We’re only three months away from the launch of both the Xbox One and PS4, and we’re starting to get a better sense of how the consoles will actually work. We’ve seen the controllers, the cameras, and the consoles themselves, but we’ve still only seen a few minutes worth of footage of one of the most important aspects of a device: The user interface.
Actual speed, ease of navigation, and the potential for annoying ads are factors which are still somewhat difficult to judge from these sparse details, but we can already see that Sony and Microsoft have learned from their previous mistakes.
The home screen on the Xbox One is extremely simple. On the left, you’re presented with the games and apps you’ve used most recently. On the right, Microsoft has some “recommendations” for you. Of course, that’s little more than just a way to present you with advertisements.
Even so, the layout is very clean and basic – very inviting for people easily scared away by UI complexity. The biggest question I have about this screen is how it will populate the recently played section on first boot. Will it be filled with empty slots, or will Microsoft take this opportunity to get some extra Netflix and Lovefilm advertising in there?
With a familiar Metro-like grid layout, above we have the “pins” menu on the Xbox One. Just like the Xbox 360, this will serve as a favourites list for the games and apps you have installed on your console. More interestingly, the section on the right of the screen is serving as a sort of hub of frequently used features. Checking achievements, switching to live TV, and Bing-branded search are all accessible through the pins menu. Hopefully, users will be able to replace the drab black background with something more lively like the 360’s themes.
In the above video, Microsoft’s Yusuf Mehdi breaks down the interface in more detail. With voice, gesture, or the controller, you can quickly navigate the Xbox One dashboard very much like the Xbox 360’s.
The standard categories like apps, games, and music are all still available, but Redmond has added a new section called “trending” in an attempt to help surface high quality content. From this menu, you can quickly see what media your friends are consuming. You’re also saddled with an aggregation of the most popular content from all users combined, so your mileage may vary.
Without a doubt, the biggest improvement here is the speed at which everything is happening. Mehdi says a command, and the Xbox One almost instantly switches apps. The extremely generous 3GB of RAM dedicated to system resources really makes the interface seem properly responsive – standing in stark contrast to the sluggish Xbox 360 UI.
Reportedly, the Xbox One is utilising three separate operating systems – two of which are virtualised – to get everything working properly together. By dedicating a fixed amount of resources to specific tasks, the Xbox One should be capable of running apps and playing games at the same time with no performance penalty. It remains to be seen if the Xbox team can actually pull this off on day one, but that demo is certainly promising.
The Xross Media Bar (XMB) is gone, and has been replaced with the PlayStation Dynamic Menu. As you can see from the screenshot, Sony is still holding onto the same aesthetic, though. The row of icons is very similar to the PS3’s interface, but selecting one doesn’t conjure a column of options. Instead, you’re quickly popped into a different menu with its own row of icons. Thankfully, both text and voice chat seem to be integrated prominently in the main menu, so communication should be very fast this generation. Frankly, that’s an area in which Sony lagged woefully behind during the PS3’s lifespan.
In the PS4’s “What’s New” menu, you can clearly see some similarity between the PS4 and Xbox One interfaces. Dynamically sized boxes filled with your friends’ latest accomplishments could easily fit with Microsoft’s current aesthetic. While the larger boxes are certainly nice for screenshots and videos, a smaller list-like format would probably serve the trophy and other text-based notifications better. Surely we’ll see Sony tweak its layouts as more feedback comes in nearing the platform launch on 29 November.
As you can tell from this Gamescom demo, Sony is hell bent on keeping its UI just as snappy as Microsoft’s. Jumping from menu to menu is extremely quick, but more impressive is how easy it is to jump into a live game. In the above video, you can see Shuhei Yoshida go from watching a live multiplayer game of Killzone: Shadow Fall to joining that specific match in a matter of seconds.
Keep in mind, this demo is staged in such a way to present the PS4 in the most positive light. It would be a huge disappointment if this kind of speed isn’t possible in the real world, so Sony has put itself on the hook to deliver this sort of impressive user experience. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. After dealing with increasingly languid consoles for the past eight years, this clear focus on sheer speed brings a smile to my face.
You might also want to check out our closer look at the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 retail boxes.