(Pocket-lint) - When this current generation of console gaming kicked off, the Xbox Series S was perhaps overlooked by many.
It is genuinely affordable, neat enough to tuck away in a cabinet and it plays all the latest Xbox games, including a smattering not available on Xbox One. In fact, it sounds pretty perfect.
But one question remains: is it truly powerful enough for this latest generation of gaming?
In all honesty, the Xbox Series S isn't really for hardcore gamers. It's not designed for those who want to hook it up to a 4K HDR OLED TV and play at the highest level of console graphics possible. However, it is wonderfully suited to more casual play, with enough grunt to handle current next-gen games and still provide access to all the popular media streaming services.
The console is also a great portal for Xbox Game Pass - not only with downloadable titles, but also because you can stream over the company's Cloud Gaming platform - thereby negating its biggest caveats in the stingy SSD storage space and extra graphical grunt.
And on top of that, it is silent, uncomplaining and friendly – the VW Beetle to the Series X's Golf GTi. That might not be everyone's idea of a generational leap, but it provides an important bridge between the old and the new in a tidy, affordable package.
Xbox Series S
- Neat and small enough to hide away
- Offers ray-tracing and faster loading times
- Great value when coupled with Game Pass
- Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos for media and gaming
- 512GB internal SSD storage is measly
- Maximum of 1440p output for gaming
- Dimensions: 65 x 151 x 275mm / Weight: 1.97kg
- Connections: HDMI 2.1, 3x USB 3.1, Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi
The Xbox Series S comes with claims that it's the smallest Microsoft console yet and you can tell. It's no bigger than a shoebox and, as it's the only current-gen machine purposely built to work best when laid flat, is easy enough to tuck out of the way.
The face is non-descript. As a digital-only device, there is no disc tray. There's just a USB port, controller connection button, and the glowing Xbox logo on/off switch to shout about. The rest is flat, white plastic and largely character-free.
But we like that. Bar the colour, the Series S hides away nicely, yet also looks neat when left exposed. In fact, the only distinguishing feature is the heat grille on the top, which is black for no apparent reason. There are also grilles down both sides, so don't jam it too close to the sidewalls of any TV stand.
On the rear, you get a collection of ports that mostly match up with the last generation Xbox consoles. There is an Ethernet port for a wired internet connection (802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi is available too), while the two USB ports on the back match the one on the front by being USB 3.1 compatible. An HDMI 2.1 output is present, alongside a figure-of-eight power socket.
It's worth noting that there's no HDMI input this generation, as Xbox has foregone any notion of using it to control paid TV boxes. To be honest, after the Sky Q box was released in the UK, the Xbox One media hook-up functionality was rendered incompatible anyway.
Instead, you now get a Storage Expansion slot for the official, optional SSD card. This could be very important, as we'll explain in a bit.
One thing we really like about the rear connections is that the most important ones match the Xbox One S and One X exactly, meaning you can use the same cabling you already have set up if you are upgrading.
One bit of advice though: ensure your HDMI cable is 2.1 compatible (i.e. high-speed or, better still, ultra high-speed). This will be important for 120Hz gaming later down the line. If you're not sure, swap your existing HDMI cable with the 2-metre one provided in the box.
New Xbox Wireless Controller
- New controller with the share button
- AA batteries (included)
- Lower latency
Also in the box is a refreshed Xbox Wireless Controller and a couple of AA batteries. Yes, this is battery operated again and not rechargeable. However, considering its design is almost identical to the last Xbox controller, you can simply use rechargeable battery packs or accessories from that generation.
There are a couple of key external differences with the new controller: it is smooth at the top-front (the previous one had a slight inset); the D-Pad has been swapped for a circular, more ergonomic style; and there is a new share button slap-bang in the centre, which helps to instantly take screengrabs, etc, without having to muck around with the options button.
The rear of the new controller is also covered in dimples for better grip, as are the triggers.
Finally, wired connectivity is via USB-C this time – for recharging any official battery packs you might add or hooking it up to the Xbox itself.
The controller is backwards compatible with the Xbox One. Likewise, older controllers are forward compatible too – so you can simply hook them up for two-player gaming and the like if you have any lying around. Indeed, all older Xbox One accessories – first- and third-party – should work with Xbox Series S.
In terms of new bells and whistles, there are few. The controller works and feels much the same as the existing controller, but considering we've always loved the design and feel, that's no bad thing. Lag is claimed to have been improved, thanks to Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) support and Dynamic Latency Input (DLI), but we've never noticed any problems on that front anyway.
It's worth noting that Sony's rival DualSense controller has a few additions this generation – such as adaptive triggers and haptic feedback – that aren't replicated here. But then, the Xbox controllers have always had decent trigger response and rumble, so you can only tell the difference when you use the rivalling devices side-by-side.
- CPU: Octa-core custom Zen 2 CPU
- Memory: 10GB of GDDR6 RAM
- GPU: 4 TFLOPS, 20 CUs
- Storage: 512GB SSD
- Storage Expansion
Inside the Xbox Series S, you get trimmed back specifications in relation to its beefier Series X sibling. There is an eight-core custom AMD processor, graphics processing at 4-teraflops, and 10GB of DDR6 RAM.
This all enables a few extra features you don't get on the Xbox One X, say, even if some of the specs on paper look similar or even weaker than that last-gen alternative. For starters, the Series S is capable of consistent 60 frames-per-second gaming, even up to 120fps, albeit at up to a 1440p resolution rather than at full 4K (as the Series X).
We've often found since launch that games even favour 1080p maximum when running 60fps or above, although that might change down the line as development techniques are advanced.
It does have the capability of 4K output, but you're more likely to get that on video playback than gaming (Netflix in 4K and Dolby Vision, for example).
Also headlining in hardware terms is the 512GB SSD available for storage. This is important for two reasons. First, it enables much faster loading times and what Xbox likes to call Quick Resume. The latter feature can pause a number of games, ready for you to switch between them almost instantly.
The loading times, or lack thereof, are more significant perhaps. Games stored on the SSD load much more quickly than on the Xbox One S or X. They aren't instant but getting into a dedicated Xbox Series S/X or Xbox One game is far less frustrating than before.
We do have one issue with the SSD, though: its size. Considering we're entering a phase of larger games with more graphical fidelity, 512GB is positively measly. Yes, solid-state drive technology is still relatively expensive, especially in larger sizes, but, to give you an example, we managed to fit nine games on the Xbox Series S' internal drive. Just nine.
One of them isn't even optimised for the console, it's a standard Xbox One title. And only one of them is over 70GB – which we consider to be usual for big, triple-A game releases. Considering the Xbox mantra is that the Series S is ideal for Game Pass Ultimate and its 200+ games available from day one, you will only have space on the drive for a handful.
That's where the Storage Expansion Card comes in, although that will set you back almost the same amount as the Xbox Series S itself. It will give you an extra 1TB of SSD storage, which will work exactly the same as the internal one and run optimised Xbox Series S/X games identically. But, if you're opting for the cheaper Xbox, why would you want to spend roughly the price of the Series X just to get more storage?
There is one alternative option. Like with the Xbox One consoles, the USB ports on the Series S can accept external hard drives (or SDDs) to greatly increase storage capacity. Games stored on them won't benefit from Series X/S optimisations, but they will work and still be compatible with the likes of Quick Resume (as detailed above) and auto