It's been nearly two years since the Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X hit living rooms (alongside the PlayStation 5). The Series S makes the case that premium gaming doesn't require a $500-and-up console, and it's one of the few genuine bargains I can think of in gaming hardware, especially when games you want to play add FPS Boost for better frame rates.
When the PS4 and Xbox One were released back in 2013, the PS4 cost $400, while the Xbox One cost $500. Now you 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. (The Xbox Series S costs £250 in the UK and AU$300 in Australia.)
- 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
- Game resolution tops out at 1440p
- Loses the optical audio output
- User interface remains cluttered
Read more: Best TVs for PS5 and Xbox Series X, Series S With 4K, 120fps Input and VRR
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 the less expensive Series S version of the Xbox, I also think it makes an excellent case for disc-free consoles.
We've covered the setup process, user interface and software features in our review of the Series X, and for the Series S, the experience is identical. 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.
Game console reviews
- Sony PlayStation 5 Review
- Microsoft Xbox Series X Review
- Microsoft Xbox Series S Review
- Nintendo Switch OLED Review
- Meta Quest 2 Review
- Valve Steam Deck Review
I played 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 unoptimized 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.
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.
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 as I've said, I'm an optical drive skeptic, preferring to skip complex mechanical parts that spin around and are more likely to break down.
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 comfortable recommending the Series S, especially when paired with the Xbox Game Pass monthly service, which offers so much good content that you might never need to buy a game.
Originally published Nov. 11, 2020.