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Xbox Series S review: The console making next-gen gaming more affordable

Microsoft's simplified, streamlined Xbox experience is just as good -- for most people -- on its cheaper console.

This year's crop of next-gen consoles have an advantage over the previous generation: more versions at launch with a wider range of prices, starting with the $300 (£250, AU$499) Xbox Series S. And if you think saving $100 to $200 isn't a big deal for a lot of people, you haven't been paying attention to 2020. 

When the PS4 and Xbox One were released back in 2013, the PS4 cost $400, while the Xbox One cost $500. This holiday season, you'll have the option of a $300 Xbox Series S, a $400 "digital" PS5 (without an optical drive) and $500 versions of the PS5 and Xbox Series X

Read More: Xbox Series S Restock Tracker: Where to get a console.

8.5

Xbox Series S

Like

  • Least expensive new Xbox since the Xbox 360
  • Easy app-based setup
  • Wide-ranging ecosystem, from cloud gaming to Game Pass
  • Media can stream at 4K

Don't Like

  • Game resolution tops out at 1440p
  • Loses the optical audio output
  • Limited exclusive next-gen games at launch
  • User interface remains cluttered

Read more: 

I've already laid down my marker on why the disc-free PS5 is a great idea, and an easy way to save a few bucks. And after spending more than a week with the less expensive Series S version of the Xbox, I also think it makes an excellent case for being your next game console. 

For a much more detailed breakdown of the new Xbox Series X/S features, gameplay and hardware, see our review of the Xbox Series X

We've already gone over the setup process, user interface and software features of the Series X, and for the Series S, the experience is identical. You can read more about that here, but I was especially impressed with the onboarding process for setting up and signing into the new Xbox. Setup via the Xbox app (iOS, Android or Windows 10) is a breeze. The console broadcasts its own temporary Wi-Fi signal, which the app picks up and uses to complete the setup. Just make sure to go through the setup options carefully to avoid sending too much data to both Microsoft and third-party publishers. 

Read more: Xbox Series X review 

I played a handful of games, including Gears 5, Forza Horizons 4, Watch Dogs: Legion, Yakuza: Like a Dragon and The Touryst (yes, it's really spelled that way…) on both the Xbox Series X and Series S. Additionally, games like Gears of War 5, Forza 4 and a few other older games are optimized for the X/S experience with ray-tracing and other high-end graphical extras. Other non-optimized games, old or new, may benefit from higher-resolution output or shorter loading times, but the actual games will look and play the same as they do on your Xbox One or One X. 

xbox-series-x-s-console-hoyle-studio-promo-5

The Series S works great in either horizontal or vertical positions. 

Andy Hoyle/CNET

On my test TV, a 65-inch 4K LG OLED, I saw minimal difference between the Xbox Series X and Series S. The main thing to keep in mind is that the Series X can render a game at 4K resolution (whether it will always do so is another question), while the Series S is rendering at a lower resolution -- it's not always explicitly stated what that resolution is, but the Series S will render games at a maximum of 1440p, which is 2,560x1,440 pixels, still a step up from full HD, which is 1,920x1,080. 

If you have a smaller TV or a non-4K TV, I don't think you'd ever notice the difference. The most I got out of it was a slightly softer look to games like Gears 5 on my 4K TV when flipping back and forth between the Series S and Series X. 

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The Series S, PS5 and Series X. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

But that lower resolution means it can still handle the ray tracing and other new game eye candy, despite a less powerful GPU. The Series S also lacks the optical drive, but I'm an optical drive skeptic, preferring to skip complex mechanical parts that spin around and are more likely to break down. 

Media apps can still output at 4K from the Series S, although in their prerelease state, I found some of the apps, including Netflix, to still be a little buggy, kicking out a signal with a big motion-smoothing effect to it, perhaps because they're defaulting to a higher refresh rate. Hopefully that will be resolved in the near future. 

Now, I can't promise that future games won't eventually split off into Series X and Series S versions, with different visual features for each -- but if you're a casual gamer, have a smaller TV or just want to spend less, I'm very comfortable recommending the Series S.