Microsoft reboots Xbox One to join the 4K club
We run the rule over the first console to display Ultra HD images
We live in extraordinary times. Never mind Donald Trump, Pat Hickey or global warming - the games console race has suddenly become mighty interesting.
You can probably blame the rapid evolution of smartphones, with new models leapfrogging each other in power year after year. Games consoles, on the other hand, were locked into a six or seven-year cycle, with only cosmetic hardware refreshes in the interim.
But 2016 upends that cosy arrangement, with both Microsoft and Sony revving the engines inside the Xbox One and PS4, just three years after they first launched. We'll find out more about the PS4.5 - dubbed Neo - next week at a special Sony event in New York, but the revised console could be out as soon as October.
Microsoft by contrast opts for a precarious two-pronged strategy - a moderately more powerful machine, dubbed the Xbox One S, out now and a radically upgraded model late next year. The latter is so far distant as to be an unknown quantity that hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the former.
That's quite the shame because Microsoft has pulled off an accomplished revamp with the Xbox One S, one that shouldn't be ignored just because its successor has already been lined up.
Rebuilt from the inside out, the S shucks off mid-cycle console tradition and radically redesigns the casing to be 40pc smaller while somehow incorporating that dreadful external power brick that only amplified the original's bulk.
It's not a tough call to anoint it Microsoft's most handsome console ever. Perhaps its slim white lines feel at odds with the dominant black of most living-room tech, but presumably other colours lurk in the pipeline.
A subtly improved controller in matching albino adds better grip and more robust components alongside the ability to connect to Windows 10 machines via Bluetooth.
Besides outer beauty, the S internals have been bumped up too. A new overclock on the graphics processor can produce smoother-running games, though the untrained eye may struggle to notice.
This GPU overclock has a potentially far more interesting target - the power to display video (but not games) in 4K (also known as Ultra HD) and high dynamic range in both video and games.
As Shannon Loftis, worldwide head of publishing at Microsoft Studios, explained to me at E3 in June: "The graphic feature that we're unlocking with Xbox One S is high-dynamic range game rendering. Games created in HDR have deeper, richer colours. The blooms are bloomier. It makes the games feel more vibrant."
Alas, there is a sizeable limitation to HDR. Like Betamax versus VHS war before it, there are two competing standards, Dolby Vision and HDR10, the latter the one supported by. Xbox One S. Good luck navigating the confusing maze of specifications on new tellies.
And therein lies the rub: to enjoy the true fruits of the Xbox One S, you're going to need a new gogglebox. Everyone from Sky to Netflix is moving slowly towards 4K resolution - twice as high as the current high-definition. Sony's PS4 Neo will support it. Xbox One S doesn't require it but the difference in picture quality with 4K sears the eyeballs, particularly at big screen sizes.
Remember, no Xbox One games will appear as native 4K but the S does a fine job of upscaling standard high-definition. As yet, no games have appeared with HDR either, though a glimpse at E3 of Forza Horizon and Gears of War 4 showed the technology's potential for more luminous, contrasty colours.
Standalone 4K disc players cost at least as much as the console. So for fans of TV and movies in 4K (of which, admittedly there are precious few titles yet) the Xbox One S offers an affordable entry point to ultra high-def imagery. You haven't lived until you've seen the likes of Leo DiCaprio's The Revenant in all its full 4K glory.
The initial supply of Xbox One S machines comes with a capacious 2TB hard-drive option and includes a stand that enables the console to be mounted on its side. Bizarrely, this useful configuration (priced at €400) appears to be a limited-time offering and will be available in future only as bundles with releases such as Gears of War 4 in October.
In its stead, gamers will have to make do with 1TB or 500GB options (with pricing expected to be €300/€350 respectively and not inclusive of the stand).
Still, for all those caveats, there's much to admire in Microsoft's new box of tricks. It's a looker and tidies up a loose original design, It's marginally more powerful but more importantly opens up an on-ramp to the delights of 4K.
Your move, Sony.