The Xbox One S is a winner, a svelter and more attractive take on Microsoft’s flagship video game console. If you held off on the first generation Xbox One for some reason, now is the time to buy.
If you already own an Xbox One, however … Well, that’s where things get complicated.
Looking back on my original Xbox One review, I opined that Microsoft’s console was superior to the Sony PlayStation 4, with its impressive Kinect-based voice control, the “ability to do two things onscreen at once, its far more voluminous entertainment capabilities, and the oh-so-simple HDMI pass-through, which puts the ‘One’ in Xbox One.” These points all stand the test of time, and the same can be said today of the Xbox One S.
But I also had complaints.
The Xbox One was too big and bulky, especially when you factored in the sizes of its external power brick and Kinect. The software, at the time, was very incomplete, though Microsoft should be applauded for a very regular update schedule since then. The price—$500 at launch—was simply too high. And a sub-$100 Roku could provide all the entertainment options most people would want.
Most of these concerns have been addressed by the Xbox One S.
Let’s start with the size: As Brad ably pointed out in his initial hands-on article, the Xbox One S is fully 40 percent smaller than the behemoth it replaces, and the side-by-side photos do a great job of visually explaining why that is so important.
Of course, many people who choose an Xbox One S are replacing an Xbox 360, and that’s a comparison I made when I first received the new console. The Xbox One S is also smaller—and, interestingly, much lighter—than the Xbox 360 S.
But the Xbox 360 S comparison is interesting on a number of other levels.
Like the Xbox 360 S—and unlike the original Xbox One—the Xbox One S can be placed vertically, on its side so to speak, though doing so requires you to clip on an included plastic base. That’s smart, because it increases your placement options, especially in tight areas, and lets you position its large cooling fan hole in the best possible location.
And like the Xbox 360 S—and unlike the original Xbox One—the Xbox One S is small and light enough to travel. That means you can more easily bring it with you to LAN parties, something that was cumbersome with the original console. That will benefit a small audience, I guess, but it’s core to the Xbox experience.
Finally, like the Xbox 360 S, the Xbox One S is really all about cost savings. So while customers benefit from a smaller, lighter and—I think—more attractive console, the real point to this thing is that Microsoft can take advantage of component cost savings and, over time, perhaps even make money when they sell one of these things. That wasn’t possible with the original Xbox One, especially when Microsoft was forced to drop prices again and again when it didn’t sell as well as expected.
Those cost savings come with downsides for the customer, of course: The Xbox One S feels much cheaper than its predecessor, especially the controller, which I’ll get to in more detail below. But I think Microsoft did a nice job of balancing that out with a more attractive industrial design. The Xbox One is a stunner. Assuming, of course, you like white.
(There’s no official word on when/if a black version of the Xbox One S will appear, but I think that’s a safe assumption. I also believe that Microsoft could eventually offer a color customization option similar to what is now offered for the controller through the Xbox Design Lab. To be clear, that’s just a guess.)
Aside from the form factor, there are other advantages over the initial Xbox One. And it is here that Xbox One owners will need to weigh the benefits to upgrading carefully, because some of these improvements are subtle or will only impact you if you own expensive (and in some cases esoteric) televisions.
The first is storage. Where the initial Xbox One offered just 500 GB of internal storage—yes, later models offered more—the Xbox One S can be had in 500 GB, 1 TB, and 2 TB models. The Launch Edition version of the console that I purchased comes with a 2 TB hard drive, and not having to manage storage or add external hard drives is wonderful. Too, the Xbox One S hard drive is allegedly a bit faster than the version included in the original console, though some original Xbox One consoles have hybrid disks which are not offered on the Xbox One S.
Next, Xbox One S supports two important display technologies, 4K and HDR. But it does so inconsistently.
Xbox One S’s support for 4K is video only, meaning that it does not support video games running at 4K (or above 1080p) resolutions. Heck, as any Xbox One owner will tell you, the console doesn’t really support 1080p games as it is, and the Xbox One S is no different in that regard. (You may have seen reports that the Xbox One S includes slightly faster processor components than the original console, but this was done to help support 4K video, not for games. I’ve seen no real world advantages to these subtle hardware bumps at all.)
That said, 4K support is a nice upgrade for those with 4K televisions, and it works with both Blu-ray discs and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Video. I do not have a 4K TV, so I’ve not been able to test this feature.
HDR—which stands for high dynamic range and is a common feature in smartphone cameras these days—is available via supported game titles, and in some entertainment content too, but you must have an HDR10-compatible TV. Which, again, I do not. But HDR could be a game changer, if you’ll pardon the over-used term, similar to the effect of moving from 480p (DVDs) to HD (Blu-ray) several years ago. And it’s only supported on Xbox One S.
Microsoft has touted the improved and renamed Xbox Wireless Controller, which it says features a “textured grip” and increased wireless range. But this new controller feels much cheaper in the hand than the original Xbox One Wireless Controller, and that textured grip is anything but: It’s so subtle it just feels slightly rough, even unfinished. Compared to the truly grippy and high-quality Xbox Elite Controller, the new Xbox Wireless Controller is even more of a joke. This is the one real dud in the system.
But there is one material improvement to the controller: It now supports Bluetooth, though not on the Xbox One S (where it still uses the previously and proprietary wireless technology employed by previous controllers). This means you can easily pair the controller with a Windows 10 PC and use it for gaming there. That said, you can’t pair the controller to both your console and (using Bluetooth) your PC at the same time. So if you intend to take advantage of Xbox Play Anywhere and move back and forth between your Xbox One S and Windows 10 PC, you will need to keep re-connecting the controller on each, use a USB cable on one, or buy a second controller.
I have no complaints about the price, which is unusual for me. But here, Microsoft got it right. The base Xbox One S with 500 GB of storage costs $299, which is exactly the right starting point for this elegant device. Those with more money to spend can upgrade to 1 TB for just $50 more, at $349. And for $399, Microsoft will hook you up with a 2 TB console. (The Launch Edition console I bought is a limited edition, but no worries, Microsoft offers a Gears of War 4 Limited Edition Bundle with 2 TB of storage too and there will be other 2 TB consoles coming later as well.)
What you don’t get for that price is Kinect, and Microsoft doesn’t even offer a single Xbox One S console or bundle that includes the peripheral. While many have written off this expensive doohickey—it still costs $100, incredibly—I feel that it has an important role to play. No, not gesture-based games. Voice control.
You can add a Kinect to Xbox One S easily enough, and if you own one already because it came with an original Xbox One, you can even do so for free. But your only other option for voice control is a headset that you connect via the headphone jack on a controller. And that, folks, simply isn’t good enough. Why Microsoft couldn’t have just included a mic on the front of the console, or on a wire, is beyond me. The Kinect is like the original Xbox One: Too big and bulky, and too expensive.
From a software perspective, you’ll notice no difference from the original Xbox One. And that’s both good and bad. I like the Xbox Dashboard quite a bit, and as noted Microsoft has done a nice job of keeping it updated over the years. But the Xbox One UI is still incredibly slow, even after the supposed performance improvements added in the last two major system updates. This is something Microsoft still needs to address.
Looked at as a living room entertainment solution, the Xbox One is a mixed bag. It’s quieter than its predecessor—see below—but a controller is inelegant for media control, so you’ll need an added-cost media remote. And of course there’s no way to get iTunes or Google Play content on Xbox One S. (I tried Edge for Google Play, but it requires Flash.) The available entertainment apps do work well, of course. But Roku has a much more impressive library, and those devices are very inexpensive. And silent.
Speaking of which, the one issue I didn’t mention in my original Xbox One review was noise: Over time, the internal cooling fan and—more surprisingly—the power supply of my personal Xbox One began getting louder and louder. Microsoft replaced my power supply under warranty, but in an otherwise silent room, I can still hear it. And the original Xbox One fan is loud, plain and simple. Especially under load.
With the Xbox One S, there is a softer but more regular fan sound. It will likely not be annoying to most—I’m very sensitive to noise—but the actual sound is curious to me. Where the original Xbox One fan sounds like a kid’s bike with playing cards stuck in the spokes, this one is a warmer, vibration-like hum. It’s never been horribly loud, but then the console is brand new. So I’ll keep my eye—well, my ears—on it.
So. Should you buy one?
For the Microsoft or Xbox fan who has waited out the Xbox One generation so far, the answer is yes. And it will just come down to which console model, or bundle, to get.
If you’re an existing Xbox One user, my advice is to hold off: There’s an Xbox One “Project Scorpio” console coming in about a year and a half, and while details are sketchy, we know it will offer 4K and VR game support, while maintaining backwards compatibility with games and apps. Plus, you can get a 4K-capable Roku or Amazon Fire TV for roughly $120.
Personally, I’m quite happy with the Xbox One S. And while I intend to experiment with some lower-cost ways to get Microsoft’s entertainment services on the HDTV in the living room, I could see using a base model Xbox One S for that task as well. For now, my 2 TB model will stick with me in the home office. You know, for work-related reasons.
Xbox One S is highly-recommended: This is a demonstrable improvement over the original model and is arguably the Xbox One that Microsoft should have shipped in the first place.