Online: how to make friends and follow people
Already extremely robust on 360, the Xbox Friends system has been fairly heavily modified for Xbox One. One of the biggest changes is that you can now add anyone as a Friend to immediately get updates on their activity (assuming their privacy settings allow it), but to them you’ll appear as a Follower unless they also add you as a Friend. It’s like the old system with a bit of Twitter thrown in.
It’s easier to connect with the people you want to then, but crucially it should also be easier to avoid the foul-mouthed tykes that so often ruin an online deathmatch, thanks to a reputation system designed to segregate players with bad reputations.
And of course the scarily addictive Achievements system has been ported over to Xbox One, along with your existing Gamerscore. Challenges are being introduced, too, so that specific goals can be set for individuals or the community at large to work towards – a nice idea that seems to have been borrowed from Bungie’s Halo series.
Less of a nice idea is Achievements awarded for non-gaming activities, such as watching a movie or listening to a song. Thankfully these don’t add to your Gamerscore, which would just be weird.
As with the PS4, pretty much all disc-released games are available for download from the Xbox Store, either directly through the console or through the website or companion app (SmartGlass), and as with the PS4, they're outrageously expensive. You've got to be seriously lazy or impatient to pay £60 for the download of Watch_Dogs when the disc is £43 from Amazon. This really needs sorting.
As mentioned earlier, pre-ordering digital versions of games isn't yet supported through Xbox, but is said to be on the way. Hopefully at that point we'll also get game pages so that trailers for unreleased games are easier to find.
And Microsoft has also taken a leaf out of Sony's book by introducing free games for those who pay the £40 annual subscription to Xbox Live Gold. Games With Gold gives every member the opportunity to download two free Xbox One games (and one Xbox 360 game) for free each month. The games made available so far haven't exactly been the cream of the crop, but hopefully once the back catalogue expands, the quality of free games will improve.
To be a successful hub of all lounge-based fun, a modern console needs to do much more besides games, and on top of the hit-and-miss PVR integration previously discussed, there are a bunch of apps that deliver stuff to watch when you're not gaming.
There’s support for Blu-rays though the Blu-ray app, which plays in 1080p with support for Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio - although these aren't output natively, so you'll want to choose PCM to get them sounding their best. Plus, if you’re the kind of person who gets a kick out of this sort of thing, you’ll also love the built-in picture calibrator, which is an extremely thorough way to get your TV looking its best.
There are lots of streaming apps, too. Xbox Video has a massive selection of movies available to rent and buy on-demand. Even films that are bought are streamed rather than downloaded, with the One dynamically scaling picture quality to match your broadband speed, but while there’s touch too much judder for them to be mistaken for Blu-rays, the overall quality is high.
Then there's the evergreen on-demand suspects - Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Sky's Now TV and YouTube. iPlayer is still missing but due at some point this year. Sky Go is also missing from the Xbox One, which is odd considering it is on Xbox 360 and has been confirmed as being on the way to PS4. Crucially, all of these media apps are available whether you subscribe to Xbox Gold or not.
More after the break...
As with the PS4, the Xbox One is constantly recording as you play. Clips are saved in two ways – automatically when you do something special in a game (usually it’s unlock an Achievement), and manually by saying “Xbox, record that” or snapping the Game DVR app while you play. These clips are then made available in the Upload app, but the onus is on you to then go into the app and save the clips you want to keep – otherwise they’re deleted to make room for more further down the line.
Using the Upload app you can also edit and share your photos, including sending them to SkyDrive, where they’re stored as a 720p MP4 for further editing and sharing however you see fit. As of March this year you can also broadcast gameplay live using Twitch. Simply say "Xbox, broadcast" if you're using Kinect or open the Twitch app if not, and whatever you're playing will be streamed to the internet for every other gamer to watch and comment on. I'm sure they'll be nice...
The Xbox One has changed dramatically since it launched in November 2013. Simply put, Microsoft had bitten off more than it could chew and the console at launch felt decidedly unfinished.
There are still issues with it - for instance the TV integration and Snap multi-tasking aren't where they need to be for gamers to embrace them wholeheartedly, and that's a big shame.
But now that the price is the same as that of the PS4, that's much less of a problem. You might not be gaining much from their inclusion, but you're not losing, either.
And it's all thanks to Kinect coming out of the package. It's sort of a shame in one respect, as Kinect was what made the Xbox One different and more ambitious, and the technology involved is seriously impressive. There's a feeling that if Microsoft had properly refined it before launch and supported it with better games it could have won people around, but it's hard to see a way back for the camera accessory now.
So on the one hand the Xbox One is a less ambitious and more conservative console than was originally intended, but on the other that's allowed Microsoft to focus on the core gaming experience, and that puts it in a far better position to fight the PS4 in the future.
For us the PS4 is still just about in front - right now it's got more games, many of which run at a higher resolution, more video apps, a nicer UI and a sleeker design - but the Xbox One is now very much in the fight. Let the comeback begin.
Long-term test: Microsoft Xbox One
There are still niggles, but the newly Kinect-less Xbox One is a better, more focused games machine