There were very few complaints when the original Xbox One was announced, and it failed to handle 4K. In 2013 nobody really cared about HD’s successor. Not unless they’d spent thousands of dollars on one of the few 4K TV sets available at the time. Yes, the best consoles have a habit of being future-proof (see the PS2 playing DVDs and the PS3 playing Blu-ray), but in 2013, 4K seemed too far in the future for anyone to care.
Three years later the TV landscape has radically changed, and Microsoft, which has made no bones about its desire to be at the heart of your living room, has been forced to change with it. So its new console, the Xbox One S, plays nicely with 4K. Additionally, it’s compatible with the rapidly-emerging HDR10 standard. And finally, it can play the brand new Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. It’s so future-proof, in fact, that most current TVs won’t be able to take advantage of its best features yet. The Xbox One S is the forward-thinking gaming console/set-top box Microsoft I wish Microsoft has released in the fall of 2013. Though to be fair to Microsoft, Ultra HD wasn’t officially a standard until earlier this year and HDR10 wasn’t even announced until late last year. But 4K could have been baked-in from the get go, which even if it would have increased the price wouldn’t have required an upgrade now..
This is the earliest that this form of an Xbox One could be coming into our homes, but that doesn’t mitigate the sting if you’re one of the 19 million owners of the current Xbox One. You’re still going to be a little peeved by this mid-cycle update. In previous console generations you just needed one console. You held onto your Xbox until the Xbox 360 was available, or your Gamecube until the Wii dropped in stores. Outside of the PS2 Slim and Xbox 360 Slim there weren’t really a lot of variants available—not at least that most gamers would feel justified upgrading to.
The Xbox One S heralds a new age of gaming consoles in which upgrading every few years becomes increasingly necessary—and that’s not entirely a good thing. The Xbox One S isn’t just a smaller version of the Xbox One. It’s got some major upgrades that, from every angle, make it a better buy, which means the early adopters will feel screwed. Worse, Microsoft has already announced that a super-powered Xbox One, tantalizingly codenamed Project Scorpio, is coming next year. That makes the $300-400 price tag of the Xbox One S (depending on hard drive size) a lot more difficult to stomach.
Again, it’s a shame, because outside of the jacked up release cycle Microsoft has settled upon, the Xbox One S is a damn fine machine.
It’s 4K-ready, though, it’s not the first 4K-ready console. That honor goes to the very tiny, $200 Nvidia Shield. But the Shield is only good for Android gaming, and streaming from a PC. If you want a traditional console experience, that doesn’t require a beefy computer chugging away in the other room, then the Xbox One S is the first console for you. Sunset Overdrive and Red Dead Redemption have never looked prettier than on the Xbox One S—and there is a noticeable improvement over the same games played on a UHD television set compared to a Xbox One. The box, with its own upgraded internals, is doing some serious upscaling under the hood that makes everything sharper and does a nice job eradicating upscale fuzz.
If you want games that take full advantage of the One S you’ll need to wait until late September when Forza 3 drops. Or October, when Gears of War 4 hits. For now the Xbox One S’s improvements over the original are best exemplified in another realms of the entertainment space. Namely, this is the best dang set-top box money can buy.
Okay, maybe not the best. The Roku 4, which costs only $120, is easier to navigate, and it does some solid 4K output, but it doesn’t do UltraHD—which is 4K plus the beauty of HDR, a relatively new tech that reveals all the details usually lost in really dark and really bright scenes while expanding the number of colors you can see on screen. If you want a set-top box that can handle the very best-quality streams from Amazon and Netflix and deliver them to the best TVs then the Xbox One S is the only choice available to you. It does it nicely—or will do it. HDR is only available on Netflix currently, with an update planned for Amazon later this month.
The Roku 4 is lacking something else the Xbox One S is wisely outfitted with in UltraHD Blu-ray playback. The next generation Blu-ray is so damn new there’s only a handful of movies available—but the jump in quality, particularly on a 4K set, is too good to ignore. For serious move buffs, this is going to be the standard in the near future.
I queued up Star Trek on both the Xbox and Xbox One S, the former with a standard Blu-ray and the latter with the Ultra HD Blu-ray, and the difference reminded me of when my glasses get dirty, and I finally clean them. T I could see where makeup had shaped Zachary Quinto’s voluminous eyebrows, and thanks to HDR, the lens flares, which are usually obnoxious, were muted in UltraHD—details previously hidden just peeking through the harsh glare. It was almost enough to get me to finish watching that abomination of a film.
Unfortunately, no spectacular jump in visual quality can polish that turd.
If you look at what it would cost to get all of the new amenities from other gadgets, the new Xbox One’s price starts to look damn reasonable. It’s a $250 original Xbox One, plus a $120 Roku 4 plus a $320-$700 UltraHD Blu-Ray player. That’s a minimum $690 worth of very nice hardware packed into a relatively small box. It’s almost—practically—a steal. What makes it a Nice Buy rather than a Must Buy is the looming Project Scorpio upgrade that will be here next year, complete with 4K, and HDR, and VR and almost certainly with some other random combination of letters and numbers that mean something.
And Project Scorpio, by necessity, will be better than the Xbox One S. Which was better than the three-year-old Xbox One. The improvements in this new console are fantastic, but what’s the point of dropping $300 on an incremental update when a completely new machine is just around the corner? The Xbox One S is great, but it’d be nicer if this wasn’t a stopgap wonder console intended to hold us over. If you’ve got the time, money, and urgent desire for UHD now, then pick it up. Otherwise it’s probably better to hang onto your cash and wait for Project Scorpio to arrive late next year.
- Plays games real good
- Plays movies real good
- Does it all in UltraHD, which is 4K plus HDR (specifically HDR10)
- The perfect 4K set-top box...at least until Project Scorpio or the Playstation Neo wows us all
- Updated controller is very pleasant to hold
- Updates could come to improve audio for audio nerds that know what bitstreaming means