Photo: Microsoft

Back at E3, Microsoft announced that, after just three years of the console being on the market, two new versions of the Xbox One were already on the way. We’ve yet to hear more about Project Scorpio, which will feature a big technological upgrade over the original when it launches next fall, but the more modest update, known as the Xbox One S, is already in the wild. Microsoft sent one our way—specifically, the $300 bundle that comes with Battlefield 1—and I’ve spent the last few weeks toying with it on the fancy pants 4K-HDR TV I bought myself, after finally giving up on the hunk of junk that had been my stalwart screen for the last 10 years. Usually, we don’t dive too far into the techy aspects of gaming, but with multiple versions of both major consoles set to be on store shelves in time for the holidays, it seems appropriate to take stock of this unprecedented console landscape in which we suddenly find ourselves—and in which Microsoft’s new box is already threatening to become lost.

The biggest, most astonishing difference between the One S and the original is the size of it. Our own John Teti once described the old Xbox One as “a linebacker in ballet shoes,” a hulking monstrosity of a console that looked especially ridiculous given the sleek design of its direct competition. The S, while a bit bigger than the standard PlayStation 4 and its new “slim” variation, is every bit as elegant as Sony’s machines. It builds on its big brother’s use of lines and asymmetry for a look that’s way more attractive than the original’s glossy, modern VCR chassis. There are plenty of other little changes that improve on some of the more boneheaded Xbox One design decisions—there’s no giant power brick that hangs off the back; the front of the system now includes a USB port and a button for syncing controllers; and there’s an actual power button to push, instead of a touch sensor to accidentally set off when you’re dusting. Those might sound like silly changes to tout, but anyone who’s owned an original Xbox One knows exactly how annoying they were in the last iteration.

Photo: Microsoft

What’s different under the hood? For most people, not much. Unless you’ve taken the plunge on an “ultra high-definition” TV—the screens of which are twice the resolution of a standard 1080p HD set—the only tangible upside of the One S is its tiny body. This isn’t an upgrade so much as it is a great, much-needed replacement for the Xbox One’s clunky launch model, and it has the benefit of being relatively future-proof if you decide to upgrade your TV in the near future.

If you have sprung for a new display, there are benefits to using an Xbox One S, but those come with some caveats as well. It packs a 4K Blu-ray player that’ll let you watch the newfangled ultra-HD home releases of the several dozen movies that have made it to that format. For some, that’ll actually be a great selling point in itself, since standalone 4K Blu-ray players cost at least $250, only $50 less than a One S. The console doesn’t have the horsepower to actually render games with the level of detail that can fully take advantage of a 4K screen—something Microsoft promises Project Scorpio will do—but it’ll upscale all your games to 4K to match the higher resolution of your TV as best it can. This might seem superfluous, given that nearly all 4K TVs have built-in upscaling tech, but whatever magical upscaling gnomes Microsoft packed into every Xbox One S seem to do a better job. Although, your mileage may vary depending on your specific TV. Playing through Battlefield 1, I’d occasionally pause to take in a quiet scene and swap between a 1080p output (which my TV, a Samsung KS8000, would then blow up into 4K) and the Xbox’s 4K output. There was an appreciable difference, with the latter helping to smooth out distant details that were just blurry smears in the former, for example.

Advertisement

The other big feature that only matters if you have the TV to use it is the support for high dynamic range (HDR). Basically, this is a new technology that lets TVs display a broader range of lights and darks, which results in greater contrast between hues and more vivid colors. While the benefits of 4K resolution are tangled up in the limits of what our eyes can see and depend on how far you sit from your TV screen, the benefits of HDR are easier to discern. Lighting looks more natural, and the brighter brights and darker darks mean colors and contours pop a little more. It’s the kind of thing that’s easiest to notice in scenes with cloudy skies or sun beams pouring through windows. There are only a couple of Xbox One games that currently support HDR, but it definitely makes a noticeable difference in the sun-drenched Australian byways of Forza Horizon 3.

Overall, the console is lovely piece of hardware and—for those with the TV to take advantage of it—a useful machine at a great price, especially if you want to dabble in 4K Blu-rays. But the Xbox One S comes at such a strange time. We’re at the start of a new age of video game systems where, instead of letting their machines gestate for five to eight years before being released and bringing a technological leap—the NES to the Super NES or the PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3—Microsoft and Sony seem intent on moving closer to Apple’s iPhone model of frequent iteration. We won’t be seeing new boxes released annually—at least, not anytime soon—but the console makers are exhibiting an urgency to upgrade their offerings without forcing players to jump to a brand new platform entirely.

Photo: Microsoft

Advertisement

It’s all seemingly brought on by their own decisions to release systems without the hardware to compete with ever-advancing PC technology or take advantage of the new TVs that were waiting in the wings when the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were first released back in 2013. 4K isn’t a fringe technology anymore, and it doesn’t seem like the kind of passing fad 3-D was a few years ago. If you’re going to spend more than a couple hundred bucks on a TV anytime soon, it will almost definitely be a 4K screen, and Microsoft and Sony, rightfully, feel the need to keep up. The kind of people who might go out and buy an expensive television are the same kind of people who’d spend several hundred dollars for a new version of the same console they already own if it means taking advantage of their fancy screen.

But the question I kept coming back to is, at this moment, who is the Xbox One S for? The only answer I could come up with is someone who’s only now deciding to buy an Xbox One and doesn’t own a 4K TV or plan to buy one soon, because despite how well it plays with that technology, the looming Project Scorpio will do everything the One S does, but better. So unless you don’t want to wait for that supposed super-machine or pay the premium price tag it’s expected to carry, why bother dishing out for its kid brother?

In terms of its current competitors, Sony recently released a software update for all PlayStation 4 models that imbue them with the same HDR tech as the One S, and while its internal 4K upscaler might do a better job than the one inside your TV, it’s not such a mind-blowing difference that a PlayStation 4’s games would look awful by comparison. And that’s to say nothing of the the $400 PlayStation 4 Pro, which is launching tomorrow and is Sony’s big contribution to this unprecedented mid-life-cycle arms race. It’s a step ahead of the One S when it comes to pure technical horsepower and produces better-looking games (though, despite its “premium” nature, it lacks the 4K Blu-ray drive the One S has).

Advertisement

So what’s the point of the One S? The reality is, it’s both the new baseline for a future that’s yet to fully arrive, and an attempt to rewrite Microsoft’s past. It’s the physical embodiment of the company’s changing of the guard, its new gaming regime’s attempt to erase the mistakes of its old leaders—the ones who wanted the Xbox One to be so much more than just a really good machine for playing video games. That’s what the company has produced with the One S. It’s a fantastic, focused replacement for the old Xbox One, and compared to the slim PlayStation 4, its ostensible competition, it’s technically the better bargain. But with Project Scorpio on the horizon, and the One S left to fend for itself as Sony establishes its two-pronged assault, it feels like a great little machine that’s lost in the wild.


Purchasing via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.

Advertisement