This week, Microsoft will begin selling the second generation of Xbox One, the ambitious set-top box that debuted in 2013 to mixed acclaim. The sequel is called the Xbox One S, and it aims to solve many of the problems that plagued its predecessor by dramatically simplifying its industrial design.
When Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One, it seemed to have solved the problem of living room media. This "one" understated black box could juggle your Comcast DVR, Hulu subscription, silly YouTube clips, and of course, games, all with voice, gesture, and face recognition through an integrated Kinect sensor.
We called it a "flying car in need of a parachute," which is to say that the Xbox One was an overly ambitious user interface experiment wrapped into a set-top box. It cost $499. The next month, Sony announced a response: The $399 Playstation 4. And in an amazing bit of rhetoric, Sony positioned its cheaper, less ambitious console as caring more about the core console buyer, the elusive "gamer."
Today, Microsoft is launching the remedy to its own overzealousness. It’s the Xbox One S. Starting at $299, it’s cheaper than its predecessor, despite having beefed-up hardware, and it’s 40% smaller, despite integrating the Xbox One’s massive brick of a power supply inside. But as Carl Ledbetter, executive creative director for Xbox explains, it’s the physical embodiment of Microsoft listening to customer feedback, a joint engineering and design project that started within Microsoft—literally the day after the Xbox One launched.
The Xbox 360, the predecessor to the One, was a white, curvy box, meant to invoke the image of an object inhaling and exhaling. It looked appropriately otherworldly for a console meant to convey limitless possibility, like an artifact of technology dropped onto the earth by an advanced alien civilization.
The Xbox One was the opposite. It was more of an ode to Richard Sapper, the recently departed industrial designer who gave us the original Thinkpad. The One was dark, boxy, and meant to blend into the black electronics of your A/V cabinet. It had almost no physical buttons on the face, and no plugs for controllers or USB sticks. And for how good this sounds on paper, it didn’t actually work all that well.
"On one hand, we’re trying to make things clean and modern. On the other, you have to make products usable," Ledbetter says. People complained they couldn’t find the button to pair a controller to the console (I myself have had this problem) because it was tucked away on the side. While others lamented that, with a capacitive face that came to life with a touch, the console could also be turned on accidentally by the brush of a dog’s tail. "We said that is magical and cool, [but] let’s make it work robustly," Ledbetter says.
The solution was to give the console real push buttons on its front, and USB ports, too. It then fell to the engineering team to evaluate how the motherboard and internal processors could be laid out to make the buttons and ports possible. Buttons made the sleek Xbox One aesthetic impossible, but it also meant no one will stand cursing at their Xbox again, trying to figure out how to get their controller connected.
Ledbetter only vaguely refers to the design necessity of "value," but cutting costs is key in making consoles profitable. For one, the company pulled the Kinect sensor and most of its integrated hardware, which had previously been standard. But from the looks of it, clever cost-shaving bleeds deep into the S’s industrial design. While the One had been designed in a two-tone, matte, and gloss black, requiring several parts and materials to come together into one, the One S is produced in mostly one piece: an injection molded case Ledbetter refers to as "unibody" construction—seemingly unaware, or unconcerned, that Apple uses the same term for their drilled metal body designs.
Because injection molding done right is extremely inexpensive, I suspect the S case is significantly cheaper to produce off an assembly line, but it’s actually brighter, and more eye-catching than its predecessor at the same time. The Xbox One S is, perhaps, the most gorgeous injection molding work I’ve ever seen, with a virtually seamless design that looks almost impossibly crisp to your eyes.
Rendered in a color Microsoft calls "robot white," Ledbetter promises that it will hide dust better than you’d expect—better than black products do, actually—and the pigment has been laced with anti-yellowing agents so the body ages without losing its luster. But the star of the show is its air holes, which keep the console cool and, in a nod to Braun or Apple, have been embraced as a starkly functional design feature.
"From the design point of view we say, it’d be great if this didn't have any venting at all. It’s tricky . . . One of the compromises we had was, is there a way to minimize venting? The answer from the engineering team was, we need vents! Otherwise it won’t cool itself," says Ledbetter. "We embraced it."
What’s remarkable is just how good these holes look. It’s beautiful plastic. Examine the console close, and the quality of injection molding is evident. Every one of these holes represents a pin placed into the mold. Plastic formed around the pins, the plastic cools, and the pins need to be removed without breaking the case or showing extra seams—and this is occurring with a level of accuracy that allows sharp corners and a whole under layer of venting that’s hard to see in product photos. That’s all the result of Microsoft’s engineering team putting untold hours into creating the perfect injection molding process for this one product.
The new controller embraces injection molding, and the hole aesthetic, too, but on a much smaller scale. "If you put the grip under a microscope, you’ll see it’s a grid just like the venting on the console. It’s these super super small bumps that have been laser etched into the tool to provide that grip," says Ledbetter. "If we’re going to be molding a part, if we can provide molding texture to the part, it comes for free."
While the Xbox One S has used injection molding to embrace a sort of cheap chic, it’s easy to see that, in taking this approach, Microsoft has left itself room to one-up its own product. The company has already announced a vastly more powerful and more expensive Xbox, called the Xbox Scorpio, built to support the lofty specs of virtual reality headsets.
Ledbetter isn’t talking Scorpio designs just yet, but given the company’s track record of releasing a console in black, only to increase excitement when it goes white, only to increase excitement when it goes black again, it’s easy to imagine Scorpio looking like the original Xbox One—with it’s matte and gloss play—with an even more intricate design embracing everything Microsoft has learned about injection molding in the One S, but with less of a value-driven price limitation.
In the meantime, it’s hard to imagine that the Xbox One S’s classically inspired industrial design will be enough to save Microsoft from losing this console generation to Sony. Then again, if second place looks this good—and if Xbox can continue to grow—who really cares anyway?
[All Photos: courtesy Microsoft]