Is Xbox One S Worth It? Hands-On Thoughts on Microsoft's First Incremental Console

Is Xbox One S Worth It? Hands-On Thoughts on Microsoft's First Incremental Console

Interested in the new Xbox model? We break down its benefits and shortcomings after spending a few days with the system.

It's here: The first major "iterative" game console revision. For better or worse, Microsoft's Xbox One S breaks new ground for the modern console market by changing up not only the design of the Xbox One system, but also making some minor tweaks to its internals as well.

Until now, the conventional wisdom surrounding console revisions has said that splitting a user base with expansion peripherals or minor technical upgrades can only end in tears. No one wants to be the next SEGA, frittering away a successful console business by splintering their install base with confusing add-ons. Every major console of the past 20 years has seen a revised model, but if those revamps add new features it's always in the form of secondary elements, like hard drive space or extra connectors. For the most part, though, console revisions take away features: Ports, bulk, options, software support.

Sitting atop an original model Xbox One, the Xbox One S really shines thanks to its compact size and clean lines.

At first glance, the Xbox One S seems like any other "slim" revision that would show up three years into a console's life. It's smaller than the original Xbox One, features better energy efficiency, and offers more onboard storage at a lower cost than the older model. Yet the S model includes modest but definite technical improvements over its predecessor — nowhere near enough to qualify as a new generation of hardware, but enough to at least create the potential of an appreciably better gaming experience than the standard Xbox One.

The question, then, is whether or not the Xbox One S's improvements justify its costs — especially for anyone who picked up the older model. I've spent the past few days kicking the system's proverbial tires, and generally I'm impressed... though I'd have a hard time recommending it as an upgrade to every Microsoft fan, especially with the even more improved Scorpio on the horizon.

The externals

You don't need to plug in the Xbox One S to appreciate its most obvious change over the older system: It's physically a much smaller device. The original Xbox One was 330mm x 274mm x 79mm, making it considerably more massive than the PlayStation 4. Microsoft hasn't posted dimensions for Xbox One S, but I measure it at 294mm x 231mm x 65mm — a significant difference, especially in terms of width. Or height, if you prefer; unlike the original Xbox One, the S works perfectly if you turn it upright; it even comes with a vertical stand in the box.

The Xbox One S also offers some savings in both box size and entertainment center footprint by finally, mercifully doing away with the infamous Microsoft power brick. The One S plugs into your outlet with a simple standard issue electrical cable rather than requiring you to hide a hefty (and frequently quite hot) external power adapter somewhere out of sight. Clearly Microsoft has made significant strides in terms of energy efficiency, as the system manages to enclose the power adapter without running appreciably hotter than its predecessor.

The Xbox One S's front face bears more than a slight resemblance to the PlayStation 2's design — but cleaner and more refined. Hidden in the shadows of the lower bezel are a USB port, an accessory pairing button, and an IR port for remotes. The black Xbox logo doubles as a disc eject button rather than serving as an overly sensitive power button.

It probably doesn't hurt that the console doubles down on ventilation. Literally half the console's surface has been turned into a dimpled mesh, transforming a matter of sheer practicality (i.e., giving the internals enough air to avoid melting down) into a stylish design choice. The Xbox One S is by far the most attractive console Microsoft has ever put together, despite being a fairly simple box. It's all right angles and straight lines, with only the Xbox logo, a small physical power button (no more annoying activations if you accidentally brush against the console face!), and the mesh of tiny pin-dots breaking up the rectilinear look. Molded in bright white with a black base and disc slot, the Xbox One feels almost European in its minimalism — more like a Bang & Olufsen stereo component than a Microsoft system. It's refreshingly modern, with maybe just a tiny hint of retro aesthetics, and it has a dense, solid feel that matches its rigid visual design (which is also a welcome change from the cheap-feeling construction of the original Xbox One).

The system has one other space- (and cost-) saving trick up its sleeve: It almost completely deprecates Kinect. Not only does the One S not include a Kinect device in the box, it also does away with the Kinect port. Fans of the device will have to rely on an adapter to make use of it (which Microsoft is making available to Xbox One S owners free of charge for a limited time). The latest system updates reportedly trim some Kinect functionality, so it seems safe to assume we're seeing the beginning of the end for Microsoft's plans to make players the controller.

As for the actual controller, it's simply the standard Xbox One controller molded in white plastic — no Elite option here.

And that's about all there is to the console. The box includes the console, a controller, a power cord, an HDMI cable, a vertical stand, and a minute amount of paperwork. Like the console's new look, it's an uncharacteristically minimalist approach for Microsoft.

The back of the system should look quite familiar to existing Xbox One owners — the one notable absence is that of the Kinect port. R.I.P.

The internals

Xbox One S hasn't been transformed as radically inside as out, but the console's internals nevertheless have been updated this time around. Besides bringing the power adapter into the box, the One S tweaks the platform's innards in a small but potentially meaningful way. According to Eurogamer and Digital Foundry's analysis, the Xbox One S's GPU and processor are clocked to be about seven percent faster than the standard Xbox One's components, and that added power appears to be available immediately to games. As Digital Foundry notes, not every game benefits from this, and those that do see variable improvements. At any rate, games on Xbox One S always run at least as well as they did on Xbox One, and sometimes a fair bit better.

Also improved: The console's storage capacity. The older system initially offered 500GB of storage and later shipped with a 1TB hard drive installed; Xbox One S retains these options while also adding a 2TB model to the mix. There's a $50 price difference between each incremental storage improvement, with the 500GB model selling at $299 and the 2TB version priced at $399.

The console's wifi radio now supports 802.11ac connections, and on a high-speed network you can feel the difference. It certainly makes the process of transferring your content from a standard Xbox One practically painless. Once you connect your Gamer Tag to the new system, you're given a list of all games available for you to download. I had a full Xbox One hard drive and about 1.2TB of games on a backup drive, and while you can restore software directly from a hard drive, it seems you'll need to re-download software that was stored internally. Those downloads went a lot faster for me than transferring from my external drive (Seagate's officially licensed Xbox One USB 3.0/5400 rpm drive) did, but for those with a slower, limited connection the process could take a while and potentially rack up bandwidth charges. You'll probably have better luck transferring everything over to an external drive and restoring from there.

And finally, Xbox One S takes console gaming's first step into the next inevitable technology upgrade: It offers halting, tentative steps toward 4K and HDR support. 4K of course refers to double-HD resolution (3840 x 2160 pixels), while HDR (High Dynamic Range) adds higher contrast to visuals — brighter whites, deeper blacks — creating a more vibrant, lifelike appearance.

The system comes with a matching controller — standard controller, not Elite. And yeah, it still inexplicably runs on AA batteries.

Multimedia features

For the most part, Xbox One S's HDR and 4K integration has little to do with games. Microsoft promises it will enable HDR visuals in upcoming games, such as Forza Horizon III, but for the moment no games actually offer the feature.

As for resolution, don't expect to make a true leap into true 4K gaming until Scorpio arrives next year. Xbox One S can natively upscale games to 4K output, but that's not the same thing as true 4K resolution. Simply put, the console can take games rendered at the standard 1080p and double their resolution, which means there'll be none of the added display lag caused by television-based rescaling... but you'll still be seeing the same amount of actual visual information (1080 lines of resolution) as in a normal Xbox One game. Proper 4K game rendering is not in the cards for Xbox One S, period.

Instead, that functionality has been designated specifically and exclusively for video support. Xbox One S can render your entire library of 4K Blu-rays in all their ultra-definition glory, assuming you own any (there are currently only a few dozen titles on the market). Higher-than-high-definition standards, and HDR functionality, will gradually work their way into both retail video releases and streaming services (and the 802.11ac wireless support should be a big help with the latter), but at the moment this feature is definitely catering to a niche market. And without proper 4K game support, Xbox One S feels decidedly like half-step. Which, I suppose, is the point; it's meant to work like an iPhone model-S update, or something like Nintendo's New 3DS. A portable mentality for a home console.

Happily, the system retains one of the best multimedia features of its predecessor: The HDMI passthrough option that allows you to turn the console into the centerpiece of your home entertainment system. Of course, given the deprecation of Kinect, you have to jump through an extra hoop to make that setup work if you preferred voice or motion input, but it's still an option.

The included vertical stand slides right into a pair of hidden tabs along the bottom edge of the console to allow vertical orientation — something that would give the original Xbox One conniption fits.

So is it worth it?

Does all of this ultimately add up to a console worth owning? Definitely, but with some qualifiers. Basically, potential Xbox One S owners come in two flavors: Those who own an older Xbox One, and those who don't.

For anyone who doesn't own an Xbox One, the new model is a no-brainer.

Microsoft has fared poorly on the mindshare side of things this generation; Sony, lean and hurting after the rough life of PlayStation 3, came into this round determined to win and walloped Microsoft right in the complacency. But just as PS3 eventually came around and turned into a worthy competitor for Xbox 360, so too has Xbox One shaped up into a solid rival for PlayStation 4. Xbox One S gives the platform a new edge: A smarter physical design, no more Kinect distractions, and some added technical improvements that won't radically change anyone's mind about the platform but nevertheless make Xbox gaming a subtly but visibly smoother experience.

You don't really hear much about it, in large part because Microsoft is still doing a pretty terrible job of spreading the word, but Xbox One has a library that's honestly every bit as worthwhile as PlayStation 4's. It has strong exclusives, the usual multiplatform titles, and tons of smaller indie conversions and originals. It also features a growing library of Xbox 360 games supported through backward compatibility — a pleasant contrast to Sony's more nickel-and-dime (or "not our problem") approach to classics.

Going into this fall release season, Sony's energy will largely be channeled into PlayStation VR. We'll see how that works out for them, but it means that the XBox One S is a smart choice for serious gamers who have little interest in VR headsets this holiday. Microsoft will be focused more on traditional gaming than Sony in the coming months, and the attractive features, design, and pricing of the XBox One S make it an easy sell. It's the best rendition of a great platform — and while it's true an even more powerful Xbox One iteration will be along next fall, anyone who doesn't already own an Xbox One clearly isn't a die-hard early adopter. That makes Xbox One S a great choice, and it makes now a great time to catch up with Microsoft.

However, for those who do own an XBox One already, the Xbox One S is largely superfluous. Does a smaller, more attractive case design really matter to you? Does an extra 5fps of performance across a portion of the console library make a huge difference to you? Do you really have a hankering to get some use out of your new HDR television and don't mind waiting a few months for games to arrive? Then Xbox One S might be worth the investment. Otherwise, hold out for Scorpio.

Frankly, for existing Xbox One owners, the most compelling thing about the new model is probably its HDR/4K Blu-ray feature. A standalone 4K Blu-ray player with ultra-HD media streaming from a respectable manufacturer costs nearly as much as the 500GB basic Xbox One model. Much as the PlayStation 2 made for a very attractive DVD player back when those players cost nearly as much as the console, Xbox One S could be a smart way to jump in to ultra-high-definition media. But, again, the current selection of 4K videos on the market is awfully slim; by the time it becomes more practical and viable, the Scorpio will be out... and it'll play games in 4K, too.

So, basically, if you own an Xbox One, save your money. But if not, definitely look into this model. Skip the fire sale prices on original Xbox One models — just get an Xbox One S.

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