Hands-on review: E3 2016: Xbox One S


When Phil Spencer told a small panel at Microsoft’s Build Developer Conference he wasn’t “a big fan of Xbox One and a half,” I had almost given up hope on a smaller console coming our way in 2016 despite the mountain of evidence that pointed to its existence.

The Xbox One S – or Xbox One Slim, as it’s more colloquially referred to – has been a rumor for some time, but it wasn’t until E3 2016 that we got all the details on Microsoft’s mini machine.

At first glance, it’s a radically different console, almost to the point that it’d be unrecognizable without the signature Xbox One jewel. It’s a thin, angular box the size of a Blu-ray player with a porous white exterior and a reconfigured button arrangement that’s more pragmatic than its predecessor.

We knew it’d be smaller, and that turns out to be true. To quantify that point, it’s actually 40% smaller than the original. The system can now stand upright, a feat that you’d never want to try with the first one.

And, the touch-capacitive eject and power buttons have been replaced with more logical – and accident-proof – physical ones.

Xbox One S

We had hoped it’d be able to stream 4K High Dynamic Range (HDR) content, which it does. And, we hoped that it’d replace the already obsolete HDMI 1.4 port with a new HDMI 2.0a connector, which it did.

What that means is you’ll be able to stream Netflix and Amazon Instant in 4K HDR, while using the upgraded internal Blu-ray player to read the next generation of physical media.

What we didn’t see coming was the Xbox One S’s ability to play games in HDR and at slightly higher framerates – something no other game console on the planet is currently capable of – or that it’d cost just as much as the original Xbox One, starting at $299 (£249).

However, all of these features that we’ve been craving for have come with a trade-off: the new Xbox One S forgot – or forgoed – a standard Kinect port on the console. In order to use the Kinect, the Xbox One S requires you to pick up a USB adapter, which Microsoft has said it will provide to anyone who asks for one.

While the lack of Kinect capabilities will affect very few gamers, the removal of a Kinect port is one last kick in the pants for all the gamers forced into buying the more expensive console bundle two short years ago.

But, the latest update coming to the Xbox One platform – also coming in August – ensures that for whatever the Xbox One S is lacking in hardware, it will make up for with software.

Xbox One S

Design

Advanced electrical engineering. Moore’s Law. A miracle. Call it whatever you want, but the Xbox One S defies what we thought was possible, integrating a massive power supply and an expansive 2TB hard drive into a chassis one-fourth the size of the original.

How Microsoft pulled it off, I’ll never know.

Well … actually, I might. Something tells me it has to do with porous siding that allows for better airflow. This would enable Microsoft to use a smaller fan – in tandem with the repositioning of the hard drive directly behind the disc tray, instead of in the back right corner.

Moving the hard drive allows the power brick (essentially a power supply unit that you’d find in a desktop PC) to be seated inside the console instead of sitting next to it, creating unnecessary clutter on your entertainment shelf.

While components have shifted on the inside of the box, the shell of the system has undergone a transformation of its own.

Again there are two physical buttons in place of the capacitive touch buttons for power and eject on the face of the console, and the sync and USB 3.0 ports have been brought from the side of the unit to the lower half of the front face.

There’s an IR blaster on the front of the console that allows you to turn on other devices, like your TV, audio/video receiver and cable/satellite box.

The only thing missing is that standard port for Kinect, which I mentioned earlier.

Also, if you like your consoles in loud color schemes – or anything other than white – you’re out of luck. Microsoft has only announced one color so far but, thanks to the new Xbox Design Program, at least you can make controllers in any fashion that you’d like.

Xbox One S

Performance

What’s slightly odd about the Xbox One S is that Phil Spencer recently said Microsoft would only move forward with a new console if it did so in “big numbers”.

Now, not to poke holes in what Spencer says or dwell too much on an off-handed remark, but – from everything I’ve seen – the Xbox One S is more than a minor improvement, but less than a full-on upgrade.

What I mean is that 4K streaming and HDR gameplay are large enough updates to upset anyone who’s bought an Xbox One in the last six months, but not enough of an upgrade to warrant a casual Xbox One owner to run to the store and buy it.

That said, alongside the HDR compatibility, the One S also features a more powerful CPU and GPU than the standard Xbox One, which may result in higher frame rates in some games. Whether this performance boost becomes widespread is unclear at this point, but Gears of War 4 apparently benefits from the upgraded hardware.

The takeaway here is that some games will be HDR capable, others will not, and it will be up to developers to enable the feature on a game-by-game basis.

Whether the improved processor and graphics drastically alter gameplay hasn’t been fully explained at this point, and it’s something that could potentially splinter the Xbox One audience. Some games might play amazingly on Xbox One S, with HDR running at 60 frames per second, while on the original Xbox One they’ll jitter and display poorer colors.

It’s not necessarily going to happen, but it’s certainly a possibility.

Also, it’s worth noting that the Xbox One S should not be confused with Project Scorpio, which was announced by Microsoft at E3 and given a late 2017 release window. The company is promising that the new console will be the most powerful ever when it launches, with six teraflops of graphical performance, nearly five times that of the current Xbox One.

Xbox One S

The Xbox One S also ships with a slightly refined version of the standard Xbox One gamepad that features a textured grip, built-in Bluetooth and increased range for those sitting a bit further away from the screen.

The controller looks like it will feel fairly similar to the Xbox One gamepad you already know and love. I say “looks” because, at a private event held after Microsoft’s keynote, journalists weren’t allowed to actually touch and hold it for themselves.

The major and most immediate change will be the textured back that you might have seen on the Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller. The upgrade to the S would’ve made for the perfect time to switch the controller’s power source from batteries to a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery, but that’s not in the cards this time around.

Early verdict

It’s hard to find anything wrong with the Xbox One S. By all accounts, it’s a slimmer, sleeker and sexier console than what we see on store shelves today. Given all the advancements, it’s hard to fathom how Microsoft plans on selling it for the same price as the current hardware.

Of course, the obvious downside is that anyone who recently bought an Xbox One is now faced with a difficult and expensive decision: is the upgraded performance, 4K HDR streaming and 2TB of storage worth re-buying the system?

Thankfully, there’s time to think about it over a few matches of non-HDR Halo 5, as the first round of 2TB consoles won’t start shipping until an undisclosed date in August.



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