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The Xbox Series S is a little beast

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

The spotlight for next-gen has rested firmly on the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, owing to their strapping specs and 4K-capabilities. However, there's another console out there that has undeservedly been overshadowed by its beefy brethren, the affordable Xbox Series S.

We do have a full review up of the Xbox Series S penned by senior editor Matt Brown, but I recently had the opportunity to check it out for myself, and I have to say, I'm nothing short of impressed by the capabilities of this svelte system. Here are some early impressions of Microsoft's tiniest Xbox ever.

Xbox Series S For a certain lifestyle

Xbox Series S

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

When the Xbox Series S first leaked in a grainy off-video screenshot, I thought it looked odd. Even after growing on me, it's still fairly striking, with a two-tone monochromatic design that draws your eyes to its incredibly large fan grill. Up close and personal, though, the design of the console is quite immaculate and meticulous, with lots of subtle design cues that give it a premium-look despite its affordable price tier. The reverse of the console has raised etchings to help you feel out where cables should be placed, for example.

The fan grill is also slightly raised and curved, and the weight distribution is balanced enough for the console to be positioned vertically without a stand. Rubber feet keep it elevated above surfaces when placed, and the minimalistic look will ensure it complements practically any decor style.

The console uses the same white color as its predecessor, the Xbox One S, complete with a white controller. Microsoft clearly wants its black consoles to be known as the flagship devices if it continues with this two-prong approach to hardware sales, with the lower-end model taking the white design. No doubt over the course of the generation we'll see other color options emerge, but this is what we have for now.

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

The most impressive thing about the Series S, naturally, is its size. Given that it sports next-gen features with its powerful CPU and SSD, the fact that it's the smallest Xbox by volume ever is a truly impressive feat.

The Xbox Series S is clearly built with a specific type of consumer, and a specific type of purchase in mind.

Therein lies some of the more interesting design aspects of this console. The Xbox Series S is clearly built with a specific type of consumer and purchase in mind. Every aspect of this console is designed to be low commitment. There's no disc drive, so there's no need to commit to a physical-based ecosystem or physical retail. It's pretty damn tiny, so there's no need to commit to buying new entertainment systems or storage space to fit it into your set up. It's low-cost, making it a no-brainer type of purchase if all you want is to play the big-name service type games. And there are no 4K capabilities, so there's no need to upgrade to a large 4K TV set, which generally starts at 42 inches.

For some countries, for some homes, and some rooms, the minuscule physical footprint is an attractive aspect of the overall product pitch. I wouldn't necessarily think a young kid would require an Xbox Series X, complete with its large ventilation holes ideal for poking things into. If I was a college student who was being particularly thrifty, having an Xbox Series S with Xbox Game Pass to play with my pals when not studying would also be perfect.

Xbox Series S More powerful than you'd think

Observer System Redux is re-engineered for Xbox Series X and S consoles, and performs surprisingly well on the Series S, hitting 60 FPS complete with ray-tracing and enhanced lighting.

Much of the drama revolving around the Xbox Series S focuses on its power. The Xbox Series S is by no means as powerful as the PS5 or Xbox Series X overall, but it does sport many next-gen features that firmly put it within the same category (or really, I probably should be calling it current-gen at this point).

When I booted this thing up for the first time, the experience was completely indistinguishable from the Xbox Series X. It booted up almost instantaneously thanks to its SSD, complete with Quick Resume, dynamic backgrounds, and all of those familiar next-gen features. Either way, if I had to choose between an Xbox Series S and my previous Xbox One X, which languishes with a slow mechanical HDD and CPU from 2013, I'd most likely pick the Xbox Series S.

Cyberpunk 2077 Standoff

Source: CD Projekt RED Cyberpunk 2077 runs poorly on the Xbox Series S as of writing, but an update in 2021 will upgrade the game to a native next-gen version rather than the backward compatible Xbox One S version we have now. (Image credit: Source: CD Projekt RED)

Despite how the Xbox Series S isn't targeting 4K resolutions for gaming, there are just so many quality of life improvements that really up the overall experience. That said, I'm not sure I would switch away from the Xbox One X right away, given that not many games are fully optimized for the Xbox Series S as of writing. And this isn't to say the Xbox Series S isn't capable of 4K. There are a few games targeting 1440p or even full UHD resolutions on this box, and we could see the number of games that target higher resolutions swell even further when they're built natively.

Most games are currently running on backward compatibility, and the version you get on the Series S is generally equivalent to the One S version. By the end of 2021, though, the Xbox Series S could outshine the Xbox One X for most new games, with improved effects and frame rates, as more and more developers prioritize the next-gen developer pipelines over the past-gen ones.

Xbox Series S Don't count it out

Gears 5 Xbox Series S

Source: Windows CentralGears 5 on the Xbox Series S. (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Some tech writers and game journalists scratched their heads at the Xbox Series S, unable to see outside the bubble of "cutting edge all the time" tech we get easier access to. In fairness, the Xbox Series S has also won itself a ton of praise too, joining TIME Magazine's top inventions list for 2020.

If you're a journalist or YouTuber that got these consoles for free, it might be easy to slip into a complacent attitude towards the Xbox Series S, but it would be wrong to do so. There are certainly criticisms worth leveraging at the Xbox Series S, though. The 500GB storage allowance leaves a lot to be desired if you're not running a higher-end internet package, and the best Xbox Series S/X SSD storage devices aren't cheap.

I've been truly impressed with the Xbox Series S.

There's a clear and defined market for the Xbox Series S if some of us look past our own gaming habits and interests, though. There are huge sections of the market that don't have a 4K TV and have no intention of buying one. Gamer's habits are changing, and we're moving quickly towards a world where the screens we use most frequently are our phones. As many of us get older and have kids or bigger work commitments, buying up every new game becomes less of an option. It might make more sense to invest in a smaller, cheaper console that can still run next-gen games at 60 or even 120FPS for those annualized franchises, like FIFA and Call of Duty. If you're only playing a couple of games per year, the storage space wouldn't be much of an issue either. If you're buying for a youngster who is using a smaller TV or 1080p monitor in their room, there's practically no need to buy an Xbox Series X, which is targeting UHD 4K resolutions.

Like the lower-end iPhones or Galaxy phones, the Xbox Series S offers an experience that punches above its weight in terms of price and allows gamers to keep up with the latest trends. Crucially, it offers the lowest point of access for Xbox Game Pass this side of smartphone streaming, which is really the goal here.

I've been truly impressed with the Xbox Series S. I suspect when more and more games go next-gen native and drop backward compatibility, the Series S will find its audience.

Jez Corden
Jez Corden

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for 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!

19 Comments
  • Alternatively, you could just get a Windows laptop, and use it to play PSNow, Geforce Now, Xcloud, native PC games on it, in addition to using it as your daily work driver. You could either get a cheap laptop and use it for streaming, or buy one of the upcoming RTX laptops. The latter will cost 5x the price of a Series S, but the investment will be far more worthit, especially in today's post-pandemic society.
  • Show me a laptop that's worth buying for $250 lol.
  • You forgot the 5x the cost part. You can find plenty of good laptops for $1250. :p
  • WTF kind of native PC games are you going to play on a $300 PC? Also, your argument kind of falls flat when you require an internet connection and ample data to stream games. This is a local solution, not something for streaming only. And it shouldn't be said to just buy a more expensive PC, of course if you spend more you get more. That is an asinine statement.
  • "WTF kind of native PC games are you going to play on a $300 PC?" Older games, indie games, emulation, MMO, eSports, Moba, sandbox, visual novels, and more. I mean, look at WoW; it's still relevant and hugely popular to this day, and could run on a toaster. The console gamer, AAA / launch period zeitgeist mentality is what's wrong with gaming. Also, you really don't need an "ample" data stream; I have a pretty cheap mid tier Internet plan, and it allows me to stream games while the family watches Netflix, etc, in the other room. It's a real non-issue in today's society and as time progresses and streaming becomes more of a norm. I agree, a beefier more expensive PC/laptop is a false comparison, but in my opinion, I just don't see the point even investing in an Xbox when all of its current gen games come to PC, and a PC does a whole lot more.
  • I think you are over estimating what a budget PC can do in gaming. I have owned quite a few and they can't even remotely do the things that the Xbox One can, much less the new generation. Also, you do need ample data. You do realize that most of the US is under data caps or doesn't even have access to proper broadband in the first place? I have well above mid-tier internet and I still have a cap. They just increased it to 1.25 TB and I went over it finally. It might sound like a lot, but add a family of 3 or 4 and a constant stream of HD TV or Netflix and it is easy to go over. This isn't even counting game downloads or other updates and certainly not including game streaming.
  • Even my old 400 usd 2014 Asus laptop literally does all the things I said above, so no, you're under-estimating. Also, we are talking about laptops, not budget PC's; a 400 usd PC can actually do way more than even the laptops that I'm talking about. And no you do not need ample data; you literally don't even stream games and are pontificating based on theory and using the tired old cliche of "most of the US doesn't have fast Internet" argument. Most of the US aren't gamers, either; most of the US aren't enthusiasts that seek out the best internet service for their gaming hobby. Plus you're using data caps as an argument while also trying to defend an all digital console, which is daft, because people use the data cap argument as a reason for why digital consoles are bad as well. It's time to stop using old precedents as the basis of your argument against streaming; understand that "most of the US" doesn't apply when the context is about the gaming market, which is an enthusiast market that seeks out the latest innovations in technology and online infrastructure. It's also a market that's in the process of change; and that change includes people getting older and switching over to games as a service / netflix-like services for games, whether that be Game Pass, Stadia, PS Now, or other. Things aren't going to stay the same forever. Looks at the digital PS5; it's outselling the physical version, because it's cheaper and people ar buying games digitally nowadays. And likewise, streaming will also become a much bigger avenue for gamers; last year alone saw streaming services attract millions of new players, so the streaming market definitely is growing rapidly.
  • First off, I didn't bring up game streaming, you did as a reason to get a low end PC. I don't care if a console is digital only or not. Most PCs that are coming out are digital only. Your solution would be to stream modern games while using hardware to run the old games. If you bought this console you could do either eith both the hardware AND streaming. You are telling someone that they should compromise and only play older or indie games by buying something that can only do that rather than buy something where the compromise would only be to play console games, which they are looking to do in the first place. Secondly, the lack of internet infrastructure is not a "cliche", it is reality. It was only brought up as a point against a streaming only argument that you brought up. Speaking of "cliche", the argument against buying something cheaper that you have no interest in by saying "just buy something more expensive " is about as cliche as you can get. Or even comparing two different types of hardware can even be considered cliche. A PC and a console are two different markets and shouldn't even be compared.
  • The PS5 digital and most of PlayStation's software sales coming from digital now as opposed to physical in the past should give you an example of how things have rapidly changed, and will continue to change in to the future. Stadia, Geforce Now, Luna, PSNow, have been around for a few years, some literally only about 1-2 years, and in that time, last year specifically, have attracted millions of users combined. So, objectively, streaming services are growing at an exponential rate, year over year. You keep using the flawed argument of "The US mostly doesn't have fast Internet", but most of the US aren't gamers, either; we have to base our arguments within the context of the demographic we're talking about. The PS4's 120 million userbase is basically a sign of the maximum current console market, which is also diminishing as Japan continues to lose interest in consoles. In order to grow that market further, companies have to look to new methods and innovations, which is why streaming is growing exponentially, year over year, because as Internet gets better/ 5G becomes more availalbe over time, etc, so too will people look towards streaming. Streaming takes away the barrier of having to purchase an expensive console, up front, since you can literally run a streaming service on any device nowadays, though PC and Laptop have the edge, due to PS Now and PC game streaming services. Streaming takes away the problem with running out of storage space and lengthy game downloads, also. If you still believe in 15 years time, cloud streaming won't have significantly disrupted the traditional console market, you're either incredibly delusional or myopic. Perhaps you're an old(er) person, and are simply stuck to old precedents and aren't aware of how rapidly things are changing.
  • To be fair you can play all those old games on the Series S too with Retroarch in dev mode. But you can also do it all from the comfort of your sofa on your big TV. Faffing around unplugging HDMI cables to plug a laptop in and worrying about the battery dying because all your plugs are hidden away is hardly a blessing.
  • Contradicted yourself: talked about "faffing around" with stuff, which is objectively what putting the Series S in to developer mode is; antithesis of low friction for playing some emulated games. You'd be better off buying a Shield TV over a Series S, and using it for a lot more streaming media purposes, including sideloaded Android apk's, which you can't get on the Xbox. Then using that same Shield TV to stream your PC games, either through Geforce Now, or locally, via GameStream. I can play BotW and Persona 5 through my PC's emulators on the TV in another room, through nVidia GameStream on Shield TV.
  • $300 plus a TV. Seriously. And you can be as cheap as you want with the TV.
  • I've been singing the praises of the Series S since launch day. I'm having a great time with it. And according to Digital Foundry, the Series S is a better way to play Cyberpunk 2077 than the One X, an advantage that will only grow in time as the S has a better CPU/GPU. That said, it's a shame that certain games will only run the One S version of last gen titles. That's a lot of power going to waste.
  • I will be replacing my One X as my secondary console with one of these as soon as they become widely available. Hopefully by then they even have a storage bump.
  • Or a cheaper SSD upgrade card.
  • This is true, and this is what will probably happen first. With back compat games it doesn't matter much because an external SSD loads just as fast. Now that games are getting patches frequently, it is starting to become more important for thst card to come down.
  • I'm pretty sure the high cost of SSD isn't intrinsic to the tech (like the single source SOCs) but to the comnined demand from phones, computers, and consoles, which outstrips the combined capacity of all suppliers. I expect all major chip makers are expanding their capabilities as fast as they can to capture as much of that unmet demand: a classic gold rush. And like all tech gold rushes this will lead to a glut. And price cuts. At least 50% by next year. Me, I will get by with my external 4TB HDD until the 1TB and bigger cards come down to reasonable, sub $100 prices. My sister is going to get a Series S and I already warned her to avoid current cards and future 512GB cards. Better to wait.
  • Since it was first announced I've been praising the idea and design of the Series S. The only hard criticism I have for it is the half-Tera storage, games are increasingly becoming bigger and bigger and that storage can probably get full quite fast, although personally I don't mind it. Between work and other occupations, right now I'm in a point of my life where just a couple of games here and there are more than enough. Having a small console that looks fashionable and lowkey in my living room that I can turn on fast for a quick session or some local couch co-op on my non-4K TV is all I need, and Xbox Game Pass pretty much covers all the bases for me beside just a few titles.
  • No 4K when 8K TVs are starting to be a thing makes this a non-starter for me. That being said I am sure many will be happy with a cheap, next-gen Xbox