Which Xbox to Buy: Series X or Series S?

After a seven-year run, Microsoft has stopped making the Xbox One, and a brand new era of online game consoles is about to launch. Until you’re searching for a used Xbox or fortunate sufficient to seek out clearance inventory someplace, for those who’re an Xbox shopper you will want to decide on between the forthcoming $500 Xbox Series X and $300 Xbox Series S.

If you’re looking for video games or a television, you’ll hear a lot about 4K. With 3840×2160 pixels—four times the resolution of 1080p—it is the next great step in high-definition video.

In many circumstances, the Xbox Series X is worth the additional price because it has better graphics, more storage, and a disc drive. If you have a 4K TV, especially one with high-end capabilities like 120hz and variable refresh rate, or plan to acquire one in the future several years, you’ll almost certainly run into titles that can take advantage of the Series X’s superior graphics capability over the Xbox Series S. Moreover, while both consoles offer amazingly fast storage that increases boot-up and load times, the Series X drive has over 800 GB of internal storage space, about twice as much as the Series S drive. Plus, only the Series X has a disc drive, so if you have a collection of physical Xbox One, Xbox 360, or original-Xbox games that you want to keep playing, it’s the model to get. It’s also the model to get if you want a console that can also serve as a 4K Blu-ray player.

If you don’t have a 4K TV (and aren’t planning to get one anytime soon), don’t have much space in your entertainment center, or don’t have or plan to buy many physical discs, the Xbox Series S offers a lot of value while still allowing you to play the next generation of games. And anyone who mostly plays Xbox Game Pass—a monthly membership service that gives you access to hundreds of games, including new releases—is unlikely to miss the disc drive. We also believe that the Xbox Series S is a particularly cost-effective option for younger children, as the less expensive system and monthly subscription build up to more games than a child can play without having to buy new ones all the time. For some tourists and hosts, the Series S might be an excellent choice. It can easily fit in a carry-on piece of luggage if you’re heading somewhere for an extended visit. A Series S goes above and beyond a conventional media streaming box if you have a guest room or vacation rental.

If the main reason you’d buy a new system is to play brand-new games that aren’t available on your existing Xbox One (or, for that matter, a PlayStation 4), you may not need to do so just yet—the majority of high-profile games this year are still getting releases on older devices. However, if you already spend a lot of time with your Xbox One and are looking for a lot of instant quality of life and convenience enhancements, as well as performance and aesthetic upgrades in your current games, an Xbox Series X or Series S will bring plenty of rapid benefits.

What’s the distinction? Xbox Series X vs. Xbox Series S

Which Xbox to Buy: Series X or Series S?

Many of the same experiences are available on both the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S. However, there are some legitimate changes in capabilities that come with a $200 price differential. Neither console is ideal for every player. Here’s what you need to know about the important points:

Game selection: Both systems can play the same new games, and they’re both backward compatible, meaning they can play practically every Xbox One game (which, in turn, also means hundreds of Xbox 360 games and a handful of original-Xbox games). However, without a disc drive, the Series S will not be able to play physical games that you already own.
Both consoles output a 4K video signal, so watching videos on a 4K TV on either computer should be the same. If you want to play games in 4K, though, the Xbox Series X is the way to go. The Xbox Series X is built for games with resolutions up to 4K (and theoretically supports 8K resolutions for video material), whilst the Xbox Series S has less capable graphics technology that appears to be aimed for 1080p and sometimes 1440p visuals.
Other graphics quality: The Xbox Series X and Series S both have the same basic graphics capabilities, including support for variable rate shading and ray-traced images, which are a more advanced and realistic manner of creating lighting and visual effects. The Xbox Series X has a 12.1-teraflop GPU with 16 GB of RAM, whereas the Xbox Series S has a 4-teraflop GPU with 10 GB of RAM. This power disparity, according to Microsoft, will mostly be reflected in resolution discrepancies. However, if you’re playing on a Series S, certain games have already disabled ray tracing.
Disc drive: The Series X has a slot-loading UHD Blu-ray drive, while the Series S has no disc drive at all. The Xbox Series X is your only true option if you have a lot of Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray discs, plan on buying secondhand games, or simply like physical media. The lack of a disc drive on the Series S won’t be an issue if you plan to buy games fresh and digitally via the Xbox Store and online, and rely more heavily on Xbox Game Pass.
Storage: The Xbox Series X comes with a 1 TB hard drive with around 800 GB of usable capacity. The Xbox Series S comes with a 512 GB hard disk with around 360 GB of usable capacity.
Expanded storage: The Series X and Series S both have a slot for cards that use the CFexpress connection standard for expandable storage. Only one officially licensed model (from Seagate) is available, and it costs $220. External USB drives are still supported on the Series X and Series S, just as they are on the Xbox One, and any Xbox One–formatted disk will operate right immediately on the new consoles.
The Xbox Series X is a tall block with a base that measures around 6 by 6 inches and a height of about 12 inches. The Series S, on the other hand, is the smallest Xbox ever, measuring 11 by 5.9 by 2.6 inches and meant to be used vertically or horizontally.

Choosing to upgrade from an Xbox One to an Xbox 360

Which Xbox to Buy: Series X or Series S?

If you have an Xbox One and are looking for a big, generation-defining exclusive, you may not be able to locate it on the Xbox Series X and Series S just yet. Following this fall, exclusives like Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite offer significant visual upgrades for Series X and S owners, and in the coming years, the Series X and S will offer new games that are simply not available on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. This fall, we’re seeing an increasing number of upgraded experiences on the Series X|S and PlayStation 5, such as Battlefield 2042, which has double the player count and larger multiplayer stages on the new platforms.

However, after several months of daily use, the most noticeable differences from the previous generation of consoles are huge quality of life enhancements, the most notable of which is a more snappier, faster experience from top to bottom.

Time to set up and load

When you first turn on the Xbox Series X or Series S, it should be clear how much has changed. Previously, setting up a console required a lot of time-consuming manual entry of account names and passwords using an on-screen keyboard, then browsing settings drop-downs with a controller. You may now complete the majority of the process using your Android or iPhone with the most recent version of the Xbox app. The new consoles can then talk with your phone over Wi-Fi Direct, allowing you to restore settings, preferences, and game files from your previous console and cloud storage. The process took only a few minutes from start to finish in several instances of “first-time” setup with the Series X and Series S, according to many instances of “first-time” setup with the Series X and Series S.

The differences in responsiveness and performance will be instantly noticeable once your new console is set up. Both of these new consoles take just over 20 seconds to boot up from standby to the console dashboard, and only three seconds to boot up from standby to the console dashboard. App switching is lightning fast, and they load nearly instantly (internet connection notwithstanding). The Xbox Series X and Series S provide a similar major performance gain over the previous generation of consoles in terms of the fundamental user experience. If you’ve been using an Xbox One for a long time, the difference is startling—imagine getting your first new phone in seven years. It’s at that point of progress.

Which Xbox to Buy: Series X or Series S?

Though the interface on the new Xbox consoles is substantially faster, the design is largely similar to that of the previous console generation. You won’t get any of the new-car-smell fun of discovering the latest system this time, if you remember the changes from the Xbox 360 to Xbox One. This iterative method, on the other hand, has resulted in a sense of feature maturity and stability inside the OS. Full external storage compatibility, game level support and customization for features like Auto HDR and FPS Boost, as well as variable refresh rate, are now available, and the Series X and S have already received a number of updates. This features a 4K dashboard for the Xbox Series X, an automated night mode that adjusts UI colors based on the time of day and even lowers the console’s and status lights’ brightness output, among other things. We also enjoy extra animated dashboard backdrops, such as a special Xbox 20th anniversary theme available when you attach a limited edition 20th anniversary controller to your system.

Older games have better visuals, but newer games have fantastic graphics (eventually)

In a variety of ways, the Xbox Series X and Series S contain a new generation of graphics hardware that outperforms prior console components. When compared to the same games on Xbox One or PlayStation 4, you can anticipate greater resolutions, higher frame rates, and more detailed characters and surroundings in most titles, all with improved image quality. The new graphics hardware in these consoles can pull off more creative tricks like smoke and fog with physical qualities, and lighting that creates shadows and reflections more like it happens in the real world, so effects should be more obvious and nuanced.

As the generation progresses, that last aspect is especially likely to improve. Hardware-accelerated ray tracing is a method of graphics rendering that enables for far more advanced visual effects and lighting on both the Xbox Series X and Series S (as well as the PlayStation 5) consoles. Ray tracing has been dubbed the “holy grail” of video game graphics for years, and developers have only begun to scratch the surface of what they can do with it in the next years. Ray-traced reflections in the world are used in a number of games, including Resident Evil: Village and The Medium. Despite the fact that both the Series X and Series S support it, game developers may not be able to implement ray tracing in the same way on both platforms. On the Series X, but not on the Series S, Capcom’s re-release of Devil May Cry 5 for next-generation consoles has ray tracing, as does The Medium. The Series S struggles to reach sixty frames per second in Resident Evil Village with ray tracing enabled, while it is playable at lower frame rates (and you can always disable ray tracing if you prefer).

Higher frame rates and faster performance

The Xbox Series X and Series S have far more powerful CPUs than previous-generation consoles, with raw performance and the number of cores and threads approaching four times that of its predecessors, not to mention seven years of efficiency and other advancements. This translates to speedier user interfaces and load times1, as well as more complex character and game behaviors, and simply more content on the screen at any one time.

However, the most noticeable improvements are in frame rates, which should reach 60 frames per second far more frequently this generation than previous. The higher the frame rate, the more frequently the controller and the game communicate. As a result, a new Series X or Series S should feel like it responds to your inputs faster and more consistently. Support for variable refresh rates should also assist keep games from feeling unresponsive when they can’t sustain stable frame rates. Diablo 2: Resurrected and Psychonauts 2 are two recent instances, both of which offer 60 FPS options on Series X and S that are not accessible on the Xbox One. Battlefield 2042 is meant to operate at 60 frames per second, however it never does on Xbox One or PlayStation 4. In the recent beta, performance on the Series X and S was dependably smooth.

Gears 5, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps have all gotten 120 FPS patches on the Xbox Series X and Series S, respectively.

Controls are also more responsive, thanks to a technology called Dynamic Latency Input, which was added to Xbox’s controller software (DLI). The delay between a player’s controller input and the reaction on screen has increased an average of more than 30% on the Xbox Series X compared the Xbox One X, according to Microsoft’s DLI enhancements for the campaign in Gears 5. In vs mode, that figure rises to around 57 percent, with the game running at twice the frame rate of previous-generation PCs.

Faster storage results in significantly reduced load times.

All games and saves on an Xbox Series X or Series S are saved on NVMe storage, which is significantly newer and faster than the platter-based hard drive used by the Xbox One. With a night-and-day difference in console startup, game boot-ups, and in-game load times, this new storage helps give some of the most noticeable enhancements to the entire user experience and games for this new console generation.

The ultimate pause button is Quick Resume.

The Xbox Series X and Series S use its rapid storage access to allow you to pause practically any game by taking a snapshot of it in system memory. You can then play another game, watch a movie, or even turn your system off and unplug it completely. The game will resume exactly where you left off the next time you start it. It’s similar to switching between open apps on a smartphone, and it works with multiple games at the same time. Because of the new consoles’ quicker storage, games already boot up faster, and if you’re playing many games, moving between them using rapid resume saves a lot of time and stress by avoiding any menus and save/load screens that you’d otherwise have to negotiate. And in the few months we’ve had the system, it’s been a thrill to boot up a game for the first time in weeks only to have it load up precisely where we left off in seconds.

Quick Resume support was initially inconsistent, with some games experiencing troubles with the feature. However, recent patches have improved overall stability, while there are still some unavoidable flaws. Quick Resume almost always results in a server disconnect, which will boot you to the title screen in games like the 2018 remake of Dark Souls, which uses a “always online” server system (much like leaving the game idle for too long would).

You can continue to play your old games—they’ll just look nicer.

If you want to buy the new system but don’t find many new games that interest you, almost all of your old games will work on it. Backward compatibility is practically universal on the Xbox Series X and Series S, which means that your current libraries of Xbox One–compatible software (which includes hundreds of Xbox 360 and original-Xbox games) will function on the Xbox Series X and Series S. (The Kinect software and hardware are an exception.) On the new console, none of that will function.) Furthermore, according to Microsoft (and independently confirmed by many publications), every Xbox One–compatible piece of software will perform and look better on these new systems than it did on previous-generation consoles. In games like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, the Auto HDR function, which employs an algorithm to modify a game’s visual to take advantage of modern televisions’ capacity to show brighter images with improved contrast, results in a gorgeous new sense of vibrance. There are a few games where this function causes visual quality to be a little strange, but it can be turned off game by game.

FPS Boost, the official moniker for a proprietary software technology that allows the Xbox Series consoles to practically double the desired framerate of backwards compatible games without the need for official patches from the original developer, was also recently released by Microsoft. For certain games, this means 60 frames per second or close to it on consoles for the first time. Others will experience 120 frames per second on compatible televisions.

Selecting Accessories for Xbox Series X|S

Controllers

Which Xbox to Buy: Series X or Series S?

With the exception of the Kinect, every Xbox One attachment purchased since 2013 will operate with the Xbox Series X and Series S. The new consoles are compatible with every first- and third-party controller, every battle stick, every steering wheel, every media remote, and every existing formatted storage device. Those controllers, on the other hand, will require a firmware upgrade; the consoles will notify you when you connect a device that requires one, and the firmware update can be done both wired and remotely. This Fall, Microsoft will begin bringing out Dynamic Latency Input to all previous-generation controllers.

Headsets

Choose the Right PlayStation 5 Now!

The new Xbox Wireless Headset is the most comprehensive headset choice for the Xbox Series X and S. It connects via the Xbox One and Series consoles’ proprietary wireless standard (and also supports Bluetooth for mobile devices), and it can change chat and game volume independently. However, you’ll definitely want to utilize the Xbox Accessories app to adjust the EQ, which is a little too low-key.

If you already have a good headset, you don’t need to get another. If you plug an Xbox Series X or Series S controller directly into a gaming headset with an 18-inch connector, such as our top selection, the HyperX Cloud Alpha, it will continue to work as it has for years. On legally licensed headsets, complete USB audio compatibility for game sound and chat—as well as chat/game audio balance, for headsets that enable it—is now available.

The Xbox Series X and Series S, like the new PlayStation, lack the optical audio output seen on the Xbox One and other previous-generation consoles, preventing gaming headsets (and audio receivers) from receiving optical audio. Microsoft, on the other hand, has collaborated with a number of headset manufacturers to provide firmware updates that enable correct USB support for the Series X and Series S in existing headsets. If you have a USB-connected headset, do a quick Google search to see if it’s officially supported.

Storage

If you download and play a lot of games (and don’t want to delete and redownload them), the internal storage of the Xbox Series X and Series S could quickly fill up. At launch, the Xbox Series X’s 1 TB hard drive has 802 GB of usable storage space, which includes the drive’s actual formatted size as well as system files and cache space given to the console’s operating system. Meanwhile, the Series S comes with 364 GB of free storage.

Storage space may be a specific issue with the Series S. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, for example, requires 190 GB of storage, which is more than half of the Series S’s total capacity.

You have three options if you need extra room. The legally licensed Seagate Storage Expansion Cards, which are just as fast as the Series X and Series S’s internal storage, are the fastest and most compatible choice. However, that performance comes at a price. The suggested retail price for the 1TB option is $220, while the 512GB and 2TB variants are $140 and $400, respectively. This is also the only add-on storage solution that can directly run Series X– or Series S–exclusive software—unlike the PS5, the Xbox Series consoles cannot accept a conventional PCIe 4.0 NVMe drive.

External SSD drives sit in the center, offering enough of speed but at a lower price. You can use a USB-to-SATA connector to connect a regular SSD or our portable SSD recommendation, the Samsung Portable T5 SSD, or something similar. With backward-compatible titles, this alternative is virtually as quick as the new consoles’ internal drive, as Digital Foundry discovered.

A USB hard drive, such as the Seagate Backup Plus Slim or the Western Digital My Book, is your most economical alternative if you’re most concerned about keeping a lot of games for later. Although load speeds will be slightly faster than on the Xbox One, and you won’t be able to play Series X or Series S content on such drives, the price per gigabyte will be unbeatable.

Any drives you’ve used with an Xbox One console will function with the Xbox Series X and Series S as well. When you plug them in, any Xbox One, Xbox 360, or original Xbox titles you have installed will appear and be playable, pending any required updates.

Subscriptions

Which Xbox to Buy: Series X or Series S?

Xbox Game Pass and Game Pass Ultimate

The best value in video gaming is Xbox Game Pass. Xbox Game Pass works in a similar way to Netflix: A single monthly subscription cost grants you unrestricted access to any game on Game Pass, which rotates new titles in and out over time.

The service is a treasure mine of hidden jewels, with access to a number of high-profile, well-received independent films. However, all of Microsoft’s first-party games—that is, games that the company has paid for or owns—are available on Game Pass on the day they are released. This means you’ll have instant access to every Forza game, every Gears of War game, every Halo game (including Halo Infinite in 2021), and more.

Xbox One owners should be able to play Series X versions of new games via Game Pass’s cloud streaming function by the end of 2021.

Xbox also completed its acquisition of Zenimax Media, which included Bethesda Studios, the publisher of Doom, Wolfenstein, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and other notable titles such as Prey and Dishonored, in March of 2021. Twenty titles from those teams are currently available on Game Pass, with every additional Bethesda title due in 2021. This includes any future games released by those developers, many of which Xbox has claimed will be exclusive to Xbox and PC.

Game Pass also includes a streaming component, allowing customers to stream any game on the service on their Android phone. Current Xbox One customers will soon be able to stream the Series X versions of titles like Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 on their consoles.

We don’t think you should pay for Xbox Live Gold on its own because Xbox Game Pass Ultimate gives access to all of the Game Pass games on your console, the PC version of Game Pass with extra PC-exclusive titles, and Xbox Live Gold all in one package for $15 per month.

Monthly retail
price
Online multiplayer
access
Game Pass
game library
on your console
Game Pass
game library
on your PC
Contract term
Xbox Live Gold$10None (discounts for prepaying)
Game Pass$10None
Game Pass Ultimate$15None (discounts for prepaying)
All Access (with a Series S console)$25Two years
All Access (with a Series X console)$35Two years

Xbox offers a lot of monthly plan options. Game Pass Ultimate is an excellent value for anyone who would be getting Xbox Live Gold anyway. And Xbox All Access, which allows you to buy a console with monthly payments, is a surprisingly good value.

Xbox All Access

You can get a new Xbox through the Xbox All Access program instead of paying for it all at once. Under a two-year contract, you get the system and an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate membership for $25 per month for the Xbox Series S and $35 per month for the Xbox Series X.

The Xbox Series S All Access package costs $600 in total, while the Xbox Series X costs $840. That is, in fact, a contract. With the Series S, you get 0% financing and a few dollars off Game Pass Ultimate per month, while the Series X gets you 0% financing and a total savings of $35. It’s a reduced up-front fee for a new-generation console if you pass a credit check.

Choose the Right Xbox Now!: Series X or Series S

Footnotes

  1. As new software becomes available, we’ll continue to test the Xbox Series X and Series S, and we’ll update this guide with our ideas and opinions on the user experience. In addition, Wirecutter senior staff writer Chris Heinonen, who is responsible for much of our television coverage, has tested the Xbox Series X as well as nearly every major 2020 and 2021 television model with HDMI 2.1 support, and has screen recommendations for a variety of budgets to get the most out of the new consoles.

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