I grew up with PlayStation, but after 12 months, it’s become clear to me that the Xbox Series S is going to turn some heads.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Series S is the budget version of two consoles that Microsoft launched in November last year. At $299 (£249), this is a far more ideal price point to the 500 bucks expected of people looking for the 4K cream of the crop in the Xbox Series X or PS5.
Does this cheaper setup compromise on too much to be a real next-gen experience? Could this be an ideal purchase for PlayStation gamers who want to dip their toes into Xbox Game Pass? I bought one a year ago, so let’s find out.
Xbox Series S: The console
Going in the opposite direction of my thoughts on the PS5’s hardware design, I initially thought the Xbox Series S looked weird. This small oblong with a giant black circular grill on top reminds me of the drive-thru speaker box that I’d use to order a Quarter Pounder with cheese.
Over the last 12 months, however, it’s grown on me. The small size and weight is so much more convenient, the box shape is surely a little more durable than Sony’s wing-tipped system, and it’s restrained approach to design makes the box blend into any TV stand or desk with ease. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, and let’s be honest, that’s all you want from a games console.
A quick shout-out to one of my favourite elements of the Xbox Series systems, which is the versatility of play. Plugging in my USB keyboard and mouse has been a breath of fresh air across games like Halo Infinite and Gears Tactics that do work with controllers, but can feel a little clunky. It means you can turn your console into a low-cost gaming PC.
As for what you’ll find under the hood and how it performs, the custom AMD 7nm CPU and RDNA 2 GPU with 10GB GDDR6 video memory produces 4 teraflops of visual power. Compared to the 12 teraflops of the Series X, that sounds paltry, even to those who had no idea what a teraflop was until they bought the console (me).
In real-world use, however, that difference is not as drastic as the numbers suggest. Sure, there are some variable resolution changes (Forza Horizon 5 runs at 1440p at 60 frames per second on the Series X, compared to 1080p 60 fps on the Series S), and you can notice some slight visual downgrades upon closer inspection. But, for typical gameplay without stopping to look at wall textures, this is good enough.
One problem I’ve ran into constantly this year is a lack of space. For this new generation, 512GB is simply not enough and the use of proprietary storage expansion cards drives the cost up drastically for extra room. To put it into context, if you bought a Series S ($299) and a 1TB memory card ($219), that ends up being $18 more than just buying a Series X.
I get that Microsoft may be tactically twisting your arm into getting the more expensive machine, but that imbalance needs to be addressed.
Xbox Series S: The games
I think everyone on all sides of these so-called console wars can agree on one thing: the PS5 had stronger launch titles than Xbox Series X/S, but the tide is starting to change.
While Sony started strong with the likes of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Demon’s Souls, the pre-installed Astro’s Playroom and even Bugsnax, Microsoft’s library consisted of the standard launch array of third-party titles and upgrades to pre-existing exclusive games like Forza Horizon 4.
The huge selection of games available to play on Xbox Game Pass did a great job of making up for this shortfall, but the lack of games that felt “next-gen” was apparent. But in the space of just a few short months towards the end of 2021, Xbox Game Studios have exploded out of the gates with hit after hit — all playable on Game Pass.
Starting from July, we got Microsoft Flight Simulator, Psychonauts 2, Forza Horizon 5, Grounded and Halo Infinite, to name but a few. This monthly subscription service is starting to come into its own with AAA experiences like these, covering a wide swath of genres.
Oh, and did I mention the ease of accessing developer tools and unlocking your console’s capabilities further? Earlier this year, I wrote about turning my Series S into a retro emulator, which took around an hour to do and goes beyond the incredible level of backwards compatibility Microsoft has made available on the Series S; to become an all-round game preservation machine.
Xbox Series S: The future
The biggest news about Xbox this year has not been its 20th anniversary or any of the big game launches. It’s been about acquisitions and the behind-the-scenes work being done to prepare for the war of console supremacy.
Through the sheer force of $7.5 billion, Microsoft picked up Bethesda, which increased the number of teams under the Xbox Game Studios umbrella to 22. This is a different approach to PlayStation Studios, which is (mostly) a smaller group of game studios that have worked with Sony for far longer, but there’s no doubt that all the internal manoeuvres are starting to work in Xbox’s favour.
Casting an eye over the future of Xbox exclusives, here’s what you’ve got to look forward to: Hellblade II, a new Gears of War, Forza Motorsport 8, Starfield, Elder Scrolls VI, Wasteland 3, Avowed, The Outer Worlds 2, Fable, Everwild, Perfect Dark, State of Decay 3, Redfall, Indiana Jones, and so much more that hasn’t even been announced yet.
The big win here is that all of these games are going to be available day one on Game Pass — that unique selling point is unmatched. Take it from someone who is a PlayStation gamer first, that’s impossible to ignore. The fact that you can jump into it with a $300 console is an incredibly tempting purchase, which I and many other Sony fans made.
Throughout the year, I dreaded writing this piece because of one simple fear: at some point, this is not going to be powerful enough for this new generation. While the teraflops differ greatly, the visual difference is not as stark as I initially feared. The huge variety of games look good and play great, with things set to only get better in terms of exclusives and graphical fidelity.
Tactically, Microsoft has played a blinder. This is the trojan horse for introducing PlayStation gamers to the incredible Game Pass service, made even more tempting by the fact the Xbox Series S is regularly in stock and chances are you’re not going to be able to get a PS5 for a few months.
Unlike the 4K powerhouse in the Series X, which is clearly targeted to the core Xbox fan base, this is a low-cost shot across the bow of Sony’s dominance. The future is bright for this little white machine.