When the Xbox Series S review unit was delivered at my doorstep last week, I had the least expectations from Microsoft’s smallest Xbox console. Now, after using the disc-less console for a few days, I realise how wrong I was. It makes me wonder why the Xbox Series S is not dominating the conversation as the flagship Series X, even though the former console is Microsoft’s best bet at regaining the lost ground to PlayStation in markets such as India.
The Series S is designed to be a Game Pass machine, and that decides the fate of the brand Xbox in the near future. It’s okay if the Series S has no disc drive, and it can’t play games in 4K. All that matters is the Series S can play the same next-gen titles as the Series X and supports backward compatibility.
Here is my detailed review of the Xbox Series S.
At first look, I was stunned by the appearance of the Xbox Series S. It reminded me of the original PlayStation, which I got from a vintage shop in London two years back. If the PlayStation looks like a tiffin box, the Series S bears a striking resemblance to the Sony Boombox. For a few seconds, I completely forgot the Xbox Series S was designed to be a traditional gaming console. It has a small footprint and it’s white with a striking black circle in the center. That black circle is not a speaker as many thought it would be. Instead, a black circular disc is a vent that keeps the console cool. What I like about the Series S design is that you can keep the console in both vertical and horizontal positions. It also fits perfectly on my cluttered TV stand.
At the rear, there is the power port, an Ethernet jack, two USB-A ports, an HDMI output and a storage expansion slot. The front of the console meanwhile features a single USB-A port and no disc drive. Yes, this is a console that lacks a disc drive because it is designed to be an all-digital console. That means I have the freedom to download a new AAA title the moment it gets released from the Microsoft store. No more waiting in line, or asking your friend to get a game from abroad. My broadband is fast enough to download a game like Sea of Thieves in less than 30 minutes, so for me, the concept of a digital-only console works.
And, of course, the Series S comes with the Xbox wireless controller. Unlike the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller which is redesigned from the scratch, the Series S gets a mildly redesigned wireless controller. It’s not a bad thing but I wish Microsoft had made substantial changes to the wireless controller. Nevertheless, the controller now comes with an updated D-pad, a new share button for sharing screenshots/clips similar to the PS4, and a USB-C port. The finish on the new controller has a matte look, which improves the controller’s overall grip. The controller fits in my hand just like the old controller. Unfortunately, the Xbox controller still uses AA-batteries. That means you need to insert new batteries. I really don’t know why Microsoft is sticking with an old fashioned way to charge batteries.
Setting up the Series S is simple and straightforward. I used the Xbox app on my iPhone to set up the console. It took me 10 to 15 minutes to complete the process, from connecting the TV to the console via HDMI and linking the Series S with my Xbox account.
The interface on the Series S is what you also get on the Series X or the previous generation console. You will find a Tile-like interface that shows games and apps. Scroll vertically to access different tabs like specific games you have downloaded, Windows Store and Game Pass (more on this later). The user interface is easy to navigate and has no learning curve.
While Microsoft left the user interface as it is, it did add one new feature that won me over — Quick Resume. Simply put, Quick Resume allows users to have multiple games loaded up at the same time, and lets you jump from one game, then start another game. Unfortunately, it currently works only with certain games.
The Series S has the same DNA as the Series X, meaning they are part of the same generation of consoles. However, the two consoles are designed to be different machines altogether. The two consoles can play the same new next-gen games, and both are backward compatible and capable of playing titles released on previous generation Xbox consoles. Both consoles also output a 4K video signal, plus the Series X and Series S support variable-rate shading and ray tracing. But that’s where similarities end. Unlike the Series X which is designed to play games in 4K (native) at 60 frames per second, the Series S has less powerful hardware and which is why the affordable console delivers 1080p and in some cases 1440p visuals. That doesn’t mean the Series S skimps on performance, or is a less superior console. It’s just that the Series S is designed for those who have a 1080p TV at home and that’s completely fine.
The Series S features the same Zen 2 CPU core as the Series X, but opts for a 4-teraflop GPU and 10 GB of RAM. I do not have the Series X to compare the differences between the two consoles in terms of performance and graphics quality. But during my time with the Series S, I did notice that games load faster, and the console boots up instantly. Titles like Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves took about 15 seconds to load, while some games like Ori and the Will of the Wisps had taken even less time to load on the Series S. I can clearly see a drastic performance enhancement over my PlayStation 4. If I am not wrong in my assessment, buying a new console has become more like getting a new smartphone. You get a performance bump with every new console.
But the biggest improvements in the Series S come in the form of a 512GB NVME solid-state drive (SSD). The move from HDD to SSD is a big jump — it’s almost like a generational shift. But I have bad news to share: you get about 364GB of storage that will be user-accessible. I have been filling up the storage pretty quickly. As I spend more time with the Series S, I fear I will run out of storage in a matter of days. Though I have the option to plug in external drives, those hard drives will be notoriously slower, resulting in longer load times of opening games. Given the Series S is a digital-only console, I wish Microsoft had given consumers options to choose between 512GB and 1TB storage.
I have had a great time playing Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves on the Series S. Both titles are old but optimised for the next-generation consoles. I tested on both the TVs at home including a 4K-ready set. In case you have a newer TV with a 120Hz refresh rate, the improvements will be drastic. Games optimised for the Series S run well on the console with solid graphics.
Older games also look better on the Series S but I terribly missed next-gen titles that aren’t there yet. Having exclusive titles decide the fate of a console and in the case of Series X/S, you need to wait for a few more months to get your hands on games like Halo Infinite. But there are still plenty of high-profile titles such as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Dirt 5 that will keep you entertained. The problem is that these titles that I have just mentioned can also be played on the Xbox One and PS4. While I could play these titles on the Xbox One, I am going to miss the speed and responsiveness that Microsoft is promising on the Series S.
That said, the real reason to buy the Series S is the Xbox Game Pass, a Netflix-style subscription service that gives you access to hundreds of games for a monthly fee. I have subscribed to Game Pass Ultimate (Rs 699 a month), and I have plenty of games to explore that I have never played in my life.
No one is denying the fact that the Series X is a superior console to the Series S. If you are a hardcore gamer and a fair idea of the console market, I am 100 per cent sure you will choose the Series X over the Series S any day. The Series X offers a different set of speed and graphics performance along with the ability to play physical games. But if you are someone who is a casual gamer and owns a 1080p TV but wants to play the next-gen titles, the Series S will be a perfect fit for you. I see a lot of value in the Series S as it is designed as the Game Pass machine and shifts focus from buying physical copies of games to digital downloads. That said, from the hardware point of view, the Series X is a future proof console.