With the revamped Xbox One S here, I can’t help but once again reminisce…
Microsoft has been in an uphill battle ever since the original Xbox One made waves in 2013. The initial reception was marred with proclamations of ownership policies, a campaign of constant rescinding forced after consumer backlash, and a whimpering effort to keep the Kinect away from irrelevance.
All of this seems like a distant memory, yet the atmosphere appears vaguely familiar in a sleeker, prettier, and slightly more capable body. Adding up to an alluring recipe if you’ve finally wanted to pull the trigger on an Xbox One.
Editors’ Note 8/10/2016: The unit reviewed here was the 2TB Launch Edition of the Xbox One S, which is priced at $399.99. Later this month, a 500GB bundle that includes both Halo 5: Guardians and Halo: The Master Chief Collection will be available for $299.99, and a 1TB bundle with Madden NFL 17 for $349.99, respectively.
It’s A Looker
I have no problem saying Microsoft has outdone themselves with the Xbox One S exterior; with roughly 38 percent of the console downsized, you can definitely tell the One S has trimmed the fat. Hell, even the signature power brick has been retooled to fit internally, an Xbox first and end to the platform’s notorious hallmark (even the original from 2001 had a wall brick adapter).
The S is also space-conscious thanks to an included stand for vertical orientation. However, only the 2TB gets the stand in the box, while others will have fork over $20 for what amounts to a piece of hard plastic with tab inserts.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the One S is as cleanly equipped like its predecessor. Sporting a contrast of one-half solid surface with the other sporting a ventilated appearance on the fanned side, done in ghostly white. But some of the decadence gives way to cheaper components: all the touch buttons are now push-activated with a matte plastic body being a thorough exercise in economics. Other trade-offs involve the third USB port re-positioned on the bottom-left upfront, and an additional integrated IR blaster so you can stick with one remote for all your AV devices.
There’s no dedicated Kinect port to speak of, but most of you never cared anyways. Still, you can order a legacy USB adapter direct from Microsoft.
The accompanying ‘S’ controller brings some notable changes of its own. The rear handles are lightly textured analogous to an Elite controller, while the glossy top finish no longer flows onto the crest of the face. What is appreciated is the addition of wireless connectivity through Bluetooth (ver. 4.0), dutifully eliminating that cumbersome PC adapter.
Internal Specs and Interface
Clock performance from the GPU portion of AMD’s Jaguar APU gets a nudge to 914 MHz (over 853 MHz), while the ESRAM (embedded static memory) bandwidth is bumped up to 219 GB/s from 204 GB/s. Apparently tuned to accommodate the resources of proper 4K/HDR playback.
The core interface soldiers on, so all existing Xbox One games and growing backlog of Xbox 360 titles will play just fine. Let’s also not forget about the Cortana assistant and upcoming option to enjoy select Xbox Play Anywhere titles digitally on Windows 10.
4K/HDR: An Inconvenient Truth
But, we’re here to dig into the meat of why we’re reviewing the Xbox One S in the first place — the implementation of video capabilities with consumer-grade 4K (UHD) resolution and HDR (high dynamic range). One aspect is determined by a pixel count of 3,840×2,160, while the other involves expanded contrast ratio and introduction of a wider color gamut (WCG). In fact, seasoned videophiles are more invested in the evolution of HDR, because that’s where the advantage of realistic image quality and natural details actually lies; rather than absolute number of pixels onscreen.
But, this is also where all the consumer obsession and belabored marketing comes to a frivolous head. Unlike some other publications that muse about how awesome 4K/HDR is without scrutiny, we prefer an initiative to test critically. It’s a blunt opinion, but genuine observation of a cycle lacking real consumer knowledge.
Knowing this, the Xbox One S is the first game console to output at 4K video natively; except the execution can be borderline incoherent. Initial setup was time-consuming and required two separate updates. One firmware wait time of 35 minutes was solely for the Xbox to be able to acknowledge that it was indeed hooked up to a 4K TV. And only then did the system ask if it was ok to knock up the resolution (how courteous).
There’s also the matter of getting HDR to work. This usually involves going into the TVs main menu and manually enabling a deep color setting of some kind (HDMI UHD Color, HDR gamut, etc.), which detects as HDR signal but amps up brightness considerably to operate. Ultimately, it was sometimes a crapshoot, spending a few minutes of repeatedly switching presets and inputs until both sources responded. Most likely due to HDMI handshake (HDCP authentication) delays.
Beyond that, you’re pretty much on your own when troubleshooting. Especially when you realize that 4K checklist on the advanced video settings is a reminder for denying you things.
Xbox One, 4K/HDR, And You
We had Ultra HD Blu-ray movies (Deadpool, Pineapple Express, The Expendables 3) and three different display models. Our choices were based on immediate availability and unique parameters for 4K/UHD support, although plenty of trial and error made it an equally strenuous process.
I’ll just say it now: Early adopters and prior year 4K TV owners may have to temper their expectations on delivery. In the case of the trusty UN65HU7250 LED TV, which was sold back in 2014 before manufacturers bothered with Ultra HD standardization, we did indeed get 4K (24Hz/60Hz), but not HDR capability. Oddly, we still had to leave HDMI UHD Color on in order to meet the required 10-bit color depth. The result was a crisp image that also appeared washed out on hue, and distracting random signal lapses.
Because the Sony XBR-49X800D LED TV is pretty new, it played the nicest with the One S. Everything worked just as long as we remembered to adjust picture settings or fiddle with the system. There wasn’t a huge jump with HDR activated, regardless, colors looked great and noticeably richer than normal. Take note first-timers: This is one of the more attainable and impressive HDR-capable TVs out now.
The worst alternative was the ViewSonic XG2700-4K, which is actually a 27-inch monitor intended for PC gaming. 4K/UHD monitors have been out much longer, but still carry a hefty premium comparable in price to a 50-inch TV. They’re not ideal picks as we only got 4K upscaling, and couldn’t even meet the 10-bit color depth minimum needed for UHD Blu-rays.
Home theater enthusiasts with dedicated builds also may want to look elsewhere, since the Xbox One S doesn’t have the acoustic chops to bitstream lossless audio. Decoding is handled by the console so the quality you’ll receive is the generic 7.1-channel PCM, obviously excluding codecs and object-based options like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
That said, there are bragging rights. Upcoming titles such as Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4 will take advantage of HDR, while all other Xbox One games are upscaled to 4K for sharper detail — although marginally better. And as of this writing, Netflix is the only app for 4K/HDR (with a premium tier subscription) you can download, with content being limited to original series. But it’s nice to binge watch House of Cards and Stranger Things with remarkable clarity.
As a gamer, I don’t hate what the Xbox One S is offering. On the contrary, I think the total package is great for people who want this console for gaming.
As a person reviewing tech though, the addition of 4K/HDR feels glorified, far from being the best Ultra HD Blu-ray player currently out there — let alone the right console for an inherently vague market. On the home entertainment front and rumblings of Project Scorpio (there, I said it), the timing of this machine is merely adequate for the job.
Those thinking strictly in the ‘now’ will be happy with the updated, slimmer Xbox One S. As for everybody else, there are more cohesive and logical things to come. Maybe.