Microsoft’s Xbox One: A true living room revolution in the making, or a mere box of gimmicks?

I have spent the last couple of days playing with the Xbox One, and I’ve got some thoughts on the console, and some good news – namely that it’s better than the PlayStation 4. It’s definitely not prettier, and the Xbox One gamepad is a little worse than the DualShock 4, but in terms of functionality, polish, and games, the Xbox One is the better console.

It’s hard to say whether the Xbox One is £80 better than the PS4, but I can at least tell you that the Kinect (the reason why the Xbox is more expensive) is an impressive piece of hardware that you’ll (usually) enjoy using. I can also tell you that the Xbox One exclusives, Forza 5 and Ryse, are prettier and more polished than the PS4’s exclusive launch titles.

More important than the price difference, though – which is a minor detail when you amortise it over five or more years – is the fact that the Xbox One sets a stronger stage than the PS4. With the PS4 harbouring much better hardware than the Xbox One, it will be very interesting to see how Sony retaliates – will it add features to match the Xbox in terms of overall desirability, or will it go all-in on better and prettier games that might take months or years to arrive? At any rate, read on for my thoughts on the Xbox One in detail…

A slick, if slightly too complex, interface

Overall, I like the Xbox One’s interface. It’s certainly a little busier than the PS4’s, but I prefer the Metro-style grid rather than scrolling forever through dozens of tiles.

For the most part, the tiled interface dovetails with the Xbox One’s larger feature set – but sometimes there’s a little too much depth and complexity, leaving you hunting around for the right menu to perform a certain action. It will be harder to learn the Xbox One’s interface for the first time, that’s for sure. The Xbox One’s interface is snappy, and doesn’t suffer from the slowdowns that I experienced in my hands-on with the PS4. Switching between games and the Xbox One dashboard is quick and painless.

Setting up the console for the first time is easy, especially if you already have a Microsoft account (and who doesn’t)? Overall, using the Xbox One is a lot like the Xbox 360 – just with faster transitions and less lagginess.

Kinect 2.0

As you know by now, Kinect is a central piece of the Xbox One experience. From navigating the interface, to telling your archers to fire a volley of arrows in Ryse, Kinect does a pretty good job of quickly and accurately recognising your voice commands.

The problem is that Kinect doesn’t always work – as we saw in our Xbox One review – and when it doesn’t, the experience can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes, seemingly for no reason at all, Kinect simply won’t respond to repeated (and increasingly frustrated and strident) calls of “Xbox.” Sometimes it can hear me talking quietly – sometimes I have to speak with perfect enunciation. Sometimes background noise had a detrimental effect, sometimes it didn’t. I had a lot of trouble getting Kinect to recognise my voice when I was watching TV – and that’s a problem when the Xbox One is meant to double up as a living room media centre.

When it works, the new Kinect really is quite impressive – but I worry that it’ll turn out to be more of a gimmick than anything else. In many cases, if you account for the time wasted by Kinect failing to recognise your voice, using the gamepad is quicker. In the long term, I think users will opt to use the gamepad where possible. If you don’t have a gamepad to hand, though – if you’re watching TV as a family, or you’re standing in the kitchen – then Kinect is fun and useful.

Games

Just as with the PS4, you have to install games on the Xbox One before you can play them. Installing still takes a while (10+ minutes), and some games still take an awful long time to load even after being installed. Gameplay itself is good.

Forza 5 looks fantastic (but that’s not saying much as it’s a driving game), and Ryse is probably the most visually impressive title currently available for the eighth-generation consoles. Ryse has some lightweight Kinect integration that lets you shout commands to your AI-controlled cohorts, such as “fire volley!” – and it works surprisingly well.

One thing that’s missing from games on the Xbox One is social sharing – there’s no screenshot capturing and sharing, and no way to broadcast your gameplay (but that’s coming in 2014, hopefully). You can say “Xbox, record that” to save the last 30 seconds of gameplay, which you can then easily upload to SkyDrive. (You then need to manually download it from SkyDrive on your PC and re-upload to YouTube, though, if you want to share the video properly).

The Xbox One gamepad, incidentally, is a competent controller for gaming. It definitely feels better than the Xbox 360 controller, but the DualShock 4 still has the edge – unless you really despise the always-on light bar, of course.

Overall, gaming on the Xbox One is fairly strong. Graphics-wise, most games are very similar to the PS4, but the Xbox launch exclusives do seem to be better/faster/slicker than the PS4’s offerings. As we all know, though, we shouldn’t judge a new console on its launch day offerings.

SmartGlass and second-screen functionality

Like the PS4 and Wii U, the Xbox One supports second-screen functionality through mobile devices – in this case, the Xbox One SmartGlass app for smartphones and Windows 8. Unlike the PS4 and Wii U, though, SmartGlass doesn’t let you stream games to your phone/tablet – it’s more like a remote control. Pairing the SmartGlass app with the console is very easy. The app basically has two screens: A launcher screen, and a controller screen that lets you navigate the Xbox One interface by swiping on the touchscreen.

The launcher screen essentially emulates the Xbox One dashboard – you get a bunch of tiles that let you launch apps. The controller screen has four buttons that emulate the A/B/X/Y buttons on the gamepad, and a blank region that lets you emulate joystick movements with finger swipes. For some apps/games, you get an interface that lets you see related content. You can also change or mute the volume – and that’s about it. Watch the video below for our hands-on demo of Xbox One SmartGlass.

While the Xbox One doesn’t have local media playback (just like the PS4), it does have the ability to play videos from your SkyDrive, or streamed from a Windows 8 device (which works a lot like Apple’s AirPlay).

Quirks and various other features

The Xbox One has a lot of features and quirks that make you say “oooh” out loud, but which aren’t actually useful. In some cases, you get the feeling that Microsoft erred on the side of being cool, even where it doesn’t make much sense – or worse, where it’s actually detrimental in the long run.

For example, SkyDrive integration is nice – but it’s completely insecure. If my mother or girlfriend sat down in front of my Xbox One, she would have full access to all the photos and videos I’ve shot on my Windows Phone. Ditto Skype integration – do you want a call from your girlfriend to arrive when your whole family is sitting around the TV? We’ve heard a lot about how the Xbox One essentially runs Windows 8, and how it’ll run Windows 8 apps – but for now, there’s only a handful of apps and no access to any kind of Xbox/Windows app store.

Kinect’s basic functionality is cool (when it recognises you standing in front of the TV and says “Hi, Seb!” it’s really cool), but it’s littered with caveats – poor understanding of some accents, arbitrary and rigid differences in syntax (“Xbox on” versus “Xbox turn off”).

One of the banner features of the Xbox One, satellite/cable TV integration, is currently a really rough experience. You have to open the TV app every time, rather than the Xbox defaulting to TV when you first turn it on. By passing the HDMI signal through your Xbox One, the console strips out Dolby Digital, removing surround sound from movies. Because there’s no HDMI-CEC (remote control of the cable box via HDMI, rather than IR), an uncomfortable disconnect always exists between the Xbox interface and your cable box’s interface. (Note that full TV integration and the OneGuide programme guide won’t be coming to the Xbox One in the UK until early 2014, anyway).

Ultimately, we’re looking at what could be the Xbox One’s downfall: As it stands, the console has a lot of cool features that could become truly revolutionary – but today, they’re mostly just gimmicks. Gimmicks, as we know all too well, are very good at driving positive reviews and early adoption – but beyond that, Microsoft now needs to capitalise on the framework that it’s built to deliver a truly compelling living room experience.

I think the Xbox One is a better console than the PS4 as these machines launch, but I don’t think we’ll see a real leader emerge for a year or two: Microsoft needs to push a lot of software patches, and Sony needs to publish some games that really take advantage of the PS4’s superior hardware.

For more on the Xbox One, see our piece entitled Should I buy an Xbox One console?