Games

Xbox Series S review: An ideal entry point for this console generation

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When this current generation of console gaming kicked off, the Xbox Series S was perhaps overlooked by many.

However, with stock shortages of the more capable Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 still ongoing, maybe it’s worth a second glance at the Series S.

It is genuinely affordable, neat enough to tuck away in a cabinet and it plays all the latest Xbox games, including a smattering not available on Xbox One. In fact, it sounds pretty perfect.

But one question remains: is it truly powerful enough for this latest generation of gaming?

Design

  • Dimensions: 65 x 151 x 275mm / Weight: 1.97kg
  • Connections: HDMI 2.1, 3x USB 3.1, Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi

The Xbox Series S comes with claims that it’s the smallest Microsoft console yet and you can tell. It’s no bigger than a shoebox and, as it’s the only current-gen machine purposely built to work best when laid flat, is easy enough to tuck out of the way.

The face is non-descript. As a digital-only device, there is no disc tray. There’s just a USB port, controller connection button, and the glowing Xbox logo on/off switch to shout about. The rest is flat, white plastic and largely character-free.

But we like that. Bar the colour, the Series S hides away nicely, yet also looks neat when left exposed. In fact, the only distinguishing feature is the heat grille on the top, which is black for no apparent reason. There are also grilles down both sides, so don’t jam it too close to the sidewalls of any TV stand.

On the rear, you get a collection of ports that mostly match up with the last generation Xbox consoles. There is an Ethernet port for a wired internet connection (802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi is available too), while the two USB ports on the back match the one on the front by being USB 3.1 compatible. An HDMI 2.1 output is present, alongside a figure-of-eight power socket.

It’s worth noting that there’s no HDMI input this generation, as Xbox has foregone any notion of using it to control paid TV boxes. To be honest, after the Sky Q box was released in the UK, the Xbox One media hook-up functionality was rendered incompatible anyway.

Instead, you now get a Storage Expansion slot for the official, optional SSD card. This could be very important, as we’ll explain in a bit.

One thing we really like about the rear connections is that the most important ones match the Xbox One S and One X exactly, meaning you can use the same cabling you already have set up if you are upgrading.

One bit of advice though: ensure your HDMI cable is 2.1 compatible (i.e. high-speed or, better still, ultra high-speed). This will be important for 120Hz gaming later down the line. If you’re not sure, swap your existing HDMI cable with the 2-metre one provided in the box.

New Xbox Wireless Controller

  • New controller with the share button
  • AA batteries (included)
  • Lower latency
  • USB-C

Also in the box is a refreshed Xbox Wireless Controller and a couple of AA batteries. Yes, this is battery operated again and not rechargeable. However, considering its design is almost identical to the last Xbox controller, you can simply use rechargeable battery packs or accessories from that generation.

There are a couple of key external differences with the new controller: it is smooth at the top-front (the previous one had a slight inset); the D-Pad has been swapped for a circular, more ergonomic style; and there is a new share button slap-bang in the centre, which helps to instantly take screengrabs, etc, without having to muck around with the options button.

The rear of the new controller is also covered in dimples for better grip, as are the triggers.

Finally, wired connectivity is via USB-C this time – for recharging any official battery packs you might add or hooking it up to the Xbox itself.

The controller is backwards compatible with the Xbox One. Likewise, older controllers are forward compatible too – so you can simply hook them up for two-player gaming and the like if you have any lying around. Indeed, all older Xbox One accessories – first- and third-party – should work with Xbox Series S.

In terms of new bells and whistles, there are few. The controller works and feels much the same as the existing controller, but considering we’ve always loved the design and feel, that’s no bad thing. Lag is claimed to have been improved, thanks to Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) support and Dynamic Latency Input (DLI), but we’ve never noticed any problems on that front anyway.

It’s worth noting that Sony’s rival DualSense controller has a few additions this generation – such as adaptive triggers and haptic feedback – that aren’t replicated here. But then, the Xbox controllers have always had decent trigger response and rumble, so you can only tell the difference when you use the rivalling devices side-by-side.

Hardware

  • CPU: Octa-core custom Zen 2 CPU
  • Memory: 10GB of GDDR6 RAM
  • GPU: 4 TFLOPS, 20 CUs
  • Storage: 512GB SSD
  • Storage Expansion

Inside the Xbox Series S, you get trimmed back specifications in relation to its beefier Series X sibling. There is an eight-core custom AMD processor, graphics processing at 4-teraflops, and 10GB of DDR6 RAM.

This all enables a few extra features you don’t get on the Xbox One X, say, even if some of the specs on paper look similar or even weaker than that last-gen alternative. For starters, the Series S is capable of consistent 60 frames-per-second gaming, even up to 120fps, albeit at up to a 1440p resolution rather than at full 4K (as the Series X).

We’ve often found since launch that games even favour 1080p maximum when running 60fps or above, although that might change down the line as development techniques are advanced.

It does have the capability of 4K output, but you’re more likely to get that on video playback than gaming (Netflix in 4K and Dolby Vision, for example).

Also headlining in hardware terms is the 512GB SSD available for storage. This is important for two reasons. First, it enables much faster loading times and what Xbox likes to call Quick Resume. The latter feature can pause a number of games, ready for you to switch between them almost instantly.

The loading times, or lack thereof, are more significant perhaps. Games stored on the SSD load much more quickly than on the Xbox One S or X. They aren’t instant but getting into a dedicated Xbox Series S/X or Xbox One game is far less frustrating than before.

We do have one issue with the SSD, though: its size. Considering we’re entering a phase of larger games with more graphical fidelity, 512GB is positively measly. Yes, solid-state drive technology is still relatively expensive, especially in larger sizes, but, to give you an example, we managed to fit nine games on the Xbox Series S’ internal drive. Just nine.

One of them isn’t even optimised for the console, it’s a standard Xbox One title. And only one of them is over 70GB – which we consider to be usual for big, triple-A game releases. Considering the Xbox mantra is that the Series S is ideal for Game Pass Ultimate and its 200+ games available from day one, you will only have space on the drive for a handful.


That’s where the Storage Expansion Card comes in, although that will set you back almost the same amount as the Xbox Series S itself. It will give you an extra 1TB of SSD storage, which will work exactly the same as the internal one and run optimised Xbox Series S/X games identically. But, if you’re opting for the cheaper Xbox, why would you want to spend roughly the price of the Series X just to get more storage?

There is one alternative option. Like with the Xbox One consoles, the USB ports on the Series S can accept external hard drives (or SDDs) to greatly increase storage capacity. Games stored on them won’t benefit from Series X/S optimisations, but they will work and still be compatible with the likes of Quick Resume (as detailed above) and auto HDR. Our advice is to get yourself at least a 1TB external drive (larger, if you can afford it) and store all backwards-compatible Xbox One games on it, thereby saving the internal drive for dedicated Xbox Series S/X games.

You’ll still have to delete and redownload when needed, but at least you’re not clogging up the main drive unnecessarily. Luckily, you can filter your games list to see which games are optimised for the new console and which aren’t – that’ll help.

Experience

  • Backward compatible with thousands of Xbox One, Xbox 360 and original Xbox games
  • Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support for media and games
  • Setup through iOS and Android app

The overall user experience is very decent, indeed. In fact, if you already have an Xbox One, you already know everything about it – it’s identical to the most recent update. You do get a fancy new animated background on the home screen, but that’s about the only significant change. That and the speed of use has been improved tenfold.

Those new to the Xbox family will be graced with Microsoft’s trademarked tile aesthetic, except the corners were rounded-off prior to its original launch and the design made more consumer-friendly. It is easy to get to the games list and media apps, while the art of pinning areas or games of interest to the homepage allows you to customise the entire shebang to your own liking.

Initial setup is a doddle, especially if you use the Xbox mobile app on iOS or Android. That way you can sign in to your Microsoft account and set the console updating and transferring without having to navigate an on-screen keyboard using the controller. It’s even more simple if you have an Xbox One already, with the ability to transfer your existing settings using the app.

If you also already have Xbox One games stored on an external drive (or two) you can just plug that into the Series S and it will be instantly recognised and all the games available. They might need updates, but you do not need to redownload them.

Another feature added to the current-gen Xbox consoles is HDR reconstruction. Just about every game available on the Xbox One will also run on Xbox Series S – often with enhanced visual performance in many cases thanks to the Xbox Velocity Architecture (the CPU, GPU and SSD combined) – but HDR reconstruction technology adds something new. Existing Xbox games that do not adopt HDR (high dynamic range) natively will be upscaled, of sorts, to provide better contrast and a wider colour gamut. It’s not as good as native HDR, but is a nice touch.

The Xbox Series S/X are the first consoles to offer both Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision for gaming too, as well as movie and TV show playback. You’ll need a compatible TV, sound system and supported games but it’s great to know the feature is there for future use.

Performance

  • Performance target: 1440p 60fps, up to 120fps possible; 4K HDR for video
  • Auto low latency mode (ALLM)
  • Variable refresh rate (VRR)
  • DirectX ray-tracing
  • AMD Freesync

Of course, the most important aspect of any evolutionary leap in gaming is how it performs. And, in the Xbox Series S, that’s tricky to answer exactly. Even though this generation has been around for a while, we’re still seeing most games released across platforms – so make sacrifices to suit the older machines. The very nature of gaming suggests we still have a year or two before the more powerful consoles reach their potential.

Still, from our testing, we can see that the Xbox Series S is a halfway house of a current-gen machine. As well as a truncated resolution for native next-gen games – in comparison with the Xbox Series X and PS5 – it has a few caveats when playing back Xbox One games, too.

The biggest one is that the Series S uses the One S version as its base, while the Series X further enhances and upconverts any Xbox games that already offered enhancements for Xbox One X. It’ll still enhance it where possible – such as games with unlocked frame rates and/or resolution – but without any of the boosts already made for Xbox’s previous flagship machine.

That said, this is only relevant to a sackful of Xbox One titles played through backward compatibility and, it must be said, they still look superb when running on the Series S. We’ve been replaying Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, and it runs and looks better on Xbox Series S than it ever did on PS4 Pro. What’s more, it runs silently – there is no fan noise whatsoever, something neither Xbox nor PlayStation could boast.

As for actual optimised games, support for DirectX ray-tracing adds a whole new dimension. As PC owners with the latest graphics cards will tell you, ray tracing is a game-changer – literally. It adapts the way lighting works in a game to make the effect much more realistic, creating glow and reflections like never before. The Xbox Series S may not have been treated to many titles that support ray tracing as yet, but, hopefully, developers will learn how to implement it without any major cutbacks in future.

Also, the ability to hit higher frame rates – 120fps on some games – cannot be sniffed at. First-person shooters and driving games will be undoubted beneficiaries. Gears 5, for example, hit 120fps (or 120Hz, as some call it) in multiplayer and it is as smooth as butter. You do notice a dip in resolution, depending on the game and developer, but some will prefer the higher frame rates to resolution.

Games

  • Some games optimised for Xbox Series S/X
  • Xbox Game Pass supported

The final port of call for our review is equally as important as any of the bumps in hardware: the games. And that is one area where Xbox excels, thanks to Xbox Game Pass.

Game Pass makes for a super proposition. As soon as you boot up your new Xbox, set it up and sign in, you will have more than 300 games to play from the off. Yes, you will have to subscribe to Xbox Game Pass (through Ultimate, we recommend) but you won’t have to pay another penny to accrue a games library that many have taken years to collect.

After launch, Microsoft also added the ability for the Xbox Series S to play many of the Game Pass titles over the cloud, instead, so you won’t even have to download them if you no longer have space on the drive.

You can just play them streamed over the internet via the dedicated Xbox Game Pass section. You do notice a little more latency than usual, and your internet connection has to be decent enough, but this is a huge selling point – and even comes with the added bonus of improved graphics, thanks to the game servers running on Xbox Series X hardware, rather than S.

Original Article