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Xbox Series S teardown: inside Microsoft's smallest ever console

A small form-factor marvel.

Sometimes experimenting with consoles in a non-warranty-friendly manner can go horribly wrong, so consider this piece as a kind of final farewell to my now-deceased Xbox Series S. To be clear, its demise is entirely down to my own ill-advised tinkering and the machine performed well from the day I got it, but at least possessing a dead console opens up the opportunity to examine the internals of Microsoft's junior Xbox in a way we've not been able to before. Pre-launch, I loved the console's form-factor and having now stripped it down to its barebones, I'm even more impressed with the quality of the design. It's a genuine engineering marvel.

To be clear, my overall opinion of the console and its performance has not changed - Series S works but there's still the sense that the cutbacks to spec were a little too severe. Specifically, I still think it should have shipped with more memory and a wider interface for more bandwidth. However, having disassembled Series S, the quality of the design and the construction is simply excellent. If a PC manufacturer had put together an ultra-small form factor unit like this, packing this much performance into this small a box, the reviews would be stellar. The idea that Microsoft is shipping this at $299/£249 is remarkable.

In terms of the power to size ratio, the closest equivalent I can envisage in the PC space is Intel's Hades Canyon NUC, which shipped with a Core i7 8809G - a bizarre fusion of a quad-core Intel chip fused with a custom AMD Vega GPU. Xbox Series S is more modern, has better cooling, dramatically superior acoustics, and possesses far superior CPU and graphics performance. This is down to all core functions working from a single piece of silicon, a simplified memory set-up and an excellent cooling solution.

Here's the Digital Foundry Xbox Series S teardown in video form, complete with Xbox Series X silicon comparisons and a look at the mainboard compares to Xbox One S and PlayStation 4 CUH-2000.

The video on this page speaks for itself in terms of how easy Series S is to access. Plastic stickers on the rear of the unit are peeled back to reveal two screws. Grab a Torx 8 screwdriver (no other tool is needed) and it's simplicity itself to strip down the system to the mainboard. During the journey, you'll note an almost plug-and-play design that allows for key modules to be taken out and re-inserted with the minimum of fuss. Removing the mainboard completely reveals that the NVMe drive is attached to the rear of the system. If it were possible to format the SSD correctly (and if the drives were readily available!) a user upgrade would be simplicity itself.

It's only when trying to strip down the mainboard itself that further progress is impeded to any meaningful degree. Removing the heatsink required a bit of aggression with the x-clamps on the rear of the board and getting that back into place would be tricky. Removing the aluminium and copper heatsink reveals a metallic shield around the memory chips that once removed will likely never go back on again. Put simply, working inside Series S is easy enough - but only to a point. To see everything the system has to offer requires irrevocably damaging the console, something I would only ever consider if the hardware was already dead.

With the Series S innards fully exposed, what we see if a highly compact board that in terms of form-factor at least, reminds me most of the PS4 Slim - and in another parallel, our tests saw Sony's CUH-2000 model draw a maximum 86 watts of power from its 16nm 1.84TF chip. Series S tops out at 82.5W, delivers 4TF of GPU compete plus an actual generational leap in CPU performance. However, it's when you stack up the Xbox Series S against the Xbox One S that you see even bigger gen-on-gen increases.

The One S board is frankly massive by comparison, there are many more memory modules and the size of the silicon is significantly larger - the revised 16nm 'Edmonton' design sees its processor weigh in at 240mm2 up against Xbox Series S's more streamlined 197mm2. When comparing the Series S against both PS4 and Xbox One S, another thing that stands out is the sheer density of components on the board. Microsoft clearly worked extra-hard in making Series S as small as it could possibly be.

While on-site at the Microsoft campus last year, the design team told us that the optical drive helped to define the shape of Series X - but it's the power supply that has the same impact on the Series S form factor and it's quite remarkable to see just how much of the internal real estate it occupies. Series S's status as a digital-only machine has certainly caused some controversy but again, its size and shape simply would not have been possible had the Blu-ray drive been integrated.

It's still early days in the generation and in terms of how gaming will play out in the long term, it's still difficult to judge to what extent Series S will be able to keep up in a world where technologies like Unreal Engine 5 are already placing serious demands on Series X and PlayStation 5 hardware. But Series S always impressed with its form factor, its acoustics and its feature-set - it's still an irresistibly cute machine that retains a specific appeal that the hulking PlayStation 5 and Series X simply don't have. In a sense, it's a reminder of what consoles used to be - and stripping down the machine and seeing how Microsoft achieved this level of integration has been enlightening. Yes, Xbox Series S is a 'cheap' console (in fact, I ended up grabbing a 'nearly new' replacement for £180 from Facebook Marketplace) but perhaps 'inexpensive' would be a better description - as the quality of the engineering from top to bottom is simply first-class.

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About the Author

Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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