The Xbox One S is the version of the console that Microsoft should’ve first released back in 2013 instead of the lumbering beast that we got. It’s better in a number of ways, making it even more of a worthy alternative to Sony’s PlayStation 4.
Xbox One S offers a far more attractive enclosure, options for a bigger hard drive, a slightly redesigned controller and some video perks for owners of 4K TVs.
That last model is available to buy as of today in the US (and includes the vertical stand that otherwise costs $20 when purchased separately in the US), while those with the smaller hard drives will be available later in August, bundled with games such as Madden 17 and Halo. (Additional bundles will follow later in the year — including a pricier 2TB Gears of War 4 version in October — and may vary by region.)
Sounds like a slam dunk, right? Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. The One S doesn’t get an across-the-board “buy it now” recommendation for two reasons. First off, it doesn’t deliver huge improvements for anyone who already owns an Xbox One. But more importantly, Microsoft has already promised that the next Xbox — dubbed Project Scorpio — will be arriving in late 2017 with with the seriously amped-up graphics and VR-ready hardware that audiences are clamouring for.
When it’s all said and done, the Xbox One S should be primarily viewed as a slimmed-down version of the Xbox One that introduces a mildly updated controller and provisions for 4K display. It’s not going to warp you into a state-of-the-art gaming experience. Pragmatically, you’re probably better off nabbing an older Xbox One, which are now being sold at fire-sale prices. But if you are getting an Xbox One for the first time, have an interest in the bundled games and aren’t saving your pennies for 2017’s Project Scorpio, the One S is certainly a good all-round gaming and entertainment deal.
What’s new in the Xbox One S
There’s a short but significant list of improvements and changes to the Xbox One S.
Smaller, cleaner design: To start, it’s 40 percent smaller, which considering its power supply is now internal, is impressive. It’s also stark white, with some slick plastic mouldings flanking the entirety of the box. I think it’s the best-looking Xbox Microsoft has ever designed.
4K and HDR video: Xbox One S gets a fairly beefy upgrade on its video capabilities, with 4K resolution (3,840×2,160, or four times as sharp as standard 1080p HDTVs) and HDR (high dynamic range, which is basically enhanced contrast and color). Keep in mind: those features only work on compatible TVs and 4K functionality only works with a small but growing list of compatible video content. 4K can currently be accessed through streaming video services such as Amazon and Netflix (as long as you have the bandwidth to support it and pay for their premium tier) and those new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. Certain games, meanwhile, will eventually be able to take advantage of HDR visual improvements, but don’t look for PC-like 4K graphics — the games are merely upscaled to 4K.
So no, you’re not getting native 4K gaming out of an Xbox One S. In fact, only a limited number of games will feature HDR and none of them are out yet. They are Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3 and 2017’s Scale-bound.
New controller design: The Xbox One controller has been updated for the S, too. It has a more streamlined top section, better range and textured grips. It can also use Bluetooth to connect, which opens the door for compatibility with other devices — no more annoying dongles, at least on Bluetooth-compatible PCs.
And it still does everything the old Xbox One does: The good news is that you’re not losing anything with the Xbox One S compared with its predecessor. Around back the console offers a lot of the same ports as the original Xbox One, though noticeably absent is a dedicated Kinect port. You can still attach Kinect to the Xbox One S, you’ll just need a special $40 (!) adapter. Either way, the omission of a Kinect port should give you an idea of how that peripheral is regarded at Microsoft HQ.
HDMI-in and -out ports are still there, so you can still make use of the Xbox One’s live TV integration if that’s something that appeals to you, but I never found it overly useful.
Suffice it to say, the One S plays all existing Xbox One games, and a growing list of Xbox 360 games. It also includes all of the encouraging software improvements Microsoft has made over the past few years, including the redesigned interface, support for the Cortana digital assistant (using a microphone headset), compatibility with the Windows Store and, soon, additional cross-play options with Windows PC gamers on certain titles.
4K and HDR scorecard
I want to personally thank the Xbox One S for introducing me to the hot mess that is the world of 4K and HDR formats. I considered myself fairly fluent in the language of home theater, but I was bewildered at the insane of amount of granularity and confusion that the format is currently plagued with.
Odds are you won’t be able set up in 4K right out of the box. I needed to download two separate updates for the Xbox One S to finally realize it was attached to a 4K TV, at which point it offered to bump up the resolution output to 4K.
I hooked the console up to four different TVs and had mixed results with each, so I tapped CNET’s David Katzmaier to help me test out the rest of the Xbox One S’ 4K and HDR capabilities.
What we learned is that getting all of these finicky display technologies to work together in sync will require some trial and error — and patience.
Our major issue was getting our TVs to recognised HDR. The problem (which isn’t solely the Xbox One S’ fault) is that some TVs with HDR require a specific “UHD” or “deep color” setting to be turned on in order for HDR to work. These modes usually turn a TV’s brightness all the way up and activate automatically when HDR content is detected. But none of our TVs detected the Ultra HD Blu-ray HDR signal that was being output by our “Star Trek” Blu-ray.
It wasn’t until we forced the Xbox One S to output a higher bit depth (10-bit up from the console’s default setting of 8-bit) did we get a clean HDR signal. Furthermore, we had issues maintaining a video signal altogether when our TV was in that special “UHD/deep color” setting for HDR but the Xbox One S was outputting a signal lower than 10-bit.
Sound confusing? That’s because it was. And this was with the help of one of the best TV reviewers on the planet. It’s possible your setup goes smoother, but there are definitely a lot of variables and boxes to check when entering the world of 4K, Ultra HD and HDR to make sure it all works correctly.