Microsoft has revealed its next generation Xbox, and for the first time, there are two of them at launch—Xboxes? Xboxen? But while the PlayStation 5 essentially comes in “disc” and “disc-free” versions, there are actually several big differences between the smaller Xbox Series S and the larger, more powerful Series X. Let’s break them down.
Microsoft has dipped its toe into digital-only consoles with the Xbox One S Digital Edition. The Series S even looks a lot like that machine, because it’s also a white rectangle that lacks a disc drive. But to make a long story short, the lack of a disc drive means that the Xbox Series S can’t play the physical games you buy at retail or get shipped in the mail.
For a lot of players, that’s not going to be a big deal. That’s especially true now that pretty much all modern AAA games need to be installed to the console’s storage drive anyway, disc or no. As a PC gamer myself, I find the idea of games on discs to be somewhat old-fashioned.
But it’s worth considering that the physical distribution of games is one of the advantages of game consoles. Not only can a game disc be resold or bought used to save some dough, they can be rented from a store or kiosk, or shared among friends who have the same console. Weighed as a vector for cheaper and easier-to-obtain games, the disc drive on the Xbox Series X seems like much less of a luxury.
Oh, and the Series X is also a 4K Blu-ray player, in addition to standard Blu-ray discs and DVDs. Again, that might not matter if you mostly watch movies over streaming, as both machines work fine as streaming gadgets. But having the option for discs gives you more opportunities for sales, used purchases, and sharing. And in case it wasn’t obvious: The Xbox Series X is perfectly capable of buying and downloading digital games, too.
Those whose entertainment centers are on the small side might find the capacious Xbox Series X too much to handle: At a little less than 6x6x12 inches, it’s closer to the size of a full desktop computer than a conventional game console. In contrast, the Series S is just 6×2.6×11 inches, less than half the volume. It’s also half the weight: just over 4 pounds versus just under 10.
Most users won’t have any issue with the size of either game console. Both the Series X and Series S can lay on their sides or stand upright, though you’ll have to make sure they have adequate airflow. So even if the larger unit doesn’t fit into whatever furniture your TV is sitting on, odds are good that you can find somewhere for it to hang out.
Aside from the disc drive and double the storage capacity (1TB of SSD storage versus 512GB on the Series S), the Series X also has an undeniable edge on the Series S in terms of computing power. Briefly:
If you’re not familiar with what all those numbers mean, it boils down to this: The Xbox Series X is approximately two to three times as powerful as the Xbox Series S. According to Microsoft, the Series S can handle games at 1440p resolution and 60 frames per second, while the Series X can do full 4K resolution at 60fps, with enhanced visual features like ray tracing and (possibly) 8K support if your TV can handle it.
It’ll all depend on the games you’re playing, of course, and how well it actually uses all that hardware. While the latest Halo will look sharper, smoother, and prettier on the Series X, playing Minecraft is going to be more or less the same on both machines. In layman’s terms, the Xbox Series X has much more power available to it than the extra $200 price difference might suggest.
But can it play more games? The answer is “no.” According to everything Microsoft has shown us, all next-gen Xbox games will play on both the Series X and Series S. The former will play them better, at least if they’re complex enough to strain its hardware. But going for the cheaper Series S won’t constrain your game choices beyond the restriction to digital-only purchases.
In addition, backward compatibility will be the same for both machines: Microsoft claims that both consoles are compatible with “thousands” of older games for the Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox. Many of these games can be played with enhanced performance and visuals on the new hardware. Once again, if you’re going with the Series S, you’ll have to own the game on your Xbox account, as it can’t play discs.
It’s technically possible that a developer might make a game that needs the extra power of the Series X in order to be played. But that would be unlikely, if only because cutting out a huge portion of your potential game-buying audience isn’t a smart business move.
The Xbox Series S is $300, the Series X is $500. As we’ve demonstrated above, if all you care about is pure graphical fidelity, the X is a clear winner. If you don’t really care about every last possible rendered pixel, and you don’t mind the restriction to digital games, the S might make sense.
Once again, consider that if you go for the Series X, you can find game discs on sale at retailers, buy used discs, and rent game discs, as well as share them around, something that isn’t possible with the Series S. I think that extra flexibility is worth the price, assuming that you plan to play lots and lots of games. If you only want a machine for Fortnite and two or three games a year, it might make sense to save the initial money.
There are some other things to consider here, too: Microsoft is pushing the all-digital Xbox Game Pass hard. That would seem to give the edge to the Series S. But it’s also combining that with a sweet deal and zero-interest financing if you pay month-to month. In those terms, an extra $10 a month might seem like less of a hurdle to the upgrade.
Preorders are available now on the Microsoft Store, Amazon, Best Buy, Gamestop, Walmart, Newegg, and others. The consoles release on November 10th.