Three years after the release of the original Xbox One, Microsoft has released a new version of the console.
It's smaller, it runs quieter, but its most interesting development is its resolution which has been boosted from HD to Ultra HD, aka 4K.
It's not quite a complete 4K console. Games are upscaled to the resolution (a process which doesn't look as good as true or 'native' 4K), but movies will happily make the most out of the extra pixels whether you're streaming 4K Netflix or else playing an Ultra HD Blu-ray.
Beyond 4K, the addition of HDR is also a great inclusion for the console. It's more powerful than it was when the system came out three years ago, and more spacious thanks to a larger 2 TB hard drive.
But using Microsoft's souped-up console has given us an opportunity to reevaluate how we see the platform as a whole, the good and the bad.
The good news is that, overall, the Xbox is the healthiest it's ever been. It's added plenty of first-party exclusives in 2015, and the new interface has made the platform even more accessible for first-time users.
We've also spent a good deal of time pouring over every inch of the console itself. From its porous white exterior to its reconfigured front panel, it feels more well-constructed and solidly built than its predecessor ever was. Around the back, an HDMI 2.0a port supports HDCP 2.2 allowing for 4K video streaming and HDR in games and movies.
However, all of these features that we've been craving for have come with a trade-off: the new Xbox One S forgoes a standard Kinect port on the console. In order to use the Kinect, the Xbox One S requires you to pick up a USB adapter – which, to its credit, Microsoft has said it will provide free of charge to any original Xbox One owner who asks for one.
While the lack of Kinect capabilities will affect very few gamers, the removal of a Kinect port is one last kick in the pants for all the gamers forced into buying the more expensive console bundle two short years ago.
The other thing to consider is that now the Xbox userbase is slightly fragmented. The gamers who own an Xbox One S will get to play system-exclusives like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 in HDR, while owners of the original hardware will only get to see them in the standard color range. That will mean the difference in conversations about which games are beautiful or, more frightening, how games handled loading times and lag.
Microsoft has said that there’s no real difference between the hardware inside the Xbox One you own today but others, including Rod Ferguson, studio head of Gears of War 4’s The Coalition, said the Xbox One S can “leverage the additional power to reduce the frequency of the frame rate or resolution penalties.”
Whether a discrepancy between systems will be a boon for Microsoft or a curse, however, the Xbox One S is quite easily the best system, hardware-wise, since the Xbox 360 Elite that Microsoft released back in 2007, especially when you consider its price – $399 (£349 / AU$549) for the 2TB version that’s available in early August, $349 (£299 / AU$499) for the 1TB version and $299 (£249 / AU$399) for the 500GB model that’s coming sometime later this year.
To put that price in perspective, you can get a brand-new Xbox One for $279 (£199 / AU$399). So, is the Xbox One S worth the extra $120 (£150 / AU$150)?
Here’s the good – and not so good – of the first official refresh of the Xbox One.
Oh, and how does it stack up against the PS4 Pro? Watch this video to find out!
Advanced electrical engineering. Moore’s Law. A miracle. Call it whatever you want, but the Xbox One S defies what I thought was possible, integrating a massive power supply and an expansive 2TB hard drive into a chassis two-fifths the size of the original – or 17 x 11.4 x 4.4 inches (L x W x D) if you want to know specifics.
How Microsoft pulled it off, I’ll never know.
Well… actually, I might. Something tells me it has to do with porous siding that allows for better airflow. A denser design would enable Microsoft to use a smaller fan and repositioning of the hard drive directly behind the disc tray instead of in the back right corner would free up tons of extra space that Microsoft could just cut out of the box completely.
Then, Microsoft could move the hard drive allowing the power brick (essentially a power supply unit that you’d find in a desktop PC) to be seated inside the console instead of sitting next to it, creating less unnecessary clutter on your entertainment shelf.
While components have shifted on the inside of the box, the shell of the system has undergone a transformation of its own.
There are two physical buttons in place of the capacitive touch buttons for power and eject on the face of the console, and the sync and USB 3.0 ports have been brought from the side of the unit to the lower half of the front face.
Around the back, you’ll find an HDMI In port that allows you to pass in a cable box, an HDMI Out that’s HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2, two Super Speed USB ports and S/PDIF and ethernet ports. There’s an IR blaster on the front of the console that allows you to turn on other devices, like your TV, audio/video receiver and cable/satellite box.
The only thing missing is that standard port for Kinect, which I mentioned earlier.
Also, if you like your consoles in loud color schemes – or anything other than white – you’re out of luck. Microsoft’s new Xbox Design Lab program only allows you to to customise the color of your controllers, when it comes to the console itself you’re limited to white.
While Microsoft has said that the chipset has remained exactly the same, it has swapped the standard Blu-ray disc drive for a 4K, HDR-capable one that can read Ultra HD Blu-rays, the next generation of physical media.
It’s hard to use an Xbox One S with a 4K UHD TV and not walk away impressed. From the second you turn on the system and set the picture quality to 4K, it’s clear that the Xbox One S is the most premium console on the market… at least until Sony takes the curtain off the PlayStation Neo.
The biggest upgrade is a graphical one – 4K resolution. The Xbox One S can either upscale all content to 3,840 x 2,160 for you, or you can leave that to your TV. (Also, you’ll obviously need to own a 4K TV to see any sort of difference between the Xbox One S and original Xbox One system.)
- Check out our list of the best 4K TVs if you’re looking to make the upgrade.
I had concerns that the loading and buffering of this content would take eons, and yet content seems to load faster here in an even higher resolution than it did on the original Xbox One in normal high definition.
But while the pool of streaming content is a bit dry, like the App Store is as a whole, Microsoft has promised relief with the introduction of Universal Windows Apps – apps the cross the boundaries between Windows 10 and Xbox – that are slowly rolling out now.
If you're not a subscriber to Netflix's 4K streaming tier, there's always the option of popping in a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. (The Xbox One S is one of the cheapest ways to play 4K Blu-rays at the moment.)
But what about games?
As you might imagine, games look better in 4K resolution – even if it’s achieved by upconversion instead of through native 4K read-through.
In the time allotted before this review, I checked out two games: Fallout 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Starting games took the usual 15-20 seconds of waiting, but once started games generally seemed to play – and obviously look – better on the Xbox One S.
Roaming the streets of Diamond City in Fallout 4, for example, I noticed the stadium lightning for the first time ever. Its surface reflections added almost as much to the scene as the character models themselves.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the full-motion capture sequences had a crisp sheen to them. It was like watching a 4K movie instead of watching a game rendered in 1080p.
These were two limited experiences, and may not be indicative of the entire experience. But from everything I’ve seen so far, games are smoother, faster and better looking here than they’ve ever been on the original Xbox One.
That said, it’s important to denote that Microsoft won’t be making games specifically for the Xbox One S. Sure, some games will have additional HDR capabilities on Microsoft’s latest console, but the developers at 343 won’t make the game in the Halo franchise an Xbox One S exclusive by any means.
But in order to play games, you’re going to need a controller. And to that end Microsoft has introduced a new controller that will launch alongside the new system.
The Xbox One S controller is, by and large, an almost exact copy of the original Xbox One controller with small – but effective – improvements.
The first is that the Xbox One S controller will be the first controller by Microsoft to natively support Bluetooth. That means that should you want to use it as a controller for your PC you won’t need a proprietary Xbox One USB receiver plugged in.
The other two changes are a textured grip that makes the controller easier to hold for longer periods of time and an extra powerful wireless antenna that allows players to sit farther from the screen.
While the switch from Xbox One to Xbox One S would’ve been a perfect time to replace the controller’s power source from batteries to a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery, that unfortunately wasn’t on the cards this time around.
Our guess is that we’ll have to wait until the next iteration of the Xbox One (codenamed Project Scorpio) when it comes out in 2017.
If you’ve already got a number of original Xbox One controllers lying around thankfully you won’t have to replace them with the new controllers, they’ll work just fine with the new console.
Xbox as a platform
If you’re just now joining the green team from PlayStation Nation or from the far reaches of casual gaming, you’re in luck. Xbox as a platform is the best it’s ever been. The App Store is still barebones compared to proper Windows 10 devices, but overall it’s vastly improved from where it was when the platform launched close to three years ago.
Similarly, navigation is getting better with minor improvements – like moving My Apps and Games to the top right of the home screen – that make the interface exponentially easier to get from one place to the other without getting lost.
Xbox Live still feels like a premium service, especially thanks to the always improving Games with Gold program. However, $60 (£39.99 / AU$ 79.95) a year can feel a bit steep if you’re not online playing a game with a group of friends every day.
The final feature worth mentioning here is Cortana, a recent addition to Xbox One that works similarly to Siri on iOS, tvOS and OSX or OK Google on Android devices. Cortana can field commands like “Invite my friend Dave to a party” or “Pull up my achievements.”
Using Cortana is a more intuitive way of controlling and navigating Xbox One, and is a major step forward from the previous Kinect-only voice commands.
But those are just the major systems in play on Xbox One S.
Behind them, there’s GameDVR, live streaming, SmartGlass functionality, EA Access, Xbox OneGuide, Snap, Game Streaming on Windows 10, Xbox 360 backwards compatibility and Microsoft’s own proprietary movie and music stores that are all worth deeper looks – and can be explored in depth in the original Xbox One review.
The Xbox One S is a smart upgrade to Microsoft’s existing system, but whether you’ll want to make the upgrade is a slightly more complicated question.
If you’ve been considering buying an Xbox One already, then the Xbox One S is a no-brainer.
But if you already own an Xbox One then your decision will likely have more to do with whether you own a 4K TV that’s HDR-compatible.
In short, the engineering team at Microsoft deserves a standing ovation. Condensing everything inside the original Xbox One – as well as the massive power brick – into a framework 40% of the size is a feat of engineering.
And while not every gamer will be able to appreciate the Xbox One S in all its 4K Ultra-HD, High Dynamic Range glory, those that can will be absolutely floored by the speed at which content loads over decently quick connections, and how drop-dead gorgeous games look when they’re 3,840 pixels wide by 2,160 pixels high.
While there’s never a great time to unveil a smaller, more powerful system to someone who’s just purchased one of the now second-tier original consoles, now seems like a particularly rough time.
Ditching the Kinect port entirely might be the final indicator that Microsoft’s motion controller is well and truly dead and, as I said earlier, is one last final slap in the face to all the gamers who bought the peripheral two and a half years ago against their will.
Microsoft’s new console poses a new problem in the form of a fragmented audience. While some gamers will see games in more vivid colors that are brighter and have higher contrast than those rocking the original box.
Does that mean you shouldn’t buy an Xbox One S? Probably not. But it might mean investigating how the game looks and performs on your specific model of Xbox One before plunking down a wad of cash for the latest release.
But all that taken into account, it’s hard to find anything tangible to dislike about the Xbox One S in its current form. By all accounts, it’s a slimmer, sleeker and sexier console than the Xbox console we’ve had in our cabinets for the past two and a half years.
But, given all the advancements, it’s hard to fathom how Microsoft plans on selling it for the same price as the current hardware.
Of course, the obvious downside is that anyone who recently bought an Xbox One is now faced with a difficult and expensive decision: is the upgraded performance, 4K HDR streaming and 2TB of storage worth re-buying the system?
If you own a 4K HDR TV or you’re running out of space on that measly 500GB hard drive, the answer is an emphatic yes. If you can hold out another 12 months, however, there’s an even more powerful system on the way that will blow this one out of the water.