Xbox Series S – The XboxEra Review
Despite being a console kid at heart, I started to fall out of love with my Xbox. Perhaps ‘love’ isn’t the right word – Xbox was still my primary place to play, but over the last few years, I found I valued performance, frame rate and speed when getting my gaming fix, particularly for cooperative and multiplayer experiences, which are the genres I usually seek out the most.
In my particular social bubble, I wasn’t alone – PC gaming had it all, and thanks to Xbox Game Pass and inclusive initiatives like cross play, I didn’t have to leave my every growing library and Xbox friends behind – most of it came with me.
But not everything.
The schism between those who wanted to play on PC, and could afford one – versus those who either didn’t want the supposed ‘hassle’ of PC gaming, or that found the higher cost was a significant barrier to entry was keenly felt.
My gaming bubble was severely affected, and that frankly, sucked.
The Big Gamble
As we all know, Microsoft has two new consoles coming on November 10th. As an enthusiast, the Xbox Series X is perfect for me – maximum power, maximum framerates and a stark PC-Tower like design; I can’t wait to have this as my daily driver for console gaming.
But ever since Lockhart – aka Xbox Series S was leaked, it’s been a hot topic of conversation and speculation. Why would you want a lower powered device as part of the launch of a new generation? We’ve all seen the concern trolling in the YouTube comments, forums.
Is the lack of native 4K graphical capability and a UHD drive for movies a mistake?
Is a 500Gb SSD enough in 2020, considering the ever growing size of digital game installs?
Will it hold back game development?
The answer to these, unfortunately, is still open to debate.
I think Xbox Series S is both the more fascinating device at launch, and also, much like Phil Spencer himself predicts, the console that will prove to sell more units for the Xbox brand.
But this, my friends, is the big gamble – Microsoft has bet that despite the growing proliferation of 4K, more teraflops than the other guys and all the other marketing buzzwords winning over the core gamer, the thing that really gets consoles selling is value. Considering the state of the world at the moment thanks to COVID-19, I think they may be on to a winner.
I’ve spent the last few weeks playing games on retail hardware, so let’s start with the box itself.
Cute and Compact
Before we dive into the specifications of the Series S, I want to take a moment to talk about the design. Following the reveal of both the Playstation 5 and the Xbox Series X, we thought the traditional ‘flat’ console design was over, and despite the adorable cube-shaped mock ups for Xbox Series S, the final reveal is a masterclass in design.
It’s seriously small, but with a surprising amount of heft. In stark white, with a dark circle for the fan, the design language is remarkably different to its bigger, beefier brother. It’s also a great way to differentiate the two devices.
The Xbox Series S is also seriously quiet – in the 2 weeks or so that I’ve had the device, it hasn’t made a sound – or at least, not one that I’ve noticed. It does chuck out a surprising amount of heat for its size, but no more than any previous console I’ve owned.
The console has of course, lost its disk drive, so those with physical game collections may want to look at the Series X if physical game ownership is something that’s important to them.
If you have an existing Xbox One X or S, you can hot-swap either of the new consoles into the existing power cable. In fact, over the course of testing this week, it’s been kind of fun yanking the cable and taking it from the home office where I’ve been capturing game play, to the lounge to play some games with my son or to the bedroom if my partner was deep into a session of Animal Crossing and I could hog the TV. It will easily fit into most backpacks, making it super easy to cart around. It’s no Switch portable, but then you have xCloud for that.
It can stand both horizontally or vertically, much like the Series X, but at least here, the Series S looks good both ways. It’s small enough it’ll fit into every TV unit I can imagine, but should you wish to put it on display, it’ll blend into the background pretty discreetly, despite the stark white.
The design philosophy behind the Xbox Series S, on paper at least, is pretty clever. Provide developers with the same architecture across the CPU and SSD for next gen games, and simply reduce the capability of the GPU, meaning that in theory the only thing that really suffers from a gameplay design perspective is the resolution. Throw in some neat customisations at the hardware level and you have an incredibly small yet surprisingly performant console.
Resolution VS Framerate
Xbox Series S doesn’t render games natively at 4K. While it does upscale games quite nicely to 4K, according to Microsoft, the target for Xbox Series S games are 1440P (though I think in practice, 1080p is the more likely resolution, but we’ll get into that in a bit).
As an enthusiast, the idea of gaming in anything less than the glory of native 4K might have you grimacing in disgust, but here’s the reality. 1080p is still the most prevalent resolution for folks out there that play their games on TVs – and indeed, everywhere else.
According to the latest Steam Survey results (October 2020) that’s still the case for 65% of PC Gamers. As most folks are aware, Microsoft releases all their first party Xbox Games on both PC and Console – so they’re not going to stop supporting lower end hardware any time soon.
Personally, frame rate is vastly more important to me than resolution, and despite it’s small stature, the Xbox Series S supports 120 frames per second in multiplayer. It’s not something easily shared via video capture, but those of us with high refresh monitors or TVs capable of supporting HMDI 2.1 will feel that difference. It’s incredibly smooth.
Xbox Series S also supports VRR (Variable Refresh Rate) on supported displays – put simply, this allows a display to adjust it’s refresh rate to the frame output of the console. It works, and it works really well.
The most interesting games I’ve been able to test using the functionality thus far have been Dirt 5 and Gears 5, and a locked 120FPS on what’s supposed to be the budget console from launch is really impressive. More than anything else, it feels like playing on a PC – everything feels more responsive and I genuinely believe games feel more enjoyable as a result.
The other new piece of hardware I’ve been able to enjoy this week is the new controller that ships with the console. It’s here perhaps where Microsoft has been far less adventurous, especially when compared to it’s competitors this go around. It’s incredibly similar to the existing Xbox One controller – and that makes sense, because all your existing Xbox One controllers and accessories (bar Kinect) work with the new hardware anyway.
Still, the new pad is a nice refinement on an arguably well loved design. The new controller features textured grips, a super clicky updated D-Pad, USB-C for charging and a slightly smaller shape and feel. The biggest new addition is the Share Button. This lets you capture clips efficiently and quickly, allowing you to share screenshots or gameplay with friend or on social media.
And yes, it’s 2020, and the console still ships with two AA batteries. While that doesn’t particularly bug me, I can understand it might feel a little cheap. If you have an Xbox official play and charge kit, it should still work, but 3rd party battery packs may not fit the new pad design. You have been warned.
Loading and Storage
This is where you’re going to really feel the difference from the current generation. Loading is very impressive on the Xbox Series S. The load time improvements are immediately noticeable and greatly appreciated, and one that makes a difference even on titles running via backwards compatability, let alone titles that have been specifically optimised for Xbox Series consoles. Despite the fact I’m running a PC with 2TB NVMe drive for my games, it felt just as quick, if not quicker.
The Xbox Series S has a 512GB SSD as standard, but that’s not what you get. If you take into account the operating system and the space reserved for Quick Resume, you actually end up with only 364Gb to use for games. In 2020, that’s not a lot.
Indeed, I very quickly filled that up and as I don’t yet have one of the Seagate 1TB Expansion cards, I was constantly swapping games in and out of the system storage. Xbox Series X|S support standard USB harddrives just like the current Xbox consoles – the upside of this means you can take your existing harddrive, full of games and just plug it in to your new console. The downside? You’ll only be able to play Backwards compatible titles from those drives.
One of my favourite parts of a new console launch, bizarrely, is how we’ll interact with it. Typically, new consoles have always launched with a new operating system, that tries new ideas, provides new features and usually sets the tone for how we’ll use the device for the next few years.
Arguably, Microsoft hasn’t been able to leave the dashboard alone since the initial launch of the Xbox One back in 2013, and for Xbox Series X|S, they’ve elected to keep the same dashboard we’ve been using for the entire life cycle of the Xbox One.
Microsoft updated the dashboard very recently to bring all devices in line to prepare for the launch of these new consoles. On the new hardware, it’s the best it’s ever been – fast, slick and easy to use. The plus side of not throwing anything out and starting again is that all our existing media apps and our own muscle memory mean we can get stuck in using the console straight away, without having to relearn everything.
Personally, I miss that ‘new’ feeling, but at least on Xbox Series X|S, fans get a neat animated theme to make things feel fresh. Thankfully, that’s not the only new big ticket feature.
Quick Resume is the moniker Microsoft have given to swapping from game to game. This feature allows players to switch from game to game in under 10 seconds or so – a quick flash of the splash screen and boom, you’re back in the game you were playing. The game state is stored in system memory, and thanks to the architecture of the machine, can be brought back to life at the press of a button.
You can keep around 5 or so games in that Quick Resume state, and it was a blast to jump from games like Lonely Mountains: Downhill to try and beat a leaderboard time to just hop back into Dirt 5 for a more lengthy race.
Some games naturally won’t support Quick Resume – any with a heavy slant to an online component, like Sea of Thieves or Destiny 2, you might find yourself booted back to the main menu, which is understandable. At launch, there are a small handful of games that currently don’t support Quick Resume, which is done to an already identified bug that’s already in progress of being corrected after launch.
Games, Games, Games
A console isn’t just hardware and buzzwords, it’s all fundamentally about games, and while there are plenty of those – including backwards compatibility for all Xbox One (bar Kinect Games), existing BC Xbox 360 and original Xbox titles in terms of software available to play on day one, Microsoft is coming up more than a little short here in terms of that next-gen ‘wow’ factor.
There’s a definite Halo Infinite sized hole in the launch line-up, and what is there on day one are cross generational and multiplatform releases.
We have the big third party heavy hitters, with Assassins Creed: Valhalla, Watch Dogs: Legion, Dirt 5, Fortnite and Yakuza: Like a Dragon on launch day, alongside a decent assortment of smaller titles – all optimised for the new consoles to take advantage of the new feature sets. One particular highlight is the charming and strikingly beautiful The Falconeer.
First Party is showing up, with optimised versions of popular titles like Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves, Gears 5 and more on day one and in the weeks after launch.
Fresh to the console audience at least, we have Gears Tactics, released on PC earlier this year. It’s made the transition away from mouse and keyboard to controller quite nicely, and is arguably the biggest ‘new’ first party release on console.
Microsoft has invested heavily in new studios via acquisition and via organic growth, and the announcement of their intent to acquire Zenimax shook the industry. While launch may feel woefully slim in the short term, it’s very clear that the big games are coming, and Xbox now own a plethora of fantastic studios and IPs coming to their platform.
Game Pass as a Service
This is the real winner for folks picking up a new Xbox Series console on launch day, and this is where that value proposition I mentioned earlier comes in.
The next generation is expensive, and we’ve seen game prices go up in most countries and for some it’s too high. With Game Pass, Xbox are offering the best subscription service in gaming at the moment, and it’s a no brainer for any customer on Xbox.
Gone are the days of walking out of store with maybe 1 or 2 new games to play at launch, instead, with one subscription you can have access to over 100+ games, and can include Xbox Live Gold and PC if you want to pay for the Ultimate tier.
The Xbox Series S is where the real value comes in. At only £249.99 / $299.99 / €299,99, it’s the cheapest entry to the next generation and it arguably makes the perfect ‘secondary’ console; a great family orientated option for your kids or as I like to refer to it, a pure Game Pass machine. You can even pick one up via Xbox All Access, meaning you can walk out of the store with a new console, 2 years of Game Pass and a small monthly payment, all at 0% interest. At Christmas, this could prove incredibly popular.
So has Microsoft made the right call with the Xbox Series S? Right now, that’s hard to say.
I find the idea and the direction behind it admirable, the design is sublime and in a frightful year for the world – and the global economy – a cheaper, value driven option for next generation gaming is a noble endeavour.
My concern is on those horrible memes we’ve seen about the Series S, before it was even revealed – Will it hold the next generation of gaming back?
The target is 1440p, but it seems to be that 1080p is the reality – so far. It’s fair to say that development tools are likely coming in hot, and as studios and teams get to grips with these new machines, things should only improve.
Microsoft are clearly gunning to reclaim their lost and perhaps more casual Xbox 360 market share with the Xbox Series S, and are putting all their enthusiast gamer bets on Xbox Series X to capture that hardcore consumer, who in turn should evangelise the platform. Game Pass is undoubtedly the best exclusive that isn’t a new game and is more than enough reason to own an Xbox in 2020 and beyond.
The Xbox Series S isn’t built for me, and if you’re reading this, I suspect it may not be for you. It’s a console I’d pick up for my kids; it’s one I’d recommend to friends and family that don’t care about how many pixels are being pushed or about Digital Foundry face-offs. The performance is what matters, and I’m seeing things on this tiny box, that while they may not be pushing native 4K resolutions, feel great to play. And with such a low barrier to entry, Microsoft is really making good with one of their most popular taglines:
When everyone plays, we all win.