The best gaming console for 4K
Gamers don’t need Microsoft’s new Xbox One S, but videophiles will love it
Since launching in 2013, the Xbox One platform has been in a state of flux. After a stumble out of the gate, driven in no small part by its $100 price gap, the company has been forced to change its plans for cross-media domination. In the years that followed, Microsoft has rolled a series of hardware and software updates, teasing out a future where the word “Xbox” is synonymous with console gaming once again. In our Xbox One S review, we’ll see if the company was able to deliver.
The Xbox One S, Microsoft’s mid-cycle refresh of the Xbox One, represents both. On the hardware side, its miniaturization is meant to leapfrog the PlayStation 4, which is smaller and subtler than the original Xbox One. In software, the Xbox One S is Microsoft’s standard-bearer for Windows 10. While older Xbox One consoles can update to the same software, there’s still a lot of confusion about how Windows 10 and Xbox work together. The updated console is positioned to provide clarity.
A heavy burden rests on the shoulders of this console, one too heavy for an incremental upgrade. Sony has not only launched a “slim” PlayStation 4, but a substantially upgraded version of its console, the PlayStation 4 Pro. Microsoft also has its own high-powered Xbox One, the Xbox One X, coming at the end of the year.
While it is definitely the best Xbox you can buy, with interesting new features that complement Microsoft’s new vision for what Xbox can be, the Xbox One S falls in the gap between smoothed-out hardware revision and the tangible performance improvement players expect from a “new” console.
Smaller, but not that small
We liked the look the of the original Xbox One, and think it’s held up better than the PlayStation 4 which, with its awkward angles, never looks quite right no matter where it’s placed. But, in practical terms, the Xbox One had a big problem. It was big – the biggest thing most people put in a home entertainment cabinet aside from an A/V receiver.
Microsoft fixed that by shrinking the Xbox One S by 40 percent. Sounds great, right? Yet in the number is deceiving. The box is actually just a few inches narrower, and about an inch shorter, than the original. The power supply is now internal, as well.
The less-than-expected miniaturization means the new Xbox only just catches up with the svelte PlayStation 4. The Xbox One S is wider, and a hair taller, but not quite as deep.
While the new Xbox isn’t as small as the numbers make it seem, it is indisputably attractive. It’s minimalist, uniform, and simple, with clean, sharp lines. The two-face design of the original makes a return here – half the Xbox One S is flat, while the other half is dotted with exhaust vents.
Unlike the original, the vented half uses a grid of dimples rather than diagonal slats. This is reminiscent of pixels, and feels right at home on a game console. A large cut-out for the top-facing fan slightly spoils the look when viewed from above but, due to its position, it’s hard to notice when placed in an A/V cabinet. Most people will only view the Xbox One S from the front, and from that angle it’s easily the best looking console released this generation.
Fun and functional
The original Xbox One could be a pain to interact with because of its touch-sensitive power button. Other buttons, like the controller sync button, were physical but inconveniently located.
While the new Xbox isn’t as small as the numbers make it seem, it is indisputably attractive.
Happily, the Xbox One S solves these problems. The front includes a physical power button, controller sync button, and disc eject button. All are easy to find and use, even in a dim media room. There’s also one USB 3.0 port up front – a bit disappointing. The PlayStation 4 has two. Finally, the lower right corner hides the IR blaster, which can be used to control other IR devices through your Xbox One S by repeating the IR signal those devices recognize.
Around back the Xbox One S includes two HDMI ports (one in, one out), two more USB 3.0 ports (one for Kinect), S/PDIF, and Ethernet.
Overall, the connectivity is almost identical to the original, with one notable exception. The Xbox One S drops the dedicated Kinect port. You’ll need a USB adapter to plug a previous Kinect into the new console. Aside from the annoyance of having to obtain an adapter (Microsoft is handing them out for free, at least, if you contact Xbox support), this change means Kinect users effectively have one less USB port than they did previously.
Still, the Xbox One offers more connectivity than the PlayStation 4. Microsoft has pitched Xbox One as a one-stop solution for everything from gaming to television, and while it’s debatable whether its features have caught on with the mainstream, they remain something the PlayStation 4 doesn’t even try to emulate.
Once again, a console under-cuts Blu-ray players
While previous Xbox One consoles were limited to 1080p video output across both games and video, the Xbox One S adds support for 4K video, as well as a 4K Blu-ray player that isn’t found in either the PlayStation 4 or the PlayStation 4 Pro.
To be clear, the support for 4K resolution does not have an impact on games. They will render with the same frame buffer as before. But unlike the original system, the Xbox One S is capable of native 4K output for the interface, as well as media. You can play 4K, HDR Blu-rays on that fancy new UltraHD television you purchased, or you can load up Netflix for 4K streaming.
HDR, short for “high-dynamic range,” on the other hand, does work with a very small list of games on the Xbox One S. The lineup isn’t particularly large right now, including first-party games like ReCore and Gears of War 4 in addition to AAA third-party titles such as Ghost Recon: Wildlands and Resident Evil 7. Though proper HDR support (HDR 10) is only available in a very limited and expensive number of TVs, those who have it will experience a subtle, but noteworthy improvement in how many of the Xbox One’s best games look.
Support for 4K is largely unnoticed once you turn it on – and that’s a good thing. You can set the Xbox One S to 4K output and leave it there without worrying about your source content. 4K movies look just as detailed as you would expect, but games – which, again, still render at whatever resolution they were originally designed for – look as good as they would on a 1080p display. Even Hyper Light Drifter’s pixel-art style looked razor-sharp.
That will make the Xbox One incredibly attractive to anyone who has a 4K display. Stand-alone Ultra HD Blu-ray players remain few in number, and those available are expensive. The Samsung UBD-K8500 typically sells for around $320, while Philip’s BDP7501 is usually $300 – and those are the most affordable models. That suddenly makes the Xbox One S, which starts at $279, an economical purchase.
It’s strange that a full-fledged console has managed to undercut dedicated home media players, but this has happened before. Some gamers may remember that the PlayStation 3, the first console to include a Blu-ray player, undercut most dedicated players at the time it released. The Xbox One S pulls the same trick, and for that reason alone it should grab the attention of every home theater enthusiast.
A smoother, slicker interface
There were large, sweeping changes introduced to Xbox One via firmware in 2016, including Cortana and further Windows 10 support, but the new features added thus far in 2017 aren’t as drastic. Instead, they offer some much-needed improvements to social play, the console’s interface, as well as new options for less-experienced players.
Right away, you’ll notice one small but important change that Microsoft has made to the Xbox One’s overarching interface. When pressing the home button, you’re no longer immediately sent back to the home menu. Instead, the quick menu will pop up on the side — this used to be done by double-tapping the button, which led to accidentally suspending games more times than we can count. It’s a feature that was standard on the Xbox 360 for most of its life, but we’re happy it finally made its way to the Xbox One. You can now use guide to quickly appear offline, as well, for when you want to play a game without being bothered by anyone.
When you are ready to play with friends, Xbox One’s new tournaments give you a convenient way to set up matches. Creators of social clubs can now create a tournament directly within them, which players can register for in games like Killer Instinct. Tournaments will also come to the real-time strategy game Halo Wars 2 in the future.
Have a certain achievement you’re trying to earn in a game but don’t want to keep pausing it to check on your progress? The “achievement tracker” feature means you no longer have to. Any achievement’s progress can be displayed on-screen right alongside a game, so you can see exactly how much work you have to do. Perhaps the most interesting new feature added in recent Xbox One updates is “Copilot.” By pairing two controllers together, a less-experienced player and a veteran can both control the action in a single-player game at the same time. If one of them is struggling to complete a certain area, the other can instantly take over and give them the boost they need to keep playing.
Mix up your streaming with Mixer
Twitch is still the king of game streaming, and that’s unlikely to change in the future, but it’s not a particularly intuitive service on Xbox One, with a difficult-to-use comments feature and few customization options. If you’re just streaming for your friends, however, Microsoft’s Mixer service has a more elegant integration.
Available directly from the Xbox One’s guide menu, Mixer allows you to instantly start broadcasting your game without having to open another app, and you can even use the guide to enable or disable microphones, add party chat, or turn on comments. The streaming quality is excellent, and comments are displayed almost instantly after they’re sent using the Mixer mobile app.
For viewers, Mixer offers increased interactivity when compared to other streaming services. During E3 2017, any viewer who used Mixer to watch Microsoft’s content was given free games, and developers such as Telltale games have begun implementing modes that allow viewers to make in-game decisions.
It’s still an Xbox One
The Xbox One S is a new design, but it’s not an entirely new console. Aside from what’s above, everything else about it remains the same.
That’s a problem. The Xbox One has sold poorly, relative to PlayStation 4, for a simple reason. Most games will play on either console, but Sony’s is more powerful, and games look a bit better on it.
The Xbox One S doesn’t do anything to resolve that. It is slightly quicker, due to a higher clock speeds on the GPU and associated ESRAM. That’s enough to net an extra couple of frames in titles that run at an unlocked framerate, and it can smooth out tearing in some games, but the difference is usually not noticeable in gameplay. In fact, we only know about it all thanks to Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry, one of a small handful of publications equipped to do frame-by-frame analysis of a console. Microsoft said nothing about improved in-game performance in its official press guide to the Xbox One S.
And the console war is about to get worse for Microsoft. While the company has a major hardware upgrade, codenamed Scorpio, in the works, it’s not expected until the end of 2017. Sony, meanwhile, is rumored to launch the PlayStation Neo in October. It’ll bring a substantial increase in performance, giving Sony an even greater hardware lead.
That will put Xbox in a bad place. It’ll be significantly outperformed by Sony’s new console, yet slower than Sony’s old console, and that situation won’t change for at least a year. Our Take
Most gamers are unlikely to find the Xbox One S more appealing that it was before. It remains less powerful than its rival at Sony. Aside from its smaller footprint – which, as mentioned, is less impressive than hinted during its reveal – there’s nothing about the Xbox One S that will get an enthusiast’s attention.
That said, while Xbox One S isn’t the best gaming console available today, it is a great home theater appliance. The Xbox One S has a 4K capable Blu-ray player — a feature unavailable on the PS4 or PS4 Pro — That alone may be worth the price of entry, provided you have a 4K television.
Is there a better alternative?
PlayStation 4 Pro is the most powerful game console on the market. The Xbox One S achieves parity with the standard PlayStation 4 in almost every way, though that console’s ubiquity among gamers may lead to the PlayStation 4 versions of multiplatform games receiving more attention from their developers.
How long will it last?
Depends on how often you like to upgrade your console. Microsoft’s more powerful version of the Xbox One, the “Xbox One X,” is scheduled to launch November 7, 2017. If you don’t plan on upgrading, the console will “last” until Microsoft announces a next-generation Xbox. Based on prior generations, we’d guess at least three years.
Should you buy it?
Generally speaking, all of the current consoles — aside from the Nintendo Switch — have most of the games you want. As such, buying a console almost always comes down to a number of factors outside of the hardware — Do your friends have Xbox Ones? Are you a huge fan of Halo, or Gears of War, or Forza? Do you care about your console integrating into your home theater system? In these situations, we expect you might prefer the Xbox One S.
Even if you have your heart set on getting an Xbox One, though now is not a great time to buy an Xbox One S. With the Xbox One X on the way, chances are you will be able to buy a powerful version of the console, or get this one for less money this holiday season. At this point, we’d recommend waiting until the end of the year.