It’s not because it’s a sleeker take on the original bulky hardware – slimline consoles are nothing new, after all. Sega tweaked both the Master System and the Mega Drive, Sony offered at least one redesigned version of each PlayStation, and Microsoft itself introduced a svelte Xbox 360 previously.
Rather, it’s the marginal power boost and hardware improvements that the Xbox One S enjoys over its predecessor that make it a strange beast. Now capable of supporting Ultra HD 4K video with High Dynamic Range colour, upscaling 1080p games, and with marginal CPU and GPU upgrades that potentially improve frame rates on more demanding games, the console straddles the line between discrete hardware generations.
More baffling is that this comes scarcely before the even more powerful “Project Scorpio” arrives at the end of 2017, which boasts 4K gaming and virtual reality support while still not quite being the next Xbox. Is the Xbox One S just a stopgap measure, then?
Ultimately, it feels like it – but it’s a very, very nice stopgap. The Xbox One S is significantly smaller than its predecessor, 40% so in fact, and that’s despite integrating the once hefty power supply into the console’s innards. Everything feels neat and streamlined as a result, only requiring a power cord and HDMI cable to hook it up.
With perfect angles and its stark white aesthetic, it looks far more impressive in a home entertainment centre, without the overbearing loom of its sizable older brother. It still allows HDMI-In, for those who use their Xbox as their TV hub, though it drops built-in support for Kinect. An adaptor can be purchased, but the lack of a port suggests the end days for the motion-sensing peripheral.
Small changes to the console itself improve the overall design too. The power and eject buttons are now physical rather than capacitive, while USB ports and the controller sync button have sensibly been moved to the front of the machine. Microsoft has also made it possible to orient the One S vertically – supposedly in response to consumer demand, though it looks far better horizontal.
In use with a 4K TV, the video output is indeed superb. Ultra-HD Blu-rays look exquisite, as does UHD streaming content from the likes of Netflix, instantly positioning the Xbox One S as possibly the best option for a 4K player. Upscaling of games is harder to gauge, but the likes of Forza Motorsport 5 and Halo 5 look amazing, the former occasionally seeming photo-real. Older Xbox 360 games available via backwards compatibility don’t enjoy quite the same benefits, and regular DVDs suffer from being a standard definition format to begin with.
It’s also worth nothing that the controller, now with a micro-grip texture etched into its undersides, feels a lot more comfortable over long gaming sessions. The joypad can be more easily synced to Windows 10 PCs, too – a nice touch given Microsoft’s push for cross-compatible games.
Altogether, it’s probably not worth existing Xbox One owners upgrading, unless they’re in the market for a 4K video box or in need of physically downsizing on the original model. For newcomers though, the Xbox One S is currently the best iteration of Microsoft’s hardware you can buy, and a beautiful piece of kit.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010