Xbox Series S – Is It Any Good Or Do You Need a Series X?

In a recent blog post (that I somehow accidentally deleted; thank you to WordPress for having a Trashed section from which you can restore), I already summarized my first impressions of the smaller variant of the new Xbox consoles, the Series S. Now that I have had the Xbox Series S for a couple of months, it is about time that I go into more detail.

There are a few reasons why I bought the Series S:

  • Overall hardware shortage, especially GPUs because I wanted a PC upgrade
  • The Series X was available nowhere or only overpriced (even worse for PlayStation)
  • It was the only console of the new generation available in Germany for MSRP

Before I took the plunge, I was very conscious about what to expect. I watch Digital Foundry videos regularly where their team investigates the performance and target resolutions of many console games, old and new, among other things. From my experience with connecting my PC to my 4K TV, I was confident that a resolution of 1080p is actually good enough for me to enjoy a game. Sure, I can see the difference to 4K. But my TV does an excellent job of upscaling, and the picture does not wash out and become a blurry mess. Therefore, the Series S should not disappoint. And it didn’t. There is a caveat, though, and I will address it in a later section of this probably pretty long wall of text that is going to come.

Hardware

Let me start with the superficial part: the hardware.

It is gorgeous.

I am a big fan of Small Form Factor PCs, and this tiny box is totally in my wheelhouse. I love the size, and I am happy that Microsoft designed it for vertical use, as you can see in all the promotional images and horizontal use. From past experiences with a WD MyBook external hard drive, I know that I would most certainly knock it over if I were to use it in a vertical orientation. It is so thin, about the thickness of a 1L German water bottle, that it does not take much force to topple it over. Be aware of that if you have a pet and the console is within reach.

In theory, putting it flat on a table should also benefit the cooling. The reason is that the Series S has vents for air intake on the smaller sides of the chassis (top and bottom in vertical orientation), and standing mode blocks the bottom portion.

A significant benefit to the small size is portability. If you (used to) travel a lot or regularly meet with friends or family for couch-coop gaming sessions, the Xbox Series S is straightforward to transport. Disconnect two cables (or three if you are on Ethernet), throw it (gently) in a backpack, and off you go. I have done this a few times, and it is a joy. I fondly remember the days when we used to log giant gaming PCs and CRT monitors to a friend’s house for LAN parties. But boy, is it nice not to require years of bodybuilding to take your gaming hardware with you. This is a delightful experience.

Not all is rainbows and unicorns, though, but don’t worry, there is no inexcusable flaw – at least in my opinion. However, nothing is so perfect that it can’t be complained about, so I will do that.

I mentioned cooling earlier; one downside of small gaming hardware is usually temperature and noise. In one area, the Series S shines, and that is noise: it is whisper quiet! The catch is that I think there is potential for a higher fan speed to improve the temperatures. I do not have any numbers, but the exhausted air is very warm to the touch. On the other hand, the more powerful Series X stays cooler in my scientific hand-over-air-exhaust-test comparison.

(Yes, I managed to get a Series X as well. I’ll explain at the end of this blog post)

Since I do not have any probes to stick into the console – not that I would want to open it – I cannot say if temperatures are too hot for comfort. However, I think it could run a bit cooler without becoming a turbine, like the PS4 Pro at its launch.

The second issue some people may have is with storage. 512 GB does not sound like much, and in practice, it is even less. You get about 360 GB of space for games. It wasn’t an issue for me because I also made do with a 512 GB SSD in my PC for the longest time. You can, of course, expand it with external storage, but keep in mind that some games can require that you install them on either the internal SSD or on Microsoft’s proprietary official external expansion storage. It is a neat concept with a significant downside: the price. Over 200€ for 1TB is more than double the cost of a regular M.2 drive. As a reference, the Samsung 970 Evo 1TB that I added to my PC not so long ago was about 120€, and it is considered one of the faster SSD drives on the market. Even compared to a PCI-E 4.0 drive, it is too expensive. Look at it this way: the expansion drive is only 100€ cheaper than the Series S itself.

Since I am on the topic of prices, keep in mind that the Xbox Series S is a digital games-only edition. It does not come with an optical drive. That means that you cannot take advantage of older games that you could otherwise buy on disc on sale. I found that often the Xbox game store prices are higher than the disc versions for those titles. You best combine this console with Microsoft’s Game Pass, in my opinion. This way, you get a bulk-load of video games for roughly the cost of two brand new games per year.

The last point I have is a personal preference. I like white PCs, and I have had a couple in the past. But for some reason, the Xbox’s white does not work for me. It might be because of the black fan exhaust cover that interrupts the white shell. It is an eye-catcher for sure. However, in most living room setups, an all-white or black version would fit much better. But again: personal preference.

Software

Next up is the software. The following sections focus on the operating system, the service integration, and backward compatibility. Next to the tightly integrated hardware, this is the defining factor of a console compared to a PC. If your focus is solely on hardware, you can build yourself a pretty lovely SFF computer if you are not put off by higher prices for many ITX components when compared to standard ATX gaming PCs. In many cases, a custom gaming rig will always be more performant than a console. If that is your goal, go for it. Keep in mind that this comes with higher complexity in physical setup and software. I have spent (somewhat wasted) way too much time researching and configuring proper surround audio output. I also fought with Windows and game resolution issues. Connecting a gaming PC to the TV and AVR is not as simple as one might think. Not to mention the convoluted situation with all those game launchers (aka choice, but not really).

A console solves all of that, and I feel like the Xbox hardware and software, as well as the Game Pass service, finally won me over. In my first attempt to move to a console, I bought a PS4 Pro. Back then, it wasn’t the right time, I guess. Unfortunately for the PS4, I also developed (or instead it brought forth and worsened an existing, but otherwise managed) serious RSI condition from the PlayStation controller. Fast-forward two years to 2021, and I barely turn on my computer anymore, thanks to the Series S. Although the Xbox operating system is not without its flaw, as I’ll get into it in a bit, I much prefer it over the Windows hassle. I am not bashing Windows as an OS. Please do not misunderstand me. This is not what I am trying to say. I deal with complex software at work, so I want it to be convenient for play. I’m not 20 or even 30 anymore. Expectations and priorities have changed over the last three to five years.

Operating System

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Xbox operating system. While it is very functional and, in many aspects, a better experience to Windows if you only want to play games, it is also very subjective whether you like it or not. So let’s start with the good, shall we?

As I have alluded to earlier, you do not get the joy of installing one game launcher for every publisher on the market. Instead, you are forced to use what Microsoft provides to you. There is only a single interface, and in it, you will find every game available on the platform. I am facetious, of course. Having only one game launcher is the best feature of the Xbox OS. I turn on the console, a couple of seconds later, it logs me in, and then I select one of the recently played games, likely the one that is immediately highlighted and in the spotlight, and I am off to forget the world around me. Compare that to a regular gaming PC. Do you know what many programmers like? No, I’m not talking about pizza and soda – but that too. Programmers prefer to keep their hands on the keyboard as their primary and optimally only input device. If our breed can ignore the mouse, we will take that opportunity by hand and run with it. The Xbox (or PlayStation, for that matter) is basically perfect for us. The controller is the only input device, and you never have to take your hand off of it. That is perfect and efficient. And so is getting in and out of games. It is fast and fluid.

You can also connect a regular keyboard and control the operating system with the arrow and enter keys. An additional nice touch is how you can intuitively use the standard and special Windows keys. Unfortunately, not many games support mouse and keyboard controls, which I think is unfortunate.

What I am about to say is pure speculation because I have never 
looked at any Xbox SDK.

I would guess that it should not be too much of an effort to add mouse and keyboard support to Xbox games. I expect the Xbox OS to be similar to Windows in some aspects, and almost all games released on the console are also available on the PC – where mouse and keyboard are the dominant input method. I assume that developers do not want to deal with mixed input in multiplayer titles, so we do not see more of them. Long story short: I would really prefer if developers put in the extra work and add 🐭 + ⌨ in games that would benefit from it. This way, even players who are not as comfortable with a controller can use a console over a PC, which is a big factor for my sister.

While I am on the topic of wishing for hardware support for something: I would immensely appreciate general USB microphone support in the operating system. I find it unfortunate that I must buy a new microphone or headset to voice chat in multiplayer games. I have a nice microphone for my PC, and I have high-quality headphones, too. I do not want to own multiples of the same thing. The only thing I am trying to hoard is money 🤑

Moving on, now come the topics I do not like as much. The first thing I usually do on any device is to browse the settings menu. I required two or three passes until I managed to get a complete overview. I do not recall the PlayStation to be as complex. It has been a while, though, so my memory may fool me. It is nothing too serious, of course. An Xbox is used for gaming, not for being set up every time I turn it on. It is something that stood out to me, that’s all.

As much as I like the simplicity of launching games, I am not a massive fan of the home screen. It is very reminiscent of the old Windows Phone "Metro" style – which I liked on the phone and found very interesting. On a big TV, it does not work as well. Sony’s PlayStation 5 has a more pleasant home screen if you ask me. You can see more of the games you have installed because the icons are more diminutive. This way, it gives the game art and contextual content a lot more space when selecting a game. It is like a computer desktop for me. I do not want any icons to obscure the view of my background image. On a console, the background image is the game art. I am minimalist in this way, and the Xbox is not.

(Taken from The Verge)

Microsoft’s design makes me feel somewhat claustrophobic, for lack of a better term. It is too much "in your face", too big, and does not show enough information of what else you have installed.

The Xbox home screen scrolls vertically, and the first element is the Recently Used section. Beneath it, you can manually add and arrange games and apps or folders. Unfortunately, the operating system does not automatically add games to the home screen – unless I missed the option in the settings. So, if you want a game-specific background image to show up when you select a game, you must first add it to the home screen. That is because the Recently Used section does not show game art and contextual information. Instead, this is the place where your custom background appears. Sadly, setting a custom background is another rant in and of itself, and I’ll leave it at that for now. There are many options, but the ones that could be fun do not seem to work – at all or intuitively.

In general, I think that the overall design of the Xbox OS’s home screen is convoluted and full of visual noise. Unfortunately, you cannot remove the Recently Used section and only rely on manually adding games instead.

Another downside I found is that the system not only lists games or media apps in this section. Also, system apps like Help or Settings find their way onto the stack. After a recent system update, I wanted to know what had changed, and this had bounced me through a bunch of system utilities which then were at the top of Recently Used. I am pretty sure I do not want to play Microsoft Store the next time I start my console.

These are small details, and they do not make me hate the Xbox. I, however, prefer Sony’s software design better on the console (not the hardware, though).

Since my last blog post about this topic, I was able to try more games that are available on both the console and the PC. While it was perfect with Microsoft’s own Gears 5, it was no hit and all miss with everything else I have tried. Even Microsoft titles are not an automatic given. I fully expected Minecraft Dungeons to sync the save games seamlessly, but alas, it did not. Neither did Control nor EA’s Mass Effect Andromeda. The latter probably predates the concept, so I’ll give it a pass. I did not have any problems syncing game state from one console to the next, though. That worked flawlessly, as did transferring games and settings from the Series S to the Series X. Good job, Microsoft.

My updated verdict for Play Anywhere is now this: Good idea, but it does not seem to have a wide adoption yet – based on my limited test set.

I don’t think I will be testing this topic further from now on. Except for one PC game that I play in Coop with my sister, there is nothing left on the PC I want to play. At this point, I am 90% console exclusive, especially for single-player titles.

Backward Compatibility

Playing Xbox One and 360 games on the latest version of the consoles is an enormous plus if you ask me. Microsoft’s backward compatibility on Windows is a blessing and a curse from a technical perspective. Users will see it as a blessing, and the Xbox catalog is not limited to a single generation. I can only applaud this effort and encourage Microsoft to continue doing it. As a result, the first games I took for a spin have been Gears of War 2 and 3, both Xbox 360 releases, and I literally never missed an evening of gaming until I finished them both. I also tried the Fable franchise and a bit later Mass Effect Andromeda.

The last game is where I noticed something odd. Although I wasn’t expecting PC-level graphics, it still looked somewhat flat. After a little bit of research, I found out that the Series S defaults to the Xbox One S code path by default. So unless the developers explicitly update their games for the new generation, or Microsoft enables OS-level improvements in the form of FPS boost, which sometimes also increases resolution or other settings, you will get the lower-end Xbox One S graphics. That means while games from the previous generations work, if they have received Xbox One X enhancements, you are unlikely to see them on Series S.

It’s a bit odd if you ask me because I assume that the Series S should be roughly on par with the One X regarding GPU horsepower, depending on the game. See the following series of Digital Foundry videos where Richard Leadbetter compares the GCN GPU architecture used in the Xbox One with the newer Navi architecture that is also the foundation for the Series S and X.

I have read or watched somewhere that this may all come down to the available system memory. I do not recall where I picked up that piece of information, so take that with a grain of salt. The result is that Xbox One X enhanced games will not look as good on the Series S as on the previous or current generation high-end console. That’s a bit of a bummer. Overall, I wonder why Microsoft cut the Series S performance so far, having only a third of the Teraflops compared to its bigger sibling. I don’t think this is enough horsepower to handle the advertised 1440p resolution at 60 FPS in modern next-gen games. Having watched the third video I have listed, that amount of computing juice is about the performance you can get from an RX 5500XT, a rather mediocre GPU, even when AMD released it in December 2019.

With this slight detour behind me, let me swing this back around to a few famous last words on backward compatibility. It is there and works great, but this one caveat could make the smaller of the current Xbox consoles worse for you.

Performance

I think I have strung you along long enough to finally talk about the performance of this little piece of cute gaming hardware. In the previous paragraph, I called the RX 5500XT graphics card a mediocre piece of GPU hardware, and it is about what you can expect from the Series S. So what’s the deal? If you keep your expectations in check, you can have a lot of fun with this console. I certainly had. Xbox 360 games will cause no issues whatsoever, as is to be expected. Xbox One (X) games are a different matter. Defaulting to the One S version of the game usually means lower fidelity graphics and a lower resolution. The latter is not that much of an issue, in my opinion. I care more about the overall visual quality, like textures, shadows, lighting, ambient occlusion, etc. Mass Effect Andromeda was one of those instances where the resolution was the last thing I noticed. Instead, what first stood out to me was the low-quality ambient occlusion that made especially the interior of spaceships look relatively flat.

Optimized games for the Series S, on the other hand, are a treat. Dirt 5 looks fantastic and plays terrifically. It will have a few hitches here and there, mainly when you drive through puddles of water, but other than that, it performs nicely. The same is also true for Control Ultimate Edition. Unless there were special effects that filled the whole screen, the game ran at or very close to the targeted 60 fps. Because of the heavy hardware requirements, the game renders somewhere in the 900 pixels range vertically and is upscaled to 1080p. You can see this in quite a few areas, but it did not take away from the overall great experience I had. Unfortunately, Remedy’s art style is not conducive to a lower resolution, so it stands out more than it probably would in other games.

Before I managed to get my hands on a Series X, I thought that a 30 fps mode with a higher resolution would be a great addition. After all, the bigger sibling contains a 30 fps option, only with raytracing. I must say, Control’s graphics do not work well at 30 fps for me, fancy reflections or not. I preferred the 60 fps mode. I finished the last hour or so on the Series X, and I cannot say that the higher resolution was evident in a way that makes the more powerful console a must-have. The smaller gaming box did just as well.

A different beast seems to be the latest Metro Exodus version that solely works on raytracing compatible hardware. Having watched yet another Digital Foundry video, I wonder if this time, an optional 30 fps mode at a higher resolution would really have made sense.

In Summary

So what is the moral of the story? Should you rather get the Series X instead? In the end, it depends on your budget and how much you care about raw performance, as is so often the case. If you can easily spare the 500 money units the Xbox Series X is supposed to cost, then go for it. It will surely be the better console in the long run. If I had the choice between the S and the X at MSRP, I would pick the X. But I am a hardware and technology enthusiast, and I am in a very, very fortunate position to afford it. And before you ask, no, I did not pay scalper prices. I waited patiently until a reputable seller had stock available.

On the other hand, if you do not have money to burn or do not really care about the technical details and only want to play some games occasionally, the Series S will suit you well. Over here in Germany, the Series S is the only one of the next-gen consoles readily available to buy. It is the reason why I initially went for it. Unfortunately, Graphics cards are still hard to come by, and I thought it might be a stop-gap solution. It could be just that for you. However, it changed the way I want to play, despite the flaws of the operating system. It is not like it is a horrible experience, far from it. The system is fast and fluid and mostly goes out of the way. I strongly consider retiring my PC for gaming.

What if you have an Xbox One X? In that case, only go for the Series X. As of right now, it really requires optimized games to make a big difference. Otherwise, loading times will be the only tangible differentiator, and you can alleviate that to some extent by replacing the One X HDD with an SSD. So, in short: keep the One X a while longer until things have settled down.

That is the best recommendation I can provide. It may take another year or so until the first games start to leverage all of the new console’s potential fully. Right now, we are still in a transitioning phase with many multi-platform releases. Although I would have liked to see a bit more performance in the Series S, my guess is that it will still hold up better over time than its predecessor, the One S did.

Is this the moment when I finally can leave expensive PC builds in the rearview mirror? As of now, it looks pretty likely. Of course, I will still need a computer for development tasks, so I will not be getting rid of it entirely anytime soon. But maybe I will not need to buy another GPU for it, or at least not a high-end one, but perhaps a model that fits an even smaller form factor, like a Mac Mini, only with standardized components. We’ll see about that.

Moral of the story: you should not discount the Xbox Series S based on its Teraflops. It has its place, although I do not think it will be a bestseller. I suppose people usually go for the more performant console when given the option. It should have been a touch more powerful.

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