Xbox Series S is the right console for holiday 2021 — here's why

Xbox Series S review
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Update: Microsoft might be about to fix the Xbox Series S's biggest problems, and let you convert game discs into digital downloads

There's only one next-gen console retailers have managed to keep in stock this year for more than five minutes at a stretch. While it's been sporadic, GameStop, Best Buy,Target and Newegg have had a fairly steady stock of Xbox Series S even as people went out and bought tech in droves on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

While I don’t think the Xbox Series S is a perfect console, one thing seems clear: If you want a next-gen console this holiday season, it’s Xbox Series S or bust. Believe it or not, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. The Series S is a surprisingly capable little console, and might work especially well as a gift for kids. But if you want one, you should probably put in an order sooner rather than later.

A world without consoles 

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Let me be blunt: You’re probably not going to get a PS5 or Xbox Series X in time for Christmas.

There. I said it. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s just not going to happen. We don’t know how many retailers are going to offer PS5 restocks and Xbox Series X restocks between now and mid-December, if any. If retailers do get new PS5 and Xbox Series X stock, those consoles will sell out within minutes, going mostly to scalpers. This is what’s happened at every single restock between November 2020 and now, and I just don’t see that changing within the next two weeks.

You could always buy from a scalper, granted, but then you’re just perpetuating the problem. Please don’t do that. I’m asking you as both a tech reviewer and as a consumer advocate in general. Even if you feel like a holiday hero for obtaining the unobtainable console, you’re just making it that much harder for the next person — and probably wasting a lot of your own money in the process.

As of right now, that’s where it stands. You can hope against hope for a few last-minute restocks, and to be one of the lucky few who gets them. It’s not impossible, and goodness knows we have some good PS5 restock tips. But the odds are astronomically against you, and even if you want to play the restock game, you should acknowledge that up front.

This is where the Xbox Series S comes in. It’s not as powerful as the Xbox Series X. It doesn’t have any killer exclusives, like the PS5. But it is an honest-to-goodness next-gen console that you can buy right now, and have in your home before Christmas. (Heck, if you do in-store pickup, you could have it before the end of Hanukkah.) Given the choice between “a slightly underpowered console” or “no console at all,” there’s something to be said for the former.

In defense of the Xbox Series S 

Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S on colorful background

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To be fair, frequent Tom’s Guide readers may not know exactly where we stand on the Xbox Series S. In my initial Xbox Series S review, I gave it four stars out of five, calling it a “charming little gadget [that] has a lot to offer.”

On the other hand, my colleague Rory Mellon published an op-ed in October entitled “PSA: Do not buy an Xbox Series S.” In it, he cited the system’s less powerful specs, compared to the Xbox Series X, as well as the fact that certain games just don’t run very well on it. The Series S could lose more and more parity with the Series X as developers start to get frustrated with the small white console.

This isn’t an unreasonable argument; in my own review, I noted that the Series S might not be entirely future-proof. However, in spite of a few performance hiccups, I don’t think Microsoft will sunset the Series S anytime soon. The console is only a year old; I imagine it will have at least another year or two before we start seeing significant, widespread performance disparities. And even then, the system will function just fine for backwards-compatible Xbox One, Xbox 360 and original Xbox games. That’s roughly 3,000 titles right there.

I’m not going to give a comprehensive breakdown of the two consoles here, mostly because I've already done so in my Xbox Series X vs Xbox Series S comparison. However, the big differences are that the Series X has better resolution (4K instead of 1440p), a larger SSD, more RAM, and a more powerful GPU. The Series X is also much bigger, and comes with a disc drive. The Series S is a purely digital console.

In short, in an apples-to-apples comparison, the Xbox Series X is a better console. But having used the Series S for a year, I’ve found a lot to like about it. I don’t think it would make a bad holiday gift, particularly for someone who doesn’t own an Xbox One.

For one thing, the Series S costs $300, which is a sizable price break compared to the Series X at $500. The Series S is also much smaller (10.8 x 5.9 x 2.6 inches), which means it’s extremely easy to fit in a bedroom, playroom or even on top of a computer desk.

Furthermore, while the Xbox Series S can’t output a 4K picture, it does just fine at 1080p, offering 60 fps on most games, and up to 120 fps for a handful of titles. If you have a 4K TV, the Xbox Series S can upscale; if you don’t, you’re not missing anything at all. Like the Series X, the Series S has an SSD, meaning that save files usually load in seconds, rather than minutes.

The Xbox Series S is compatible with all the same games, controllers and accessories as the Series X. Xbox Game Pass works just as well on the Series S, meaning you can access hundreds of games for a flat monthly fee. These include day-one Microsoft releases, such as Forza and Halo.

In short, yes, the Xbox Series S makes a number of compromises to justify its $300 price. At the same time, it’s a perfectly good way to play a huge library of games, with high frame rates and rapid load times. Compared to “not having an Xbox at all,” it’s an easy recommendation.

Kids and consoles 

xbox series x, xbox series s

(Image credit: Future)

Granted, I don’t think buying an Xbox Series S is right for everyone. If you can hold out a few more months (hopefully), you may be better off putting your money toward an Xbox Series X, since the 4K output, disc drive and better performance justify the extra $200, in this reviewer’s opinion.

On the other hand, I do think there’s some value in giving thoughtful gifts for the holidays, especially if the recipient is a child. A teen or adult will understand that they’re better off waiting for a Series X; a child may just feel disappointed that they didn’t get a new console.

A while back, I wrote a piece about how the Xbox Series S could be the perfect kids console, even more so than the Nintendo Switch. Without rehashing the whole thing here, I argued that a small, inexpensive console with a ready-made library (via Game Pass) could be a great first system for young gamers. I stand by that observation.

As such, here’s how things stand: Hanukkah is well underway, and Christmas is coming in a few weeks. If you want to buy a console in December 2021, your choices, realistically, are the Switch or the Xbox Series S. It's difficult to know where to buy the Nintendo Switch from day to day, and for all its merits, it’s not really a next-gen console — not even the fancy new Switch OLED model.

You can buy an Xbox Series S right now, and have it in time for Christmas. You might not be able to do so for too much longer. The choice is yours.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.