Microsoft finally confirmed the existence of the Xbox Series S on Tuesday, and one day later, the company has announced the hardware specifications of its smaller, cheaper next-generation console. At $299, the Series S appears to be a great value proposition for people who don’t care about physical games or 4K resolution.
The main thing to know about the Series S is that it is built to play all the same next-gen games as its more powerful sibling, the Xbox Series X, except at a lower target resolution of 1440p rather than 4K. Both consoles can play games at frame rates of up to 120 frames per second. And the Series S will still deliver the same visual fidelity as the Series X, according to Microsoft — it is capable of hardware-accelerated real-time ray tracing, variable-rate shading, and mesh shaders. It will also upscale the native-resolution output to 4K.
“By designing two consoles in parallel from the very beginning, we can deliver the same core gaming experience while also making it as easy as possible for developers to scale their games across both consoles with minimal effort,” said Jason Ronald, director of program management for Xbox, in a deep-dive video for the Xbox Series S. “This means that Xbox Series S delivers the same incredible next-generation experience and features as Series X — just at a reduced rendering resolution.”
The Xbox Series S delivers 4 teraflops of graphics performance, which means that on paper, it is 33% less powerful than the Xbox One X (the beefiest current-generation console, at 6 teraflops) and 67% less powerful than the Xbox Series X. But it manages to deliver the same performance as the Series X because of the way Microsoft built it: In addition to the aforementioned graphics rendering features, it offers “identical I/O performance” to the Series X, courtesy of its solid-state drive and Xbox Velocity Architecture. That means that Series S owners will also see the same improvements in loading times as on the Series X, among other benefits.
In terms of the specifications, the Xbox Series S contains “the same eight-core Zen 2 CPU architecture as the Xbox Series X,” said Ronald, except downclocked slightly to run at a constant frequency of 3.6 GHz instead of 3.8 GHz. (With simultaneous multithreading enabled, the Series S CPU will run at 3.4 GHz instead of the Series X’s 3.6 GHz.) The Series S GPU contains far fewer compute units — 20 instead of 52 — and runs at a slower frequency of 1.565 GHz compared to the Series X’s 1.825 GHz. The lower raw numbers won’t hold back the Series S too much, according to Microsoft, because of the “virtual memory multipliers” provided by the Xbox Velocity Architecture.
The system memory is “scaled in line with the target resolution” of 1440p, said Ronald: The Series S boasts 10 GB of GDDR6 RAM instead of the Series X’s 16 GB, with less memory bandwidth. Another major difference is the internal storage. While both consoles deliver the same storage bandwidth — a read speed of 2.4 GB per second for uncompressed data and 4.8 GB/s for compressed data — the SSD in the Series S is half the size of the one in the Series X, 512 GB instead of 1 TB. That could be a sticking point for the all-digital Series S, with storage requirements for many modern games creeping up near the 100 GB mark, if not topping it.
That’s right — a key Xbox Series X feature that the Series S lacks is an optical drive. These days, the majority of games are sold digitally (a trend that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated). Owners of either next-gen Xbox will be able to bump up the consoles’ internal storage by buying a 1 TB Storage Expansion Card, but Microsoft has yet to announce the price for the proprietary device manufactured by Seagate. The consoles will support USB external hard drives, but you’ll only be able to play backward-compatible Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games from external storage — next-gen games must be installed to the internal SSD or to a Storage Expansion Card.
Leaving out the 4K Blu-ray drive is a way for Microsoft to keep costs down. And even though it won’t be able to play games or Blu-ray movies, the Xbox Series S will support 4K video output for streaming services, just like the Series X will. In fact, Microsoft announced Wednesday that both consoles will support Dolby Vision HDR at launch for services such as Disney Plus, Netflix, and Vudu. The next-gen consoles will also get Dolby Vision support for games sometime in 2021, and they both feature an HDMI 2.1 output for cutting-edge video features such as variable refresh rate and auto low-latency mode.