The launch of the Xbox One was a bit of a mess. After botching its initial E3 presentation with sky-high pricing and a DRM scheme that would’ve killed used games, the company was forced to back-track. It wasn’t enough. The PlayStation 4’s global sales have roughly doubled that of the Xbox One.
Initial sales were so bad that many analysts speculated that Microsoft might sell off the Xbox division. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the company has doubled down, focusing on the long game with a series of hardware and software updates.
The new Xbox One S 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. Microsoft has beat Sony’s launch of its console update, the PlayStation Neo, which expected in October. But the Neo will be a more substantial revision that not only redesigns the look, but also adds more horsepower under the hood. The Xbox One S will be left to fight the new and improved Neo until the holiday 2017 release of Xbox Scorpio.
Does it stand a chance?
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
The release of the Xbox One S has been timed to coincide with the release of Microsoft’s Windows 10 Anniversary Update, leading to a climax of Microsoft-related headlines in the tech press. In usual form, though, the details are a bit fuzzy. The Xbox One runs Windows 10, but not the same form found on your desktop PC. And the Xbox One is getting an update that coincides with the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, but it’s instead called the Xbox Summer Update.
The Xbox One S undercuts the price of dedicated Ultra HD Blu-ray players.
While the names are confusing, they’re appropriate. The updates have little to do with each other. The Anniversary Update for Windows 10 includes features like Windows Ink, a selection of tweaks that target PCs with a touchscreen and stylus. The Xbox Summer Update, on the other hand, focuses on features like 4K and HDR support, which are exclusive to the Xbox One S (the Xbox One is stuck at 1080p).
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. The update simply means that, unlike the original, 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.
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 $300, 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.
Cortana keeps quiet
Microsoft’s digital assistant is the other headline feature associated with the Xbox Summer Update. Unfortunately, it’s as bad as 4K support is brilliant.
Yes, Cortana is finally available. You can look up the weather, search the Internet, and open most apps, and perform some tasks (like starting a party with friends) by either speaking to Cortana or inputting text, either through the controller or a connected keyboard. In practice, Cortana works best as a sort of shortcut for interaction with friends. Asking it to tell you what a friend is doing can be a lot quicker than looking that information up in a menu.
Otherwise, Cortana for Xbox One is not worthy of the title “digital assistant.” It can’t search your calendar for events, can’t find movie tickets, and can’t display the location of nearby game stores on a map. Though it works well when asked to open an app or perform system tasks, the broader range of capabilities Windows 10 users have come to expect from Cortana aren’t available. Asking Cortana about your meetings, for example, results in a screen informing you that function is only possible on PC or Windows Mobile.
Cortana also suffers from the opaque operation that plagues other assistants. In theory, you can ask it to accomplish a wide variety of tasks. In reality, it’s not smart enough to figure out what you mean if you stray off the script. Some trial and error is required to figure out what the assistant will recognize, and what flies over its head.
That’s frustrating. Microsoft first started talking about bringing Cortana to the Xbox back in 2015. Over time, the release date was pushed further and further into 2016. Now it’s here – but as was the case when it first came to Windows 10, it’s hardly the revolutionary feature Microsoft envisions. It’ll become better over time, but right now, at the Xbox One S launch, it’s not going to change how you use your Xbox.
In fact, by default, you’ll have trouble using it at all. Microsoft doesn’t bundle a microphone or headset with the Xbox One S, so you can’t chat with Cortana unless you buy one. You can interact with it through text input, though that’ll be an annoyance unless you hook up a keyboard.
Compatibility with Windows 10
We were abuzz with excitement when Microsoft revealed the Xbox One would have x86-hardware similar to that in a PC. It opened a whole new world of possibility. Imagine – what if you could use all of the same apps across platforms. What if there was even an option to go to desktop mode, and effectively turn an Xbox One into a budget computer?
Of course, that’s not what happened. The original Xbox One was very much its own ecosystem at launch. It continues to be its own today. But there have been improvements, and they show Microsoft is headed in the right direction.
In addition to bringing over Cortana, the Xbox Summer Update has tacked one some cross-compatibility between the Xbox One store. In practice, this seems to impact the experience of using Windows 10 more than the Xbox One S itself. The Xbox app can now be used to purchase a variety of content and, when purchased, it’ll instantly load on your Xbox One.
This is more useful than it sounds. Navigating a store with a controller is a laborious experience, at least when compared to a keyboard and mouse. Browsing on your PC is much easier. You can even browse while you’re away from your Xbox – for example, you can purchase a game digitally at work, and expect it to be ready when you get home. We should note, though, that Sony also offers this service, both through its online store and through its PlayStation mobile app.
Windows 10’s Xbox app is now the easiest way to buy games for the Xbox One.
And while it’s still a work in progress, gamers can look forward to further compatibility of games and apps in the future. Microsoft’s Xbox Anywhere program, announced at E3, is bringing a variety of first-party exclusives – including Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4 – to both Xbox One and Windows 10. Gamers who purchase them through Microsoft can play these titles on either platform. Some games will even offer cross-platform multiplayer.
There’s also a continued effort to make porting apps between Windows 10 and Xbox One easier through the Universal Windows Platform program. The benefit of this is still mostly unrealized, though it’s led to a proliferation of niche streaming apps not found on the PlayStation 4.
This is just what’s happened recently. A long list of features has been added to the Xbox One, and Windows 10’s Xbox app, since release. Take a look at our guide to Xbox One and Windows 10 compatibility, and our review of gaming on Windows 10, for a deep-dive.
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.
Serious 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.
The DT Accessory Pack
But Microsoft knows it’s behind this generation, and has responded with aggressive pricing. The Xbox One S we reviewed, with a 2TB drive, is $400. It’s the version that ships today. But it’s to be quickly followed by an Xbox One S with 500GB drive that’ll sell for $300, and even includes The Master Chief Collection alongside Halo 5. That ships on August 23.
That bundle is excellent for gamers who’ve sat out on this console generation so far. For $300 bucks you can grab not only a new console, but the entire catalog of the best console shooter ever made. We doubt you’ll find a better bundle before Black Friday. And remember, the Xbox One S is a 4K capable Blu-ray player. That feature alone is worth the price of entry – provided you have a 4K capable television, of course.
Extra features, and price, are important, especially for people who are buying a console as much for its home entertainment value as for its gaming chops. The Xbox One S isn’t the best gaming console available today, but it is a great home theater appliance.