Half a year ago, there was a huge outrage over Microsoft’s display at E3. It showed an Xbox One that barely knew it was a game system, required an always-on Internet connection, and included a Kinect camera that no one wanted and that had to be plugged in and turned on.
Sony clearly won E3 because it showed off the PlayStation 4 as a powerful game system and not an all-watching, always-online entertainment monolith. I personally railed against Microsoft's policies at the time, and only begrudgingly gave Microsoft credit when it backpedalled on the online and Kinect requirements.
However, now I’ve reviewed the Xbox One and PS4, I am prepared to eat some of my words. The Xbox One isn't just a powerful game system on the same level as the PlayStation 4, it's an incredible home entertainment hub that actually fulfils the promises made by Microsoft. In short, the Xbox One is the better system – at least at launch, with the current feature sets offered by both devices.
Microsoft wanted to make a media hub monstrosity that didn't just play games and use streaming apps, but served as a cable box and portal to anything you watched on your TV. It wanted to build a device that could serve as the only thing you need plugged into your TV.
Now, much like Gamera who was a fearsome beast that turned out to be a friend to all children, the entertainment Frankenstein's monster of the Xbox One has turned out to be exactly what Microsoft said it would be.
It works just as Microsoft envisioned
There is where I eat my words. Game systems are great. I have many, dating from the late eighties up to contemporary consoles. For decades it was always about what games they would play, how much power they had, and nothing else. Media features were secondary.
The Xbox One changes that in my eyes, because it's the first game system I've seen that makes an equally compelling argument for non-game usage. Microsoft added some relatively simple and direct features to the Xbox One and actually fixed most of the problems with the Xbox 360 Kinect. The result is something that actually lives up to Microsoft's hype.
The Xbox One lets you plug in your satellite or cable box and control it with the Kinect. It offers a picture-in-picture view you can summon or dismiss with your voice. It does this with an HDMI passthrough and an infrared blaster, so you can still use the cable box normally with a remote. It basically integrates your TV watching into the Xbox One's interface and your gaming experience without hindering either in any way.
Picture-in-picture was a pretty ridiculous gimmick for two decades, but when it works so smoothly with other software and games instead of just two different television channels, it actually becomes a useful feature. You can watch a show while you're waiting for a game to load or start. You can watch Netflix while you're waiting for the commercials to finish. Properly implemented, it works brilliantly.
Then there's voice control. I've used a lot of voice control systems, including the Xbox 360 Kinect and several HDTVs with built-in voice commands. They all sucked. The Xbox One's voice controls are the first I've seen that I'd actually be willing to use on a regular basis. They're functional and fairly flexible for menu navigation, and using them to change channels and browse your programme guide isn't just a stroke of genius, it's a compelling selling point.
The Xbox One actually turns on when I say "Xbox, on." It actually goes to the home screen when I say "Xbox, home." It actually switches to the television feed when I say "Xbox, watch TV," and even turns to the right channel when I say "Xbox, watch Comedy Central." Yes, I had to get used to speaking with the right cadence to get it to work, and yes, sometimes I have to repeat myself. But it's still much more reliable and useful than any voice command system I've used before, and it's fantastic to be able to jump to watching my favourite channels just by speaking.
These two aspects of the Xbox One make it a remarkable entertainment hub, and that's on top of the powerful hardware for playing games, and its much more compelling line-up of launch games (which doesn't matter for game systems in the long run, admittedly). You can still play all of the next-gen versions of games like Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Assassin's Creed 4, and some genuinely entertaining exclusives like Killer Instinct and Crimson Dragon. All of those media features are on top of that.
Don't get me wrong, the Xbox One isn't perfect. The voice controls are still slightly finicky and you won't get a Star Trek computer-like experience with them. The gamepad has awkwardly placed bumper buttons, and doesn't feel nearly as comfortable as the DualShock 4 (which was a massive leap forward in comfort over the DualShock 3 and Sixaxis). You still need Xbox Live Gold (at £40 per year) to use any of the useful features on the Xbox One. And of course, the UK still has to wait for the full TV integration experience via the OneGuide, which won’t go live until early next year.
Finally, the Xbox One is also £80 more expensive than the PlayStation 4. It's simply a very good yet somewhat flawed console, with enough good points to make it worth overlooking the flaws.
We were still right at the time
You might have noticed that I said I was only prepared to eat some of my words. I absolutely stand by the anti-DRM and anti-always-online stance I took after the Xbox One announcement. As Microsoft first announced it, the Xbox One really was an intrusive monstrosity. The gamer outrage after Microsoft revealed the Xbox One forced the company to step back and turn those requirements into choices, and as choices they're much more palatable. Microsoft needed to be shamed at E3 so it would give gamers the choice of using the Kinect and the choice of keeping the Xbox One online. Those choices made the difference between the Xbox One being a product I'd consider and the Xbox One being a product I would not allow in my house.
Microsoft's bloody nose turned out to be a win for all sides. Not only did it still produce the entertainment hub it envisioned the Xbox One being, giving the new Kinect some actual, useful purpose, but the gaming community got the choices they demanded and showed that there are lines which are not acceptable to cross.
I scoffed at Microsoft's ambition for the Xbox to be something much more than a game system. I thought it couldn't possibly work, and that Sony would succeed in producing a true game console while the Xbox One and Kinect would prove to be just as much of a gimmicky flop as the original Kinect. I was wrong, and while the PlayStation 4 is still an excellent game system in its own right, the Xbox One is that and so much more. It actually succeeds as the all-in-one device Microsoft wanted it to be – and I'm impressed.
Please add to the debate, or indeed call me a fanboy, in the comments section below.