The Xbox One S can't match the Xbox One X for power, but for price and style it's hard to top
If you’re a fan of video games, you’ll know that both Microsoft and Sony have shaken up the console market recently. Sony has released the PS4 Pro, a supercharged 4K-ready version of the original PlayStation 4, Microsoft has released the Xbox One X (formerly known as Project Scorpio) – the most powerful console ever made.
However, the best console to buy in 2018 might be a little bit older: I’m talking about the Xbox One S.
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Xbox One S review: What you need to know
As its S suffix implies, The Xbox One S is a slimline version of the current Xbox One, albeit with a few added extras. An astonishing 40% smaller overall, the Xbox One S is positively tiny compared to its hulking forebear. It’s a gorgeous bit of modern console design, and I actually greatly prefer its white angular chassis to the rather more rounded layer cake design of Sony’s PS4 Slim.
It’s also pretty attractive compared to Sony’s PS4 Pro, and not just in terms of its looks. In a rather surprising move from Sony, neither of its new consoles come with a 4K Blu-ray drive, making them incompatible with UHD Blu-rays. The Xbox One S, however, does come with a 4K Blu-ray drive, giving it a unique advantage over its PlayStation rivals. I’ll explain more about what this means and how it works below, but right now it’s pretty safe to say that if you’re thinking about upgrading your film library, the Xbox One S is definitely the cheapest console for the job at the moment. It’s also pretty attractive compared to Sony’s PS4 Pro, and not just in terms of its looks.
Xbox One S design, controller and ports
Getting back to the Xbox One S’s design for a moment, though, you’ll be pleased to hear that it rectifies many of the issues I had with the original Xbox One. The physical power button, for instance, is no longer touch-sensitive, so you’ll never accidentally turn it off while you’re dusting, and there’s now a USB port on the front of the console rather than the side, making it easier to plug in your controller when you want to charge it.
Likewise, its controller now supports Bluetooth, making it extremely easy to pair it with your PC or laptop – including Microsoft’s own Surface devices such as the Surface Pro and Surface Book 2 – so you can game on the go or take advantage of Microsoft’s cross-buy Xbox Play Anywhere initiative.
Not all digital games support this, but compatible titles will give you both an Xbox One and Windows 10 PC version of the game at no extra cost, allowing you to pick up your save on either format without having to buy the game twice.
The controller also has a new textured grip on the rear. It’s pretty subtle, but it does feel nicer to hold in your hand compared to the smooth plastic of Microsoft’s standard Xbox One controller. The good news is that these controllers are available to buy separately as well, so you don’t necessarily have to buy an entire console just to benefit from these couple of small tweaks.
Round the back, you’ll find almost the same number of ports, including HDMI input and outputs, a pair of USB ports, an optical S/PDIF out, Ethernet port and an infrared output. The only thing missing is the port for Kinect, which has been ditched here to help streamline the console’s overall dimensions. You can still use Kinect with the Xbox One S, but you’ll need to buy a separate USB adapter (although, Microsoft has stopped manufacturing them). There’s also a standard figure of eight power connector, signifying the fact that Microsoft has finally moved the power supply inside the main chassis, negating the need for that pesky power brick.
Xbox One S review: Noise and power consumption
It still kicks up a fair amount of noise during those quieter moments of operation – when you’re browsing the menus or searching for apps, for instance – but once you’ve got a game or film going, you’d be pretty hard-pushed to hear it. Indeed, our Dr Meter Sound Level Meter recorded the Xbox One S at between 44dB and 47dB up close when it was playing a Blu-ray disc (with the background office aircon hum at 41dB), which is around the same as the original Xbox One.
One thing the Xbox One S does improve on is power consumption. When sitting idle on the menu screen the Xbox One S drew only 30W of power from the mains, which barely changed when I put in a Blu-ray disc. The original Xbox One, however, drew 46W of power on the menu screen and up to 55W when playing a Blu-ray, so the Xbox One S should be slightly less expensive to run over the course of a year.
Xbox One S review: 4K Blu-ray drive
However, the Xbox One S is much more than just a streamlined Xbox One. It also has a 4K Blu-ray drive packed into it as well as high dynamic range (HDR) support. With HDR-enabled content, the colour gamut becomes considerably wider than your standard sRGB palette, showing brilliant whites, blacker blacks and a whole lot more colour content in between. This translates into brighter, more vibrant images and a more detailed picture overall, as highlights are less prone to clipping around very bright objects like sun flares, for example, and darker scenes will have a much smoother shadow gradient.
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Of course, it goes without saying that you’ll also need a 4K TV to take full advantage of the Xbox One S (see our roundup of the best TVs for gaming if you’re thinking of buying one) and preferably one that supports HDR. However, bear in mind that this doesn’t mean it will play Xbox One games in 4K. I repeat, it WILL NOT play games in 4K: you’ll need the pricier Xbox One X for that. Instead, it outputs games at their original resolution, leaving your TV to do the extra legwork of upscaling them to match its 4K resolution – much like it does with standard TV content.
The 4K Blu-ray drive is a real win for Microsoft, as neither Sony’s PS4 Slim or even the PS4 Pro has one built in. This means only the Xbox One S and Xbox One X are capable of playing UHD Blu-rays, and it seems absolutely mad that Sony has overlooked this – especially as both the PS2 and PS3 were the first consoles of their kind to come with a DVD and Blu-ray drive respectively. Of course, Sony’s new consoles still support HDR, so games on the Slim will still look largely the same as its Xbox One S counterparts.
Xbox One S review: What about the Xbox One X?
The Xbox One S might not output games in 4K, but that’s not to say Microsoft hasn’t already got this covered. Yes, there’s a beefed-up Xbox One alternative on offer, and the Xbox One X supports proper native 4K gaming, at playable framerates, too.
With this new, all-powerful console you might (rightly) be wondering why you should even consider buying an Xbox One S at all. After all, if the X can do everything the Xbox One S does and more, why spend your money when it is, to all intents and purposes, superseded by something bigger and better?
It’s a good job then, that there’s a (relatively) easy answer to that question. As it stands, Microsoft’s 4K-capable console, while impressive, isn’t worth the money as much as the One S. With it currently circling the £450-£500 mark, it’s a pricey machine, and the One S doesn’t offer much less for almost half the price.
The One S is compatible with all the same titles as the One X and is a capable console in its own right. Even though it can “only” play games in 1080p, it has support for HDR gaming with some enhanced titles and there’s still a 4K Blu-ray drive built in, so you can at least watch your favourite movies in ultra-high definition. Being able to play games in 4K isn’t worth the extra price jump.
Regardless, the Xbox One S is instantly preferable to the existing Xbox One, and its 4K Blu-ray and HDR capabilities provide a handy bit of future-proofing for when you do eventually decide to upgrade your TV. Its HDR support isn’t just limited to films and streamed TV shows, either. It will also play games in HDR if they support it.
Xbox One S review: HDR
I tested the console’s HDR using our Ultra HD Blu-ray disc of The Lego Movie while it was hooked up to our Samsung UE55KS9000 test TV. Admittedly, the Xbox One S isn’t currently certified to receive the same UHD Premium badge as Samsung’s UBD-K8500 player. This requires a Blu-ray player to be able to read every last shred of information on an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc.
Even without the UHD Premium badge, though, the Xbox One S produced some staggeringly good results. This is thanks in no small part to the TV, of course, but sunbeams, glowing Lego bricks and spotlight torches really stood out against darker objects onscreen. Likewise, the sheer intensity of the colours made them almost appear 3D. It’s a definite improvement compared to standard Blu-ray content.
Xbox One S review: Picture settings
The Xbox One S also has a surprisingly useful display calibration guide available in its display settings to help you get the best picture, which is more than can be said of other Blu-ray players. They’re no different to the calibration tools on the regular Xbox One, but it’s still nice to see them included, as most Blu-ray players often only give you very basic brightness and contrast controls, if that.
It can’t replace proper calibration equipment, but it nevertheless provides a useful guide for those less certain about how to use their TV’s picture settings. For instance, it will recommend what mode you should set your TV to, and which settings to turn on or off (such as dynamic contrast, edge enhancement and motion lighting), and you’re also shown how to correctly adjust the aspect ratio and sharpness levels, in case your TV is overscanning the current picture. Next you’re presented with full brightness and contrast test patterns to help get your TV looking just right, and finally, there’s a basic RGB filter mode.
Xbox One S review: Apps and 4K streaming
The Xbox One S is a great option for 4K streaming as well, and there are apps galore just waiting to be downloaded from the Xbox One Store. These include Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube, all of which have 4K support, and you can also download apps from the likes of BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, Demand 5, Now TV and TV From Sky, giving you more streaming and catch-up options than even most modern Smart
TVs. As such, the Xbox One S provides a great way to turn an ageing ‘dumb’ TV into a modern, up-to-date entertainment system, although you’ll also need all the necessary extra subscriptions to make the most of it.
Xbox One S review: Games
Of course, a big part of buying a games console is whether you actually want to play any of the games available for that particular machine. At the moment, Microsoft and Sony’s game output is pretty similar, with neither console having many big, must-have exclusives.
The PS4 has God of War, Bloodborne, No Man’s Sky, Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Last Guardian, but most other popular titles, such as DOOM, The Witcher III, Dark Souls III, Overwatch, Far Cry 5, Hitman and the Assassin’s Creed franchise, for instance, are all multi-platform.
What’s more, Microsoft has released a big crop of exclusive titles, such as ReCore, Forza Horizon 3 and Sea of Thieves, with Gears of War 5, Scalebound and Crackdown 3 launching in the coming months. And, of course, as an Xbox owner, you’re never far away from the next Halo. If those sorts of games sound right up your alley, then the Xbox One S could well be a better choice than Sony’s PS4.
Xbox One S review: Verdict
Okay, I’ll say it. Microsoft’s Xbox One S is the best games console to date. It’s remarkably well-priced for what you get and offers the same eye-widening features as its pricier Xbox One X alternative, bar a lack of 4K gaming.
The console itself is gorgeous and its 4K Blu-ray drive makes it a tempting proposition for those thinking about making the jump to Ultra HD Blu-ray, but ultimately a large part of its appeal comes down to whether you want to play the games currently available for it.
If you’re not sure which side of the console fence you sit on, I’d recommend taking a look at the current best Xbox One games and best PS4 games lists to help you make up your mind. After all, Sony’s PS4 Slim is just as good, despite the lack of a proper 4K Blu ray player.