Simply put, the arrival of the Xbox One couldn’t have come at a better time for users. Though people don’t yet know it, the nature of entertainment has changed. Now more than ever, users have a complicated set of tasks that they expect their devices to do.
There were two ways users entertainment console makers could have approached this new reality. First there’s Sony’s method with the PS4. The PS4 is a device that plays games. Sure, it does more, but to let Sony tell it, playing games is what the console was made for.
The second approach is the one Microsoft chose to take with the Xbox One. In a world where games vie for the attention of users along with Netflix, Hulu Plus and more, Microsoft has finally laid down the gauntlet. It’s not banking on the Xbox One capturing users attention with paradigm-changing game mechanics or the best graphics money can buy. Instead, it’s built a box to do whatever users want plus add a few new gaming experiences.
That’s certainly brave, especially in a world where some gamers are perfectly happy with a console that recreates the experiences they already offer albeit with higher quality.
So how does the console stack up? Mostly well. Depending on your activities.
Included with every Xbox One is everything users need to get started. Each console ships with the Xbox One console itself, a single wireless controller and the batteries for that controller. There’s also an included – a now completely optional – Kinect 2 sensor as well. Finally, Microsoft includes an initial setup guide, a rather frumpy wireless headset and an HDMI cable. Microsoft definitely gets points for including the HDMI cable instead of forcing users to buy one separately.
Hardware wise the Xbox is a behemoth. It’s not just huge when compared to other consoles like the PS4 or the Xbox 360. No, this thing is big solely on its own merits. Microsoft’s own site lists the console as being 13.1-inches x 10.8-inches x 3.1-inches. That’s excluding the rather bulbous power cable and brick. To be fair, Microsoft has a really good reason for all of this surface area; the Xbox One’s top-façade is 50% ventilation. This allows the console to run pretty quietly at all times.
The aforementioned Kinect 2 sensor, the Xbox One itself and the included controller all match. Each includes two different plastics. The first is a rough finish that covers the surface of anything Microsoft feels users will interact with a lot. The second is a smooth, textured plastic that just is asking for scratches. It’s that second plastic that gets Microsoft into trouble. As it turns out, the Xbox One is scratch prone. Users shouldn’t put anything on top of it, and they definitely shouldn’t wipe it down with anything other than an anti-static cloth.
Each of the console’s main components also incorporate a glowing Xbox. Only the Xbox logo on the Xbox One itself and the controller will activate the console. The Xbox logo on the Kinect seems to only be there to let users know the console is running. Overall, the design gives the device a brawny feel, while undermining that same emotion with its muted black color palate.
Ports include an HDMI out, HDMI pass-through port for connecting to other set-top boxes, a Kinect 2 port, optical audio out and two USB ports.
Surprisingly, it’s the Xbox One’s included controller that really stands out and not for any good reason. Whereas the Xbox 360′s controller felt glossy and solid, the Xbox One’s controller feels cheap in the hand. Microsoft has bolster the controller by switching out its Start and Select buttons for new Menu and View buttons that perform different actions in different scenarios. It’s also added new rumble features that game developers can program against individually. Each Xbox One controller has flashing red lights that allow the Kinect 2 sensor to identify which player is using which controller. There’s even a new USB port that Microsoft says users will be able to pair with a Windows PC for even more gaming down the road.
Unfortunately, Microsoft didn’t see fit to add a rechargeable battery while it was redesigning the controller. As such, users are stuck buying separate charging kits and AA batteries again with this console.
Gaming on the Xbox One proves that the internals of the console are just as beefy as its mammoth footprint indicates. The graphic capabilities showcased in Forza 5 look next-generation. To be clear, games that are available on the Xbox 360 don’t look any better on the Xbox One. As such, don’t buy the Xbox One if you’re looking for higher fidelity experiences for Madden 25, for example. Sure, there’s a slight improvement, but no football players will appear to jump from your television screen.
Judging solely on the basis of the Kinect 2’s Tuner, Skype calls and audio commands, users are definitely getting a better Kinect. Whether that’s worth the added cost comes down to how you see your console. All of the games I played included Kinect 2 functionality and added something meaningful to the game play, even though that was sometimes limited to just verbal commands.
Surprisingly, it’s actually the software that gets the Xbox One into the most trouble. As I noted in a piece last week, the Xbox One is a product only Microsoft could make. It’s all at once a communications tool, web browser and television companion.
With the Xbox One, Microsoft seems to have essentially firewalled its core apps from the Xbox One operating system itself. This allows users to open two applications at a time. Users can watch local news while getting in some driving practice runs. I found controlling each app was a bit problematic using the Xbox One controller and Kinect 2 but otherwise still useful. Users can pin multiple applications to the Start Screen so that their favorites are always available to them at start up too. These pins will travel with the user whenever they log into Xbox LIVE.
Unfortunately, there are a few unwanted side effects too. Many of the apps, like those for Friends and Messaging, have almost completely different interfaces. This gives the console a somewhat disjointed feeling, even though they all use Microsoft’s Metro design language. Speaking of the Metro Design Language, the Xbox takes its influences from Windows Phone and Windows 8. That’s both good and bad. For a console that can identify you and immediately put your content on display, the Xbox One doesn’t feel personal no matter how many apps you pin. That’s a problem both Windows 8 and Windows Phone initially struggled with too.
Users may not be blown away by the looks of launch titles, but Microsoft has added a lot of cool extras designed to get users more interested in their games. Game DVR instantly records videos for posterity. My Xbox One automatically recorded my touchdowns in Madden 25.
Kinect 2 also enables new experiences through voice commands. Calling timeouts during football games worked flawless and really added to my experience. Telling your Xbox to “record this” just felt great too.
There’s also Xbox SmartGlass to consider too. The mobile app allows users to interact with their games using a computer, phone or tablet. Unsurprisingly, SmartGlass interactivity for games isn’t something I’d describe as terribly useful now, but SmarGlass could be useful in games down the road.
Instead of allowing users to replace their cable box, the Xbox One simply acts as a go between. When paired to a proper HDMI-equipped cable box, the user’s zip code and an Xbox Live Gold account, the Xbox One overlays its own interactive interface on the video that’s coming from the cable box itself. Users can command the Xbox One to turn to their favorite stations and mark channels as their favorites – all with voice commands.
On the surface it’s a very well executed system for anyone with the right equipment and a cable or satellite subscription. To be fair, the Xbox One Guide can also be adapted to work with digital broadcast channels, you’ll just have to find a converter to pass the antenna television signal through the Xbox One’s HDMI pass-through port. The nicest thing here is the built-in IR blaster on the Xbox One’s Kinect. Once configured the Xbox One can control your television and home audio equipment. It can also adjust the volume.
The setup process for TV was pretty straight forward, with my only complaint really coming from the seriously inexact science that is telling the Xbox One to switch to a specific channel. More on that issue a bit later.
Though Games and TV are the two apps I think most users would pick up the console for, there are of course a ton more. Currently the Xbox One boasts apps for YouTube, the NFL, ESPN, Redbox, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and Hulu Plus. There’s also smaller niche apps like Crackle, Twitch and Machinima.
In addition to offering these services, Microsoft has continued to add channel specific apps. There’s The CW, FoxNow and FX Now for users who just want to watch those channel’s content. Finally, Microsoft bundles experiences for its own popular products. Users can download pictures and stream video from their SkyDrive cloud storage account. The console’s messaging and video services are all powered by Skype too. Bing’s voice search also makes an appearance here too.
Overall, my favorite had to be Internet Explorer. The app allows users to interact with it using the Xbox SmartGlass app or Kinect. You can also browse the web using a controller if you feel so inclined.
Though having apps are great, there are two consistent issues that nag with these applications. First, not a single app feels done. For example, Xbox Music is outright missing Music Video streaming, something the Xbox 360’s app already offered. Second, in some cases the user interfaces for these apps just don’t seem well thought out. In other cases the app simply breaks for no reason.
If all of that wasn’t enough, the Xbox One is missing a ton of applications 360 owners already have available to them. Excluding Xbox Music and Xbox Video, there are 16 apps on the Xbox One. There are 80 different applications available on the Xbox 360. Sure, Microsoft will likely add to the Xbox One’s line up over time, but let’s not pretend like they are going close that gap any time soon.
Thanks to my decision to fully immerse myself in the Xbox One experience – both televisions in my apartment are connected to an Xbox One – I think I’ve had enough time with the console to come to a few conclusions. First, the Xbox One really does change the way you think about living room consoles. This thing is a computer plugged into your television set and that’s great. I’ve browsed for and read stories using this thing. I’ve been played games and found them to be just as fun as they’ve ever been. Microsoft’s “do-everything” approach works without compromising most of the experience.
The second and perhaps biggest conclusion I’ve come to is that the Xbox One, as it is, is unfinished. No, I’m not just talking about missing apps, there are points where the Xbox One’s software feels completely unintuitive and downright broken. The Start Screen on the Xbox One feels too utilitarian. The console’s software is also prone to weird slowdowns to the point where it begins to lag.
That isn’t to say that there are compromises here, especially as it relates to gaming. Users will find that digital downloads are an overnight affair. They really do take hours and kill any possible hype surrounding digital games appearing on the console the day they arrive on store shelves. Users can purchase disc-based games but even those titles need to install a bit of themselves on the console’s 500GB hard drive before running. Sometimes this can take as little as 10 minutes, but sometimes it takes a lot longer.
For what it’s worth, the Kinect 2 sensor was definitely worth the extra cost it added to the Xbox One’s $500 price. It enhances the experience and gives the console dimension. However, there are times where the console completely misinterprets the orders I’m giving it. Confusing “Xbox, Snap Skype” and “Xbox Snap SkyDrive” are one thing. Confusing “Xbox, Snap Skype” and “Xbox, Next Song” is a bit too far off the beaten path.
Overall, it’s a good console and its full of potential. It delivers a decent gaming experience and a future-proof entertainment experience when it’s not bogged down by bugs and an inconsistent user interface choices.
Really, whether the Xbox One is the right purchase for you comes down to one question. Do you do more than just play games? If so, it’s worth the $499. If you don’t, but have already invested in the Xbox ecosystem heavily, its still an obvious upgrade despite its steep price tag. If neither of those things are true, and the only thing you care about are games the the PS4 is cheaper.