The Xbox Series S is a bit of a weird console. At $299 it’s a rather compelling machine for people who don't want to drop nearly $500 on the Xbox Series X. But from some of the specs we’ve heard about so far, it might not really be much more powerful than the older Xbox One X.
Microsoft has been rather bullish in promoting how the Xbox Series S will be a 1440p gaming machine, with upscaling to 4K rather than natively rendering 4K, and will deliver up to 120 frames per second in games like Gears 5. But now a brace of developers have popped up and shined a light on the shortcomings of the cheaper next-generation Xbox.
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That might seem a bit bizarre, given PUBG can run at 60 fps on the older Xbox One X. But there's a reason for this disparity.
“The Xbox Series X will leverage the Xbox One X game build. The game will run at 60 FPS by selecting the Framerate Priority option,” the PUBG development team explained. “The Xbox Series S will leverage the Xbox One S game build, which runs at 30 fps. We are working to provide an option to raise the framerate cap on Xbox One S and Xbox Series S consoles in the future.”
That might be a disappointment to some people, as playing competitive shooting games at 60 fps give players an edge over those stuck at 30 fps. Smoother frame rates mean that it's easier to pull of a deadly headshot.
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Xbox Series S limitations
Unfortunately, the limitations of the Xbox Series S don’t stop there. Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition developer Capcom tweeted a message explaining how the game will run at frame rates of up to 120 fps on the Xbox Series X and Series S. However, on the Series S, there will be no ray-tracing support.
An update on ray tracing for #DevilMayCry 5 Special Edition on Xbox Series X|S. pic.twitter.com/OCRcGRw5blOctober 27, 2020
That’s understandable, as the Series S is a lot less powerful than the Series X, and ray-tracing is a highly demanding graphics rendering technique. If the game can run at 60 fps and use a 1440p rendered image upscaled to 4K, then we could be looking at a reasonably strong presentation for Devil May Cry 5 — just not a version that'll keep pace with the one on the Series X and PS5.
However, if there’s no ray-tracing in other Series S games, then we could be looking at a console that doesn’t just render next-gen titles at below 4K but loses out on some of the most realistic graphics features. And that could have people asking why they’d bother with a Series S when the One X can deliver rather impressive 4K at 30 fps gaming, with the occasional game hitting 60 fps at 4K.
S for 'so what?'
Gaming at 60 frames per second has been seen as a bit of a must for PC gamers and I can’t argue that it does make for a more immersive gaming experience. But I’ve played a lot of games at 30 fps, and they’ve been fine.
God of War on the PS4 is one of my favourite games ever, and that runs at 30 fps with the occasional drop. But it still doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy every single throw and recall of the Leviathan axe. The same can be said for Red Dead Redemption 2, which ran at 30 fps on my Xbox One X.
I’m sure that people who’ll want to game at 60 fps, and I still include myself as one of them, will go for the Xbox Series X. But there are some people who don't care as much or want a games console as something to occasionally use for FIFA or Call of Duty, rather than carry out lengthy Destiny 2 raids on.
And I’m pretty sure a lot of people might simply shrug at the idea of there being no ray-tracing in some Series S games. Especially as some might not really be that keen on absorbing large open-world vistas complete with dappled light being perfectly refracted off lake surfaces.
And that where having a cheaper Xbox Seires S is potentially a boon for Microsoft: it’s offering a console for the causal gamers with the Series X taking care of the hardcore Xboxers.
Furthermore, gaming at 4K is great if you have a 4K TV, but there are still plenty of people with 1080p televisions. So a 4K, 60 fps $500 gaming machine is arguably overkill for them, and their setup might not really shine a light on the limitation of the Series S.
S is for secondary
I think another area where the limitations of the Xbox Series S can be overlooked is how it could serve as a perfect secondary Xbox console.
Granted, it may be excessive for some people to spend $499 on the Series X then another $299 on another next-gen Xbox. But some people love gaming, and various Black Friday deals can serve up bargains on consoles.
As such, I can see a lot of Xbox fans having an Xbox Series X hooked up to their main 4K TV and then an Xbox Series S connected to a secondary TV or to a desktop monitor; the latter setup certainly appeals to me. There are also some PS5 owners who may spring for a Series S as an affordable way to get access to Microsoft exclusives.
And for people with large families, having a spare cheaper Xbox as a secondary machine could prevent arguments between, say a parent kicking their progeny off the main TV to watch a movie, while the former is mid-Halo campaign. The neat syncing between Xbox consoles will allow the dispersed person to carry on gaming, albeit with slightly less crisp visual settings, from where they left off. A quiet family life could be well worth the extra $299 gaming investment.
S is for ‘steady on’
It might be easy to dismiss the Xbox Series S as a low-powered games console and be done with it. But there’s a good chance that optimizations and other tweaks over time will allow developers to get more out of the Xbox Series S hardware than they could at its launch.
We've seen developers dig more out of PS4 and Xbox One hardware as the generation matures; look at the sumptuous graphics of The Last of Us 2 as an example. And the development clout Microsoft has could help game makers workout how to extract more performance from the modest Series S, especially those developers under the Xbox Game Studios banner.
As it stands, the Xbox Series S is looking very much like the weaker console to the Xbox Series X. But that may just be in terms of power, as I’m quietly optimistic that the Xbox Series S is going to be an excellent next-gen console for the price.