If you want a next-gen console but don't want to pay next gen prices, then the Xbox Series S is Microsoft's answer to your prayers. The Xbox Series X might be the cutting edge, but the cheaper Series S is an affordable powerhouse in its own right.
The Xbox Series S positions itself as best video games console for people who want to get into the Xbox Game Pass ecosystem. A digital only and - crucially - affordable system that really sings when paired alongside a subscription to the service, giving you access to a library of hundreds of games spanning the entire Xbox history. It also acts as an entry point into the new generation, albeit with a few caveats.
The Series S is, as you'd expect, a less powerful machine than the Series X, with a goal of being able to run all modern games only with a target resolution of 1080p (although it can do 1440p and even 4K, on a game to game basis) instead of native 4K. If you want the full 4K experience then this isn’t the console for you, but if you have a 1080p screen then you can save a whole $200 and still be able to keep up with the latest releases.
Unfortunately, the releases are where Microsoft are currently lacking. Although there’s plenty of brilliant stuff available on Game Pass, we’re almost a year into the generation and we’re still waiting for that truly top tier elite level title. Sure, there’s plenty of great looking games already available, and Halo Infinite is dropping this Holiday, but for now there’s nothing that holds a candle to the PS5’s Demon’s Souls Remastered or Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart.
Despite this, the Series S is a wonderful games console that actually has a lower MSRP than some versions of the Xbox One and is the perfect machine to pair with a Game Pass subscription, which is only going to go strength to strength over the coming years.
Xbox Series S review: Price and availability
- $299 MSRP.
- Sold out almost everywhere.
- Xbox All Access offers a cell plan style payment option.
Designed to be an affordable entry level point to the new generation of hardware, the Series S retails at a surprisingly low $299. It should also be of no surprise that, at that price, it doesn’t stay in stock long when it does appear to be available for purchase.
Despite the constant struggle with stock levels that seems to define this generation so far, the Series S does appear to pop up a touch more often than the Series X, so if you stay vigilant you should be able to get one with perseverance.
Should you wish to spread the cost, you can pick up a Series S on their All Access plan, which is $24.99 a month for 24 months and includes Game Pass Ultimate as part of this.
While the Series S is pitched as being an affordable unit, Game Pass is where the real value comes in, so being able to get the hardware and subscription as an all-in monthly sum is quite a tempting offer. It represents some considerable value over the course of the contract period - actually coming in at slightly less than buying the console outright and buying the equivalent period of Game Pass Ultimate.
Xbox Series S review: Hardware
- Surprisingly powerful.
- A tidy, tiny and silent box.
- SSD means extremely quick load times.
Compared with the Xbox Series X, there have been some considerable reductions in terms of power in order for the Series S to hit that $299 price point. Although both consoles have the custom AMD Zen 2 eight-core processor, the Series S has a 3.6GHz CPU compared to the Series X’s 3.8GHz. It has 10GB of GDDR6 RAM to the Xbox Series X’s 16GB and, in the most considerable difference of the lot, a 4 TFLOPS GPU stacked up against the frankly monstrous 12 TFLOPS GPU powering the Series X.
So, what does that mean when stacking up next generation titles against each other? For the most part, you’re looking at a considerable resolution drop off. The Series S targets 1440P as a maximum resolution and, while it can technically handle 120FPS on some specific titles, you’re realistically looking at either 1440p/30FPS or 1080p/60FPS for most games.
Although it is still early days, only a few developers have managed to include ray tracing on the Series S, albeit usually at 30FPS. Considering the significant price differences between the two units, this all seems like a fair compromise and, if you tailor your expectations going in, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well the Series S manages to keep up with its much more powerful sister unit. it's also perfect for users who haven't upgraded to a 4K TV yet too.
Of course, it isn’t just raw power that this new generation is banking on. The Series S also includes a 512GB SSD which means that all of the features such as extremely fast load times and Microsoft’s ‘Quick Resume’ feature are all intact and go quite a long way to making the Series S feel like a real step forward from the Xbox One. Across the board, there’s far less waiting around and much more actually playing, which is always a good thing. The 512GB SSD is, however, half the size of the Series X’s SSD and with some games, like Call of Duty Warzone, being well over 100GB, it can quickly fill up. It is possible to buy an officially licensed 1TB Seagate Storage Expansion Card but with that product being $219, it pretty much defeats the point of the considerable saving you’re making with the Series S to begin with.
The Xbox Series S is a really slick looking machine. The smallest console Microsoft have ever produced, it is a tiny, clean design that is around half the size of most of the last generation machines. The black circle on the top which acts as ventilation is a really tidy design choice and gives what would otherwise be a simplistic while rectangle a bit of character. It’s also almost completely silent even when handling a game with very intensive requirements, largely down to the lack of moving parts - no traditional hard drive or disc tray. Considering that the last generation machines could get to the point where they were louder than your TV when playing some games, this is a big positive.
Unsurprisingly, the controller hasn’t changed much. There’s a little bit of additional grip on the underside of the pad, a much improved d-pad and a new share button, which makes taking screenshots and video of your gameplay a much smoother process than before.
Xbox Series S review: User interface
- Interface is identical to the last generation consoles.
- Quick Resume is a revelation.
- If it ain’t broke…
When you first fire up your Series S, you might feel a little disappointed to be greeted with the same user interface that you’ve been using for years on your Xbox One. It takes a bit of the shine off the ‘new toy’ feel that is, if we’re being honest, a big part of getting a brand new games console.
It is an important part of Microsoft’s new strategy though, as it blurs the line between generations and provide a continuity of service as you move onto their new hardware and, crucially, it is a UI that has been refined for an entire console generation now. It’s slick and it works extremely well - there’s no teething problems because they were ironed out years ago - unlike some of the UI issues seen with the PlayStation 5 during the past few months. It feels quick and responsive and everything is where you’d expect it to be.
One of Microsoft’s strongest new features is Quick Resume, which has recently received a small but really important quality of life update in the UI. Quick Resume itself essentially allows you to return to the dashboard when playing a game, boot up anything else and then, when you return to the game it will resume from exactly where you were, paused and ready for you to jump straight back in. Now, from the dashboard overlay you can see which games are currently suspended in a Quick Resume state, making jumping back and forth between titles even easier than it already was. It feels futuristic and goes a long way to making up for the initial disappointment you feel from the familiar UI.
Xbox Series S review: Games
- STILL no essential next gen AAA exclusive.
- A spread of third party titles that spans generations.
- Xbox Game Pass remains an unrivaled deal in terms of value.
We’re months into the lifespan of the Series S and X now and there’s still no one game that you would consider a true system seller. That Mario 64 or Halo that just blows everything else out of the water. Halo Infinite is coming soon, targeting a delightfully vague ‘Holiday 2021’ release date. In the meantime there’s… well, nothing really. Certainly nothing that holds a candle to the exclusives currently available on Sony’s latest flagship.
Despite not having those next-gen specific blockbusters, there’s a remarkable amount of high quality games on the platform, many of them on Game Pass and many of them receiving ‘next-gen upgrade’ patches, allowing for simple things like improved framerate and resolution to, in some cases, significantly improved textures and overall visuals.
It all comes down to Game Pass, once again. Game Pass is the cornerstone of Microsoft’s strategy moving forward and wants to push their ‘Netflix of Gaming’ as the primary reason to have one of their machines and this is absolutely the case with the Series S. Included in that subscription is a cross section of the last two decades of gaming, packed with top quality titles and plenty of hidden gems you might not consider giving the time of day to if you had to buy them for full price.
Should you buy the Xbox Series S?
Is the ability to play games in native 4K worth an extra $200 to you? If the answer is yes then the Series X is going to suit your needs far better. If no, then the Series S is almost a no-brainer.
Almost, because there’s three caveats. First of all, some people just aren’t ready to ditch physical media completely just yet. Secondly, some people want to be on the bleeding edge of new technology and that just isn’t how the Series S has been positioned. Finally - and this affects the new Xbox Series consoles in general - is that there still isn’t that system selling exclusive title. Not yet, anyway.
If those don’t put you off, then the Series S is a wonderful way to get into the new generation at a much more affordable price point - giving you access to all of the excellent quality of life improvements like fast loading and quick resume. The compromises made to allow for this lower price never feel like overkill and feel fair given that the Series S is almost half the price of the Series X, so as long as you’re willing to accept that some games will run at a locked 30FPS instead of 60FPS, or won’t feature ray tracing or higher resolutions than 1080P, then the Series S is an excellent console that feels like the perfect companion to Microsoft’s ever-growing and increasingly essential Game Pass.