Xbox Series S | One Week Later

Launch week has come and gone, leaving a few people happy as hell about their brand new consoles and a lot more people angry about low stock in stores, online waiting lines, and bloodthirsty scalpers. The GW&CO team has been lucky enough to pick up an Xbox Series S and a PlayStation 5 to ensure we have full coverage of the latest generation of systems so whether you already picked one up or are waiting until the next restock, you can still be a part of the conversation. Now, personally speaking, I got my Xbox Series S on launch day, November 10, and while I don't think one week is enough time to accurately review an entire system, I still wanted to share my thoughts on this tiny new Xbox that a lot of media outlets seem to be overlooking despite it being the console that I'd bet most average consumers have an interest in. So here are my initial thoughts on the Xbox Series S, one week after release.

To start off, let's talk about hardware. The Xbox Series S is a really nice looking console and it's apparent right from the unboxing experience. The matte white is the same color as the Xbox One S and just like its predecessor, the Series S stands out against a lineup of black consoles, TVs, and monitors. The console can be sat both vertically and horizontally, though the Xbox logo on the power button suggests that it's meant to really be horizontal. That being said, due to the arrangement of my desk, I have to put the system standing up and it still looks fine despite what the speaker memes said. Microsoft has been marketing the Series S as the smallest Xbox ever and a byproduct of that is a super portable yet confidently dense console. It really is impressive the performance that is packed into this small machine and I occasionally pick it up from my desk just to feel its premium build quality.

On the note of build quality, I have two gripes with the physical system. The first is that the back corner panel has some give. I first noticed this when setting up my console on launch day and it's one of those things you can't unsee once you know it's there. Pressing against this particular part of the console makes the panel flex. This is more jarring considering how sturdy the rest of the system is. Another thing that I can't quite unsee, and is more of a problem for me and not for someone who has the system all the way across the room under their TV, is that due to the ventilation holes on the right side of the console (when placed horizontally) the light from the Xbox power button often shines through. This is even more noticeable when I'm playing games with the lights turned off. I have the system arranged in a way that I can't see the lit-up Xbox logo when turned on but I can still see the light seeping through the holes and it makes me wish they just put a small panel there to prevent that light leak.

Moving over to the controller, the Xbox Series X|S controller is not a substantial redesign from the Xbox One version, and for most players, that's not a bad thing. This new controller has a new d-pad, reminiscent of the one seen on the Xbox Elite Controller, and a textured grip added to the back and triggers. There are some small design changes to make it a bit sleeker and it has a USB-C port instead of micro-USB. Personally, there are two notable changes that I really like with this iteration of the controller. The first is overall build quality which no longer feels loose or plasticy like on the last-gen controller. The other is the share button, a feature that is coming late to Xbox with both DualShock 4 and Joy-Cons from last generation systems having a designated button. As someone who often stops to stare at the views in games, I take so many more photos and videos thanks to the new button. My only negative in regards to the controller has to do with the Series S controller specifically because while an all-white controller may look great right out the box, it also gets noticeably dirtier faster.

That's all well and good but most people are going to spend more time playing on the console than staring at it like me. Luckily, in that department, the system is just as impressive. Though the Series S is less powerful than its older brother, the Series X, it still takes advantage of many of the same features like Quick Resume and fast load times thanks to an internal SSD. Quick Resume is really something that you have to see in person to appreciate and while a lot of players remain skeptical of its practicality, I can say that it has already been useful for me. I often have four games I switch between at any given time, one game that I'm reviewing (Observer: System Redux), one game from my backlog to enjoy on my own time (Far Cry 4), one game to play mindlessly while watching TV (Forza Horizon 3) and one game to play with friends (none at the moment), and going from racing around the streets of Australia in Forza to shooting up Pagan Min's goons in Far Cry 4 in a matter of seconds is truly mind-boggling. And that's not even taking into account the faster load times when booting up a game for the first time. Forza Horizon 3, which normally takes a minute to go from menu to gameplay, takes 36 seconds on Series S. These seconds and minutes may not seem important at the moment, but in the long run, that time adds up.

That isn't to say that there are no hitches. Quick resuming into a game will occasionally cause the game to freeze for a few moments. In Far Cry 4, that freeze is common every time I load into the game. And on one instance, loading in caused a bug where I could not move from where I was. The left analog stick remained functional in menus and I could look around using the right stick, but no amount of button flicking gave me walking controls. This required a restart of the game. And in my first few times of playing Observer, every time I tried to quick resume back into the game it would load from the menu as if I had just opened the game for the first time. This has since been fixed and Quick Resume does now work as advertised with the game. None of these are game-breaking bugs either, other than Far Cry 4 at times though I'm fairly certain some of the bugs I've come across in that game are the game's fault and not the system, and none of those issues have detracted from my overall positive gaming experience.

Okay, now onto how the games look and play. I don't need to reiterate the fact that the Xbox launch line-up isn't too amazing. So the only true "Optimized for Series X|S" game I got to play was Observer: System Redux. Now I'm no Digital Foundry so I can't speak to performance on a technical level, but I can say from just playing the game that it looks really great and plays super smooth. The Series X does have the added benefit of 4K and ray tracing, something that isn't quite there on Series S, but despite that omission, Observer is a really stunning game with some super detailed textures and no performance hiccups to speak of. As for the backward compatibility side of things, Far Cry 4, which I am having a great time with, loads super fast on the Series S. (Which is a good thing because I die a lot in that game.) As someone who has played a lot of open-world games in the past, I'm used to long load times. In fact, every time I hit a load screen I usually put down my controller and pick up my phone to check messages or emails. The first time I really noticed the impact of next-gen was in Far Cry 4 when I picked a fast travel location on the other side of the map and by the time my controller even touched the desk it already loaded. Both in Far Cry and in Forza the performance is great and there are no dropped frames that I noticed.

On top of all that, even while playing those games, the Series S is inaudible. Unless you're right next to the console you will not hear the fan's noise even in heavy loads and with headphones or from across the room it's pretty much nonexistent. That being said, the system does get very hot and as someone who has their system on the desk, its heat can be felt from around a foot away from the black exhaust vent. Because of this, I would suggest you follow Microsoft's guidelines of having a few inches of clearance to the system on all sides. Something I found interesting in my time with the Series S so far was that the night I got it, after installing all the games and testing out a few, I turned off the console (in Instant-On mode), placed the controller on top of the vent, and went to bed. The next morning, when I picked up the controller, it was warm to the touch. This means that even when turned off, the system does occasionally turn on its fans for some reason or another. And even now as I write this, having not used the console in over 12 hours, placing my hand near the vent is a bit warmer than touching my now unplugged Xbox One S.

The last thing I want to bring up is storage. While the Xbox Series S box advertises 512GB storage, in reality, after OS and system functions are taken into account, there is a mere 364GB storage on the system for games. This is an even bigger problem considering the Series S is an all-digital system. Like it or not, you will have to download games and due to the size, you'll also have to manage your resources to decide what stays on the SSD and what gets deleted or booted to an external hard drive. I currently have 7 games installed on my system (Fallout: New Vegas, Far Cry 4, Forza Horizon 3, Nexomon: Extinction, Observer: System Redux, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition) and I have 196GB free space remaining. While I don't have games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare installed, with its 100GB+ file size, I still have games like The Witcher 3 which comes in at 40GB. For me, the storage on Series S is not an issue and I do have a 1TB hard drive on standby if I need to use it to offload my backward compatible games. That being said, if you think that from your current Xbox One storage situation, 364GB is not enough for you, then I would not recommend the proprietary storage expansion card that costs $219 and instead suggest you just cash out for the Series X. You'll be paying around the same amount in the end plus you'll have a substantially more powerful system with a 4K blu-ray player.

Now usually, in my conclusions, I would summarize the article for those too lazy to read it entirely. But this time around I wanted to throw out a theory. Yes, I do think the Series S is an impressive system but it's severely underpowered when compared to other next-gen consoles. This, along with the two-year plan for Xbox All-Access, leads me to believe that in two to three years, we will see a new Xbox system. It may not be an Xbox Series H (or some other letter) and could simply be an Xbox Series S2, but the idea of Microsoft putting out an upgraded system that, while not entirely up to par with PS5 specs, will put the system at least closer to Xbox One X in terms of GPU power and be a reason for All-Access members to continue their membership for another two years much like phone plans lines up with the games as a service route Xbox is headed in. But until then, as it is now, I can say that the Series S is a tiny gaming machine that is not for the enthusiasts, especially for those who like physical media, but for casual games or PS5 owners who want to play Xbox Game Studios titles via Game Pass, it's a great package with lots of value for its size and price.

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