REVIEW | Xbox Series S

09 November 2020 - 17:16 By Darryn Bonthuys
Introducing the Xbox Series S, the smallest, sleekest Xbox ever. Experience the speed and performance of a next-gen all-digital console at an accessible price point.
Introducing the Xbox Series S, the smallest, sleekest Xbox ever. Experience the speed and performance of a next-gen all-digital console at an accessible price point.
Image: Supplied

Console gamers will always swear allegiance to one particular brand, but if there’s a point that everyone can agree on it’s that hopping into a new generation of video games isn’t exactly affordable. The Xbox Series X launches this month, and at its current price tahe it may be too much for a lot of people to afford. Now it’s a given that the Xbox Game Pass subscription takes a lot of that financial sting away, but devices like this are seen as an investment these days.

I honestly do think the Xbox Series X is worth its money thanks to its bleeding-edge hardware, stellar library and an ecosystem of value, but it’s not the only way to join the next-generation if your pockets are feeling a bit light. In fact, the big brother of gaming consoles is being joined by a little sister this year, and she’s no slouch in the gaming department. Say hello, to the Xbox Series S.

I love this white brick design

I absolutely love this white brick. In terms of size, the Xbox Series S is less than half the size of the Xbox Series X. With no disc drive option, Microsoft has been able to shrink its new console technology into a form factor that looks like a thick textbook and is even smaller than the well-designed Xbox One X. The white finish is also stunning, and pictures honestly don’t do it any true justice.

I’m still on the fence about the massive black grill that covers the fan and makes it look like a speaker box but the rest of the console design just pops beautifully when you first gaze on it. It’s still an absolute unit to hold though, but it comes equipped with all the inputs you’d need from a gaming console: A USB slot in the front, two more in the back, an ethernet port, HDMI slot, and a section devoted to the storage expansion card which is definitely going to be a priority.

I know it’s the smaller console that doesn’t reach for the 4K stars like the Xbox Series X does, but in the looks department? I consider this one to be the superior model.

The internal hardware

  • CPU: Eight-core 3.6GHz (3.4GHz with SMT) custom AMD 7nm
  • GPU: 4 teraflops at 1.550GHz
  • RAM: 10GB GDDR6
  • Frame rate: Up to 120 fps
  • Resolution: 1440p with 4K upscaling
  • Optical: No disk drive
  • Storage: 512GB NVMe SSD

This is going to sound controversial considering the business that I’m in, but hear me out here: 4K isn’t everything. The Xbox Series S may not be capable of hitting true 4K power numbers, but there’s still plenty of grunt under the hood of this little device. It’ll be able to upscale games to 4K if you don’t mind overlooking a few flaws and softer edges, but the console’s true priority is mostly on 1440p gaming. And trust me, that’s still a massive step up from regular 1080p and looks just fine in action.

Video game developers still plan to boost games on the Series S with Smart Delivery upgrades, but the key difference lies in the aforementioned approach to resolution. Targeting a resolution of 1440p means that the Xbox Series S will still be capable of reaching milestones that the Xbox Series X is aiming for: Games will still be capable of achieving 60 frames per second, even 120fps in certain cases and there’ll even be ray tracing support.

The more modern CPU within the Xbox Series S makes for a machine that is more than capable in keeping up with its big brother, it can handle Dolby Atmos spatial sound you’ll see Dolby Vision-supported games start to appear on the little titan from 2021. Long story short? Unless you’re desperate for true 4K or even 8K gaming, the Xbox Series S is more than up to the task of punching far above its weight.

SSD future

Where the Xbox Series S can’t quite catch up though is in the Solid State Drive department. It’s still the same technology that you’ll find in the Xbox Series X that allows for lightning-quick access to games, Quick Resume features, and instant-on power states, but there’s just not enough of it to go around. This can be remedied in one of several ways: You can store games on an external hard drive, or you can invest in the storage expansion card, but the latter is a pricy upgrade that might make you think of rather putting the extra cash into the Xbox Series X.

It’s advertised as having a 512GB SSD, but once all the digital taxing has been done you’re left with just over 340GB of storage space to use on the Xbox Series S. That’s not exactly a lot in today’s modern gaming space, and basically works out to three or four AAA games or one Call of Duty: Warzone. You can of course store an easy dozen smaller games on the system, of which there is no shortage of thanks to backwards compatibility and Xbox Game Pass.

Controller hands-on impressions

You’d be hard-pressed to see any real difference between the Xbox One and Xbox Series S controller if they were laid side by side next to each other, but trust me there are some subtle but distinct changes to one of the best controller designs on the market today. It’s the exact same controller as you’d get with the Xbox Series X, only this one comes in sexy white finish that is so beautifully clean, I’ve already thrown every packet of Cheetos in the house into an incinerator.

Microsoft found a winning design with the Xbox 360 controller so many years ago, and since then it has continued to refine and improve upon the design in a manner that can only be described as elegantly familiar. The Series S controller is mostly the same shape as the Xbox One controller, with slight changes to the shape. It’s a touch bit shorter, slightly chunkier, and the trigger buttons have a more natural outward curve in comparison to the Xbox One’s flared design.

 
 

They’ve also been augmented with the same texture that you’d find on the handgrips, giving a more tactile feeling when used in all manner of games. I also need to mention the D-pad on this controller, which is light-years ahead of the Xbox One old school directional inputs which always felt cheap and loose to me. There’s a far more solid and properly secured design with the D-Pad at play here, and it’s going to be an absolute godsend for experiencing more archaic games and a few rounds of fisticuffs, as the fighting game gods intended.

The real big addition this generation though is a dedicated capture button. It sits just beneath the Start and Select buttons, and it can easily be customised to grab a screenshot or some video content during gameplay. Right now, I’ve got mine set up for quick captures: One tap to snap a screenshot, one long hold of the button to start recording video, and another push of the button to save that gameplay. Easy, simple, and a more intuitive solution than having to cycle through a menu or two to save a few captures.

Microsoft’s controller isn’t a redesign in shape or form, especially when compared to the PlayStation 5’s DualSense device, but then again it doesn’t need to be. It’s comfortable, it has a battery life that can outlive a Highlander, and it’s now equipped with the functions that content creators have been begging for. You can’t improve on perfection, but you can get damn close to achieving it.

The gaming experience difference

My eyes are fine-tuned enough to spot some substantial differences in how games look on the Xbox Series S when compared to the Xbox Series X, and here’s the key takeaway: You’re going to have to deal with compromises with just about anything that you play. It may be capable of 1440p and 4K upscaled gaming, but the Xbox Series S is at its best when it focuses on a full HD experience instead.

Getting to that benchmark will be the real status quo for the Xbox Series S, but don’t be too surprised to see some games knocked down to 900p so that they can deliver a stable gaming experience instead of a graphical slobber-knocker. In my own experience on the Xbox Series S, I’ve discovered that games do indeed prefer to focus on performance over quality and I’m just fine with that.

The difference is there and you will notice it, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker when the experience delivered is one of playing games quicker and smoother than ever before. Thanks to the SSD and Xbox Velocity Architecture, you’re still getting stupidly-quick loading times and quick resume features that make hopping between games feel positively next-gen.

I’m not getting into Digital Foundry detail yet, but you can expect a softer display, more current-gen gaming resolutions, and less detail in the transmission of all those gaming graphics. I’m of the opinion that for most people this won’t be an issue, while more seasoned eyes will definitely spot the differences.

Graphics aren’t everything though, and if the Xbox Series S continues to prioritise performance over quality, then this is one console that will find its niche with a market that just wants to sit down, download a game, and spend a few hours gaming all their worries away.

Conclusion

This one is easy to sum up: The Xbox Series S is a next-gen gaming experience, but one with necessary compromises so that a more affordable entry-point into Microsoft’s gaming ecosystem could be established. The SSD technology on offer is pretty much identical to what you’d find in the Xbox Series X, but it clocks in at a reduced size that will be filled up in no time if you’re bringing your library with you.

The games run fantastically, but the quality leaves something to be desired. But those aren’t detrimental faults, they are caveats that you can easily learn to live with especially when it saves you a large chunk of coin in the process. Think of this way: The Series S is a more casual gaming experience and one that will easily find a home with families looking for an affordable distraction or gamers who aren’t too bothered with how many teraflops their console is capable of.

Combined with Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s aim is to create a gaming console that provides plenty of bang for your buck.


This article was brought to you by Critical Hit


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