It’s been a long journey for the Xbox One. It was once the scorn of the video game industry due to restrictive software decisions that benefited those in the board room more than customers. After successfully making a 180 turn through the waters of criticism, the Xbox One managed to have a successful launch. So should you get the Xbox One right now? Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this question. This is the first time when deciding whether or not to buy a console depends on more than just the kinds of games you want to play. Your media entertainment habits in general is going to be the primary factor in making your decision. The new Xbox has the “One” moniker for a reason. It’s meant to be the “One” media box in your living room that controls most everything. You have to relinquish control to the Xbox One to fully take advantage of all it has to offer. It wants to be your gaming console, cable box, remote control receiver, Blu-ray player and digital media provider.
The Xbox One’s design is subject to a running joke. Many people say it looks like a VCR thanks to its black colorization and large rectangular shape. Personally, I don’t think the console is ugly, but it’s not pretty either. The Xbox One isn’t designed to be elegant. It’s a workhorse. Its shape is symmetrical on all sides to ensure it can fit into most entertainment centers with ease. Its larger-than-normal size is also meant to ensure air flow is plentiful. The original Xbox 360 was famous for its high failure rate and loud fans, so Microsoft made sure such a thing wouldn’t happen again. It may be large, but the Xbox One is a quiet machine even when there’s a disc in the tray. So while it may take up more space than expected, you can rest easy knowing it likely won’t fry itself anytime soon.
The positioning of the the buttons and ports on the Xbox One are both plentiful and understated. There is no physical power button this time. Microsoft opted for a touch-sensitive capacitive power button on the top right of the Xbox One. This button isn’t easy to spot from across the room when the console is powered off. When it’s on, it has a white glow that also dims. The disc tray occupies the left half of the console with the silver eject button resting at its edge.
The left side of the console houses a lone USB port, whereas the right side contains nothing. For the most part, all of the action is in the back. It’s here you’ll find ports for HDMI in and out, two additional USB ports, an optical audio connector, Ethernet port, an auxiliary port for Kinect and the port for the power brick. On a side note, I really like how easy it is to slide a HDMI cable into the Xbox One. Maybe it’s just me, but I never had to fight with it or exert any force. It’s just so smooth.
Kinect comes with every Xbox One. Kinect is a camera that serves as the electronic eyes and ears of the Xbox One. It’s a chunky gadget as well. It has a thick cable that runs from its rear, and even contains a dedicated fan. That should give you an idea of how serious this camera is. It’s so large it can’t properly mount on top of many modern televisions. It does however come with a stand that keeps it slightly elevated. The stand can also tilt up and down should you need it to.
Xbox One Controller
When it comes to controllers, Microsoft got it mostly right with the Xbox 360. The Xbox One controller maintains most of the design elements from the 360 controller, but there are differences for better and worse. The d-pad on the controller is much improved over the Xbox 360’s controller. It no longer feels like the d-pad is fused with a circle pad. The pad is raised enough to make every directional click distinguishable from the next. The positioning of the d-pad still sits slightly off-center like it always has been. The d-pad still doesn’t feel comfortable to use in conjunction with the left trigger and bumper, so a fight stick is still recommended for fighting games.
The analog sticks are just as good as they always were. They’re snappy, grippy and have recessed centers to keep your thumbs in place. The outside of the sticks also have a rubbery texture as opposed to feeling like plastic. All in all, they feel great. The triggers are slightly different. They’re less springy than the Xbox 360’s. The edges of the triggers are also slightly curved upwards to make sure your fingers don’t slip. One thing I don’t like is the gap that forms between the triggers and bumpers when the triggers are pressed. I felt the edges of my fingers falling into these gaps while playing. It didn’t pinch my fingers or anything, but it feels a little weird almost as if the controller is broken.
Now on to the bumpers. I’ve seen complaints about the bumpers, and I can understand where those feelings come from. They feel a little stiff. It takes more pressure to push the bumpers down on the Xbox One controller than the Xbox 360 controller. Considering how the triggers and bumpers tend to work together, you have to train your brain to compensate for the uneven finger strength that’s required for both buttons.
Even with these imperfections, the Xbox One controller is still very good. There are more positives than negatives in this situation.
Software and User Interface
The general aesthetic from the Xbox 360 dashboard has been carried over to the Xbox One. Everything you can interact with are separated by tiles on a grid. The design language from Windows 8 can definitely be seen here.There are three main sections on the dashboard labeled Pins, Home and Store. The Pins section contains your personally curated apps and games. Every bit of software can be pinned to this section for easy access. Microsoft took the liberty of pinning some things for you, but you can customize it however you like.
The Home section shows your most recently opened apps and games. The last piece of opened software will be prominently displayed at the top, while the others flank it on all sides. The Xbox One defaults to this section automatically.
Finally, we have the Store section that provides direct access to all the games, apps, music, movies and TV shows you may want to see. At first blush, all of these categories and tiles are neatly laid out. It’s colorful, but not overwhelming. I would even say it comes off as inviting. However, once you start to actually navigate, the facade quickly unravels.
As attractive as it is, the Xbox One’s software is convoluted and very crowded. Getting to your apps and games requires you to move all the way to the right of the dashboard. If you don’t pin your apps, you may find yourself constantly going to that far off menu. Searching through the Xbox Store for something can also take more time than necessary. Each piece of content is displayed with nice art, but there are so many categories for a lot of the same content. As the library of Xbox One content becomes larger, finding what you want can become more complicated. You can still search for what you want to get past the clutter, but Microsoft has kept text input restricted to a long horizontal line of letters. Get ready to do a lot of scrolling if what you’re looking for is made up of letters that are spaced out across the alphabet.
But there is an equalizer here. There is something that can prevent you from thumbing through menus all the time. That something is Kinect, and its voice recognition is essential for hacking through the thick brush that is Xbox Live.
Voice and Gesture Recognition
Microsoft has had a change of vision when it comes to Kinect. The first Kinect had a focus on gesture and voice recognition. This time around, Microsoft has decided to place its bets on voice recognition. At no point in my time with the Xbox One did the software teach me how to navigate the menus with my hand. Instead, it suggests you say the word “Xbox” to bring up a list of recognizable commands. These voice commands immediately take precedent over controller navigation. It’s so much easier to navigate by voice, and it works no matter where you are in the system.
Kinect is a really advanced camera. It can read your heart rate just by looking at you. But unless you’re playing something like Xbox Fitness, these amazing technological feats will be lost on you. The thing you’ll be using Kinect for most of the time are voice commands. It’s a good idea to have a cheat sheet ready until you become accustomed to what Kinect can and can’t understand. It’s very particular about the commands it responds to. For example, you can turn off the Xbox One by saying “Xbox, turn off,” but it won’t respond to “Xbox, power off” or “Xbox off.” When it comes to quickly starting a game, the proper command is “Xbox, go to [game].” Unlike what Microsoft’s ads suggest, Kinect does not respond to “Xbox, play [game].”
Kinect’s voice recognition worked for me about 90% of the time. Most of the time I was in a room by myself with the television as the only other audio source. I did have to repeat myself on occasion. Kinect had a more difficult time understanding me when a second person was talking while standing next to me. I had to raise my voice to make sure Kinect acknowledged me. Of course, the distance you are from Kinect also determines how loud and clear you have to be.
Kinect is also quite good at recognizing faces. When you wake up the Xbox One, Kinect will look for you, greet you and sign you in. This is a feature that works best when there’s more than one Microsoft account in the house, but it’s still impressive. It even successfully recognizes faces in low light conditions. That’s right, you no longer have to live under unrealistic studio lighting for Kinect to work properly. A reasonable amount of light, whether natural or artificial, will work just fine.
As I said earlier, gesture controls are an afterthought. It’s possible to scroll through the Xbox One UI by holding out your hand, making a fist and moving to the left or right. It feels smooth and still has a coolness factor to it, but you probably won’t use it much. Sometimes it had trouble detecting my hand, but it does work well most of the time.
Kinect has the potential to accomplish some amazing things, but that potential is far from being realized in these first weeks of the Xbox One’s release. Kinect is partially responsible for the $100 price gap between the PS4 and Xbox One, but it doesn’t feel completely necessary right now. The voice recognition is incredibly useful, but that’s not a ground-breaking feature in its own right. After all, the $60 PlayStation 4 camera can do the same thing without taking up as much space. Kinect needs proper software to justify its existence, and that software has to do more than record video and understand voices. Xbox Fitness provides glimpses into what Kinect is capable of with its bodily readings. We need more things like that or Kinect 2.0 will end up being as overhyped and disappointing as the first Kinect.
Friends and Achievements
Microsoft took inspiration from Twitter in how the friending system works for Xbox One. Everyone can now have followers in addition to friends. Followers are a source of one-way communication. You’ll be able to see the Achievements and uploaded videos of people you follow, but they won’t see anything of yours. If two people decide to follow each other, they become friends. There is no limit to how many followers you can have, but the friend limit tops out at 1,000.
So why have this system to begin with? Well, Microsoft has created a mini social network for the Xbox community. All the shared activities from followers and friends are funneled into an activity feed. It only shows the games they’ve played, Achievements they’ve earned and videos they’ve uploaded. It’s not as interactive as something like MiiVerse.
Achievements have gotten an even larger overhaul. We’re no longer limited to a set number of Achievements that come with a game and its DLC. There are now timed challenges that offer specific Achievements for a certain period of time. These challenges may be for defeating a certain number of people online or driving a specific set of miles in a racing game. This is great for Achievement chasers that crave having Achievements that none of their friends have.
Achievements aren’t restricted to games either. You can get Achievements by simply watching videos through apps such as Netflix, Twitch and Fox Now. These don’t have an impact on your Gamerscore, but it’s clear Microsoft included this to entice players to engage in a lot of non-gaming media on Xbox One.
Viewing Achievements you’ve earned is a much more visual experience. Each Achievement can be viewed full screen that’s accompanied by a large background wallpaper. The information on these screens is limited, and some may think it’s a bit too much. I didn’t mind it though. You can still view a group of Achievements on the same page without the fancy artwork.
For the first time ever, you can record gameplay clips from your console and share it online. The Xbox One handles this through two software applications called Game DVR and Upload Studio. At any point during gameplay, you can initiate two kinds of recordings. Saying the words, “Xbox, record that” will make the console record the last 28 or so seconds of your session. This method is best reserved for moments when something really cool happens unexpectedly. You can also record in real-time by using the Game DVR. Game DVR will let you record clips up to five minutes at a time. The clips are then saved to your hard drive for editing and uploading. Each of these processes work very well, and are wonderful additions to the console. I do feel that Microsoft should increase the recording limit beyond five minutes though.
Every video you want to share has to go through Upload Studio. Upload Studio also has a small amount of very basic editing features. You can trim clips, add voice narration, video narration, video filters and combine up to five clips together. It’s easy to throw something together, but don’t expect to make any stellar productions with it.
Your final product can be shared with the Xbox community and/or uploaded to Skydrive. Skydrive is Microsoft’s cloud storage service. Whether you use it or not, you have a Skydrive account. The videos uploaded there are in MP4 format and have a resolution of 720p. Since it’s on the web, you’re free to download it to your computer and continue to edit or share the video to wherever you want. This is a much better option than the PS4’s mandatory Facebook sharing. The video quality is decent, but it’s not going to replace any dedicated external capture device. There are noticeable signs of compression and artificating. Image sharpness and color vibrance also takes a hit. Again, this doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it’s worth pointing out. Here’s a sample upload.
This is one of the biggest new features with the Xbox One. A high definition cable or satellite box can be plugged into the HDMI-in port on the Xbox One. Setting up the cable box is very straight forward. The Xbox quickly gained control over my Xfinity box. All I had to do is input the brand of the box and my zip code. The default channel guide on the Xfinity box is ugly and outdated. The Xbox One’s take on the channel guide looks much better, but it lags a little bit. If this is all it could do, it wouldn’t be worth connecting the cable box to the Xbox One. However, the killer feature is picture-in-picture viewing. You can watch television and play games on the same screen. The gameplay takes up about 80% of the screen and the TV show occupies the remaining 20%. Microsoft calls this feature “snapping.” Snapping is neat, but it needs improvement. The 80/20 split isn’t ideal for simultaneous video viewing. In Windows 8.1, the snap feature is now an even split down the middle of the screen. The Xbox One needs to do this as well. There were also signs of video stutters from the cable box. Audio control is something that also needs to be addressed. You can’t choose volume levels from the two video sources. It seems the Xbox One adjusts the volume of the feeds so that they don’t have to compete with each other, but more manual control is needed.
This review is for the Xbox One hardware and internal software, but we can’t wrap things up without mentioning games in a general sense. At the time of this writing, there aren’t very many must-play games for Xbox One. I’m not including games like CoD: Ghosts, Battlefield 4 or Assassin’s Creed IV because those are cross generational ports you can play on the Xbox 360. Xbox One exclusive games such as Ryse: Son of Rome, Lococycle, Crimson Dragon and Fighter Within haven’t gotten the best reviews. There were around 23 launch titles, but about half of them are playable on last generation consoles. One stand out is Peggle 2 which came out on December 9 exclusively for the Xbox One. Unfortunately, games are not the Xbox One’s strong suit at this time. That’s ironic considering Microsoft really wants you to do thing other than gaming on the Xbox. Things are sure to change next year.
The Xbox One is a big box with lots of untapped potential. Kinect works great most of the time, but is limited in its use. Multi-screen viewing and control over your cable is a wonderful concept, but it too needs work. Outside of party chat, I can’t find anything I would consider broken on Xbox One. By spending $500, you’re not just investing in a game console. You’re also investing in the idea of consolidating your home entertainment center into one box. If you trust the Xbox One is up to the task, this is the new console for you.