Xbox Series S Review

Posted on November 5, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Xbox Series S with 18 Comments

The Xbox Series S hits the sweet spot of price, performance, and spousal approval with a small and cute form factor that looks at home anywhere. This isn’t a beast of a console like the Xbox Series X, of course, but the Series S is perhaps the first Xbox console that makes sense as a living room media device, adding to its versatility. Assuming, that is, that you don’t need an optical drive.

Design

Where the Xbox Series X looks muscular and imposing, the Xbox Series S provides a cuter and less assuming presence that should look great anywhere in the house and not draw disapproving looks from spouses or other non-gamers. It’s very reminiscent of the Xbox One S—which, as you may recall, I once referred to as “the perfect thing”—but is much smaller and, if anything, even more attractive, thanks in part to its distinctive, circular, black exhaust fan.

The Xbox Series S can be placed vertically or horizontally, but unlike its larger sibling, I think it looks better in the horizontal position, and it can thus be more easily integrated into a stereo cabinet or shelf. It’s also a lot more stable that way: I’ve been testing it in the portrait orientation in my office, where it sits on the floor, but it would be very easy to knock over because it’s so thing. I’ll be moving it into the living room, and laying it down, once this review is up.

Core components

Microsoft is targeting two different performance profiles with its Xbox Series X and S consoles. Games played on the brawnier Xbox Series X should generally hit 4K resolution at 60 frames-per-second (fps), while games played on the Xbox Series S should generally hit 1440p resolution at 60 fps. Furthermore, the Series S will not display any game at 4K at any framerate, though media—through apps like Netflix and Apple TV—can, of course, display at 4K.

As such, the Xbox Series S has less powerful innards than its sibling: A custom 7 nanometer (nm) AMD Zen 2 processor with 8 cores that run at 3.6 GHz—or at 3.4 GHz when all 8 are used simultaneously—a custom RDNA 2 graphics processing unit (GPU) with 20 compute units (CUs) that runs at 1.565 GHz and delivers 4 teraflops of performance, 10 GB of GDDR6 RAM, and a custom 512 GB NVME SSD.

Great. But what does that all mean?

I guess there are different ways to compare the specs with those of the Series X, but the high-level overview is that the Series S has a slightly less powerful processor, less RAM, and half the storage, and it delivers about 40 percent of the graphics performance. In day-to-day gaming with current-generation (non-optimized) titles, however, I don’t notice much difference, and I’ve move back and forth between the two regularly. That will change dramatically as games are optimized, however.

Compared to the Xbox One series of consoles, the Series S is significantly more powerful than the Xbox One S, but it trails the Xbox One X from a performance perspective. As noted, the overall gaming experience is, to my eyes, nearly indistinguishable from that of the Xbox One X, at least with current-generation titles. Helping bolster this opinion, both the Xbox Series S and Xbox One X provide variable refresh rates and are optimized for 1440p gaming at 60 fps. But the Series S can hit 120 fps, usually at lower resolutions, in some titles. And the Xbox One X can deliver 4K graphics, but usually at lower (think ~30 fps) framerates. The Series S is cannot output games at a higher resolution at all.

Confused? Welcome to the club. But I think it’s fair to say that as we move forward, new games will work on Xbox One but they’ll be specifically optimized for the Series S and Series X. Over time, these consoles will simply become the targets for developers, and they will fill their intended performance/capabilities roles accordingly.

That is, games will always look and play better on the Series X. But Series S brings something interesting to the table that gamers, in particular, should appreciate: Yes, the resolutions it outputs will be lower, but it should be able to achieve excellent frame rates at those lower resolutions, and when you consider how small and light the Xbox Series S is—seriously, it weighs just 4.25 pounds—it makes for an interesting candidate for LAN parties.

And the Xbox Series S also delivers on the same silence and even better coolness than we see with its bigger sibling. It never really gets that warm, let alone hot, and I’ve never once heard the fan. That’s fantastic.

Ports and expansion

Like the Xbox Series X, the Xbox Series S provides a reasonable collection of modern ports and expansion capabilities. There’s a single HDMI 2.1 port, three full-sized USB 3.1 ports (one on the front, two on the back), and a storage expansion slot.

And that storage expansion capability will be even more necessary on the Xbox Series S than it is on its bigger sibling because the Series S only comes with half the storage. It’s not clear yet what the relative sizes of games optimized for Series S are compared to those optimized for Series X, but they will be smaller. I’m guessing they won’t be half as small. And with many games exceeding 100 GB of storage, you’re going to run out of space pretty quickly: The Xbox Series S boots up the first time with just 364 GB of available storage space.

As with the Xbox Series X, you can solve this problem by purchasing a 1 TB Storage Expansion Card that matches the performance of the internal custom SSD, but at a heady cost of $220. Or you can use USB 3.0-based storage, but not for Xbox Series S-optimized games: This storage can only be used for OG Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games. Hopefully Storage Expansion Card prices come down and capacity choices to go up over time.

Connectivity

The Xbox Series S includes dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, but not the faster and more efficient Wi-Fi 6, which is curious, plus 1 Gbps Ethernet. There’s also a dedicated dual-band Xbox Wireless radio for controller connectivity.

Power management

As is the case with Xbox Series X, Microsoft has dramatically improved power management when compared to previous generation Xbox consoles. It also supports both Instant On mode and Energy-saving modes, and they each work identically—and as quickly—as they do on Xbox Series X. Impressive stuff.

Audio and video

The Xbox Series S supports 720p, 1080p, 1440p, and 4K/UHD displays with HDR10, Auto HDR, and Dolby Vision capabilities, and variable refresh rates, and it can output at 24, 50, 60, or 120 Hz, the latter of which is required for game frame rates above 60 fps. That said, it can output at 4K only for video content (and presumably the Dashboard UI), as games are limited to 1440p.

The Xbox Series S auto-detects the capabilities of your display—mine is 4K with variable refresh rates up to 60 Hz with HDR10 for gaming, but without Dolby Vision capabilities—but you can also calibrate the console to your display, HDR for games, video fidelity, and even the color space manually, as is the case with Xbox Series X. It also supports HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) so you can control the power and volume of a compatible 4K TV and/or receiver with the Xbox Wireless Controller.

From an audio perspective, the Series S supports the same uncompressed stereo, and uncompressed 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound, plus uncompressed stereo, Windows Sonic, Dolby Atmos, and DTS for headphones as does the Series X. My display has stereo speakers, but they’re terrible, so I’ve been using headphones with Windows Sonic instead.

What’s missing is the 4K/UHD Blu-Ray drive that’s included with the Series X. This was obviously a cost-saving (and space-saving) gesture, but it means that Series S owners can’t install disc-based games, which could be problematic if your older Backwards Compatible titles are only on disc. It also can’t play Blu-Ray or DVD video content, of course.

Software experience

The Xbox Series S software experience is identical to that of Xbox Series X and previous generation Xbox One console, which is both good and bad. In the good news department, everything happens as quickly on Series S as they do on Series X, and that level of performance in the UI is a game-changer for anyone who has put up with the poor performance of the Xbox One Dashboard.

Gameplay

As with Xbox Series X, the Xbox Series S uses its so-called Velocity Architecture to deliver much faster game load times and the Quick Resume feature that lets you quickly resume recently launched games, providing even faster initial load times.

I haven’t been able to play any games that are specifically optimized for Xbox Series S yet, so my impressions of that experience vs. that of games that are optimized for Series X will need to wait. But I have played a lot of (the non-optimized) Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, and given my wealth of experience with this title across three different consoles now, I can state reliably that it looks and plays just as well on the Series S as it does on the Series X and Xbox One X. I have literally never detected any difference between the three.

That’s not a lot to go on, I know. But I’ll have more on Xbox Series S gaming soon.

Controller

The Xbox Series S ships with a white version of the new Xbox Wireless Controller, which I described previously as a subtle evolution of the previous-generation Xbox One Wireless Controller. Compared to its predecessors, it has a few Xbox Elite controller-inspired upgrades, including a refined d-pad that I really like, grippier handles, and slightly grippier bumpers and triggers, plus a new latency-reducing technology.

It also has the new Share button I described at length in my Xbox Series X review, with the same capabilities and the same customizations possibilities. I love the new controller. It feels great in my hands, with a grippier texture than previous Xbox One controllers, and has that familiar and superior Xbox button layout.

Pricing and availability

There is only one Xbox Series S configuration and it costs $299 here in the United States. I think that’s a tremendous value, and its low price should make it the volume leader for this generation of Xbox consoles over time.

The problem, of course, is that Xbox Series X|S preorders sold out in about 30 minutes last month, and both consoles should be in short supply through the holiday season. So you may have trouble getting one in the short term.

Recommendations and conclusions

With its cute looks and terrific value, the Xbox Series S could be a no-brainer for more casual gamers looking for a single living room solution that can do it all. Assuming that by “do it all” you don’t need 4K gaming. And that fact puts the Series S in a weird position: It’s a next-generation gaming console, sure, but not entirely.

As to the obvious upgrade question, if you’re currently making do with an OG Xbox One or Xbox One S, the Series S is a solid upgrade. But the Series X is an even better upgrade, because it’s more powerful and more future-proof. And if you don’t mind financing the purchase over two years (with no interest) through Xbox All Access, the Xbox Series X gets even more appealing because the difference in cost each month between the two consoles is just $10.

Put simply, if you’re a diehard Xbox fan, you’re going to want the Xbox Series X. But the Xbox Series S will play an outsized role in the success of this generation of consoles, I bet, and is a neat compromise for those who don’t need the ultimate in resolution and framerates.

The Xbox Series S is highly recommended, assuming you understand and can live with its graphical and storage limitations.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Small and fun form factor
  • Inexpensive/tremendous value
  • Top-rate controller with excellent sharing functionality

Cons

  • Less performance than the Xbox Series X
  • No support for 4K games
  • Limited storage
  • No optical drive
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