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

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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.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Ecosystem 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 7
  • Value 8

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.

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.

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