Which Xbox should I buy?
You want to buy a new Xbox, but you don’t know which one. I get it! Picking a console isn’t as simple as it used to be. What differentiates the options feels both overwhelmingly complex and irritatingly unclear.
Take, for example, this summary: The Xbox Series X is more powerful, includes a disc drive, plays ultra HD Blu-rays, and can run games at 4K resolution and upward of 120 frames per second. But it costs $499.99. The Xbox Series S costs $299.99 — $200 less! — but it’s less powerful, has no disc drive, and has less storage, and its resolution tops out at 1440p. (Generally reserved for computer monitors, 1440p resolution is better than a 1080p HDTV but worse than 4K.)
All of that info is useful and true, but it’s not enough to help the average reader decide what’s best for them. That’s because buying a console is about so much more than specs. Let me help by asking you a few questions.
Do you have a 4K TV or do you plan to purchase one soon? If so, do you want to eke out the potential of every pixel?
If you don’t own a 4K TV and have no plans to buy one in the next few years, I strongly recommend the Xbox Series S, which will still have enough power to look fantastic on your existing high-definition TV.
Alternately, if you have a 4K TV and really want to make the most out of 4K entertainment, you may want the Xbox Series X for its 4K Blu-ray player. (The Series S can stream 4K video via services like Netflix, though, so only the most hardcore videophiles need worry about this decadent option.)
How fast is your internet?
If you have slow internet speeds or data caps, you will benefit from having the disc drive and larger storage of the Xbox Series X. The latest generation of games will be huge, many of them over 100 GB. On a slow connection, they will take many hours to download onto either Xbox you choose, and they’ll fill a significant chunk of the Series S’s paltry 364 GB of actual available storage. Meaning, you will need to regularly delete games to make way for new ones, and re-download those deleted games whenever you wish to revisit them. Or you’ll need to purchase external storage options, which will be expensive. (You can purchase a cheaper external hard drive, but it’ll be limited to games from previous generations.)
The Xbox Series X includes 802 GB of actual storage, more than double that of the Series S. And the disc drive will allow you to install games directly from physical discs rather than through your internet connection. If internet speed is a big issue, the Series X is a better option even with its significantly higher price tag. Heck, the Series X is technically cheaper than buying the Series S and one of Microsoft and Seagate’s proprietary 1 TB Storage Expansion Cards.
Photo: Maddy Myers/Polygon
Do you want to buy used Xbox games or sell your old copies?
If you like to trade in games or buy used physical copies, the choice is simple: The Xbox Series X is the only option that plays discs.
One big caveat: The very idea of disc-based games has become increasingly complicated thanks to always-online games like Fortnite and Warframe. As Austen Goslin wrote in our guide to choosing a PlayStation 5:
Physical editions are also the most reliable way to really own the games you buy. Digital copies are technically games you’re buying access to rather than owning yourself. This means that if Sony were to for some reason shut down servers at some point in the future, you wouldn’t have access to your games anymore — however unlikely this might be. Buying the physical disc gives you a copy of the game you’ll always have. One possible complication with that idea in this console generation, however, is that many games require internet connections to function. If that’s the case for a particular game, owning it on a disc or on your account with a digital copy won’t matter, because you won’t be able to play it either way.
Do you have a big library of Xbox One games on disc? Or have you been purchasing games digitally for the past decade?
The vast majority of my games for the Xbox One (and many of my games for the Xbox 360) were purchased digitally. It’s easy for me to play these games on either new Xbox console. I just open my Games Library, find my old purchases, install them, and I’m all set. I can even download my old save files from cloud storage for free via Xbox Live. Microsoft has done an exceptional job with backward compatibility.
That said, if most of your existing Xbox games are on discs, you will need an Xbox Series X and its disc drive to play them. There’s currently no way to trade a hard copy of an Xbox One game for a digital copy on the Series S. We have no reason to think that will change. However! If you plan to subscribe to Xbox Game Pass, you may find that much of your old collection is available through the service. You can find an up-to-date list of Game Pass games on Microsoft’s official website. Just remember that third-party games regularly rotate in and out of the library.
Should I buy an Xbox Series X or a Series S?
Frankly, both consoles are solid choices.
Both will look good on your television. Both will play all new games along with a ton of the Xbox back catalog, from the Xbox One to the original Xbox. Both connect to Game Pass. And here’s the truth: It’s possible that both will be outdone by another new Xbox in a few years.
Microsoft has positioned its hardware the way Apple has positioned the iPhone, giving customers a variety of choices in terms of cost, performance, and luxury features. For that reason, it’s likely we will see updated hardware as often as we did with the Xbox One — and probably even more regularly.
If you’ve already spent a bunch of money on your home theater setup, the Xbox Series X will make the most of that investment. If you just want to dip your toes into the Xbox ecosystem, the Xbox Series S will more than suffice. And if you prefer to stick with the Xbox One for another year or two, that’s a viable option too. For now, every current Xbox Series X game is also available on the older console. That version will run slower and look worse, but there are bigger problems in the world than some grainy textures in Assassin’s Creed and an extra minute or so of loading in Call of Duty.
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