Xbox Series S Review: A compact console for the budget conscious
Despite probably being judged as one of the worst years of the decade, 2020 couldn’t have been a better year for gamers. Apart from new PC gaming hardware from Sony, NVIDIA, and AMD, Microsoft’s newest generation of gaming consoles, the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S, are also here. The Xbox Series X is the most powerful Xbox ever, while the younger sibling, the Xbox Series S, focuses on democratizing the gaming experience rather than just packing in brute power.
The Xbox Series X was first leaked back in early 2019, and Microsoft officially confirmed that it is working on a new console during E3 2019. During that time Microsoft had given it the codename “Project Scarlett,” while its final name and design as Xbox Series X was confirmed in December. Nobody was really expecting a version lower than the Xbox Series X until August 2020, when there was a strong rumor for the Xbox Series S which was quickly followed by a confirmation by the company in September 2020. Both the consoles were officially released on November 10 and are now available for purchase globally.
There has been a huge demand for chipsets this year, especially since a lot of major tech companies have moved to the 7nm architecture. There were also rumors that TSMC, which is one of the biggest suppliers of chipsets for big names including AMD, Apple, and Qualcomm, is “struggling to meet this demand for 7nm chips.” Hence, stocks for GPUs, as well as gaming consoles, have been limited around the world. In short, if you’ve managed to get your hands on one, consider yourself lucky.
Having said that, Microsoft sent us over one, and here’s our review of the Xbox Series S.
|Features||Xbox Series S|
|CPU||AMD Ryzen Zen 2 Octa-core at 3.6GHz (3.4GHz with multi-threading)|
|GPU||1.565GHz clock speed, 20 compute units, 4 TFLOPs|
|Internal storage||512GB SSD|
|Storage expansion||1TB expansion card|
|External storage||USB 3.1 external HDD support|
|Optical drive||Not available|
|Resolution support||1440p at 120Hz refresh rate, upscaling up to 4K 60Hz refresh rate|
|Dimensions||275mm x 151mm x 65mm|
About this review: Microsoft sent us the Xbox Series S for review. This review has been written after about 25 days of regular use. Microsoft had no input into the contents of this article.
While the Xbox Series X goes for a completely new monolithic tower design, the Xbox Series S is basically a slimmed-down version of the Xbox One S. It continues to have a white and black color scheme, and that round grill that looks like a speaker is a vent to exhaust all the hot air. If you compare the Xbox One S with the Series S side by side, you would know that the previous-gen model had a similar vent but with a different finish on top. Overall, the Xbox Series S is quite compact. I was actually quite surprised at the size when I unboxed it. No wonder Microsoft calls it the smallest Xbox they have ever made.
You can keep the console horizontally, or just make it stand tall as there are rubber feet on both sides. Of course, you need to make sure that you are not blocking the round exhaust vent. I absolutely love the minimalistic design on the Xbox Series S. Not that the larger Series X looks bad, but there’s something about clean aesthetics that just makes me want to own one for myself.
At the front, you get a single USB Type-A port, and a controller sync button on the left while the discrete power button is on the right, which has a white LED underneath. The top and bottom of the console have round perforations for improved airflow and at the back, you get all the ports. The port selection is similar to the Series X including two USB Type-A ports, an HDMI 2.1 out port, an ethernet port, a storage expansion slot, a Kensington lock port, and the standard dual-pin power port. You don’t get an HDMI input this time so you cannot hook it up with an external device like a TV box.
Unlike the PlayStation 5, which looks like a futuristic spaceship of sorts, the Xbox Series S is a subtle yet classy looking machine. There is a bit of retro and modern design language packed into a tiny package, which in my opinion makes it the best-looking console this year.
Xbox Wireless Controller
Along with the console, you get the new Xbox wireless controller, which looks similar to the last generation, but with very minor changes. The Xbox Series S Controller gets a white finish, unlike the black one that you get with the Series X. The top part of the controller has a smooth finish while the bottom part, including the grips, has a textured finish. The shoulder triggers also get the textured finish, and honestly, I like how it brings a comfortable grip and feel. The D-pad is now ‘hybrid’ having a more circular design that feels more ergonomic and should offer accurate inputs even for diagonals. There is also a new share button right in the middle that allows you to take screen-grabs in a jiffy.
This controller is backward compatible, meaning that it can be used with the older Xbox One consoles. Similarly, you can use the existing Xbox wireless controller with the new Xbox Series S or the Series X, as it’s forward compatible. You still get AA batteries with the new controller, which can be both a pro and a con, and a USB Type-C port for wired connections. There is the option to swap out the batteries for a rechargeable pack just like the last-gen controller, which essentially means an additional cost of about $25 (₹ 1,818).
Microsoft claims that there has been some improvement in terms of latency as it now uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Dynamic Latency Input (DLI). Overall, there isn’t any significant difference as it mostly works and feels the same, which is not bad news as the existing controller was pretty good on its own. While I personally prefer the keyboard and mouse combo over a controller, I actually had fun using the controller on the Xbox Series S. I did not notice any sort of lag, and it instantly connects to the console as soon as you power it on.
The Xbox Series S comes with a custom octa-core processor made by AMD based on its Zen 2 architecture. It is clocked at 3.6GHz and with multi-threading, it can go up to 3.4GHz. It comes with 10GB of DDR6 memory while the graphics are handled by AMD’s RDNA2 GPU capable of 4-teraflops performance making use of 20 compute units at 1.565GHz. For storage, there is a 512GB NVMe SSD out of which only ~364GB is actually available for the user. The console does come with a proprietary storage expansion slot, and extra storage is going to be a must if you are going to invest or already have a large library of games from your previous generation Xbox console. Of course, you also get support for external hard drives and SSD, but at the cost of relatively slower speeds.
While these specs are a big jump over the Xbox One S, the Xbox Series X dominates them all, specifically in the graphics department. Microsoft promises 4K gaming with up to 120fps on the Series X that can be pushed up to 8K resolution at lower frame rates. The Xbox Series S on the other hand is optimized for 2K (1440p) gaming at up to 120fps but can offer dynamic resolution going up to 4K. Thankfully, there are some well-appreciated features that are common to both the consoles including ray tracing, support for Quick Resume, HDR as well as variable refresh rates (VRR). Both the consoles also offer similar audio features including support for DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby TrueHD with Atmos, and Windows Sonic.
Setup and User interface
Setting up the Xbox Series S is a pretty simple process. Connect the power cord to the console and hook it up with your TV or monitor using the bundled HDMI cable. Next, press the power button on both the console and controller, and do make sure that you put the AA batteries in the controller. You will then be guided to download the Xbox app on your smartphone. The setup is pretty simple and straightforward there onwards. You can also download your older previous-gen games optimized for the Series X/S if you’ve previously owned an Xbox device.
Once you are done, you should see the Xbox home screen which should look familiar if you have owned or used any of the Xbox One consoles. It has a tiled interface that can be personalized using either color of your choice, a custom wallpaper, or the inbuilt dynamic wallpapers that were recently added with the latest November update. So yeah, make sure you download the latest update as well.
Another bit of advice, head over to the Settings and configure your TV/monitor settings to get the best experience. As in my case, I primarily used the console on my LG Ultragear GL650F 27-inch IPS monitor that comes with 1080p resolution, HDR10, and 144Hz refresh rate. As per the console’s configuration, I could run upscaled 4K at 60Hz or 1440p at 120Hz. This was possible thanks to the support for variable refresh rate on the console as well as the monitor.
The UI is easy to use and as you scroll down, you will see different sections including your most recent activity in the first row, followed by a dedicated row for My games and apps (all your downloaded games and app), while the third row includes Game Pass. You also get tiles for the Microsoft Store, Entertainment, Events, Microsoft Rewards, and so on. The Guide or the in-game overlay menu has been revamped and now offers improved sections and tabs that can be personalized as well depending on your usage.
We already know that the Xbox Series S is not as powerful as its elder sibling. But what kind of capabilities do you get out of the $299 console? Well, if you are only going to be hooked on next-gen games, then you might need to lower your expectations by a small bit. Microsoft does push its Smart Delivery feature, that ensures you always play the best version of the games you own for your console, across generations. However, this is going to depend on the console that you use. For instance, with its latest update that was released last month, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla includes new toggles for ‘Performance’ and ‘Quality’ modes. The Series S has the option of setting the Quality mode enables the game to run maximum resolution and graphic settings at 30fps. You can however get higher frame rates if you lower the resolution to 1080p, which wasn’t a huge deal for me since I was using the Series S with my 27-inch gaming monitor. On a 4K TV though, it did not look very impressive as one could easily tell the difference in quality. Though, the same game should run easily at 4K 60fps on the Xbox Series X with the Performance mode enabled.
A handful of Xbox One and previous-gen games do look impressive thanks to the various optimizations available on the Xbox Series S. For instance Gear 5 can run at 4K 60fps, and it actually felt really good in terms of graphics and texture quality. With the latest update, Microsoft has also added a feature where the game will show you a tag that denotes whether the game has been optimized for the new Xbox consoles. You can also check if the game supports HDR, which brings a massive improvement in terms of colors and contrast.
In short, expect a sort of mixed experience when it comes to actually gaming on the Xbox Series S. While you can play almost every single next-gen title on this console, you will not be able to experience them at their highest quality. A bunch of previous-gen games now look much better and run efficiently, so that plays out to the benefit of the Xbox Series S.
I do however appreciate how Microsoft has introduced some well-needed features. The most important one is Microsoft’s new Velocity Architecture. By utilizing the new custom NVMe SSD along with Hardware Accelerated Decompression, DirectStorage API, and Sampler Feedback Streaming, the Xbox Series S doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Not only are the game load times much shorter, but the console itself boots up rather quickly. I was able to cold boot the Series S in about 20-22 seconds while powering on the console from standby mode hardly takes 4-5 seconds.
There was never an instance where I had to wait and think, “this is taking too much time.” The DirectStorage API and Sampler Feedback Streaming help in taking off the load from the CPU and improves the GPU usage by only rendering certain parts of the game assets instead of loading everything. Additionally, the use of an SSD has also enabled Microsoft to introduce the Quick Resume feature. Basically, this allows you to switch or resume playing a gaming title (almost) instantly where you left off, without having to load the entire game again. I was able to switch between 4-5 games at a single point in time, which in itself is a great achievement. The Series S manages to achieve all of this without being too loud. I was not able to hear the cooling fan at all even after playing games for a full hour. Yes, the exhaust vent does get warm, but it was pretty evident that the thermals on the console are in fact implemented well.
Game Pass and Apps
This was said to be a big weak point, especially when compared to Sony’s PlayStation 5, but the new Xbox consoles don’t come with any solid first-party gaming titles. Microsoft had only mentioned Halo Infinite, which is delayed, for now, leaving the new set of consoles with a clear disadvantage going against the Playstation 5. Microsoft’s Ace card is, however, the high and mighty Game Pass subscription. It gives you access to over 200 games that you can download and play on your console for a monthly fee of $10. This includes titles for the Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox. There is also the Game Pass Ultimate that additionally offers Xbox Live Gold, Xbox Game Pass for PC, EA Play, and access to Xbox’s Cloud Gaming service. The subscription lets you download and play any and all of these games as long as your subscription is active.
I believe that Game Pass Ultimate is a must, especially for owners of the Series S. Since there is no optical drive on this machine, you cannot purchase pre-owned games for cheap, meaning that you will largely be restricted to buying games as new and for their full sale value. Enjoying games then becomes a bit of a cost problem. Game Pass Ultimate remedies some of this, by increasing the number of games at your disposal at a fraction of the price of owning all of them, albeit as a recurring subscription. The titles within also get refreshed from time to time, so you do get fresh content too.
The Xbox Games Pass Ultimate is priced at $15 which is actually not a bad deal as you get access to a wide library of games without spending on each and every one of them. Of course, you need to be mindful of the fact that Microsoft adds and removes certain titles from time to time. Also, the internal storage on the Xbox Series S is just enough for 6-8 gaming titles, and on top of that, not every single game is going to be optimized.
When you are not gaming, you can use the Xbox Series S as your personal home media entertainment device. You get a wide variety of apps including Netflix Disney Plus, YouTube, YouTube TV, HBO Max, Apple TV, Spotify, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Twitch, and many more. Additionally, some of these apps will also support Dolby Atmos and take advantage of the HDR and Dolby Vision capabilities.
Backward compatibility on the Xbox Series S
Microsoft had announced that the Xbox Series X and the Series S would both offer backward compatibility with older-gen titles. One can expect as far as the original 2001 Xbox games as well as the Xbox 360, to run at an enhanced resolution. While the company had claimed that the Series S does have the capability to upscale a game to 1440p resolution with some performance benefits, it will solely depend on the developers to update their respective games. As for Xbox One titles, the Series X can benefit from Xbox One X enhancements while the Series S can capitalize on the performance of the Xbox One S titles. This means that the new console will offer increased resolution in games that use dynamic resolution scaling, alongside improvements in texture filtering quality. With features like Auto HDR and ray tracing, most of your older supported games will offer an enhanced visual experience, even if they don’t natively support high dynamic range. Additionally, the Series S will be able to run select Xbox One titles at double the frame-rate. You can check out the entire list of backward compatible games over here.
Xbox Series S: Verdict
We’re going to be frank: the Xbox Series S is not meant for someone who wants the highest gaming performance with the best graphics at 4K resolution, and Microsoft has another product in store for people that chase this goal. The Xbox Series S makes sense only if you are a gaming enthusiast who wants to experience the latest gaming titles and all your streaming services in a neat and sleek-looking package. There are two primary issues with the Series S – the 512GB SSD and limited performance for next-gen games. You can tackle the first issue by investing in a $220 storage expansion card or maybe an external SSD, but that seems pointless as you can just pay $200 extra and get the Xbox Series X, which will basically solve both of the above-mentioned problems. There is no optical drive on the Series S too, but for someone like me who doesn’t indulge in physical copies at all, it hasn’t been a huge issue. There’s no going around the limitations in performance, other than by opting for the bigger and better console.
It might seem like the Xbox Series S is not worthy of your money. However, at $299 as its retail price, the Series S is basically the perfect console for new and younger gamers, or for someone who doesn’t have or want to spend extra on a 4K television, or maybe someone who just has a very tight budget. It doesn’t natively support 4K resolution, but it does include some of the features that are available on the more expensive Series X including upscaling capabilities along with faster game load times via the NVMe SSD. There are also a bunch of software implementations that the Series S borrows from its elder sibling including enhanced ray tracing, HDR, and various other optimizations that make the overall experience worthy, if not the best in this world. There is clear room for improvement, and Microsoft does not hide that as these form the selling points for the Series X, but even then, the gaming experience is enjoyable. Just keep your expectations grounded and get pleasantly surprised. Also, one should not forget, that the PlayStation 5 also comes in a non-optical drive or Digital Edition which is just about $100 more than the Xbox Series S. But unlike the cheaper Xbox console, the PS5 Digital Edition does not compromise on hardware and is as powerful as the regular version that comes with an optical drive. Of course, getting your hands on the new PlayStation 5 is as difficult as the new Xbox consoles.
There’s another problem, one that affects all of the new gaming hardware that has come out in the past few months. If you actually want to go and buy the Xbox Series S, chances are that you will not find it that easily. The few stores that do have the console in stock, seem to be selling it at an inflated price going up to $500-$600. In my opinion, you shouldn’t be paying that kind of money, especially for the less powerful Series S. My advice is to hold on and wait for it to restock on websites like Best Buy that are actually selling the console at its listed price of $299. For that price, the Xbox Series S makes sense for gamers who are just about getting started in their gaming journey.