The game console that would rule your living room, Xbox One review

The game console that would rule your living room, Xbox One review

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The good: Microsoft’s new console integrates live TV in an innovative fashion and can control your cable or satellite cable box, TV, and receiver. Most games present noticeably improved graphics over those on the Xbox 360. The One has a slightly better roster of exclusive launch games compared with the PS4’s.

The bad: The live TV integration is fraught with frustrations: Kinect voice commands don’t always work, the new dashboard is more confusing than it needs to be, and the system lacks full DVR integration. It costs $100 more than the PS4, and the additional Xbox Live Gold membership fee is required to use nearly every cool feature. The lineup of launch games lacks a Halo-caliber must-have title.

The bottom line: The Xbox One goes beyond gaming with its ambitious live TV integration, but at launch it can’t deliver a knockout blow to the PS4 due to a higher price and uneven voice control. We suggest you wait for improvements, but for now, the Xbox One is better suited to forgiving early adopters.

Just a week after the encouraging debut of the PlayStation 4, Xbox One claims the spotlight.

Arriving a full eight years to the day after the Xbox 360, the Xbox One stakes a bold claim as the command center of your living room. Its name says it all: the One Box that would have you view all your living room entertainment — from gaming, live TV, online video streaming, or Skyping with friends and family — through its hardware.

A big part of that do-it-all promise is the inclusion of the second-generation Kinect — no longer an option, the motion sensor/remote extender/voice control microphone is included with every Xbox One — and a big reason Microsoft’s console clocks in at $499, a full $100 more than Sony’s offering. (Gone, meanwhile, are the onerous DRM and “no used games” restrictions that dogged the Xbox One’s announcement phase.)

So the Xbox One aims high, but does it fly too close to the sun? Is the $100 premium over PS4 worth it? Is the console’s entertainment and TV integration fully realized? Should Xbox 360 owners upgrade now or wait?

These are the questions you’ve had all year — and now, it’s time for the answers.

What’s in the box

Inside the Xbox One box is the console, its power brick, the Kinect sensor, a 6-foot HDMI cable, one controller, and one chat headset. Like the $400 PS4, there’s only one version of the Xbox One, a 500GB system for $500.

Even though Kinect isn’t vital to the Xbox One’s functionality, you’re still left paying the $100 premium for the Kinect, which comes in the box. (Of course, Kinect was originally required, but backlash forced Microsoft to remove it as a prerequisite.)

Unlike the PS4 — which includes a free month of the PlayStation Plus service (and its accompanying free games) and a $10 voucher for online purchases — Microsoft gives you neither extras nor freebies. That stings, considering you’ll need an Xbox Live Gold account ($60/year) to do pretty much anything on the Xbox One beyond playing single-player games. (More on that later.) That said, existing Gold members can grandfather a new One console onto their current 360 account at no extra charge.

 

The hardware

Under the Xbox One’s hood is an eight-core AMD CPU, 8GB of DDR3 RAM and a GPU clocked at 853 MHz. The Xbox One’s specs trail the PS4’s only slightly, but it’s important to keep in mind this was the case last generation as well. Both consoles’ architectures are more closely constructed this generation, so for the most part we’ll likely see similar graphical performance.

 

The Xbox One is significantly bulkier and notably less sleek than the PlayStation 4; some have described it as a retrofitted VCR. Quite frankly it’s not really anything special to look at, though the glowing white Xbox logo on the right panel is oddly soothing.

One ugly carryover from the 360 is the Xbox One’s external power brick. That’s in contrast to the trim PS4, which manages to keep its power supply tucked inside.

The Xbox weighs around 8 pounds and measures in at 13.5 inches wide by 10.4 inches deep by 3.2 inches tall, but it doesn’t go as deep as the PS4 (10.8 inches by 12 inches by 2 inches). Unlike the PS4, the Xbox One’s internal 500GB hard disk is not user-replaceable. Wireless Xbox One features include 802.11n and Wi-Fi Direct, but there’s no built-in Bluetooth support.

The box is littered with vents on top and around the sides. Xbox One is designed to be on nearly 24-7, if only because it sits in line between your cable box and TV. I’ve had the console on more often than not when I’ve been home, and impressively enough, the machine barely makes any noise. (That’s a far cry from the jet-engine din of the original Xbox 360 consoles.)

Kinect 2.0 is bundled into the Xbox One system and is meshed into the console’s operating system, more so than the PS4’s PlayStation Camera (an optional $60 upgrade to the Sony system). Kinect is not required for operation, but Microsoft is never shy to heavily recommend attaching the device during the initial setup. The camera and microphone array take up a little more space than one of those old-school Swingline staplers, so finding a spot for it shouldn’t be too much of a task. Be warned, though, unlike the PS4 camera, you can’t put the Kinect on top of your TV; that could be especially problematic if you have a sound bar at the base of your screen.

When it’s powered on, you’ll notice three infra-red (IR) blasting beacons emanating from the front of the Kinect. In fact, the Xbox One can send and receive IR commands, which means it can both control your TV and audio receiver or sound bar (to a degree), as well as accept commands from a standard universal remote. (The PS4 can do neither, even with its camera connected.) Note, however, that the Xbox’s database of control codes isn’t comprehensive; we already found some mainstream TVs that it wasn’t able to control.

Around back is a collection of ports: an HDMI-in and -out (for live TV integration), an optical audio port, two USB 3.0 slots (plus one on the left side for a total of three), the Kinect attachment interface, a slot for an IR blaster, and an Ethernet port. The IR slot is for those owners who don’t have line-of-sight (if their devices are behind a closed cabinet, for example) between their Kinect and AV devices. For these setups a wire (not included) must manually run from the console to these devices so they can receive IR commands.

Xbox One must lie horizontally, unlike the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 and 4. Finally, standard-definition TV owners are out of luck; the Xbox One only connects digitally via HDMI.

Gameplay

Most of the Xbox One games I tried out look great and perform mostly well. Dead Rising 3 is capable of displaying a dizzying amount of zombies on screen at once — way more than its hardware predecessor was physically able to do. Ryse: Son of Rome and Forza Motorsport 5 are the best-looking eye candy among the initial crop of exclusive titles.

As with the PS4, most multiplatform Xbox One games, especially those already available on current-generation systems, only look marginally better than the PS3 or Xbox 360 versions. In certain cases — EA’s sports titles, for instance — new next-gen engines have been put in place to takaid, the majority of games won’t truly hit their stride until developers learn to master the system. It’s just the nature of the beast and it affects both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 alike.

During any gameplay session, players can suspend the action and back out into the console’s operating system, watch live TV, open other apps, or enter settings. The suspended game is only lost when a new game is started or the console is powered off.

Players can also “snap” certain apps to their gameplay screen, which I’ll discuss in depth a little later.

Achievements are back with the Xbox One and presented within their own app in the operating system. Each achievement can be viewed in full-screen mode and, depending on the game, some achievements will actually record gameplay the moment they are unlocked.

Microsoft is supporting independent game development for the platform, and those titles will be available exclusively in the Xbox One Game Store. Outside of digital-only offerings, all titles will be available in disc or digital form. If you buy digital versions of games, you can download and play them on any Xbox One you log in to. If you buy the disc version, that disc must follow you wherever you go. (The PS4 offers the same options for sharing digital and disc-based games.)

All games, disc-based or digital, completely install onto the system. You’ll only need the disc to play if that’s how you purchased the game.

Just like the PS4, the Xbox One has no backward compatibility at all with Xbox 360 discs. The ability to buy and download classic games from Xbox 360 wouldn’t be surprising down the road, but that’s strictly wishful thinking for now — no official announcements have been made.

Since the Xbox One’s announcement, Microsoft has really drilled in the idea of cloud computing and how it will supposedly open the door for revolutionary in-game results. None of the launch titles we’ve seen incorporates cloud computing in any noticeable manner, but we’re sure this kind of tech will surface as we head deeper into the console’s life cycle.

 

The controller

It’s tough for the Xbox team to have improved upon the Xbox 360 controller. Save for its subpar D-pad, the controller was easily the most comfortable one ever made. For Xbox One, the controller’s shape and feel have undergone tweaks, and I can’t say it’s all for the better.

The new controller isn’t necessarily uncomfortable, but it’s gripped slightly different and has more angles as opposed the curves of the 360’s controller. The Xbox guide button (now the Home button) is placed well away from where the Back and Start buttons used to flank it — likely to avoid accidentally hitting. The Back and Start buttons are now the View and Menu buttons respectively.

The Xbox One’s controller still has the same layout for face buttons and the analog sticks are laid out in the same format as well. The sticks have smaller circular tops on the joysticks and they can be clicked in. The D-pad is the most different-looking, compared with the 360’s controller; it no longer sits on a disc. The plus-shaped directional pad now clicks in four directions, totally eliminating the accidental inputs its predecessor suffered from.

The LB and RB buttons now have much more space atop the controller and the L and R triggers have a really solid squeeze and feel to them. There are even independent rumble motors tethered to each trigger, so, for example, stepping on the gas will shake the right trigger but not the left.

On top of the controller is a Micro-USB port that can be used if there’s a rechargeable battery pack installed. It takes two AAs otherwise. There’s also a sync button and two IR blasters that send information to Kinect. This is how Xbox One knows who is signed into the console, but more on that later.

Underneath the controller is a port for connecting a chat headset. Unfortunately, this interface isn’t compatible with any 360 headset.

Additional Xbox One controllers can be purchased for $60 and the console can support up to eight connected at once.

 

Kinect 2.0 and the Xbox One interface

While Microsoft seemed to have gone all-in on how deeply rooted the motion sensing and voice recognition camera was going to be, a vehement pushback from the gaming community changed that. Sure, Kinect isn’t required in order for Xbox One to work but it’s still very much ingrained in much of the experience.

Xbox One is nearly completely controllable with the Kinect and your voice, though it can make for some frustrating moments. Kinect doesn’t always hear you correctly and things that would take seconds to perform on a controller can take much longer as you start articulating and pronouncing every single syllable more clearer.

Kinect 2.0 introduces a handful of new voice and gesture commands, all of which will take some time getting used to. In fact, Microsoft provided me with a cheat sheet containing around 30 new voice commands and five new gestures.

When it does work, Kinect can provide some brilliant “a-ha” moments. Even the simple task of turning the console on without the need to locate a controller is a luxury tough to abandon once experienced for the first time.

The console can log you in using only your face, up to six different faces and six log-ins, to be exact. Once you turn on a controller, it then knows which player is holding which controller. It’s a sneaky yet effective trick, especially when multiple users share a single console.

When you’re logged in to another console outside of your primary home console, your content is only available if you are the home user (meaning you push the Home button) on a controller. Once another attached user hits the Home button, they are then driving the console. This impacts which games and saves are available too. Essentially, your Xbox Live account follows you where you go. I’ll dive deeper into Xbox Live accounts a little later.

Using the Skype app was a really great experience. The Kinect sensor isn’t mechanical, but it can zoom in and out taking into consideration the amount of people in a given room. By tracking everyone’s skeletons, the Skype video feed ensures everyone stays in the picture during a video conference. Skype is baked into the OS quite well and also responds to its own collection of voice commands.

It’s tough to deny the interface’s aesthetic similarities to the tiled Windows 8 design, especially how users can pin items to their screen. Almost anything is pinnable, from apps and games, to specific albums, movies and TV shows. Users can also add a touch of customization to the screen with the ability to choose a unique thematic color.

The Xbox One’s dashboard seems like a simple three-pillared approach on the surface: Pins, Home, and Store. Pins are the bookmarks you can place for quick access to almost anything and the Store section is the portal to all of the content accessible on an Xbox One. The Home (main) screen houses a large window that contains the app currently running, game, or piece of media. Surrounding it are tiles of recently used software and access to your Xbox One profile on the left.

Unfortunately, what appears straightforward on the surface hides a handful of complexities underneath. The platform introduces a number of brand-new ideas; the most intriguing of all is probably the “snap” feature, which allows you to snap an app to a third of your screen. It brings the idea of multitasking to a console for the first time, though its implementation can be disorienting.

Not every app you own will be able to snap. So while you’re able to snap Internet Explorer to a game, you might not be able to snap a different media app. You’ll also battle with understanding which side of the screen you’re controlling, though there are a few button shortcuts or voice commands in place to help you out.

Things can get complicated quickly, especially if you hit the Home button during a snap session. Both apps will then sink into the Home window at which point you might need to unsnap everything to make sense of it all. There’s also a confusing amount of incongruity when it comes to what can be done with your voice as opposed to the controller.

Without a doubt, the logic of the Xbox One dashboard will take some getting used to. It’s tough to discern which apps can snap and how to take control of everything onscreen, all while managing voice commands and controller inputs. With every new piece of software the user begins to understand behaviors and rules that dictate how things work. With this new dashboard, though, the learning process will take longer than you’re used to.

Too often in my time with the dashboard I’d get confused about exactly where I was in the system. The best way I can describe it is a form of “menu Inception” where I was within a menu within a menu, but accessing it from a different place than I thought I had originated from. Got all that?

 

Setup

Setting up the Xbox One will require you to connect to the Internet for a mandatory Day One patch that will unlock nearly all of the console’s functionality. You won’t even be able to play games out of the box unless you perform this update.

From there you’ll need to calibrate Kinect and program your AV devices before you’re ready to start playing games or watching live TV should you choose to connect Xbox One that way.In other words: don’t expect to jump straight into playing Dead Rising 3. You’re gonna need to invest some serious time and effort into getting your new Xbox One up and running.

Living room control: Consider it a supplement

Live TV integration is probably the most ambitious “outside-the-box” thinking a console has done in a while. Xbox One wants to get between your TV and your cable box so that it can cater the experience.

The Xbox OneGuide is a channel guide overlay that appears on top of your live TV signal. From there you can navigate as you normally would through a cable guide with your voice or the controller. There are a few special features that the OneGuide offers like Favorites and App channels. Favorites lets you dump your most viewed channels into their own section of the OneGuide and App channels gives you access to certain content without the need to exit your live TV. Only certain content providers support App channels, so while Hulu Plus is currently supported, Netflix is not. Microsoft told me it’s up to the developer whether or not they want to include App channel support.

So how well does the Kinect work? I’d say it worked about 75 percent of the time in understanding what I wanted it to do, including which channels I wanted to watch and where in the dashboard I wanted to navigate. Unfortunately, there’s enough wonkiness riddled throughout its use that will probably be enough to scare some away from it altogether.

More specifically, the Kinect refused to understand specific cable channels. After two weeks of owning an Xbox One, neither my wife nor I have successfully gotten it to tune to HGTV. It just can’t understand that.

For whatever reason, sometimes the Kinect won’t even acknowledge a voice command at all. Other times when it does, the listening window will close before the onscreen cue has faded out. It’s frustrating.

On three separate occasions, the Xbox One wouldn’t start up when I asked it to. Instead, manually powering up the console gave me a green loading bar that indicated a new update was installing. Aside from the fact that this should probably be done during standby time, I was essentially locked out of watching my own TV. What’s worse is there doesn’t seem to be an automatic pass-through for the HDMI signal, so TV watching will always be at the mercy of what Xbox One is doing.

I’ve been told that such occurrences will only happen during the beta review period, but I still felt it necessary to point out to demonstrate how the Xbox One can get in the way of you watching TV. After nearly two weeks of having my Verizon FiOS connected to the Xbox One, I’m contemplating routing it through a separate input. While I won’t be able to use the Xbox One Guide nor snap live TV to a game, I can still use Kinect voice commands as long as the Xbox One is on.

Then there are the examples of where the IR blasting just falls flat. The Kinect can’t change inputs on your TV or receiver, meaning that if you’ve set it up to turn on all your devices, you need to manually ensure that everything is set on the right input. There’s also no option to control input delays, power-on ordering, or customized commands. Using the Kinect to control your cable box also comes with an inherent delay — it’s just not as quick as hitting remote buttons.

DVR functionality is basically nonexistent because there’s no way to send top-level discrete commands to a cable box for specific recording. That’s not the Xbox One’s fault. But there’s currently no way to access other commands you might find on a cable box remote, so for a lot of the nonessential cable box navigation, you’ll need the original remote handy.

On the technical side of things, I found that the Xbox One successfully passed through the original video signal coming from my cable box, but the digital audio signal is another story. Unless it’s tied to an incoming system update, the Xbox One was not forwarding along the Dolby Digital 5.1 signal that I normally get from my cable box when it’s connected directly to my receiver.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

Live TV integration also allows you to snap TV to an app or a game. Finally, we can watch TV and play games at the same time! But there are a few caveats. For one, you can’t mix the audio to your preference, nor can you choose to hear one and not the other. They’re just both being mixed in at the same time, though in my experience it seems that the TV audio is louder than the game’s. I also found that the live TV feed tends to jitter occasionally when in snap mode.

Overall, the ambitious live TV and home theater integration features of the Xbox One are a mixed bag. When they work they seem like they’re right out of a sci-fi movie, but when they don’t, it’s enough to drive you mental. I expect we’ll see some refinements and tweaks down the road through system updates, but right now no one should assume it will be able to take over control of their entertainment space exclusively.

Beyond TV: Other entertainment

With all the focus on OneGuide and voice-activated channel changing, it’s easy to forget that the Xbox 360 already had some pretty impressive living room functionality. Some of that carries over to the Xbox One, some of it doesn’t, and some you’ll need to wait for.

Microsoft announced a long list of “launch apps” early this month, but the big asterisk is that they’re only promised to arrive between launch and spring 2014. On our prelaunch firmware, the app selection was decent: Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, NFL, Crackle, Vudu, FoxNow, FXNow, TED, Redbox Instant, and Skype. Still, major apps like HBO Go, Pandora, YouTube, and Spotify were nowhere to be found. (HBO Go is said to be coming to the Xbox One in the launch window; the latter three are MIA.)

In other words: If you use your Xbox 360 as your main streaming-video box, you won’t want to replace it with an Xbox One right away.

The Xbox One also supports one of the coolest features on the Xbox 360: cross-platform video search using Kinect and Bing. The ability to say “Xbox, Bing ‘Parks and Recreation'” and see all the available video services is neat, although it feels strangely isolated from your own cable TV content. You want video search to integrate results from your TV and DVR content, but search is limited to streaming video apps right now. One can envision a future where the OneGuide and Bing search can access your cable content through authenticated apps, like the Xbox 360’s Xfinity app, but there aren’t even Xbox One apps for those services at the moment.

If you’re looking to play other disc-based media on the Xbox One, there’s support for Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and CDs. Though when it comes to DLNA support, things get a little dicey. The Xbox One only supports the Microsoft proprietary “Play To” protocol. To get the Xbox One to stream your media, it needs to be loaded into a SkyDrive account, which can be accessed through the SkyDrive app on the console.

Sharing and social

Sharing gameplay footage on the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 is being positioned as the next-gen rite of passage. While the PS4 can upload screenshots to Facebook and Twitter, the Xbox One can only upload and stream video. As of this writing, recorded video can only be uploaded using the Upload app, as opposed to Twitch and Ustream, which are already live on the PS4. Players can edit their recorded video using the Upload Studio app, though that is not yet available either. Users will soon be able to upload videos to Facebook and broadcast on Twitch when those services go live in 2014. I’ll update this section when game sharing is more fleshed out.

As for now, social integration seems to be lacking on Xbox One and doesn’t include game recording as seamlessly as PS4 does. If you don’t want to use your voice to say “Xbox record that,” there are half-dozen or so steps that you’ll need to perform in order to begin a recording session. And where PS4 is constantly recording the last 15 minutes of gameplay, Xbox One only buffers the last 30 seconds.

Xbox Live: Go gold or go home

To play online multiplayer you’ll need an Xbox Live Gold membership. That’s always been the case. But at this point in the game it’s becoming a bit ridiculous that an Xbox Live Gold account status is still required for a staggering portion of Xbox One’s basic features. A lot of these perks (game DVR, Netflix streaming, etc.) are included for free with the purchase of a PS4.

This may have flown under the radar in the past because Xbox 360 was the cheaper console, but now that the Xbox One is $100 more than the PS4, it seems absurd to have to pay a premium in addition to an all-but-mandatory $60-a-year membership to unlock basic functionality. Even certain features of the Xbox One channel guide are locked out if you’re not a Gold member.

Xbox Live Gold is also required for Skype, cloud saves, and any of the game DVR and Upload app features.

The only highlight feature that doesn’t seem to require Xbox Live Gold is SmartGlass, Xbox’s second-screen companion experience that is transitioning to Xbox One. As of this writing, it, too, is not ready for testing; it’s a separate app from the original Xbox 360 SmartGlass app. Certain games and media content can take advantage of the second screen, and SmartGlass will also let you navigate the Xbox One through your device. I’ve also seen demos where SmartGlass for Xbox One can act as another TV remote control.

Xbox One vs. PS4

So you’ve read our PlayStation 4 review and now you’re nearly done with our Xbox One write-up. So which console is right for you? It’s tough to overstate this, but there are a lot of factors that come into play here. Above everything else, it seems that waiting out the initial launch storm is the wisest move. There are still plenty of bugs to be ironed out and features yet to go live on both sides.

Then there are the games to consider. At launch the Xbox One narrowly edges out the PlayStation 4 in the exclusives category, if only by a hair. That being said, the PS4 appears to have a stronger indie lineup in the coming months. Where PS4 will get triple-A console exclusives like Infamous: Second Son in the near future, Xbox One has Titanfall to look forward to. Peering out further down the road, Xbox One owners will have the exclusives on games like Quantum Break, Sunset Overdrive, Project Spark, a new Halo game, and more.

Of course given their different prices, the PS4 does seem like an overall better value at the moment, especially if you consider the advantages included in PlayStation Plus as opposed to Xbox Live Gold. Current Xbox 360 Gold members can have their accounts transfer over, maintaining Gamerscores and point balances as well.

While it’s far from perfect, the Xbox One’s Kinect integration to live TV is nowhere to be matched on PS4. So if that’s of the utmost importance to you, your choice is simple.

It’s silly to base a purchase on hardware specs alone, especially in this case where both the Xbox One and the PS4’s are so close. Instead, it’s probably best to wait and see how multiplatform games perform in the coming months and combine that with the roadmap for exclusives to make a more educated decision. For instance, Call of Duty: Ghosts has a better frame rate on the Xbox One than on the PS4, but it runs natively at maximum 1080p resolution only on the latter.

 

Conclusion

Xbox One gets points for its forward-thinking mentality and ambition to integrate live TV and home theater control, even if that vision is far from being realized at launch. Of course no console is perfect out of the box, but it will be a difficult road ahead on that specific front.

In terms of the rest of the Xbox One experience, time will tell if the system is able to garner a compelling collection of software that makes owning one worth it. Just like the PS4, the Xbox One has a great amount of titles that are already playable on a system you might currently own. For those games, an upgrade isn’t necessary.

Because the Xbox One and the PS4 are now on the same cycle, they’ll both take some time to mature as platforms. That means it’ll be a while until there is a reliable stream of software for each system. If none of the exclusive launch games intrigues you, there’s no shame in waiting for something that does.

To complicate things even more, we can’t overlook what Valve has planned with next year’s rollout of the Steam hardware. The company’s incredibly popular Steam distribution service will soon get its own hardware, that at launch will have access to a gigantic library of games, a lot of which will overlap with the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. We don’t know much about the pricing format of these Steam machines, but if they’re competitive with Sony and Microsoft, the marketplace reaction will be dramatic.

The Xbox One feels a bit scatterbrained in its interface and presentation. To core gamers it might come off as a lot of unwanted fluff. On the other hand, the casual audience may be asking themselves why they needed to spend $500 when a $100 (or even $80) Roku might serve just as well for entertainment apps.

Where Sony positioned the PS4 as the “gamer’s console,” Microsoft felt customers would be better served with a console that wears many hats. Thankfully it can still play games with brilliant visuals, but it lands short of its ambitious all-in-one hubris.

CNET Senior Associate Editor Matthew Moskovciak contributed to this review.