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Xbox One S review

Microsoft says the Xbox One S is 40 percent smaller than the original, and it shows. Instead of a hulking monster of a machine squatting under your TV, you have this slim, white box. I really like the clean, squarish look of the thing, a matte white block on a black base. Microsoft calls the color “Robot White,” because no consumer electronics device is allowed to have an unbranded Pantone.

But the 40 percent size difference doesn’t capture how much more comfortably this One S fits in a living room, because it integrates the power supply right into the console itself. The old Xbox needed a power adapter that so closely approximated the size and heft of a literal brick that I half-thought that was the design inspiration. No more: a simple cable is all it takes to power this new box.

The old Xbox required a copious amount of space to ensure it could stay well-ventilated. The One S also seems to kick off a noticeable amount of heat (don’t set anything on top of it, that’s where the fan exhaust goes), but since the case is so much smaller I feel better about enclosing it in the cabinet underneath my TV.

The One S can also be stood up vertically on a simple stand that clicks in a satisfying, sturdy way. The stand comes gratis in the 2TB model, but costs $20 extra for the 1TB or 500GB models.

It plays all the same games and does all the same things as the original Xbox One and — importantly — vice versa. Microsoft isn’t breaking any compatibility, which is an important calculus for current owners. If you have an Xbox One now, you won’t need to upgrade to get access to new games coming out in the next year. So for current owners, the decision to upgrade comes down to other factors: the look, and support for better video quality.

Yes, the Xbox One S will support High Dynamic Range and 4K video. Note that we’re talking about 4K video here, not games. Support for 4K games (and virtual reality) will come with next year’s Xbox, currently known by the codename “Project Scorpio.” Chalk another point up to the “don’t upgrade if you have an Xbox One” column, because something much better is coming along in 2017.

There will be games for the Xbox One S that will support HDR, though I wasn’t able to test any. Why not? Well — for whatever reason, none of them are available for the launch of the console. That’s kind of a miss. The other reason is that Microsoft opted for the HDR 10 standard, and my TV (a Vizio P-Series) doesn’t support it quite yet. More and more TVs will support it soon, but if you’re going out and making a purchase, double check that your TV will work with this version of HDR and not just Dolby Vision (hooray for format wars :/ ).

Even though I wasn’t able to get HDR going on my set, I did enjoy watching 4K video both on Blu-ray and in Netflix. The difference from 1080p is noticeable, but as you’ve no doubt heard by now it’s not the eye-opening revelation that HD was when it first came out. Still, perhaps the best thing the Xbox One S has going for it is that it’s an affordable 4K video box, something that’s actually rarer than you might expect right now.

The Xbox One S is one of the cheapest Blu-ray players to support 4K UHD discs, making the console a sort of generation hop — not quite a full leap. Quite a few PlayStation 2s were sold thanks to its support for DVDs back in the day, and no doubt Microsoft is hoping that the same could happen with the Xbox One S in the 4K UHD Blu-ray era — but somehow I don’t think people are as eager to upgrade to 4K Blu-rays as they were to DVDs back in the day. Especially when 4K streaming boxes can be purchased for much less.

I should make it very clear that in a few days of testing, the One S didn’t feel significantly faster than my old Xbox. The hard drive isn’t an SSD, so load times can vary from acceptable to interminable. If, like me, you die a lot in games like Mirror’s Edge, don’t think that the One S is going to magically make things load faster. Technically, as our friends at Polygon note, the One S is more powerful than the older Xbox One. That won’t mean massive improvements, but Gears of War may have an easier time maintaining frame rate during intense parts of the game.

One of the reasons the Xbox One S is able to hit the prices it’s selling at is that Microsoft isn’t including the Kinect sensor. Most people, myself included, won’t miss it. The number of games that actually use Kinect is tiny. If you do love Kinect, you can buy an adapter (or order one for free, if you’re a current Xbox One owner) that will allow it to work with the One S. Fair warning: it’s a hilarious set of an adapter box and a power box, which means having four more cables snaking around behind your entertainment setup.

If there’s any downside to losing the Kinect, it’s that you won’t be able to holler commands at your Xbox. That’s no great loss to me, and it’s mitigated by the fact that the new controller comes with a standard 3.5mm jack at the bottom, so you can still ask Cortana to do things for you if you have a headset plugged in there.

Yes, you say “Hey Cortana” instead of “Xbox” now; it is part of the “summer update” going out to all Xbox Ones. To my mind, the update puts the focus on the things that a games console like the Xbox is good at: easily finding games and streaming video. I’m not going to delve too deeply into the software here other than to say that it’s an improvement overall and I’ll be curious to see how much effort Microsoft continues to put into getting Windows 10 apps running on the Xbox.

I briefly mentioned the controller above but we should get into it: it’s really good. Besides the headset jack (which we’ve seen on previous controllers), the other notable feature is that it supports Bluetooth. That gives the controller better range, Microsoft says. I didn’t notice a huge difference, but then again I’m not often using a games controller from the other room. Bluetooth is more important because it lets you pair this controller directly to a PC without needing an adapter — and so the Xbox Anywhere games that let you play directly on your PC will be easier to play.

The controller is the same “Robot White” as the Xbox One S and there’s a slightly tweaked finish to the plastic to help make it a little grippier. Otherwise it’s the classic Xbox One shape and size you’re already used to — one I still prefer to the PlayStation controller (but not so strongly that I want to start a fight about it in the comments, please).

The Xbox One S scraps nearly everything I hated about the original Xbox. It’s good-looking, reasonably sized, and also reasonably priced. You can still use it as the center of your home entertainment universe if you really want to — there is an IR blaster right on the console if that’s your jam. But it doesn’t feel like Microsoft is trying to force that issue anymore; the Xbox One’s audacious plan to control your cable box is now essentially a buried option for AV junkies who want to try to figure it out.

Instead, the One S is simply a very, very good console that works like a modern streaming and gaming box should: you can stream video from a multitude of apps and play high-quality games. But despite that, I don’t know who should buy it. Every time I try to come to a final conclusion about the One S, I end up in a logic loop:

One: If you already have an Xbox One, I doubt there’s enough here to justify the upgrade. You can probably just hang on to your current big, black box until at least next year because…

Two: Microsoft is releasing another Xbox next year that will be way more powerful. Project Scorpio will support 4K gaming and virtual reality. Whether you have an Xbox One or not, you probably can stand to wait until that comes out.

Three: Let’s say you don’t have an Xbox One (the sales numbers imply you probably don’t). The thing to think about is the reason you’d buy any console: games. How much do you love Halo, Gears of War, and Forza? If your answer is “a lot,” well, it’s obvious you should get this Xbox One S instead of the original, no matter how marked down the old one is. But if you love those games, you probably already have an Xbox, so… go back to step one.

There’s only one thing that breaks this logic loop: this is a console for people who just can’t wait. Maybe you just can’t wait for 4K Blu-ray. Or maybe your new HDR-ready TV won’t feel worthwhile until it’s playing HDR games. Or maybe you just can’t wait to get rid of that ugly black box under your TV.

If you can wait, do. If you can’t, well, I think you’ll be happy with the Xbox One S.

Video and photography by Tyler Pina.

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