As this new generation of consoles is under way, it’s easy to see why Xbox Series S is a great affordable option. At £249 (US$299), that’s the same as or less than the already underpowered Nintendo Switch. It’s also hard to argue that it looks like a considerate way of lowering the barrier of entry to next-gen consoles for people on lower incomes, especially in our ever more precarious pandemic-affected circumstances.
Of course, there’s a good reason why Microsoft is able to sell the Xbox Series S at almost half the price of its bigger beefier brother. It’s not just a less powerful console but also has to make do with less, with no disc drive to play physical games and a measly 512GB SSD for storage.
Nonetheless, early signs had been promising. After all, this cheaper, underpowered machine can still do cool next-gen things like ray-tracing, switching between games with Quick Resume, or making your last-gen games run better. The latest update is even providing an FPS boost to older games.
So the past looks all rosy, but what about the long-term future? It’s a little harder to determine right now since many developers are still supporting both console generations during this transition between console generations.
But the moment it comes to looking at next-gen exclusives, the shortcomings are already apparent. We’ve seen this with the release of Control: Ultimate Edition and next-gen exclusive The Medium, where both only support ray-tracing on Xbox Series X.
Even then, these games still have a compromise on resolution and frame rates, which is a reminder that the PS5 and Xbox Series X are already budget hardware when compared to the most bleeding edge PC hardware on the market right now.
If just a couple games are already showing the Series S’s limitations several months into the console’s life cycle, what other constraints will it face a year or two from now? Whereas last generation, developers had the option to take advantage of the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X’s improved specs to scale up their games, being asked to scale back down so that a game can run on Xbox Series S potentially brings more headaches. I can’t imagine developers who want to bring their game to Xbox can opt out of making a version for the Series S either.
Quantic Dream’s David Cage had already been critical of Microsoft’s dual console approach, saying “there is a strong chance that most developers will focus on the lower-end version to avoid doing two different versions”, and therefore risk impeding innovation in next-gen titles.
Metro series developer 4A Games have also weighed in on the challenges of developing for Xbox Series S. In an interview with Wccftech, Chief Technical Officer Oleksandr Shyshkovtsov explained that while they do not have an issue with the console having less RAM, its less less powerful GPU (at 4 teraflops compared to the Series X’s 12) “presents challenges for future titles”.
“Our current renderer is designed for high spatial and temporal resolution (read: 4K/60FPS). Dropping any of those would require us to do more expensive calculations, dropping performance even further. We have a compromise solution right now, but I am not satisfied with it yet,” he said.
But let’s bring it back to you, the gamer who has opted for the Series S as a next-gen ‘bargain’. There’s no complaints at launch, your old games work better than ever, even Cyberpunk 2077 is running acceptably. However, what are the hidden costs?
Without the option to play physical games, you miss out on deals for boxed games that online retailers can sell at a lower price as well as the secondhand market. That may not be a big deal if you’re just planning to use it as an Xbox Game Pass machine, downloading games that suit you.
But then there’s the issue of that small SSD, where you’re left with just 364GB for games once the OS has taken its share. Either you’re sticking to a couple regular games or you’re going to have to constantly uninstall games to make room for new ones. That reliance on downloading ever-increasing game file sizes is also dependent on having a fast internet connection, and you’re stuffed if your broadband has data limits.
While it’s possible to increase your storage, given that the official 1TB Seagate Storage Expansion Card is worth £219 (US$219), that works out costing more than if you had just bought a Series X in the first place, except you’re still stuck with less RAM and teraflops.
In short, while the Series S is offered as a choice for the cash-strapped, your long-term choices are limited. You can’t upgrade it like a PC, so if a year down the line you’re thinking about making the jump to 4K, or getting tired of the restrictions on how you can play next-gen games, your only option is to buy a new Series X wholesale. That’s not even factoring in a potential mid-generation refresh.
Impatient cash-trapped gamers may be willing to overlook these quibbles when they have an economy class ticket to next-gen now. However, that analogy also casts me back to the time I chose the cheapest flight to Cologne for Gamescom, where the money saved wasn’t really worth the extra hours of purgatory stuck in flight transfers and airport security. That’s the thing about bargains: there’s almost always a catch.