If there’s one word that defines Microsoft’s approach with its new Xbox One, it’s “disruptive.” The new hardware challenges our notion of what a video game console can and should be, for better and for worse. Kinect is now analogous to a new button on your controller. Microtransactions are most definitely in. Even without the debatably useful Snap feature, multitasking is a foundational element.
This is an all-in-one box with promise, a first step toward something bigger than itself. The Xbox 360 was always struggling to do too much within a limited design spec. Even something as simple as a user’s friends list was locked at 99 names for the life of the hardware. The Xbox One will no doubt struggle to keep up down the road too – it’s the fate of all video game consoles – but it’s extremely well-equipped to handle any big changes we can currently see on the horizon.
Before you begin
Prepare for the dreaded launch-day update. Your Xbox One will basically be a shiny brick until you can get the update installed. It’s hard to say how big it’s going to be on day one, since there have been multiple updates released over the course of the review period. Set aside an hour for initial setup, but don’t be sad if it goes longer.
Beyond that, make sure you have a clear space for the Kinect, either above or below your TV. If you plan to run your cable box through the Xbox One – and you should – don’t worry too much about positioning the Kinect so that it can “see” your cable box. The motion-sensing peripheral’s built-in IR blaster is powerful enough to reach your cable box even if there’s not a direct line of sight on it.
Features and design
Despite a sleek mix of matte and gloss black, there’s no hiding the fact that the Xbox One is a bulky box. It’s physically larger than the most recent model of Xbox 360 by an inch or more on each side, and unlike the PS4, there’s still a hefty power brick attached to the power cord. It’s also designed to only sit flat, so you might have to do some rearranging in your media center.
Microsoft went with touch-sensitive strips rather than buttons for the Xbox One’s power and disc eject switches. They’re both very sensitive and flat against the face of the unit, which makes it easy to accidentally brush against one and turn the console off or pop the disc out of the drive. A soft beep sounds when you make contact with one of these “buttons,” but that’s all the feedback you get … until your console turns off or spits a disc out. It runs very quietly, but you can tell it’s powered on when you see a backlit “Xbox” logo on the right side of the unit.
The dashboard unsurprisingly resembles Windows 8’s Modern UI. Longtime 360 users should prepare for a learning curve. Certain basic functions – new ones and old ones alike – aren’t immediately intuitive. Joining or creating a party, for example, now requires you to “turn party chat on” from the associated menu after you’ve invited people to join, or joined one yourself. Snap, the new feature that allows for two apps to be visible on the screen simultaneously, offers no obvious way to jump between the two portions of your split screen … at least not until you learn how to incorporate Kinect into your life.
The second-gen Kinect is Microsoft’s gigantic gamble on the Xbox One. While you can disconnect the peripheral and store it away once you’ve set up your console for the first time, it is highly recommended that you don’t. Imagine trying to navigate around the Xbox dashboard with a controller that’s missing its trigger buttons. That’s what happens when you try to go without Kinect on the Xbox One. You’re essentially turning off a very useful button.
The Xbox One challenges our notion of what a video game console can and should be, for better and for worse.
Take the “Xbox Select” command, which allows you to speak the name of any tile on the dashboard screen to select it. There’s no way someone would naturally figure out that saying “Xbox Select” brings up and overlay to enable this. There’s an “Xbox Help” menu that provides assistance, and – to be fair – there are plenty of completely sensible voice commands as well, but prepare for a learning curve as you grasp how to communicate with your Xbox.
Fortunately, Kinect now handles natural, regular-volume speech much better than its predecessor did, though it’s still not perfect. Kinect sent us somewhere other than what we asked for — or didn’t respond at all — only a handful of times during our week-long review period. Following on with the “Kinect-as-a-controller button” comparison, you expect your gamepad to work 100-percent of the time. Kinect understands roughly 99-percent of what you’re saying. Improvement is needed — and it will come as Microsoft processes more voice samples over time — but this is a strong starting point.
It’s difficult to gauge just how impactful Kinect voice commands will be in the long run, but cable TV integration could be the clincher to selling it for a mass audience. Being able to say “Xbox, watch ESPN” and be tuned into the sports network just a few seconds later amounts to an ease of use that every user can comprehend, even a non-gamer.
Motion controls are less impressive. Microsoft’s minimum recommended distance from the Kinect is 4.6 feet, which is harder to find in a New York City apartment than you might think. There are motion commands for Snap, opening notifications, and various other features — including the same hand cursor that the original Kinect offered for dashboard navigation — but the hardware’s ability to translate physical movement to the screen isn’t unreliable if you’re at a distance of four feet or less from the camera.
The Xbox One controller is roughly the same size and shape as its Xbox 360 predecessor, though some new internal mechanisms make it slightly heavier. There’s now trigger-specific rumble, which allows developers to code games so that, say, pulling a trigger to fire a gun only shakes the pulled trigger. Four individual rumble motors afford developers a much more nuanced level of control over force feedback.
The Xbox 360’s Back/Start buttons are now the View/Menu buttons, though they serve largely the same purpose. The guide button is also right where it always was, though it’s slightly smaller and flatter. Pressing it now brings you directly to the dashboard, since multitasking eliminates the need for the Xbox Guide as we’ve come to know it.
In terms of physical design, the Xbox One controller is both a step back and a step forward. The D-pad is significantly improved, as are the larger, flatter face buttons. The triggers have a shorter pull than they did previously, and they curve outward a little more now, giving you a better grip. The battery housing is also flush with the back of the controller now, eliminating the awkward bump that fingers constantly collided with on every wireless 360 controller.
What’s not so good then? The left and right bumpers are much click-ier now, meaning you’ve got to exert more pressure to press one. On the flipside, the shoulder bumpers take up more real estate than LB/RB did before, making it easier to slide a finger onto one as needed. The redesigned analog sticks are more of a problem; the thumb grips on the top of each one are considerably smaller than they were before, to the chagrin of fat-fingered gamers across the world.
The Xbox One OS highlights the power of the new hardware within. Switching from a game to an app or TV then back to the game is quick and seamless; the screen simply fades out and then immediately fades back in. The last three apps used are kept in active memory, though the load time on most apps launching fresh is negligible, measured in seconds. Some games – Dead Rising 3 for example – took longer than expected to launch, but every game plays silky smooth once you’re in. No slowdown, no texture pop, nothing.
The Xbox One OS highlights the power of the new hardware within.
Software and online capabilities
Many of the Xbox One’s online features are still in the process of being finalized, so this section may change in the coming days. We’ve been able to try Forza Motorsport 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome online, and both felt generally smooth (though one Forza race disconnected midway through). We’ve also sampled party chat using the pack-in headset; it sounds much better than it did on the 360, and game audio is remarkably absent from the background.
It’s worth mentioning that all of the Xbox One’s first-party launch titles place some amount of emphasis on microtransactions. This is purely the domain of the publisher and developer delivering the game, of course. Dead Rising 3, a rare third-party exclusive in the Xbox One’s launch lineup, features nothing of the kind, but first-party offerings integrate microstransactions to a surprising degree. Some, like Killer Instinct, adopt a sensible free-to-play approach. But with a game like Crimson Dragon, a pay-to-play game with an economy that also emphasizes micropayments, it’s off-putting.
Apps are still a question mark. Most of them are just coming online this week, with Netflix, ESPN, NFL, Machinima, and Upload Studio all having gone live less than 24 hours before the console review embargo lifted. Our experience so far with the apps — mostly just Netflix — has been smooth, but there’s still more to explore. We’ve yet to see, for example, how having the ESPN and NFL apps enhances the Sunday NFL football experience. Stay tuned for more soon.
The Xbox One is an outstanding step forward for Microsoft’s gaming brand, even if it’s not an entirely perfect machine at launch. That’s the beauty of the new Xbox though: It’s built to be flexible. This was the big lesson of the last hardware generation. There’s no way to fully plan for what’s to come. The Xbox One works right out of the box, and it works well, but it’s just a foundation. Whatever the direction it grows in from here, Microsoft’s message remains clear: Gaming isn’t just for the Gamers anymore.
- Powerful OS is user-friendly and built for seamless multitasking
- Kinect v2’s well-implemented voice recognition is a new “button” for your controller
- Improved internal hardware translates to smooth game performance
- Cable box interconnectivity is great for TV watchers
- Limited, occasionally non-intuitive voice commands
- Bulky, hefty form factor
- Snap same-screen multitasking is debatably useful