Two-minute review

The Xbox Series S is a next-gen console that takes a radically different approach. It’s designed to offer the same generational leaps as the Xbox Series X, such as high frame rates, ray tracing and super-fast load times, at a considerably lower price – and inevitably, this means it comes with a few key compromises.  

It has significantly less storage than the Series X, and isn’t capable of 4K resolution for gaming; instead, it outputs at 1440p, and upscales to 4K when connected to an ultra HD display. 

The Xbox Series S also does without the 4K HD Blu-Ray drive of the Series X, and while these might be too many compromises for some users, the Xbox Series S is a much cheaper and smaller device as a result, and is still capable of playing next-gen games.  

During our time with the Xbox Series S, we’ve tested dozens of games – from last-gen hits including Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Forza Horizon 4, Doom Eternal and Gears 5, to upcoming launch titles like Yakuza Like a Dragon. 

Each one impressed us, with smoother frame rates, increased resolutions (when compared to Xbox One and Xbox One S) and faster load times… even if they don’t look quite as pretty as they do on the Series X due to the lack of native 4K support.

That said, for gamers who have no qualms about buying games digitally, or subscribe to Xbox Game Pass, you’re getting the full suite of next-gen features on Microsoft’s cheaper console. The Xbox Series S is a great entry point into next-gen gaming, then, without the sizable financial outlay required to own a full-blown next-gen console.

Xbox Series S

(Image credit: Future)

As we’ve alluded to already, there are drawbacks to consider. If you prefer to purchase games physically, or have amassed a large collection of Xbox One games over the years, the Xbox Series S’s lack of disc drive may put you off. 

It’s only available with 512GB SSD storage too – there’s no higher-capacity option. And while this SSD is dramatically faster than the old mechanical drives in the Xbox One X and Xbox One S, it can fill up fast. 

The five games we mentioned above filled up almost the entire 512GB SSD on our review unit, leaving us with just 30GB of space to play with. That means if we wanted to install a game of that size to the system’s internal drive, we’d likely have to delete something first (or additionally purchase the console’s expandable storage).

Xbox Series X review

(Image credit: Future)

The Xbox Series X utilizes its powerful specs to significantly reduce load times and increase overall game performance and visual fidelity. But, while features such as Quick Resume, Smart Delivery and backwards compatibility give it that extra boost, it’s hard to deny that it’s lacking in key areas, notably significant UI improvements and captivating exclusive launch titles.

Read our Xbox Series X review

The other factor that may deter people from buying Microsoft’s more affordable Xbox is the fact that it isn’t capable of 4K resolution for gaming, and instead outputs at 1440p. This lower resolution is a firm favorite in the PC gaming space due to the superior image quality it allows for over 1080p, and lower amount of graphical grunt it requires, and it’s allowed Microsoft to create a lower-spec machine that still boasts next-gen features. 

If you own an Xbox One X the drop to 1440p from native 4K can be noticeable, and the Xbox Series X is the console for you if you’re after the outright best image quality possible. That said, because the Xbox One X was able to deliver games like Forza Horizon 7 at 4K/60fps, and is still capable of some sumptuous visuals, it’s easy to think the Xbox Series S is a step back – but it’s not. 

Looking at the internals of the system, the Xbox Series S separates itself from the One X with its vastly more powerful CPU, and more technically capable GPU, courtesy of AMD’s RDNA 2 architecture which enables cutting-edge features like ray tracing. Yes, the Series S has fewer teraflops than the Xbox One X (four compared to six), but teraflops are no longer the defining factor in how a GPU power is determined. 

For Xbox One owners looking to upgrade without breaking the bank, the Xbox Series S is a great option, if you can accept what it’s been designed to achieve. If you’ve already got the Xbox One X and a 4K display at home however, we suggest considering the Xbox Series X instead.

Considering the bigger sibling? Check out our Xbox Series X video review below

Xbox Series S price analysis and release date

  • Xbox Series S release date: November 10 2020
  • Xbox Series S price: $299.99 / £249.99 / AU$499
  • Can be bundled with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for $24.99 / £20.99 / AU$33 a month

The Xbox Series S release date is November 10, 2020, and the Xbox Series S price is $299.99 / £249.99 / AU$499. That’s the same release date as the Xbox Series X, while the price is significantly cheaper than the Series X’s price of $499 / £499 / AU$749. 

Keep in mind however that, without a disc drive, you won’t be able to buy used games or trade games with your friends: you’re dependent on the Xbox Store for any purchases, which means you won’t always get the best deal. 

That issue is negated somewhat if you subscribe to Xbox Game Pass (a separate expense, but exceptional value nonetheless), or only buy the occasional game at full price around launch time, but it’s not ideal for those who rely on physical game sales or trade-ins to fund their favorite pastime.

Speaking of discounts, it’s worth pointing out that the Xbox Series S is also available on Microsoft’s Xbox All Access subscription service in select regions, including the US, UK and Australia. 

Xbox All Access bundles the console with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate on a 24-month plan (giving you access to the latter for the duration) for $24.99 / £20.99 / AU$33 a month, with no upfront costs – that’s a good deal, and one that works out cheaper than if you were to buy the console and pay for 24 months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate separately.

Of course, Microsoft isn’t the only one with new hardware out in November. Sony is releasing the PS5 and PS5 Digital Edition just a few days after the Xbox Series S and Series X, so if you’re still on the fence then it’s worth checking out our reviews of those consoles before commiting.

Xbox Series S TV

(Image credit: Future)

Xbox Series S design

  • Looks great when placed horizontally or vertically
  • Can comfortably fit into any setup
  • The console and controller look great in white

While the hardware powering the Xbox Series S is brand-new, the design of the Xbox Series S is a little reminiscent of the (now discontinued) Xbox One S All-Digital Edition.

The Xbox Series S has a distinctive black fan vent, almost like a speaker grille, on the top that breaks up the swath of white which encases the rest of the console, and from which the majority of the heat is exhausted. It’s the smallest Xbox that Microsoft has ever made, with a plain front face that sports a single USB port and a power button. It’s a clean, understated and functional design.

In terms of ports, if you spin the Xbox Series S around you’ll find an HDMI 2.1 output, two USB 3.2 ports, an Ethernet port, a storage expansion slot and an AC input. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Xbox Series S doesn’t have a port for Kinect, Microsoft’s now-defunct motion-sensing camera, or an HDMI for cable boxes. (Note, however, that the Xbox Series S only ships with a High Speed HDMI cable, not an Ultra High Speed HDMI cable.)

In terms of weight and size, the Xbox Series S measures in at 6.5 x 15.1 x 27.5cm and 4.25 pounds (around 2kg). Its size should ensure it easily fits into most entertainment center cabinets and on TV stands, and it’s light enough to pack up and bring to a friend’s house, or take with you on vacation.

As we mentioned above, the Xbox Series S is smaller than the Xbox One S, which is an impressive feat considering that it’s packing a 4 TFLOP GPU and an octa-core Custom Zen 2 CPU that need to be cooled.

While some might not like the way Microsoft has aped its own design from the last generation, we’re okay with it. It’s nice to have some continuity, especially in products which are advertised as a family of devices instead of a whole new line, although it is fairly straightforward and industrial-like in its appearance. 

Xbox Series S

(Image credit: Future)

Xbox Series S performance

  • Upscaled 4K looks great, and native 1440p is a nice compromise
  • Offers smooth and fluid 120fps gameplay
  • Xbox Velocity Architecture is fast… but not instantaneous

The Xbox Series S’s strong suit is its value proposition – it’s a compact powerhouse. It can offer either upscaled 4K gaming, native 1440p resolution or a 1080p picture. 

Its GPU, while not as powerful as the one in the Xbox Series X, can upscale games to 4K (in a similar way to the Xbox One S) and still run games at 120fps at 1440p, but you’ll need a HDMI 2.1-compliant TV if you want to keep the resolution at 1440p. It’s also capable of ray tracing, and loads games faster than ever thanks to Microsoft’s Xbox Velocity Architecture. 

Combine Velocity Architecture with the 10GB of GDDR6 memory and built-in SSD, and you’ve got all the makings of a powerful console.

Xbox Series S specs

CPU: 8-core 3.6GHz (3.4GHz with SMT) custom AMD 7nm
GPU: 4 teraflops at 1.565GHz
RAM: 10GB GDDR6
Frame rate: Up to 120fps
Resolution: 1440p with 4K upscaling
Optical: No disk drive
Storage: 512GB NVMe SSD
Usable storage space: 364GB

But do you actually need a 4K TV? And furthermore, do you need one that supports HDMI 2.1 for its 120Hz refresh rate? Let’s walk through all the scenarios.

If you’re using a 1080p TV, the Xbox Series S uses a technique called supersampling to create better-looking images, even on less-capable displays. Supersampling is a complex process, but the basic idea is that the game is rendered at higher resolution, and then downscales the image to match the output of your TV. 

The end result is a noticeable boost in image clarity and anti-aliasing (the removal of jaggies and pixelated edges), and means that gamers who aren’t using a 4K or 1440p -capable screen will still benefit from improved image quality from the Xbox Series S.  

Most folks though, we expect, will be pairing the Xbox Series S with a 4K HDR TV – potentially one with a 120Hz native refresh rate, although the majority of displays sold over the last few years are likely to only support 60Hz at 4K and 1440p. 

If you do hook the Xbox Series S up to a 4K panel, the console will use a technique called upscaling to convert a non-native 4K signal to 4K. While there’s a stark difference between rendering in 4K, and rendering in 1440p and then upscaling to 4K – especially if you’ve got a keen eye for detail – it still makes games on the Xbox Series S look better than if the console was locked to a 1440p output. 

It’s worth noting that the Xbox Series S can render some games in native 4K if a developer chooses to enable that option, but it’s done on a game-by-game basis, and isn’t something you’re going to see on every game on the system.

The upshot here is that the console can utilize HDR (high dynamic range) that enables a wider color palette, higher peak brightness and better contrast levels. Skies look bluer, grass looks greener and colors pop in every scene. If you haven’t had the opportunity to game in HDR yet, you’re in for a treat.

If you are fortunate enough to have a display that’s compliant with HDMI 2.1, you can enable 120fps at 1440p without having to drop down to 1080p resolution. To enable 120fps, simply pop into the console’s audio and visual settings, where you can choose from various frame rate and resolution options. 

It’s pretty straightforward, but it’s worth noting that not all games can hit 120fps and, at the time of writing, there are only a handful that can, including The Falconeer and Gears 5’s multiplayer – with Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War, Halo Infinite multiplayer and more due to get support in the future. 

Even if you don’t invest in a new TV, you’re still going to see the benefits of the new SSD and Microsoft’s Xbox Velocity Architecture. The latter is a multi-step solution that combines the Series S’s custom NVMe SSD, hardware-accelerated decompression blocks, a brand-new DirectStorage API layer and Sampler Feedback Streaming (SFS).

That’s a lot to parse, but the gist of it is that data is stored in a more efficient way, and can be loaded into memory faster thanks to both the physical storage medium and the software algorithms that Microsoft have implemented to load the data. 

Xbox Series S with Xbox Series X

(Image credit: Future)

The result is significantly faster load times compared to Xbox One X, and the SSD also enables features like Quick Resume which we’ll get to shortly.  

Of course, the one area that’s less impressive here is the meager 512GB of storage capacity, which most people will fill up pretty much overnight. While 500GB was sufficient early on during the last console generation, game file sizes have expanded exponentially in the years since, making anything less than 1TB of storage seem like a raw deal.

And it gets worse when you consider that you don’t even get access to the full 512GB of storage. The system OS takes up 148GB of space, meaning you’ve only got 364GB of usable storage to play with from the outset. 

By the time you’ve installed four or five games, you’ll need to start thinking about what to uninstall, which is never a fun experience. While Microsoft claims that games on Xbox Series S will be up to 30% smaller due to not having 4K texture files, this won’t stop the system’s internal drive from rapidly filling up.

The good news is that Microsoft is releasing an add-on storage solution at launch, in partnership with Seagate, that can add 1TB of extra storage if you run out of room. The bad news? The Seagate Storage Expansion Card costs $219.99 / £219.99 / AU$359 – money that could be spent on buying an Xbox Series X instead.

Xbox Series S controller

  • More tactile than before thanks to careful refinement
  • Triggers are shorter, controller is easier to grip thanks to new textured finish 
  • Share button is a welcome addition, and the 360-degree D-pad feels great
  • Still uses AA batteries, unfortunately

Coming from the Xbox One Controller, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Xbox Series X/S controller isn’t all that different. However, it’s now more comfortable and easier to use than ever before due to subtle changes in the controller’s ergonomics. 

Its overall dimensions have been tweaked ever so slightly, reducing the size of the controller as a whole, but not to the point where it’s noticeable to the average user. It means more hand sizes can use the new Xbox pad comfortably. Other changes include a textured and matte finish on the handles, triggers and bumpers, that help you get more purchase on the controller during tense gaming sessions.

Probably the biggest change for the controller itself, though, is the new D-pad, which has been revised to be a full 360-degree pad that feels great on the thumb. Each direction clicks with a satisfying sound and tactile feedback (though some might find it noisier than they’d like), and its smooth finish makes pulling off half-circle sweeps in fighting games a real pleasure.

Another minor change is that the triggers on the back of the controller have been shortened to make them more accommodating for smaller hands. The triggers still have haptic feedback in the form of rumble motors, but it’s not the same as the adaptive triggers in the PS5 DualSense controller, which can change resistance on the fly.

The new Share button does exactly what you’d expect – it captures and shares moments in your game for posting in your Xbox Feed or on social media. One click takes a snapshot, while holding the button down longer captures a 15-second video (you can adjust the duration in the Capture settings). 

It’s much easier than on the Xbox One, where you had to press the home button twice and then X or Y, but it does take some getting used to if you’re accustomed to doing it the old way. 

Xbox Series S

(Image credit: Future)

Overall though, it’s  mostly what you remember, with two asymmetrical analog sticks, the menu and view buttons that fill in for start and select, and the four face buttons (A, B, X, Y). 

The Xbox Series S controller keeps its 3.5mm audio jack and expansion port at the bottom, but it now uses a USB Type-C charging port instead of microUSB. You’ll also find the pairing button at the top, which you use to sync the controller to the console, or for pairing when using Bluetooth.

The new Xbox pad is still a comfortable controller to play with, but its biggest weakness is the fact that it still uses AA batteries, instead of a rechargeable lithium-ion cell like the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2. We found a pair of AA batteries lasted for around 10 days or so of heavy gaming, but we’ll update this review with a clearer figure in due course.

If you’re appalled by the idea of a controller using AA batteries in 2020, you can also pick up Microsoft’s play-and-charge kit, which comprises a rechargeable battery and USB-C cable, for $24.99 (£20.99 / AU$29.95 ) to save you money in the long term (you can also use rechargeable AAs). 

While the kit is obviously an extra expense that may irk some, there’s an element of flexibility at least – and you’re also not at the mercy of a lithium-ion cell battery, which can degrade over time, and which is more costly to replace should anything go awry. 

Our advice? Pick up rechargeable batteries, or Microsoft’s play-and-charge kit, if you plan on doing more than 40 hours of gaming a week.

Xbox Series S features

  • User interface feels a bit overcrowded and, in some places, slow
  • Quick Resume feels really cutting-edge
  • Smart Delivery ensures you get the best possible version of a game
  • Good selection of streaming apps, plus Dolby Vision and Atmos support

If it’s been a few years since you bought an Xbox console, and you’re worried that the process of setting it up might be confusing, don’t be. Setting up the Xbox Series S proved to be a streamlined process that went even smoother thanks to the new-and-improved Xbox app for Android and iOS. 

You’ll need to download the app from the App Store or Google Play Store, and log in to your Microsoft account. Once you’re logged in, power on the console and type in the code you see on the TV screen in the app. This pulls in all your data without you having to type it all in. You’ll still need to enter a few additional details on the console, like your Wi-Fi name and password, but then you’re off to the races after a small update.

The UI that greets you when you’ve finished setting up the Xbox Series S will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used an Xbox One in the last three months, as the “new” Xbox Dashboard rolled out in August, and is the same across both Xbox Series X and the older hardware. It isn’t the most intuitive of interfaces, though. 

There’s a lot of information on display at once, and it’s fair to say there’s a small learning curve when it comes to learning how to navigate the UI effectively. 

The downside to having the same user interface as the One series is that the Xbox Series S doesn’t feel any different right away, even if navigating the dashboard feels snappier than before thanks to the extra power underneath the hood. 

Moreover, the new UI still presents some of the same problems we noticed in the past with Xbox One’s interface: some images on the screen take a few seconds to load as content is pulled from the internet, and it’s generally a bit too busy for most tastes, with far more information on screen than you actually need at one time.

Look past the UI, however, and you’ll begin to see some new areas where the Xbox Series S really innovates, though they’re admittedly more subtle. 

Xbox Series S

(Image credit: Future)

Smart Delivery from the Xbox Store means that you’ll always get the best possible version of a game when you download it or if it upgrades in the future. Your save data also carries over seamlessly, even if you jump back and forth between your old Xbox One / One X / One S and new Xbox Series S. It’s essentially simultaneously backward and forward compatibility, which is reassuring.

Jumping between multiple games at a time is now possible thanks to Quick Resume, a new feature that allows the Xbox Series S to hold multiple game states in memory at one time.  You can  jump back and forth between games without needing to reload them. 

The number of games that can be suspended varies – we had as many as eight in rotation at one point – and not all titles will work, especially those with online, ever-changing worlds like Sea of Thieves. It’s a handy, time-saving feature that’s only possible thanks to the console’s SSD, and even works if the console is completely powered down. 

Lastly, we have to talk about the console’s multimedia capabilities. As a streaming device, the Xbox Series S carries most major services from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu to newcomers like Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus, as well as UK-specific services such as Sky Go. 

Getting to them requires navigating to the Apps section of your library or, if it’s something you frequently use, you can pin it to the home screen or create a specific group that can be accessed from the Xbox guide. We noticed that apps stayed in a suspended state, much like games, when we flicked between them too.

It’s important to note that while the Xbox Series S only outputs at 1440p resolution when gaming, the console is capable of displaying streaming apps in 4K HDR. That means the likes of Netflix, Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus will output in 4K when using a compatible display.

Some of these services are available in Dolby Vision and Atmos, just like on the One X, but might require you to pay for a higher subscription tier in order to have access to them.

Xbox game library

  • Scarce launch lineup with few exclusives
  • Backward compatibility with three generations of Xbox consoles
  • Xbox Game Pass is a great way to instantly build up your library

We won’t mince words here: the Xbox Series S’s game library is off to a bad start. With the delay of Halo: Infinite to 2021 and beyond, there aren’t any first-party exclusives available at launch on the Xbox Series S, other than titles that have previously been available before or on PC like Gears Tactics. 

We’ll get some more third-party exclusives soon in the form of The Medium and Bright Memory Infinite, but right now Microsoft’s first-party output is considerably lacking.

Instead of releasing new experiences on day one, Microsoft has opted to improve the library of games it’s already got via Xbox Series S optimizations. Games like Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and Sea of Thieves have all been optimized to either increase their base resolution, framerates or add more visual fidelity.

What made things tricky during our testing  – and we presume will be resolved before launch – is that we couldn’t always tell which games had been properly optimized and which games were the Xbox One versions. Microsoft told us that optimized games will have a badge on their cover art that says “Xbox Series X/S Optimized” but that wasn’t available for us just a week prior to the console launching.

All that being said, if you’re someone who loves having access to the entire library of Xbox games past and present, the Xbox Series S will be appealing because it supports four generations of Xbox titles, stretching all the way back to the original Xbox. 

Being able to jump back and forth between Xbox 360 classics like Viva Pinata and Red Dead Redemption to more modern-day blockbusters is comforting, and it’s nice not having to break out the old hardware or have to track down an old CRT TV.

The caveat here is that, because the Xbox Series S doesn’t have a disc drive, you’ll need digital versions of those older games to play them. And for that reason, Xbox Game Pass is great. 

On it, you’ll find over 100 games available to download on the Xbox Series S with a mix of new first-party titles like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Gears 5 and Forza 7, as well as some indie gems from the Xbox 360 era. If you’re someone who loves the Games with Gold program, but wish you had a few more options of what to download, Game Pass is really satisfying.

While Game Pass can’t make up for the lack of exclusives at launch, it does help pad out your library and gives you a chance to see some of last-gen’s best games in a new light. You also get access to all of Microsoft’s first-party games the day they release, including the upcoming Halo Infinite, which represents a huge long-term saving in itself.

Should you buy the Xbox Series S?

Xbox Series S

(Image credit: Future)

Buy it if…

You’re on a budget, but still want to experience next-gen gaming
For original Xbox One owners, the Xbox Series S is an easy recommendation. It offers native 1440p gaming with up to 120 frames per second support. It’s not the best console on the market, of course, but it is a massive upgrade over its predecessors.

You plan on mostly getting games from Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Live Gold
Because you’re going to be getting all of your games digitally on the Xbox Series S, we recommend tacking on an Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Live Gold subscription to your purchase. That way, you’ve got access to all the latest first-party games as soon as they come out, online play, and you’ll also get two free games every month with Xbox Live Gold.

You’re tired of sitting through long loading screens
The marquee features of the Xbox Series S is the SSD and Microsoft’s Xbox Velocity Architecture. Being able to jump between games with Quick Resume means you won’t have to waste time waiting for games to boot up, and the SSD ensures that load times are half of what you’re used to seeing on the previous generation.

Don’t buy it if…

You love keeping a library of games installed at all times
The SSD is certainly fast enough, but it comes at the expense of total storage space. After you account for the operating system, the Xbox Series S only has about 364GB of usable space, which fills up fast when some games take up as much as 100GB. If you love keeping games installed on your console, you’ll need to either step up to the Xbox Series X or invest in some external storage solutions.

You have a large physical game or Blu-ray library
The other big drawback to the Xbox Series S is that it doesn’t have a disc drive. That means you won’t be able to use your old Xbox 360 or Xbox One games with the new console, nor will you be able to use it as a 4K UHD Blu-ray player like you can with the Series X, One X and One S.

You demand a next-gen experience with no compromises
With Quick Resume, ray-tracing and 120 frames per second gameplay support, the Xbox Series S does exactly what Microsoft’s flagship console can do. That said, the lack of native 4K resolution, disc drive and meager amount of SSD storage means that the Series S just doesn’t truly shine as a paradigm of what next-gen consoles can be.