The Series S is proof that less Teraflops doesn’t mean less impressive performance
- Manufacturer: Microsoft
- Model: Xbox Series S
- Release date: 10th November 2020
- Price: £249
- Supplied by: Microsoft
First impressions count
Before we get into the meat and bones of my experiences with the Xbox Series S, I’d just like to give a nod to how well Microsoft has presented its new consoles. Gone are the days of undoing tabs at the top of the box and awkwardly sliding out your console, held in place by chunky foam inserts. Now, after undoing some tabbed-for-easy-removal tape fasteners, the entire box hinges open, revealing your console nestled inside its sculpted holder. The console comes wrapped in protective foam, with a card wraparound featuring the new Xbox slogan, Power Your Dreams. First impressions count, and this is a good one.
Inside the box is your Series S console, a beautiful white controller with a pair of Duracell AA batteries, the manual (you never know, someone might need it), an HDMI 2.1 cable and your power supply cable. Thankfully power bricks are a thing of the past.
Design and build quality
The Series S is Microsoft’s smallest console, and it really is a diminutive little number, bordering on cute. Picking up the console, it has a surprising heft to it, with a solid, weighty feel you don’t expect based on appearance. While it is small enough to fit into the smallest of entertainment centres, you still need to give it space for the numerous air ventilation grilles to do their work, especially the large circular grille on the top.
I was undecided on the big black disk (that makes it look like a minimalist hi-fi speaker), but I’ve come around to it after seeing it in person. I’d still prefer it to be white, though, in keeping with the rest of the console. My assumption is they want it to stand out from the One S All Digital Edition, which is very similar in size and shape.
The console has a very clean appearance, with the front only having the light-up Xbox logo power button, controller sync button and a single USB port. It’s very pleasing to the eye and incredibly photogenic. The rear of the console has a bit more going on with all of the IO ports, but it still maintains the tidy aesthetic of the rest of the console.
3 x USB 3.1 (two rear, one front)
RJ-45 Ethernet port
Storage Expansion Port
In addition to the ethernet port, there is an 802.11ac Wi-Fi card inside the Series S. It’s a little disappointing they didn’t use the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, but we still found the performance of the included network card to be very good, and most importantly, stable.
Like the Series X, setting up your console is a breeze, and you can use the Xbox App on your phone to carry out the setup whilst the initial update is completed. Existing Xbox users can even copy their settings across from another console. It does detract a bit from that excitement of getting a new console and working out how everything works, but you can’t argue with how easy it is to start up and get going.
I already have a Series X, so I was able to copy games I’d already downloaded from one console to the other. I was going to use an external drive, but then I remembered Xbox has the Network transfer option. Simply turn on Network transfer from the menus of both consoles, and you can copy or move installed games between them.
Settings > System > Backup & transfer > Network transfer
Connected via 5 GHz WiFi I had stable transfer speeds of 130-135 Mbps, which is a lot faster than my broadband download speed. It would have been faster transferring them via my external HDD, but it’s far simpler over WiFi. With Network Transfer and a little bit of patience, it’s a seamless transition.
I wasn’t sure if Series X versions of games would be compatible with Series S, but they transferred without any problems. The Series S versions are in some cases significantly smaller than the Series X versions, and the console smartly only installs the files needed for the Xbox Series S.
Installing games direct from the Xbox Store will automatically give you the right version. If you have installed or transferred any Xbox One games that have a Series X|S update available, the first time you launch it, it will prompt you to download the Series S version.
There was potential for this to get quite confusing, but Microsoft has done a great job of making it as streamlined as possible.
Game size comparisons:
|Series X|S Games||Xbox Series X||Xbox Series S|
|Assassins Creed Valhalla||48.8 Gb||48.8 Gb|
|Forza Horizon 4||81.9 Gb||71.4 Gb|
|Watch Dogs Legion||39.3 Gb||39.3 Gb|
|WRC 9||24.6 Gb||24.6 Gb|
|Dirt 5||72.5 Gb||44.2 Gb|
|Gears 5||79.5 Gb||60.5 Gb|
|Gears Tactics||28.1 Gb||28.1 Gb|
For some games, the size difference is either identical or negligible, but others see a huge reduction in size.
SSD Storage Space
Of the 500 Gb SSD fitted in the Series S, only 364 Gb is available for installing games. Even with smaller file sizes than the Series X, this can still fill up fast: The games I installed for the file size comparison took up most of the SSD.
Xbox One games can be played from the external drive, but Series X|S games must be on the internal drive or storage expansion drive (sold separately). Unlike the PS5, though, Series X|S games can be stored on a regular external USB 3 HDD. Transferring games between the HDD and console’s SSD is very fast, and even the biggest games only take 20-30 minutes to transfer.
At the moment, the Seagate expansion card is a very expensive way to add an extra terabyte of storage (£219.99). There are advantages to it, of course. It works exactly the same as the internal storage, providing the same boost to loading times, and is the only additional storage you can play Series X|S games from. Once connected, it shows up alongside your internal SSD, and it’s a breeze swapping files around or installing games to it. You can also whip it out and take it round to a friends house (if lockdown ever ends), and be connected and playing your games in seconds.
For now, though, with the price so high, you are far better served by putting that £219 towards getting a Series X in my opinion, at least until the expansion card prices inevitably come down. Gen 4 SSDs are still fledgling technology, though, so it could be quite some time before prices drop. In the meantime, with external drive prices cheaper than ever, you can significantly increase your available storage for around £50 for 2 Tb, while even bigger drives up to 8 Tb are affordable these days.
What’s it like to use?
The first thing that strikes you about the Series S is how snappy and responsive everything is. Hopping between menus is almost instantaneous, and opening the store, which used to have a significant delay on the Xbox One and One X, takes just a couple of seconds.
It goes without saying that games get a huge boost from the improved speed of the SSD over the mechanical HDDs they replaced. Everything you do in-game feels snappier. The first thing you will notice is the much faster boot times. It’s so fast some Series X|S enhanced Xbox One games don’t even get time to display the Developer logos.
Once playing, you’ll be spending more time getting on with gaming and far less time in loading screens. Average loading times are between 25-40% of what they were on previous consoles. Fast travelling or delivering a new car on Forza Horizon 4, for example, takes only a second or two now.
To anyone coming from the Xbox One, the lack of innovation on the dashboard may look a little underwhelming. For me, it is more like how it feels when you upgrade your PC. Everything works and looks the same, but it performs much, much better.
Quick resume is a much-vaunted new feature for the Series X|S consoles and is part of the reason why so much SSD space is unavailable. I’ve tried it out on a couple of games, and it’s great being able to drop in and out of games where you left them.
Until it’s supported by every game, though, it’s not something I would rely on in place of making regular saves. At present, many games don’t support it, and some that do, like Assassins Creed Valhalla, have achievement unlock issues related to the feature. In time, once it has had the kinks ironed out and becomes more widely available, I’m sure it’s a feature that I’ll get a lot of benefit from.
The new controller
Ok, it’s not completely new, but it is heavily refined. Many of the changes are so subtle you may not notice, but given how good the Xbox One controller is you likely won’t mind.
Textured grips now extend around the underside of the controller, and across the face of the triggers and bumpers. They give the controller a nice, tactile feel missing from earlier pads. The new D-Pad is a big step forward, too, with each directional press met with a solid click. It’s the same across the face buttons, too. They look the same but feel more deliberate and precise in their operation. All-in-all, it looks just like the old controller, but using it is a far more pleasant experience.
The most significant new addition to the front of the controller is the new Share button. A single press will capture a screenshot, or holding it down will record a clip at the resolution and length you’ve set in the options. It can be configured in Xbox accessories, too, so you can change the long press to start/stop recording if you wish. It’s a much better way of capturing than having to bring up the guide each time.
Microsoft made a big deal about lowering the latency of controller inputs on the new controller, but if I’m honest I can’t really notice much difference. I never found controller latency to be problematic before, except on games like Red Dead Redemption 2, and that is a game-specific issue anyway.
Having seen what Sony has achieved with their DualSense controller I can’t help but feel a little jealous. Hopefully, Xbox can create their own haptic equipped controllers in future, as the DualSense has made great strides here. That being said, the rumble on the Xbox Series X|S controllers has also been refined, and it’s far less rattly and noisy when it’s actuated now, which used to be a major bugbear for me.
The Xbox Series S has one major advantage over the PS5 when it comes to controllers, however, as all first and third-party Xbox One controllers and peripherals should work on the Series S. For every console generation, you have always had to buy new peripherals and it was always a large extra expenditure on top of the cost of the new console.
On the Series S, I wanted to play four-player co-op on Dirt 5 with my family. I already have plenty of Xbox One controllers, so I simply paired them to my console and away we went. Huge brownie points for this.
There’s no disc drive on the Series S, so no 4k UHD BluRay support this time around, but streaming apps will output a full 4k HDR signal, and HDR 10, HDR 10+ and Dolby Vision are all supported. With the exception of the HDMI in, everything that you could do on the Xbox One is possible on the Series S, making it a fully-featured media consumption powerhouse.
Although DTS/Dolby Digital 5.1ch audio is still supported, the Series S no longer has a S/PDIF port. The signal will still be transmitted through HDMI, but you’ll need an optical output on the TV to take advantage of the ageing format. Supported amplifiers with an HDMI passthrough will be able to use Dolby Atmos or DTS: X Ultra formats, but make sure it’s one that supports up to 8k HDMI 2.1 so that it is future-proofed.
The Series S got quite a bit of flak early on when Teraflops were being discussed as the new metric of performance. I’m very happy to report that, indeed, teraflops aren’t everything.
A big selling point of the new consoles is high frame rates. Because the Series S shares the same CPU as the Series X, albeit slightly underclocked, it more consistently hits higher frame rates, and can even reach 120 fps on some games. Performance on games like Gears 5, which is heavily reliant on the CPU, look stunning and run incredibly smoothly.
With the Series S targeting 1440p or 1080p depending on the game, this needs far less GPU power to achieve. The Series S may not be able to hit 4k resolutions, but aside from the Series X having more pixels and sharper textures, the games still look very close side-by-side.
In a real-world example, the Series S runs WRC 9 at 1080p60, and it’s super smooth. The improved lighting and effects are carried over from the Series X, with the main difference coming from the lower resolution. Textures don’t look quite as sharp, and there are a few more jaggies and slight aliasing visible in the branches of trees causing mild flickering, but in terms of gameplay, it’s identical. I also tested WRC 9 with my Xbox Series X set to 1080p, and it’s very similar, however, the Series X appears to have higher anti-aliasing settings as it eliminated the flickering textures in the trees.
Assassins Creed Valhalla looks fantastic on the Series S, even if it is capped at 30 fps. Static images are phenomenal, however, in motion, the 30 fps frame rate is a little jerky and not very smooth. Some kind of motion blur would have been desirable here. It’s still very playable and a great game, but lacks that next-gen wow factor you get from the 60 fps Series X version.
In contrast, Dirt 5 is very well optimised for the Series S. It blasts along at 1440p and 60 fps in resolution mode, and can even hit 120 fps in 1080p. I’m sure if you get the magnifier out and analyse small portions of screens you will be able to pick out loads of flaws in comparison to the PS5 and Series X, but the frame rate is rock solid and the resolution plenty sharp enough at 1440p. At 120 fps, even if it is only 1080p, it’s a buttery smooth experience. This kind of performance used to be reserved exclusively for significantly more expensive PCs, yet here we are with a £249 console, blazing along at 120 fps!
When it comes to graphical differences between the Series S and Series X, it basically comes down to resolution, and occasionally frame rate. Textures look sharper and edges are smoother on the Series X, but most of the graphical settings that make the game look next-gen, like the improved lighting, reflections, ray-tracing and depth of field effects are present on the Series S. You are absolutely getting a next-gen experience, with all of the features that make it great, it just runs at a lower resolution.
It’s hard to fully assess the next-gen credentials of the Series S, as there are only a limited number of games with enhancements. A couple of years down the line, when games have been made exclusively for the new systems, limitations of the Series S may become apparent, but for now, it offers value well in excess of its £249 asking price.
There are literally thousands of games available on the Series S, spanning four generations of Xbox. Every Xbox One game, a large number of Xbox 360 games and a curated selection of original Xbox games can all be played. The only caveat to this is, as there is no disc drive, they need to be on the Xbox Store, or be previously purchased digital versions that will show in your library or purchase history.
Xbox One games that you bring to Series S will benefit from resolution increases and frame rate improvements where applicable, but you can only play the One S versions. Any enhancements specific to the Xbox One X will be unavailable, which is understandable as many of these include resolution increases up to 4k.
With regards to the Xbox One X, on paper the older system may seem better, with 6 Tflops performance against the 4 Tflops of the Series S. However, the One X is using a much older CPU, which is the main bottleneck and the reason why many games could run 4k, but couldn’t exceed 30 fps. In comparison, the Zen 2 CPU of the Series S is leaps and bounds ahead, enabling faster and more consistent frames, albeit at a lower resolution.
Ray-tracing is one of the most buzzword-worthy additions to the Series S. It’s remarkable that they have managed to include it in a console that is half the cost of a PC GPU that can run ray-traced games. So far the only game we have tried with ray-tracing is Watch Dogs: Legion, but it’s still a glimpse of what the Series S is capable of. Like the Series X, though, this ray-tracing comes at a cost. Frame rates are capped at 30 fps, and the resolution fluctuates from 1080p down to 900p. It’s not really a visibly noticeable drop, but serves as an indication of the kind of compromises that are having to be made this early into the generation.
Given the huge hit to performance caused by ray tracing, I’m still unconvinced that it’s the next big thing in gaming, especially considering how proficient visual artists have got at faking it with methods like rasterization. That being said, the Minecraft RTX implementation looks incredible. Hopefully, now that ray tracing has come to consoles, developers may be more inclined to refine and develop the implementation and bring it to its full potential.
The Xbox Series S is cheap, gaming performance is good, it’s small and discreet, and exceptionally quiet. For hardcore gaming aficionados, it may not be enough, but that’s why the Series X and PS5 exist. For more casual users, who will appreciate the excellent 4k media capabilities just as much as being able to play the latest games, and who want to marvel at the way ray-tracing casts realistic shadows, then the Series S represents possibly the biggest bargain in gaming.
Paired with Game Pass, the Series S is an uber-affordable investment that is ideal for budget-savvy gamers who want to join the next generation. While it may not provide the generational leap anyone who had an Xbox One X or PS4 Pro would hope for, it still represents a major jump from the One S, and it creates a way for casual players to keep enjoying games without being left behind by the Series X and PS5.
Microsoft expects the Series X to be their biggest seller, but anyone picking up a Series S is going to be more than happy with their new console. Making this console for the casual market is a brilliant idea, and it really deserves to sell well.