Microsoft is thinking big with the Xbox One. Instead of building a game system that's essentially a beefed-up version of the Xbox 360, as Sony has done with the PlayStation 4, Redmond has produced a comprehensive media hub for all of your living room entertainment.
This approach, combined with an initial promise that the system would require a constant Internet connection and that the included Kinect camera would always be on, worried a lot of gamers. Add in a £429 price tag, which is £80 more than the PlayStation 4 and £190 more than the Nintendo Wii U, and you have a game system with an uphill battle.
Well, Microsoft's ambition has paid off. Not only is the Xbox One a powerful game system that rivals the PlayStation 4, it really is the comprehensive entertainment hub Microsoft envisioned. (And, as you’ve probably heard, it turns out that it doesn't require an always-on web connection and you can turn off the camera).
Kinect voice controls, television integration, and multitasking features make the Xbox One an ideal combination of game system, media hub, universal remote, TV guide, and Blu-ray player. The Xbox One's voice controls and TV integration are revolutionary and could pave the way for game consoles to become true all-in-one entertainment centres. Sure, the Xbox One is expensive and imperfect, but it does so much so well that its flaws and price can be forgiven.
The Xbox One doesn't take many design cues from the Xbox 360 or Xbox 360 Slim. Instead, it follows the philosophy of the original Xbox: That of the giant black box. It's big, black, rectangular, and looks closer to an old-school VCR than a futuristic stylish game system. It combines glossy and matte black finishes to lend some style, but no shine can get past its plain blockiness. The PlayStation 4 looks much nicer and slimmer, with its parallelogram shape and the ability to stand it on its side to show off the multi-coloured status light (with an optional stand). The Xbox One has to be laid down horizontally, and is simply black with a white light on it.
Measuring 325 x 300 x 75mm (WxDxH) and weighing about 3.2kg, the Xbox One absolutely dwarfs the PlayStation 4 and Wii U. The front is dominated by a matte black left half that holds the slot-loading Blu-ray drive, and a glossy right half that features a glowing, flat, touch-sensitive Xbox button. The button turns the system on if you don't want to use the Kinect or a controller, and it's just as infuriatingly sensitive as the Xbox 360 Slim's power and eject buttons. Brushing anything against it, even lightly, can trigger the button. Fortunately, given the voice controls, you don't have to actually touch the Xbox One or go anywhere near it unless you're changing a disc or setting up a gamepad.
A USB port sits on the left side of the system, next to a pairing button for registering controllers. The back panel hosts an HDMI input and output, the Kinect port, an Ethernet port, an optical audio port, two USB ports, and the power port.
The new Kinect camera is just as blocky and almost as large, dwarfing the PlayStation Camera just as the Xbox One looms over the PlayStation 4’s body. It's a chunky, rectangular brick that measures 245 x 75 x 60mm (WxDxH), with a large, prominent lens, a glowing white Xbox logo, and three soft red LEDs to illuminate you with infrared light.
The base can tilt up and down, and it has a tripod screw mount if you want to secure it. The bigger and blockier Kinect sports much more impressive insides, though; it features a 1080p-capable camera instead of the Xbox 360 Kinect's VGA resolution, and its microphone array on the bottom edge of the camera is clearly improved.
The Xbox One controller is comfortable, but it's not the impressive leap forward in design that the PlayStation 4's DualShock 4 gamepad represents. It's a mostly matte black gamepad that looks and feels almost identical to the Xbox 360's gamepad. Instead of the Start and Back buttons, the gamepad has Menu and View buttons that serve the same functions. The triggers provide individual force feedback, and they rumble themselves in response to what you’re playing, completely aside from the gamepad itself. This feels particularly good for racing games like Forza Motorsport 5, because the right trigger's resistance and response to acceleration feels much more precise with force feedback.
The bumpers, on the other hand, feel too flush with the body of the gamepad, and sit high enough so that they aren't particularly comfortable to hit. It's a small complaint, and the gamepad feels good overall. The Xbox One comes with one controller and two AA batteries; if you want to use a rechargeable one-piece battery solution you can forget about, you need to buy a Charge and Play Kit separately for £20 (but you can just use rechargeable AA batteries, and the gamepad works with a direct wired connection thanks to its microUSB port).
If you're familiar with Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8, you'll recognise the Xbox One Dashboard. The interface is pure Metro, with large, easily identifiable panels displaying the current game or app running, your most recent apps, pinned items (which can include games, apps, media, or web sites to the left), and the Xbox Live Store to the right. Even if you loathe the UI for computers or mobile devices, it really works well as an HDTV interface. The big panels are easy to read and navigate, and the gamepad's analogue stick and direction pad are ideal ways to select them.
The Xbox One supports "snapping" apps to any game or software you're running. By selecting Snap on the Dashboard and picking an app (or by saying "Xbox, snap," which I'll explain below), you can keep certain apps on the side of the screen. You can, for instance, keep Skype or Netflix or any other snappable app running while you play a game. You can also snap two apps, keeping one on the side while the other takes up most of the screen, letting you watch video on Netflix while you have Internet Explorer running next to it.
Microsoft has mostly learned its lesson with the Kinect, and we don’t just mean its decision to make the Xbox One work without it. The bundled camera and microphone system is drastically improved over the Xbox 360's Kinect in nearly every way. The camera angle is wider and doesn't need quite as much room to operate effectively, functioning well within a distance of five feet instead of the eight feet required by the original Kinect. The microphones are also upgraded, along with the Xbox One's voice command system. The Kinect also has a built-in infrared blaster that lets it control your HDTV and cable or satellite box.
Like the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Camera, you can set the Xbox One and Kinect to automatically log users in with facial recognition. The camera also tracks infrared lights on the Xbox One gamepads, so it can even track who's currently holding the controller. Not only did the Xbox One accurately detect multiple players at once, but it seamlessly let different users both move the cursor on the active user's home screen (showing the user moving the cursor with a lit icon in the top left corner) and switch between different users' home screens by pressing the Xbox button. Since the Kinect relies entirely on facial recognition and a standard infrared beacon on every controller, instead of the different coloured lightbars used by the DualShock 4 and PlayStation Camera, there's no need to keep track of whose controller is whose.
Hand gestures still feel rather clunky, and I couldn't get the Kinect to consistently detect my hands or let me perform functions like switching between the home screen and the full-screen view of the active program. Fortunately, the Kinect is much, much better at ignoring false gestures, and I had no problem forgetting that the unreliable motion controls were even an option. They're now a very minor part of the Kinect experience, replaced instead by the vastly superior voice controls, which I'll tackle in the next section.
You can disable these features in the Xbox One's System menu, or by unplugging the camera itself (if you don't trust the menu). The Kinect's red IR LEDs and white Xbox logo light up when the camera is on, but that extra step can ease the fears of the particularly privacy-minded.
I've used a lot of voice control systems, and while Apple and Google have come a long way in making mobile devices easier to control, makers of larger electronics have generally failed at making voice commands accessible. High-end HDTVs from several major manufacturers feature voice controls that are spotty at best, and the original Kinect did a poor job when it came to figuring out words. The new Kinect and the Xbox One fix that.
While the Xbox One's voice controls aren't perfect – as you can see in the video below – they're revolutionary in how well they work, and have few enough imperfections that I can see myself actually using them regularly instead of regarding them as a finicky gimmick (like the Xbox 360's Kinect). When you're not gaming, you can feasibly navigate anything that doesn't require manual text input with your voice, which immediately makes the system one of the most functional media hubs and Blu-ray players I've ever used.
Voice commands are separated into two types, and it can take time to get used to each type's uses. The most common and direct commands work system-wide outside of games, and can work within most games as a bridge between the game and the Xbox One's connected features. These commands are all delivered in the format "Xbox, (command)" in one smooth statement. Saying "Xbox, go home" will suspend your game (if you're playing one) and jump to your home screen. Saying "Xbox, watch TV" will load the HDMI feed and offer you a list of channels to watch (more on this later). Saying "Xbox, record that" will capture the last 30 seconds of gameplay for sharing (again, more on this later). There are a few dozen commands that work this way, and most work no matter where you are in the Xbox One's menu systems or software.
The other type of voice command is specific to whatever screen you're currently on. Saying "Xbox select" brings up a prompt that shows the Xbox One is listening, and highlights commands you can say in green. While in Xbox Select mode, you can say any of the green commands on the screen and select them as if you navigated to them with the gamepad. This lets you run specific programs and access specific media based on whatever app you're running – which is useful for services like Netflix, and especially watching TV with the OneGuide (yes, we’re just about to talk about this… almost there). Xbox Select mode also displays other prompts, like playback commands when watching video, and page navigation commands when browsing menus.
These voice commands actually work, and they work very well. I'm still vaguely surprised to see the Xbox One turn on when I say "Xbox, on," and to be able to then jump to any app or TV show I want simply by talking. I can navigate the Xbox One's menu system without even turning on the gamepad, which is truly impressive.
All that said, you have to give yourself a few days to get used to the command structure and how to best talk to the Kinect (as I note in the above video). Microsoft offers a speech training app for the Xbox One to teach you how to use voice commands, and once I got used to the fairly liberal range of tone and volume I needed to speak with I had little problem. However, the Kinect's microphone array is designed to listen to people in front of it, and I had issues giving the Xbox One commands when sitting on the far right. A calibration wizard helps the Kinect filter out TV noise, but even then I found it awkward to get the Kinect's attention when I watched television or movies loudly.
Similarly, if there is a lot of noise in the background or a conversation going on in front of the Kinect, you won't get much of a response from using voice commands. It's best used in a relatively quiet room with no one else talking, or at least with friends who can be quiet for a few seconds when you give the Kinect voice commands.
Still, even with these limitations I found the Xbox One's voice commands to be functional enough to actually use them regularly instead of just saying "Huh, neat" and keeping my hands on the gamepad whenever I sat in front of the system. That's a big step. The voice commands are also ripe for friendly trolling, and you can expect to see your friends messing with the Kinect for a short while before getting bored of interrupting gameplay and wrestling for control. When there's more than one user, it really relies on the social contract to work well. You can also completely disable voice commands, and even disable the feature that makes the system turn itself on when you say "Xbox, on."
In comparison, the PlayStation 4 features voice controls with the optional PlayStation Camera or the included earpiece, but they're much, much more limited than the Xbox One's controls, and don't have nearly as many options for multitasking.
OneGuide and TV
The Xbox One integrates itself into your TV watching thanks to its HDMI input, OneGuide, and the Kinect. It offers a full programme guide of your cable or satellite service alongside the usual selection of online media apps, all wrapped up in one menu you can control with your voice. However, do note that the OneGuide is only live in the US at launch, and it won’t arrive in the UK until early next year (hopefully very early next year).
The Kinect features an infrared blaster that can send commands to both your cable or satellite box and your HDTV, letting it change channels and control DVR playback through the Xbox One. The Xbox One uses an HDMI passthrough to send any source connected to it to the screen whenever you select "Watch TV." Ideally this will be your set-top box so you can completely control television watching with your voice and the OneGuide, but you could use any HDMI source, like a home cinema PC (but you would lose the channel changing capabilities).
OneGuide is a Rovio-based programme guide in the Xbox One's menu system that shows what's on your cable or satellite service with a grid, just like your set-top box's EPG. You can organise your favourite channels easily, and flip through the guide and select individual shows using your voice with Kinect. It also adds online services to the list, with the likes of Xbox Video, and even any media you might store on Microsoft's SkyDrive service.
Besides watching TV full-screen like you used to (with the OneGuide overlay for surfing channels), the Xbox One offers a simple picture-in-picture feature. By saying "Snap TV," the Xbox One will put the TV feed in the top right corner with a list of channels to flip through below it. You can play whatever game you want or use any other app while watching TV. This doesn't let you watch two channels at once, though; you're limited to whatever the cable or satellite box is sending through the Xbox One.
Because the TV watching is done entirely with an HDMI passthrough and infrared blaster, you can keep your cable box and remote and use it just like you used to. The Xbox One basically just acts like a remote control and programme guide for your cable box, changing channels and working with the box just like a remote would, while adding even more useful features like multitasking with picture-in-picture.
The PlayStation 4 will be able to access plenty of online content apps, and like the Xbox One it can serve as a Blu-ray player. However, it completely lacks any HDTV integration or guide features, making the Xbox One the clear winner in this category. Let’s just hope Microsoft doesn’t hang about getting the OneGuide up and running in the UK.
Since the Xbox One comes with the Kinect, it can use Skype out of the box (with an Xbox Live Gold membership). The Kinect is remarkably functional as a video chat camera, thanks to some very clever digital pan and zoom it utilises in conjunction with facial recognition. Instead of showing the full view of what the Kinect sees, it crops the picture to show the user's face (or multiple users' faces). If you get up and move around, the camera will follow your face, and the picture will expand or shrink when other people enter or leave the shot. This is all digital pan and zoom, so on one hand you'll get a sub-1080p image when the camera does these tricks, but on the other hand it means the person you're calling won't hear any lens noise. Like some of the Xbox One's other features, it works surprisingly well.
Of course, we mustn’t forget that the Xbox One is a games console! First off, though, we should note that no system can be judged by its launch line-up, and we won't see what the Xbox One is really capable of until developers spend more time with the hardware. However, at launch the system is much more compelling than the PlayStation 4 with both exclusives and cross-platform games. Microsoft secured Killer Instinct, Crimson Dragon (the spiritual successor to Panzer Dragoon), Dead Rising 5, and Forza Motorsport 5 as launch exclusives, and they're all compelling titles in addition to Battlefield 4, Assassin's Creed 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and other next-gen ports available on both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (and Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for that matter).
Killer Instinct looks gorgeous, with over-the-top particle and reflection effects on top of the colourful, detailed models, and while the Xbox One controller isn't perfect it's still well suited for performing combos. Crimson Dragon is also very attractive, and it kept a fairly consistent 60 fps frame rate no matter how many shots or enemies were on the screen. Forza Motorsport 5, like all big racing games, looks and feels realistic, but it doesn't quite push past the graphical standards set by previous Forza games and Sony's Gran Turismo series. Expect a much more photorealistic Forza game in a year or two which will likely make Forza 5 look downright plasticky.
The games all run smoothly, though titles that rely on syncing with online services like Killer Instinct and Crimson Dragon chugged when the Xbox One got network hiccups. The games also tend to get choppy if you snap certain apps, like picture-in-picture TV. Still, the snapping feature is more useful than not, and unsnapping an app by saying "Xbox, unsnap" means the game performance bounces back to smooth and full resolution.
Like the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One is not backwards compatible with the previous generation. Neither Xbox 360 disc-based games, nor any games purchased on Xbox Live for the previous system will work on the Xbox One.
As with the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One features game capture software built into the system. Saying "Xbox, record that" makes the system capture and save the last 30 seconds of gameplay footage. You can only record up to 30 seconds this way, but you can record up to five minutes of gameplay by snapping the Game DVR app to the screen when you're playing. This isn't quite as flexible or powerful as the PlayStation 4's constant capture of the last 15 minutes of gameplay accessible by pressing the Share button, and without Kinect voice commands recording game footage is very clunky, but it's a useful feature.
The Upload Studio app will let users edit clips and post them on social media, and upload them to their SkyDrive cloud storage. However, this app was not available at the time of testing, and we will explore it in more depth when it is released.
The Xbox One will support streaming gameplay to Twitch.tv, but again this feature was not enabled at the time of this review. We will look at the Twitch support when it becomes available.
Xbox Live Gold
Get ready to spend £40 a year more than the £429 you'll spend on the system itself, because you need Xbox Live Gold. The Xbox's premium subscription service might as well be its only service, since it's required to play multiplayer games online. It's required to watch online media services like Netflix. It's required to use Skype. It will be required to use the OneGuide when it’s released in the UK. Basically, if you don't get Xbox Live Gold, you'll miss out on nearly everything worthwhile you can do on the Xbox One besides playing single player games.
Microsoft has taken a huge step forward with the Xbox One, offering the same sort of hardware upgrade Sony gave the PlayStation 4, along with many new features that range from handy to completely game-changing. Kinect's voice controls and the full-on TV integration means that the Xbox One isn’t just a game system with some media features – it’s an all-in-one media hub.
The Xbox One isn't perfect, though, and besides spending £429 on the system you need to spend another £40 each year to actually use most of its smart features with Xbox Live Gold. Its voice command functionality is top notch, but it still requires practice, and its game recording features aren't quite as strong as the PlayStation 4's. Even with all of these caveats, though, the Xbox One offers a comprehensive, powerful experience in terms of gaming and watching television, and Microsoft has achieved remarkable success with its ambitions for this system.
If you want a pure gaming system, the Xbox One is largely neck-and-neck with the PlayStation 4, and the main factors you should consider are which console has more games you want to play, and how much you can spend. As a media hub, though, especially if you subscribe to a cable or satellite service, the Xbox One stands in a class of its own. If you can afford the extra £120 (including the cost of Xbox Live Gold) for it and want a new, more convenient way to channel surf and watch TV in addition to the newest game console hardware, the Xbox One is the clear choice over the PS4.