Review of the Microsoft Xbox One S Console with 4K Game Upscaling and HDR UHD Video Playback
After a fairly long wait, the Microsoft Xbox One S has finally arrived on sale and while this new revamp of the classic Xbox One is definitely not an entirely new gaming console –for that we’ll have to wait for the Xbox Scorpio in 2017—it’s definitely a beefier, more capable and more compact redesign of the older console we’ve all gotten used to.
Featuring a 40% smaller build, an internal power unit, several new processing power and internal storage enhancements and a whole new level of video playback capacity for 4K ultra HD disc and streaming content, the Xbox One S still lacks the one thing that would really set it apart from its predecessor, 4K UHD gaming chops. For these, it would need a considerable amount more processing boost than what it has come with but nonetheless, even with the new additions given to it, the One S still has plenty to offer would-be buyers, not least of all among its excellent qualities being the fact that this game console is basically the most versatile 4K Blu-ray player on sale now and it even also includes the capacity to playback HDR content of a certain type from ultra HD video sources.
In other words, if you want a heftier version of the Xbox One and are also looking for a Blu-ray player/streaming media set-top box for your Ultra HD TV, than the Xbox one is currently the piece of technology for you. HDTV owners can still get plenty of goodies out of the One S but owners of 4K HDR TVs will definitely be the happiest customers with Microsoft’s newest platform version.
After giving the Xbox One S a run-through, we have little doubt that this console is definitely going to be a product that many gamers and probably also many 4K movie buffs are going to want. It may not be able to handle 4K UHD gaming but the One S does deliver a very robust experience when it comes to HDR gaming at normal resolutions and this definitely counts for a new take on game quality, assuming you have the right kind of display to show off the wider dynamic range and richer colors. As for the 4K content entertainment side of the One S equation, this Xbbox basically functions as a streaming 4K media set-top box and UHD Blu-ray player in one but with a more robust storage capacity, possibly better system user controls and the benefit of HDR playback as well. Best of all, for its specs, it’s quite possibly the 4K Blu-ray player that offers the best value per dollar spent on the current market. For these reasons more than any, plenty of consumers who aren’t even major fans of console gaming might be tempted by the One S and Microsoft has definitely built this console to cater to them as well.
There are three versions of the Xbox One S coming out in total, the first and the one we’re covering here is the priciest 2 terabyte model which retails for a fairly reasonable $399.99. Yes, this is more expensive than the price of the most powerful 1TB Xbox One model on sale, by about $80 but for that you not only get an extra terabyte of internal storage but also all the HDR, 4K content playback and extra processing power goodies that the One S model offers over its older cousin. Thus in other words, while the 2TB One S does indeed cost more than the best Xbox One model and about the same as a couple of the existing 4K Blu-ray player models currently on sale –such as the Samsung UBD K8500, we consider the value it delivers as enough to make its price more than reasonable when compared to the costs of these other products. After all, you’re getting both heavier new gaming chops and a whole 4K Blu-ray player/4K set-top box in one single unit here. This is a definite win.
Moving along, we love the 4K video playback quality of the Xbox One S. While watching movies in 4K HDR from either UHD Blu-ray discs or streaming apps like Netflix isn’t possible on the console right out of the box and first requires a specific update from Microsoft, (which should be available on the console’s release date) once that 4K content capacity is activated and used, especially for HDR UHD Blu-ray discs, the quality of the video is truly stunning. As long as your 4K TV can render display of 4K content with high dynamic range (as long as it’s one of the late 2015 and 2016 HDR TV TVs with Ultra HD Premium or HDR10 standards enabled), then you can enjoy the best of the One S’s content delivery capacity.
This is where using this console with a 4K HDR television sich as one of Samsung’s SUHD TVs or an OLED 4K TV model with HDR instead of a normal HDTV really pays off and the visual result is quite stunning, at least as good as that delivered by any other 4K Blu-ray player we’ve seen and certainly as good as the HDR 4K content delivery of any streaming media set-top box we’ve yet seen. Disc media content from the One S renders particularly well and the HDR content of movies like Star Trek or just about any other 4K BD disc movie you decide to watch will blow you away with the finesse of its colors and richness of its dynamic range. We should also note that, as should be expected since this is a 4K content platform, his new version of the Xbox finally comes with HDMI 2.0a instead of the now badly dated HDMI 1.4t of the Xbox One. It was something badly overdue and now it’s finally here.
Now, while the 4K UHD high dynamic range streaming capacities of the One S are impressive enough, what we really found interesting was the console’s abilities when it comes to handling gaming. First of all, the One S can upscale certain games from Full HD to 4K UHD resolution. This of course isn’t nearly the same as true rendering and play-capacity for games in native 4K resolution but it’s still something that creates a somewhat superior level of sharpness by which certain Full HD games are “stretched” across the screen of a 4K TV and render a sharper level of clarity without losing out too much on performance speed. This was impressive to behold and something we hadn’t actually expected form the new Microsoft console.
Then, aside from the upscaling of Full HD games, there is the Xbox One S’s ability to not only play non-native 4K games in HDR but also to do so at robustly fast frame rates. This is something that at least so far, no other gaming console in the world is capable of doing and the effect created is quite beautiful to behold in a game like The Witcher 3, especially along with the upscaling we mentioned above. However, it should be noted that the HDR enhancement that the One S delivers to games only works if the game in question has been designed to have this as an option. It’s not a feature that this console will give to just any game. The good news however is that more games will start to emerge with HDR programmed into them, especially now that this HDR angle is also coming to all of the next-generation game consoles like the late 2016 PlayStation Neo and the 2017 Xbox Scorpio (which will be a true 4K gaming console ).
Finally, there is the design of the Xbox One S. We love it with very few flaws worth speaking of. First of all, this new console is compact indeed, with a 40% smaller build that definitely works better when it comes to device placement and internal heat removal. However what’s really astonishing about this much smaller new build is the fact that Microsoft not only shrank the Xbox with the One S version but also managed to cram both an internal power supply and a 2TB hard drive into that smaller space. This is quite an achievement indeed and the other smaller design elements like a more compact fan, porous siding for easier heat escape all help the new Xbox model in staying relatively cool despite these compaction factors in its design.
Additionally, the outer build of the One S is something we like. Now there are two physical buttons for the both the power and eject functions of the new One S. These are definitely better than their capacitative touch versions in the older Xbox One, mainly because they’re much more resistant to accidentally activating them while using the console. Furthermore, the new Xbox One S comes with an IR blaster along its front, which allows for wirelessly connecting and then turning on or off other external devices like your 4K TV, AV receiver or satellite box.
Finally, the Xbox One S now comes with the already-mentioned HDMI 2.0a ports and of course also includes the USB 3.0 ports we’d expect for this device. Furthermore, one of the three USB 3.0 ports is now at the front of the console, along the lower part of its face for easier access. The HDMI 2.0a ports and other USB ports are at the back of the console, out of the way but easy to access.
We also want to note that we like the friendlier new physical design of the controller, which is wireless and comes with a sleeker, more streamlined build that includes a textured grip and an updated thumbstick build for reduced wear. The controller also features a Bluetooth radio for connecting it to Windows 10 devices like tablets, PCs and laptops. Microsoft also claims to have enhanced the range of its wireless signal for twice the functional distance that was possible before. A second standalone controller can be bought from the company for $59.99. A bit steep but probably necessary for sharing the One S with friends.
On the other hand, the Xbox One S isn’t perfect, though one of the possible main problems that could derail this console lies not so much in its design but in external circumstances which could derail the console. We’ll get back to that in a moment though.
First, physically, one of the main defects in the One S is the lack of a built-in Kinect port for the console. This is something of an odd little exclusion in this new version and we’re not quite sure why Microsoft decided to forego the feature from it earlier model. Users who want to still use the Kinect can of course do so but they will have to go through the hassle of picking up a USB adapter from Microsoft itself. However, according to what the company told us, it will provide this device for free to anyone who wants it from their website at this page.
Next, we once again need to underscore that while the Xbox One S definitely brings some decent software and hardware additions to the table when compared to its predecessor, it’s not quite the major update from the old Xbox One that we’d have liked to see. The 4K video playback, HDR support for both 4K content and even some games and the capacity to upscale 1080p games to 4K-like resolution are all great but this is by no means any sort of true 4K gaming console. We’d like that clear as a bell. The One S offers performance and video processing specs which are well below those of any real 4K UHD PC gaming GPU on the market today and quite frankly, even if this console’s GPU were to be compared to something like AMD’s Radeon RX 480 card which recently came out, it would still fall short on graphics processing chops, and bear in mind that the RX 480 isn’t even a full 4K-capable GPU. Instead it’s more of a 1440p gaming card, much like Nvidia's GTX 1070 but with a bit less power. Thus you can imagine how distant from true 4K console gaming the Xbox One S still remains.
This of course brings us to the external circumstances which are also possibly problematic for this particular console model. Basically, Microsoft is releasing the One S as a sort of stepping-stone mode to their much bigger and more “revolutionary” Xbox Scorpio console which will be emerging in “Holiday 2017” (according to Microsoft). The Scorpio is the platform which Microsoft promises will offer true native 4K console gameplay and some massively enhanced processing power. Thus, the question of course is, is it even worth buying the Xbox One S maybe a year or so before it becomes obsolete anyhow? This is something we can’t decide for anyone. Gamers might just decide to wait and go for the bigger, badder console that the Scorpio will be but 4K movie fans who want some decent gaming capacity as a bonus might just decide that the Xbox One S is a fine purchase if they were already considering a 4K Blu-ray player anyhow.
Quite frankly, we really like the Xbox One S. It may not be the true native 4K TV gaming console a lot of people are probably waiting for but it still has plenty to offer and at a very reasonable price. Its 4K HDR content playback capacities, upscaling of 1080p games and ability to play certain games in HDR are excellent features and the new design is a real and impressively compact winner. If you want 4K home entertainment with the ability to play HD games in a new way, then the Xbox One is is a solid choice.
• Storage: 2 terabytes
• Supported Resolutions: 4K UHD for streaming and media sources, upscaled 1080p for games
• Connectivity: 2x HDMI 2.0a ports, 3x USB 3.0 ports, Bluetooth, IR Blaster
• Other features: internal power unit, 40% smaller design, wireless controller with headphone jack
• HDR support: Yes (HDR10)
• Audio Support: Yes
• Streaming media apps: Yes, Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant video
• Price: $399.99 (2TB version)
The Xbox One S is a strong performer within the scope of its limitations. This is something we have to accept and state for the record. There are likely going to be gamers who will complain about this console’s lack of true 4K gaming support, especially since it’s the “next step-up” from the Xbox One and maybe their complaints are valid in this era of growing 4K gaming support for PCs and GPUs but we think the console deserves more credit than that. Microsoft is already promising a real 4K gaming platform and their intention with the One S wasn’t this. So this particular Xbox has to be judged by a slightly different standard. If this is done, it excels.
The console’s performance when it comes to delivery of 4K ultra HD content is nothing less than excellent. As we’ve already said, it’s streaming functionality and playback of hard media 4K movies from a UHD Blu-ray disc (Star Trek being the movie we tested since it was included with our test model) is downright superb and the HDR support for this platform works as well as anything we’ve seen in any other HDR-enabled hard media player to date. The same applies for streamed 4K movies from Netflix. They look great in SDR and video quality becomes markedly more superb when the few HDR 4K titles which Netflix offers are played back through the One S. It’s HDMI 2.0a ports also ensure that 4K ultra HD content not only flows smoothly at 60Hz or frames per second but also with HDR (at least of the HDR10 type) working smoothly as long as you use a 4K TV with high dynamic range with the Xbox One S.
When it comes to gaming support, the console’s improved processor (CPU) and graphics card (GPU) functionality definitely show for high level Full HD games and if you can find yourself a game which is programmed to render high dynamic range, the Xbox One S won’t disappoint. As for the 4K upscaling of Full HD games. No, it’s not quite as smooth and sharp as native 4K would be from an Ultra HD-capable GPU like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 and a 4K TV or PC monitor but the upscaling capacity of the One S definitely takes HD game graphics to a visibly better level than their presentation in the older HD Xbox One.
As for gaming smoothness, for Full HD gaming, it’s excellent and even when the upscaling and HDR functions are activated for select high-intensity games, the frames flow by at a reasonably good to excellent speed.
Finally, using the redesigned controller is a real pleasure. It’s easier to manipulate, its enhanced wireless functionality is a definite plus in some circumstances and we like the inclusion of both Bluetooth in the controller itself and the IR blaster in the console body. Both will definitely have their moments of usefulness.
Quite simply, the Microsoft Xbox One S is not capable of gaming at real native 4K resolution. It can handle upscaled 1080p games smoothly and even the inclusion of HDR rendering in games which support the format works remarkably well but native 4K is still the domain of 4K PC gaming with the latest and best performance GPUs from Nvidia or AMD. We'll have to wait for the Xbox Scorpio for real 4K gaming, or earlier than that, the Sony PlayStation Neo 4K gaming console, though we have our doubts about the Neo's 4K gameplay abilities .
The Xbox One S 2TB model we’ ve reviewed here retails on Amazon.com for $399.99. It comes with one wireless controller and a second unit can be bought separately for the somewhat hefty price of $59.99. There is no native Kinect port but Microsoft is offering it for free from their website, which we linked to above, so getting it will only cost a bit of time if Kinect is something you’re still into. The 500gb version is selling for $299.
• Excellent design
• New controller is more user friendly
• 4K video playback
• Streaming from Netflix, Amazon
• HDR gaming and video support
• 4K upscaling of 1080p games
• Not a real 4K gaming console at all
• No Kinect port built-in
• Only comes with one controller
• Overshadowed by Microsoft Scorpio