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Microsoft Blows Its Promise, Limits Xbox Series S Backward Compatibility

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Up until now, I’ve had nothing but praise for Microsoft’s backward-compatibility strategy on the Xbox Series X. But a new announcement from the company represents a retreat from its sensible, consumer-friendly stance:  Microsoft’s Xbox Series S won’t offer the enhancements baked into the Xbox One X versions of a game. Instead, it’ll run the Xbox One S version.

“Xbox Series S was designed to be the most affordable next-generation console and play next-generation games at 1440P at 60fps,” A Microsoft spokesperson said. “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.”

Microsoft has, in a single stroke, managed to ruin what was the best and most attractive part of its console policy, and the part that brought it into line with PCs — the promise of playing yesterday’s games at top quality for less money.

While it’s true that the Xbox Series S has less total memory than the Xbox One X and is a weaker system on-paper, those comparisons fall apart as soon as you examine the system’s technical specifications. The eight-core Ryzen CPU inside the Xbox Series S would destroy the Jaguar inside the Xbox One X. The RDNA-based GPU inside the Xbox Series S may be smaller than the Xbox One X’s GPU, but it ought to offer substantially higher clocks and the efficiency improvements from moving to RDNA2 versus GCN. According to AMD at its RDNA launch event, RDNA is about 1.25x faster than GCN, clock for clock. True, the Xbox Series S has less RAM than the Xbox One X — 10GB versus 12GB — but the entire point of the new SSD-centric architecture is to reduce the need for RAM by moving data loads to the SSD.

“No support for improvements introduced in previous-generation, weaker hardware” ought to be a bullet point on this list.

What Microsoft could have done — should have done — is allow end-users to choose which version of games they wanted to play on the Xbox Series S. As far back as the DOS configuration screens of a typical Sierra On-Line game, computer game installers have been asking folks to pick their hardware and desired detail levels and the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro both featured different game modes to cater to players who wanted higher frame rates versus those who wanted better visuals. The fact that the Xbox One X has a disc drive while the Xbox Series S does not would have functioned as its own weed-out. If the Series S is truly incapable of 4K in the manner of the Xbox One X, Microsoft could have allowed games to keep their full detail levels but to run at 1080p or the aforementioned target of 1440p rather than the 4K target.

My argument for this kind of positioning is simple: Just as a $500 GPU from 2016 ought to be matched (at minimum) by a $300 GPU in 2020, a $500 console from 2016 ought to be similarly matched by its $300 replacement. The GTX 1080 from 2016 ($500) is matched by the RTX 2060 (~$300) today. The upcoming launch of Ampere and RDNA2 should push down prices in AMD’s stack to make the $500/$300 comparison work on Team Red’s side of the equation.

Furthermore, comparing against the Xbox One X and its 2016 launch price is indirectly doing Microsoft a favor. What Microsoft is effectively saying, with this positioning, is: “Our $300 console in 2020 isn’t capable of matching our $500 console in 2016, so we had to position it against our $500 console from 2013 instead.”

That might not be a problem if it were true, but there’s no evidence it is. If the Xbox Series S isn’t capable of matching and exceeding the performance of the Xbox One X at a lower resolution target, it’s not a next-generation console. Microsoft has hinged the entire attractiveness of the Xbox Series S/X families on backward compatibility. It’s a strategy that makes sense this year, given the impacts of COVID-19 and the difficulty of shipping new software, and I was 100 percent on board with it — until now.

According to Microsoft, the best the Xbox Series S can do is to play 2013-era games at faster frame rates. So can an AMD Radeon R9 280X, relative to the original Xbox One / One S. The Xbox Series X still looks like it’s going to be an excellent deal relative to any gaming PC you’ll be able to build for $500, but my interest in the Xbox Series S just died. There’s no way I’m recommending people pay $300 to play seven-year-old games in marginally better frame rates. If robust, PC-equivalent backward compatibility is the point of the Xbox Series, the Xbox Series S has no point whatsoever.

“It may be running backwards compatible games in Xbox One [S] mode, but because the GPU is so much more capable, and knowing what we know about how backwards compatibility works, you should actually still be able to clean up performance issues,” Digital Foundry’s John Linneman told IGN. “So games that maybe struggled on Xbox One S – either the dynamic resolution was overly-aggressive, with slowdown and things like that – conceivably they could actually run noticeably smoother on this machine.”

Hurray. Games that “maybe struggled” on a 2013 console could “actually run noticeably smoother” on this machine. While I do not presume to know if John Linneman intended IGN to interpret any subtext to his statement, the phrase “damning with faint praise” comes to mind. And this isn’t really theoretical. I’m considering a personal gaming upgrade this fall, and the Xbox Series X has been on the list of potential items, alongside an upgrade to the RTX 3080 or maybe even RDNA2 depending on what AMD brings to the table. Ampere’s potential AI performance has my eye, but I’ve been seriously tempted by the Xbox Series X. Backwards compatibility has been one of the biggest reasons I’ve long been a PC gamer, and if consoles were to start offering an equivalent capability, I’d be willing to consider the idea — but not if this is what “backward compatibility” means to Microsoft.

The PC upgrade treadmill has always promised that tomorrow’s midrange hardware would meet or exceed the performance of the previous top-end generation and that it would do so at a lower price. Microsoft has every right to declare that the $300 Xbox Series S will be a distinct downgrade from the $500 Xbox One X, but it’s a stupid move for the company to make, and it undermines the entire premise of PC-like backward compatibility that Microsoft has been selling to date. Trading off detail is more consequential than simply enforcing a low-resolution target.

I’m really glad that Microsoft will be able to still improve the performance of seven-year-old titles that targeted the equivalent of a $400 budget PC back in 2013. Everyone who buys a Series S to replace the Xbox One S will undoubtedly be thrilled at this set of benefits, as opposed to the actual next-generation upgrades their counterparts with X-class systems will be enjoying. If this was a typical console launch, with a full lineup of next-generation titles, the omission wouldn’t sting so much. But with Microsoft leaning hard on last-gen titles to sell this generation worth of product, telling Series S customers that the most they can look forward to is a warmed-over presentation of what they’ve previously played is downright insulting.

At this point, I wouldn’t bother considering an Xbox Series S. The lack of disc drive, combined with the limits on backward compatiblity quality, kill the value proposition as far as I’m concerned. If you’re going to sell a product based on how well it runs older software, I expect it to run the older software at least as well as the previous top-end part given the similarity in specs and the substantial boost to IPC on the Series S’s behalf.

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