This year’s newest Xbox consoles, Series X and Series S , are the least imperative devices in the history of the Xbox ecosystem.
This is arguably a very good thing and a direct result of Phil Spencer righting the ship as the chief of Microsoft’s Xbox division. As a public-facing Xbox figure, he’s emphasized a major company philosophy since taking over in 2014: open up “Xbox” access to as many devices as possible. Windows 10 PCs, a cloud-streaming service, consoles old and new: they’re all largely compatible with the same Xbox-branded software these days, and a single subscription service delivers over 100 games on each of them.
Like other power users at Ars Technica, I don’t technically need either new console to play Xbox games. Between my powerful PC and my Android smartphone, I can already play plenty from the Xbox ecosystem, especially first-party games (with help from the aforementioned Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service , that is). The folks at Xbox seem like they’re fine with that: play how I want to, so long as it’s in their playground some of the time.
This is where Series X and S become more interesting. After weeks of testing each, I can safely say they were built to compete not just against other platforms (particularly Sony’s PlayStation 5) but also against other Xbox-compatible devices like computers. It’s as if the engineers behind these consoles took Spencer’s “Xbox on all the things” philosophy as a challenge, to beat most other hardware options in usability, power, and price. Thus, when I think about what each Xbox Series console gets right, it’s usually in the form of, “I’d rather use a new Xbox for that.”
It’s not imperative , but preferred.
Caveats and bookkeeping
I’ve already said glowing things about Xbox Series X in preview form , and rounding today’s “review” corner doesn’t change them. This is a remarkable $499 machine. It’s sleek, it’s powerful, and its high-end games currently load at higher speeds than my own $1,000-plus testing PC can manage. Meanwhile, the X’s diminutive cousin/sibling/homeboy, Xbox Series S, is remarkably efficient for its size, price, and power draw. We certainly haven’t seen a “next-gen” gaming machine this small and quiet since the cartridge era, and in some ways, its emphasis on “next-gen, but lower-res” is a smashing success.
But as of press time, I can’t definitively confirm that the $299 Series S locks onto Microsoft’s inherent promise: same gameplay as Series X, with the kinds of downgrades you can’t perceive on a 1080p TV. Sometimes, that pans out exactly as advertised, especially with first-party software like Gears 5 and Sea of Thieves . But with one major performance outlier as of press time, and some concerns about its value compared to Series X, I wade into the Series S half of this review more reluctantly than I’d like.
Above all, both Xbox Series consoles have something in common. There’s only a mild amount of truly “next-gen” content available to the press ahead of today’s embargo. We’ll eventually circle back to launch-window games for both consoles as more of a head-to-head console-war breakdown, but if you’re coming to either new Xbox at launch with visions of triumphant, next-gen games to play, be advised that Microsoft and its third-party partners didn’t help us make that case for you as of today’s embargo lift. (Worth noting, we don’t really have any Xbox Series-exclusive games to point to for the rest of 2020, either.)
Some bookkeeping before we dive in: because I’ve previously written about my hands-on experience with Series X, I’m going to retread serious ground describing that console in this joint review. Everything I have to say about Series S, on the other hand, is entirely new, owing to its embargo lifting today. Unsurprisingly, both consoles have a lot in common, so anything that describes “Xbox Series” as a noun, without a letter attached, describes both consoles. And the lack of direct comparisons to November 12’s PlayStation 5 is intentional. I can confirm I have review PS5 hardware, but I’m not yet free to describe anything beyond what we covered last week. (That doesn’t stop me from going into great detail about certain Xbox Series aspects, especially those that may differ from what you’ll find on the PS5.)
Chonky cuboid and its slim sidekick
Two brand-new Xbox consoles launching side-by-side? Let’s start by breaking down their differences.
The most obvious is size. Where Series X is a chonky cuboid, shaped juuuust awkwardly enough for any average entertainment center’s shelves, Series S is an itty-bitty baby. At 10.8″ x 5.9″ x 2.5″ (275mm x 151mm x 63.5mm), its total volume is about 61 percent of 2016’s Xbox One S . Both that console and 2017’s Xbox One X are roughly 2.5″ at their slimmest side, as well, so you can slide either older console out of a given shelf and swap Series S in its place.
Series X, on the other hand, is about 2.5 Series S systems in size: 11.6″ x 6″ x 6″. If that seems big, remember that Series X’s performance peer this generation, the PlayStation 5, measures 15.4″ x 10.24″ x 4.2, or roughly 55 percent bigger (albeit, squished down for better shelf clearance in horizontal position).
RIP to two ports
Unlike past consoles, Xbox Series eschews HDMI-in (used for set-top boxes) and optical-out. Spencer has suggested this was a price-cutting move tied to telemetry that indicated how little either port was used.
Series S gets smaller in a few ways, and the most evident is its lack of an optical media drive. If you want to play old or new games on Series S, your only option is some form of online download, whether that’s via Xbox Live Gold giveaways, Xbox Game Pass subscriptions, or a la carte purchases through the Xbox Marketplace. There’s no way to, say, trade old discs to a store clerk to get digital download licenses.
In better news, if a game functioned on any Xbox One console, with the exception of Kinect motion-sensing games, it will work on Xbox Series. This includes a significant Xbox 360 library and a smaller OG Xbox selection, and it’s part of Xbox’s years-long campaign to emphasize backwards compatibility. Longtime Xbox owners have likely accrued a decent digital-purchase library since the Xbox 360’s heyday, and I have already relished the easy ability to jump from next-gen open-world romps to late-’00s classics like Trials HD or Super Meat Boy .
However, without a disc drive, some games that work on Series X are left in the back-compat dust—at least, if you didn’t already buy their digital versions when they were available at the Xbox Marketplace. I don’t have an exhaustive list, but I have already found a few delisted examples that I can only play on Series X via disc, particularly the Xbox 360 version of Dark Souls 1 .
Specs, power, and wattage
|Xbox Series X||Xbox Series S||Xbox One X||Xbox One S|
|CPU||8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT)||8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.6 GHz (3.4 GHz with SMT)||8x Custom Jaguar Cores at 2.13GHz||8x Custom Jaguar Cores at 1.75GHz|
|GPU||12 TFLOPs, 52 CUs at 1.825GHz, Custom RDNA 2||4 TFLOPS, 20 CUs at 1.565 GHz, Custom RDNA 2||6 TFLOPs, 40 CUs at 1.172GHz, Custom GCN + Polaris Features||1.4 TFLOPS, 12 CUs at 914MHz, Custom GCN GPU|
|Die Size||360.45mm 2||197.05mm 2||366.94mm 2||227.1mm 2|
|Process||TSMC 7nm Enhanced||TSMC 7nm Enhanced||TSMC 16nmFF+||TSMC 16nmFF|
|Memory||16GB GDDR6||10GB GDDR6||12GB GDDR5||8GB DDR3, 32MB ESRAM|
|Memory Bandwidth||10GB at 560GB/s, 6GB at 336GB/s||8GB @ 224 GB/s, 2GB @ 56 GB/s||326GB/s||68GB/s, ESRAM at 219GB/s|
|Internal Storage||1TB Custom NVMe SSD||512GB Custom NVME SSD||1TB HDD||1TB HDD|
|IO Throughput||2.4GB/s (Raw), 4.8GB/s (Compressed)||2.4GB/s (Raw), 4.8GB/s (Compressed)||120MB/s||120MB/s|
|Expandable Storage||1TB Expansion Card||1TB Expansion Card||–||–|
|External Storage||USB 3.2 HDD Support||USB 3.2 HDD Support||USB 3.2 HDD Support||USB 3.2 HDD Support|
|Optical Drive||4K UHD Blu-ray Drive||N/A||4K UHD Blu-ray Drive||4K UHD Blu-ray Drive|
|Performance Target||4K at 60 fps – up to 120 fps||1440P at 60 fps – up to 120 fps||4K at 30 fps – up to 60 fps||1080p at 30 fps – up to 60 fps|
Series S’s size arguably stems more from power downgrades across the board: a slightly slower CPU, a GPU with fewer compute units, less RAM at lower bandwidth, and a lower power draw. That also means the console generates less heat, so it requires a smaller fan system to keep the system running cool and quiet.
I’ve previously reported that Xbox Series X is the quietest modern console I’ve ever tested, even with its massive fan, and I can now confirm that Series S is in the same boat. Both are whisper quiet, with a mild breeze that’s discernible if you put your ears up to their outward-facing vents and mute every other device near your TV of choice. You’ll hear more from any spinning-plate hard drive attached to these consoles via USB than from the consoles themselves. Quiet, quiet, quiet. It’s the easiest Xbox Series aspect to praise, since both consoles are so successful at it.
And while my testing of Series X has jumped as high as 205W of power draw, Series S is much less demanding: at an apparent max of around 95W in the same stressful gameplay scenario, which is Gears 5 ‘s “next-gen” build running both its 60 fps campaign content and 120 fps versus modes. I’m still floored by how 120 fps gaming that hovers around 1080p resolution, with plenty of visual bells and whistles toggled, can sip power so efficiently on Series S.
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