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Microsoft Xbox One S review

Smaller, faster, better.

In many ways, the new Xbox One S is the physical embodiment of Microsoft's efforts in reconnecting with the core gamer. Gone are the functional, slab-like set-top box aesthetics of the original hardware and in comes a fresh new design. Yes, it's smaller, lighter, more refined - but most crucially, this is a piece of hardware that isn't embarrassed about what it is or trying to be something else; it's a beautifully designed games machine and a marked improvement over the launch model in almost every way.

There's much to like here - the integration of the multi-voltage power supply into the main chassis is obviously welcome, while the more robust plastics don't attract hairline scratches to anything like the same degree as its predecessor's shiny bits. The revised USB port placement is more logical, the lack of Kinect port isn't really missed and the ability to lay the console horizontally or stack it vertically is a great feature to have. Oh, and Microsoft has bundled the stand in the package - so there's no additional nickle-and-diming for what is essentially an extra bit of plastic. There's even a high-speed HDMI cable in the box too, good to have for a 4K UHD 60Hz hook-up.

Also noteworthy is the addition of a revised version of the Xbox One controller, sharing the rougher matte plastics of the main console, enabling higher levels of purchase. It just feels better in the hand, with Microsoft also retooling the thumbsticks for reduced levels of wear - not really an issue in our experience, but nice nonetheless. On top of that, a new Bluetooth radio makes for easier wireless connectivity with Windows PCs, while retaining its own custom hook-up with the Xbox One hardware - it works on consoles old and new.

All of this on its own more than ticks the boxes for what you might call an 'Xbox One Slim', except Microsoft has gone the extra mile here. The machine's reduced dimensions are a factor of the old 28nm processor being replaced with a 16nm FinFET chip, meaning reduced power draw and less heat - a fact confirmed to us in today's exclusive Xbox One S tech interview. The process shrink requires a complete retooling of the architecture - an opportunity that Microsoft has used in order to add functionality, something we never saw in the prior console generation.

Our video review of the Xbox One S. Not only is it a big improvement over the launch model, it's rare to see a console revision hand in tangible improvements in the feature set.

So yes, it's now 4K enabled. Hook up the Xbox One S to a UHD display and it'll ask you if you want to default to a 3840x2160 output. The display area in the settings app is revamped with the ability to swap between 720p, 1080p and 4K output. In the advanced settings, the Xbox One S helpfully tells you what advanced display features are available with your chosen display - a useful read-out considering the vast array of different features typically crammed into the cutting-edge 4K screens, and also serving to confirm that older 30Hz 4K TVs aren't supported.

The Xbox One Blu-ray app - downloaded from the Microsoft Store - gets an upgrade, supporting the new UHD discs coming to the market now. On top of that, Netflix 4K and its limited range of HDR content is also supported. We'll be looking into the expanded media functionality of the Xbox One S in a future feature, but for now, it's safe to say that it works fine, but there's scope for improvement. Dolby Vision HDR isn't supported (HDR10 is the preferred format and to be fair, very few screens embrace the Dolby system) but more pressing is the lack of bitstream audio functionality, ruling out next-gen audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.

Also a little frustrating is the lack of HDR gaming content for us to test for this review, meaning we couldn't try out one of the machine's most promising features. Microsoft didn't want to supply the demos for Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4 that we saw at E3 and came across as genuinely impressive. Right now, all we can say is that HDR gaming is coming and initial impressions look quite promising.

In the here and now, the upscaling from 1080p to 4K is competent but could be better. Hooking up the Xbox One S to a 58-inch Panasonic DX750, we noted that the UI upscaled to 4K better using the display's scaler compared to the Xbox One S's efforts (yes, the front-end isn't native UHD).

In-depth analysis on the Xbox One S GPU 'overclock' and the extent to which the improved spec affects the gameplay experience.
Xbox One S Xbox One
CPU 1.75GHz AMD Jaguar eight-core 1.75GHz AMD Jaguar eight-core
GPU 12 Compute Units 12 Compute Units
GPU Clock 914MHz 853MHz
Compute Performance 1.4TF 1.31TF
ESRAM Bandwidth 219GB/s 204GB/s

We would really like to see a 4x4 scaler mode added - it's effectively a simple 'nearest neighbour' upscale but it works well because 4K is a simple 2x scale in both directions compared to full HD. The feature is supported on our Panasonic DX750, and at range, it's definitely better for gaming than both the Xbox One S and indeed the DX750's own standard upscaler.

All told, the 4K addition is a great 'value add' for the Xbox One S, and while media app support is thin on the ground right now (we're told Amazon is coming - but Plex would really be nice), the bottom line is that the lion's share of UHD video content, certainly in terms of HDR, comes from the new range of Blu-rays. The lack of bitstreaming support here is puzzling, but we're told it's set to feature in a future update. In all, if you're considering a UHD Blu-ray player, the fact that you get one integrated into the Xbox One S makes it a significant value proposition.

So in moving to a new 16nm FinFET processor, Microsoft updates its media decode blocks and adds the required HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 support to allow it to interface with new UHD displays. However, Microsoft went further. In order to support HDR gaming while at the same time processing traditional outputs for GameDVR, streaming and screenshots, a GPU boost was required to get the job done. Xbox One S sees a clock-speed increase from the 'stock' 853MHz to 914MHz in the new console - a 7.1 per cent uptick. And curiously, Microsoft has enabled the 'overclock' for all applications.

As we explain in-depth in our Xbox One S GPU benchmark analysis elsewhere, this allows games to more closely adhere to their 30fps/60fps targets and while most people probably won't be able to tell the difference, it is there and essentially makes for a more refined, slightly smoother gaming experience: fewer drops from 60fps and less tearing. And despite the overclock, the Xbox One S is indeed considerably more power-efficient than its predecessor. In our tests, it draws anything from 25 to 40 per cent less juice from the wall, depending on the application.

Bluetooth functionality is a nice bonus for PC users, but the redesigned Xbox One pad's textured grips are a small, but potent feature.

We compared the Xbox One S against original hardware in a number of tests - using a disc-based game (where the drive keeps running) and a digital download (where it does not). On top of that, we stacked up power consumption on media playback - specifically the Blu-ray player - and added some Xbox One S-specific tests on UHD BD playback.

And while we carried out these tests, we also broke out the sound meter to measure the acoustics of the new console compared to the launch version. We placed the meter right next to the machine, so don't think of these numbers as representative of the experience, count on it more as a comparison point between the two iterations of Microsoft hardware. As things stand, the bottom line is clear: the new console has significant power efficiency advantages over the older model thanks to the process shrink, but the trade-off is a louder machine - most likely down to the reduced form factor.

Typically we note a 3dB increase in noise from the Xbox One S - a touch disappointing for a machine with media credentials, where really we'd want as discreet an experience as possible. However, the 42-44dB noise factor is still a huge improvement over PlayStation 4, which is up to 10dB louder under load. Xbox One S is still a larger console than its Sony competitor, but it houses a larger cooling assembly and put simply, a larger fan spinning more slowly makes less noise.

Console noise is indeed more noticeable across the room compared to the older model, but by and large, it's still a relatively quiet machine. That said, one thing we did notice is that playback of UHD Blu-rays appears to be ever-so-slightly louder than standard BDs - and we wonder whether the disc needs to spin faster to read in higher bitrate video, resulting in more noise.

Power/Acoustics Xbox One S Power Xbox One Power Xbox One S Noise Xbox One Noise
Project Cars (Disc) 79W 109W 47dB 44dB
Tomb Raider (Digital) 74W 108W 45dB 42dB
Blu-ray Playback 37W 61W 47dB 43dB
UHD Blu-ray Playback 44W - 49dB -

Microsoft Xbox One S - the Digital Foundry verdict

Everyone loves a 'slim' hardware revision - and generally speaking, it's second-gen console revisions that tends to be the most successful (third-gen models can sometimes take the cost-cutting too far). It's a chance to listen to consumer feedback, reduce the form factor and generally make for a much more living room-friendly machine. The Xbox One S succeeds in doing all of those things, but we have to give Microsoft kudos for using the opportunity to also add bonus, additional valuable functionality that considerably exceeds the original spec.

The 4K offering may be somewhat under-developed at the moment, but it's an interesting, genuinely useful addition for those that want it. Meanwhile, the GPU overclock is the sort of additional feature that isn't going to provide any kind of game-changing experience, but is likely to find appeal with a core gamer perhaps on the fence about making the upgrade. It would have been child's play for Microsoft to disable the higher clocks on non-HDR titles (in the same way that PlayStation Neo does when running vanilla PS4 games, based on the leaked docs), but instead it chose to allow the feature to work with everything.

Combine that with a fresh new look that clears out the final vestiges of Xbox One's disastrous set-top box aspirations and then factor in an improved version of an already impressive controller and the Xbox One S comes across as an excellent new hardware revision. Aside from being a touch louder, it's a substantial improvement over the original launch console in almost every way. It's still an Xbox One of course, so don't go in expecting a radically refreshed piece of hardware - but it may well be the best console revision we've seen to date.

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About the Author
Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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