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Microsoft has unveiled the Xbox Series S, the smaller sibling of the headline Xbox Series X, and it’s set to go on sale on the same day as the flagship next-gen console later this year. The Xbox Series S offers a cheaper entry-point into next-gen gaming, but with a sacrifice to some features and overall performance - so is the price drop worth it?
Price and availability
Before we delve deeper into the differences between Microsoft’s two next-gen consoles, let’s first discuss pricing – it's a crucial element, after all. The flagship Xbox Series X costs £449/$499 while the Xbox Series S comes in at a more affordable £249/$299, albeit with sacrifices to performance and features.
Both the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S are set to be released worldwide on 10 November 2020, but pre-orders have started already. If you’re interested in getting in on the action, check out our guides to where to pre-order the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S - it's worth noting that at the time of writing the X is completely sold out, but the S is still available from several retailers in the UK for launch day.
Despite the similar branding, the Xbox Series X and Series S look absolutely nothing alike.
The headline Xbox Series X sports a design not dissimilar to that of a traditional PC tower, a big step away from the traditional console vibe of the previous consoles. There‘s a grille at the top, but it’s largely nondescript, with a black finish and very little styling - especially when compared to the futuristic PS5, but let’s not talk about that here.
It may look small in photos, but it’s actually quite large at 301mm x 151mm x 151mm, but the good news is that you’ll be able to place it horizontally if you can’t fit it into your setup vertically.
While Microsoft went bold with the Series X form factor, it didn’t want the cheaper Series S to steal its thunder, so Microsoft’s budget-friendly console sports a similar design and form to the current consoles, albeit without a physical disc drive. It’s more rectangular in design, although it sports a large black grille on the side of the white console, which many are likening to a loudspeaker or a washing machine when stood on its side.
And yes, there have been plenty of memes since its reveal in early September.
But while the consoles have seen a big redesign, one area that remains largely untouched is the controller. Yes, it’s a new Xbox Wireless Controller, but it’s very similar to the last-gen console. The D-pad has been redesigned slightly to be more circular, the ergonomics have been tweaked, and there's a new Share button for posting screenshots and clips to social media. It's also introduced USB-C, but since it still uses AA batteries the benefits there are negligible.
The lack of changes are even more noticeable when compared to the advancements of Sony’s new DualSense controller for the PS5 - though the benefit for Xbox is that it means you'll still be able to use your old controllers with the new consoles.
In case you were worried the same Xbox Wireless Controller will be available for both the Series X and Series S, though by default the X ships with a black model and the S with a white one.
The Xbox Series X introduces a substantial performance boost even compared to the high-end Xbox One X released in 2017. Inside the tall black tower, you’ll find a custom AMD Zen 2 eight-core CPU and a custom GPU based on the company’s forthcoming RDNA 2 architecture with the aim of providing high-end graphical features like real-time ray-tracing, something exclusive to PC gamers up until this point.
There’s 12TFLOPS (52CUs at 1.825GHz) of power on offer from the Xbox Series X, besting not only the Xbox Series X but Sony’s offering, and 16GB of GDDR6 RAM to play with too. All that means the Xbox Series X should be able to output [email protected] with ease, and Microsoft even teases 8K support from the console once TV tech catches up.
How does that compare to the cheaper Xbox Series S? Like the Series X, the Series X features a custom AMD Zen 2 eight-core CPU, but it’s clocked a little lower at 3.6GHz per core compared to 3.8GHz of the more expensive console, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a less powerful GPU (4TFLOPS, 20CUs at 1.565GHz) on offer too.
Despite the drop in power, both consoles will support real-time ray tracing and are capable at 120fps output, but the Series S is capped at 1440p. That’s fine if you’ve only got a 1080p TV, but if you’ve got a 4K TV, you’ll be relying on your TV to upscale content and it won’t look quite as detailed as if it were native. Microsoft has also confirmed that the Series S isn’t powerful enough to run the Xbox One X versions of backwards-compatible games, which may deter existing One X owners from upgrading to the cheaper console.
Microsoft also made the decision to step away from the spinning hard drives of current-gen consoles and include solid-state drives in the next-gen consoles. These provide a number of benefits, with the most noticeable being the improved loading times. The Xbox Series X is set to get a 1TB SSD, and if that’s not enough for you, Microsoft offers an expansion slot for additional – but proprietary – drives - though at $219 for 1TB, they're not cheap.
Storage is an area where the Xbox Series S showcases its budget nature, sporting a 512GB SSD – half that of the Series X. 512GB may sound like a decent amount, but when you consider that some games in 2020 take up 150-200GB (cough, Call of Duty: Warzone, cough) then that storage could fill up pretty quickly. Luckily, it sports the same slot for an additional proprietary SSD if you do need to increase available storage.
Regardless of the console, you’ve also got the option of connecting standard external hard drives via the USB-A ports, but you won’t be able to play new releases directly from these drives because of their speed limitations. Instead you'll have to swap games back and forth, or simply use the external drive to play previous-gen games.
One of the most popular features of the Xbox family is backwards compatibility, and that is set to continue with the next generation of consoles. All Xbox games, be they from the Xbox One, Xbox 260 or even the original Xbox era, should be compatible with both the Xbox Series X and Series S at launch. There are a few exceptions – mainly those that required Kinect, a now-defunct part of the Xbox ecosystem.
That’s also true of game subscription services lie Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and any accessories designed for the Xbox One or later.
There won't be any games available on Xbox Series X that aren’t on the Series S, but only the former will offer enhanced 4K graphics and other gaming goodness under the banner of “Optimised for Xbox Series X”. More surprisingly, the Series S can't even take advantage of the Xbox One X enhancements developed for some older games, so will play those as if they were on a One S.
It's also crucial to remember that any older games that you own on disc won't be playable on the Series S - it doesn't have a disc drive, after all. So if you have a hefty physical game collection you want to hang onto, the Series X is the way to go.
It’s smart of Microsoft to release two consoles side-by-side, covering both the high-end and entry-level markets – that's something Sony hasn’t done, with the cheapest option coming in at £359/$399, but Sony’s cheaper option doesn’t offer a less-powerful experience.
That’s where Microsoft’s consoles differ: you’ll only get the high-end [email protected] performance from the Xbox Series X, whereas the Series S is capped at [email protected], and the cheaper option can’t run the Xbox One X enhancements on backwards-compatible games either - or play any older (or new) games on disc.
That being said, for a casual gamer, those aren’t likely to be as hard-to-swallow as somebody that lives and breathes 4K gaming, so the decision is based in part on how much of a pedestal you put specs and performance on.
Game Pass Ultimate, combined with the cheaper Xbox Series S, has the potential to pull in a large audience with a relatively low up-front cost and access to a library of games for a small monthly cost, while the Series X takes care of the die-hard Xbox gamers.