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Review: Xbox One S is a great console with lousy timing

Smartphones can’t settle on a size – first they’re smaller, then they’re bigger – but new versions of home video game consoles follow the traditional tech plan: they shed weight, slim down, hush up and adopt way cooler style.

That’s what happened with both the Xbox 360 and PS3, at least, and it looks like history is repeating itself in the form of the Xbox One S.

Released on August 2, the Xbox One S comes at an interesting time for Microsoft. The standard Xbox One has been steadily losing to the PS4 in monthly sales, thanks in part to a rough initial launch marred by Microsoft’s political flip-flopping and confusing policies. Since then, Microsoft has done an admirable job turning the ship around – or at least getting it moving in the right direction – but the gulf between the two systems is only widening.

So it comes as little surprise that Microsoft would be the first out of the gate with a slimmed down version of its gargantuan black box. And true to form, the Xbox One S is a prettier system, a smaller one and thanks to native support for 4K and HDR, undoubtedly a better one than the original Xbox One.

Whether or not you should buy it, though, is hardly as straightforward. It introduces a number of new features, all of them cool, but none of them essential, especially when considering what’s on the horizon for the Xbox ecosystem. Do you need an Xbox One S? Is it better than a standard Xbox One? Did Microsoft really need to offer a marginal system upgrade mid-stream? Read on to find out.

The hardware

There’s no getting around it (literally): the original Xbox One is an oversized, unattractive beast of a home console. Glance at it in your entertainment center and it could well be a VCR.

Stick an Xbox One S in its place, however, and you’ve immediately enhanced your living room’s aesthetics.

It’s a slick Apple white, but more importantly, it’s 40% smaller and weighs about a pound and a half less than its chunky forbear. It runs a bit quieter, which is something of a miracle because the Xbox One S contains an internal power supply. That means you no longer have a brick the size of a super burrito threatening to burn a hole in the space behind your cabinet. I forgot how much I hated that thing until I plugged in my Xbox One S with a nice, normal cord.

It’s also got a vertical stand, should you prefer to tempt fate (or toddlers) by aligning it on its narrow side. All 30 of you who still use Kinect should know that Microsoft’s once-exciting motion sensing camera is not included with the Xbox One S, and getting an old Kinect to work will require a separate adapter for $40.

The rest of its physical enhancements are minor. The front USB port has been moved to the actual front instead of the left side (a small point of aggravation in the original design), and a clicky power button replaces the original’s hyper-sensitive touch pad. Say goodbye to accidentally ruining your Rocket League game because your toe got too close to your console. One new controller comes with the system, and though it’s changed colors, it’s mostly identical to the old one save for some added texture to the grips and Bluetooth pairing, which should improve functionality with Windows 10 PCs.

At the moment, you can only get the 2TB hard drive version ($399), but later this month, 500GB ($299) and 1TB ($349) varieties will become available. Based on my experience with the current Xbox One and PS4, a 500GB HD for a modern game console is the equivalent of the 16GB iPhone: ridiculously, impossibly, Zoolander-y small. Unless you already have some external hard drives lying around, a moderately busy gamer should opt for the 1 or 2TB models.

Under the hood

So what’s new inside this thing? Not a ton.

Switching from an iPhone 6 to a 6S yields a faster GPU, double the RAM, and a new chip. In terms of sheer performance, switching from the Xbox One to the Xbox One S yields a much less noticeable leap. An overclocked GPU adds a little extra juice, but not enough to make a noticeable difference in visual clarity or enhanced frame rates. Don’t buy it expecting much more power.

If, however, you own a 4K TV, the Xbox One S suddenly snaps into focus. That’s because it’s the world’s first video game console that also happens to be a bona fide 4K Blu-ray player. It also supports high-dynamic range (HDR), a fancy term for awesome contrasts and an overall cleaner picture. Indeed, hook up a 4K TV and fire up an Ultra HD Blu-ray (or stream one through Netflix) and you’re getting … well, exactly what you’d get with any 4K Blu-ray player: substantially better image quality.

What you’re not getting is any HDR-enabled games, at least not until Forza Horizon 3 is released on Sept.27. That’ll be followed a few weeks later by Gears of War 4, and then Scalebound next year — not exactly a bumper crop of games to take advantage of the tech. Eventually we’ll see more, however, so if future-proofing is a big deal to you and you happen to have just plunked down (or intend on plunking down) for a 4K set, the Xbox One S is an excellent idea.

The shelf life

At least, it is for about a year and half.

Why only that long? Because in 2017, Microsoft will release Project Scorpio, their real upgraded Xbox One. You know, the one with all the new power and stuff.

This is a problem. While the Xbox One S is a fine console, it’s not really the one current Xbox One gamers are pining for. It’s hard to recommend the Xbox One S for newbies, too, since it will really only be the hot new thing for a little over a year.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Microsoft could push back the launch of the Scorpio and buy you more time before you feel like you just plunked down $300-$400 on a console that is no longer the most powerful in its own family. And at this point, tech-savvy types have grown accustomed to spending cash on a new smartphone every year or two without batting an eye. So perhaps the limited shelf life isn’t such a big deal.

Except, well, it is, at least as far as home consoles go. This generation marks the first time home console manufacturers will introduce entirely new iterations packing significantly more power than the original run (though we did see this very thing recently in the handheld market with the New Nintendo 3DS). It’s split the gaming community. Some are excited that their consoles will no longer be locked into a seven-year cycle of the same tech, while others are frustrated that they’re being tempted to buy yet another version of a perfectly fine system only four years in or else feel left behind.

Regardless of which side you happen to agree with, the Scorpio (and the PlayStation Neo) is coming, and gamers need to seriously consider that before they invest in or upgrade to a new system right now.

Is S for U?

The fact remains, however, that the Xbox One S is a solid game console. It’s an improvement in just about every way over the original Xbox One, and packs some handy 4K tech to boot.

And that, ultimately, is who this system is for. At $299, the 500 GB version makes this a decently priced 4K Blu-ray player that also happens to play all sorts of awesome video games and function as a fine set-top box. If you have a fresh new 4K TV and are dying to get the most out of it, this is a better choice than a straight-up 4K player.

But with few 4K games in the near future and a more powerful system looming, the Xbox One S is simply not a great decision right now for gamers. Microsoft nailed the design. They just blew the timing.

More from Ben:

Ben Silverman does not display in 4K yet but he hopes to get a visual upgrade soon. Yell at him on Twitter @ben_silverman.