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The world of video game consoles is changing. The days of each company releasing a console every 5-7 years are seemingly over, with Microsoft and Sony both adapting a more smartphone-like system of incremental upgrades as the generation goes on (if there is even a “generation” as we know it). In the case of Microsoft, it’s gone even further in the Apple direction, actually calling its new box the Xbox One S.
The big pitch behind the One S is support for 4K streaming and Blu-ray, with HDR in games and movies (if you own a TV with HDR10 support). It’s the HDR that has actually caused us to wait until now to review the console — the first crop of HDR games just hit in the form of Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3.
It’s also smaller, and comes with some other notable design changes, which we’ll get into shortly. Basically, we’re going to hunker down and try to answer the question: is the Xbox One S worth buying? The answer is much more complicated than you’ll like.
Both Sony and Microsoft have released these sort of stopgap consoles, with Sony having just launched the PS4 Slim. Both consoles start at $299, so price isn’t really much of a factor. What is a major thing to think about is what’s coming soon — Sony has the PS4 Pro coming over in just under a month, and Microsoft has Project Scorpio (not the final name), coming out next year. These offer far larger changes in terms of graphical quality, which is why these consoles are in such a weird place.
The Xbox One S Design
Before we jump into the differences for actual video games, let’s take a look at the actual design of the console, as that’s something that’ll affect everyone — whether you’re playing on a brand new 4K HDR display, or a 720p screen from 8 years ago.
If you’re not a detail person, I’ll make it quick for you: Microsoft took everything that was wrong with the console from a design perspective and fixed it.
To start with, it made it smaller. The original Xbox One was a beefy console coming in at 13.1 x 10.8 x 3.1 inches (think about the size of a VCR if you’ve never seen one in person). Microsoft touts the Xbox One S as being 40% smaller. In practical terms, that means it’s now 11.6 x 8.9 x 2.5 inches. We all have a lot of crap hooked up to our TVs, so those extra inches might make a big difference to you.
But the size reduction of the console isn’t the biggest bit of shrinkage. The utterly absurd power brick that was required for the original Xbox One is completely gone! All you need is the power cable. The console is smaller and it has an internal power supply — just goes to show how terrified Microsoft was of another heat disaster like the Xbox 360 when they made the One.
Another welcomed design change is physical buttons. No more worrying about turning your Xbox on and off by mistake when you graze it while dusting (the glassy black finish of the original required seemingly daily dusting).
Microsoft moved the USB port to the front of the console (where it should have been all along). If you use a play and charge kit with your console, and you have the (overly) large console taking up every valuable inch of your entertainment center, leaving space so you can plug in a cable just felt like a major design oversight. It’s one of those small things that really makes a big difference.
On the negative side (at least, it’ll be a negative for the 6 people who own one), there’s no Kinect port on the back. Instead, you’ll need to get an adapter, which doesn’t sound so bad, until you learn that said adapter requires it’s own power source. Basically, this is Microsoft’s way of letting us all know that its done with Kinect, and we probably should be too (the inclusion of the IR blaster in the console itself is another nail in the motion tracker’s coffin).
Gears of War Edition Specifics
When it comes to game special editions, I generally have no interest in them. Sure, I’ll get hooked on a particular game one month, but next month I’ll be stuck on something else. Do I really want my console to represent that thing I don’t care about anymore? It’s like getting the name of a significant other tattooed — you know you’ll regret it!
However, as these types of console go, this one is pretty awesome looking. It’s not too in your face with the Gears of War stuff (there’s a skull logo on the top of the console), so even if you aren’t a fan of the series, you might still find that the other aspects of the console are good looking enough to ignore. If it’s in a TV stand, you’re probably only going to see the front, and that just looks like a cool blood-stained, war-torn device.
When you turn it on and off, there is a little Gears of War sound effect that plays directly from the console itself, but it’s quiet, and it just gives your console a bit of originality. You can turn it off in the Settings app, but that turns off the power chime completely (just like it would on a regular Xbox One or Xbox One S), and doesn’t replace it with the standard sound.
Obviously, when we’re talking about the look of something like this, it’s completely subjective. So, to put it simply, I’ll just say that I am not a Gears fan (I’m indifferent to the series), and I would happily own this as my only Xbox One. Take that for what it’s worth, and use my (stunning) photos to help you decide if it has the look you want (the standard white one is downright beautiful, too).
The New(ish) Controller
Sticking with the design theme, there’s a slightly tweaked Xbox One controller included with the One S. Many of the improvements are small, but when you add it up, it takes an already really solid controller and makes it better.
You’ll find a textured surface on the back, which creates a better feel in your hard. The face buttons have received a slight improvement, and the joysticks move a little more smoothly, and they also will resist dust build up better (according to Microsoft). It took a whole for the goop to add up, so we didn’t get to observe whether the problem is really fixed.
Like the Elite controller, the new One S offering included a standard 3.5mm headphone hack to go along with Microsoft’s jack. This leaves you with options, which is always good.
As I said from the outset, the changes aren’t earth shattering, but they’re helpful, and they take what was already a great way to play games and makes it better. The Elite controller is slightly better just because of the customization it offers and extra rubber grip on the back, but this is easily second-best controller on the market right now (and it costs less than half of the Xbox One Elite controller, so that’s a big factor to consider).
For the Gears edition specifically, there’s a Gears logo on the left side, and the same dark red style as the console itself. It looks nice, but anyone who isn’t too into Gears of War might not enjoy the prominent logo.
4K and HDR – Does It Matter?
And now we finally get to the Marcus Phoenix-sized elephant in the room — does the HDR and 4K stuff matter? Well let me start by saying there indeed is a discernible difference between playing a game with HDR on and off. The colors absolutely look more vibrant, and it all looks great.
However, I can’t say that it’s worth going out and getting a new TV for. Yes, it looks nice, but right now, there are only two major releases that support it — Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4 (both of which we’re including in the prize package). Both games are great, but again, they’re not worth buying a whole new console and TV for.
In terms of gaming, 4K is largely irrelevant, since the One S isn’t running any games in 4K natively, but rather it’s just upscaling. It won’t be until Microsoft releases Scorpio that the 4K resolution will really play a big part in making games look substantially better.
Where the HDR and 4K stuff really makes a big difference is with movies; specifically with Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. When you consider that devices like the Samsung UBD-K8500 3D Wi-Fi 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player sells for $317.99, the One S suddenly becomes a solid deal. Also worth noting is that the Playstation Pro will not have a 4K Blu-ray drive, so if you want your console to play 4K movies from disc, the stick with Microsoft for now. Of course, you’ll still need spend the money on a TV, and you’ll need to go out and update your movie collection with UHD versions, but if you’re a hardcore movie buff who needs to have the best, then the Xbox One S could actually be the most best deal in 4K players.
The Xbox One Overall
It’s been a while since we first (and second) reviewed the Xbox One, and since then there’s been some changes in the form of software updates, but honestly, none of them have been massive. Usability has been tweaked, and Cortana has made her (its?) way into the console, but if you didn’t like navigating the Xbox One before, you won’t like it much more now.
Personally, I like the Xbox One’s interface, and I like the experience it delivers. Once you get the hang of it, finding your games is easy, and it has all the video apps you want (including some that support 4K).
The games library is massive now, with multiple Call of Duty games having been released, along with games in the Forza, Halo, Madden, NHL, FIFA, and all kinds of other major franchises. There’s even MMOs out there now (apparently, The Elder Scrolls Online is actually good now).
All in all, the console is in a good place, but it’s also in a weird place. Which brings us to…
The Xbox One S is the best video game console on the market right, but that’s only going to be the case for about a month until the PS4 Pro comes out. And then there’s Microsoft’s own Project Scorpio coming next year. It seems like the One S doesn’t have a place. Sure, it gives you some graphical improvements, but so will the other consoles coming down the line. While I’m giving the One S an extremely high score in the review, I still have a hard time recommending it unless you really want something to use that HDR TV for that you already own, or you want a UHD Blu-ray player.
While the Xbox One S is an amazing console, it just doesn’t have a place, as it’s such an incremental improvement. You should probably wait for Scorpio to get bigger changes.