UPDATE: Microsoft has officially confirmed the Xbox Series S will only support One S upgrades via backward compatible games. Here's a statement:
"Xbox Series S was designed to be the most affordable next generation console and play next generation games at 1440P at 60fps. To deliver the highest quality backwards compatible experience consistent with the developer's original intent, the Xbox Series S runs the Xbox One S version of backward compatible games while applying improved texture filtering, higher and more consistent frame rates, faster load times and Auto HDR."
Consoles are varied enough now that they're like PCs, especially Xbox systems. By November, there will be 5 different Xbox consoles that all have varying performance and specs. Devs have optimized their games to take advantage of each incremental power gain; same game, different performance. Now as we push into next-gen with the Series S and X, this variance grows.
New speculation from Digital Foundry postulates the Xbox Series S' lower 10GB GDDR6 RAM pool may limit it to playing current-gen games at Xbox One S levels. It's possible the Series S won't be able to emulate Xbox One X performance due to the discrepancy between the two systems' RAM (the Xbox One X has 12GB GDDR5, and the Series S has 10GB of GDDR6). The One X had 9GB allocated for games, and the Series S only has 8GB.
This makes sense considering the Series S is targeting 1440p 60FPS, whereas the Xbox One X was centered around 4K. Not all games ran at native 4K on the One X, and comparing a 6TFLOP Polaris GPU with 40CUs is hard to do against the new-gen RDNA 2 GPU in the One S.
There's a lot we don't know and we haven't seen games running on the Series S yet, but to understand how this works, we have to take a look at backwards compatibility and how Microsoft has emphasized platform perf scaling with its wide lineup of Xbox hardware.
Read Also: Xbox Series X's custom SoC built with backward compatibility in mind
The Series S and Series X are backwards compatible with Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games.
Some of these games are updated with special enhancements to run better on specific consoles; Gears 5, for example, is an Xbox One game, but it can run at native 4K 60FPS on a Series X. Not all of these games are enhanced with these patches.
Developers have two options to get better performance out of systems like the Xbox One X and Series X/S consoles:
- Native console boosts - Each console can boost in-game performance natively without any updates required by devs. The Series S/X boost perf the most, and promise faster loader timers, tighter FPS (Xbox One S only supports these).
- Developer optimization patches -These are specific enhancement patches issued by developers that manually boost performance. The game is updated to leverage the new hardware, leading to perf like native 4K on the Xbox One X, or native 4K 60FPS, ray tracing, ultra-fast loading times via the PCIe 4.0 SSD on Series S and X.
The native boost modes in the Series S and Series X should be more dramatic than previous generations, but we're not sure how the Series S boost mode compares to the Xbox One X's. We'll have to wait and see for that.
So playing un-optimized backwards compatible games on the Series S could revert the game to Xbox One S levels instead of mirroring Xbox One X performance.
This has to do with the console's Smart Delivery system that automatically switches performance based on your hardware. When you download or pop in a game, the specialized Xbox APIs will recognize your hardware and scale a game accordingly.
These optimization patches are tiered based on console hardware. The One X enhancements aren't the same as the Series X enhancements, for example.
So playing Gears 5 on Xbox One will net no upgrades. Popping Gears 5 into a One X will get you specific enhancements. Playing it on a Series X will get you the most bang for your buck.
This kind of variability is a hallmark of Xbox now and actually helps game developers scale performance more in line with PC hardware--at least in theory. In practice, though, devs still have to make sure their games run on eight different Xbox consoles.
Some devs like Remedy Entertainment technical producer Sasan Sepehr think the Series S could cause trouble due to its lower-end specs.
Only time will tell in that regard, and remember, Microsoft hasn't officially confirmed any news yet. We thought it was an important to bring up though.
The Series S and Series X consoles will release on November 10, 2020 for $299 and $499 respectively. Check below for a current vs next-gen side-by-side spec comparison: