Xbox One review: all-in

By Andrew Yoon, Nov 19, 2013 9:00pm PST

On paper, the two next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony are largely similar. Both are online-enabled, social-centric, AMD-powered black boxes that play many of the same games. Yet, people's opinions on the two are wildly differently--largely due to the difference in strategy the two companies have taken.

Whereas PlayStation 4 was touted as "the best place for gamers," Microsoft took a different approach. Even the name "Xbox One" signals a shift in focus away from just games. Xbox One is meant to be your "all-in-one entertainment machine," not only revolutionizing the way you play games, but TV and movies as well. Does it succeed?

Design

Xbox One is also "just another black box." However, it's not quite as elegantly designed as PS4. It's a behemoth of a console, larger than even the original Xbox 360, and still has a power brick to boot. This time around, there's also Kinect included--and Microsoft's next-gen camera is equally hefty. It's hard to imagine anyone being able to mount it on top of a slim TV.

But Xbox One isn't large simply to be the Hummer of your living room. It's clear that Microsoft learned valuable lessons from Xbox 360. Burned by RROD, Microsoft may have played it overly-safe, designing a system that's mostly made out of vents. Even Kinect has its own dedicated cooling system. "Better safe than sorry" was clearly the motto when designing the system, but the end result is a piece of tech that is distressingly quiet. Microsoft intended the console to be always-on... and that seems entirely possible. For anyone that's ever suffered through the whirring fans of the original Xbox 360, Xbox One is a huge improvement.

Controller

Microsoft clearly took a "if it ain't broke" approach to their controller. Xbox 360's controller was best-in-class, and Xbox One makes subtle changes. For better and for worse, you'll need to use a proprietary headset with the controller, and you'll still be swapping in AA batteries. (I'm personally a fan of the integrated USB-rechargeable option offered by PlayStation.) Perhaps the most significant change made to the controller is the addition of impulse triggers. These extra motors give vibration an extra kick. However, it doesn't appear developers are really utilizing it, with Forza Motorsport 5 being the best (and only?) example of what's possible. Even then, it's a subtle effect. With the many advancements made to DualShock 4, Xbox One's controller is certainly far less exciting--although no less reliable than before.

Kinect

One of the only controversial decisions surrounding Xbox One that Microsoft hasn't backtracked on is the mandatory inclusion of Kinect with every Xbox One. It's part of the system's DNA, although I can confirm that you do not need to have Kinect connected to have the system operational.

But, it's included in the box--so why not set it up? Microsoft has smartly made Kinect a rather non-intrusive part of the Xbox experience, inviting users to try the camera if they so choose. The setup, for example, is remarkably easy. Gone are the calibration cards from last generation's Kinect. In fact, you can just "set it and forget it." On every TV I've tested Kinect on, I just put it in a reasonable place and it just started working. The only setup you'll have to do is an audio check, a process that takes less than a minute and involves almost zero effort to complete.

The way you'll use Kinect is far less flashy than in the previous generation. You won't be waving your hands and flailing your arms trying to select menu items on the Dashboard. (Although if you so choose, you can operate Xbox One in that manner.) Instead, Microsoft has placed their focus on voice commands, which we'll go into in more detail later in the review.

Kinect enables some "magic moments" that simply aren't possible on other consoles. I love it when Xbox One can recognize me and automatically sign me in. At GameFly, there were quite a number of people checking out the system. But the moment I walked in front of the TV, it instantly recognized me and said "Welcome Andrew" and logged me into my Dashboard. It can even recognize other registered users as well (like Ozzie) and sign them in.

Another feature that I love is the ability to scan QR codes. Instead of inputting a 25-digit code, all you have to do is aim the QR code at the camera. It's so fast, it really feels like a magic trick. I didn't even have to stand up from my seat and walk closer to the camera. I just flashed a sheet of paper and it instantly activated. (ProTip: You can convert existing 25-digit codes into plain-text QR codes and they will work with Xbox One.)

Neither of these features are particularly flashy, and neither them are the "killer app" that people may want out of Kinect. However, these are just some of the small things that you begin to appreciate by having Kinect around.

It's incredibly easy to connect your Xbox to your TV

TV, HDMI-In, OneGuide & IR Blaster

Kinect is also pivotal when integrating your TV to your console. I don't have cable TV, but I still appreciated being able to control my television set through Kinect. The console has a built-in "IR Blaster," which effectively turns Kinect into a universal remote. A simple setup process has you inputting your TV manufacturer (and maybe model number). You'll then be able to adjust the volume of your TV, change the channel, or even turn it off using Kinect.

By enabling the feature, you'll be able to say "Xbox, Mute" without having to stumble for a remote control. Once again, it's a minor feature, but one that you'll appreciate being able to do. If you do have cable TV, like Ozzie does, the console will go through yet another automated process to interact with your cable box.

Once your box is connected, you can use Kinect commands to switch channels on the fly. For example, saying "Xbox, Watch ESPN" will switch you over to ESPN's HD channel. By saying "Xbox, Watch TV," you'll access OneGuide--an enhanced TV guide that lets you see content not only on your channels, but on apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus as well.

Of course, you don't have to use Xbox One's HDMI-In for cable TV. You can use it for any HDMI-enabled device. And here's a surprise I couldn't mention in my PS4 review: it was running through Xbox One the entire time. There's absolutely no lag introduced by first going through Xbox One. And I personally appreciated having the ability to control the volume of my TV with voice commands while playing Sony's home console.

However, I should note that the IR Blaster has been particularly problematic with my Toshiba TV, working only about half the time. Neither Ozzie nor myself encountered problems with two other televisions we tested, so be mindful that your mileage may vary.

Snap lets you run a game and an app at the same time

Voice Commands, Snap & Multitasking

Both consoles are impressive with their ability to multitask. On both consoles, I can play a game, watch a few minutes of a show on Netflix, go back to the game, and then resume the episode without losing progress in either the game or TV show. However, only Xbox One has the ability to Snap. Much like Windows 8, you'll be able to attach apps to the side of the screen that run in parallel to your game.

It's a cool feature, one that's made much easier through voice. If you so want, you can say "Xbox, Snap Internet Explorer" and have a browser window pop up on the right side of the screen. To switch between the left and right side of the screen, you can say "Xbox, Snap" or double-tap the Home button on the controller. To close the Snap, you say "Xbox, Unsnap." It's a cool feature, but I'm not sold on its usefulness. Not a single Snap app really convinced me this was a good idea.

Ozzie was particularly intrigued by the ability to snap live TV, however. You'll use the left side of the screen to play any of your games as normal, while your TV runs on the side, with both the game and television running at full volume. But having live TV snapped can be distracting, especially when the TV volume would drown out something happening in the game, for example.

Snap does make it easy to know when to switch into full-screen mode, however. For example, you could be watching a sports game in Snap, and launch the full TV app when something big is happening. DVR functions are also tied to voice command, so you can "Xbox, Rewind" to go back a few minutes.

Voice commands feel magical when they work--but there's still a lot of work to be done. Unfortunately, you cannot talk to Xbox in a natural way. Instead, Xbox is very particular about the commands it can respond to. For example, you'll have to say a game's full title in order for it to launch. Imagine having to tell Kinect to launch a Square Enix game with Kinect?! You won't be able to say "Xbox, take me back to my game" or "Xbox, lower the volume." (You have to specifically say "Xbox, Volume Down.")

There's also some overlap with commands, particularly "Stop Listening" and "Stop" command. Yelling "Xbox, Stop Listening" will make Kinect stop listening for voice commands, but it'll pause your live TV, too. There are also times where Kinect will completely misunderstand you, launching Messages instead of Netflix, for example. Sometimes, Kinect won't recognize you at all.

Perhaps the most frustrating moment when dealing with Kinect is the "Xbox, On" command. You can set your Xbox to go into standby mode, and it'll be awoken by that voice command. Unfortunately, it worked less than half of the time for me. (Ozzie has had more luck with it, although he struggles with the "Xbox, Turn Off" command.) It's especially frustrating because it's amazing when it does work. If you have your IR Blaster configured, it can even turn on your TV at the same time. But when it doesn't work, you'll feel a lot like this:

You'll also run into moments where you'll need your controller or remote control to progress, defeating the entire purpose of voice commands altogether. For example, you won't be able to access any of your DVR recorded shows using a controller or Kinect. Oftentimes, it's simply faster to use a controller than voice commands. For example, why say "Xbox, Go Home" when you just hit the Home button on your controller? And the newly-redesigned Dashboard makes it so easy to get to content that voice commands are oftentimes unnecessary.

Your Dashboard Pins are saved to the cloud, letting you retrieve them from any Xbox console

Dashboard & The Cloud

With its Metro interface, it's easy to think that much hasn't changed between the Xbox 360 Dashboard and Xbox One. But no, Xbox One is significantly less cluttered and easy to use. Crucially, it lets you suspend and resume your active app at a whim, simply by pressing the Home button. However, more importantly, the dynamically-generated menu of your four most recently-used apps gives you quick access to pretty much whatever you'll want to do next. For example, let's say you're playing Zoo Tycoon and you check the game's Achievements. The next time you press Home, you'll see Achievements as the first box on the bottom of the screen.

You can also set Pins on the left side of the screen for your most-used apps. I have Netflix pinned, so the TTN (Time-to-Netflix) on Xbox One is quite fast. Certainly faster than the TTN on PS4. And I was impressed that my Pins carried over to another Xbox One thanks to cloud storage.

In fact, everything carried over from one system to the other. I started playing LocoCycle at home and was able to continue my progress seamlessly on the office Xbox. Even more impressive: all my Game DVR clips were also accessible on a different Xbox One--and I had no idea I had uploaded them at all! With the exception of having to redownload my games and apps, it's as if any Xbox was my own--all without my having to think about it.

Upload Studio is one of my favorite features of Xbox One

Sharing

I was checking my Game DVR clips because I wanted to work on a video review right from the system. PS4 makes it incredibly easy to retrieve gameplay clips and upload them online--you just press the button on the controller. However, you can only upload highly-compressed clips to Facebook. Xbox One makes it a bit more difficult to capture footage, as you'll have to Snap Game DVR and have the console save up to five minutes of footage.

While it may be more cumbersome to access, Xbox One is far more versatile with what you can do with your captured footage. Through Upload Studio, you'll be able to actually do some minor video editing. Whereas PS4 only lets you trim clips, through Upload Studio, you'll actually be able to string together up to five different clips, trimming each one, and adding narration (if you so wish). The final product can then be uploaded to SkyDrive (Microsoft's Dropbox alternative) and downloaded as a standard MP4 file. This file can then be uploaded to YouTube or any other video service you'd like. Clearly, this is a much better alternative to "just Facebook."

The video quality is serviceable, but it's still noticeably compressed. You can download my Zoo Tycoon video review from my SkyDrive to check out the video quality for yourself. This video was created entirely with Xbox One. Nothing was touched up, no other accessories were purchased. (Note: I used the headset included with the console to record audio. So, this is a good way to gauge the quality of the audio as well.)

However, Xbox One won't offer any game streaming services at launch, a feature that Sony makes incredibly easy with PS4. In fact, you can broadcast directly to Twitch and Ustream on PS4. Microsoft says Twitch is coming in 2014, but it's clearly an oversight on their part.

Xbox Live for Xbox One revamps Friends with Followers

Xbox Live

Perhaps the most meaningful enhancement to Xbox Live is the revamped approach to Friends. Yes, now you can have thousands of friends if you'd like and see their Xbox Live activity a la Facebook. Crucially, you can now "Follow" people instead of "Friending" them, akin to Twitter. This is incredibly smart, as you'll be able to follow your favorite video game celebrities, even if they won't follow you back. (Sorry, I'm a jerk.)

However, while Xbox Live has proven to be one of Microsoft's greatest assets in the previous generations, it seems increasingly like a handicap. On Xbox One, you can pretty much assume you can do nothing without a Gold account. You can play single-player games, you can watch Blu-ray movies... and that's about it. That is ridiculous, especially given how much you can do on PS4 even without a PlayStation Plus account. And seriously, Netflix still requires a Gold account on Xbox?

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about using Xbox One without a Gold account is how much the console spams you with Gold-related advertising. Many games automatically create Game DVR clips at set intervals. However, because that's a Gold-exclusive feature, it means that your offline single-player game will be constantly interrupted with an advertisement to get Gold. For gamers that don't want to pay the $60 annual fee, that's like getting spit on the face.

Xbox One Day One Edition

Game Reviews

Conclusion

Xbox One is the logical follow-up to Xbox 360, a natural evolution of what Microsoft attempted in the previous generation. With or without Kinect, Xbox One is a powerful multitasking system that has incredible potential as a true "all-in-one" entertainment device. It's not quite there, though. The app library is still rather limited, and its inability to fully interact with DVR systems will frustrate the kind of user that's likely to use this functionality the most. When it works, Kinect is a wonderful addition to Xbox One. Already, I find myself drawn to its conveniences--notably the features enabled by the IR blaster.

Of course, these consoles don't exist in a bubble and many will ask "which system is better?" At launch, it's much too early to say. Personally, I can tell you that I've been enjoying my Xbox One more than my PS4. But, I have the luxury of not having paid for either of these consoles, nor having to pay for Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus. Is Xbox One $100 better than PS4? Is it worth paying an extra $60 a year for? Being able to scan QR codes is nice, being able to connect live TV into the system is novel, and using voice as a universal remote is fun--but how much is that worth to you?


This Xbox One review was based on a 500GB debug system provided by the publisher. Ozzie Mejia contributed to this report.

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