perf: Capable of 8K
  • 512GB Custom NVME SSD
  • Dimensions: 275 x 151 x 65 mm
  • Weight: 1.9 kg

The Xbox Series S may be the weakest of the three next-gen consoles, but underestimate this dinky device at your own peril – this is one of the most impressive games consoles I’ve ever seen, and it may well be the best choice for the majority of buyers.

Despite costing a couple hundred quid less than both the PS5 and Xbox Series X, the Xbox Series S shares the majority of ground-breaking features that differentiate this exciting new generation of consoles from previous systems. 

Loading times have been drastically reduced thanks to the speedy NVME SSDs, the variable refresh rate allows for crystal-clear motion, and DirectX Ray tracing provides hyper-realistic lighting and shadow effects to make in-game worlds more immersive than ever before. 

Of course, the Xbox Series S doesn’t quite come with the graphical grunt to compete with the PS5 or Xbox Series X, limited to a 1440p resolution for Xbox’s entire library of games. If you’re yet to purchase a 4K display with variable refresh rate, however, you’re unlikely to notice too much of a difference. 

But how big a performance jump does it offer compared to the PS4 and Xbox One S? And how do these fancy new features actually affect the in-game visuals? I’ve spent the past few weeks with the Series S to find the answers to these questions and determine whether it’s as much of a bargain as Microsoft wants you to believe. So without further ado, let’s get cracking. 

Related: Best Games Console

Xbox Series S – Design and connectivity

The Xbox Series S is staggeringly small, similar in size to a hardback book. This means that finding a home for it in your TV cabinet will be incredibly easy – which, arguably, can’t be said for either the PS5 or Xbox Series X.  

There are four rubber nubs on its underside, and four more on one of its sides, so you can seamlessly switch between horizontal and vertical standing positions. It’s a little irksome that the glow-up Xbox logo on the power button can’t twist around to accommodate a horizontal position, but this is a minor criticism. 

Xbox Series S

Microsoft has focused on practicality over styling, with the white cuboid box displaying a minimalist design. Circular vent holes can be found on both the sides and top of the Xbox, while the Xbox logo has been etched into the top-right corner to provide some sophisticated flair. It’s a gorgeous design, with Microsoft acknowledging that consoles should look stylish but without drawing undue attention in your entertainment setup. 

At the top of the box you’ll notice a big black circle, covered in dozens of tiny holes. This not only differentiates the console from the Xbox One S, but also reminds folk not to block the air vents from where most of the hot air will be expelled.

Xbox Series S

On the front you’ll find a single USB 3.1 port neighbouring a syncing button, which is used to connect Bluetooth peripherals. Turn the console around and there are more ports on the rear, including 1Gbps Ethernet, two USB 3.1, an HDMI 2.1 out and a storage expansion slot. 

The latter provides a way to increase the internal storage of the console via bespoke Seagate SSD drives, which aren’t too dissimilar to the memory cards of old. These may appear to be super-expensive storage expansion solutions, but they’re significantly easier to insert and remove compared to Sony’s approach with the PS5. 

Xbox Series S

The biggest connectivity omission is Wi-Fi 6, which allows for speedier and more stable internet connections with compatible routers. With the required hardware, the PS5 is technically able to download games 30% faster than the next-gen Xbox consoles. It’s a real shame that the Series S lacks this feature, especially since it’s also without a disk drive and is dependent on digital downloads. 

Personally, I believe the Xbox Series S is the best-looking console of the next-gen trio, remaining the most faithful to the classic design. It looks suave, is sufficiently compact to fit in your TV cabinet comfortably, and features all the ports required for a true next-gen experience. What more could you want?

Related: What is WiFi 6?

Xbox Series S Review – Specs and technology 

The Xbox Series S isn’t as powerful as either the PS5 or Xbox Series X, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it is a half-baked next-gen console. The graphical fidelity of which the Series S is capable is outstanding, packing high-end specs you’d normally only find in a £1,000-odd gaming PC. 

This tiny box features the exact same AMD Ryzen Zen 2 CPU as the Series X, with eight cores running at a peak 3.8GHz frequency. One of those cores is dedicated to the operating system, which ensures you can flick through the homescreen and menu settings without any delays or stutters. 

Its GPU is the biggest difference between the Series S and Series X. Both consoles feature custom AMD RDNA 2 GPUs, but the former sees just 4 TFLOPs of performance power compared to the 12 TFLOPs found in the Series X. It’s important to avoid getting caught up with teraflop numbers when judging the performance of any device, but it does emphasise the graphical gulf between these two Xbox consoles. 

Xbox Series X targets a 4K performance at 60fps for AAA games, with the frame rate racing up to a 120fps peak for less demanding titles. Meanwhile, the Xbox Series S targets a 1440p resolution and a maximum 120fps performance. This is still very much a noticeable bump up on 1080p gaming, although you’ll need a compatible display with HDMI 2.1 support to benefit from these visual improvements. 

The bigger issue here is the lack of GPU headroom that developers have to work with. We’ve already seen Devil May Cry 5 cut ray tracing support for the Series S, and there may well be further compromises for other games down the road when compared to the more powerful next-gen consoles. 

Related: Best Xbox Games 

That said, with the Xbox One S featuring only 1.4 TFLOPs of grunt, the Series S still offers a significant performance jump on its predecessor. Optimised games from the back catalogue such as Gears 5 look remarkably better, with the developers able to embrace more advanced shading techniques. 

We’ll only start to see the true potential of the Series S once games arrive that have been built from the ground up for the next-gen hardware, with the likes of Hellblade 2, Halo Infinite and Starfield all promising examples for the future. 

The new RDNA 2 GPU architecture also allows developers to take advantage of a number of next-gen features, with the standout being DirectX Raytracing. This technology allows compatible games to render hyper-realistic lighting, shadow and reflection effects. This is very much a cutting-edge technology, so to see it arrive on a £249 console is phenomenal. 

However, since this tech often causes a significant performance penalty, it may be the case that developers will be hesitant to implement it. So far, the only highly notable Series S games confirmed to support ray tracing include Watch Dogs Legion, Forza Motorsport 8 and Halo Infinite. That’s a pretty poor offering, but it will likely improve significantly over the next year or so. 

The Xbox Series S also features a Custom NVME SSD, which any PC gamer will tell you offers a substantial step up from HDD drives found in previous-generation consoles. Xbox claims this NVME SSD boasts a whopping 40x improvement to the throughput of Xbox One, resulting in significantly shorter load times. The graphics boost may be the most exciting feature, but it’s the new SSD speeds that will probably have the biggest impact for the next-gen consoles. 

Related: AMD Big Navi

The downside here is that NVME SSDs are expensive, so Xbox has provided only 500GB of storage capacity, which is incredibly stingy. To make matter worse, only 364GB is available for game downloads, as the rest is taken up by the system software. Consider that the likes of Gears 5 and Doom Eternal both demand over 50GB of storage space each, and you can see how this console is going to reach max capacity very quickly. 

Cloud game saves at least mean you won’t have to delete your progress when you uninstall a game file, but the hassle of redownloading a game every time you want to play it is still very frustrating. Expanding the storage is basically essential, driving up the cost of the console considerably. 

Xbox Series S Review – Graphics and performance 

That’s enough of the jargon and teraflop numbers. How do games actually look on the Xbox Series S? Unfortunately, Microsoft was only able to provide us with a handful of optimised games ahead of the review embargo, including Gears 5, Gears Tactics and Tetris Connected. 

Gears 5 was comfortably the best example of what the Series S is capable of, with clear visual improvements compared to the Xbox One S. With the added GPU power, The Coalition has been able to hike up the graphics to a higher setting, so the Series S matches the performance of a high-end PC.

Without getting too technical with terminology, The Coalition has implemented more sophisticated techniques to make in-game environments, lighting and character models appear more realistic. As you can see in the photo below, the improved lighting effects result in greater contrast between bright light sources and shadowy corridors, helping to create a far more immersive atmosphere. 

On left: Xbox One S. On right: Xbox Series S

Metal objects, such as the room vents and pipes stretched out across the wall, now appear more reflective. On the One S, these objects look like they’re made of plastic. 

Improved textures will also help to add more photo-realism, both for character models and various objects that make up your surroundings. This is shown with the rubble on the left-hand side in the photos below. 

On left: Xbox One S. On right: Xbox Series S

The extra GPU grunt also allows developers to improve the detail of far-away objects, helping a mountain landscape or distant characters appear more pronounced, for example.

There are countless other enhancements to get excited about, too, with the photos below showing the Series S to be capable of displaying more vivid colours and finer detail. 

On left: Xbox One S. On right: Xbox Series S

Although not clear in the photos, the 1440p resolution also makes images sharper, making the less pixelated 1080p version on One S appear fuzzy by comparison. However, unless you have a Quad HD gaming monitor or a 4K TV you’ll likely be limited to Full HD visuals and so won’t benefit from this upgrade. 

The added power of the Series S also allows you to play Gears 5 at 60fps, which is a noticeable improvement on the 30fps Xbox One S performance. This upgrade ensures smooth motion when aiming your gun or charging into battle. The Coalition has enabled up to 120fps for the multiplayer for even smoother visuals, although you’ll need a pretty expensive TV with HDMI 2.1 support (or a gaming monitor) to see the difference beyond 60fps. 

You’ll notice significant performance improvements for racing games in this regard too, with fluid motion when drifting around a tight corner at lightning speeds. More slow-paced games such as Sea of Thieves and Minecraft won’t see much of a benefit from the variable refresh rate support, but it’s still nice to have the option. 

Gears 5 looks wonderful now, and yet this is really just an optimised update rather than a complete remake. You can expect games that are designed specifically for the next generation of consoles to look even better, although it will unfortunately take time for such titles to be released. With the delay of Halo Infinite, Xbox’s first-party launch lineup pales in comparison to the PS5’s games such as Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls.

That said, Microsoft has done a stellar job of ensuring its entire back catalogue of games (excluding those that require Kinect) across Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One all work on the Series S. Certain games that have been optimised for Series S and X (such as Gears 5) offer the greatest visual improvements, but other titles that lack the next-gen updates have still seemingly benefited too. Colours appeared more vivid in Doom Eternal, for example, giving more justice to the energy plasma beams that barbeque the onslaught of demons. 

The majority of games I’ve tested benefit from the ultra-speedy NVME SSD, too, with loading times plummeting to such an extent that I’ve now hardly got time to unlock my smartphone before the Series S loads into massive open-world games. 

I measured how many seconds it took for the Series S to load up various games from the main menu, and then compared the results to the Series X, One X and One S consoles. Drive speeds can be affected by many variables, such as the amount of data being stored, so although you may not see these exact figures with your own consoles, they nevertheless provide a very good idea of how these consoles compare. 

Xbox Series S

The Series S absolutely trounced the Xbox One S in our tests, taking less than 15 seconds to load Gears 5, Doom Eternal and The Witcher 3. Even Final Fantasy XV took only 17 seconds to load; it took a lengthy 1 minutes and 23 seconds to do the same on the Xbox One S. These rapid SSD speeds don’t only make respawns more seamless, but also allow developers to create more densely detailed environments for future games. 

Our tests indicate that the Series X was marginally faster than the cheaper Series S Xbox when loading games, but usually only by a couple of seconds. Once again, this emphasises the point that the Series S is offering a proper next-gen experience, minus the 4K performance for gaming. 

Despite packing so much power, the Xbox Series S remained silent throughout testing, whether I was gunning down aliens in Gears 5 or building up my garden in Viva Pinata. I have noticed that the top air vent generates a lot of hot air when playing extraneous games. This is hardly an issue, with all high-end gaming hardware generating heat these days. Nevertheless, you’ll need to ensure the vent has plenty of airflow to prevent issues further down the line. 

Related: Best Xbox Series X games

Xbox Series S – User Experience 

Microsoft hasn’t made many alterations to the Xbox’s user interface. The more powerful CPU has at least made darting between the online Xbox Store and system settings a more seamless experience – but, otherwise, everything will be very familiar for those who’ve previously owned an Xbox One S or X. 

Games, apps and the Xbox Games Pass library each have their own assigned row, so it’s incredibly easy to locate what you’re looking for. Your Xbox game library can also be filtered between generations, so you can easily locate your Xbox 360 games amidst your huge collection of Xbox One titles. 

Those titles that offer optimisation support for Series S and X are clearly indicated, with games such as Gears 5 and Gears Tactics displaying the S/X symbol.

Xbox Series X

Credit: Xbox

One of the best new features for the Series S is Quick Resume. The next-gen SSD drive enables the console to store up to six games on a cache simultaneously, allowing you to open them up from a suspended state and returning you to exactly where you left off. This avoids the need for loading up menus every time you swap between various games, allowing me to wait just 7 seconds to ditch Doom Eternal and start playing Gears 5. 

I’m also impressed at how easy it is to transfer all of your games and save data to the Series S. Xbox automatically saves all of your saved data to the cloud, so as long as you have an internet connection, the console should load up all your save files without issue. Every digital game you previously purchased on the Xbox One S/X should pop up in your game collection, too, simply requiring a download to install it on your Series S. 

While gaming is clearly the focus, the Xbox Series S also has a string of video playback apps to make it a fantastic multimedia device. Netflix, Disney Plus and Prime Video are all included, and while there are some noticeable omissions for UK-based viewers such as Now TV, Sky Go and BritBox, I’m confident they’ll arrive on the platform at a later date. 

The Xbox Series S is capable of up to 8K resolutions for video streaming apps. While every major app currently lacks support for this video quality, it’s still very welcome that this mini box is future-proofed for the foreseeable. For now, the Series S can handle 4K content with aplomb. In addition, support for HDR, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos ensure that the Series S is more than capable of being the focus point of your home cinema setup. 

Unfortunately, the lack of disk drive means the Series S won’t be able to play your collection of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. If that’s an essential requirement then you’re better off opting for the PS5 or Xbox Series X instead. I reckon the large majority will be content with streaming apps, though. 

Should you buy the Xbox Series S?

The Xbox Series S is a marvel of a games console, packing a number of high-end features – previously only found in a high-end gaming PC – inside an astonishingly tiny box. 

The next-gen optimisations to games such as Gears 5 provide an enormous visual upgrade compared to the capabilities of the Xbox One S, even if you’re still limited to a 1080p and 60Hz television. We’re still waiting on additional optimisations, but Xbox has promised upgrades for Fortnite, Forza Horizon 4 and Ori and the Will of the Wisps and many more. 

Sure, the graphics upgrade may seem comparatively minor compared to previous generational console leaps, but the introduction of the lighting-fast SSDs, variable refresh rates and DirectX Raytracing technology all combine to deliver a true next-gen experience, promising an exciting future for games such as Halo Infinite, Hellblade 2, and a horde of upcoming Bethesda titles.

The PS5 and Xbox Series X do of course flaunt greater graphical power, but you’ll only reap the rewards of these performance advantages if you own a 4K TV with a variable refresh rate. If you’re not yet planning to upgrade your 1080p television, the Xbox Series S is the absolute best option for the next generation of consoles. Paired with a Games Pass subscription, it would also make a fantastic value Christmas pressie for your children, or even a secondary console for the bedroom. 

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