Tiny. Cheap. Worth it?
Console launches are always a strange time. In 2020, we’ve got Covid, we’ve got a presidential election that seems to be on a knife-edge at the time of writing, and we’ve got a duo of consoles launching from Microsoft, one of which is proudly launching with technically lower GPU specs than their flagship from the previous generation. The announcement of the Xbox Series S is one that had me genuinely intrigued. As a low-cost entry point into the new generation, it seemed more that Microsoft were trying to sell Game Pass subscriptions than new consoles. After a while with the Series S, I’m more confident than ever that this is the case.
Taking the console out of the box legitimately surprised me. I’d seen other unboxings and measurements of the console before I got hold of ours, but lifting the lid and revealing just how small the Series S is, was a genuine “wow” moment. Coming in at literally half the volume of a PS4 Pro (and substantially less than my OG Xbox One), I was taken aback at the advancements in technology that have allowed a next-gen console to launch with this tiny form factor. Don’t let the size fool you though, as its weight was just as surprising. It feels like a solid brick of tech, with its widely-memed “speaker grill” fan vent on the top/side providing a stark contrast to the rest of the system. There are feet on two sides of the console, allowing you to place it either horizontally or vertically (with my only complaint for the S and X being that you can’t rotate the power button!). Three USB-A ports, an HDMI out, Ethernet port and power port flesh out the IO on the system, with power and sync buttons joining the front facing USB socket. Rounding out the contents of the box are the relevant cables (HDMI 2.0, power, although USB-C is curiously missing) a couple of batteries and the slightly redesigned Xbox controller in “Robot White”.
The controller’s improvements are subtle, but they improve what has come to be an industry standard design at this point. A slightly smaller size increases the comfort, a dedicated share button adds some much welcomed functionality, but it’s the textured grips and D-Pad that get the real treatment here. Both take cues from the pricey Elite Series 2 controller, with the D-Pad feeling like the biggest improvement. An 8-way “Hybrid D-Pad” apes the disc add-on for the Elite, and your thumb sits nicely in it, allowing for an easier way to play fighting games than the “Fixed cross” pattern that I found a bit troublesome with the original Xbox One controller. It definitely feels like an evolution, rather than the competition’s legitimate evolution (there’s one to cross off your cliché bingo card!), and it’s something that definitely feels like the norm for the Series S on the whole.
Microsoft’s approach to the launch of this generation has been very much focused on carrying on with the goodwill they’ve earned in righting the wrongs of the Xbox One’s (let’s be honest) disastrous launch. Improving both the hardware and the messaging around the One S and X, as well as bringing in services like Game Pass and their industry-leading approach to backward compatibility. It’s an approach that becomes immediately apparent after booting the console up for the first time and registering it via the updated Xbox App. Connecting it to the internet prompts you do download the app, sign in and enter a code that’s being displayed on screen to link it to your Microsoft account. The console then downloads any updates available, and gets you up and running. It’s all remarkably seamless, and I was left suitably impressed with how simple it all was to get set up, all before I’d even put the pair of AA’s into my controller.
That was, however, until the system rebooted and I found myself at the Xbox dashboard. The very same Xbox dashboard that I’ve not really touched in a while, complete with my Ori and the Blind Forest background, and the same layout of icons that were on my OG Xbox One. In some ways, it felt very reassuring to have the immediacy and familiarity of that old system coming across into a new generation, but at the same time I was left feeling a little bit like “Well what’s new?”. It felt like that moment when you upgrade to a new phone (particularly in the Apple ecosystem). You download all your apps and settings, they all snap to the same spot on the home screen, your wallpaper and camera roll appears, and things feel a bit faster, but after taking a few excited selfies and marvelling at just how many blemishes on your own face you can pick out, you’re left to sort of figure the rest out for yourself.
The most immediate benefit to the Series S is that it is incredibly fast. Getting to the dashboard is remarkably quick, and firing up titles provides a tangible improvement over a spinning disk that’s in your system. Games that are optimised for the “Series” consoles prove to be even quicker, with the majority of titles getting you into the game within well under a minute, some even faster than that. It’s all down to the new SSDs that are being utilised in all of the next-gen consoles. While raw numbers currently make it sound like the PS5’s speed is going to be unprecedented, the Series S cuts down loading times to the point where they’re almost negligible. Phil Spencer himself recently commented that games tend to launch quicker on Series S than X due to the smaller size of the textures etc in games, and I can see why he said it. Going from a launch Xbox One to a Series S is eye-wateringly speedy. While I have my own issues with the interface that have come over from the old consoles, everything feels instant on the dashboard, and on the surface, it doesn’t feel like an under-spec’d machine. The only technical quibble I have with it, is that there are some HDMI handshaking issues when switching between games and services that utilise HDR, which I’d ideally like to see get patched.
The next big benefit for the Series lineup is the inclusion of Quick Resume. A feature that’s been hailed by Microsoft as the next big thing, I’m really impressed with how it acts for the majority of the time. Tapping the guide button and bringing up the list of games on the left will allow you to (as the name suggests) quickly pick up where you left off with a game as if you’d never left it, all while keeping others suspended in the background. Of course, this is only going to be massively relevant for games that aren’t reliant on a constant internet connection, but the ability to just hop between “comfort food” games is a welcome one, for sure. It even works between powered off states, which is probably the most impressive thing about the feature. If you’re in an open world game doing some side quests, you can switch to your online multiplayer game of choice for a bit, power down the system and take it to a friend’s house, boot back up and be back in the first game within moments. It’s a legitimate shift in the way that people will consume their games, and in particular those sort of games that you throw on every now and then to fill the time. I’ve not had chance to test just how many titles can be kept in the chamber for Quick Resume, but preliminary reports put it around 5 or 6 titles, which is quite a nice number!
The one area of concern that arose when the specs for the Series S were announced is the available storage space on the system. With 512GB being touted as the number on the box, some people were a bit worried, given certain titles’ propensity to balloon past the 100GB mark recently (Call of Duty, I’m looking at you). It’s a fair concern to have, and sadly one that’s realised with the Series S. All in all, the Xbox Series S clocks in with just 364GB of usable space. That’s substantially less than some people will be expecting, although it is the same amount of space on the console this is technically replacing in the One S. If you’re going to be playing multiple games at once, then the Series X looks like it could be the better proposition here, particularly with the expandable storage clocking in at just over £200 for a terabyte. You can, however, move games to and from an external USB drive, as well as play backward compatible titles straight from one, which should allow you enough management options to keep a sizeable library available without needing to download 50GB a time.
Performance wise, I can’t say I have any complaints with the Series S. Every game I’ve run on it so far has hit a solid 60fps, with Gears multiplayer looking silky smooth in 120Hz. It remains to be seen how it’ll stack up against its bigger brother in the long run, but in the here and now, the Xbox Series S is a very affordable, and very capable, entry into the next generation, particularly if you’re aiming at 1080p/1440p gaming. If you want to use the Series S as a media hub, it’s capable of that as well, with 4k being enabled for all of the streaming apps (remember, there’s no disc drive here). Dolby Vision and Atmos are also supported, so if you’ve got a display or a sound system that make use of these, then you’re in for a treat. Additionally, if you’re coming over from an Xbox One console, you can bring all of your peripherals with you and hook them straight up to the Series S (or indeed X).
I’ll be honest, I was very sceptical of the Series S when it was announced. After a few days with it though, I’m kind of being turned around on it. It wouldn’t be my first choice when picking up a new console, as I’m more one for all of the extra bells and whistles attached to the Series X, but if you want an affordable way to get into the Xbox ecosystem, and particularly Game Pass, then you can’t go too far wrong. There are undoubtedly shortcomings, namely the 364GB of usable storage, but if you’re willing to manage your game library a little bit more frugally, then you’ll be fine.