Microsoft had a thrilling E3 press conference earlier this year, bookended with two of its newest hardware offerings—the first of which was positioned as a sleek, 4K-friendly redesign of its 2013 console. Introduced as ‘Xbox One S’ (a throwback to its slimmer, much older cousin), it builds upon the original Xbox One in a number of important areas the original system was lacking. Ultimately, Xbox One S feels like a refinement of the original 2013 vision and paves a new path for the future of Xbox.
The New Design
The reimagining starts right away with the packaging. Clean, uncluttered, and simple, revealing a striking, minimalist console design that channels some of the key motifs of its predecessor. Gone is the bulky VCR-like exterior, replaced with an incredibly light, compact, and unassuming white object with precision-drilled ventilation holes, resting on an inconspicuous black plastic base. Similarly removed are the original console’s capacitive buttons—that’s right, the Xbox One is now officially cat proof.
Overall, this new design feels like a statement of purity and simplicity, exhibited perhaps most prominently by the lack of an external power supply. Despite this, the console runs unbelievably silent and cool to the touch—even more so than the original. This adds a new degree of portability for the console, which is great for people who travel a lot with their games consoles.
Microsoft’s new design approach extends to the new controller, now in ‘robot white’. With subtle texturised plastic grips on the underside, it’s light, balanced, and precise to hold—certainly their best standard controller yet. There are other hardware changes, too, with the USB-port on the side now moving to the front, along with the controller sync button, and the new infrared (IR) blaster to control your TV in lieu of Kinect.
Inside The Box
Back in 2013, on the cusp of the 4K revolution, Microsoft revealed that Xbox One would serve as a 4K-capable console—but unfortunately never actually delivered. Today however, Xbox One S is one of the most comprehensive 4K and HDR set-top-boxes released to date. The system has native support for 4K Blu-ray, along with 4K entertainment apps such as Netflix, and HDR support for games.
Let’s get this out of the way… 4K Blu-rays look absolutely jaw-dropping on Xbox One S. Despite a few initial HDMI handshake issues, the visual performance here is absolutely stunning. We tested Deadpool in UHD, one of a handful of native 4K productions available today. The level of detail and realism is incredible, with an even more superfluous degree of pixel-precision beyond HD, so much so that 1080p now looks positively pedestrian to the eye. Whilst visual performance is fantastic, audio formats are still relatively limited, with support only for Dolby Digital, DTS Digital Surround, and 5.1 and 7.1 PCM—there’s no support for Dolby Atmos or DTS-X here.
As you’ve probably heard, Xbox One S also adds support for HDR, or ‘High Dynamic Range’. This extends the standard 8-bit colour depth you’d usually see on TV, in movies, and games, to 10-bit. That means more colours, more gradations between colours, and ultimately a more vibrant, accurate, and striking image. This effect is perhaps most noticeable in areas of darkness and brightness, e.g. shadows and skies. Areas are more detailed and textured, as opposed to a flood of black or white.
Currently, you can experience HDR content on Xbox One S through 4K Blu-rays and Netflix—and soon, you’ll be able to experience them in games too, including Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3, albeit at an upscaled frame buffer. It’s also worth noting that whilst Amazon Prime Video has 4K HDR content in its library, it is not currently viewable on Xbox One S. Similarly, Xbox One S doesn’t include content support for Dolby Vision, an alternative HDR compression system that incorporates 36 bits per pixel (12-bit), so bear this in mind when picking up a 4K TV.
It’s clear that Xbox One S is an incredibly powerful machine for 4K media, both on disc and streaming. With so much support built-in, it’s incredibly disappointing to discover, however, that there is no support for 4K passthrough on the HDMI-in port. 4K broadcast TV is just starting to kick off here in the UK, with Sky airing their first live football match in full UHD just this weekend. As OneGuide on Xbox One S is still limited to 1080p, Sky Q users won’t be able to watch any 4K content through their Xbox One S. It’s unclear whether this is a hardware or software limitation at this stage but for those who use their Xbox for most of their media consumption—and not just games—this is sure to come as a disappointment. On a similar note, parts of the Xbox One OS don’t run at native 4K, so don’t expect a razor-sharp user interface across the board.
Xbox One S has a few other subtle improvements up its sleeve. Aside from its new design and its added support for 4K media, the system includes a number of internal improvements, resulting in a console that feels fast and fluid, in comparison with its 2013 predecessor.
In terms of storage, Xbox One S currently ships in a 2TB variant which, as ever, is expandable through its USB 3.0 ports on the front and the back. The hard drive is a standard 5400RPM disk—not the hybrid drive found in the Xbox One Elite Console, so external storage is still your best bet for fast performance. Only 1.6TB of the console’s internal storage is available to the user, however. This is due to the way storage is calculated and displayed on Windows, leaving around 200GB to the OS itself.
Xbox One S is without question the best Xbox yet, with refinements and improvements across the board—4K media support, a fantastic new design, and a more responsive OS all bring the Xbox platform up to speed. Alongside Microsoft’s regular software updates, it feels a lot more like a modern console.
There is, of course, a humongous elephant in the room here. At the end of this year’s E3 press conference, Microsoft revealed Project Scorpio: its next generation Xbox One. Still part of the Xbox One family and ecosystem, Scorpio is positioned as a fully 4K-native console for games and media.
As a result, Xbox One S feels incredibly transitional with its offering of 4K media playback and HD-resolution HDR gaming, pulling back the curtain on what Scorpio will be able to do. Unfortunately, it also feels like it’s leaving some of the Xbox One’s greatest features behind. HDMI passthrough into OneGuide, once a core element of Xbox One, hasn’t been upgraded to support 4K, and Kinect is no longer a native component of the platform either, now requiring a bulky, convoluted adapter sold separately from the main console.