REVIEW: Microsoft Xbox Series S
Holiday cheer or jeer? Let the new-age console wars commence
Every once so in several years, there's one reason you tend to forget your age and feel really young: When next-generation consoles arrive, and when the two biggest names go at it head-to-head.
Microsoft has unleashed its newest gaming machines, the Xbox Series S and X, promising a whole lotta new gaming experiences that would appeal to the exploding market worldwide, which amasses new fans and spectators each day (it's a big, lucrative market).
And as Microsoft, once again, tangles with Sony, their fourth-generation consoles are one of the hottest gift items for the holiday season. We're here to check out Series S, the successor to last year's Xbox One All-Digital Edition.
And, yes, you read that right; for some reason it's the Series S — not the Series X — that somehow landed on our gaming laps. We're wondering just as much as all of you are. Anyway, we gotta do our jobs; onwards, as usual.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Good, significant upgrades on the geeky stuff. However, if you look at it pound-for-pound and objectively, there are some red flags. Let's slice and dice 'em.
Depending on how you look at it, Series S looks like, especially when standing... well, a radio with one oversized speaker (or, from afar, an inverted iPod with no screen); lying down, it's like a one-burner grill. (Sorry; we've read and heard about all the fun created by this design, and we just had to get in on it too.) But to be fair, it's a clean and minimalistic finish; if you look at the evolution of the Xbox family, it's gone from eye-catcher to eye-candy, and I'm still particularly enamoured by the design of the black Xbox One.
Which may be too simple. Although now a perfectly-cornered look, it still is so similar to its predecessor, the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition, save for the black base of the latter. Sure, the black-and-white partnership complement each other perfectly, but maybe Microsoft could've experimented with a few more colour combos — some extra contours, maybe? — to readily distinguish this new machine. It somehow just feels like some upgrade of the One S.
On the other hand, this design is also perfect for those who are saving on space: At only 6.5cm thick, it's good enough to squeeze into small nooks or crevices without knocking off your other furniture. Personally, this somehow outweighs that design con above.
Up front are the power button, a USB-A port and the wireless controller button; at the rear are ports for ethernet, HDMI out and two more USB-As, plus a slot for a sold-separately expansion drive — and that last one is quite important.
Microsoft had partnered with Seagate to create a specially-configured memory card for the new Xboxes, using the former's Velocity Architecture — which, among other enhancements, allows over 40x better performance than a standard hard drive. The collaboration ensures that the 1TB Seagate plug-in matches the performance of the Xboxes' internal storage.
However, it's going to set you back a lot. As we post this, it's not yet available in the UAE (at least officially), but in the US, it's priced at a rather whopping $219.99, which translates to over Dh800.
Now think about that: For practically the same amount, you can get Series X, complete with a 1TB SSD and a disc drive. It's also worth noting that Series S only has 500GB of storage, compared to Xbox One Digital's 1TB.
Microsoft is 'continuing to invest' in this category for more choices — and (lower) price tags — in the future. Well, if you're really feeling stingy, a number-cruncher (in budgets) and don't mind that geeky speed, go ahead and plug in your garden-variety external HDDs on the USB ports then. Whatever makes you happy and play.
And speaking of that extra amount, one more thing you'll get from it if you upgrade is an optical disk drive. As you may have noticed, Series S is a digital-only machine, so no discs are allowed. That will be a severe disadvantage if you have disc-based games you still love to play over and over again. And there are a lot of players who adore having those game packs stacked somewhere like trophies.
Of course, the advantage of a digital-only device is that whenever a game is released, you can just pre-order it from the Microsoft Store and it'll automatically download once it's available; no need to rush over to an actual store (and queue up, if need may be). This is a matter of preference; I'm one of those who likes to stare at things I've collected, but I've seen the convenience of digital games.
One of the things Microsoft got some flak for was the apparent lack of alterations to the new Series' controller. But a deeper dive will make you feel it (pun intended).
A white wireless controller comes with Series S, and it's brighter compared with to a previous-generation white controller for the Xbox One. The black strip on top that houses the triggers, bumpers and wireless connect button has also been turned to white. The sticks still feel and look the same; ditto for the A/B/X/Y buttons, and the colours that go along with them.
The rear grips, as well as the triggers and bumpers, have also been given an more textured feel, which Microsoft says will help prevent you from slipping away; I haven't really felt that slippery sensation, but that's probably because I don't have sweaty hands.
A crucial change made was on the directional pad: It's now a hybrid build, with provisions to press in between up, down, left and right, so you won't have to go through the trouble of having to press two of those simultaneously should the need arise or any problem with executing combos. Oh the glory for fighting games (which I haven't played in a while).
But perhaps the most interesting button to pop up is that one dead-centre: The share button.
By default, pressing it captures a screenshot and long-pressing it records a video up to 30 seconds (again, by default). Double-pressing it, meanwhile, will reveal your library, in which you can review what you've captured and — of course — share them via social media. Change any of these in settings.
Microsoft's a bit late in this share game, given that both the Nintendo Switch and Sony PlayStation 4 had already integrated this into their respective controllers. We'll, Xbox fans can now instantaneously brag about whatever they're achieving now.
And you still need two AA batteries to power the controller. I mean, seriously... why can't a controller with a rechargable battery pack come straight out of the box? My dear Microsoft friends, that's gonna reduce our electronic waste.
Let's do a rundown of some of the stuff Series S has to offer (same goes for Series X), along with a little description of them, from Microsoft themselves.
• Xbox Velocity: A 'radical reinvention' of the traditional I/O subsystem, using deep hardware and software integration, comprised of a non-volatile memory express SSD, hardware accelerated decompression, a new DirectStorage API and sampler feedback streaming
• DirectX Raytracing: Microsoft's own take on 3D rendering, which makes graphics more realistic, using algorithms tracing light (thus the name) and then simulate how it interacts with virtual objects
• Spatial sound: Just like in Windows 10 (and several places elsewhere), it's an enhanced immersive audio experience where sounds can flow around you, including overhead, in three-dimensional virtual space. It should make your games sound better
We don't want to bore you with the technical stuff with geeky words since we want to be as simple as possible and make you understand. So, in short, this machine's built for the heavy-duty stuff.
It was completely expected that Microsoft (and the competition) would come out with an 8K-capable console, but you do have to remember that you can only experience this on Series S if you get a sold-separately ultra-high speed HDMI cable (which comes with Series X). Now since I don't have a 4K TV, let alone an 8K one (I'm a poor guy), it will be unfair to pass out judgement on something we haven't actually experienced. But based on some other reviews we've seen, it seems Microsoft has been delivering on its pegs.
Speaking of which, right out of the box you indeed get the high-speed HDMI cable, plus a power cable sans that large, chunky power block. Going all-in on portability, eh?
In any case, one of the best things with Series S is that it's fast, and we're comparing this to the standard Xbox One. The interface doesn't lag and transitions from screen to screen seamlessly; can't really complain. The interface has also been refreshed, with a smoother and, as a I term it, more professional feel, This new look, though, was already rolled out in the Xbox One series; the moment I saw it on my Xbox One was the signal that the new Series machines were well on its way to us.
Keep in mind that you can also play older, select titles all the way from the original Xbox, thanks to backward compatibility — although you know pretty well that your discs will just sit ignored with the lack of a disc drive.
One more thing but equally important: You can set up and control the console remotely using the Xbox app; just download it before you mingle with your new device and it'll help you from setting it up to running you through your preferences and giving you access to your games right away and sharing stuff with others.
Wow, haven't felt like this in quite a while. The Microsoft Xbox Series S is, indeed, a mean gaming machine, but there are a number of things that's holding it back — which is borderline disappointing, personally.
It is indeed a powerful machine with all the gaming innovations Microsoft has on offer, but they could've done better. Number-conscious customers will also think twice if they compare it to the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition: Sony's offering has 16GB of RAM and 825GB of storage, for starters.
The idea here is that if you really don't mind 'lower' specs or don't game a lot or really on a budget or have completely shifted to digital gaming, then this is for you.
GOODIES: Ultra-slim and portable, seamless experience, 8K-capable
GOOFIES: Disc-based games are kaput, half the storage of predecessor, extremely expensive expandable storage, controller still operated by batteries
EDITOR RATING: If only it was 1TB, it definitely would've had a domino effect for the better. Shocking, really. And I'm Team Xbox all the way, by the way. 3.5/5
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