Microsoft would like to think its Xbox One S is the console equivalent of Terminator 2 – a sequel that beats the original, where the dialogue is decent, the actors believable and the movie entertaining.
The initial signs are promising. A new look, a tweaked design and a smattering of new features, including 4K video and HDR support – surely this has blockbuster written all over it?
When Microsoft announced the Xbox One S would play Ultra HD Blu-rays, you could almost hear the applause. The decision looks even more significant now Sony has shunned the feature on its new PlayStation 4 Pro console.
The Xbox One S, at the time of writing, is the cheapest 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player on the market by quite some distance. The 500GB version of the console costs around £250, with some retailers now offering bundles for even less.
Contrast this with our current favourite dedicated UHD Blu-ray player, the Panasonic DMP-BD900, which will set you back closer to £600.
Until more affordable 4K Blu-ray players arrive on the market, the Xbox One S currently sits in a market of, well, one. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this makes the One S a bit of a no-brainer.
If only it was quite that simple.
The Xbox One S is a complex beast. Let’s start with the 4K. Just to be clear, this isn’t a true 4K console.
You can’t play native 4K games – a feature reserved for Microsoft’s more powerful (and presumably more expensive) console, codenamed Project Scorpio, due to launch at the end of 2017.
What the Xbox One S does is upscale your current games collection to 4K resolution. This is neat, but remember your 4K TV is doing exactly the same thing for all your non-4K content too.
In addition to 4K support, there’s HDR (High Dynamic Range) compatibility. Some upcoming Xbox One S games will have HDR material embedded, so you’ll be able to experience the enhanced images on a compatible TV.
HDR goes hand-in-hand with 4K Blu-ray and also streamed 4K content from Netflix, which is supported out of the box. At the time of writing, the version of the Amazon Video app is still waiting an update for 4K HDR.
One feature carried over from the original console is the rear-mounted HDMI input. It’s designed to allow you to hook up a set-top box and use the Xbox’s OneGuide to control your TV watching and allow you to interact online.
But there’s one slight drawback with the way it’s been implemented in the One S.
The console’s HDMI input doesn’t support 4K pass-through, so if you own a set-top-box capable of outputting 4K video, such as Sky Q’s Silver box, you can’t feed 4K content into the console and display it natively on your 4K TV.
Microsoft’s official line – “we will continue to make the changes needed for the hardware to support pass-through” – makes it sound like it won’t happen any time soon either.
The Ultra HD Blu-ray drive also comes with a slight caveat. Because of the way the console processes audio, all your movie soundtracks are decoded onboard the Xbox One S into PCM.
This was also the case with the original console, but it means that you won’t be able to enjoy object-based surround-sound formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X which need to be bitstreamed to a compatible amp.
It probably won’t be a deal-breaker for the casual armchair fan, but home cinema enthusiasts who’ve decked out their room in extra Atmos speakers will be disappointed.
Since the original console launched, the user interface has undergone a couple of changes. Microsoft has attempted to clean it up by rearranging its menus and ‘tiles’. It looks a little smarter, but can still feel like trudging through a tar pit.
Reaching some areas still requires too many button presses and the way some of the sub-menus are arranged feels like they were designed with little thought paid to how the user will actually interact with them.
The integration of Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-controlled assistance, works with a mic-equipped headset or Kinect, but the latter no longer comes with the console. If you're upgrading from the old Xbox One and want to take Kinect with you, Xbox will throw in the necessary dongle for free until the end of the year. After that, you'll need to pay £30 for one.
MORE: Xbox One review
Build and design
The original Xbox One was widely criticised for its bulk, but the Xbox One S looks like it’s been placed on a crash diet.
Now 40 per cent smaller than the original, it looks even slimmer thanks to an optical illusion caused by the small black painted section underneath.
The external power brick from the original has been banished, and instead Microsoft has squeezed a new, smaller power supply into the One S, so it doesn’t eat into your shelf space.
Besides a neater power arrangement, Microsoft has also attempted to tidy up the console’s appearance. Touch sensitive controls have been swapped for buttons. The awkward, side-mounted USB socket from the original has been swung round to the front of the console, alongside an IR blaster.
It’s undoubtedly a smaller, tidier package, but it all feels quite budget. For all its faults, the original One gives a better impression of quality.
The Xbox One’s wireless controller has also been tinkered with. It now has twice the range and can communicate with Windows 10 PCs over Bluetooth. It features a slimmer body and a textured plastic surface, designed to aid grip. It’s nice to use, but feels less substantial than the One’s controller.
Microsoft still hasn’t fitted the controller with a rechargeable battery pack, so make sure you’ve got a supply of AA batteries on standby.
Play The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on Ultra HD Blu-ray and the Xbox One S produces a vibrant, punchy picture.
The bright neon lights of Times Square pop from the curved screen of our Samsung UE55KS9000, and contrast impressively against the dark night sky.
Colours have a real sense of solidity – Spidey’s red and blue onesy stands out from the shadows as he hurls himself down the streets of New York searching for bad guys.
The Xbox One S also serves up a good dose of detail. The textures of his suit are easy to see while the patterns are sharply drawn.
As he performs in-air acrobatics, motion is handled well, with only minimal trace of judder around edges. Even as Spidey’s suit ruffles in the breeze caused by his base-jumping, the picture stays relatively solid.
Switch to the Panasonic DMP-UB900 and on first glance the same image looks a little subdued. But you soon notice the UB900 majors much more on subtlety. Colours are expertly judged, even to the extent where the One S appears overcooked.
The way the Panasonic handles HDR content allows brighter, punchier moments to have more of a lasting impact on the viewer. The player appears to squeeze every last ounce of detail out of the sheen of Spidey’s suit as it captures the sunlight.
As the sun tries to force its way through the clouds, the Panasonic has a better grip on where the picture should be at its most punchy and how it should handle the varying degrees of brightness.
MORE: Best 4K TVs
In our experience, bitstreaming audio from your source to your home cinema amp, allowing the latter to unpack all the audio data, yields the best results.
Unfortunately, you don’t get this option with the Xbox One S – soundtracks are automatically decoded onboard the console and fired out as PCM. The result is audio that’s just about acceptable for a budget Blu-ray player.
Listening through our reference Yamaha RX-A3060, the Xbox sounds brighter and leaner than the Panasonic DMP-UB900, and struggles to convey the same sense of drama and excitement.
The Xbox uncovers a decent amount of detail, but the dedicated player digs up an extra layer or two.
Watch Edge of Tomorrow on Blu-ray, and as the soldiers are getting ready to drop onto the planet, the air is thick with tension.
The rumble of the transporter engines, the strained dialogue, even Tom Cruise’s frantic attempts to arm his exo-suit, are communicated effortlessly by the Panasonic.
By contrast, the Xbox struggles to deliver the same sense of drama, and there’s a hesitancy and meekness to the sound.
As he falls and flails through the air the relative quiet is interrupted by the occasional blast of gunfire. You just about get a sense of a shift in the dynamics through the Xbox, whereas through the Panasonic it’s explicit and unquestionable.
So how does the Xbox One S stack up as a sequel? Well, it feels a little like we’ve been here before. The cast might have improved but there are still a few gaping holes in the script.
The Xbox One S plays the role of games console perfectly well, but doesn’t really show the 4K format in its best light.
The price may prove tempting for some, especially if you’re coming to the console from new. But in our opinion there are too many character flaws for it to be considered a box-office smash.
See all our Microsoft reviews