The Xbox One is smaller, sexier, and supports HDR/4K video playback, but is it enough
When Microsoft first released its Xbox One console back in 2013, it had a rocky start. Since then, the company ditched its Kinect camera in a controversial move and has steadily been making software improvements to the system. The Xbox One S represents another move in bolstering the Xbox ecosystem with a smaller, more refined design that adds some new features. But in 2016, is it enough? Is the Xbox One S right for you? Find out in my in-depth
Before I dive into the design and specs of the new system, let’s take a look at what comes in the box. While the S will come in 500GB and 1TB variants, which retail for $299 and $349 respectively, I’m reviewing the $399 2TB version. Included with this version is the console, vertical stand, controller, HDMI cable, and power cable along with a code for a 14-day Xbox Live Gold trial.
You’ll notice that my configuration does not include a Kinect. While Microsoft says the Xbox One S does support the Kinect, you’ll have to connect it using a separate USB adapter. Those who already have an Xbox One with a Kinect are eligible to get the adapter for free by visiting the Xbox website, but it will also be sold separately for $39.99. Unfortunately, Microsoft did not send me one in time for this review, but I’ll update this article once I get it in to test
The original Xbox One was black and bulky, measuring 13.1x10.8x3.2 inches. Let’s be frank, it looked a lot like a big VCR. It wasn’t offensive-looking, but it wasn’t particularly sexy either. The new S model, on the other hand, is 40 percent smaller, measuring just 11.6x8.9x2.5 inches. It's also 1.4 pounds lighter, weighing 6.4 pounds.
Instead of opting for the glossy black aesthetic this time around, Microsoft decided to employ a mixture of matte black with what the company is calling robot white. The console also features a bunch of small circular textures spread across the chassis, which gives the console a little pizazz and no doubt helps hide the large circular exhaust at the top. Overall, the new Xbox One S looks quite clean.
Overall, the new Xbox One S looks quite clean
With the smaller frame, I was concerned that the S might overheat or have its fan rev extra loudly to make up for the fact that it has less room to dissipate heat. Fortunately, however, the S was near whisper quiet, even while playing a game. From what I could tell from putting my hand above its exhaust, it never got obscenely hot either. Even the optical drive sounded quieter, with the original Xbox One sounding like you had a tiny car wash when you were installing games from a disc.
Perhaps more impressive is the fact that Microsoft managed to do all this while integrating the power brick into the chassis. This is a small engineering marvel as far as I’m concerned, especially when you consider that the Xbox One’s power brick measured a massive 6.6x1.8x2.9 inches. To go along with the integrated power brick is a thinner two-prong power cable, but not only is the cable thinner, but it's considerably shorter as well. I measured the original power cable at 95 inches, whereas the new cable came in around 60.
The Xbox One S power cable is over a third shorter than the original cable, but is a standard off-the-shelf two prong one.
Aside from the omission of the Kinect port, the ports on the S remain largely the same. The back of the S features ports for power, HDMI out, HDMI in, two USB 3.0 ports, IR out, S/PDIF, gigabit Ethernet, and a lock port. While the S features many of the same buttons as the original, some things have been moved around a bit. Whereas the original model featured a USB and controller pairing button on the left, the S moves them to the front. In cramped spaces, this can make pairing controllers easier and can give you more room to plug in USB drives. It’s certainly a welcome change. Another welcome change is the move from the capacitive power button to a discrete physical one. While the capacitive button on the original model looks pretty sexy, it was often easy to accidentally trigger.
While the PlayStation 4 can be positioned vertically, the original Xbox One was designed to lay flat. This time around, however, Microsoft has redesigned the console’s cooling system to use one large 12cm fan up at the top of the unit. This allows you to prop it vertically with the included stand. One thing that I didn’t like about the stand, however, is that once you pop it in, it’s a pain to take off. There’s no latch to disconnect the thing; rather, I had to resort to small karate chops to remove it. So do be mindful of this before you slide it on.
Inside the systems, the main ingredients are largely the same. It still features an 8-core CPU from AMD with 8GB of DDR3 RAM coupled with 32MB of eSRAM for the GPU. Speaking of the GPU, the Xbox One S’ GPU frequency is actually seven percent faster this time around, going from 853MHz to 914MHz. While this could make games perform slightly faster in theory, you aren’t likely to notice the difference, especially if the games feature locked frame rates. Rather, the extra performance nudge is simply to ensure that the system has enough computing headway to support high dynamic range (HDR) and 4K (2160p) video streaming.
CPU 1.75GHz AMD 8-core custom CPU
RAM 8GB DDR3 clocked at 2133MHz
GPU Integrated AMD clocked at 914 MHz
Storage 500GB/1TB/2TB options
Optical Drive 4K and HDR-capable Blu-ray player/DVD
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, WiFi A/B/G/N/AC 2.4GHz and 5GHz
Ports Power, HDMI 2.0a out, HDMI 2.0a in, 2x USB 3.0, IR out, S/PDIF, Gigabit Ethernet, lock port
What is HDR? HDR provides a much higher contrast ratio between black and whites and displays a much wider visible color gamut. Essentially, colors look much brighter and more vibrant, whereas blacks will look much darker, like the pixels aren't even lit. Like 4K, it’s poised to be “the next big thing” in the panel space. And like 4K, you’ll need a TV that can support HDR. You’ll also need movies and games that support it, too. Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 are examples of upcoming games that will support HDR. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a 4K/HDR TV in the office just yet, though we do plan to get one soon. I’ll update this review here once we get it in.
While 2TB of space should be more than enough for most people, I wanted to see how much free space the console would have after immediately installing its various updates out of the box. I saw that it had 1.6TB of usable space, which means the OS and its updates essentially takes up a whopping 400GB of storage, which is pretty crazy. Another disappointing aspect of the hard drive is that it retains the slow 5,400rpm speed found in the original Xbox One. Sadly, you still can’t upgrade the drive for better speed or more storage. Despite the upgrades in other areas, boot and game installation times remain unchanged. For instance, both the S and original Xbox One took 34 minutes to install Battlefield 4.
Another disappointing aspect of the hard drive is that it retains the slow 5,400rpm speed found in the original Xbox One. Sadly, you still can’t upgrade the drive for better speed or more storage.
While there are some small changes this time around, if you didn’t like the Xbox One controller before, you still won’t like it now.
Other than the fact that it comes in white to match the S, one noticeable difference that you’ll find about the controller is that it features a new textured grip, which has a gentle sandpaper feel to it. I’m not really sure that the original controllers needed this, but it doesn’t detract from the experience.
The controller now also supports Bluetooth, so you can pair it with Windows 10 PCs, if you wanted to as well.
Microsoft also says that the thumbstick has been redesigned to withstand more wear and tear. From an experiential point of view, I couldn’t feel a difference.
Some may be disappointed to hear that you’ll have to plop a pair of AA batteries into the thing and it still isn’t rechargeable like the PlayStation 4 controllers. It’s also a little disappointing to see that there are no battery indicators on the controller itself.
While I really like the controller overall, I do have some personal minor gripes with the shoulder buttons, which I wish were positioned a little further back, so my index fingers don’t feel like they have to “lean” forward as much. I also wish they were more satisfying to click.
With Microsoft announcing that its new console Project Scorpio will be coming out next year, that leaves the Xbox One S in a weird spot. Do you get the S now or wait for the more powerful console? Who exactly is this for?
Well, if you don’t already have an Xbox One and want an HDR/4K/Blu-ray player, than this console is a must-buy as far as I’m concerned. It’s even a little cheaper than standalone HDR/4K/Blu-ray players. It’s not the cheapest HDR/4K video streamer, however. Nvidia’s Shield Android TV console costs a third less than the cheapest S SKU at $200, but it doesn’t have a 4K HDR Blu-ray drive.
If you don’t already have an Xbox One and want an HDR/4K/Blu-ray player, than this console is a must-buy as far as I’m concerned.
If you already own an Xbox One, I’d advise against upgrading here unless you really want the 4K/HDR support right now.
If you’ve been on the fence about the Xbox One or have been waiting for the bugs to be ironed out and the library to mature, the Xbox One S makes it a great time to jump on board. It’s slim, is the only model that can be outfitted with a 2TB HDD, is priced fairly, and offers the aforementioned video features. If you don’t care about all that, and just want to play Xbox One games, then I’d actually recommend the original Xbox One over the S. Its 500GB SKU retails for $250, which is $50 less than the comparable S model.
The Xbox One S might not be a huge overhaul--you’ll want to wait for Project Scorpio if that’s what you seek--but it’s undoubtedly the sleekest, most feature-rich Xbox yet.