Microsoft Xbox One S review: Xbox One S is the best Xbox you might not want to buy

Update 04/08/16: Several specifications teardown reports discovered a slight difference in the performance of the Xbox One S graphics hardware. Specifically, the Xbox One S has a small 914 MHz GPU clock boost from 853 MHz and a 219 GB / s ESRAM bandwidth boost from 204 GB / s. These bumps are noticeable in the game only in a limited number of situations. In fact, they exist only as a bonus side effect from Microsoft that ensures HDR content runs smoothly.

This is more like it.

Xbox One S is the version of the console that Microsoft should have first released in 2013 instead of the heavy beast we got. It’s better in many ways, making it even more of a worthy alternative to Sony’s PlayStation 4.

Xbox One S offers a much more attractive enclosure, options for a larger hard drive, a slightly redesigned controller, and some video perks for 4K TV owners. Starts at $ 300, £ 250 or AU $ 400 for the 500GB version; $ 350, £ 300 or AU $ 500 for a 1TB model; and $ 400, £ 350 or AU $ 549 for 2TB.

The latter model is available for purchase from today in the US (and includes the vertical stand which otherwise costs $ 20 when purchased separately in the US), while those with smaller hard drives will be available in late August, in bundled with games like Madden 17 and Halo. (Additional bundles will follow later this year, including a more expensive 2TB version of Gears of War 4 in October, and may vary by region.)

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Sarah Tew / CNET

Sounds like a dunk, right? Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. The One S does not receive a generic “buy it now” recommendation for two reasons. First of all, it doesn’t offer huge improvements for those who already own an Xbox One. But more importantly, Microsoft has already promised that the next Xbox, dubbed Project Scorpio, will arrive in late 2017 with the seriously enhanced graphics and VR-ready hardware that the public is clamoring for.

Ultimately, the Xbox One S should primarily be seen as a scaled-down version of the Xbox One that introduces a slightly updated controller and 4K display provisions. It won’t drag you into a cutting-edge gaming experience. Pragmatically, you’d probably be better off getting an old Xbox One, which is now being sold at clearance prices. But if you’re buying an Xbox One for the first time, interested in bundled games, and aren’t saving your pennies for 2017’s Project Scorpio, the One S is definitely a good all-round gaming and entertainment deal.

New in Xbox One S

There is a short but significant list of improvements and changes to Xbox One S.

Smaller, cleaner design: For starters, it’s 40% smaller, which, considering the power supply is now internal, is impressive. It’s also completely white, with some shiny plastic moldings flanking the entire box. I think it’s the coolest Xbox that Microsoft has ever designed.

The One S can also stand upright. The 2TB model we received for review packages on a stand. If you buy one of the other models, you can get support separately for $ 20.

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Sarah Tew / CNET

4K and HDR video: Xbox One S gets a fairly substantial upgrade in its video capabilities, with 4K resolution (3,840×2,160, or four times sharper than standard 1080p HD TVs) and HDR (high dynamic range, which is basically improved contrast and color). Keep in mind: these features only work on compatible TVs, and the 4K functionality only works with a small but growing list of compatible video content. You can currently access 4K via video streaming services like 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. Some games, meanwhile, will be able to take advantage of the visual enhancements of HDR, but don’t look for PC-like 4K graphics – games are simply upscaled to 4K.

So no, you’re not getting native 4K games from an Xbox One S. In fact, only a limited number of games will include HDR, and none of them are out yet. They are Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3 and Scalebound from 2017.

New controller design: The Xbox One controller has also been updated for the S. It has a more aerodynamic top section, better range and textured grips. It can also use Bluetooth to connect, which opens the door to compatibility with other devices – no more annoying dongles, at least on Bluetooth-enabled PCs.

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The One S controller (right), compared to its predecessor.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of the new controller’s design. It’s not a drastic departure from the original, but there’s enough of a change to make it look cheaper. The textured plastic grips don’t feel as good as the rubberized ones, but thankfully the triggers look unchanged. The D-pad feels slightly less tactile too – I’ve even noticed differences between two of the new controllers side-by-side.

IR blaster and receiver: There’s still the IR port for controlling the console with a remote, but the Xbox One S also has a built-in IR blaster for controlling or turning on other devices in the room.

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Sarah Tew / CNET

And it still does everything the old Xbox One does: The good news is that you are missing out on nothing with the Xbox One S compared to its predecessor. On the back the console offers many of the same ports as the original Xbox One, although notably absent is a dedicated Kinect port. You can still connect Kinect to Xbox One S, you’ll just need a special $ 40 (!) Adapter. Either way, omitting a Kinect port should give you an idea of ​​how that peripheral is viewed at Microsoft headquarters.

The HDMI-in and -out ports are still there, so you can still use the Xbox One Live TV integration if that’s something you like, but I’ve never found it overly useful.

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Sarah Tew / CNET

Suffice it to say that the One S plays all existing Xbox One games and a growing list of Xbox 360 games. It also includes all the encouraging software improvements Microsoft has made in recent years, including the redesigned interface, digital assistant support. Cortana (using a microphone), Windows Store compatibility, and soon more cross-play options with Windows PC players on select titles.

4K and HDR score sheet

I want to personally thank Xbox One S for introducing me to the big mess that is the world of 4K and HDR formats. I considered myself quite fluent in home theater language, but was baffled by the insane amount of granularity and confusion that the format is currently plagued with.

Chances are you won’t be able to set to 4K right away. I needed to download two separate updates for the Xbox One S to finally realize it was connected to a 4K TV, at which point he offered to increase the output resolution to 4K.

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