“Holy crap.” That’s the first thing that came to mind as I processed Microsoft’s Xbox Series S announcement this week. It’ll match some of the most significant upgrades from the Xbox Series X — a fast new SSD, high-frame rate gameplay — for just $299. Even better, you can finance it for $25 a month over two years together with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. No matter how you look at it, the Series S is an incredible value for most consumers.
As exciting as the Xbox Series X sounds, it’s difficult for many to justify the cost of a $499 system today, especially when many people are out of work and we’re dealing with a global financial crisis. And to truly take advantage of the Series X, you’ll need a modern 4K TV, ideally with support for HDMI 2.1 and a 120Hz refresh rate. That system is built for the same folks who bought the Xbox One X at launch — the people who want the most power possible, no matter the cost.
The Xbox Series S, meanwhile, is built for everyone else: the people who stuck with a first-generation Xbox One or One S; maybe parents who just want a new system for their kids. That crowd won’t mind if their games aren’t being natively rendered in 4K, and they won't care how many teraflops better their system is than the PlayStation 5. They just want access to games and some genuine real-world improvements over the last console. And in that respect, the Series S will certainly deliver.
Microsoft says it’s targeting 1440p gameplay at 60FPS, with support for even higher refresh rates. That’s a significant improvement over the Xbox One and One S, which often struggled to maintain 30FPS in 1080p. For players, it means their games will look far smoother — more like what PC gamers are used to seeing, instead of the stuttery mess console owners have lived with. And even if you have a fancy new 4K set, you’ll still see some significant improvements over the Xbox One and One S thanks to the higher frame rate. (I’d argue most people won’t even notice the benefits of the Series X’s 4K rendering unless they were sitting painfully close to their giant TVs.)
You can also expect dramatically faster load times thanks to Microsoft’s new Xbox Velocity architecture and custom 512GB SSD. On paper, it’ll offer speed improvements that even non-techies will notice. Levels will pop up quicker, and you’ll be able to jump right back into your latest gaming session with Quick Resume.
Still, the amount of storage may be an issue for some players, especially now that popular games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare can take up to 183GB of space. (And add on another 100GB for Warzone battle royale.) You can always add on the 1TB Seagate Storage Expansion card, but we don’t know how much that’ll cost yet. And if you assume it’ll go for at least $200 like comparable PC SSD drives, then you might as well just make the leap to the Xbox Series X, which ships with a 1TB drive.
Microsoft also mentioned DirectX ray tracing support for the Series S, but it’s hard to tell how effective that’ll be. NVIDIA’s RTX ray tracing tech significantly hurts performance on its PC GPUs, and I’d imagine the same would be true of AMD’s RDNA2 console solution. But it’s hard to judge until we actually see that in action. For now, if ray tracing is a priority for you, just make the jump straight to the Series X.
I’d bet more people care about access to games than new-fangled tech like ray tracing, and that’s where Game Pass Ultimate comes in. It combines Game Pass, Microsoft’s subscription service with over 100 titles and same-day access to first-party games, and Xbox Live multiplayer support for $15 a month. It’s been one of the best deals in gaming for years, and it seems even more valuable when paired together with the Series S — especially if you jump on the $25-a-month All Access plan. (And it’s worth noting here the Series X is a similarly good deal for $35 a month.)
Typically I’d say you’re better off buying your gear outright, rather than financing. But the overall value proposition with the Series S is hard to deny. After 24 months, you end up paying $600, which admittedly sounds like a lot. But the console itself only costs you $240 after discounting the $15 monthly fee for Game Pass Ultimate. For many consumers, it’s a subscription they’d be jumping on anyway. After all, why pay $60 for a new Microsoft title like Halo Infinite when you can pay that same amount for four months of Game Pass?
Microsoft has also done a commendable job of making Game Pass Ultimate jam-packed with titles you’d actually want to play, including Indies like Hollow Knight and Rocket League. You’ll also be getting access to EA Play games like Mass Effect and The Sims eventually. You also get discounts on featured games if you want to keep them in your library, and Windows gamers also get even more titles like Crusader Kings 3.
I haven’t even gotten to cloud gaming yet, which is officially arriving on Game Pass Ultimate on September 15th. That’ll let you play some games on your Android phones and tablets, which opens up the Xbox ecosystem in entirely new ways. (iOS users will have to wait until Apple gets over its problem with game streaming.)
Sure, you can enjoy all of these Game Pass Ultimate perks on the existing Xbox One systems, but that’s not going to help parents with kids demanding a new system, or casual players with older TVs. And really, that’s who the Xbox Series S is for — it gives you a taste of next-generation gaming at a more palatable price. And it’s something Sony likely won’t be able to compete with either. The disc-less PlayStation 5 will definitely be cheaper than its full-featured sibling, but it likely won’t be close to $299.
It’s strange to say it, but Microsoft’s most interesting next-gen console may be the one that doesn’t have the fastest hardware around. The Xbox Series S is good enough. And paired together with a compelling subscription, it could be the ideal console gaming experience for most people.