Do you need the Xbox One S?

The easy answer is "probably not" — but you just might want one anyway.

The Xbox One S arrives with timing that seems both bad and good.

On the one hand, Microsoft has already announced a much, much more powerful Xbox console set to launch next fall in the form of the nebulous Project Scorpio. In this regard, every Xbox One sold between now and then is the same kind of screwed. If you don’t have an Xbox One, why would you buy one now if you didn’t absolutely have to?

On the other hand, the Xbox One S is so easily superior as a device to the existing Xbox One that if you don’t have an Xbox One and want one — or, for some reason, need one — then there’s little reason to go for any other version of the console until late next year.

It’s important to state that this is not a review of the Xbox One S. Console reviews at Polygon are involved, team efforts that take weeks of hands-on time and a great deal of group discussion. The Xbox One S, however, puts us in an awkward position. There are only a few people on staff with 4K televisions, and only two with HDR-capable displays — one of which didn’t support the Xbox One S’s HDR format (we’ll get to that) until Monday morning the week of the Xbox One S’s launch.

Most of Polygon’s staff doesn’t have 4K, HDR-capable television sets. Most people don’t have 4K, HDR-capable TV sets. Microsoft is betting on two things with the Xbox One S: If you don’t have a UHD display, that you will; and, if you have a UHD display, you want things to watch — and play — on it.

This hands-on article is based on four days with Microsoft’s new console. It was tested using a Samsung UN65KS8000 4K HDR display, along with 4K content on Netflix as well as UHD Blu-rays including Star Trek, The Martian, Deadpool and Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Everything not 4K

xbox one S vertical Microsoft

Microsoft has finally admitted, as of today, that the Xbox One S isn’t exactly the same as the Xbox One you might already own. The new system’s GPU and some of its onboard RAM is clocked just a little higher, which, according to Digital Foundry, amounts to a 7-11 percent performance boost in some games. This isn’t a huge difference, but it’s there, and anecdotally at least, the UI and menus seem a fair bit snappier, though this is also likely due in part to the Xbox One’s recent Anniversary OS update.

Practically speaking, this improvement isn’t life-changing, but it did make playing through Fallout 4’s Far Harbor DLC, which I’ve found to have pretty consistent framerate dips, much more pleasant.

Meanwhile, the Xbox One S is, to quote Microsoft, 40 percent smaller than the original Xbox One. This is accentuated in person by an interesting design: The main body of the console is an attractive matte color that Microsoft is calling "Robot White," while the base is a carbon gray that serves to make the console look smaller than it actually is. More importantly to some — namely, me — the Xbox One S is able to stand on its side as its console predecessor the Xbox 360 could (and the PlayStation 4 can). Microsoft has included a detachable stand for the console for vertical alignment, though it doesn’t seem absolutely necessary.

Those with a crowded entertainment center will be pleased to know that the rather large external power supply on the original Xbox One has been moved inside the box with the Xbox One S. In addition, the new console is quieter and more power-efficient. The system now also includes a dedicated IR blaster, which it uses to control cable boxes and AV receivers, offering universal remote functionality.

This is likely in response to an omission on the new console. Conspicuously, the Xbox One S no longer includes a dedicated Kinect port. Instead, you’ll need a separate adapter to attach Kinect to the system via a USB 3.0 cable; the adapter also requires a wall outlet of its own for a dedicated Kinect-specific power cable.

The Xbox One S doesn’t come with this adapter, which is, honestly, a bummer for me, as someone who uses Xbox voice commands literally all the time. Microsoft is offering Xbox One S buyers a free adapter if they already own an Xbox One and a Kinect. Otherwise, Xbox One S buyers who want Kinect support will need to buy the adapter for $40, or wait for Microsoft to begin including it with Kinect itself.

Previously, the Xbox One needed the Kinect to properly function with its unique TV input and OneGuide application. But the Xbox One S’s move to HDCP 2.2 — which I’ll explain more later — comes with the addition of long-requested support for HDMI-CEC.

HDMI-CEC allows devices to communicate with one another and send controls across an HDMI connection. I’ll be honest: I’ve never been a fan of HDMI-CEC. I’ve found it to be largely unreliable and clunky. But anecdotally, my Samsung KS8000 is getting along swimmingly with my Xbox One S. Without any tweaking on either end other than enabling HDMI-CEC control on the television, I’ve been easily navigating the Xbox One S’s dashboard and applications with the KS8000’s remote. It’s become one of the features of the Xbox One S that I am both most surprised by and enjoy the most, and it has almost made up for my temporary inability to use voice commands.

It’s worth noting that my 4K TV and the Xbox One S both feature HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2; if your display doesn’t support those standards, your HDMI-CEC experience could vary quite a bit.

In addition to its ability to go vertical, the Xbox One S has replaced the capacitive — read: touch-sensitive — buttons of the Xbox One with actual, pressable physical inputs for the power and eject buttons on the console. This makes them much, much less likely to be triggered accidentally by human or animal contact. It also includes an 802.11ac Wi-Fi radio, which is how existence of the console was discovered in the first place.

It’s an attractive console, if you’re into monolithic slabs (note: I am). It doesn’t look so much like the old-school VCR aesthetic of the original Xbox One, and the finish of the Robot White chassis has a nice, not-cheap-feeling texture.

The controller

The custom controller on the left and traditional on the right.

The Xbox One S also comes with one of Microsoft’s retooled Xbox One controllers. Shipping in the same Robot White paint job as the main console, the new controller features Bluetooth functionality for Windows 10 devices, and ostensibly, improved wireless performance with the Xbox One itself.

I haven’t had the opportunity to test either of these, though Polygon’s Brian Crecente has had more time with the new pad. It’s a nice controller with some subtle quality-of-life improvements evident in the playing, with slightly stiffer sticks and a texture to the back of the pad that both allow for a better grip. It’s definitely the nicest controller to ship with a console thus far with regards to build quality, though it still pales in comparison to Microsoft’s absurdly expensive and entirely-too-nice Elite controller.

Why your current Xbox One will never do 4K

The biggest addition in the Xbox One S is support for 4K resolution, and, for the small number of televisions that support it, High Dynamic Range (HDR) color output.

Please allow me to spend a moment on what will seem like a non sequitur, but is relevant to one of the main reasons the Xbox One S exists, and, in some ways, needs to exist.

The 4K "spec" has been a mess of shifting goal posts for years

4K output — that is, a functional screen resolution of at least 3840 pixels wide by 2160 pixels tall, a 400 percent increase over the accepted "full HD" standard of 1080p — was promised at launch for both the PS4 and the Xbox One, but neither console’s existing hardware has received an update to support the standard.

The bad news: Neither will.

It would be easy to rant at Microsoft and Sony for this omission, but it’s not really either company’s fault.

Different consumer electronics standards — Dolby Digital, HD, "full HD" and the like — are discussed by groups of hardware manufacturers for years before devices that use those standards are available to buy. The 4K "spec" — that is, the set of agreed-upon hardware requirements and features to be supported by certified devices — has been a mess of shifting goal posts and changing entertainment industry demands for literally years. While 4K has been discussed since at least 2010, it’s 2016 and the standard is still evolving.

It's not Microsoft or Sony's fault that launch Xbox One and PS4 consoles will never support 4K resolutions

Meanwhile, hardware is, well, forever. The Xbox One and PS4 both shipped with HDMI 1.4, which technically supports resolutions of up to 4K at a maximum of 30 frames per second.

It’s important to note that this hardware is not capable of outputting 4K video at 60 frames per second. However, this HDMI version — and the PS4 and Xbox One themselves — shipped before the consumer electronics companies and content creators had agreed upon the "official" requirements for "proper" 4K video, which include strict security provisions.

Essentially, the companies that make the movies and TV shows that you watch don’t just want to ensure that 4K devices can support the resolution at 60 frames per second. Movie studios have also enforced a requirement for hardware-based security in the devices that play 4K content and the screens that display that content.

That content protection hardware can’t be added to your current Xbox One and PS4. Unfortunately for you, me, Microsoft and Sony, actual 4K support requires new hardware with the inclusion of a new High-Definition Content Protection scheme, HDCP 2.2. And for HDR support, you’ll need HDMI 2.0a, which was only finalized in the middle of 2015.

4K and HDR

Your existing Xbox One will never, ever support 4K or HDR, but the Xbox One S supports both, assuming you have the hardware for it.

For 4K video support, your display needs HDCP 2.2 support and an HDMI 2.0 input. For HDR support, your display requires HDMI 2.0a. It’s worth noting that the latter is a hardware change from HDMI 2.0 — HDMI 2.0a can’t be added via a firmware update. If your 4K TV doesn’t have HDMI 2.0a, congratulations: You’ve been hit with the early adopter stick.

I’m going to be blunt here: I don’t think most people — unless they have an absolutely massive screen — are going to be able to see much of a difference between standard dynamic range 4K content and the 1080p stuff they’ve been watching for a few years now. This is for a couple of reasons. First, most people just can’t perceive much of a difference, and second, most movies are mastered and released to theaters in 2K resolution.

The difference between SDR and HDR is much clearer than 1080p and 4K

To reiterate: While many movies are shot on cameras at 4K or even higher resolution, they are generally edited and mastered at one-fourth that resolution. This includes computer-generated effects shots, which are rendered and added at the same 2K resolution.

Not much content is made that properly supports 4K resolution, though some does exist. Netflix is currently the biggest source of 4K content around — almost every recent Netflix show is available in 4K — and the company is making its 4K content available through its Xbox One app.

The Xbox One S is also one of the first Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players. UHD Blu-ray is a new format that’s incompatible with existing Blu-ray players. Some UHD Blu-rays were remastered from higher-resolution sources: Deadpool was shot on 3.4K cameras and its UHD disc was specially mastered for the format, while The Revenant was shot on 4K and 6K cameras and edited at 4K, allowing the filmmakers to take advantage of all that screen real estate. Meanwhile, Netflix programming is shot and edited natively in 4K, from camera to effects.

For sources that are natively 4K, rather than up-sampled, the additional resolution is nice, I’ll admit. House of Cards is razor-sharp in 4K, and ’80s Stephen King homage Stranger Things is preternaturally sharp (in a good way). But even Netflix has admitted that 4K isn’t necessarily the next big selling point for new TVs. Instead, HDR might be what gets you to stand up and take notice.

High Dynamic Range in this case refers to a massive increase in the theoretical number of colors a TV can display, as well as a much greater range between the darkest darks and brightest brights on screen. According to Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt, HDR is "more visibly different than 4K," and after spending a few days watching a fair amount of HDR content, I’m inclined to agree. 4K is an often subtle difference from 1080p, something that looks nice. But, as I mentioned before, most movies you’re watching weren’t even produced or released in native 4K.

HDR is more immediately apparent. There are subtle differences, sure. Banding — the effect produced as color shifts from light to dark across a plane on your screen, causing distracting "bars" of color — is virtually eliminated. Depending on your TV, obviously, blacks can feel incredibly deep, while light sources aren’t just brighter, they have more detail. Skies in the distance often look completely different on non-HDR sources. It’s just a more beautiful picture in general, and more obviously an improvement than 4K. I want more.

The process of releasing existing content with an HDR update is often more feasible than re-composing a film in 4K, but you wouldn’t know it from the availability of HDR content. Almost all of Netflix’s current slate of shows is in 4K already, but only one is in HDR: Marco Polo (which, I’ll add, isn’t in 4K). Video app Vudu has more HDR videos for purchase and rental, but the pickings are still pretty slim.

It’s worth noting that the Microsoft Movies & TV app — formerly Xbox Video — does not currently support 4K and/or HDR video purchases or rentals, which seems like a pretty serious omission for this kind of launch.

This lack of HDR, and, to a lesser extent, 4K content is one of the reasons the Xbox One S is coming out now, when it seems like waiting might be a better move. People are starting to buy 4K HDR televisions, and there’s a dearth of content for them. Meanwhile, the Xbox One S scales games internally to 4K, which works pretty well, especially for 4K TVs that don’t scale 1080p content very well on their own (I’m looking at you, Vizio P-Series).

But what Microsoft is really betting on with the Xbox One S is that games running in HDR will be a Big New Thing. After spending a lot of time with HDR content over the last few weeks, I’m hopeful. I’m a believer, much more than I was with 4K. The problem, though, is that it’s still just a promise. There are no games out yet that support HDR on Xbox One S, and the first, Forza Horizon 3, doesn’t launch until Sept. 27. The next, Gears of War 4, is out Oct. 11. After that, things are a little hazy. A demo for either game, or even a 4K, HDR video of them, would have been a nice touch that went a long way to ease my early-adopter jitters about the format.

As for how the Xbox One S handles HDR and video content in general? I’m not an AV professional, so I can only speak to my experience. After I calibrated my KS8000’s 10-point white levels (it’s a nerdy thing that you probably won’t do) and lightly adjusted backlight levels, the One S gave me vibrant colors with good detail in darks. I’ve never had a particular issue with "black crush" on the system, but its built-in tools all suggested I was calibrated correctly, including the blue filter portion of the test. HDR and 4K video were regularly stunning to me and to friends who watched with me.

It’s important to note that the Xbox One S only supports HDR10 for HDR content, and not the competing Dolby Vision standard. Thankfully, Vizio’s popular P-Series TV received its long-awaited HDR10 update this week, and most other 4K TV manufacturers are supporting the standard as well.

It’s also worth mentioning that for HDR to function properly, every piece of your signal chain must have HDMI 2.0a — including your receiver, assuming you have one. Unfortunately, not every 4K, 60 fps-capable receiver is also HDMI 2.0a-compliant. If you plug your Xbox One S into a receiver that doesn’t support HDMI 2.0a, you’ll see this in the video settings info.

What you want to see, however, is this:

You might as well get used to it now: moving to 4K and HDR is probably going to require starting over from scratch with most of your AV gear. 1080p, I’ll kind of miss you.

Other less good news

For the people with 4K cable boxes, I have bad news: the Xbox One S’s TV input does not support a 4K signal. For an even smaller, though probably more vocal contingent, the Xbox One S does not currently support Dolby’s new Atmos audio standard (or its immediate competitor, DTS-X).

Atmos is a complete rethinking of surround sound audio. Where the standard 5.1 setup directs pre-determined sound mixes to five speakers at pre-determined spots in a room, Atmos audio processing treats every sound like an object in virtual space, including vertical positions. Microsoft has told us they’re "exploring" Dolby Atmos support, but the console doesn’t currently support it. That said, unlike 4K support on the original Xbox One, there’s no tech standard preventing it out of hand. It may just be a processing concern, as Atmos is a more computationally expensive system than Dolby Digital.

Should you get an Xbox One S if you don’t have a 4K TV?

The Xbox One S is, as I said above, quieter than the Xbox One. It’s a nice looking console, and practically speaking, takes a lot less space, and it stands on its side. Technically speaking, the wifi is much better, HDMI-CEC is now feels properly supported for the first time in my experience with the standard, and the new controller is great. If you’re buying a new Xbox One for any reason, there’s no reason not to get the Xbox One S unless you use voice commands every day and can’t wait however long it takes Microsoft to sell you an adapter. If you don’t have a 4K TV yet, and you don’t need better wireless, then there’s not much practical reason for you to upgrade, minor performance increases notwithstanding. You might as well wait until Scorpio releases next year.

And what if you have a 4K TV?

I do have a 4K, HDR-ready TV, and even knowing Scorpio is coming out next year ... I would probably buy the Xbox One S.  This is the bet that Microsoft is making — that there are people who have these displays who want more to use them with. Specifically, I desperately want more HDR content, and I’m excited for what games will look like in HDR.

I would still be annoyed at the desire to buy another Xbox One next year when Project Scorpio launches. So the question, then, is do you want more 4K stuff for your TV right now?

The impression I’m left with after almost a week with the Xbox One S is that it’s a product that needs to exist. 4K is here. HDR is here. Standards are finally, well, finalized, absent a format war yet to be completely determined (though HDR10 seems to be increasing its lead in adoption). People are starting to buy these displays. The Xbox One S won’t be cutting-edge for long, sure, but unlike the current Xbox One and even PS4, it’s not going to be left behind for the growing number of people who will want 4K HDR stuff, even if they don’t need to game on the cutting edge with Project Scorpio. And the Xbox One S is ready to be that product when it’s no longer the best Xbox One that Microsoft has released.