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Cross-Gen Face-Off: Xbox Series S vs Xbox One X

Microsoft's junior Xbox takes on SSD-enhanced legacy hardware.

The first year of the new console generation has been quite unlike any other - Xbox One and PlayStation 4 releases are still prolific and the hard cut-off on older hardware seen in prior transition phases simply hasn't happened. Although there have been a small amount of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series exclusive, the new consoles are essentially getting beefed up versions of titles designed for legacy hardware. This puts Xbox One X and Xbox Series S into a particularly interesting situation: an older, but still potent GPU faces off against a less graphically adept, but arguably more rounded machine owing to its massively faster CPU and NVMe solid-state storage. However, Xbox One X can also run games from SSD, leading our latest thought experiment: how does a storage-enhanced One X fare against Series S?

The results are intriguing and in many way controversial - but this could apply to the whole concept of launching Series S in the first place in a world where a prior generation Xbox exists with more GPU horsepower, more RAM and much higher levels of memory bandwidth. Of course, we have Series machines replacing One equivalents and it's Xbox Series X that is the successor to Xbox One X - the clue's in the name. And by extension, we also need to be aware that One X and Series S target very, very different markets: we're talking about a machine designed for the hardcore up against a console designed for a more mainstream audience, less likely to desire the clarity delivered by 4K resolution and higher-end rendering features.

The video embedded in these parts shows the entirety of our testing, but the overall takeaway is straightforward. We took an Xbox One X augmented with a Samsung T7 USB SSD and put it up against Series S in a range of cross-gen games and backwards compatible titles, plus we ran some loading time tests to see if the optional solid-state storage upgrade could help bridge the gap in loading times and in-game streaming. The takeaway? Series S delivers higher frame-rates and - for the most part - faster loading. However, image quality tends to suffer, even on Microsoft titles such as Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite. The whole notion of an extended cross-gen phase seems to have effectively blessed Xbox One X with an Indian summer of sorts, extending its lifespan - but its demise is inevitable once this bizarre transition period is over.

A deep dive into the great cross-gen comparison - Xbox Series S vs Xbox One X, the legacy console augmented with SSD storage.Watch on YouTube
Xbox Series S Xbox One X
CPU Eight-Core AMD Zen 2: 3.6GHz/3.4GHz Eight-Core AMD Jaguar: 2.3GHz
GPU 4TF RDNA2 (20 CUs/1550MHz) 6TF GCN (40 CUs/1172MHz)
RAM 10GB GDDR6 (8GB for games) 12GB GDDR5 (9GB for games)
Bandwidth 8GB 224GB/s, 2GB 56GB/s 326GB/s
Storage 512GB NVMe SSD 1TB 5400rpm HDD (Samsung T7 SSD used for testing)

In the meantime, the comparisons between One X and Series S are intriguing. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, is an impressive-looking game, but the Series S version undoubtedly disappoints. We're getting a 1080p30 version of the game on S with a temporally stable but soft quality image. An option to unlock the frame-rate is available on S, but only offers limited gains to the point where sticking with the 30fps cap is probably the best option - and Xbox One X has the same 30fps cap with a much higher rendering resolution. We're talking about a 1440p to 1890p image that holds up well on a 4K display. Series S has an edge in shadow and texture quality, but Xbox One X undoubtedly produces a better-looking result.

Halo Infinite? There's the sense that the game was designed to get the most out of Xbox One X as it has both 30fps quality and 60fps performance modes. On the resolution side of things, quality mode is a clear Xbox One X win - dynamic 4K plays dynamic 1080p running at 30fps, albeit with frame-pacing problems on both systems. Series S enjoys some asset quality boosts, but ultimately, Halo Infinite looks better on One X. With the 60fps performance mode, again, One X is the clear resolution winner with a dynamic 1440p facing off against a dynamic 1080p. Likely owing to its far more capable CPU, Halo Infinite runs more smoothly on Series S, but again, resolution is lower. Xbox One X can see combat dip into the 40s and 50s, but it's still holding up well taken as a whole.

There's the sense that Series S deserved more from Halo Infinite and perhaps that's exemplified when we look at Forza Horizon 5. What's interesting here is that both systems get excellent versions of the game - alongside Halo, it's clear that Microsoft is still investing time into Xbox One X versions, even though the system was discontinued last year. You get a dynamic 4K presentation at 30fps, broadly similar to but sometimes improving over Xbox Series S's dynamic 1080p60 performance mode - it looks beautiful.

Xbox Series S gets a reasonable version of Guardians of the Galaxy, but ultimately, it works best as a 30fps experience - the same as Xbox One X, which operates at a higher resolution throughout.Watch on YouTube

However, despite the more limited GPU power, Series S still produces the better game. Performance mode works very well, but the 30fps quality alternative (dynamic 1440p) looks wonderful, resolving substantially more environmental detail, with overhauled models, improved ground detail, and less aggressive LODs. It's an impressive looking version, though resolution isn't particularly high. But still - Series S is offering two modes up against One X's singular offering, while loading time improvements are still noticeable, even with the legacy hardware running from SSD.

Call of Duty: Vanguard throws up some interesting results, with Series S delivering a dynamic 1440p resolution backed up with the IW8 engine's accomplished TAA and temporal supersampling. One X seems to be turning in a 4K-like presentation, though dynamic res is in effect here as well. You'll find a more detailed image on One X, though that's not the full visual picture. There are a range of visual downgrades on Microsoft's last-gen machine. Character self-shadowing, for instance, is less refined, some incidental detail is lost while fog and smoke seem less dense. None of these cuts feel especially massive, but taken together they do make the One X version look somewhat less refined.

Series S is essentially a locked 60fps, with occasional one-off frame drops. One X mostly holds to 60 as well, with a few framerate dips in general gameplay during intense scenes. One X really struggles with cutscenes, however. These scripted scenes play back in 40-50fps territory much of the time, possibly a consequence of increased CPU load. And when Vanguard does drop frames, it exhibits tearing in the top fifth of the screen. Performance and graphics are both best on Series S I feel, even though the raw resolution is lower. That gets even lower in Series S's 120Hz mode, but at least it has one! While Xbox One X is physically capable of supporting 120fps gaming, it's never been tapped into - likely owing to the onerous limits of the ancient CPU.

Halo Infinite, as tested on all Xbox consoles. While Xbox One S clearly lags, it's still reasonable, while Xbox One X has a clear resolution boost over Series S.Watch on YouTube

I also took a look at Call of Duty: Warzone, now boasting a brand-new map. It's an odd case: resolution tops out at 1080p on Series S and a full 4K on One X, although with dynamic res on that console. Still, the final output image on One X is very crisp and 4K-like, whereas Series S is rather soft. That's likely because Series S seems to be running the base Xbox One codepath through Microsoft's backwards compatibility enhancement system, so it inherits the visual settings from that version. That means pulled in draw distances and reductions to foliage.

Performance strongly favours the Series S however. Series S is essentially a locked 60, with no in game drops in my testing. One X is constantly dropping frames, however, typically hovering between 45fps and 55fps - so it seems like the game now runs worse than it did with the first map. And just like Vanguard, those dropped frames are accompanied by tearing in the top portion of the screen. Neither version of Warzone feels like a great way to play, unfortunately. The Series S version lacks enough clarity to consistently identify players at a distance, and the One X version has poor performance. Series S gets the nod here, but only just.

Far Cry 6 sums up the more basic cross-gen project. Visual settings look very, very similar between One X and Series S and both are relatively solid performers at 30fps and 60fps respectively. The 60fps upgrade is a boon for Series S but yes, resolution takes a hit to make it happen. Series S tops out at 1224p and looks very 1080p-ish most of the time, while One X renders at a dynamic 4K and looks much more handsome as a result. Both versions feel stable and polished, although it would have been nice to see a 30fps option on Series S. At the moment, Far Cry 6 offers a stark choice between image quality and frame-rate between One X and Series S. To get both, you'll have to step up to PS5 or Series X.

Playground Games' work on Forza Horizon 5 shows a resolution deficit on Series S, but overall, it's the better game vs Xbox One X, thanks to its quality and performance mode options.Watch on YouTube

If Far Cry 6 is quite a basic port, the exact opposite applies to Metro Exodus, which received a ray tracing upgrade via the Enhanced Edition, radically overhauling in-game lighting. The game's artist-sculpted probe-based lighting system has been stripped out and replaced with a ray-traced global illumination system, or RTGI - this is the new 4A engine designed with next-gen in mind and it can only run on consoles with hardware accelerated ray tracing, meaning that this simply wouldn't be possible on Xbox One X. The lighting is much more realistic as a result, with beautifully bounced light that realistically fills each area. The improvement is most profound in indoor areas, which often look completely different as a result.

However, targeting both RT and 60fps means that resolution drops enormously on Series S and while opinion will be divided on this one, I still feel One X may be the better-looking game on the whole, owing to its massively improved base resolution. Series S has a more natural appearance however, and it feels much smoother to play. Series X and PS5 get the best of both approaches, of course, but the pick here is going to come down to personal preference. The decision to choose between the two would be trickier if Series S were to support a 30fps quality mode, however, where resolution would be higher and you'd retain the RT effects.

On cross-gen games, the score between the One X and Series S is fairly even. In general, One X offers higher resolutions at lower performance levels, while Series S compromises on resolution to deliver higher frame-rates and more graphical features in some titles. Each system has their own unequivocal wins, but they seem fairly evenly matched in these games overall. However, loading times are a clear next-gen win - even with solid-state storage attached to Xbox One X. Again, it's all down to the CPU, which often handles decompression of streamed assets. Interestingly though, The Ascent's truly abysmal last-gen loading times are brought up to par up against Xbox Series S simply by virtue of moving to an SSD. Ultimately though, while a solid-state solution makes a last-gen console easier to live with, the new wave of machines handle this a whole lot better.

Loading Times (Seconds) Xbox One X HDD (Internal) Xbox One X SSD (External) Xbox Series S SSD (Internal)
COD Vanguard: Operation Tonga 24.38 11.83 3.46
Forza Horizon 5: Casa Bella 85.47 42.94 24.32
Halo Infinite: Outpost Tremonius 61.27 27.77 14.08
The Ascent: Sub Sector 41A 128.89 30.77 30.26

Finally: back-compat - and something of a pitched battle. Looking at OG Xbox titles, Xbox One X features a higher resolution multiplier than Series S, but in many of the games with unlocked frame-rates, Series S runs more smoothly. On standard Xbox 360 games, Series S and Xbox One X both perform well in smoothing out performance bottlenecks from original hardware, but Series S should again run more smoothly - it has the GPU horsepower to deliver original Xbox 360 resolutions and extra processor grunt to tackle CPU bottlenecks. Where Xbox One X has the advantage is in specifically enhanced Xbox 360 games such as Final Fantasy 13, which run with a 3x resolution multiplier on both axes, up against a 2x multiplier on Series S. This One X advantage is muddied somewhat by titles that are FPS Boost enhanced - a feature only Series S has.

It's in Xbox One support that the comparison between the two machines becomes trickier. You see, by default, Series S only runs with back-compat support for Xbox One S, whereas virtually all games from late 2017 onwards tapped into Xbox One X features that Series S can't access. This is mitigated on a range of titles that support FPS Boost - so there are over 100 games with 60fps or even 120fps support that won't run faster than 30fps on Xbox One X.

Ultimately, Microsoft's two-tier approach to the new console generation has allowed the company to deliver a cheap, entry-level machine that addresses a specific market segment very well - but it does seem to punch beneath its weight significantly in terms of image quality, rarely living up to Microsoft's own 1440p resolution target. And it's in this respect where cross-gen development continues to favour Xbox One X. It may lack the 60fps and 120fps support of the Series experience, but it continues to deliver on its (dynamic) 4K30 promise - but the end of Xbox One X is surely only a matter of time.

Xbox One X remains a capable, competitive machine right now - but sooner or later, games using UE5 and other next-gen features will force legacy hardware out of contention. This video includes a closer look at Series S running the Matrix Awakens demo.Watch on YouTube

The cross-gen era has manufactured this intriguing Series S vs One X head-to-head but of course, the Series X is the true One X successor. It offers an across-the-board increase in GPU performance, alongside all the current-gen enhancements common to both Series consoles, delivering the no-compromise rendition of current games. But right now of course, the question is whether you can actually buy one when availability is so low - something that is far less of an issue with a Series S.

We still have concerns about the Series S spec but it is delivering on its promise to run next-gen games. Microsoft Flight Simulator is a stunning, extremely detailed game that transforms satellite data into a convincing visual approximation of commercial flight. The Matrix Awakens is an unbelievably high-fidelity glimpse into the future of real-time rendering. Neither game looks as amazing on Series S as they do on Series X, of course, but they do run on Series S and they're still visually impressive. These are titles that will never see a version on any last-gen console, including Xbox One X - unless you're happy to stream via the cloud.

It's the reliance on the CPU, the high-speed storage, and access to features like hardware-accelerated ray tracing (for The Matrix at least) that make all the difference. These advantages - plus support for other DirectX 12 Ultimate features - that should stand Series S in good stead for the longer term, certainly once this bizarre cross-gen period comes to an end.