We find out whether Microsoft's more cost-conscious offering represents a viable next-gen upgrade.
We pretty much knew from the start that Microsoft had planned for the next generation of Xbox consoles to be a two-pronged spear, one tip being "Anaconda", the main showstopper, and the other being the more curiously positioned "Lockhart". Of course, these two platforms would go on to be known as the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S, and even to this day, after playing around with both platforms for the good part of two weeks, the Series S is still the more curious of the two machines.
And why is that? Well, first off, it raises the interesting question of compatibility, and whether developers will continue to support two very different Xbox SKU's in future, or if it ultimately becomes a hurdle, rather than a boon in the long run. Secondly, it's also Microsoft's first-real separate console platform with no disc-drive. Sure, the Xbox One S released in a so-called "All-Digital" format, but the disc-drive-less nature of the Series S is baked into its very core, its identity.
So how will it fare? Even if it is the cheapest next-gen console by a good margin, is it worth a purchase, either as your central next-gen platform, or as a supplement to a Series X? Let's find out.
Starting with the exterior, the Series S is a thing of beauty. For one, it doesn't completely forget its heritage, but firmly establishes itself as a natural predecessor to the Xbox One S. The shade of white is exactly the same, the perforated intakes have the exact same measurements, and even the central exhaust, defined by it's dark circular shape on the top of the device, has its roots in the circular exhaust cut-out on the One S. Furthermore, we have one central USB-A port on the front, alongside the controller pairing button. On the back there's the same storage port for the Seagate 1TB SSD, ungrounded power-in, two USB-A ports as well as ethernet.
It's simple really, the ports are the same as on the Xbox Series X, and that's exactly how it should be, and, outside of a USB-C for basic futureproofing, there's nothing that's glimmering with its absence here. The most important thing though, is that the Xbox Series S is small, as in really small, as in smaller than you'd think based on the impressions you'd get by watching videos online.
Inside, we find the following specifications:
CPU: Eight-core 3.6GHz (3.4GHz with SMT) custom AMD 7nm
GPU: 4 teraflops at 1.565GHz
RAM: 10GB GDDR6
Frame rate: Up to 120 fps
Resolution: 1440p with 4K upscaling
Optical: No disk drive
Storage: 512GB NVMe SSD
The key differences compared with the Xbox Series X is immediately apparent. The eight cores are clocked at lower speeds, the GPU produces a mere third of the overall horsepower of the Series X, and is also clocked at a lower speed, and it has to "make do" with just 10GB's of GDDR6 memory. Oh, and yeah, the NVMe SSD, which is, in spec, identical to the Series X, is half the size.
You might immediately scoff at the sheer thought of a next-gen platform having less "T-flops" than the console it's replacing, seeing as the Xbox One X GPU is pegged at 6 teraflops, but the main point here is; does it even matter?
We've mainly reviewed the console with games sent to us by Microsoft, those being Gears Tactics, which runs at the desired resolution of 1440p/60fps, Dirt 5 which again hits 1440p/60fps and Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which runs at 1440p/30fps. There are others, such as Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4. As you can already tell from the specified resolutions and framerates, it's clear how Microsoft wants to position the Series S. It's simply for those that don't yet have a 4K television, but still want crisp next-gen games running at higher frame rates. It's not for pixel peepers, it's for normies so to say, or at least those that want a cheap buy-in, either because they don't care, or are willing to accept the downscaling because it's a secondary device.
But that's the deal with platforms and developers, it's ultimately up to individual teams around the globe how best to utilize the resources of the platforms, and most do have a tendency to favor resolution, possibly opting for 4K-upscaling, rather than 1440p, a resolution that most developers chose to skip a few years ago.
So the Series S does have a bit of a question mark hanging over its head, seeing as Microsoft has a clear idea of what they want to do with the console, which is immediately apparent when looking at the resolutions and frame rates of their updated first-party offerings, but when all of that is said, the Series S does not feel like last-gen news in a next-gen package. From the design, to the updated UI, and even the improved loading times, the Series S feels snappy, responsive and fast, and thanks to its small size, it's portable and understated in a way the Series X could never be.
At least Microsoft made sure that there's feature-parity with the Series X, meaning you get Quick Resume, storage expansion, 3D Spatial Sound, and the Velocity Architecture. What that essentially means is that all the generational bells and whistles are in place, meaning that you can Quick Resume with up to five games, which clocked in at around nine seconds per switch. It's not quite as fast as first expected, but it is a big improvement to be able to jump between games nearly instantaneously, and the Series S does it just as fast as the Series X.
Speaking of the UI, the Series S has received the same central UI update as both the Series X, and the remaining current Xbox consoles including even the standard One. First and foremost, the new UI runs smoothly on the Series S, snapping in and out of games, entering the Microsoft Store and Game Pass, it's all pretty seamless, and the few seconds of delay are essentially gone. It is still a tad unintuitive, and there is still some clutter to be found, including semi-commercials for in-game purchases, or calls to pre-order, which shouldn't be near a home-screen. When that's said, you can customise your Guide to your liking, and thanks to new editions like customisable dynamic themes, it is easier to make the dashboard your own. What we're unequivocally disappointed by, is how much space the dashboard takes up of the main 512GB SSD. We registered just 361.6GB of available space after a fresh install, leaving us with the possibility of only having a few games installed. If file sizes continue to balloon, well, it won't be long until the size becomes a problem, prompting you to invest a lot in the Seagate 1TB expansion card.
So, it's small, pretty and cheaper than all its competitors, including the Xbox One X mind you, but how does it perform? Well, let's talk about that. So for the majority of our testing, we relied mainly on games with unlocked framerates, seeing as they might be able to more accurately pinpoint whether the system could keep up with the expected 1440p/60fps target in most modern titles. In addition, it would also stand to reason that it would be games with unlocked frame rates that would push the system the hardest, giving us a clearer picture of noise- and heat profiles.
For the general testing of the console, we played Watch Dogs: Legion, where there is some confusion about it's resolution, Dirt 5 which runs in 1440p at 60fps, as well as Gears Tactics that runs in 1440p at 60fps. In addition, we've tested a few titles that run in backwards compatibility mode, such as Hitman 2 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, that have an uncapped frame rate, thinking that those also could push the system to reveal some insights. In general, the core gaming experience of the Series S does appear intact, despite the obvious sacrifices developers have had to make. While performance targets are all over the place, with some developers opting for resolutions up to 4K, while some going all the way down to 1080p, some skipping Ray-Tracing while others implement it, the Xbox Series S performs as advertised. While Watch Dogs: Legion appears to have sacrificed some pixel clarity and overall sharpness too, most games, including the likes of Dirt 5, Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Gears Tactics appears smooth and next-gen looking, even on a machine with a lower teraflop count than the One X. Watch Dogs: Legion is, however, a visual anomaly, seemingly sacrificing everything to run on the system. A general lack of pixel clarity, lackluster sharpness and muted colors made us question Series S' ability to handle next-gen titles, but it does seem to be Legion in general, that's poorly optimised, especially in this pre-launch state.
When pushing the system through a mix of the unlocked next-gen titles with dedicated Xbox Series S patches, as well as backwards compatibility titles like Hitman 2, we saw exactly what was promised in terms of heat output. Like the Series X, the Series S has been designed to exhaust most of the gathered heat through the central fan cutout, and sure, temperature readings showed around 50 degrees celsius around the cutout, with an average of around 48 degrees. This was all while the system was virtually silent, whether it was through Gears Tactics, Dirt 5 or the aforementioned Hitman 2. For comparison, we measured an average temperature around the perforated top cutout on the Series X to be around 49 degrees running the same games, and the Xbox One X's rear exhaust area to be around 52 degrees, and both Series systems were quieter. If you want a cross-platform comparison, our launch PlayStation 4 Pro reached a high of 68.7 degrees. It is, however, too early to compare it to the PlayStation 5.
And finally, there's that price. At £249.99, this is the cheapest console on the market, that gives direct access to several years worth of next-gen games, even after Microsoft eventually stops supporting the One. At that price, and with this size, it's really hard not to recommend for the target audience, because the target audience was never the pixel-peeping enthusiasts. It's the families looking for a new console to sit under the HD TV in the living room, it's the parent looking to have a console sitting next to an office monitor at a home office, or even said enthusiast wanting something small to bring on vacations. It's utilitarian in a way the Series X can't be, and for that purpose, the Series S shines bright.
9 / 10
Fantastic design, incredibly small, solid thermals and noise levels, all the features of the Series X, competitive price.
Resolutions, frame rates and general performance is going to be up to developers.