Xbox Series S review: a cool little console with a big identity crisis

The new console generation is shaping up to be a strange one, at least as far as Microsoft is concerned. From a naming convention that potentially confused people, to launching two separate-but-sorta-equal consoles on day one – the all-powerful, disc based Xbox Series X, and the smaller, all-digital, but lower spec £250 Xbox Series S – it’s tough to gauge if the Seattle tech giant is covering all bases or just throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks.

The argument might go that the Series X is for the hardcore – the players who use ‘Gamer’ as an identity, who want the biggest bang for their buck, the most powerful machine, the most versatile features, and media experiences that threaten to burst their eyeballs with up to 8K visuals. If that’s the case, then the Series S must be for… well, everyone else.

At a glance, that would seem to be the case. At an experiential level, they’re remarkably similar – both the Series X and Series S deliver the same user interface, run on super-fast NVMe SSD drives to boost performance and load times, and pack in tricks such as Quick Resume, which allows several games to be suspended at once, allowing you to hop between games without losing progress.

The Series S is just less powerful while doing all that. Its processor is a little slower – the X has an 8-core Zen 2 at 3.8GHz; the S the same but maxed at 3.6GHz – and only packs in 10GB of memory versus 16GB on the X. The biggest material difference, besides the absence of the disc drive, is the lower spec GPU in the Series S. Both feature custom AMD Radeon RDNA 2 architecture, but the Series X boasts 52 Compute Units of rendering power running and 1.825 GHz, while Series S musters only 20 CUs at 1.565 GHz.

But such talk of specs and numbers almost undermines what the Series X feels like it’s about. Where Series X is screaming in your face about how tough and powerful it is, Series S is just chilling, confident in its capabilities. It knows it’s going to give you a good time, and in practice, it delivers, offering access to all the same games as Series X, but charging you £200 less for the privilege.

However, the merits of Series S only really come to bear if you’ve yet to upgrade to a 4K TV. On a 1080p screen, it all looks fantastic – the S is capable of 1440p resolution and targets 120fps frame rates. It practically glistens on an older set. Switch to a 4K TV though, and it’s just a little too obvious that it’s not even upscaling its gaming output, let alone running comparable to Series X. Gears Tactics, which served as our benchmark across both Series X and Series S, looks notably lower resolution when playing on Series S connected to a 4K OLED screen, and we even noticed a few moments of pop-in.

Of course, with no optical drive, it doesn’t need to worry about 4K UHD performance, but it does claim to stream video content in 4K. This is upscaled though, so your premium Netflix subscription won’t get the best return on your investment if playing through Xbox Series S. It also has an odd approach to backwards compatibility – despite being less powerful than the Series X, the Series S should easily match the performance of the Xbox One X, yet last generation games that were optimised for the One X will run as if on the even lower spec One S if played on the Series S. Told you that the naming conventions were confusing.

Another worrying aspect of the Series S is storage. Like its more powerful sibling, a huge chunk of the internal storage is given over to system files. However, given the Series S has just over half the total capacity – 512GB vs 1TB on the X – the ratio is even more unfavourable. Of the storage space the console ships with, only 364GB is actually useable for game and app storage.

On paper, this should be mitigated by Microsoft’s Smart Delivery technology, which allows each console in the Xbox family to download the appropriate version of a game for its specifications. For example, on a cross-generation game like Gears 5, an Xbox One X won’t try to pull down the more demanding version optimised for the new Series generation. Microsoft even confirmed in October that game installs will be 30 per cent smaller on the Series S than the X, given it won’t need the larger assets that Series X does to deliver a true 4K experience.

However, in practice, we’ve yet to see much evidence of this. Gears Tactics, for instance, comes in at 28.1GB on both the Series X and Series S. That 364GB is likely to fill rapidly if the file sizes aren’t better optimised, and given this is an all-digital console, that’s going to mean potentially lots of deleting and redownloading of games. Thankfully, the Series S does also support the external storage expansions made by Seagate, but their high cost is even more prohibitive here – at £220, it’s almost as much as buying a whole new Series S machine.

Where all of these nagging contradictions around the Series S really frustrate is that it’s by far the nicest looking of the consoles. While the Xbox Series X is a near-solid umbral mass that will disappear into the shadows of most people’s media units, the Series S is bright and futuristic. It wants to be noticed, and its white shell with an immediately iconic black vent for cooling makes it pop in a way – perhaps ironically – not unlike Sony’s PlayStation 5.

It’s also almost startlingly small, making its overall aesthetic hover somewhere between ‘beautiful’ and ‘adorable’. All told, it’s a brilliant piece of design, one that the players with flashy 4K screens are more likely to want under their sets, but let down by not packing the performance to justify that position.

All of which makes us more conflicted over Xbox Series S than any console we’ve seen in years. Physically, materially, it is undeniably the nicer of the two next gen consoles Microsoft is launching. It’s the one you want to show off to visitors, though it’ll probably draw their attention on its own. It’s cool. Yet the design-conscious players drawn in by its sharp outer visuals are also likely to be those who want the high-power, full spec next gen experience offered by Series X. Conversely, those who still haven’t upgraded their televisions and could benefit from a next gen console that isn’t in a rush to put out 4K experiences are probably also not in a rush to upgrade their consoles either.

The Xbox Series S is a great bit of kit, and it deserves praise as a lower priced entry point to the next gen. Microsoft’s account management is also so good now that anyone who starts with Series S and later upgrades to Series X – or waits for what feels like an inevitable mid-generation hardware revision – will have the better versions of any games they buy here waiting for them when they do. Yet in and of itself, it feels like merely a good enough option, a half step into the next gen rather than a real entry point.

More great stories from WIRED

🚗 Drivers claim Uber’s algorithm fired them. Now they’re taking it to court

🎮 The next-gen consoles are coming. Here’s our Xbox Series X review

🌍 How Africa has handled the pandemic so far

🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday

👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn