One console to rule them all. One console to find all your devices, one console to control all your services and in the living room bind them.
That’s Microsoft’s plan. Gaming, cable television, music and movies all streaming into one system: the Xbox One. It’s ambitious, but the hardware seems capable.
The real question is this: can the Xbox One overcome the mixed messaging, the now-canned 24-hour online dependence and the other potholes that had it stumbling out of the gate, and allowed Sony to win E3 2013 with some sharp PlayStation 4 counter-programming?
Thanks to a strong launch lineup and more than a bit of damage control, the Xbox One is repairing its reputation. Still, does it have a chance at the ubiquity of the of its predecessor, the Xbox 360? Or will it trip over its own $500/£429.99 price tag?
It’s quite the legacy to live up to. For long stretches of the last console generation, the Xbox was king. While the Wii was everywhere, and millions of gamers and AV enthusiasts eventually picked up a PlayStation 3, for a while there the phrase "let’s play some Xbox" was almost interchangeable with "let’s play some video games."
It was the console that brought Xbox Live into maturity, setting the standard for the online experience on a gaming console. It taught couch gamers to tolerate the tech support look of a headset in exchange for voice communication, and that you get what you pay for: a year of Xbox Live Gold might have cost as much as a game, but the service was more robust than Sony’s PSN.
Now at the dawn of a new console generation, the Xbox One stands before us, a combination game console and home theater system. Can it truly wrangle all the disparate devices of the living room, as well as support a robust library of games, or has Microsoft bitten off more than it can chew? Don’t worry, we’ll slice those facts nice and thin for you in our review.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Xbox One is what an absolute beast it is. It measures 274 x 79 x 333 mm, making it longer and taller than a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox 360. You don’t need a tape measure to figure that out though, the thing just looks huge.
Its size and girth harkens back to the original Xbox, an imposing black plastic beast covered in black plastic ridges. Microsoft seems to be throwing back to that design, bringing back the all black and the ridge-covered aesthetic.
When you first take the Xbox One out of its box, you’ll notice an eyesore of a sticker next to the Blu-Ray drive, asking you to kindly not move the system while a disc is inside.
A good warning, as that can damage a spinning disc in any system, but an ugly sticker – luckily it comes off nice and clean. We also have a hard time imagining that gamers will be moving their hulking Xbox Ones very often, especially since the system is also not designed to stand on its side.
It’s massive size and black rectangular construction evoke a stereo tuner from the nineties. Its imposing bulk begs to be hidden away, with just its slot loading disc drive exposed, little white Xbox logo glowing in lonely TV cabinet darkness.
Flip the machine around and you’ll see a plethora of ports. It has all your standard nodes: ethernet, HDMI out, power, S/PDIF (commonly used for optical audio), dual USB 3.0 ports and an IR out. Additionally, there are two proprietary ports, one for hooking in the Kinect, and an HDMI-in, which is how you feed the Xbox One your cable or satellite signal. There’s also a third USB 3.0 port found on the system’s right side.
The HDMI-in can function as a passthrough and let any old HDMI signal in. There is a slight input delay though, which puts the kibosh on dreams of playing PS4 or Wii U games through the Xbox One.
You can’t talk Xbox One without bringing up the new Kinect. While the system can operate without being hooked into Microsoft’s magic eye, you’d be losing a lot of its most unique features and showroom wow factor.
The new Kinect is a whole lot bigger than its predecessor. It’s also designed to sit in front of your TV, rather than perched on top of the screen like the PlayStation Camera. It’s too big and, presumably, delicate for that.
Just like the system itself, it has a white light up logo on its right side. Dull red lights from its IR blaster intermittently glow when it’s active.
The underside of the Kinect has rubber feet that provide a firm grip. It’s not going to fall off your entertainment center any time soon. It can also tilt up and down, with enough range of motion that there shouldn’t be any trouble finding the right angle for your living room.
The Xbox One is more than a game console. That got it into some hot water when it first debuted at E3 2013. There were accusations that Microsoft had shoved games to the side in favor of media features and cable integration – features that aren’t even available outside of the US at launch.
While this may have been true about that particular presentation, we’ve found that the Xbox One itself achieves an admirable balance of gaming and television features, while keeping the former at the forefront.
What’s in the box?
What a pile. An Xbox One purchase gets you the console and a Kinect, a power cable and adapter (aka the power brick), a decent headset, the headset adapter, an HDMI cable and controller with batteries. You’ll also get a 14-day free trial of Xbox Live Gold.
Xbox One setup is more involved than on the PS4, but it’s still not terribly complex. Along with power and HDMI, you’ll also have to connect the Kinect through its proprietary cable.
If you plan to watch TV on the console (not available in the UK yet, sorry folks), you’ll do so with an HDMI cable, through the system’s HDMI-in port. You’ll then need to run the OneGuide’s setup, which isn’t too complex. We’ll get into that in the media portion of this review.
When you first switch the system on you’ll be met with a setup wizard which will get you connected to the internet for that day one patch. It’s around 2GB, and absolutely required before you can even get to the Home screen.
After that’s done don’t go unplugging your router just yet, at least if you want to play Blu-rays. Almost nothing is on the system by default, and while internet access is not required for single player gaming, there’s a ton of functionality that still needs come down from the cloud.
Hop into the Store and get those downloads queued up. After that though, setup is complete. Now before we dive deep into the Xbox One, allow us to walk you through some of its big new functions.
Oh snap, the Xbox One’s tiled Home screen is a dead giveaway that the interface shares some DNA with Windows 8. Its brought one of the unique features of the Metro UI to your TV screen in the form of app snapping.
Snapping lets you run two apps at once, giving a third of the screen to one app off to the right, and the rest to your primary engagement. It’s a good way to do a little Internet Explorer browsing while you wait for a friend to join your game, but beyond that it can be straining on the eyes and clunky to navigate.
First off, on all but the biggest TVs, a third of the screen just isn’t enough space to do much of anything. Having FIFA on one side and an actual live match on the other may sound intriguing, but in practice it’s cramped and terribly distracting. Snapping is better left to simpler apps, like Xbox Music or a Skype call.
It’s also a headache to execute with the controller since it requires multiple trips to the home screen. First to load up the primary app, then to back out and choose snap, after which you pick your secondary app.
Kinect does make things easier. You can simply say "Xbox snap Music" to get the side by side feature working. It’s also much easier to just say "switch" for toggling between the two rather using the controller.
The biggest problem with Snap is that the interface relies on it too heavily for multitasking, and it forces you to give up visual real estate when you really shouldn’t have to. For example, Xbox Music needs to be snapped in order to crank tunes while you play. Compare that to the PS4, which may lack a picture in picture feature, but lets its own music service run in the background, tucking the controls into the PS menu.
While it’s impressive that the Xbox One’s hardware is capable of juggling all this with a drop in gaming performance, it comes off as something you can do, but not something you’ll actually want to do, at least very often.
Game DVR could be the end of gaming tall tales and "you had to be there" stories. With help from Microsoft’s SkyDrive service, it lets you easily record and share your personal epic wins, besting the PS4’s Video Share offering as the more open and YouTube-friendly recording option.
From the get go it’s much simpler than third-party recording devices since it’s built directly into the system. The best part is that it requires no setup or planning. If you just unleashed a brag-worthy killstreak in Call of Duty, simply say "Xbox record that" and a 720p recording of your last thirty seconds in-game is saved to the hard drive. You can also take a screenshot by saying, you guessed it, "Xbox take a screenshot."
If you’re the type who plans ahead and would like to record a longer video, switching to Game DVR, or snapping it alongside your game, lets you record up to five minutes of gameplay. This is one place where Sony’s system has the edge. The PS4 keeps a recording of your last fifteen minutes in gaming, letting you pull clips from that instant archive.
So while recording a clip longer than thirty seconds requires less foresight on the PS4, the Xbox One’s SkyDrive integration makes for more robust sharing. Whereas the PS4 only lets you upload to Facebook or the PSN, SkyDrive delivers clips as edit and upload friendly MP4s.
Upload Studio also has a simple suite of editing tools, and allows you to record a voice over commentary. You can even use Kinect recording to place yourself in the video, picture-in-picture style.
You can also share clips on Xbox Live where they will appear on in your activity feed. Those feeds are rather buried though, so chances are your friends won’t see it unless you give them a heads up.
While the Xbox One currently has no built-in live streaming capabilities to match the PS4’s Twitch and Ustream support, we think players will appreciate having direct access to their clips, which greatly extends the possibilities of editing and sharing.
Smartglass is the Xbox’s second screen experience. It was introduced on the Xbox 360 and lets you navigate menus and see system information on your tablet or smartphone.
The app is back for Xbox One, and does have improved functionality. You can now launch apps from the second screen, and several games now have companion apps. Dead Rising 3 lets you use your device in lieu of the in-game phone for ordering attacks and calling for back. You can even view the in-game map.
The best service Smartglass provides is a keyboard that’s easier than the console’s on-screen option. It’s a great way to read and respond to messages. You can also type in URLs and operate Bing search this way, which is an excellent way to multitask. You can also use the OneGuide on Smartglass for TV control.
The Windows 8 Smartglass app has its own special features. You can throw a browser page from the console directly onto the screen of your W8 device.
Also, its online requirement, which threatened to lock up the system without a daily server ping, has been dialed way, way down. Out of the box, your Xbox One will need to download a day one patch before you even arrive at the homescreen. After that, you can cut the ethernet cable or smash your router; there’s no further online connectivity needed for single player gaming.
While this functionality is not available to UK customers at launch, North Americans can use that HDMI-in to turn the Xbox One into a cable box. Using a built in guide, you can navigate channels and search for specific shows, using the controller or your voice via Kinect.
Xbox One also integrates streaming services that you’re currently subscribed to, and helps you find what you’re looking for across all options.
For example, if you want to watch The Matrix, search for the film, and the Xbox One Guide will tell you if you can watch on Netflix, if you own it on Amazon, show a link to buy it through the Xbox Marketplace, or give you a heads up that it will be on cable next week.
Controller + Kinect
Beloved the world over for its comfortable layout and dependable Bluetooth connection, the Xbox 360 controller became a gaming gold standard. For the Xbox One, Microsoft has given it an overhaul, and it’s mostly for the best.
Same goes for the Kinect. It never got the adoration of the 360’s gamepad, and was often accused of being a gimmicky, "me too" by Microsoft after the Nintendo Wii kicked off a motion control craze (Sony had its own attempt – remember the PlayStation Move?).
This time around, Microsoft still hasn’t built a lot of games around the Kinect. Instead, it’s been integrated into the console’s interface. While you can choose not to use it, you’d be missing out on some of the most surprisingly fun, but occasionally frustrating, features of the Xbox One.
The Xbox 360’s controller was widely regarded as the best all around console gamepad. Its natural contours, well placed triggers and asymmetrical stick layout made it comfortable and the right fit for games of all kinds.
Moving from the 360 to the One, Microsoft has altered little about its signature controller. The most noticeable change is the new position of the Xbox button, which is now at the top rather than in the middle, making it harder to hit by accident.
Basically, Microsoft chose not to mess with a good thing and stuck to improving the existing design. It’s now lighter, with a matte finish that feels sleek in the hand. The analog sticks are extra grippy thanks to textured rubber.
There’s also force feedback in the triggers, letting you feel the kick of a gun or the rumble of off-road driving right in your fingers. Right now it’s a bit of gimmick, but you never know what some clever developer might do with it.
Comparing the two side-by-side, we prefer the Xbox One’s controller to PS4’s DualShock 4. However, Sony’s controller has a few features we wish Microsoft would had adopted.
The Xbox One is still using AA batteries for power, while Sony has been building a rechargeable cell right into its controller since the DualShock 3. Microsoft sells that functionality separately in the form of the Play and Charge Kit. At $25/£19, it’s asking a lot, since extra controllers are already $60/£44 a pop.
The Xbox One’s controller doesn’t have any motion features, unlike the DualShock 4, which basically has Move built right in. It’s forgivable since you have a Kinect, but we do think that the PS4’s touchpad gives it an edge, both for casual gaming and manipulating big inventory screens.
Overall, the Xbox One controller is an improvement in every way except one: the shoulder buttons. The actions on the Xbox One’s bumpers are less taught. It makes for a flimsier click, which is a real shame, since the One controller trumps the 360’s build quality in every other way.
With the exception of that annoying flaw, the Xbox One has a really excellent controller. It’s a pleasure to hold, the batteries last just as long as the last-gen version and making black the standard color was a wise choice, since it won’t discolor as readily as the 360’s white model.
The Xbox One’s Kinect is a combination camera and microphone. It lets the system see you, hear you, react to your commands or just your presence. It also has an IR blaster that can interact with your TV and other appliances.
While Microsoft has taken pains to assure the public that the Kinect is not required for using the Xbox One, ignore it and you’d be missing out. After all, it’s going to be in the box no matter what; it’s the reason Xbox One is $100 more than the PS4.
Physically, it’s bigger than the Xbox 360’s Kinect. It’s wider, heavier, more rectangular and cannot be mounted to the top of your TV, at least not as-is out of the box. Also, unlike the 360’s Kinect, it doesn’t move on its own to keep you in frame. Microsoft has replaced that slightly unnerving feature with an optical zoom. The Kinect can be manually tilted, but you only need to do so during the initial setup.
There’s a wizard that makes calibration quite painless and only needs to be repeated if you make major changes to your living room setup. The first time you run it you’ll introduce Kinect to your face. Once seems to be enough, the Kinect was shockingly good at picking people out beneath glasses and facial hair.
Some checks do need to be repeated if you move the Kinect: making sure it can see enough of the floor and that the mic is tuned to hear you. The system will ask you to crank up your speakers so it can blast a few notes for a sound check. This makes sure Kinect can hear you over the TV. This whole setup process takes less than five minutes.
The Kinect sees you and hears you, letting you navigate menus with your voice or gesture commands. Being able to go from the first Home screen to your pins with a wave is nice, but beyond that the onscreen hand cursor is more trouble than it’s worth. It’s twitchy and doesn’t recognize a "press" very well.
For voice commands, the Kinect’s mic can reliably hear you over TV audio, but conversation and background noise gives it trouble. It’s best used when there’s little going on in the room besides playing Xbox. You also need to stick to rather rigid command syntax so it understands you.
Everything you say has to begin with "Xbox." "Xbox go to Forza Motorsport 5" will launch said racing game. It sounds simple enough but you’ll find plenty of ways to trip over it. For example, saying play rather than go to, or Forza instead of the game’s entire name. Kinect is no Siri when it comes to interpreting the way people actually talk.
A lot of the command phrasing isn’t terribly intuitive either. For example, "Xbox on" turns on the system, but "Xbox turn off" switches it off. Forgetting to say "turn" or putting it where it doesn’t belong usually results in no response from the Kinect.
Hopefully Kinect’s voice commands will improve and become less rigid over time. Siri and Google Now have certainly come a long way. As of now, Xbox One’s interface jammed with tutorials and lists of phrases; Microsoft knows there’s a lot to learn and it’s doing its best to compensate. See a full list of Kinect commands here.
Kinect makes a lot of basic functions convenient and fun. Pausing a movie, returning to the home screen and switching between snapped apps worked quite well. However, anything beyond simple commands can quickly get frustrating. Using it to navigate to specific channels in the OneGuide is fraught with errors.
The least reliable command is ironically the most basic. We frequently found ourselves saying "Xbox on" several times before the system would come to life. While it would sometimes snap to attention at first utterance, we never what we had done right, or wrong.
Also, while you can easily setup the Kinect’s IR blaster to automatically power on your TV, it might be a good option to skip. If your TV is already on when you say "Xbox On," it’ll turn it off. A lot of universal remotes have the same problem.
At its best the Kinect compliments the Xbox One’s interface by giving you options. You can go between speech, gestures and controller input without even bothering to tell the Kinect "stop listening." The bevy of options is impressive, and amusing.
Don’t think that the Kinect is ever not listening though. This thing can turn on the system, remember? It’s basically in standby all the time. While we think that Microsoft has better things to do than monitor what people are up to in their living rooms, the idea of an always on microphone is a bit disconcerting in the era of the NSA.
You can opt of out of using the Kinect by simply leaving it in the box, but you can’t opt out of paying for it. That’s a shame for gamers that would rather put that $100 toward games or a spare controller, but at least it gives a developers a major incentive to design for it. The Kinect’s install base will undoubtedly be larger than that of the sold separately, and comparatively underpowered, PlayStation 4 Camera.
Microsoft’s bid for living room supremacy is powered by an 8 core AMD processor, backed by 8GB of DDR3 and 32MB of ultra fast ESRAM. For storage, there’s a 500GB hard drive to keep your media, gameplay videos and game installs. Unlike the PlayStation 4, there’s no swapping out that mechanical drive for solid state without considerable trouble, and letting your warranty fly right out the window.
Speaking of windows, if you’ve used Windows 8, the Xbox One’s interface will look familiar. It’s made up of tiles and divided into three sections: Pins, Home and Store. It’s somewhat customizable, letting you pick the color of said tiles, but mostly works by automatically populating itself with your recently accessed apps and games.
Home is the first thing you’ll see when you turn on your Xbox, or hit the Xbox button on the controller. It devotes a large front and center rectangle to whatever you’re currently doing. Whether it’s a game, an app or TV, you’ll see a live preview of it in the middle of the screen. If you just booted up, it’ll show the last app you used.
The current app preview is flanked on the left by a strip for your Xbox Live profile. It provides fresh information about your Gamerscore and friends list.
The rest of Home is covered in tiles for other recently accessed apps. Besides your Live profile and the current app preview, Snap and My games & apps are the other permanent residents. There’s also a tile representing the disc drive, and three large Featured tiles.
Currently, the Featured section is filled with tutorials for the Xbox One. We’re not sure what kind of content it will host in the future, be we wouldn’t be surprised if advertisements started to hang out there.
To the left of the Home screen you’ll find your Pins, a favorites list you can customize with games, apps or TV shows. You may remember pins from the Xbox 360, but they’re far more convenient and powerful on the Xbox One.
For one thing, they’re practically living on the Home screen, just a scroll to the left away, while the 360 tucked them into their own folder. Being able to save a specific show or TV channel to Pins is the Xbox One’s media integration at its most convenient.
To the right of the Home screen is the Store. It’s divided into Games, Movies & TV, Music and Apps. There’s also a Bing search bar below it. The layout is attractive and the placement is unobtrusive. We’re just glad that it’s been relegated to its own screen, away from the more personal Home and Pins.
When you’re in an app or game, returning to the Home screen is as simple as pressing the Xbox button on the controller. Games are automatically paused, while videos and live TV continue to play, creating a sort of picture in picture effect.
Of course, the whole interface can also be navigated by Kinect, using either gestures or voice commands. The Xbox One’s interface does have its unintuitive moments, and the Kinect compensates for them nicely. We’re not sure why Settings has been folded into My games & apps, but being able to shout "Xbox go to Settings" saves you from having to remember that.
Currently, notifications aren’t getting the sort of prominence they deserve. They’re packed into a globe icon in the upper left of the screen. Same goes for your Xbox Live friends feed, which is stored in another small icon right next to it. It’s easy to miss gameplay videos shared by your friends, or an invitation to join a game.
Cramming all this important and fun information into tiny little icons really makes the Featured section of Home feel like a waste of space. We’d much rather have game invitations pop up there, rather than tutorials or whatever else is on its way.
When it comes to booting up, the Xbox One is very fast because it doesn’t really turn off unless you unplug it. Holding down the Xbox button and selecting console off really just puts it in standby mode.
Surely the Xbox One needs this hidden standby functionality both for better performance, and so the Kinect can listen for your "Xbox on" command. It does stand in contrast to the PS4, which lets you choose to either go into standby, or completely turn the system off. Fully shutting down your PS4 also locks you out of cool features, like PS Vita Remote Play, or starting a download from the mobile app.
Coming out of standby, the Xbox One takes only twenty seconds to reach the Home screen. Kinect will have you signed in by then as well, unless you’re sitting too far back. We sometimes had to lean forward before it recognized us.
From a full, unplugged shut down, the Xbox One takes a less impressive minute and seven seconds. Honestly though, there’s no reason why you should be frequently unplugging your Xbox One. We just think it’s odd that console off really means standby.
So while not every design choice is transparent, you can’t accuse the Xbox One’s interface of being sluggish. There’s no pop in on the Home screen, and overall navigation is snappy. You can drill through menus and browse your library as quickly as you can manipulate the D-pad, or bark at the Kinect.
Multitasking is where the Xbox One really shines. The system keeps your last three apps suspended, letting you switch between them with nary a stutter.
What’s surprising is how little is on the system when you first get it. When you first use your Xbox One you’ll frequently click on a tile, only to discover you don’t actually have the corresponding app yet. Out of the box, almost nothing is pre-installed. That makes sense for third-party services, but apps like Game DVR, Xbox Video, even the Blu-ray playing software need to be downloaded and installed.
It’s not such a big deal, just a telling indication of how internet reliant this new generation of gaming will be. Be sure get all your pertinent apps downloaded before having friends over to show off the new system.
Every game on the Xbox One requires at least a partial installation before it can be played. These installs are lengthier than on PlayStation 4, but not by much.
For example, a disc copy of Madden for Xbox One needed six minutes to reach 25% installation before letting us on the gridiron. The PS4 version needed two minutes, and an additional minute to download a patch before online features were enabled.
Installing isn’t a major roadblock on either system, but it is something to anticipate. It’s a good idea to pop a new game in the drive the minute you get home. That way you can be sure it’ll be ready when you are.
One advantage the Xbox One has over the PS4 is that discs are not required to play. Once a game has been installed, the system won’t ask for it when it’s selected from the menu. It’s a convenient feature, if nothing else, and makes using the Xbox One feel pleasantly self-contained.
Getting to graphics and gameplay, a lot has been made of the fact that many third-party games run in full 1080p on the PS4, while the Xbox One versions are 720p. There are indeed sharper visuals to be found on the PS4’s versions of Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, but you need a keen eye to tell the difference.
Character models often have more detailed textures, and lighting effects can be slightly more impressive on the PS4. However, performance across the two systems is very similar, with equally smooth framerates and load times that are close in length.
The 720p vs 1080p situation is still troubling, Microsoft will need to close this visual gap in future releases. It’s something we’ll be keeping an eye on as we update this review down the line.
The Xbox One has first-party games that show off just as much graphical gusto as the PS4. Ryse: Son of Rome and Forza Motorsport 5 are just as gorgeous as anything currently available from Sony. Dead Rising 3 is a bit behind the beauty curve but the sheer number of zombies it can render while maintaining a solid framerate is impressive.
The Xbox One wants to be the one system that handles all the entertainment in your living room. Movies, music and, of course, games, it’s set up to do it all.
From streaming apps to cable integration to Microsoft’s own services, the Xbox One certainly seems equipped to do it all. We’re just glad Microsoft bit the bullet and put a Blu-Ray drive in its system. The Xbox One also plays CDs, something the PlayStation 4 currently doesn’t do. Still, can the Xbox One really handle the potentially backbreaking load of the living room?
OneGuide and HDMI-in
If you’re in North America, the Xbox One can integrate your cable or satellite feed thanks to an HDMI-in port. Anyone who’s had cable installed in their home probably shudders at the thought of fooling with that precarious mix of coaxial and HDMI, but fear not, setting it up is easier than finding your cable company’s service number.
After connecting your cable box to the Xbox One via HDMI there’s a setup wizard to take you through all the steps. All you need to know is your service provider and zip code. Punch that in and the Xbox does the rest.
The result is the OneGuide, live TV on your game console organized a lot like your cable’s built-in menu. It can be navigated just like the One’s general interface, with speech, gestures, the controller or SmartGlass.
The OneGuide menu is accurate, but not fast. Scrolling quickly often gives you an empty menu that needs a few seconds before the listings pop in. We’ve never had that problem with our DirecTV menu. If you only watch a few channels the OneGuide’s favorite list will serve you well, but twitchy channel surfers will wonder if it’s even worth the bother.
Using Kinect commands with the OneGuide can also be a headache. While it easily understands page up or page down, telling it to go to specific channels can be rather inaccurate. It often tripped over all the different acronyms that make up station names, and sometimes struggled with something as simple as Comedy Central.
Our favorite part of the Xbox One’s cable integration wasn’t the OneGuide, is was being able to save specific channels and movies to our Pins for fast access. We also liked how TV listings were integrated in search results alongside streaming services. For example, if you used Bing to search for a movie, the results will include the next time it’s showing on TV, as well as places to buy or rent it.
The Xbox One is also hit or miss with 5.1 sound integration. There’s some extra configuration you have to work through, and while we were able to get it running, others have reported that it degrades sound quality, or just doesn’t work at all. That part of the service is marked as in beta, so Microsoft is working on it.
Lastly, while that HDMI-in is meant for TV, you can use it for anything with an HDMI port. Before you get too excited, we should tell you that it’s slightly too laggy for gaming. Forget about playing Killzone: Shadow Fall or Super Mario 3D World via the Xbox One, it’s a much better experience plugged directly into your TV.
When consoles aren’t playing games they’re often streaming movies, either through Netflix, Amazon Instant or Hulu Plus. While it’s still waiting on some key apps, the Xbox One wrangles that functionality by letting you search for programming across all your services, as well as your cable.
This runs through the Bing search function. Either by typing or talking to Bing, you can ask it for, say, Breaking Bad. The search results show you all the places where you can see the sad saga of Walter White.
For us, that meant that it was available on Netflix Instant. It also reminded us that we had a few episodes in our Amazon Instant library, we saw links to buy episodes on the Xbox Marketplace and got a heads up about reruns on AMC over the weekend. All these options were presented in one result page.
It’s not a perfect all in one search tough. When we asked Bing for The Matrix, it showed us when it would be on TV, and gave us links to rent it from Xbox Video, Vudu and Redbox Instant. We didn’t even have those last two apps installed. Meanwhile it ignored Amazon Instant, an app we’d been using, which had it for rent at the same price.
Streaming video services are hugely segmented. It would be fantastic to have a search that can present all the options in one place. Bing search comes close, but still overlooks certain media options, so you can’t rely on it 100%.
For streaming apps, Xbox and PS4 are neck and neck. Both have the big guys like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus, and both are missing HBO GO. While PS4 has separate NHL and NBA apps, Xbox has ESPN. However, right now only Xbox has an official NFL app.
Sony has Music Unlimited, Xbox has Xbox Music, and both services are doing their best to impersonate Spotify. Xbox Music has a library of comparable size, just like Spotify it charges $10 a month for unlimited streaming across your console, PC, phone and tablet.
When we reviewed the PS4, we noted how poor the Channel (radio) service was at finding music we liked. Xbox Music’s Radio function is much better at song matching, but its Sony’s Music Unlimited that has the better background interface.
To have music going while playing a game, Xbox Music relies on app snapping. That’s a pretty nonsensical choice, since it forces you to give up precious screen space for an app you only need to hear, not see. Why on earth doesn’t it just run in the background?
Other than that it’s a fine music service. While playing in full screen on your TV it cycles through sharp looking album art and band photos. You can listen to whole albums, or create a radio mix. If you’re playing a mix, you can zoom out and see the songs that are coming next.
Still, the lack of proper background playback is a deal breaker. While it’s a fine way to just play music if your Xbox One is hooked into your stereo, it’s not a great way to hear tunes while playing some Killer Instinct, which seems like the whole point of putting music and games on the same system.
Hopefully Microsoft will patch in some background functionality. Until then you’re better off with a separate music service.
Microsoft introduced Xbox Live at the tail end of the original Xbox, but it was on the Xbox 360 that it became the fleshed out, full featured online service that we know today. Now that more and more console features are internet dependent, a strong web connection, as well as buying into the console’s online service, is basically a requirement.
Paying for an Xbox Live Gold account has always been necessary to take your Xbox games online. That was a major edge for the PS3, which gave away this functionality, but now Sony has taken the same approach and put the PS4’s multiplayer behind a paywall. It does not, however, make you buy in to access Netflix and other streaming services.
The Xbox One still requires you to meet the $60/£35 price tag before you can have access to video services, which is getting harder to justify since it’s the pricier of the two consoles. And now that the Xbox One has more online features, there’s even more that’s walled off until you pay up. Uploading from Game DVR and cloud saves are not available without Gold.
Your account from the Xbox 360 will carry over to the Xbox One and for better or worse, Xbox Live is still basically the same service we knew from the 360. You can message friends, join groups for voice chat and jump right into a game. While you can still type up messages, Microsoft no longer lets you record and send audio messages.
At least you’re paying for quality servers. Right out of the gate, connections to Live have been stable, not buckling under the pressure of the day one launch crowd. We were able to play online co-op in Dead Rising 3 as well as fight online in Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts without a snag. Mic chat through the included headset was sharp, even clearer than on the Xbox 360.
Downloading a digitally purchased game from Xbox Live is just as swift as on Sony’s servers. Games can be played in mid-download, letting you dive into titles before the massive files finishes arriving.
With Game DVR the Xbox One has introduced big element to Xbox Live, but hasn’t given it its proper due. Your friend feed is rather buried, hidden a couple menus deep in the system’s interface. It makes uploading the file to SkyDrive and sharing it on YouTube a much more attractive option. While we appreciate that notifications and shared content it cluttering up our home screen, Microsoft should really consider finding a new place for this content to live.
There are also no free games yet available for Gold subscribers on the Xbox One. There is Killer Instincts, but it’s too riddled with microtransactions to really be called free. When you download the game you get only one character and one arena. Everything else is pay to play, up to the point where you can spend enough to buy a full boxed title.
Xbox really needs to step things up in this regard. PS Plus subscribers currently get two free games, Resogun and Contrast, and they’re both solid titles. Gold subscribers on the 360 currently have similair benefits, so there’s really no reason why Microsoft shouldn’t have come out of the gate with something to reward its paying customers.
Hands on gallery
The Xbox One wants to be everything to everyone. Games, movies and music, its lofty ambition is to put all your entertainment in one box.
Does Xbox One truly make you master and commander of the living room, or is it all more trouble than it’s worth? Allow us to break it down.
The Xbox One has the stronger launch lineup. We had a blast mulching hordes of zombies in Dead Rising 3. Ryse is an excellent showcase for the system’s graphical prowess, though the gameplay does get repetitive. Forza Motorsport 5 is a visual feast with plenty of depth and pairs nicely with the Game DVR feature. Both systems have a similar crop of third-party offerings, but the One’s exclusive games feel more distinct and original.
Kinect is great for simple commands. Saving gameplay footage, quickly pausing a movie, answering a Skype call, all these features work smoothly and make for a convenient and fun interface. Kinect is also surprisingly good at hearing you over the TV.
Xbox One’s gameplay video sharing is less locked down than the PS4’s. Xbox One doesn’t keep a running video archive like PS4, but it does grant you a lot more freedom with your footage. You can upload right to Skydrive, then download the an MP4 of the clip and do whatever you like with it. The PS4’s sharing is limited to the PSN or Facebook, with no actual access to the file.
It’s the best place to see TV alongside streaming media. Being able to perform a Bing search for a show and see when it will be on next as well as the places to rent or buy it is fantastic. While the Xbox One’s media integration isn’t perfect, there’s no other system that brings this kind of service to your TV.
The interface is fast and customizable. The system comes out of standby in less than thirty seconds, and menus move as fast as you can manipulate them. We also loved the convenience of Pins, which let you keep almost anything just a click away.
You’re getting your $100/£80 worth. The price difference between the PS4 and the Xbox One is big. While a lot of gamers would rather put that money towards more games, another controller or Xbox Live, and we really can’t blame them, we feel that there are $100 worth of additional features on the Xbox One.
Snapping apps makes for poor presentation. Performance-wise, the system can handle two programs admirably, but there are very few apps you’d actually want running side by side. TV and a game seem like the most common request, but the result is a visually cramped experience, and a jumble of audio. This is a feature better suited to Windows 8, where the mouse and keyboard make it easy to resize windows and alt-tab between the two.
The TV integration needs work. The OneGuide menu doesn’t populate as quickly as your cable’s native menu. The Xbox One doesn’t always play nice with 5.1 sound from cable, but Microsoft is working on that. Still, home theater enthusiasts should be hesitant to put Xbox One at the center of their setups. Also, the service isn’t available in the U.K. yet.
The controller still uses replaceable batteries. We really wish Microsoft had copied Sony’s DualShock and gone for a built-in rechargeable cell. No one likes searching for AAs when friends come over. Also, the shoulder buttons on the One’s controller don’t feel as nice as those on the 360.
Kinect commands are very rigid. We weren’t expecting Siri, but you have to talk to it in very precise, often unintuitive ways to make it understand. It also failed to register the "Xbox on" command about half the time.
Xbox Live hasn’t improved much, and too much is walled off. A Gold subscription is still more expensive than the PS Plus. Sony might catch some flack putting PS4 multiplayer behind a paywall, but it sweetened the deal with free games and discounts. Xbox Live is pretty much the same service it was on the 360, and access to apps like Netflix still requires you to pay up.
Some third-party titles run in 720p. That simply shouldn’t be the case. You might need to pause the game and have a look to tell, but there are noticeable differences between Xbox One and PS4 versions, with the PS4 coming out on top. If there’s one thing Microsoft needs to sort out in the next few months, it’s this.
When the Xbox One was first unveiled to the public, there were worries that it would embody the Jack of all trades, master of none cliche. While the media integration features need polish and Kinect could use a grammar lesson, the most important things are there: good games, a solid interface and reliable servers for hours and hours of online gaming.
From yelling at Kinect to pinning channels and games to sharing uploads from the Game DVR, it’s just plain fun to use the Xbox One.
Microsoft’s gaming torch has been passed from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One. We’re really looking forward to what comes next.