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Microsoft Xbox One S review: Xbox One S is the best Xbox you might not want to buy

The Xbox One S delivers a more streamlined Microsoft gaming experience, along with some nice new video features on 4K TVs. But should existing Xbox One owners buy it?

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
9 min read

Update 8/4/16: Several spec teardown reports have uncovered slight difference in the graphical hardware performance of Xbox One S. Specifically, Xbox One S has a small GPU clock increase of 914 MHz from 853 MHz and an ESRAM bandwidth increase of 219 GB/s from 204 GB/s. These bumps are only noticeable in-game in a small number of situations. In fact, they exist only as an bonus side effect of Microsoft ensuring HDR content performs without a hitch.


Microsoft Xbox One S

The Good

The Xbox One S is a slick looking game console that's 40 percent smaller than the original and ditches the infamously gigantic power brick. It can display 4K video from streaming services and Ultra HD Blu-rays, and supports HDR contrast on video and games. The updated controller works with other Bluetooth devices, too.

The Bad

4K, Ultra HD Blu-ray and HDR settings only work with newer TVs, and may require some trial and error. The updated controller feels cheaper than its predecessor. Project Scorpio, the more powerful Xbox One successor, arrives in late 2017.

The Bottom Line

The Xbox One S is the console Microsoft should have delivered three years ago, but there's little reason to upgrade if you already own the original box.

This is more like it.

The Xbox One S is the version of the console that Microsoft should've first released back in 2013 instead of the lumbering beast that we got. It's better in a number of ways, making it even more of a worthy alternative to Sony's PlayStation 4.

Xbox One S offers a far more attractive enclosure, options for a bigger hard drive, a slightly redesigned controller and some video perks for owners of 4K TVs. It starts at $300, £250 or AU$400 for the 500GB version; $350, £300 or AU$500 for a 1TB model; and $400, £350 or AU$549 for 2TB.

That last model is available to buy as of today in the US (and includes the vertical stand that otherwise costs $20 when purchased separately in the US), while those with the smaller hard drives will be available later in August, bundled with games such as Madden 17 and Halo. (Additional bundles will follow later in the year -- including a pricier 2TB Gears of War 4 version in October -- and may vary by region.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sounds like a slam dunk, right? Unfortunately, it's never that simple. The One S doesn't get an across-the-board "buy it now" recommendation for two reasons. First off, it doesn't deliver huge improvements for anyone who already owns an Xbox One. But more importantly, Microsoft has already promised that the next Xbox -- dubbed Project Scorpio -- will be arriving in late 2017 with with the seriously amped-up graphics and VR-ready hardware that audiences are clamoring for.

When it's all said and done, the Xbox One S should be primarily viewed as a slimmed-down version of the Xbox One that introduces a mildly updated controller and provisions for 4K display. It's not going to warp you into a state-of-the-art gaming experience. Pragmatically, you're probably better off nabbing an older Xbox One, which are now being sold at fire-sale prices. But if you are getting an Xbox One for the first time, have an interest in the bundled games and aren't saving your pennies for 2017's Project Scorpio, the One S is certainly a good all-round gaming and entertainment deal.

What's new in the Xbox One S

There's a short but significant list of improvements and changes to the Xbox One S.

Smaller, cleaner design: To start, it's 40 percent smaller, which considering its power supply is now internal, is impressive. It's also stark white, with some slick plastic moldings flanking the entirety of the box. I think it's the best-looking Xbox Microsoft has ever designed.

The One S can also stand vertically, too. The 2TB model we received for review packs in a stand. If you buy one of the other models, you can get the stand separately for $20.

Sarah Tew/CNET

4K and HDR video: Xbox One S gets a fairly beefy upgrade on its video capabilities, with 4K resolution (3,840x2,160, or four times as sharp as standard 1080p HDTVs) and HDR (high dynamic range, which is basically enhanced contrast and color). Keep in mind: those features only work on compatible TVs and 4K functionality only works with a small but growing list of compatible video content. 4K can currently be accessed through streaming video services such as Amazon and Netflix (as long as you have the bandwidth to support it and pay for their premium tier) and those new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. Certain games, meanwhile, will eventually be able to take advantage of HDR visual improvements, but don't look for PC-like 4K graphics -- the games are merely upscaled to 4K.

So no, you're not getting native 4K gaming out of an Xbox One S. In fact, only a limited number of games will feature HDR and none of them are out yet. They are Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3 and 2017's Scalebound.

New controller design: The Xbox One controller has been updated for the S, too. It has a more streamlined top section, better range and textured grips. It can also use Bluetooth to connect, which opens the door for compatibility with other devices -- no more annoying dongles, at least on Bluetooth-compatible PCs.


The One S controller (right), compared with its predecessor.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unfortunately, I'm not a fan of the new controller's design. It's not a drastic departure from the original, but there's just enough of a change to make it feel cheaper. The plastic textured grips don't feel good the way rubberized ones do, but thankfully the triggers seem unchanged. The D-pad also feels slightly less tactile -- I even noticed differences between two of the new controllers side by side.

IR blaster and receiver: Still present is the IR port for controlling the console with a remote, but the Xbox One S also features an integrated IR blaster to control or power on other devices in the room.

Sarah Tew/CNET

And it still does everything the old Xbox One does: The good news is that you're not losing anything with the Xbox One S compared with its predecessor. Around back the console offers a lot of the same ports as the original Xbox One, though noticeably absent is a dedicated Kinect port. You can still attach Kinect to the Xbox One S, you'll just need a special $40 (!) adapter. Either way, the omission of a Kinect port should give you an idea of how that peripheral is regarded at Microsoft HQ.

HDMI-in and -out ports are still there, so you can still make use of the Xbox One's live TV integration if that's something that appeals to you, but I never found it overly useful.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Suffice it to say, the One S plays all existing Xbox One games, and a growing list of Xbox 360 games. It also includes all of the encouraging software improvements Microsoft has made over the past few years, including the redesigned interface, support for the Cortana digital assistant (using a microphone headset), compatibility with the Windows Store and, soon, additional cross-play options with Windows PC gamers on certain titles.

4K and HDR scorecard

I want to personally thank the Xbox One S for introducing me to the hot mess that is the world of 4K and HDR formats. I considered myself fairly fluent in the language of home theater, but I was bewildered at the insane of amount of granularity and confusion that the format is currently plagued with.

Odds are you won't be able set up in 4K right out of the box. I needed to download two separate updates for the Xbox One S to finally realize it was attached to a 4K TV, at which point it offered to bump up the resolution output to 4K.

I hooked the console up to four different TVs and had mixed results with each, so I tapped CNET's David Katzmaier to help me test out the rest of the Xbox One S' 4K and HDR capabilities.


What we learned is that getting all of these finicky display technologies to work together in sync will require some trial and error -- and patience.

Our major issue was getting our TVs to recognize HDR. The problem (which isn't solely the Xbox One S' fault) is that some TVs with HDR require a specific "UHD" or "deep color" setting to be turned on in order for HDR to work. These modes usually turn a TV's brightness all the way up and activate automatically when HDR content is detected. But none of our TVs detected the Ultra HD Blu-ray HDR signal that was being output by our "Star Trek" Blu-ray.

It wasn't until we forced the Xbox One S to output a higher bit depth (10-bit up from the console's default setting of 8-bit) did we get a clean HDR signal. Furthermore, we had issues maintaining a video signal altogether when our TV was in that special "UHD/deep color" setting for HDR but the Xbox One S was outputting a signal lower than 10-bit.

Sound confusing? That's because it was. And this was with the help of one of the best TV reviewers on the planet. It's possible your setup goes smoother, but there are definitely a lot of variables and boxes to check when entering the world of 4K, Ultra HD and HDR to make sure it all works correctly.


There's a really helpful 4K detail screen in the system display settings that gives you a heads up of which requirements for 4K, HDR and so on are currently being met. Definitely check that out.

Tragically, all of this time-consuming troubleshooting to get HDR to switch on isn't always worth it. In fact, it's sometimes nearly impossible to tell just by looking at the image onscreen. We tried. The takeaway? 4K and HDR are nice novelties, but I'm not sure even the most discerning eyes can always tell the difference. And because only a fraction of games will even support HDR (the aforementioned trio of Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3 and Scalebound), it makes upgrading a tough sell. Not to mention the fact that all the games you'll ever play on Xbox One S won't be in true native 4K resolution -- they'll just be upscaled to fit.

That said, there are plenty of 4K Blu-rays out there, and Netflix can stream some content in 4K (as long as you pay for its Premium tier). If you are in the specific position of owning a 4K TV and are looking for an Xbox One, the S is what you should be buying.

It's worth noting that the Xbox One S doesn't handle the higher-end audio options out there such as Dolby Atmos. The most you'll get out of the console is a seven-channel surround signal.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Looking forward to Project Scorpio

Microsoft's messaging about its console offerings can get confusing. It's best to think of the Xbox One and One S as their own tier. In terms of graphical horsepower, they're equal. The next jump in visuals and performance will come along with Project Scorpio, which is being targeted for the 2017 holiday season.

Details on that machine are scant at best, but it's safe to say it will significantly outperform the Xbox One and One S, the PlayStation 4 and -- if we're going on rumored specs -- the PlayStation 4 step-up console, the PS4 Neo.

This will usher in a sizable upgrade in all aspects of gaming with native 4K resolution output and HDR support. And Microsoft has already pledged that Scorpio will be "VR ready," presumably for a forthcoming virtual-reality headset.

The current messaging as to how games will work across Xbox One platforms seems simple enough. Any Xbox One (be it a standard, S or Project Scorpio) will be able to play any Xbox One game, though the Scorpio will be able to take advantage of better graphics, performance, frame rate and resolution. This seems to mostly fall in line with the PS4 Neo plan as well.

If we're just comparing raw specs, Project Scorpio's rumored details still fall short of what an Nvidia GTX 1080 graphics card is capable of.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Decisions, decisions

Under most circumstances, no, you don't need to buy an Xbox One S. If you already own an Xbox One or even plan to wait for whatever Project Scorpio winds up being, it's tough to rationalize a purchase.

If you're looking to enter the Xbox One space and you don't feel like waiting a year or more for Project Scorpio, an Xbox One S might be the right purchase for you as long as you have or plan to get a 4K TV.

If a 4K TV isn't in your future, you may want to look at the original Xbox One. It's already as low as $250, £250 or AU$500 and it's entirely possible Microsoft will drive the price even lower if it's looking to sunset the model and clear out remaining inventory.

Section Editor David Katzmaier contributed to this review.

Update 8/4/16: Several spec teardown reports have uncovered slight difference in the graphical hardware performance of Xbox One S. Specifically, Xbox One S has a small GPU clock increase of 914 MHz from 853 MHz and an ESRAM bandwidth increase of 219 GB/s from 204 GB/s. These bumps are only noticeable in-game in a small number of situations. In fact, they exist only as an bonus side effect of Microsoft ensuring HDR content performs without a hitch.


Microsoft Xbox One S

Score Breakdown

Design 9Ecosystem 8Features 9Performance 7Value 8