The Xbox One S is a mea culpa in the shape of a white plastic box. It takes all the stuff that didn’t make sense about Microsoft’s third proper games console and gives it a right royal heave ho.
Kinect? Kablamo. That monumentally fugly power brick? First to the wall. Three years after the fact, the Xbox One looks and feels like a more enticing machine than the PS4. Better still, it now comes with a 4K Blu-ray player, support for HDR gaming and a sleek design that doesn’t make you want to barf on first sight.
Job done then? Would that it were so simple. As you well know, reader, there’s the small matter of an updated PlayStation 4K around the corner and an even more powerful Xbox Project Scorpio set for release next year.
The latest skirmish in the never-ending Sony vs Microsoft war is more befuddling than ever before, so let’s make this real simple. If you want to buy the best games console out now, then get the Xbox One S. If you want to buy the best games console out this year, then you’ll need to hold tight for a couple of months.
Xbox One S Design: 40% smaller, infinitely better
OK. Let’s start with the easy stuff. As games consoles go, the Xbox One S is rather handsome indeed. Just as no one goes to a museum solely for its gift store, looks are still an important part of a games machine’s make up. If you’re going to use a console every day or so, you’d rather it didn’t share the same unedifying visage as a VHS player.
Mercifully, the One S leaps over this low bar as though it’s Jess Ennis competing in the hurdles at a school sports day. Its white shell and dotted grill are really quite striking and a 40% trim in size means this console is far from the behemoth it once was. Best of all, it does away with the power brick needed to run previous Xbox Ones - a revelation of monumental proportions.
Why? In essence, the power brick was an arse. A hairy, pimpled arse that became symbolic of some quite dreadful design choices. Upon taking the thing out of the console’s box, your first thought was to how quickly you’d be able to scurry it out of sight again. Now that faff has been consigned to history, what you’re left with is a device you can actually display with pride in your living room.
To that end, the One S has been designed to work upright and comes with a complimentary plastic stand to adeptly prop it up. So if you want to plonk it right on the side of your TV, that’s a thing you can now do. You probably won’t, but it’s good to have the option.
Xbox One S controller: gets a grip
One of the most significant cosmetic changes that’s been touted about the One S is its new controller, which is near-on identical to the original One controller. Its control sticks are made from a slightly more durable material, it’s got a greater wireless play range than before and its back is populated with these neat rubberised dimples. In day-to-day terms, you’ll struggle to notice these changes. At least we did.
Those dimples are meant to aid your grip on the controller after a particularly frantic Rocket League session, but they’re too small to have a significant impact on your gaming. Especially if you regularly sweat like a sumo wrestler in a sauna. That’s OK though. The original Xbox One controller had a sturdy weight to it and sat well in your hands, and this one does exactly the same.
A far greater annoyance is that it hasn’t been updated with built-in wireless charging. It still doesn’t even come with a charging kit. Being told you need to load up a gamepad with a fresh pair of AA batteries only to remember you were too lazy to pick any up on your way home from work is one of life’s most blood-curdling frustrations. Environmentally speaking, this routine is incredibly wasteful too. If the PS4’s controllers can be rechargeable as standard, there’s no good reason why Microsoft can’t enable the same.
On the plus side, the One S’ pad now gives you Bluetooth support, which is an absolute gift for PC gamers. Hooking this thing up to a Windows 10 PC or laptop is a cinch and means you don’t have you plug yet another cable or wireless adapter into your rig.
Naturally, this is all part of Microsoft’s newfound Xbox and PC friendliness, which also includes Xbox Play Anywhere - buy a downloadable copy of a game on one platform and you can play it on the other, with progress and achievements synchronised across both. Admittedly the cost of buying a digital copy of a game in this way is far higher than simply buying a disc, but as any grandma worth her salt will tell you, ‘There’s no such thing as a free meal.’
Xbox One S 4K gaming: almost, but not quite
This is especially the case when it comes to the One S’ 4K capabilities. Put simply, if you don’t own a 4K TV or won’t be buying one before the end of the year then don’t buy an Xbox One S. This shouldn’t be a particularly great revelation to anyone though. It’s a bit like saying, ‘If you don’t like chocolate then don’t go on the Cadbury’s factory tour’.
More so than its newfound facelift, the Xbox One S is a console that’s being sold on its 4K and HDR [High Dynamic Range] capabilities. In technical terms, this means the Xbox One S has an HDMI 2.0a port that enables a 4K 60Hz output. The Xbox One supports only HDMI 1.4a, which simply can’t handle 4K video or gaming.
Right now the One S is the only 4K games console you can buy and that means its picture quality is, in theory at least, four times better than any competing machine. Even if maths isn’t your strong point, you’ll know that’s quite a big difference.
Better still, the One S is also the best value 4K Blu-ray player you can own by quite some margin. In contrast, Samsung’s UBD-K8500 player costs £380 (RM2050) and can’t play Tetris, let alone Gears of War 4 or Forza Horizon 3. If you’re looking to get more value out of your new 4K TV, buying either this console or the also 4K-capable PS4 Neo feels like a no-brainer.
The only catch? 4K gaming on the Xbox One S isn’t really ‘true’ 4K. Confused? Allow us to get all techie on you.
Xbox One S 4K upscaling: stunning, but the PS4K should be better
Every game for the Xbox One platform has been designed in high definition - mostly 1080p or a little below that. To display these games on a 4K screen, they’ll be upscaled to that resolution - and that process involves adding extra pixels where they’re not provided by game makers. Essentially, the device doing the upscaling - in this case the Xbox One S - is guessing what it thinks the missing pixels are supposed to be displaying.
If you plug your PS4 into a 4K TV the same upscaling will take place as well, but it will be the telly doing it rather than the console, and the result is less impressive. Playing The Witcher 3 can give you all kinds of image processing problems unless you tweak your telly’s settings to adjust for them. Then it’s pretty good, especially when your screen isn’t dealing with a lot of motion.
In contrast, the Xbox One S’ upscaling is stunning straight off the bat. The Siberian snow storm that opens Rise of the Tomb Raider looked absolutely glorious on our screen at home and we winced that little bit more in fear as Lara leapt from ice-laden mountain face to snow-swept crevasse. Because of those pixels that are added in there are moments in close-ups where a hand or window ledge looks slightly coarser than it might have in HD, but we’re talking about very fine margins.
Besides, no console that’s out this year or next will offer you a dramatically better performance. Sony’s PlayStation 4 Neo is very likely to support a 1440p output (read: 2K resolution) when it launches before Christmas, which means its picture will still be upscaled for 4K screens. Granted, by 2x instead of 4x with the One S, but there’ll still be a fair amount of image processing going on here.
Think of it like buying a bottle of milk. With both the One S and PS4 Neo, you’re essentially getting semi-skimmed 4K, as opposed to the creamy, full-fat option. Either way you’ve got a delicious and nutritious drink right there.
And as for the mythical Xbox Project Scorpio? We’d expect that to get much closer to that native, full-fat 4K, but given that even a big, standalone PC graphics card such as the new Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 isn’t entirely consistent with its 4K performance, you can still expect some graphical compromises to be made.
In short, we’re not as close to the dawn of genuine 4K console gaming as you might imagine. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the Xbox One S’ support for HDR.