(Pocket-lint) - Generally, as we enter a new console generation, early adopters need deep pockets. A brand new, super spec’ed console tends to cost a considerable wedge – initially, at least – and such is the case with the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5.

However, there is an alternative this time. Microsoft has taken the bold step to offer a cheaper, smaller entry to next-gen in the form of the Xbox Series S. It is genuinely affordable, neat enough to tuck away in a cabinet, and it plays all the new games available at launch and beyond. It sounds perfect.

But one question remains: is it truly next-gen enough?

Design

  • Dimensions: 65 x 151 x 275mm / Weight: 1.97kg
  • Connections: HDMI 2.1, 3x USB 3.1, Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi

It's certainly tidy enough – in both size and design. It comes with claims that it's the smallest Xbox console yet and you can tell. It's no bigger than a shoebox and, as it's the only next-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. It'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, therefore, has less character than an Xbox One S.

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 setup if you are simply 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 share button
  • AA batteries (included)
  • Lower latency
  • USB-C

Also in the box is the new Xbox Wireless Controller and a couple of AA batteries. Yep, it's 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.

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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 backward compatible with the Xbox One. Likewise, the 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 new 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.

Hardware

  • 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 won'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 a 1440p resolution rather than full 4K (as the Series X). It does have the capability of 4K output, which developers may exploit somewhere down the line, but a stable 1440p is recommended for now.

Incidentally, it's worth noting that's specific to gaming. Media output – such as Netflix and Disney+ – is available in up to 4K Ultra HD and with HDR/Dolby Vision from the off.

The other headline internal hardware is the 512GB SSD available for storage. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, it enables much faster loading times and, what Xbox likes to call "quick resume". The latter feature can pause anywhere from four to six games depending on their size and scope, ready for you to switch between them almost instantly.

Unfortunately, quick resume only currently works with certain titles that support it – and few of those were available to us at the time of writing – but the idea is attractive and, we hope, something that will become more default in future.

The loading times, or lack thereof, are more obvious at present. 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 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 at 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 indentically. But, if you're opting for the cheaper next-gen Xbox, why would you want to spend roughly the price of the Series X just to get more storage?

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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 next-gen optimisations, but they will work and still be compatible with the likes of quick resume (as detailed above) and auto HDR. Our advice is to get yourself at least a 1TB external drive (larger if you can afford it) and store all backward-compatible Xbox One games on it, thereby saving the internal drive for dedicated Xbox Series S/X games.

You'll still have to delete and redownload when needed, but at least you're not clogging up the main drive unnecessarily. Luckily, you can filter your games list to see which games are optimised for the new console and which aren't – that'll help.

Experience

  • Backward compatible with thousands of Xbox One, Xbox 360 and original Xbox games
  • Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support for media and games
  • Setup through iOS and Android app

The overall user experience is very decent indeed. In fact, if you already have an Xbox One, you already know everything about it – it's identical to the most recent update. You do get a fancy new animated background on the homescreen, but that's about the only significant change. That and the speed of use has been improved tenfold.

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Those new to the Xbox family will be graced with Microsoft's trademarked tile aesthetic, except the corners were rounded-off recently and the design made more consumer-friendly. It is easy to get to the games list and media apps, while the art of pinning areas or games of interest to the homepage allows you to customise the entire shebang to your own liking.

Initial setup is a doddle, especially if you use the Xbox mobile app on iOS or Android. That way you can sign into your Microsoft account and set the console updating and transferring without having to navigate an on-screen keyboard using the controller. It's even more simple if you have an Xbox One already, with the ability to transfer your existing settings using the app.

If you also already have Xbox One games stored on an external drive (or two) you can just plug that into the Series S and it will be instantly recognised and all the games available. They might need updates, but you do not need to redownload them.

Another feature to the next-gen Xboxes is HDR reconstruction. Just about every game available on the Xbox One will also run on Xbox Series S – often with enhanced visual performance in many cases thanks to the Xbox Velocity Architecture (the CPU, GPU and SSD combined) – but HDR reconstruction technology adds something new. Existing Xbox games that do not adopt HDR (high dynamic range) natively will be upscaled, of sorts, to provide better contrast and a wider colour gamut. It's not as good as native HDR, but is a nice touch.

As too will be Dolby Vision support for games. The Xbox Series S/X are the first consoles to offer both Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision for gaming as well as movie and TV show playback. You'll need a compatible TV, sound system and supported games (a list of which we've yet to see) but it's great to know the feature is there for future use.

Performance

  • Performance target: 1440p 60fps, up to 120fps possible; 4K HDR for video
  • Auto low latency mode (ALLM)
  • Variable refresh rate (VRR)
  • DirectX ray-tracing
  • AMD Freesync

Of course, the most important aspect of any evolutionary leap in gaming is how the newcomer performs. And, in the Xbox Series S, that's tricky to answer exactly. Not only are optimised games light on the ground at present, with just a handful available to us prior to launch, the very nature of gaming suggests we have a year or two before any console starts to reach its potential.

Still, from our testing we can see that the Xbox Series S is a halfway house of a next-gen machine. As well as a truncated resolution for native next generation games – in comparison with the Xbox Series X and PS5 – it has a few caveats when playing back Xbox One games too.

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The biggest one is, while the Series X will further enhance and upconvert any Xbox games that already offered enhancements for Xbox One X, the Series S takes the One S version instead. It'll still enhance it where possible – such as games with unlocked frame rates and/or resolution – but without any of the boosts already made for Xbox's previous flagship machine.

That said, this is only relevant to a sackful of Xbox One titles played through backward compatibility and, it must be said, they still look superb when running on the Series S. We've been replaying Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, and it runs and looks better on Xbox Series S than it ever did on PS4 Pro. What's more, it runs silently – there is no fan noise whatsoever, something neither Xbox nor PlayStation could boast before.

As for actual optimised games, support for DirectX ray-tracing adds a whole new dimension. As PC owners with the latest graphics cards will tell you, ray-tracing is a game changer – literally. It adapts the way lighting works in a game to make the effect much more realistic, creating glow and reflections like never before. The Xbox Series S may not be as capable in resolution as other next-gen machines, but its grasp on this kind of tech makes it a leap up from any Xbox One.

Plus, as we've mentioned before, the ability to hit higher frame rates – 120fps on some games – cannot be sniffed at. First-person shooters and driving games will be undoubted beneficiaries. Gears 5, for example, hits 120fps (or 120Hz, as some call it) in multiplayer and it is as smooth as butter. You will notice a dip in resolution, depending on the game and developer, but some will prefer the higher frame rates to resolution.

Games

  • Some games optimised for Xbox Series S/X
  • Xbox Game Pass supported

The final port of call for our review is equally as important as any of the bumps in hardware: the games. Sadly, unlike other new console launches, both the new Xbox consoles are effectively launching without any big first-party titles to hang their hats on. Halo Infinite was delayed and bar a few excellent optimisations of existing Xbox One titles, that's it for Microsoft Studios' output. However, there's one thing that goes hand-in-hand with the Xbox Series S to make it one of the most compelling launch consoles yet: Xbox Game Pass.

While the actual native Xbox Series S/X games list will be reasonable if unspectacular initially, Game Pass makes for a super proposition. As soon as you boot up your new Xbox, set it up and sign in, you will have more than 200 games to play from the off. Yes, you will have to subscribe to Xbox Game Pass (through Ultimate, we recommend), and yes, you'll then have to wait for any games to download, but you won't have to pay another penny to accrue a games library that many have taken years to collect.

Admittedly, you won't fit many on the built-in storage, and most won't be optimised, but the concept makes the Series S the ideal next-gen machine for families. It's cheap and cheerful enough, plus quiet and speedy. And, while it is nowhere near as capable as its larger Series X equivalent, it is still future-proofed enough for many.

Verdict

That's likely the Xbox Series S' raison d'être. It isn't really for hardcore gamers, those who want to hook it up to a 4K OLED TV and play at the highest level of console graphics possible. It's for a more casual user, who also appreciates having all the media streaming services in the same neat box and still fancies looking at realistic reflections in puddles.

It is silent, uncomplaining and friendly – the VW Beetle to the Series X's Golf GTi – and although that might not be everyone's idea of a generational leap, it provides an important bridge between the old and the new. 

Also consider

Xbox Series X

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If you're looking for more power, more storage, more next-gen capabilities, this is the Xbox you seek. It's pricier, of course, and larger too.

PlayStation 5

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The Xbox's opposition is far physically larger, but brings with it a new feel to its software, controller and experience. There also aren't many first-party games from day one, though, but it's such titles in the future that would be the reason to consider owning the PlayStation instead of - or in addition to, of course - an Xbox.

Writing by Rik Henderson. Editing by Mike Lowe.