It's been well established that the Xbox One reveal wasn't one that went over very well with core gamers. And while there were numerous missteps along the way, Microsoft has gone to great lengths to claw their way back into (most) gamer's good graces. The Xbox One is out and Microsoft's vision of the future of console gaming is in many consumers hands. Is this a future we want to be a part of?Design
We made a pretty big deal about the PlayStation 4 design, such as how its small enclosure and built-in power supply was impressive. It hides itself well within your entertainment center. The Xbox One is on the opposite end of the spectrum, in some regards, though it still blends in quite well with your existing audio and video equipment.
While much was made of just how big the Xbox One is, the reality of the situation isn't so dramatic. Take the original Xbox 360 and square off the edges and you have the size of the Xbox One. Of course a large power brick adds to this and the Kinect further makes it "feel" bigger than it is. The dark aesthetics of the console with the matte and gloss finish and a simple glowing white X logo really do blend well. It's a nice looking box with plenty of ventilation - no doubt, learning from past issues.
In our daily use the Xbox One remained fairly cool and quiet. Even with the drive spinning up from time to time, it's a barely audible device. If it wasn't for the visibility of the Kinect, you might forget you even have the Xbox One running.Features
I won't dive too deep into the technical features of the box. Much has been made about the power of the console, the graphics chip specifically. Yes, the Xbox One isn't as powerful as the PlayStation 4, and it's evident by a few of the cross-platform launch titles like NBA 2k14 and Call of Duty: Ghosts - but for the most part, graphical quality is VERY close. Just as close as the previous generation between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Out of the box you have an HDMI in and out port. The in port is used to hook up your cable or satellite TV, but in reality, you could hook up your old 360 or even a PlayStation 4 and use this device through the Xbox One. There are two USB ports on the back and one port on the side, all USB 3.0. There's also connections for wired networking, the Kinect, and an IR port (which requires a cable) if your TV box is hidden from view of the Kinect.
Inside you've got a blu-ray drive, Wireless 802.11a/b/g/n with 5Ghz support, and a 500GB hard drive. We feel that 500GB is simply way too small of a starting point for consoles in this digital age, especially with mandatory installs of everything. Unfortunately, unlike the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One's hard drive isn't user-upgradable. Bummer.User Interface
The user interface for the Xbox One is a bit dichotomic. In a lot of regards it's a step in the right direction over the Xbox 360, but in a lot of ways, it feels like a step backwards, too. Sticking around is the familiar tile design from Windows 8 and the Xbox 360, but gone are the ads and the clutter of paging through content you don't care about. Instead, your main screen has some recent and common actions. Friends are always a click away as is the currently running app (or game in the drive).
Paging to the left Microsoft has finally given us the ability to "Pin" apps and games for quick access. Paging to the right gives you access to the store with content divided up between games, movies, music and apps.
I could spend pages talking about all of the redesigned applications, but let's just touch on a few. The new achievement application is beautiful, showcasing achievements not as tiny icons but gorgeous screenshots from the game. There's a clear view here of exactly what you've done, what's left to be done, and there are sections for "timed" achievements. For instance, there's an achievement for beating Ryse within a week of launch or earning a million points in one week of Xbox Fitness. It's a nice addition and something to keep you coming back for more of those precious achievement points. The only issue now is, everything has achievements including the apps themselves. Watch Twitch.TV for an hour? Get an achievement. Launch Amazon Instant Video? Get an achievement. It sort of devalues what the achievements stood for and makes getting them not quite as exciting.
The friends list is another area that has seen a huge overhaul. By default you get a giant social feed of what your friends are playing, what videos they uploaded, and what achievements they've unlocked. Below that, you have your actual friends list, which is now capped at 1000. There's also a list of "followers" which are essentially a one-way friends list. You can follow someone, but they don't become your friend until they follow back. Friends can then be organized into favorites for easier access as well, which is a nice touch.
There are several other tweaks and enhancements to the apps on the console itself, but it should be noted that the UI is heavily geared towards voice navigation. Content is buried 2, 3 or more clicks at times. If you don't have something pinned, it's a lot quicker to simply say "Xbox, Go to Forza 5" than trying to find it by going to Apps and Games->Scroll the linear list until you hit Forza 5. We'll talk more about the voice navigation later in this review.
The final piece of navigation is the ability to multitask. If you've used Windows 8 before you've seen the ability to "split" the screen between two apps. On the Xbox One you can "snap" apps to the right side of the screen. Activity streams, television, or even internet explorer can be brought up in a side view for quick reference.
Like the PlayStation 4 there's a focus here on sharing elements, namely video. To record video you simply say "Xbox, Record That" to snag the last 30 seconds of gameplay. It'll also automatically record video at specified times during games. These clips are shared with friends automatically or you can opt to use the Upload Studio app to edit, add voice over, and more. The studio works great and it was incredibly easy to combine clips and add to them. Plus you are able to upload the raw output to your SkyDrive for YouTube uploading. Sadly there's no way to stream video right now to the internet, but that is coming next year.Online Features
Microsoft was the dominant force in online gaming last generation. They led the pack with features like party chat, matchmaking and more. And while a lot of the features you've come to expect from Xbox are here, some are oddly missing or incomplete.
The party system is mostly the same as it was before, but there are a few weird changes. When you start a party, depending on where you are, you might not be placed in party chat right away. You also can't chat with players on the Xbox 360. The best addition is the ability to snap the chat to the right side for easy viewing of who exactly is speaking.
Matchmaking has been slightly redesigned. While it's tough to tell just how much "better" it is, Microsoft is claiming a more refined experience matching you with players you are more compatible with. It's too early in the Xbox One's life to judge this, but the few matches of Ryse: Son of Rome, Forza 5 and Dead Rising 3 I played seemed A-OK. Another benefit of the system's ability to multi-task is you can start matchmaking and head back to the dashboard and browse around a bit. Once your match is ready the Xbox One will notify you and you can jump in and connect up.
Sadly some of the better features of the Xbox 360 are missing. You can't send voice messages anymore, or right now, at least. It's unclear if that feature is coming back. You can't set notifications telling your friends that you are looking to play a specific game.Controller
The Xbox One controller is a small refinement to an already excellent design, it's not so much an evolution as the Dual Shock 4 was for the PlayStation 4. The batteries for the device now fit seamlessly into the design, no longer protruding out. Using two standard AA batteries, I have yet to drain them in well over a week's worth of playtime; it's quite impressive.
The thumbsticks are more rigid, solid, and less slippery than before. The triggers feel good, though the bumpers' new clicky design I like slightly less. It's weird to not have a start and option button. Instead, two strange symbols adorn the controller where they'd normally be. The d-pad is a big improvement as well, though it does have a cheap plasticy feel to it.
The biggest change to the controller isn't the most obvious one. It's the inclusion of rumble into the triggers themselves. It's damn amazing. You'll feel tires slip and grip in Forza 5 or you'll feel the band of the bow as you release an arrow in Ryse. It's similar to old school PC gaming force feedback, but not as pronounced and definitely more detailed.
I like the Xbox One controller a bit more than the original Xbox 360, though I do feel at times my hands get fatigued faster.Kinect 2.0
Microsoft is betting big on the new Kinect, making it a requirement by including it in every box. It's the reason you are paying $500 for the console. What this means is there's a big reliability on it just about everywhere. Thankfully the focus seems to have moved more to the voice recognition, and less so on motion for navigation within the interface. When it works, it's incredibly slick. But we had some pretty consistent issues with getting it to recognize basic commands.
The camera though gets used in some interesting and subtle ways. Facial recognition works well after just one "learning" session of asking who a person is. Grab a controller and you'll automatically log into that profile. This is great for couch co-op gamers and even pass the controller type games. The Kinect is even smart enough to recognize pets and such - and while they won't have their own profile, they won't ruin the recognition like the original Kinect did when my dog came into view.
Using Xbox Fitness was the best test with just how well Kinect 2.0 works. All of the advertised features come into play here - the muscle tracking, heartbeat sensing, and more all work well. The field of view of the camera is much wider, meaning you won't need as much space to have the device work, though I did have some problems going out of the field of view with floor exercises. The Kinect wants to be mounted high, not sit below the TV for optimal performance, but the larger size of it makes it tough to sit on many TVs.
If Microsoft can tweak the voice recognition to be more consistent, the Kinect might just be a risk well taken. The novelty wears off pretty quick when you need to say something three or four times just to get it to work.Smart Glass (Second Screen)
Smart Glass is back and while it's not as cool as the game streaming Sony provides with the Vita and PS4, you probably have a device that supports Smart Glass already. The only downside I've found so far is it seems some smart glass apps require a tablet to work. For instance, while Ryse Son of Rome does work on my phone and you can see some stuff - several sections of the app are blocked off saying it requires a tablet.Touching on Games
Ryse: Son of Rome is the best looking launch title on any system right now. The combat is fun and satisfying, and story is decent. Co-Op is fun, but repetitive, and surprisingly very involved in terms of what it'll take to "complete." Forza 5 runs smooth, looks great, and has more lens flares than a JJ Abrams movie. Dead Rising 3 is impressive too, looking over a group of zombies is actually frightening. Zoo Tycoon is addictive, cute, and great to play with kids. Honestly there isn't a launch title I felt wasn't worth playing. We'll have full co-op reviews soon of all of the launch titles.
Microsoft has the much stronger lineup here. There are simply more and better games to play on the console right now. At least a half dozen exclusives, and I'm not talking rehashes of old Xbox 360 games.
If there's a downside I saw, it seems all first party titles are including microtransactions as standard fare. Despite paying $20 or even $60 for a game you can spend additional money to gain experience faster in Forza 5 or purchase bonus continues in Crimson Dragon. It's a concerning trend and it might be the price we have paid to remove all of those ads from the dashboard.
Another disappointing thing with the Xbox One is the install times on games and loading times in general. While the PS4 saw games install in just a few minutes, I've had a few cases where the Xbox One takes almost 10 minutes to install a title. That said, the download and play stuff works great and after just 15 minutes or 10% of the download of Forza 5 I was up and playing despite the entire downloading taking almost three hours. Despite everything being installed to the hard drive I have found that the load times seem to be longer than expected as well.Wrapping it Up
Overall the Xbox One has a lot of features going for it and a lot of potential, but it's not quite there yet. Microsoft has laid the groundwork for the more progressive of the two consoles, but I just feel some of the interface inconsistencies both in usability and voice commands hold it back. The multitasking capabilities of the Xbox One can't be downplayed, this is a true multitasking system that behaves at times more like a PC than a console.
The strength of the Xbox One is the games. There are simply more games and better games available on the Xbox One compared to the PlayStation 4. There's at least one title available for everyone from kids to adults, from core gamers to casual gamers. Microsoft is strengthening the value of Xbox Live Gold as well with the inclusion of services like Xbox Fitness, though sadly, apps like Netflix are still stuck behind the paywall.
The next generation of consoles have provided us with an interesting dilemma as a reviewer. We can fault the device for its issues and shortcomings, but the reality is, in six months these will most likely be fixed. Even despite these, the Xbox One is a solid platform right now and feels loaded with potential to do something different. Until it gets there, you can keep yourself busy playing the games.