When Phil Spencer says the Xbox Series S will sell more than its predecessor, you can understand why at a glance.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the scale — or lack thereof — of Microsoft’s baby next-gen box. Unlike the original Xbox One, which was a physical specimen of Microsoft’s ambitions to merge multiple forms of entertainment into a single device.
Not helped by telling users to “stick to the [Xbox] 360”, Microsoft’s always-online, entertainment-centric approach was quickly abandoned. Phil Spencer replaced Don Mattrick as the head of Xbox in 2014, refocusing the Xbox brand around games and gaming services.
In a lot of ways, the Xbox Series S is really Phil Spencer’s Xbox.
Unlike the tower-like Xbox Series X, the Xbox Series S is miniscule. And not just compared to its bigger brother, or the even more gargantuan PS5. It’s one of the smallest consoles created in generations, barely larger than a SNES and even comparable to the original NES (27.5cm x 15.1cm x 6.5cm).
The shrunken dimensions are possible thanks to advancements in silicon manufacturing. When the Xbox One era was in production — not when it launched, but when the consoles were being designed — AMD’s hardware was nowhere near the competitive threat that it poses today.
2020 is a markedly different silicon landscape. AMD has been clawing back market share from Intel in the CPU market for years, going as far to claim ownership of the world’s fastest gaming CPU. Their recently announced Radeon RX graphics cards, which share the same RDNA2 architecture built into the next-gen Xbox and PS5 consoles, also look very promising.
In practice, it means the Xbox Series S has access to top-of-the-line hardware, with an efficient architecture to match. But rather than focusing on future-proofing features like raytracing, support for the latest Wi-Fi standard, or even room for legacy media like a 4K Blu-Ray drive, Microsoft has opted to make the Xbox Series S the smallest console possible.
And the size is hard not to appreciate. The white exterior, first fashioned with the Xbox One S, matches well against the black exhaust at the top of the unit. Like the current gen Xboxes, the sides, rear and exhaust are all pockmarked with small exhaust holes.
It’s a nicer looking, slicker unit than how Xbox started the previous generation. And even though the Xbox Series S doesn’t have a Blu-Ray drive — a crucial factor in territories like Australia where retail pricing can be vastly more competitive — it does have arguably the best offering available to people who don’t own a console, or those who don’t own an Xbox.
Unlike previous generations, the future of Xbox is built on a simple promise: you can buy the individual games you want, but you don’t have to. Microsoft’s commitment to Xbox Game Pass received little fanfare when it was first announced in March 2017. Some users bristled at not being able to own physical copies, others wondered about paying for titles and losing access to them later, and some complained that the service didn’t have enough eye-catching titles.
But in a world where Microsoft owns Obsidian, the entirety of Bethesda and its decades-old IP like Fallout and Elder Scrolls, talented studios like Ninja Theory, inXile Entertainment and indie developer/publisher Double Fine Productions, Xbox Game Pass has completely transformed.
And therein lies the simple pitch for the Xbox Series S — and undoubtedly why Microsoft has so much faith in their lower priced console.
It's not just that it's $100 cheaper than the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition ($599). It's the easy retail pitch: buy this console, grab yourself an Xbox Game Pass subscription -- which core gamers and more casual gamers have become accustomed to thanks to almost a full decade of paying for Xbox Live Gold -- and you'll get access to a ton of games you probably would have bought anyway.
The Bethesda acquisition is a genuine game-changer in this regard, and not just for the end consumer. Games like Fallout 4, Skyrim, Starfield and DOOM are large enough to force retailers into intense competition.
Imagine the position it puts JB Hi-Fi, EB Games or even companies like Amazon in. Why buy a boxed title for $59 when, given past behaviour, you could probably get the game through Game Pass -- often frequently on a $1 trial?
The rub, of course, is that most of the "killer app" games that you'd buy a new console for simply aren't out yet.
While the PlayStation 5 has the advantage of a new Spider-Man, as well as Demon's Souls -- key titles playing to both a massive mainstream crowd and core gamers -- the Xbox Series S lacks a strong next-gen exclusive. Titles like Watch Dogs: Legion, the upcoming Assassin's Creed: Valhalla and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War are coming, but there's no especially compelling reason to play those games on the Xbox Series S over existing consoles.
And it might be a few years before the Xbox One era is truly left behind. Microsoft's strategy of bringing gaming to everyone also means the company is locked into bringing as many Xbox One gamers along for the ride. If you're an existing Xbox One or Xbox One S owner, you'll still have access to everything on Game Pass and the full Xbox backward compatibility list.
The Xbox Series S has some strong benefits on the backward compatibility front, particularly the inclusion of Auto HDR. Auto HDR is basically a Microsoft algorithm that -- if supported -- tries to broaden the palette of existing SDR games.
Microsoft has also made a lot of noise about higher frame rates in backward compatible games, but you don't get those benefits on the Xbox Series S. Here's a quote from Microsoft back in September which spells it out in no uncertain terms:
To deliver the highest quality backwards compatible experience consistent with the developer’s original intent, the Xbox Series S runs the Xbox One S version of backward compatible games while applying improved texture filtering, higher and more consistent frame rates, faster load times and Auto HDR.
Better texture filtering is nice -- especially if you're playing at higher resolutions -- but it's really the smoother frame times and the improved HDR which is the most interesting. However, you won't get auto HDR in every game.
It's implemented on a game by game basis, and it's done that way because the Microsoft algorithm doesn't always return the best results. It's not in Grand Theft Auto 4, for instance, because its effect on clouds was too pronounced.
But when it does work, Auto HDR can be eye-popping. HDR is still one of the major benefits consoles have over PC, and it's immediately noticeable once its enabled. Games like Geometry Wars absolutely pop with the extra brightness in the highlights, and games that operate in a lot of darker scenarios -- like Batman: Arkham City -- certainly benefit.
But it's not a done deal. Some games, like Fallout 4, don't benefit as much as you'd hope. And there are games where the feature can be a detriment, like Dark Souls where the game becomes overexposed and too saturated at points.
The benefit is that you can disable the feature if you're not happy with the outcome. But it's also a classic reminder of the age-old problem: consoles are very much an early access deal, and at launch, you may struggle to see the benefits of what the new generation can do.
Microsoft's focus on services also highlights how little changes have been made at the software experience level. The company has come an awfully long way on areas like accessibility. The new Xbox UI lets you customise caption sizes, fonts and effects.
Buttons on the new controller, including the new Share button, can be completely remapped. You can swap the left and right stick around, invert individual axis, or flip the triggers (but you can't customise them to other functions).
There's automated speech-to-text transcription and text-to-speech transcription, although this has to be supported by each individual game (and enabled in the Xbox settings). The high contrast modes are also good to have for those with visibility issues, too.
One real missed opportunity that I would have liked to see was a more accessible way to enter passwords. While the console can be setup simply through a mobile app, handling logins on the Xbox is still done through the torturous process of typing in a password via the Xbox controller. It's still one of the worst elements of the console experience, and it would have been nice to see some kind of text-to-speech, app integration or some other kind of solution.
But, again, these features aren't unique to the Xbox Series S or the X. They're now baked in as part of the Xbox experience, meaning that existing Xbox One, One S and One X users will already have access to all of this.
And as nice as that unified nature is for existing Xbox owners, it also means the Xbox ecosystem is still lacking some truly next-gen innovations to the user experience. The tile-based look is cleaner than the original Xbox One interface, but it's still remarkably cluttered. Just going to the store page reveals a screen filled with tiles and icons, as well as an obligatory "sponsored" box.
The problem with the store is that it still requires too much buy-in on the user's part. Unlike Steam, there are no automated recommendations that factor in my account's playtime, current popular Xbox titles, or things that might match what my friends are playing.
What's more, the design is a little inconsistent. If you press down on the D-Pad or left stick from the main menu, you'll also get a small "Store" section. Compare that to the picture above:
It's a lot less cluttered and a lot clearer. It still doesn't do much in the way of surfacing games that I might want to buy, or games that match games I currently own. And while it's a stretch to expect Microsoft to specifically build out their machine learning and algorithm chops to reinvent the Store experience on day one, I don't think it's a huge ask to expect the Microsoft Store to be intelligent enough to not advertise games that are already in my library (like Watch Dogs: Legion).
That's going to be a huge concern for indie developers, as it will largely be their content that fills the void of the next 12 to 18 months until Microsoft's first-party exclusives (or Bethesda's) become available on the platform. But so far, the new consoles do little to improve the discoverability of those titles to the user beyond the Xbox Game Pass program. That's still deeply important, and hugely valuable, but it won't solve the attach rate issues plaguing developers.
Because the Xbox Series S is largely designed to play games at existing, lower resolutions more smoothly, it can be difficult to identify the visual improvements. A game like Watch Dogs: Legion, for instance, will still run at 1080p and 30 FPS. (And it's not a locked 1080p either -- Ubisoft already said in an interview that the 1080p was a dynamic target, meaning that heavier gameplay scenes would reduce resolution further than that.) So while in practice you might be getting a higher resolution more frequently than the Xbox One or Xbox One S, chances are most people will struggle to notice the difference in a regular living room setup.
A game like F1 2019, available through Game Pass, isn't radically transformed by the experience either. The game targeted 60 FPS on the last-gen consoles, but the Xbox One -- particularly on a track like Monaco -- would frequently hover closer to 50 FPS. The Xbox Series S means games like those can now reliably hit their original frame rate target.
But for those who weren't playing games that struggled under existing hardware, or those who never noticed the occasional hitch or frame rate drop, the Xbox Series S doesn't have a compelling use case. All existing Game Pass games will still function on older Xbox hardware. Maybe not as well, but they'll run. The same goes for Microsoft's cloud streaming: Spencer implied to Kotaku that bringing xCloud to Xbox One would "be a good way for us to bridge generations".
The Xbox Series S also has a limited hard drive, capping out at 364GB once space is reserved for the Xbox OS. It only took a literal handful of games and apps -- a few AAA titles like Legion, Assassin's Creed: Valhalla and The Witcher 3, alongside smaller indies like Ori and the Will of the Wisps and The Talos Principle -- to chew through half of its space.
You can use a USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 external drive to expand the storage, although Microsoft warns that you'll want the official expansion card if you don't want to sacrifice any performance. But at $359 for 1TB, you're almost doubling the cost of the Xbox Series S. Alternatively, you could just upgrade to the bigger Xbox Series X for the same price -- and the benefits of that are substantially more than having an Xbox Series S with double the storage.
But we've been in this scenario before. It can be difficult to make an argument for the next-gen consoles until the software and ecosystem learns how to best take advantage of the new hardware. That's especially the case with the Xbox Series S, though. It doesn't offer any meaningful innovations on how you play games.
The new controller isn't quite the same leap from the stock Xbox One controller -- although it is a definite improvement and doubles as a great gamepad on PC. But it's lacking some of the advanced haptics and additional feedback that you get from the PS5's DualSense. You can sense some additional feedback in games like F1 2019 or Project Cars through the triggers, but the extra force feedback and rumble just isn't there.
The lack of a disc drive also really hurts what could be the console's best attribute: a cheap streaming box that gets Xbox Game Pass titles while also working with a back catalogue of older, cheaper Xbox 360 or Xbox One games.
Australian retailers still compete very heavily on price for video games, and not having a disc means having to eat a $20 or $30 markup for anything that isn't through Xbox Game Pass. If you're the kind of gamer who tends to stick to one or two games -- like the household that buys a console with FIFA and maybe plays one or two other games a year -- this won't matter a great deal. But for the more gaming-oriented households, who would use their consoles more regularly, the justification is much harder. And even then, the lack of doubled frame rates and extra performance benefits aren't coming to the Xbox Series S anyway -- that's all reserved for the Xbox Series X.
So if you're looking for more of a transformative experience in how you play games today, the Xbox Series X undoubtedly offers better value. That's especially true if you factor in the cost (or hassle) or expanding the console's storage. Next-gen games might have benefits to reduce their file sizes, but ~400GB of hard drive space won't stretch very far when games like Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War eat up 136GB of space.
So considering the better resolution and performance headroom over the next few years, as well as the doubling of frame rates for certain backward compatible Xbox 360 and Xbox One games, the Xbox Series X is a lot more appealing from a pure gaming standpoint.
But that's for people who play a lot of games today. The Xbox Series S's real strength is playing at a price point that more households will be able to afford, connecting with an audience who still might not have heard of Xbox Game Pass, or who might have bought a PlayStation or Switch, but not an Xbox.
Even without the benefit of the disc drive (and access to cheap Xbox 360/Xbox One games that will go sale from November onwards), the size, look and library of the Series S can be very compelling.
And just imagine a year from now. Microsoft will start bundling the console with two or three games and a three month Xbox Game Pass subscription. By then, you'll have a new year's worth of FIFA, Madden and other EA games courtesy of the EA Play integration. That's a powerful retail pitch, and the sheer volume of games even gives Xbox ammunition when competing against something like the Nintendo Switch. (Don't forget: the cost of storage will also fall over time, especially as high-speed NVMe drives begin to saturate the market, which will help lower the cost of manufacturing for the Xbox Series S and X.)
Phil Spencer's core pitch as the head of Xbox has been the expansion of the gaming market, beyond its traditional core audiences. That doesn't just mean in avenues that include features like streaming games to your phone -- which we can't test in Australia at the time of writing -- but also by making gaming more accessible at different price points.
In a year where the planet has been thrust into the largest recession since the Great Depression, the sheer dollar-to-game ratio is hard to ignore. That argument works a lot less with core gamers who don't mind the extra premium, or those who want a different tactile and visual experience in their current and next-gen titles.
I'd still argue that the Xbox Series S will be much better value 12 months from now. Having a disc drive would be an immense boon, but that time would also give developers and Microsoft more time to release games that properly take advantage of the newer AMD hardware. Right now, there's just not enough of an advancement in the actual gaming experience to justify shelling out on the Xbox Series S. The Xbox Series X is better suited for that -- if you can even find one on sale in Australia, that is.