The Video Games Issue

Xbox Series S redefines the next-gen console

Microsoft takes a page from the Apple playbook.

The Xbox Series S makes a compelling argument.

It's the budget-friendly alternative to this year’s top-of-the-line consoles. It's the iPhone SE to the iPhone 12 Pro Max. But will it see as much success as the budget-model smartphone?

Each console generation has been defined by hardware that zips past the capabilities of the tech that came before it. That's not exactly true with the Series S, but to assume that means you're kind of missing the point.

The Series S doesn't support 4K TVs and has a only third of the teraflops in processing power as the Series X, but it remains an innovative console in another way.

Read Inverse's review of the Series X.

It is perfect for the growing population of casual gamers who want to unwind with a little Call of Duty, not burn up a month of Sundays binge-playing. It is perfect for most of us.

The Series S is evidence of how accessible high-quality gaming has become. For the same price as a Nintendo Switch, it offers many of the features that define Series X. Microsoft has taken a page out of Apple’s playbook and created the Xbox “SE.”

Perhaps most crucially, the Series S offers enough innovation to make this lifelong PlayStation user question his loyalty.

The Xbox Series S retails for $299. Here's what comes in the box:

  • White Series S console
  • White Xbox wireless controller, with two AA batteries
  • Power cable
  • HDMI 2.1 cable
Microsoft has "Apple-efied" its Xbox lineup and is offering a budget-friendly $299 Series S to complement its top-of-the-line $499 Series X.Microsoft

Xbox Series S: How it looks

There’s no way around it, the black and white Series S looks like an oversized intercom. Strikingly slender compared to any previous Xbox or PlayStation at 4.25 pounds, it's roughly half the weight of the Xbox One X and 5.5 pounds lighter than the Series X. But the on-screen performance of this unassuming little box will remind you it's a high-end computer in disguise.

Inverse tested eleven games on Series S using a 1080p television, and found the console can keep a steady 60 frames per section. At this frame rate, shooters like DOOM Eternal and Gears 5 ran buttery smooth, even if I quickly flicked my camera around densely packed areas. Open-world titles like Watch Dogs Legion seamlessly loaded without the frame stutters that often occur in large-scale games when consoles need to boot up a different section of a map.

'Gears 5' runs butter smooth on the Series S.Inverse

After a few weeks of spoiling myself, I returned to my PS4 to play a few games of FIFA 21 and found the experience sluggish, with exhausting load times, and the downgrade to 30 FPS was definitely noticeable.

The Series S transforms console gaming into a smooth, uninterrupted session, but its major shortcoming is the lack of 4K visuals. That probably isn't a deal-breaker for many people interested in the Series S. This console is best suited for those with 1080p TVs who aren't looking to upgrade anytime soon, or owners of multiple consoles who are primarily interested in a Game Pass box.

The Series S side-by-side with my PS4 base model. Microsoft crammed a lot into that stereo-looking box.Inverse

Xbox Series S: How it feels

Booting up the Series S for the first time was every bit as satisfying as slotting my first disc into my PS4 years ago. With no disc drive, getting started is as simple as pressing and holding the Xbox button at the center of the console’s wireless controller and waiting for the Series S to chime. Loading a game takes just a few seconds thanks to the speedy onboard SSD and 3.6GHz eight-core Zen 2 processor. Games that would take several minutes to start on my PS4 were ready to go in under 90 seconds.

Its breezy load times also don't come with any pesky fan or hard disk noise that was unavoidable with pervious consoles. The Series S's improved ventilation and its SSD effectively eliminated this annoying relic from past-gen system.

Inverse tested the time to launch three different games across Series X and S. While the Series X times were generally faster, the Series S is also remarkably nimble compared to last-gen consoles.

  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps — 0:34 on Series X, 0:36 on Series S
  • Madden 21 — 0:19 on Series X, 0:43 on Series S
  • Gears 5 — 0:46 on Series X, 1:19 on Series S
'Madden 21' games take mere seconds to load on the Series S, compared to the minutes-long loading screens I'd get on the PS4.Inverse

These load times are even speedier with Quick Resume, which leverages the Series S’s CPU and SSD to keep multiple games open at the same time. I could play a quick game of Madden and then switch back into the pause screen of the Gears 5 campaign in less than ten seconds. Think of this like having multiple browser tabs open at once. In Inverse’s testing, Series S Quick Resume times were all but identical to those of Series X.

Piloting these games feels snappy and responsive thanks to the Series S’s improved controller. It’s a bit smaller than its predecessor, comes with a textured grip for more stability, has the same directional pad from the Xbox Elite controller, and some games (like DiRT 5) support new haptic feedback features that deliver different vibrations based on what is happening on screen.

Microsoft has pretty much perfected the Xbox controller in every department, aside from how it’s powered. It still runs on rechargeable AA (LR6) batteries that either need to be replaced or recharged outside of the controller, which is an archaic look for an otherwise sophisticated console.

The textured grip on the triggers and back of the new Xbox Wireless controller gave more of a premium feel compared to the past generation, but it still runs on AA batteries.Inverse

Xbox Series S: The outlook

While the Series S is undoubtedly a technological leap from the base PS4 and Xbox One, it’s essentially a more compact Xbox One X. Without the ability to output true 4K, it’s nowhere near as future-proof as the Series X. That said, there’s no real deadline for when developers will standardize 4K and 60 FPS on consoles, which makes the Series S a low-risk option that will do everything a Series X can do, other than the 4K graphics.

Microsoft is offering a “Xbox All Access” 24-month bundle with the Series S, which gets you more than 100 games on Game Pass Ultimate and Xbox Live Gold all for $24.99 a month for 24 months. That ensures you’ll get the latest first-party Xbox content but offsets the Series S’s low price, by making Game Pass all but a requirement to get the most out of the new console. After two years, you'll spend $600 (the cost of a new Xbox Series X) on Xbox All Access. Plus, with the Series S only having 512GB of SSD storage some gamers might want to expand the console’s memory to hold more games, which will cost upwards of $200 for an extra drive.

As it stands, the Series S is a compelling upgrade for PS4 and Xbox One S users especially with the option to upscale from 1440p to 4K. But in the next two to three years, diehard gamers might be itching to play exclusively on 4K, which calls the Series S’s long-tail appeal into question.

With no ability to output 4K graphics, the Series S might be in danger of becoming outdated as 4K becomes the standard. But that might not be a deal breaker for gamers now.Inverse

Why we recommend Series S

  • Small, light, and virtually silent hardware.
  • $200 less than the Series X and $100 cheaper than the PS5 Digital Edition.
  • A notable upgrade from a base model Xbox One or PS4.
  • Doesn’t require a pricey 4K monitor to run at its full potential.

The Series S falls out of the traditional 4K resolution at 60 FPS criteria for next-gen gaming, but it has carved its own lane into the evolving dynamic of the ongoing console war. Microsoft has been vocal about its dedication to making gaming more accessible across a multitude of platforms and the Series S is that philosophy incarnate.

It’s a next-gen Xbox for the price of the Nintendo Switch. Need I say more?

INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)
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