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Microsoft’s Xbox One S: 4K Blu-ray, HDR, and a modest performance boost

When Microsoft announced the Xbox One S and Xbox Scorpio earlier this year, the company’s strategy raised more than a few eyebrows. While the Xbox One midlife refresh was widely expected, there’s the chance Xbox One S sales will suffer if customers choose to wait for the significantly more powerful Project Scorpio, which is currently expected to launch at Christmas, 2017. Now that the refresh has dropped, does the Xbox One S pack enough improvements to justify its purchase?

The Xbox One S SoC has been overhauled and is now built on a 16nm FinFET process at TSMC. Die size has decreased from 363mm2 to 240mm2. The new chip also includes an updated HEVC decoder, HDMI 2.0 support, and HDCP 2.2. All of these changes were integrated on-die, though the GPU is still based on AMD’s earlier GCN architectures rather than Polaris.

Microsoft has said very little about any performance improvements in the Xbox One S, but extensive testing by Eurogamer has shown that the SoC’s GPU is sometimes faster than its predecessor. The GPU’s base clock has been increased to 914MHz, up from 853MHz in the original console. This small boost also increased the maximum theoretical bandwidth of the Xbox One’s ESRAM cache, up to 219GB/s from 204GB/s (actually achieved bandwidth in games is typically much lower).

The reason Microsoft didn’t advertise these changes is because the performance gains are game-specific and difficult to quantify. Average improvements were around 7%, Eurogamer reports, while specific in-the-moment boosts could be much higher, up to 11%. Specifically, it saw a 7% improvement in Project Cars, an 8.1% improvement in Hitman (in some stages, 2.5% in others), a 7% improvement in Rise of the Tomb Raider, 4% in Arkham Knight, and absolutely no improvement in Fallout 4, where the Xbox One S and Xbox One performed identically. With no way to declare the Xbox One S unilaterally faster in any given configuration, Microsoft downplayed the improvements altogether.

Ars Technica has also published a review of the Xbox One, but while they like a number of changes that the new console offers, the Christmas 2017 release date for Scorpio makes it harder to recommend the Xbox One S today. The XBoneS has a number of improvements, including a 40% smaller chassis, significantly quieter operation, a vertical stand option, 4K Blu-ray (UHD Blu-ray), 4K streaming support from services like Netflix, and support for high dynamic range (HDR) content. The controller has also been reworked slightly, and the box is, on the whole, significantly nicer than it was before. Ars wasn’t able to test HDR, unfortunately; the HDR-capable display that Dell sent over refused to play nice with the new platform.

Right now, the only Xbox One S on sale is the 2TB model for $399, a 500GB variant will ship for $299 on August 27. After reading multiple reviews on the platform, we’re not sure we’d recommend it, either. If you just want a basic console, the old variant of the Xbox One has been discounted to $249. A 7% performance improvement in some games simply isn’t worth the 20% price difference between the old console and the 500GB variant of the Xbox One S. Microsoft could always sweeten the pot with game deals, but we’re strictly comparing the hardware specs and prices.

The Xbox One S makes a lot more sense if you’ve already started investing in 4K, HDR, and UHD Blu-ray support, but it’s really only a short-term band-aid. Microsoft is technically enabling 4K games on the Xbox One S, but you’d have to use very simple graphics to render in that mode with acceptable performance, and simple graphics don’t tend to benefit much from 4K in the first place. It’s not clear if even Scorpio will be able to hit 4K natively, but it should at least offer substantially better performance in 1080p. The Xbox One S only really offers half of the equation.

Microsoft’s hardcore fans should find enough here to satisfy them. But gamers on a tight budget should be well-served by the cheaper $249 Xbox One, or by keeping the Xbox One they already have, while those who care about game performance should wait for either the PlayStation Neo or Project Scorpio itself.

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