Review: Microsoft Xbox One

Microsoft aims for family room domination with the Xbox One (December 15th, 2013)

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Product Manufacturer: Microsoft

Price: $499

The Good


  • - Excellent build quality
    - Solid graphics performance
    - Slick OS and user experience
    - Xbox One controller one of the best
    - Shaping up as multimedia powerhouse

The Bad


  • - Party Play system currently unintuitive
    - New controller Menu button takes getting used to
    - Non-upgradeable internal hard drive
    - Nondescript looks, still has external power brick
    - Outgunned by PS4 performance

The Microsoft vision moving forward is that the software giant is to evolve into a fully-fledged devices and services company. The Xbox One is perfect illustration of that vision as it is a device that delivers a wide range of Microsoft and other services. Microsoft services channelled through the Xbox One include Xbox Music, Xbox Video, SkyDrive, Skype and Xbox Live. It also does gaming. In fact, according to Microsoft, the Xbox One is the only device that you really need for your living room as it will also integrate your Pay TV service into the Xbox One interface. So is the Xbox One truly the one device to rule them all?

Design and construction
One of the most surprising aspects of the Xbox One design is just how unremarkable it is. It is not to say that Microsoft did not go to extensive lengths to make sure that it got the design right - it created dozens upon dozens of prototypes before settling on the final design. The surprise is that it looks more like a piece of high-end home entertainment gear rather than what is purported to be the most exciting game console in the past several years. It is quite subdued in comparison to the original Xbox 360 design, which was clearly designed to be represent the future of gaming when it was introduced. The clear message that Microsoft is sending with the Xbox One is that this is a device that is inoffensive to look at, and will look at home in any home entertainment set up. Microsoft is confident enough in the gaming credentials of the Xbox franchise that it believes hard core gamers are going to buy it regardless of how it looks, while others who mightn't normally buy a gaming console will feel comfortable buying it as well, even if it's for its multimedia capabilities first and foremost.



As expected, Microsoft has made the Xbox One from plastic. Like the Sony PS4, the Xbox One uses a mix of glossy and matte plastic finishes to convey a sense of quality and does so quite effectively. Unlike the Sony PS4, the Xbox One is unexpectedly large, whereas the PS4 is remarkably compact. This is despite the fact that both consoles share very similar architecture, while Sony has still managed to integrate the PS4 power supply into the console. The Xbox One, like the Xbox 360, continues with an external power brick. It seems that Microsoft is determined not to repeat the 'red ring of death' fiasco that cost the company $1 billion in extended warranty cover to replace faulty Xbox 360 consoles that were permanently bricked through overheating. The thermal dynamic profile of the Xbox One is such that it seems highly unlikely that this issue will surface ever again. Footprint aside, the Xbox One looks to be very well made and suitably robust that it should provide years of trouble free performance.




Performance
Microsoft, like Sony, has aligned itself with AMD to produce the very PC-like system architecture that underpins the Xbox One. It uses an AMD x86-64 'Jaguar' octa-core chipset clocked at 1.75GHz with integrated Radeon graphics that share 8GB of unified GDDR3 system RAM. This is estimated to deliver up to 5 five times the graphical capabilities of the Xbox 360, to help to deliver a powerful next-generation gaming experience. Theoretically, the Xbox One is capable of delivering up to 1.31 teraFLOPS GPU performance per second through its 768 shader cores, which is a substantial boost over the previous generation. This, however, does compare very favourably with the graphical performance of the Sony PS4, which delivers up to 1.84 teraFLOPS of processing grunt through its 1152 shader cores. From the perspective of raw processing power, the Xbox One gets outgunned on paper. Is this something that is a cause for concern in reality? Perhaps. At issue is EA's decision to run Battlefield 4 at 720p/60fps and upscale it to 1080p on the Xbox One, even though it developed a 1080p version of the game. The decision to do so is somewhat murky, yet at the same time, Battlefield 4 runs in native 1080p/60fps on the PS4 so it seems to suggest that the performance of the Xbox One was not able to handle every sequence in the game to the developer's expectations. Either that, or it wasn't prepared to spend further time optimizing the game for the Xbox One in order to meet its launch window and risk losing potential sales.



Irrespective of this particular example, there is no question that the Xbox One delivers a substantial improvement in graphics and gaming performance over the Xbox 360. Furthermore, this will continue to improve over time as developers get to grips with getting the most out of the system. Games like Forza 5 look visually impressive and are truly next-gen in terms of how the game looks and runs, but also in how the AI systems also work, which are more complex and realistic. Other titles we've played on the Xbox One include Dead Rising 3, and FIFA 14, both of which look stunning. Player collisions and skill moves in FIFA 14 are ramped up to another level of realism, while lighting and shader effects are put to great use in Dead Rising 3. At this point, it is probably too early to make a definitive call about the overall system performance of the Xbox One, but will likely match the PS4 in certain titles, but may get outgunned in others over time. However, if your must-have titles are on the Xbox One-only, such as well-loved franchises including Halo and Gears of War, the Xbox One will still prove to be a very tempting proposition.




Xbox One Wireless Controller
Microsoft is said to have invested over $100 million dollars in developing the Xbox One controller. Although it bears a superficial resemblance to the Xbox 360 controller, it is an all-new design that takes the best elements of the 360 controller and builds on it with an even more ergonomic design and additional features. In all, Microsoft says that it has made over 40 improvements to it. A particular highlight are the new Impulse Triggers that now incorporate vibration motors in the triggers to offer fingertip feedback that is a particular highlight in games like Forza 5 that helps to create a more immersive gaming experience. In Forza 5, for example, you get a much better feel for the acceleration, braking and cornering with the controller that adds more tactile feedback allowing for finer control inputs. There is also a new expansion port that supports a high bandwidth for clearer conversations over the Xbox One headset. Also new are the Menu and View buttons that replace the Start and Back buttons. The Menu button brings up context-specific menus in games or apps, while the View button can be used in a range of different ways depending on game - in Forza 5, for example, it literally changes your driving view.



The D-pad on the Xbox One controller has also been redesigned, in this case so that it will respond to sweeping and directional movements. This comes in quite handy on games like Battlefield 4, particularly when you are tapping and swiping your way through additional functions in the heat of battle. The twin thumbsticks have been refined to enable better grip and accuracy, while the trigger and bumpers have been designed for quicker access. While we don't dispute Microsoft's claims with regard to the thumbsticks, we found that the new bumpers, in particular, take a little getting used to and offer slightly more resistance that we would like. Ergonomically speaking, the Xbox One controller now suits a wider range of hand sizes, while it is also lighter than the previous design. As previously, it takes regular two AA batteries, although the battery module is much better integrated - you can swap this out at additional expense with the Xbox One Play and Charge Kit. We prefer the built-in battery route that Sony uses, as it makes for an even lighter design, while also saving you some additional dollars. Regardless, the Xbox One controller is a substantial improvement over the much-loved Xbox 360 design and will continue to keep Xbox fans happy.




OS and User Interface
If there is one area that Microsoft has a long standing expertise in, it is in the development of operating systems. This is an area where the Xbox One truly shines, even if there are some kinks that we fully expect Microsoft to iron out in future updates (one of which rolled out at the time of writing). Like Sony, Microsoft has been struggling with its sheer size and is learning how to better integrate the respective strengths of each of its divisions into its products with their respective 'One' strategies. The Xbox One operating system is a very good example of how Microsoft has worked hard to integrate the power of its Windows platform into the Xbox franchise. Previously, the two divisions did not collaborate anywhere near as closely as they have on the Xbox One.



The result is that the Xbox division has focused on the development of the part of the operating system that handles gaming and respective APIs, while the Windows division has developed a secondary platform derived from Windows 8 that runs Modern UI style apps like Skype and the corresponding suite of third-party entertainment apps. This makes life easier for developers of those types of applications as they can much more easily port over Windows 8 apps and vice versa. A third operating system handles the two main operating systems, creating a seamless multitasking end user experience that allows you to switch between games and apps in an instant. You can, for example, pop out of a game and start a Skype chat and jump straight back into where you left off in the game when you've finished your video call. You can even run an app simultaneously, or even TV, in a snapped window while continuing to play your game.



The Xbox One user interface will be very familiar to Xbox 360 users as it is a further evolution of the interface design from the now superseded console. It will also be familiar to Windows 8 users, as it uses a similar static and live tile approach to navigating your content, games, apps and other functions. It is quite and intuitive and fluid for the most part, although some aspects of how navigate the UI are not always obvious. For example, although notifications still briefly pop up before disappearing, you can only recover these of you missed them for some reason or didn't interact with them immediately through a small notifications icon in the top left hand side of the screen. When you access this, you are taken into a much easier to navigate view of all your notifications in a left to right scrolling view. One quirk that takes getting used to when navigating the Xbox One UI is the result of Microsoft's changes to the Xbox One controller and its new menu button. Where context-specific functions were previously initiated by a press of the B button, you need to press the Menu button - it may seem like a small change, but it takes some getting used to as it does a good job of hiding a wide range of additional functions until you get used to using it. Overall, however, the new OS and UI are shaping up well and we look forward to seeing how it evolves further over the shelf life of the Xbox One.




Kinect 2
Microsoft made a strategic decision, and something of a calculated gamble, to bundle the Kinect motion control sensor with every Xbox One console. This helped to drive the price of the Xbox One up to $499, leaving Microsoft somewhat vulnerable to the PS4 that is priced a full $100 less at $399. However, while Sony also offers the Eye Camera (something of an equivalent accessory) at additional cost, Microsoft has worked to integrate the Kinect into the Xbox One user interface. Instead of navigating the UI just with your controller, the Kinect allows you to navigate the UI with your voice or with hand gestures (Minority Report-style). When it all works, it is certainly very cool indeed. However, it can be a little hit and miss, and depends on how clearly and precisely you deliver your verbal instructions. Again, it would be premature to make a definitive judgement about voice and gesture recognition capabilities of the Kinect for the Xbox One as it is certain that Microsoft will continue to refine and improve it over time.



In taking the step to bundle the Kinect with the Xbox One, Microsoft has helped to ensure that more games will be able to take advantage of its more precise motion control capabilities. Microsoft clearly feels that gamers, and certainly family oriented gamers, still see something more than mere novelty value in interacting with games in this way. It also has appeal for people looking to take advantage of Microsoft's free fitness apps that are also designed to take advantage of the Kinect's sensors. There is no doubt that motion control gaming is good fun, and is a particularly fun way to entertain family and friends during small parties and gatherings. However, we are yet to be convinced that this is way of gaming that hard core gamers are really into. Not only is the hard core gaming market critical, it is the market that will drive potential Xbox One sales. Clearly Sony is of the view that it is a good option to have as a peripheral for those that want it; yet, if it becomes essential, it still has the option to bundle its PlayStation Camera as an accessory in the future to drive its adoption. The Kinect, however, is now an integral part of the Xbox One experience and may yet prove to be the future of not only gaming, but also the way we interact with all technology moving one day.




Multimedia and Apps
A particular strength and emphasis on the of the Xbox One is its home entertainment integration. The Xbox One is Microsoft's big play for control of your family room even going as far as to allow you to use the Xbox One as a portal for your Pay TV box. The console includes an HDMI pass-through that effectively makes integrates your Pay TV service into the Xbox One user interface, which at the very least, makes using your Xbox One with your Pay TV service more convenient. In the process though, it means that the Xbox One becomes your one-stop shop for all your entertainment needs. Microsoft, like the Sony PS4, has not enabled the ability in the Xbox One to stream content from your local PC. However, if you are already subscribed to or are using its services including Xbox Music and Xbox Video on your PC or Windows tablet, your content will also be available to you through your Xbox One interface. However, that does not stop you from using the Xbox One as a portal for your own media streaming box, particularly if you don't have Pay TV.



Microsoft's push to be at the center of everything you do in your family room is also highlighted by the number of entertainment app deals that it has lined up for the Xbox One at launch. The list is long and includes, Netflix, YouTube, Vudu, Hulu Plus, ESPN, Redbox Instant, Crackle, NFL, Twitch (but not for live streaming of games), Machinima, Fox Now, FX Now, TED, and its own Xbox Music and Video services, as previously mentioned. Coming soon, users can also expect to see Univision Deportes, Muzu TV, Verizon Fios TV, Amazon Instant Video and HBO Go. It is a compelling line up and is sure to appeal to not only hard core gamers, but casual gamers as well. Although the design of the Xbox One will not offend even non-gamers, it is yet to be seen whether it will also appeal to those not interested in gaming at all. To this extent, Microsoft has incorporated Sony's Blu-ray technology to help round out its multimedia credentials. However, like the PS4, Microsoft has not yet enabled support for the playback for 3D Blu-ray titles. Overall though, there is more than enough multimedia entertainment appeal for those weighing up whether to commit to buying an Xbox One for more than just gaming.




Second screen, Online Gaming and Sharing
Microsoft started experimenting with second screen technology with the Xbox 360 through its SmartGlass app. It has now developed a new SmartGlass app for the Xbox One with versions for iOS, Android, Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8, all of which look great and which work seamlessly with the Xbox One. As before, you can use SmartGlass as an alternative way of navigating your Xbox One, enhancing what you are watching or playing, or checking on your progress in games as well as achievements. It's a great feature and comes in particularly handy when playing games that have been developed to take advantage of SmartGlass by offering maps simultaneously without forcing you to leave live game play. Watching Xbox Live movies that have been optimized for SmartGlass also offers an added dimension to content consumption allowing you to learn more about the cast, for example. It's a compelling addition, however, Sony offers a similar app with similar capabilities for the PS4 as well as the ability to remotely play PS4 games through the PS Vita giving Sony a distinct edge in the second screen stakes at present. Although Microsoft has integrated the Xbox game points system into Windows 8, it falls short of a more complete second screen gaming package. Perhaps a small Windows 8.1 RT powered tablet with physical controller buttons (or the option to add physical control surfaces) could be the answer?



Online gaming has traditionally been one of the great strengths of the Xbox franchise and there is no reason to see why that shouldn't continue. However, our first experience with trying to set up a multiplayer game of Forza 5 with friends through the Party interface was an exercise in frustration. It was entirely unintuitive and it's hard to say whether it was the result of the way multiplayer games are set up on the Xbox One or whether it was the result of the Forza 5 implementation. It was a fiddly process that involved sending an invite, having your friends accept the invite through the notification tab on the top left hand of the interface. You and your friends have to return to the 'Free Play' area with one setting up a lobby and the others joining it. When you know what to do, it's not so bad, but why can't you simply set up a lobby and invite specific friends from within the app? Why do you then also have to manually set up the ability to chat to each other? Strange. Thankfully, joining a regular global multiplayer match is a lot simpler and continues to be great fun. As with the Xbox 360, online gaming requires an annual Xbox Live Gold subscription. Although the one Xbox Live Gold subscription can be used across both the 360 and One, we would like to see Microsoft work with its partners to offer more benefits to the scheme, as the fee certainly starts to add up year-over-year. Microsoft says it has over 300,000 servers powering its live network, helping to ensure that it remains highly robust.



Not to be left behind, Microsoft has embraced the social media phenomenon and has responded by integrating a range of social interaction capabilities into the Xbox One. Skype integration is high on Microsoft's list of socially interactive highlights. On conjunction with Kinect, you can hold crystal clear video calls with up to two other people anywhere in the world. You can also snap Skype calls to one side and continue to play a game. The Xbox One also allows you to share your in game highlights. A spoken command to the 'Xbox, record that' will automatically capture the last 30 seconds of gameplay, while the Xbox One also comes with a built-in Game DVR app that you can also navigate to verbally or manually. This will give you the last five minutes of gameplay that you can then edit in the Upload Studio app and send it to your Xbox Live account. However, there is no in-built integration with Twitter or Facebook, so this leaves you having to upload it to your SkyDrive and sharing the link Twitter or Facebook from there. Clearly Microsoft is using the Xbox One to push its services, and this slightly circuitous way of sharing gaming clips is an example of this in action. The ability to stream live to Twitch will be enabled in a future update.



Connectivity and Storage
The Xbox One sports a Gigabit Ethernet port, Wi-Fi 802.11n support over dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz and Wi-Fi Direct. Like the PS4, it eschews 802.11ac support, which is somewhat disappointing especially when you have to download game patches as large as 39GB, which was the case with Forza 5. As discussed above, the Xbox One also incorporates both an HDMI output port, but also an HDMI input port for your set top box or Pay TV box (in countries where this is supported). The HDMI ports also support the new 4K Ultra HD standard, which will become increasingly important over the next few years. The Xbox One also sports three USB 3.0 ports, which at this stage doesn't actually do much. Again, in a future update, Microsoft says that it will enable external hard drive support and may also add support for a keyboard and mouse. The external drive support is important, as unlike the PS4, there is no way of expanding the built-in storage of the Xbox One.




Final thoughts
Judged on its own, the Microsoft Xbox One is an impressive piece of hardware. It is clear that Microsoft has put a lot of thought into how the Xbox One can be used as an all-in-one home entertainment solution and it certainly delivers on that front. Thanks to its clever inclusion of an HDMI pass through port for integrating your own Pay TV or other STB, the company has gone a long way to making sure that you will forever associate all your home entertainment experiences with the Xbox One. It also does a very good job of channelling a number of Microsoft's services into your family room as well, with the company pushing its Skype integration as a particular selling point. It's clear that its multimedia capabilities are very strong and the Xbox One will go a long way to meeting all of your streaming content needs, while the Kinect 2 brings a taste of what of how Microsoft sees us interacting with technology now and into the future.

Indeed, the all-round capabilities of the Xbox One may convince some people sitting on the fence to go with it over the competition. However, we suspect that the core audience for this machine will be gamers and that is where the Xbox One ultimately needs to be judged. It is clear that the Xbox One is a powerful gaming machine and it definitely raises the bar over the Xbox 360 in every way. The reality is, though, that it is not the most powerful gaming console on the market - that title goes to the Sony PS4. If there is one thing that hard core gamers want, it is comfort in the knowledge that they have the most powerful hardware possible and the Xbox One does not deliver this in objective terms. Just as important are the exclusive titles that the Xbox One will offer, and new versions of Halo and Gears of War are in the works along with others. Ultimately, it is this is what may decide where gamers direct there dollars and buyers of the Xbox One may take comfort in the knowledge that it arguably offers offer the best overall entertainment experience.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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