While Nintendo's Wii U technically kicked off video gaming's eighth generation a year ago, the past two weeks have seen everything come together to get the next generation truly rolling. Last Friday, Sony launched the PlayStation 4; this week it's Microsoft's turn with their own Xbox One. We've already spent plenty of time with Sony's svelte system -- but how does Microsoft's beefy all-in-one entertainment console stack up? Is bigger necessarily better? USgamer's John Benyamine has spent time living with Xbox One to answer that question -- and this is what he thinks.
I started gaming on an Atari 800 when I was just six years old. As I grew into my teens, Nintendo became my platform of choice, and by the time I was in college -- and using an N64 as my primary gaming machine -- I had already decided that I needed to be involved in the gaming industry on a professional level.
Now, a decade and a half later, I’m a dad to an awesome one-year old, but my parental duties coupled with my professional workload has resulted in my free time plummeting to almost nil. It’s from this perspective that I’m reviewing Microsoft’s eighth-generation machine, which has been in our possession since the beginning of last week. There are already plenty of reviews of the Xbox One from a hardcore gamer perspective, some excellent super-technical analyses, and of course a few cynical reviews by those who try to create controversy to justify their position as “games journalists” (and of course generate views for their web sites in the process).
But while Xbox One will end up in the homes of many hardcore gamers, the fact is that general consumers will comprise the majority of the system's audience. People like me, who may have played games all their lives but whose responsibilities result in gaming time having become a very precious commodity. For us, deciding how to spend that time is important, because we want to get the most from it.
For me, one of the more interesting features of Xbox One is that it’s not purely a games system. We’ve known this for months, of course, but now that I have the machine in-hand, I've been interested in seeing how Microsoft’s attempt to create the ultimate set-top box has worked out.
So let’s start with the UI.
Xbox One is very Metro-inspired. For anyone who has ever struggled with Windows 8, this could very well be a turn-off. But don’t worry, it’s not at all cumbersome for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, it's quick. The Xbox 360 that currently sits under my TV (Grand Theft Auto V firmly glued into the tray) takes a fairly long time to boot up. I’m not sure if that’s because I have to log in to Live, then wait as the Kinect connection adds a few more seconds, but it feels like turning on the Xbox 360 is something I do before leaving the room to grab a drink. By the time I’m settled, the menu has finally loaded.
Booting up the Xbox One (after an initial setup and requisite day-one software updates) is as simple as saying “Xbox On.” I admit I cracked a smile when I saw the white logo start glowing on the system. You can set up your system to turn on your television and receiver as well as the system itself, so I did precisely that. Everything worked a lot better than I expected.
On top of the swift startup time, the menus also keep up the pace. I used the Xbox One controller first to go from the Store to Download Apps, then back to the game of Powerstar Golf I was playing, and then to the Forza 5 disc that was in the system. You need to deal with a few loading screens when starting up a game, and you can’t run two games at once (which means if you switch from Golf to Forza, you have to restart Golf again). However, you’re able to quickly hop into and out of the different items on display.
As far as stress-testing the basic menus, I went to the Store to set some apps to download and install. While doing that, I snapped the ESPN app to run on the right side of the screen while I navigated the menus to boot up Forza again. Aside from a bit of slowdown that occurred solely within the ESPN app, everything was very fast. You know that feeling when you hit the 360's home button and there’s a few second lag depending on what’s downloading or installing at the moment? That is gone, and it feels liberating.
Competing for Air Time
Xbox One is unique in its approach to being an integral part of your television experience and, by extension, a central part of your living room. This is accomplished with an HDMI input port located on the back of the machine. Now you can take the HDMI output from your cable box and plug it into Xbox One, and the system adds to the television experience.
For example, I love The Walking Dead, but I’m lazy and I don’t set AMC as a favorite channel on my Verizon Fios set-top box. Tuning to the channel usually has me loading up the Verizon menu and trying to remember that it’s somewhere in the 670 to 690 range. Eventually I find it, I tune in, and it’s zombie time (unless it’s one of those episodes where it’s blah blah blah, where are the zombies? What happened to Frank Darabont anyway? But I digress).
With Xbox One, all I needed to do was say “Xbox, watch AMC” and boom, the zombie show was on. It was seamless, and it showed off the potential (and we’ll get to that) of the Xbox One. I could also bring up something called the OneGuide that acts as a program guide for the shows that are on television right that moment, giving you even more ways to find your favorite shows.
Xbox One’s TV features are by no means a system seller... but you can see the potential here.
There are a few limitations that I found a bit disappointing; if Xbox One is going to be a centerpiece of the home, it needs to be usable for the whole family. The lack of some DVR controls hurts the prospect of the larger family using it; pause, rewind, and fast-forward work, but you can’t schedule shows or record anything while you watch it. Not a huge deal, but it will be a nice addition if it arrives through a software update next year (something in the cards, according to a Microsoft representative).
Another feature I find lacking, although it probably borders on my greedy desire for things to simply “work,” is the fact that you need to either tell Xbox One the station name or the channel number it needs to tune to. The days of saying “Xbox One, show me The Walking Dead” will most likely arrive with a software update in the future, but I'd have been blown away if it worked right now.
Xbox One’s TV features are by no means a system seller, but if you’ve ever struggled with the software within some Smart TVs, you’ll see that the Xbox One’s horsepower is put to really good use, and the Kinect functionality is seamless. You can see the potential here, and it’s more impressive than I thought it would be.
I Can See You
Every Xbox One comes with the new Kinect. I can’t say I was a fan of the original; games like Kinect Sports and The Gunslinger were a lot of fun, but I never used the voice controls that supposedly made those games “better with Kinect.” It seemed like a bit of a gimmick, but the new Kinect is, again, more impressive than I expected.
The first thing that I found almost eerie in nature was the way Kinect recognized me as soon as I walked in the room. A guest was checking out the Xbox One menus, and when I walked in the Xbox menus changed to the color of my choosing (a cool blue that shows up even in your achievements) and a message that said “Hi, John!” It was quick and seamless, even when I was standing in positions where I didn’t think it would be able to see me.
A neat feature is that because it can recognize faces, you can create different profiles for members of your family.
A neat feature that results from this ability to recognize faces is that you can create different profiles for members of your family. When they walk in the room, their menu will be displayed, along with their favorite pins and more. Don’t worry, if two profile owners are in the room at the same time, the first person will be logged in until the controller is handed to the next person and they press the home button. Very cool.
As for the Kinect voice recognition, it heard me a good nine times out of ten. Tuning your system to hear you versus ambient sound is something you can improve in your settings (along with updated facial recognition once Movember comes to an end), and again it’s very quick. A funny quirk is you have to be careful when you actually say the words “Xbox One” as it will bring up the listening menu and it can sometimes bring you to other apps when all you wanted to do was pick a flame war with your next door neighbor.
Looking Good, Lewis
In terms of its visual style, the system harkens back to the original Xbox in that it is closer to a refrigerator than an actual home console. A small fridge, but a fridge nonetheless. Hyperbole aside, this is a huge system that comes with a large power brick, and you almost feel like Xbox was designed to force you to reorganize your home entertainment system to accommodate its monolithic presence.
Even though it’s huge and heavy compared to the sleek PlayStation 4, the Xbox One feels rich. The matte texture of the system is complimented nicely by a black gloss, and the system is surrounded for the most part by diagonal vents that give it a very industrial look. I’m actually glad this thing is well ventilated, given that it’s so big. It’ll be tricky to incorporate it into an average home entertainment setup without blocking a vent or two.
The proprietary headphone input on the controller is a kick to the… let’s go with bollocks.
The controller carries on this rich feeling, and this is coming from someone who was very impressed by the Dual Shock 4 controller last week. If the Xbox 360 controller was solid but suffered from some cheap details like rattling triggers, the Xbox One features an improved build quality. Triggers feel tight and don’t jiggle like the previous system’s controller, and the white home button shows a maturing design sensibility at Microsoft.
One huge issue I have is the need for AA batteries in the controller. In 2013, this is almost unacceptable, especially given Sony’s rechargeable Dual Shock 4 controllers. And if that’s a slap to the face, the proprietary headphone input on the controller is a kick to the… let’s go with bollocks. This is disappointing, because I foresee a trip to GameStop where I begrudgingly hand over cash to purchase a Play and Charge kit and a stereo headphone system. Hopefully Microsoft will release an adapter so they only nick me for $20, but that may be wishful thinking.
The headset that does come with Xbox One is of solid build, and compared to PlayStation 4’s lonely earbud, it looks like Microsoft went all out. In reality, it is exactly what an included headset should be: Solid audio output and seemingly decent input, with a comfortable feel and a move away from the cheap Xbox 360 headsets we’re used to.
I can see many people being impressed with the level of features included in the Xbox One, but many of us will be early adopters who are used to half-baked operating systems awaiting updates to bring it up to standard. I wouldn’t say Xbox One is half-baked at all; it’s actually very nice, and shows off its potential to great effect. The television integration is more impressive than I imagined it would be, the OS is light years beyond anything that accompanies the usual Metro-inspired products, and lest we forget it’s also a game system.
I’ll let the games speak for themselves as that will be the true judge of whether or not a system is worth the money, but Xbox One’s ability to integrate gaming into the living room in such a quick and easy way may be the industry’s best hope of staying relevant to gamers and families that now have more choices than ever before.