Video game fans were given a slew of new console options to choose from at the end of 2020. Not only did Sony and Microsoft finally release their next-generation systems, they both did so in dual models. Both had a disc-based system that retailed for a high price, while the alternative models were cheaper but came with limitations, namely the lack of a disc drive. Sony retails their two models for $499 and $399, with no difference in specs between the two. Microsoft, on the other hand, offers a higher-powered system, the Series-X, which retails for $499, while the lower-powered Series-S runs at a mere $299.
Sony’s digital-only model seems entirely superfluous unless you are just someone who absolutely refuses to buy discs. Paying a mere hundred dollar bonus for the benefit of buying and selling used games throughout the system’s life (and beyond) seems like a worthwhile investment.
By the way, one of us predicted, six years ago, that the gaming industry would swing hard toward digital-only systems and Netflix-style game subscriptions…I should also point out that I predicted, way back in 2012, that Nintendo’s console after the WiiU would be a system that moved seamlessly between TV and handheld play, by way of some kind of an HDMI-dongle or hub station. I don’t have any documentation for that on hand, but you can find it somewhere in the dark recesses of the IGN forums.
While Sony seems to have a pair of high-end systems and a ton of exclusive content in both digital and disc formats, Microsoft is taking a different approach. On the one hand, they’ve got their own high-end system as well, which not only boasts better specs than the PS5, but does so for the same price. It doesn’t have Sony’s robust library of exclusive IPs to rely on, however, even with the company making some monster purchases, like Bethesda, Id games, and more.
Pound for pound, in terms of all the two systems have to offer over a typical, six-year, console lifecycle, Sony’s PS5 probably takes the cake over the Microsoft Series-X.
But Microsoft has an ace up its sleeve…
At just $300, and with specs only slightly behind the Series-X, Microsoft’s little white beauty might just be the most perfect “plus one” console since the Nintendo Wii.
Being discless means waiving the ability to buy or sell used games, but to make up for that Microsoft offers their Netflix-of-gaming subscription service, XBOX Game Pass Ultimate. For just $15 a month (the cost of three new games per year), you have access to scores of games, from the original XBOX era, the 360 years, tons of games from the XBOX ONE days, and new games for the Series line. In fact, every new game developed or released by Microsoft and its many content providers is available day-one on the service.
So while you might look at the overall comparison between the PS5 and Series-X and conclude there’s more bang for your buck going with Sony, Microsoft is okay with that as long as you also pick up, on a lark, their cheap-but-powerful micro-console.
That’s what I did.
Well, I didn’t pick up the PS5 (who can find one?), but I did pick up the Series-S. I already have a Nintendo Switch and more games on that than I have time to play, but I wanted a plus-one and for $300 plus a subscription fee (that I basically pay nothing for because I use Bing as my search engine and Microsoft literally pays me in XBOX gift cards for doing so), there was no better value. In fact, I felt like I was stealing.
After months of trying to find one, I finally nabbed a Series-S earlier this week.
Here’s a review.
First of all, reviewing a video game system is best done according to five key metrics: Design, controller, interface, games, and the cost/risk factor. In other words, does it look good, is it comfortable to use, is it easy to navigate, are there things to play, and will I still be glad I spent the money on it years down the road? If the answer, more often than not, is “yes” then you’ve got a winner.
Microsoft has a winner here.
Let’s break it down…
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and while I’ve read a ton of praise for the look of the Series-S, you’re going to have to put me down as “mixed.” There is a lot to like about it, no question, but just as many things I don’t care for. On the positive side, the matte white is *chef’s kiss.* It’s a stylish and bold contrast to the black Series-X. In terms of its form, there’s not much to say: It’s a plain box, nothing more. It lacks the “mini-PC” look of the Series-X and the cross between a wireless router and a modern high rise skyscraper that is the PS5. It’s minimalist, it’s unobtrusive; it’s fine and nothing more.
Except for all the things I hate about it.
There are two, in fact. One is very big, the other very small, but I hate them equally. First is the humongous black hubcap sitting on top of the thing. It looks like a speaker for crying out loud. I can only imagine how much heat that thing produces, due to so much power being shoved into so small a package, so I don’t begrudge the need for a large vent. I just hate how garish it looks as a big black circle. I suppose it could be worse; it could be a big circle-X logo. My other grief is on the front of the machine. There’s a front-facing USB port, which is fine, but the real problem is right next to it. There’s this tiny little circular button, looking like a little black nipple on a field of white. It’s the console’s sync button and could easily be moved to the back of the system where it’s out of sight. As it is, it just sits there, ruining the simple elegance of the all-white design. How difficult would it be for this button to be white, blending in with the rest? And while I’m complaining, a little white flap to cover that USB port wouldn’t hurt, either.
I’m just nit-picking now.
8/10 – The all-white look is chic, but the black dinner plate that’s sitting on top brings the whole thing down a notch.
A good controller needs to be stylish, comfortable, functional, and versatile.
The Series-S controller lands on all counts. The pure white look with black accents is done so much better here than on the main system. Holding it in your hands, the controller feels ever so slightly smaller than the already wonderful XBOX One controller. In fact, there is little difference between the two, other than the share button in the middle, and the depressed D-Pad. Much as I loved the cross-style pad on the XBOX One, the new design works beautifully; the thumb rests inside and can move in all eight directions with ease. Street Fighter is the ultimate acid-test to a D-pad and the Series-S pad passes with flying colors. There’s also a subtle bit of texture work on the back of the device and the triggers; very grippy. In terms of versatility, it maintains the now-ubiquitous and industry-standard “dual analog, four face button, two shoulders, two trigger” style, so there are no issues there.
The only problem, and it’s a big one for many, is the fact that it requires two AA batteries to operate. It’s a remarkable thing for Nintendo to be more ahead of the curve than Microsoft when it comes to technology, but in this area they are. When even Nintendo is using researchable devices, there’s no good reason for anyone else to keep using batteries. It’s enough to make me think Microsoft has some kind of a deal with the
10/10 – I bought a rechargeable battery pack kit for twenty bucks (comes with two packs) so the battery issue is no problem for me, leaving only the good. This controller is perfect.
The XBOX Series menu is based in large part on the XBOX One menu system. Large square icons represent various files and folders, and you scroll up and down, left and right to access them. It’s economical and functional, but also sometimes a bit limited and definitely a bit disorganized. I’d prefer a bit more customization, beyond a few options with the background colors. For example, there’s no single section that shows your entire game library on the home menu. You can create a “group” and manually insert your games there before putting them on the home page, but you’ll always have to manually update the folder every time you download a new title. As you’re shopping, there’s little distinction between a game, a DLC pack, or something random like a movie. You can apply filters manually, but the default setting is just to jumble everything together.
In fairness, no one has a perfect menu system on their console right now. Nintendo has less than a bare bones set up. Sony’s looks pretty but is even more cumbersome to navigate than Microsoft’s. And Microsoft has the most…everything…packed into their menu, but at the expense of being cluttered.
8/10 – It’s functional but only with a few extra steps and a lot of redundancy along the way.
GAMES (BACKWARDS COMPAT) 9/10
I don’t care how many studios Microsoft buys, they’re never going to compete with the output of games that Nintendo or Sony can bring their fans. Where Microsoft can excel is in sheer variety and affordability. You can count on half-a-dozen great games exclusive to Nintendo’s Switch every year. You can count on the same from Sony. But if you want them all, you’ve got to pay Nintendo or Sony $360 for them ($60 x 6). Microsoft might release a half-dozen games as well, in a year, that are exclusive to the Series-S/X, but they’ll be available day one for Game Pass, meaning they’ll only cost you $15 a month for the whole year. That’s $180 (and only if you have Game Pass for the whole year), half as much as half-a-dozen games from Sony or Nintendo, nevermind the massive library of other available games you weren’t even shopping for that you might be tempted to try out because it costs nothing (extra) to download and play.
The only downside is no downside at all: There are more games than there is space in the system. That’s true of the Switch and the PS5, too, by the way. In the case of the Series-S, there is only a half-terabyte of storage (actually more like 400GB after factoring in the UI) to play with. While that is stupidly small once you start downloading, you can always pick up a USB HDD and plug it in as external storage. Series-version games can’t be run from the HDD but they can be stored and transferred there in a fraction of the time it would take to re-download them. Personally, I have a $50 1TB HDD hooked up to the system, with over thirty games installed on either the console or the external (many of which I downloaded just to try out and which won’t be sticking around for more than a few weeks), and I still have over half a terabyte of empty space to go.
10/10 – XBOX has the games. It doesn’t have all the games, but it has a lot of them and for an insanely attractive price point.
If there’s a concern console buyers have with the Series-S it’s whether or not they’ll regret getting it in, say, three years, when we’re well into the generation and all the developers have figured out how to get the most out of the PS5 and Series-X. The worry is the less-powered Series-S will be unable to keep up with the latest and the greatest games.
First, Microsoft has already said they are committed to their games being adaptable depending on if they’re being played on the X or the S. They have a PC gamer’s mentality, where games are made to look better or
worse less better depending on what kind of hardware you’re using, but as long as you have something half-way competent you can at least play the game.
Playing the next Halo will never look as good on the Series-S as it will on the Series-X, but you know that going in; that’s as true now as it will be in three years. If you’re okay with weighing your options and deciding to go for the Series-S as a “plus one” the value today is going to be the value in three years. And if, in three years, you decide to sell the system toward the purchase of the beefier X, all the games you bought to play on the S will play on the X at the highest graphical levels possible. There are no “S” games and “X” games; there are only “Series S/X” games. Microsoft has you covered.
10/10 – As said, the value today will be the value in three years. If it’s worth buying today, it will be worth it in three years as well.
* * * * *
OVERALL GRADE = 9/10
So there you have it.
Is the Series-S good enough and powerful enough to justify buying as your base “next-gen” console? That’s a firm “maybe.” Probably not right now since there aren’t enough exclusive next-gen “Series” games out right now. Buying a $300 system—as your only game console—to play Xbox One games in 1440p doesn’t seem like a good investment. But if you’re a casual gamer then sure, maybe it is.
On the other hand, is the Series-S good enough and powerful enough to be your secondary, “plus-one” console, to stand alongside your Switch and/or PS5? Absolutely. It might not be as pretty to look at as it could have been, and the menu setup might be a hair cumbersome and limiting, but the humongous library of games available for pennies, and the overall low cost make it a system well worth the sticker price.
If you can find one, consider it highly recommended.