Eight years on from the launch of the Xbox 360 we finally have its successor; a powerful, multi-function super console designed not just to revolutionize gaming, but transform your living room. Curiously, this makes the fight between the Xbox One and Sony’s new PS4 the mirror image of the last console battle. Where last time Sony had the all-in, home entertainment powerhouse that ‘only does everything’, while Microsoft had the more streamlined, game-focused system, now it’s Microsoft pushing for the bigger vision and Sony running after the more hardcore gamers. This makes reviewing the Xbox One tricky. It’s £80 more expensive than the PS4, and most of that £80 has gone on a Kinect sensor, a UI and a set of entertainment features that you might be ambivalent about. Much of your opinion will depend on how you want to use a console. Do you want it in the living room or in the bedroom, snug or study? Is your lounge already packed out with smart devices, or are you looking for something that brings you all your entertainment in one place?It’s tempting to conclude that, with the Xbox One, Microsoft has put its long-term strategy for the living room ahead of the needs of its gaming audience. There’s some truth to that, and some of those who adopted the Xbox 360 might defect to the Sony side this time around. Yet there are some fine games in Microsoft’s launch line-up, and there’s plenty of potential in the console’s mix of hardware, Kinect, cloud-based services and exclusive IPs.
What’s in the box?
What a pile. An Xbox One purchase gets you the console and a Kinect, a power cable and adapter (aka the power brick), a decent headset, the headset adapter, an HDMI cable and controller with batteries. You’ll also get a 14-day free trial of Xbox Live Gold.The PlayStation 4 is a lot more tidy in this respect. The Xbox One is down on power compared to the PS4 and it’s much bigger too – yet the PS4’s power supply sits inside its frame, while the Xbox One comes with a big external power brick.
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: 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 multicolored 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 3 by 12.9 by 11.7 inches (HWD) and weighing about seven pounds, 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 holds 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 form. It’s a chunky, rectangular brick that measures 2.4 by 9.7 by 3 inches (HWD), 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 has a tripod screw mount if you want to secure it. The bigger, 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.
Microsoft had the unenviable task of redesigning something that nobody thought was broken. The Xbox 360 controller was universally praised, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Xbox One controller is familiar. Improvements have been made to the triggers, which now feature rumble motors; the D-pad, which is now a cross; and the thumbsticks, which are now smaller and more accurate. It’s a comfortable controller with a good amount of weight, and a great texture not only makes it feel more premium but ameliorates the gross, slippery feel following a long session with the Xbox 360 controller.Not all the changes are home runs, though. The new bumpers split opinions at Polygon — some editors feel they’re more difficult to click than the 360’s shoulder buttons. When compared to moving the “Black” and “White” buttons on the original Xbox controller to the shoulders on Xbox 360, this modification seems superfluous at best and a detriment at worst.The Xbox One controller features a more recessed space for the battery, as opposed to the outward bump found on the back of the Xbox 360’s controller. By default, it uses standard AA batteries — while the rechargeable AA battery users on staff adapted quickly, others were nonplussed that there wasn’t a rechargeable option in the box.But you won’t spend a lot of time worrying about batteries. We haven’t been able to fully deplete a charge on our controllers in a week and a half of constant play. While the controller’s micro USB port won’t charge a pair of rechargeable AA batteries — that will have to be done separately, just like the Xbox 360’s controller — it will disable the controller’s proprietary wireless connection in favor of the direct wired connection.
It’s a small but valuable improvement from the Xbox 360 controller.One of the most exciting additions to the controller is actually behind that unusually long battery life. The controller works in coordination with Kinect to monitor its use. When you put the controller down to watch a movie, it enters a low-power state. It’s a smart way of extending the utility of Kinect in a practical way.The Xbox One also supports the Wi-Fi Direct standard for, well, direct wireless connections between devices. This kind of connection eliminates your wireless router from the equation, reducing latency and speeding up transfer speeds — which Microsoft is using for the Xbox One’s new, improved version of SmartGlass (discussed later).
The Xbox One’s Kinect is a combination camera and microphone. It lets the system see you, hear you, react to your commands or just your presence. It also has an IR blaster that can interact with your TV and other appliances.While Microsoft has taken pains to assure the public that the Kinect is not required for using the Xbox One, ignore it and you’d be missing out. After all, it’s going to be in the box no matter what; it’s the reason Xbox One is £50 more than the PS4.Physically, it’s bigger than the Xbox 360’s Kinect. It’s wider, heavier, more rectangular and cannot be mounted to the top of your TV, at least not as-is out of the box. Also, unlike the 360’s Kinect, it doesn’t move on its own to keep you in frame. Microsoft has replaced that slightly unnerving feature with an optical zoom. The Kinect can be manually tilted, but you only need to do so during the initial setup.There’s a wizard that makes calibration quite painless and only needs to be repeated if you make major changes to your living room setup. The first time you run it you’ll introduce Kinect to your face. Once seems to be enough, the Kinect was shockingly good at picking people out beneath glasses and facial hair.Some checks do need to be repeated if you move the Kinect: making sure it can see enough of the floor and that the mic is tuned to hear you. The system will ask you to crank up your speakers so it can blast a few notes for a sound check. This makes sure Kinect can hear you over the TV. This whole setup process takes less than five minutes.The Kinect sees you and hears you, letting you navigate menus with your voice or gesture commands. Being able to go from the first Home screen to your pins with a wave is nice, but beyond that the onscreen hand cursor is more trouble than it’s worth. It’s twitchy and doesn’t recognize a “press” very well.For voice commands, the Kinect’s mic can reliably hear you over TV audio, but conversation and background noise gives it trouble. It’s best used when there’s little going on in the room besides playing Xbox. You also need to stick to rather rigid command syntax so it understands you.Everything you say has to begin with “Xbox.” “Xbox go to Forza Motorsport 5” will launch said racing game. It sounds simple enough but you’ll find plenty of ways to trip over it.For example, saying play rather than go to, or Forza instead of the game’s entire name. Kinect is no Siri when it comes to interpreting the way people actually talk.A lot of the command phrasing isn’t terribly intuitive either.
For example, “Xbox on” turns on the system, but “Xbox turn off” switches it off. Forgetting to say “turn” or putting it where it doesn’t belong usually results in no response from the Kinect. Kinect makes a lot of basic functions convenient and fun. Pausing a movie, returning to the home screen and switching between snapped apps worked quite well. However, anything beyond simple commands can quickly get frustrating.The least reliable command is ironically the most basic. We frequently found ourselves saying “Xbox on” several times before the system would come to life. While it would sometimes snap to attention at first utterance, we never what we had done right, or wrong.Also, while you can easily setup the Kinect’s IR blaster to automatically power on your TV, it might be a good option to skip. If your TV is already on when you say “Xbox On,” it’ll turn it off. A lot of universal remotes have the same problem.At its best the Kinect compliments the Xbox One’s interface by giving you options. You can go between speech, gestures and controller input without even bothering to tell the Kinect “stop listening.” The bevy of options is impressive, and amusing.
The Xbox One’s voice controls aren’t perfect, they’re revolutionary in how well they work, and have few enough imperfections that I can see 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. Check out voice controls in action in the video below.oice 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 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—useful for services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and especially watching TV with the OneGuide (we’re 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 show I want by just 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. 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 from 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 on when you say “Xbox, on.”
Xbox Live has long been a competitive advantage for Microsoft, but Sony’s recent enhancements to PlayStation Network have blunted some of that edge. In order to keep that advantage on Xbox One, Microsoft has embraced the cloud — a reported 300,000 servers have been dedicated to supporting everything from cloud-based saves to actual computational assistance. It’s a big, somewhat opaque strategy that may take time to fully realize.Like the PlayStation 4, the friends list maximum has been raised from 100. While Sony’s maximum is now 2,000, Microsoft has opted for a still-massive 1,000 with one clever addition: followers. Instead of requiring two-way authorization, the Xbox One allows players to follow anyone’s profile. Imagine Twitter, but full of your game activity. And not only can you have more friends, but you can actually hear what they’re saying thanks to the inclusion of Skype’s audio codec and a much higher bitrate for voice chat.The new “Smart Match” system promises to improve the way matchmaking works on the system and, in our experience, it delivered on streamlining some of the most common actions. Joining a friend’s lobby is as simple as clicking “Smart Match” in a game, and it’s designed to help pair you with players similar to you. Even better, if you’re in an Xbox party with a friend and they start an online match, Smart Match will send you an invite automatically. It’s a small quality-of-life improvement, but it’s welcome. notable disappointment is the absence of real-name support at launch. One of the PS4’s most enjoyable enhancements has been postponed for Xbox One until an unspecified future date. Microsoft has also dropped social-network integration, which seems like a short-sighted reaction to the lack of users of the Xbox 360 apps. With the Xbox One far more qualified to support these features alongside games and entertainment, it’s disappointing they’re not here.Also missing at launch is Twitch live-streaming support. While Sony revealed its console — and its streaming ability — first, Microsoft was first to specifically announce Twitch streaming support.
Twitch, unlike other streaming video platforms, is gaming-specific and its inclusion in the PlayStation 4 already makes the feature feel mandatory. Twitch streaming is coming to the Xbox One “during the first part of 2014,” but its initial absence is pronounced.You can record and share gameplay clips using Microsoft’s SkyDrive service, however. Saying “Xbox, record that” will capture the last 30 seconds of gameplay to your account. For longer clips, up to five minutes, you can go to the Xbox One’s Game DVR app — again, either by saying “Xbox, go to Game DVR” or selecting the app from the home screen.From there, you can access Upload Studio, trim and prepare your video and publish it to your Xbox Live account or, for sharing purposes, push it to SkyDrive. Once uploaded, you can grab the link, further edit the video or manually upload it to YouTube or share it manually across social networks, though it again rankles that there’s no direct Twitter or Facebook integration.Xbox Live now completely integrates cloud saves, which are universally synced. Even better, Microsoft has committed to unlimited storage for its users — though specific games will likely enforce hard limits on this end. These saves are automatic, whether you’re an Xbox Live Gold subscriber or not. It removes the complication of selecting storage mediums or manually bringing your progress to a friend’s house.
The user-interface is clearly based on Windows 8, and for the most part it’s brilliant. You can pin your favorite games and apps to the left of the dashboard, while the store, with promoted games, music, movies and apps, is on the right. In the middle you’ll find a Home section with your most recent activities, and a tile that takes you straight to your installed apps and games (not to mention settings). It’s easy to navigate using the controller, and there are Kinect powered motion controls for – as examples – swiping through the dashboard, selecting tiles or minimising apps. Yet the real USP of the Xbox One UI is voice control. For many of the Xbox One’s functions, it’s the quickest, most efficient way of getting things done.Say “Xbox, Go to Netflix” and it launches Netflix. Say “Browse to TrustedReviews” in Internet Explorer and, provided you’ve visited TrustedReviews, the page comes up. You can say “Xbox, Bing, The Hobbit” and it will pull up movies, music and other items associated with The Hobbit, whether they’re installed on the console, on Xbox Video or Xbox Music, or available through services like Netflix. It’s hard to explain how brilliant this is until you’ve tried it, but it makes finding what you want so much easier.That said, this Kinect stuff is 80%, maybe 85%, there: it’s still not perfect. Often we find ourselves reaching for the controller for the last selection or to choose an option, not because it’s impossible to do it through voice or Kinect, but just because it’s quicker and easier. The voice recognition doesn’t work equally brilliantly for all members of the household, though either it is or we are getting better. We still find ourselves getting SkyDrive when we really want Skype, or sitting around looking stupid while it ignores a command entirely. Overall, though, this feels like a small revolution. It’s not the first voice control system we’ve tried, but it’s the first that works – and works effectively – most of the time.The Xbox One’s other strengths are its integration into the wider Windows ecosystem, particularly pulling photos and the like from SkyDrive, and the ease and speed with which you can flick between apps. There’s hardly any delay between switching quickly from, say, Forza 5 to Internet Explorer and back again, and you can snap an app to the right-hand-side of the screen and keep a voice conversation going in Skype while you browse the Web or play on.
Some apps are simply too small in snap mode to be practical, but this speed and flexibility feels like the future. Going back from Xbox One to a conventional Smart TV experience feels slightly painful.Surprisingly few apps and services come per-installed, but a quick visit to the app store soon sorts that out, and we had Netflix, the Blu-ray player, Skype, Internet Explorer, Xbox Video, Xbox Music and SkyDrive up and running within an hour or so of switching on the console – and that was with a lot of messing around trying various things out. Microsoft clearly hopes that you’ll use Xbox Video and Xbox Music for your TV, movies and music-streaming needs, and the selection is improving now that Xbox, Windows and Windows Phone share one ecosystem. LOVEFiLM and – particularly – Netflix work brilliantly on Xbox One, and the only major disappointment is the lack of any Sky services, with no Sky Go on Xbox One and no Now TV until next year.Generally speaking, we’d still rather browse on a tablet or laptop than a TV screen, but Internet Explorer on Xbox One does its best to change our minds. Put a bit of legwork in and you’ll quickly be finding sites and adding favorites, and it works surprisingly well with Kinect voice commands for scrolling up and down, selecting links and switching tabs. The other highlight of the Xbox One experience is Skype. Kinect turns out to be a great Skype camera, the view moving subtly to track you as you move around the room, and with excellent definition, colour and contrast. Once again, voice control works well for making calls and hanging up. If you buy Xbox One we expect it will become your device of choice for voice and video chat while you’re at home – particularly as you can be watching a film or playing a game and you get a discrete notification to let you know that someone’s calling.
Microsoft was early to the second-screen race, launching its SmartGlass app for smartphones and tablets only a month before Nintendo launched the Wii U. Unlike the Wii U, however, Microsoft hasn’t made much use of the feature, only supporting nine games in its first year (though it did find more support across Xbox 360 entertainment applications).SmartGlass on Xbox One actually requires a new app, available at launch for Android, Windows Phone and iOS, as well as Windows 8/RT. The biggest difference in the Xbox One’s app is how it connects to the system. You no longer route through Xbox Live’s servers, which communicate with the Xbox. Instead, your phone, tablet or PC connects directly to the Xbox One using Wi-Fi Direct.Other differences are minor for now. You can pin apps and games to your home screen, which will carry over to your Xbox One when you return to it. You can also view friends’ video shares through their profiles, and control the volume of your television or receiver via the Kinect’s IR blasting capabilities. As with the Xbox 360 SmartGlass app, you can view Achievements, store pages and launch apps on the Xbox One through the app.Several games support that feature to varying degrees. Battlefield 4 has a companion app with included level map. Dead Rising 3 goes the farthest with SmartGlass, integrating your smartphone with the game via SmartGlass if you let it. This sends mission briefings and such to you via calls, making your phone “ring” for notifications.We’re most interested in ways for Microsoft to take the SmartGlass functionality even further, both in games and elsewhere. The Xbox One can already blast IR commands to televisions and receivers. There’s little reason SmartGlass couldn’t act as a fully featured universal remote for your entire home entertainment system.With both the PlayStation 4 and Wii U supporting second-screen experiences, we’re hopeful that third-party support increases. Both platforms’ adoption of widely available iOS and Android devices is smart and forward-thinking.
Every game on the Xbox One requires at least a partial installation before it can be played. These installs are lengthier than on PlayStation 4, but not by much.For example, a disc copy of Madden for Xbox One needed six minutes to reach 25% installation before letting us on the gridiron. The PS4 version needed two minutes, and an additional minute to download a patch before online features were enabled.Installing isn’t a major roadblock on either system, but it is something to anticipate. It’s a good idea to pop a new game in the drive the minute you get home. That way you can be sure it’ll be ready when you are.One advantage the Xbox One has over the PS4 is that discs are not required to play. Once a game has been installed, the system won’t ask for it when it’s selected from the menu. It’s a convenient feature, if nothing else, and makes using the Xbox One feel pleasantly self-contained.
Getting to graphics and gameplay, a lot has been made of the fact that many third-party games run in full 1080p on the PS4, while the Xbox One versions are 720p. There are indeed sharper visuals to be found on the PS4’s versions of Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, but you need a keen eye to tell the difference.Character models often have more detailed textures, and lighting effects can be slightly more impressive on the PS4. However, performance across the two systems is very similar, with equally smooth framerates and load times that are close in length.The 720p vs 1080p situation is still troubling, Microsoft will need to close this visual gap in future releases. It’s something we’ll be keeping an eye on as we update this review down the line.The Xbox One has first-party games that show off just as much graphical gusto as the PS4. Ryse: Son of Rome and Forza Motorsport 5 are just as gorgeous as anything currently available from Sony. Dead Rising 3 is a bit behind the beauty curve but the sheer number of zombies it can render while maintaining a solid framerate is impressive.
Microsoft takes a huge step forward with the Xbox One, offering the same 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 Xbox One TV integration and OneGuide turn the system from a game system with some media features into an all-in-one media hub.The Xbox One isn’t perfect, and besides spending $500 on the system you need to spend another $60 each year to actually use most of the good 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 both gaming and watching television, and even its imperfect features show remarkable success along with its ambition.If you want a pure game system, the Xbox One is neck-and-neck with the PlayStation 4, and the main factors you should consider are which system has more games you want to play, and how much can you spend. As a media hub, though, especially if you subscribe to cable or satellite service, the Xbox One stands in a class of its own. If you can spend the extra $160 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.