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Here’s how the Xbox Series S and Series X will handle backward compatibility

Breaking down how next-gen Xboxes work with older-gen games

a product render showing an angle view of the Xbox Series S standing vertically with a controller standing against it, to the left of an Xbox Series X standing vertically with a controller standing against it Image: Microsoft via Polygon
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Backward compatibility is one of the major pillars of Microsoft’s pitch for its next-generation consoles: The Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, the company says, will launch with the ability to play “thousands of Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Original Xbox games.” But there’s a wide gulf between the capabilities of the two models — “the most powerful Xbox ever” and “the smallest Xbox ever,” respectively — which means that they will handle backward compatibility differently.

Microsoft unveiled the Xbox Series S last week, and said that it will debut alongside the bigger, stronger Series X on Nov. 10 at a far more affordable price point of $299 instead of $499. One major difference between what the two models offer is resolution: While both consoles can play games at frame rates as high as 120 frames per second, the Xbox Series X is designed to run at 4K resolution while the Series S is geared toward 1440p.

The next-gen consoles are analogous to the two current models of the Xbox One, the Xbox One S and the Xbox One X. And Microsoft recently announced that backward compatibility will function accordingly on the upcoming consoles.

How will backward compatibility work on the Xbox Series S?

Since the debut of the Xbox One X in late 2017, Microsoft has delivered Xbox One X enhancements for nearly 70 Xbox 360 and original Xbox games. These titles look and play better on an Xbox One X than they do on an Xbox One S (or launch-model Xbox One) — the enhancements include higher-quality anti-aliasing, increased texture detail, and nine times the resolution (4K versus 720p).

However, the Xbox Series S won’t support those enhancements, Microsoft confirmed recently. Instead, the company said in a statement to VGC on Friday, “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.”

It may seem disappointing that even Microsoft’s weaker next-gen console won’t be able to deliver the same backward compatibility enhancements as the company’s stronger current-gen model. But the math checks out — on paper, the Xbox Series S has less raw power than the Xbox One X, with graphics performance of 4 teraflops compared to 6 teraflops. (It’s worth noting that that’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, since the two consoles have different GPU architectures.) It has less system memory, too: 10 GB for the Xbox Series S (of which 8 GB, at most, is available to developers) versus 12 GB for the Xbox One X (of which 9 GB is available to developers).

Considering that, it’s not a bad consolation prize that the Xbox Series S will still provide some improvements in running older games. Asked for further details, a Microsoft representative told Polygon that the aforementioned benefits are “enhancements that aren’t possible on Xbox One X.” The spokesperson also noted that the Xbox Series S will still be capable of running some Xbox One games with “double the frame rates” — such as Gears 5, which will support 120 fps multiplayer action on both next-gen Xbox models — thanks to “well over double the effective CPU and GPU performance of Xbox One S.”

How will backward compatibility work on the Xbox Series X?

a three-quarters view of the top of the Xbox Series X, with a green piece of plastic visible just beneath the system vents Image: Microsoft

Microsoft announced in May that backward-compatible games will take advantage of “the full power of the Xbox Series X” for a variety of performance and image quality improvements. In addition to the same doubled frame rate that the Series S will support (again, for certain games), the Series X will be able to “automatically add HDR support to games,” said Jason Ronald, director of program management for Xbox. And of course, Series X users are guaranteed to get games “rendering at their maximum resolution and visual quality.”

Both the Series S and Series X will deliver shorter load times, thanks to their fast SSDs — 512 GB for the Series S, and 1 TB for the Series X. And they’ll both support a new feature called Quick Resume, which will let users swap between multiple active games and, well, quickly resume play right from where they left off.

Pre-orders for the Xbox Series S and Series X go live on Sept. 22.

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