Microsoft Xbox One S review – Specs and features UHD Blu-ray performance

Microsoft has released a new Xbox, although it’s not exactly a new console. The Xbox One S is a subtle upgrade to the existing Xbox One, rather than a proper successor. Don’t be fooled, though, because it has more than a few surprises in store.

While the Xbox One S is deep down the same console Microsoft released in 2013, there have been significant changes. It’s far slicker and prettier, fixing many of the original console’s aesthetic issues. It also adds 4K and high dynamic range (HDR), which means your games and videos can make the most of the latest TVs.

It doesn’t offer the big graphical bump of the PS4 Pro. Nor does it benefit from the major horsepower boost of the next-generation Xbox, codenamed Project Scorpio. But what it does have may make it the best-selling console of 2016: it’s the most affordable UHD Blu-ray player on the market.

The Xbox One S is the only console to play 4K Blu-rays. This could make the Xbox One S a surprise hit with movie fans on a budget, who are looking for an inexpensive way to enjoy 4K content. It could help rocket 4K Blu-ray sales too, in the same way the Sony PS3 did with standard Blu-rays. What’s more, it’s actually a decent UHD Blu-ray player.

XBOX ONE S – DESIGN AND CONTROLLER

The Xbox One has had a total makeover, and it’s a huge improvement. Microsoft hasn’t confirmed what the “S” stands for, but we’re taking a guess at “slim”. The case is 40% smaller, which makes the Xbox One S only a little bigger than a PlayStation 4, and smaller than the dinkiest of mini-ITX PCs.

This is particularly impressive given that the power supply is now integrated. No longer will you need to find extra space to squeeze in a massive power brick on the side.

It’s also possible that S is for “sexy”. Suddenly an Xbox is the most attractive thing in my AV rack, and that’s not something I ever expected to write. The chunky air conditioner-style grilles have been replaced with a subtle pinhole design. The original’s glossy black plastic, which was a dust magnet and suffered scratches way too easily, has also been ditched.

The Xbox One S is matte all over, and has a Stormtrooper chic thanks to its white with black accents. I like it, but some may find a bright white box too conspicuous. I’m sure it won’t be long before other colours appear; there’s already a limited edition blood red Gears of War 4-themed version on the way.

There are plenty of less obvious tweaks too, but they’re welcome nonetheless. The power switch is now a physical button, which is a lot less susceptible to accidental activation than the Xbox One’s touch-sensitive offering. There is a USB port and a controller-pairing button at the front, where before they were hidden away at the side.

Can the new Xbox One please stand up? Yes it can. The old Xbox One could only be placed flat, but the One S can be flipped over onto its side. You’ll need a plastic base to hold it up for ventilation purposes. This comes bundled with the 2TB edition, but otherwise it’s sold for an extra £20.

The controller has been tweaked, too. It feels half way between the basic Xbox One pad and the super-expensive Xbox One Elite Controller. It retains the ergonomic shape of the previous model, but the rear now benefits from a more grippy texture. Apparently, exchangeable colour covers are an option too.

I’m not particularly bothered about pimping up my controller, but I’m a fan of the added traction. I played Star Wars: Battlefront plenty during testing, and I found the controller upped my game. The finish made it a little easier to maintain a stable grip while fighting rebel scum, and my accuracy improved. I died less in manic moments, where a quick combat roll can make all the difference.

The thumb sticks are made of a new material, supposedly more capable of withstanding punishment. Only time (and abuse) will tell how tough it is, but I didn’t feel any difference in use.

As for power, the pad works on AA batteries. They last a good while, so I don’t mind them. Some people prefer the Sony PS4 controller’s built-in battery approach. It may be more environmentally friendly, but the battery has proved to be poor and I’m forever having to plug it in. I wish Microsoft would ship controllers with its “Play and Charge” kits – it would be a good compromise.

Thankfully, Microsoft has finally added Bluetooth functionality to the controller. This won’t be a big deal to Xbox users, but will be a godsend for PC gamers looking for a decent gaming pad. Now PC gamers can use Xbox controllers without shelling out for an Xbox USB Wireless Controller Adapter.

XBOX ONE S – SPECIFICATIONS

As far as connections are concerned, the rear of the Xbox One S is almost identical to the Xbox One: HDMI out, HDMI in, two USB ports, IR out, optical audio out and Ethernet.

The HDMI output has been upgraded from 1.4a to 2.0. The HDMI 1.4 standard is technically capable of supporting 4K, but only at 30Hz. Films and TV shows shown at 30Hz and will look choppy as hell and may give you a headache. HDMI 2.0 means the Xbox One S can output proper 4K at 60Hz.

The Kinect port has gone. This isn’t a deal-breaker for me. It’s a move that also doesn’t surprise me, considering the number of people I know who use the Kinect (none). Those who want to use a Kinect will also be able to connect the peripheral via USB with an adapter. Microsoft is currently giving them away to existing Kinect owners.

An IR blaster has been added to the front. That’s Microsoft’s way of increasing the Xbox One S’ multimedia capabilities.The IR blaster lets you set the Xbox One S to turn on other devices, such as your TV or home-cinema amplifier. It’s a nice idea, but I still found myself using the dedicated remotes as they’re less unpredictable.

The addition of a 2TB storage option is another welcome change. Any Xbox One owner will tell you that even a moderate game library demands plenty of space. And as such, I’d recommend serious gamers opt for the 2TB option over the smaller 500GB and 1TB configurations. At launch time, 2TB was the only option available, but now it’s a rarity.

On the inside, the One S’ specifications mirror those of the Xbox One. It’s powered by an equivalently specced eight-core AMD custom CPU, clocked at 1.75GHz and the same Radeon GPU with 1.23 TFLOPS peak shader throughput and 8GB of DDR3 RAM.

The chipset may be the same as before, but the GPU frequency has increased from 853MHz to 914MHz. This may allow for a minor improvement in performance, but Microsoft says it isn’t supposed to be a selling point. Instead, the extra power is there to handle the strain of HDR games.

HDR is the next big thing in video. Basically, it offers greater contrast and a wider range of colours. We’re starting to see it in films and TV shows, but now it’s coming to games. The first HDR games are Forza Horizon 3, Gears of War 4 and Scalebound. For a report on HDR gaming, hit the link below.

XBOX ONE S – FEATURES

So the games don’t perform noticeably better, and options are limited on HDR gaming. This means your gaming experience on the Xbox One S will be virtually indistinguishable from that on the Xbox One – except for ultra high-definition video output.

The Xbox One S automatically detects a 4K TV. When you first boot up, it will ask if you want to select 4K resolution, so respond with “hell yes”. There’s a helpful screen in the Settings menu that will notify you on the worthiness of your TV.

Little ticks and crosses show whether your TV can handle 4K at 60Hz, 50Hz and 24Hz, and whether it’s compatible with HDR10 video. Basically, it indicates whether you can watch video and/or play games in 4K and HDR. I used a Samsung UE49KS7000, which is one of the least expensive TVs to get ticks across the board.

Assuming you’re given the go-ahead for 4K gaming, the Xbox One S will automatically output your games in 4K. But it isn’t native 4K, because Xbox One games only go up to Full HD 1080p. Instead, the Xbox One S upscales the games, which means making up pixels where none exist.

The Xbox One S is a superb upscaler. The picture is super-sharp, with some nicely defined edges and little in the way of jagged edges. Only the finer textures appeared a little blurry. On the whole, however, the machine does an excellent job of making 1080p content look good in 4K.

The alternative is to make the Xbox One S output a 1080p feed and let the 4K TV do the upscaling. I tried that and the outcome was noticeably fuzzier, even though the TV has no problem upscaling movies. Stick with the on-board upscaling and you’ll be fine.

Is that enough? The hardcore crowd would justifiably point out that upscaling 4K is the same thing as faking it. They may also point out that a decent gaming PC could get you native 4K, which looks better.

A casual console gamer may not be so picky, however. If you own a 4K TV and you plug in an Xbox One S, I reckon you’ll be impressed. My Xbox games have never looked this good.

XBOX ONE S – A FINE UHD BLU-RAY PLAYER

The Xbox One S doubles as a UHD Blu-ray player. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the real reason to consider getting one.

It’s a far more affordable option than the two dedicated UHD Blu-ray players currently on the market. The Samsung UBD-K8500 costs $330. Sony has one on the way, which is nice because the PS4 Pro doesn’t do 4K Blu-rays. As for the Xbox One S? The base 1TB model costs $175, while the 2TB model costs $189.

It isn’t simply a price thing either, since the performance is more than respectable for the money. The Xbox One S does a fine job handling 4K Blu-rays. Load times are fast and it produced decent pictures across all three of my test discs (Mad Max: Fury Road, X-Men: Days of Future Past and San Andreas).

The console shows off the advantages of 4K: remarkable clarity, minute details and lifelike textures. I could make out the consistency of the motor oil Charlize Theron smears across her face as war paint.

You also get a noticeably higher dynamic range. It isn’t just about fierce bright areas and inky blacks: the fine increments between are subtly drawn too, and you get plenty of shadow detail. You also get the wider colour gamut that HDR promises. There’s a part in Mad Max: Fury Road where somebody gets shot with a flare gun. When the reddish-orange smoke explodes, it’s hard not to marvel.

UHD Blu-rays represent the pinnacle of home-cinema picture quality, and this console can wield them as well as a dedicated player. The Panasonic does look better, with more subtle processing. The finer details look sharper and the colours are more neutral, but there isn’t a huge difference considering the price gap.

The only clear disadvantage to using the Xbox One S as a 4K Blu-ray player is that it doesn’t support Dolby Atmos audio. Well not yet, anyway – Microsoft has promised an update. For now, you’ll have to settle for regular surround sound. It’s a small price, considering how much cheaper the console is. I’d also argue that anyone who can afford a home Dolby Atmos is likely to shell out for the premium dedicated player anyway.

Overall, the Xbox One S’ UHD Blu-ray player will be a big selling point for AV fans. UHD Blu-ray is still in its infancy, and this console might just help it grow. The Xbox One S’ features and performance make it the best-value UHD Blu-ray player on the market.

And don’t worry too much if your 4K Blu-rays haven’t arrived in the post yet. The Xbox One S’ Netflix app is compatible with 4K and HDR straight off the bat, so you can get ogling straight away. No such luck with the Amazon Video app, which is awaiting an update.

SHOULD I BUY THE XBOX ONE S?

The Xbox One S is far better than the original Xbox One, with improvements on every front. It’s smaller, it’s prettier and it includes a greater number of features. Sure, the gaming element is almost unchanged, but HDR gaming compatibility means at least a degree of future-proofing. Then there’s the 4K output: although it’s upscaled, rather than native, right now this is the best you’ll get from a console.

But the real worth is the ability to play UHD Blu-rays. This is the most affordable 4K Blu-ray player on the market, and it’s a competent performer to boot. If you own a 4K TV and you want your movies and games looking their best, the Xbox One S is a no-brainer.

Microsoft faces competition from Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro. While the Sony offers 4K and HDR in gaming, it doesn’t play UHD Blu-rays. That’s a major omission in my book, leaving an open goal for the Xbox One S.

It’s only timing that’s an issue. The upcoming Xbox Project Scorpio is due next year, which will be a proper step up. As a happy first-generation Xbox One owner, I’m tempted to wait for that. By the time it launches, I might even own a 4K TV full time.

VERDICT

A better Xbox all round, but essential only for 4K TV owners.

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