Natively enhanced Xbox Series S games are proving the console's power and value

Xbox Series S
Xbox Series S (Image credit: Matt Brown | Windows Central)

One of my biggest articles of the past several months is "Is the Xbox Series S more powerful than the Xbox One X?" And in a lot of ways, Microsoft didn't answer the question succinctly during the Xbox Series S' launch last year. The internals between the two devices are very different, with the One X of last-gen boasting more raw graphics potential, while the Series S has a modernized CPU and rapid loading times thanks to the SSD.

The biggest pitfall of the Xbox Series S, owing to its RAM, is that it falls back on the Xbox One S versions of backward-compatible games, rather than the Xbox One X version. As a result, many older games, or games not made natively for current-gen Xbox Series X and Series S consoles, look kind of awful. Over half a year later, though, the picture is starting to change.

More and more games are getting natively enhanced versions for the current gen consoles, which has put a spotlight on just how powerful the Xbox Series S really is. Crucially, it also puts a spotlight on the value of this thing, which costs less than a Nintendo Switch OLED, while pushing games like Halo Infinite all the way up to 120 FPS, while the former often struggles with 30.

As we put last-gen further and further behind us, it's becoming clear that the Xbox Series S, that so many underestimated, is becoming a serious contender.

Next-gen visuals at a past-gen price

The Ascent Grateful

Source: Windows Central | Neon Giant The Ascent from Neon Giant. (Image credit: Source: Windows Central | Neon Giant)

For the past few weeks, I've made the Xbox Series S my primary console, and my personal experience has been a little mixed, at least to begin with. Many of the games I tried from the outset weren't current-gen enhanced, running at a 1080p resolution oftentimes with fixed 30 FPS frame rates. Cyberpunk 2077 for example, looks truly hideous standing next to its Series X version. Even some Xbox Series S-enhanced games weren't exactly perfect either, standing in the shadow of the more potent Xbox Series X. Gradually, that situation has started to change in a big way.

The Ascent is probably the best-looking game I've seen on any of the new-gen consoles so far.

More and more studios have started to step up and re-evaluate their Xbox Series S counterparts. Chivalry 2, for example, is my current go-to competitive multiplayer game. I was disappointed to find that the Series S version ran at a measly 30 FPS on the console, which is a bit problematic given the game's reactive melee-combat. Much to my delight, though, Torn Banner went back and beefed up the game to 60 FPS, making it highly comparable to its higher-resolution cousin on the Series X.

Many of the biggest multiplayer games like Destiny 2 and Fortnite enjoy 120 FPS modes on the Xbox Series S. We have a full list of games that support 120 FPS on Xbox Series S and X here, and it's growing all the time. It's not all about frame rates, though.

Microsoft Flight Simulator Airbus A320 Jfk

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

I recently reviewed The Ascent on Xbox Series S entirely too, testing it alongside the PC version running on an RTX 2070. I was enamored with the visual quality on the Series S, and found that quite honestly, The Ascent is probably the best-looking game I've seen on any of the new-gen consoles so far. Dozens of NPCs on screen with high-fidelity assets, dense environmental detail, truly stunning lighting — The Ascent flies in the face of Xbox Series S criticism, proving you can bring a next-gen experience to a past-gen price point. Other games like Microsoft Flight Simulator and Gears 5 absolutely soar on the Series S as well, showcasing the fact the console can produce high-fidelity visuals, and not just beefed up frame rates. The Xbox Series S often outputs at higher resolutions than 1080p as well, giving you a taste of 4K at a lower price.

The Xbox Series S confused many commentators when it was finally revealed, but it continues to be among the smarter plays Microsoft has made in this space in recent years.

Smart play, smart delivery

Xbox Series S

Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central)

Many questioned Microsoft's decision to release not one, but two SKUs this gen. We were posting exclusive information about the Xbox Series S "Lockhart" over a year before its release, but I recall the sheer volume of analysis, both professional and armchair, claiming that it was "impossible." Alas, here we are. Not only was it not impossible, but it has also served to help Microsoft claim some NPD victories in the U.S. sales race.

In some ways, the console industry is stagnant in terms of growth. The PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and the Nintendo Switch continue to sell healthy numbers, but the growth rate pales in comparison to that of mobile, which gives people easy access to games right on the devices they already own. Console gaming ultimately has an access problem, and the Xbox Series S is absolutely the right console for the current climate. This is doubly true when you factor in the global chip shortage — the Xbox Series S is easier to manufacture than the PS5 or the Xbox Series X, giving Microsoft a potential volume advantage.

Competing with mobile is ultimately about competing on access. Microsoft is aggressively trying to lower the barriers into its ecosystem, both in terms of price, and availability. The Xbox Series S costs $300 upfront, and you can spread the cost out with Xbox All Access, too, which comes with hundreds of games baked in thanks to Xbox Game Pass.

Xbox All Access Series X Series S

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

The buffet-style service is mobile-like in that it allows users to graze and try many different games very rapidly. Microsoft's future inclusion of cloud streaming to bypass installation times will also improve the experience for those who want immediate access — a factor that could get increasingly important as the younger generations explore outside of their mobile phone domain.

Features like FPS Boost means that Microsoft can also enhance the quality of past-gen games without any input from developers. Utilizing clever tricks and the CPU overhead, Microsoft can unlock the potential in games like Dark Souls III without the need for a patch or update, giving owners of the past-gen consoles an accessible upgrade path with tangible benefits, even without a 4K TV. Microsoft's forward-facing Smart Delivery feature also ensures gamers always get the best versions of the games for their console, without having to figure out what separate versions they need to buy (at least, if you're not buying a game from a scummy company like Activision, who abuses the system for profit).

It's hard to deny the value of the Xbox Series S on the face of it, and that value is only going to increase as time goes by.

Looking ahead

Xbox Series S Ports

Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central)

As more and more games ditch the past-gen consoles in favor of native Xbox Series X|S versions, the overall value of the console increases along with it. The Dead Space remake, for example, was announced to be a next-gen-only affair. FPS Boost continues to provide real-world benefits on classic past-gen games, and Xbox Game Pass continues to be the best-in-class service for console gaming.

Don't underestimate the Xbox Series S, good things often come in small packages.

I do have a 4K TV currently, and I have missed having the crisp resolution the Xbox Series X offers. The "downgrade," however, is nowhere near as steep as moving to an Xbox One-era console, though, which struggles to hit 60 FPS in most games, and sports long, plodding loading times owing to its mechanical HDD. The Xbox Series S has been nothing short of impressive, and I'd recommend it to basically anyone looking for an Xbox Game Pass machine, a console for a 1080p TV, or especially a youngster, who doesn't necessarily care about a few million extra pixels. All the best upcoming Xbox games are likely to be enhanced at this point now, and in the future.

As we move deeper into the generation, I'm intrigued to find out just how good games will end up looking on this impressively tiny box. Could Microsoft leverage AI to create some sort of "Resolution Boost" similar to their FPS Boost feature? Will developer tools and OS builds improve to unlock further efficiency? Will moving away from past-gen versions help studios create more optimized versions? The answer to all of these is probably yes, and the Xbox Series S is likely to benefit from it more than most. Don't underestimate the Xbox Series S; good things often come in small packages.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • I'm pleased with my Series S. It loads quickly and plays everything better than the one it replaced. My kids use it mostly and their TVs are 1080p so it's perfect for it. Now I just need a 2tb expansion card for my Series X and then I can move the 1tb I already have to the S. Oh and you can also find and buy the S which is a big bonus!
  • Same 👍 Upgraded from a One S (that in place replaced an Xbox One) and what an upgrade is was! Graphics and loading times are just WOW! And I've replaced the One S's hdd with an ssd. Great console for what it costs 👍
  • "Game journalists hate it, but the console isn't for them" is a great line - mainly because it's the truth. Speaking as one, I think people who often get lots of top-notch stuff sent to them for review and whatnot forget just how valuable a bang-for-your-buck machine like the Series S is. Yeah, it's not as good as what you'd get from an XSX or PS5, but the fact that it's comparable for $200 less is insane value.
  • Love my Series S. I've got a Series X in the lounge but a Series S married with a 1440p monitor in the study is a match made in heaven. If it does have a weakness I don't think it's the RAM. It's more the small storage and dependency on digital... But game pass sort of fixes that for you. Xbox is the best ecosystem to be digital on, period and Series S is the secret weapon.
  • I recently purchased a Series S to go along with my Series X. Series X at home, Series S for work breaks and lan parties (when Covid-permits!). I'm really surprised with the Series S - the console hammers, while being compact to sit between computer monitors on a desk. Higher than expected refresh rates tied with a very fast UI/OS to get you into the games is a winner. Crosscode runs 4k high fps on both consoles - which was a fantastic surprise, while Siege runs at well at high fps while not looking wrong for rendering below 4k on a 4k display. In Siege the UI elements are scaled correctly, even while the render target is below 4k! I cannot wait to play Gears on it (on my hitlist) while the new Halo Infinite could be something very exciting on this new console. I think the industry news looks at the raw stats of this console and reports it as a dis-service to all. This price point plus Xbox Game Pass is a big win - one the public I hope will realize. It even works well for anyone with a large catalog of previous digital games and is very friendly to new comers to the Xbox platform & community.
  • The SS gives MS three long term advantages (that are obscured by the semiconductor shortage):
    1- Because of the smaller SOC, they can get more SS SOCs from each wafer than SXes. The number of wafers they can get is limited so more SS SOCs means more current gen consoles they can ship per wafer. 2- There is still marketing magic in the $299 price point. The shortage obscures the demand rates but as it eases up MS will have more product to sell and a receptive market for it. 3- Because of the inherent scalability of DirectX developing for the triple PC/SS/SX install base will be easier, so having a bigger installed base will entice many previously PC-only developers to do the added work to reach for console sales. They already need different resolution assets for PC so console porting won't require as much added effort. One thing that most reviews of the SS tend to gloss over is that it has pretty good upscaling so lower native resolution doesn't mean its output on 4K display is awful. In fact, at living room viewing distances, the difference is hard to see. I have to wonder what displays and at what distance reviewers are working with, because I had the opportunity to play the same games (including FlightSim) on the same recent vintage HDMI 2.1 display via my sister's SS and my own SX, both set for 4K HDR10 (and dolbyvision on video) and neither of us saw any difference at normal playing distance of 6-8ft. Real world family/living rooms and displays are a different viewing environment than reviewers have, who often have top of the line PC monitors and/or smartTVs. Many actual paying customers will be using older displays, whether 4K or 1080p, where the difference will be even less noticeable. The SS will do fine. And, much like with the SX, MS will sell every last SS they can build. I would not be surprised if MS chooses to maximize SS production for the holiday quarter at the expense of the SX and server blades. From the developer point of view, an SS customer is indistinguishable from an SX customer so the bigger the installed base, the more money they have a shot at making. So yes, the SS is a very good move for MS.
  • I think it's the opposite, seing native games like Metro Exudus Enhanced Edition running close to 480p worries me. Unlike many though, to achieve 60fps these consoles the big consoles need to play at 1080p-1440p and that doesn't translate well when you have to downscale to the Series S. And something happened that I didn't expect, is what people value in next gen, I thought that playing the games was by far the most important thing, but people also want to feel the visuals jump and the thing is that the Series S doesn't give it. The result is that the demand for the Series S is satiated (you can find it in stores), while the big boys consoles are suffering from insane levels of demand.
  • Love my xbox series s. The only real difference is the 4K resolution but the graphics are the same
  • If I didn't need the DVD drive I would buy one immediately.
  • That was my driver.
    Old games and movies on disk.
    A few dozen of the former, a few hundred of the latter. An SS plus a good 4K BD player would bring the cost close to SX territory. My sister is mostly digital so no disk drive is no problem.
  • Same! It's so sad that they decided to go only digital with the Series S. And I think a lot of people who upgrade to this gen feel the same.
  • Well, MS needs to make *some* profit off the hardware some day.
    Plus leaving out the disk drive incentivizes GamePass adoption.
  • I'm glad to see the crowd here (mostly) agrees with the article. I feel the same. I have a beautiful 1080P OLED TV that I am not likely to upgrade anytime soon, so the Series S is the absolute value sweet-spot for me. I didn't need anything better, plus the cost was easier for me to justify in these uncertain times, PLUS I could actually buy one when they were first released. The lack of a Blu Ray/DVD drive is a drawback, but all I did was leave my One S in place for such times when I want or need to play a Blu Ray. In terms of games, I had already been all-digital on the One S for years, so there was no change when going from the old gen to the new one.
  • They should have just thrown an SSD into a One X equivalent and made that the cheaper model. Having 2 consoles with different resolutions in the same generation makes no sense. It didn't make sense last Gen and it doesn't now. They can make concessions in other areas. Love how compact it is though
  • Resolution is not as important as you believe it is to the majority of casual gamers. Even if it was, the One X had more weaknesses than just the HDD. Both its CPU and overall architecture wouldn't be able to keep up with current-gen consoles and where gaming is going. In many ways, the Series S is far more advanced than the One X.
  • The XBOX launch year has made the CPU the star of the new boxes.
    Most of the BC magic comes from the CPU.
    It is why the SS hits 60fps regularly and even 120fps. I had a OneX and the boost from 30fps is a lot more impressive than a jump from 1080 to 4K. The best example came out last week: the SS can run Flight Sim and the OneX never could.
    The SS is a much better balanced system. And that is without factoring in RayTracing, ML, VRS, etc.
  • The CPU power + the dedicated costum hardware to decompress data is not on the One X. CPU and SSD (includimg the decompressor and other stuff) is the most important part of next gen.
  • Just picked up a Series S to pair with its big brother, impressed with the size of the unit. The 380GB free out of 512GB was a disappointment. Overall, a nice little power plant. I can see this easily as a travel unit.
  • Initially I was going to try and fight the scalpers to get a Series X, but the S was available so I took the plunge. Love the size, speed, and lower energy consumption of this console. Perfect as a Game Pass machine. I will still eventually get a 'bigger boy', but at this point I may just wait for a redesign for both SX and PS5 (especially the PS5).