Last generation, we saw Microsoft take the first steps towards an all-digital future when it released the discless Xbox One S. With the growing success of Xbox Game Pass, it made sense for the studio to emphasise the usefulness of hundreds of digital games on demand for a small monthly fee by eliminating the disc drive.
For this new generation of consoles, both Xbox and PlayStation released disc and all-digital versions of their own respective consoles. For PlayStation, this meant simply removing the Blu-Ray drive from its console and selling it as is. But for Xbox, the differences between its beefier Series X and the tiny Series S are a lot more intricate.
Let’s start with the main differences between the two. The Series X is a console intended for playing games at 4K, while the Series S maxes out at 1440p (but is generally aimed at those on 1080p screens). If you want a crisper picture and have a compatible television to boot, it makes sense to go for the Series X over the S.
On the other hand, the Series S is less powerful in terms of hardware and doesn’t have a disc drive, allowing the price to be slashed by £200. It is very much a budget console, but still allows you to play new games for a generous entry fee. It’s also extremely small, to the point where you’re actually really surprised by where this thing can fit. Its width is just slightly larger than a Nintendo Switch.
The less powerful hardware inside the Series S means some games don’t end up looking as good on there compared to the Series X or PlayStation 5. However, it should also be noted much of this extra processing power is going towards rendering the picture at 4K, which the Series S doesn’t require. Through rigorous testing with many different games, I concluded that most games optimised for the new Xbox Series consoles run identically on either system. The main difference is simply resolution.
Similarly to what David noted in his PS5 review, the Series S comes with a fast SSD that is capable of loading any game much faster than it could on an older system. This works for both current-gen games and any running via backwards compatibility. Loading up Red Dead Redemption 2 once took at least 3-4 minutes, but that time has now been cut down to less than a minute to get in-game. Similarly, those infamous long elevator loading screens in Mass Effect have now been reduced to a point where you even miss out on some of the party banter.
One drawback to having cheaper hardware inside the Series S means the SSD also takes a hit. While it seems to load games just as fast as the X, the actual size of the available storage has been reduced to just 365GB of usable space. It’s not ideal when you’re installing behemoths like Call of Duty or Destiny 2 to your console. You can store games on an external hard drive, but any of them optimised for the Series X|S must be on the SSD itself.
Meanwhile, the size of available SSD space can also be increased with an expansion card sold separately. It’s a fun reminder of memory cards from days past, and is most certainly useful if you find yourself running dry of available storage. It does, however, currently cost £220 for 1TB so it’s quite an expensive purchase for the time being.
The Xbox Series X|S also has a unique feature not seen in any other console at the moment called Quick Resume. It works similarly to how you could suspend your game on the Xbox One – able to pick up where you left off next time you boot it up – except now you can suspend multiple games at once and flick between them on the fly.
This means you can potentially have 4-5 games running at once, the total number depending on how much RAM is in use and continue your playthroughs alongside each other without ever closing the game. You can go from cruising the streets of Edinburgh in Forza Horizon 4 to shooting up aliens in the Pillar of Autumn in Halo in a seamless manner.
I also love the stance Xbox has taken on backwards compatibility. I always loved being able to take my original discs from the original era, pop them into my Xbox One and still have them run perfectly as they once did. With the Series S, you obviously can’t use discs, but pretty much any game that runs via backwards compatibility is available to buy digitally from the Microsoft Store.
This also includes every game from the Xbox One era, meaning there are literally thousands of titles spanning from the last twenty years available to play. While there aren’t many Xbox Series X|S exclusive games at the moment, it’s nice to be able to access your giant library and play these games whenever you want.
But let’s talk about the main appeal of the Series S: Game Pass. For a small monthly fee, you have access to hundreds of games which are rotated in and out on a monthly basis. It’s basically the Netflix of video games. While there are some understandable issues on the topic of preservation and ownership here, you can’t deny that Game Pass is a fantastic deal for anyone gaming on Xbox. There have been so many games I wouldn’t have bought, that I instead tried because it was on Game Pass, that I ended up enjoying a lot more than I would have expected. And having every Xbox first party title available on Day 1 via Game Pass? An absolute win.
In terms of games though, what’s currently available on the Xbox Series X|S may not justify an upgrade to next-gen just yet. The only first-party title that’s available so far is Microsoft Flight Simulator (which, to its credit, is so good the PC version made our GOTY list last year), but upcoming titles like Forza Horizon 5, Halo Infinite and Grounded are still getting last-gen versions released.
On the other hand, many games that were released for the Xbox One now have new-gen optimisations. Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4 all look incredible on the Series S, so much better than they did on my old Xbox One. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice even just received a new upgrade that hasn’t made its way over to PC or PS5, making it the best version of that game out there right now. Over time, we will see more games receive these upgrades to allow them to reach the full potential of the new hardware.
So is an Xbox Series S worth it? If you’re a PlayStation user curious by the potential of Game Pass or the strong backwards compatibility library, the Series S being priced at £250 makes it a fantastic purchase. As an upgrade to the Xbox One, the returns are less fruity, but are worth it if you’re really into playing the best versions of your favourite games. If you like discs and physical media, perhaps go for the Series X instead.
One thing’s for certain though – pricing the entry point for the entire next generation of gaming at such a low price shows that Microsoft cares about making games accessible for everyone.